- Douglas Gray
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)
Chaucer, Geoffrey (c. 1340–1400), poet and administrator, was probably born in the early 1340s. Neither the date nor the place of his birth can be fixed with certainty. Since in October 1386, in his testimony in the Scrope <i>v.</i> Grosvenor trial, he described himself as 'forty and more', he cannot have been born later than 1345; it is usually assumed that he was born at the beginning of the decade. The precise date of 1343 sometimes given is based on the assumption that at the time of the trial he was forty-two or forty-three and that his further remark, that he had been 'armed' (that is, commissioned to bear arms in the king's service) for twenty-seven years implies that this took place in 1359 when he was sixteen. However, men seem to have been first armed at a variety of ages.
A legal deed of 1381, which records Chaucer's giving up a tenement in Thames Street, reveals that his father was John Chaucer, a vintner of London (c.1312–1366), who had married Agnes Copton (d. 1381), perhaps in the early 1330s. It is likely that Geoffrey was born in Thames Street, in the Vintry ward. He was born into a prosperous merchant family, which had been engaged in the export of wool and the import of wine in Ipswich. His great-grandfather, Andrew of Dynyngton, was also known as Andrew the Taverner, and perhaps kept a tavern there. The move to London was made by Chaucer's grandfather, Robert Dynyngton, also known as Robert Malyn le Chaucer (that name, meaning ‘maker of shoes (or hose)’, may well have been adopted by Robert on the death of his employer, the mercer John le Chaucer). Robert's son John Chaucer was a prominent London wine merchant, who became a freeman of the city, and a man of standing and influence.
The Vintry ward was the area of the wine merchants, who included Gascons and Italians as well as English. It was also the home of other wealthy merchants, and of some nobles (Queen Philippa owned a house there). There were three schools near Thames Street, but nothing certain is known about Geoffrey Chaucer's early education. The almonry school of St Paul's Cathedral is one possibility. It is known to have possessed a good collection of books early in the century (grammars, encyclopaedias, and so on) and in 1358 received a large benefaction of books from its late almoner and master, William Tolleshunt, which included works by a number of Latin authors known to Chaucer—Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, and Claudian. There is no evidence that he ever attended a university, and the suggestion, based on a remark of Thomas Speght (fl. 1598)—who claimed to have seen an Inner Temple record of Chaucer's being fined for beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street—that he was a student at the Inner Temple is not supported by other evidence. Chaucer was certainly a very well-read poet, and even when allowance is made for the use of French translations and of florilegia, the range of his knowledge of Latin writers is impressive. It seems to be due to a lively and energetic receptiveness, given a good start by the formal elementary education that a wealthy merchant's son might expect in London, followed by the less formal but impressive education then available for budding civil servants in courtly households, and by association with friends and acquaintances of literary tastes.
The first surviving record in which Chaucer is named (in 1357, as the recipient of clothes and a small gift 'for necessaries at Christmas') is the account book of the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster (d. 1363) and wife of Prince Lionel, one of Edward III's sons (Life-Records, 13–18). He seems to have been one of her retainers, possibly a page, and to have kept a connection with the Ulster household until at least 1360. The countess celebrated Christmas in 1357 at the royal residence at Hatfield, Yorkshire (where one of the guests was the young John of Gaunt). There is also a payment in the same record to a ‘Philippa Pan.’ in the household. It is possible, but not certain, that this is Philippa (d. 1387?), the daughter of Sir Payn (or Paon) Roelt, who later became Chaucer's wife. If Chaucer was in attendance on the countess continuously he would have accompanied her on numerous journeys to various royal residences, visiting Windsor, Woodstock, Reading, Bristol, and other places. When Prince Lionel came of age in autumn 1359, the countess's household and his seem to have merged, and Chaucer became one of his retainers.
In 1359 Chaucer saw military service in France, probably with Prince Lionel's company, possibly in the division of Edward, the Black Prince. He was at the town of Réthel, near the city of Rheims which the Black Prince was besieging at the end of 1359 and the beginning of 1360. At some point in this campaign he was captured, but was released by 1 March 1360 (with the king making a contribution of £16 towards his ransom). In October of that year he is recorded as carrying letters (of an unspecified nature) to England.
Chaucer next appears in 1366 in a safe conduct from Charles II, king of Navarre, permitting him to travel across the country with three companions and their servants, horses, and luggage. The reason for the journey is not known. He may have been on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, or he may have been on a secret mission to do with the Black Prince's campaign of 1367 to restore Pedro the Cruel to the throne of Castile and León. If so, it would support the suggestion that Chaucer had spent some time in the Black Prince's service in Aquitaine.
In 1366 Chaucer's father died, and by 13 July his mother was married again, to Bartholomew Chappel, another London vintner. A grant made on 12 September of this year to Philippa Chaucer, a domicella of the queen, indicates that Chaucer was by this time married. Philippa is possibly the Philippa Pan of the earlier records, and probably Philippa Roelt, the daughter of Sir Payn Roelt, a knight of Hainault, and Guyenne king of arms. Philippa Roelt's sister was Katherine, the wife of Sir Hugh Swynford, and later the mistress—and finally the wife—of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster [see Katherine, duchess of Lancaster]. On 20 June 1367 Chaucer was granted a life annuity of 20 marks (£13 6s. 8d.), which was regularly paid until 1388. By this time he had become a member of the royal household, being described as an esquier or a valettus, one of a company of men who were dispatched on administrative or diplomatic missions in England or sometimes in Europe. He received wages and allowances, gifts, clothes for court festivals—robes for Christmas (1368), a summer robe (1369), a livery of mourning for Queen Philippa's funeral (1369)—and appointments to various offices.
In 1368 Chaucer was given a royal warrant to pass through Dover, with two riding horses and money for his expenses, for some unspecified purpose. He may have been away for as many as 106 days, and it has been suggested that he may have gone to Milan for the celebration of the marriage of Prince Lionel, now the duke of Clarence, with Violante, the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, but there is no evidence for this, and he may simply have gone to Calais. He was probably away again in 1369, since he was among the members of the household to receive a ‘prest’ or advance of £10 for accompanying John of Gaunt, now duke of Lancaster, on his expedition to northern France in July–November of that year for what turned out to be an inconclusive campaign. And in 1370 he had a letter of protection to go in the king's service (again for an unspecified purpose) to 'parts beyond the sea' (ad partes transmarinas; Life-Records, 31).
Poetry: the beginnings
By now Chaucer seems to have been well set on a successful administrative career at court. It is not known when he began his much more successful career as a writer. The first of his longer poems to which an approximate date can be given is The Book of the Duchess (1368?–1372), commemorating the death of John of Gaunt's wife, Blanche (probably in September 1368), but it is quite likely that before this he was writing courtly lyric poetry, perhaps some of the 'balades, roundels, virelayes' mentioned in the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women (Bodl. Oxf., MS Fairfax 16, l. 423; RC (Riverside Chaucer), 600, text F, l. 423) or the 'ditees and songes glade' that Gower says Chaucer wrote in the flower of his youth (Gower, Confessio amantis, 8.2943–5). Most if not all of these are probably lost, since it is not likely that many of the lyrics which are now printed as Chaucer's Short Poems come from an early date. It is also possible that, like Gower, he wrote in French as well as English. There is an intriguing manuscript of c.1400 which contains French love poems from the 1350s and 1360s: some of these are by known authors, some anonymous, and fifteen have the initials ‘Ch’, which it is tempting to attribute to the young Chaucer—but without any certainty at all.
If the juvenilia cannot be discovered, more is known about the nature of the literary traditions that Chaucer inherited and was to put to such creative use. It is clear that besides his reading in Latin he was well versed in French courtly poetry—that written by contemporaries such as Oton de Grandson or Froissart, both of whom spent time in the English court, or near contemporaries like Deschamps or Machaut. The thirteenth-century Roman de la rose was an important source of inspiration, both for the psychology and the terminology of what Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women calls 'the craft of fyn lovynge' (RC, 603, text F, l. 544), as demonstrated in the first part by Guillaume de Lorris, and for the intellectual discussion of what became some of his favourite topics—Nature, Fortune, gentilesse, and true nobility—in Jean de Meun's continuation. It is to this distinctly less idealistic part that the god of Love is referring when in the 'Prologue' of The Legend of Good Women he accuses Chaucer of having:
translated the Romaunce of the Rose,That is an heresye ayeins my lawe.
ibid., 597, text F, ll. 329–30This remark presents other problems. While it seems to be evidence for some kind of translation, many scholars find it hard to believe that Chaucer ever completed such an immense task (the whole Roman is over 21,000 lines in length). There survives a Middle English translation (consisting of three separate fragments) of about a third of the French work (but not the anti-feminist sections that the god of Love presumably had in mind) which William Thynne printed from the unique surviving manuscript in his 1532 edition of Chaucer. Arguments over Chaucer's authorship have continued without any clear resolution. There is fairly general agreement that fragment B, with many northern forms, is very unlikely to be by Chaucer. Fragment C is accepted by some, but not all scholars, and while not everyone accepts fragment A, there does not seem any conclusive evidence that it is not by Chaucer. If he did write one or more of the fragments, there is no indication of the date at which it was done: most assume that it was early.
It is less easy to isolate Chaucer's indebtedness to English literary tradition. He had certainly read or heard romances, and imitates and burlesques aspects of the style and metre of some popular examples in his 'Sir Thopas'. He also knew popular songs like those that he makes some of his characters sing: 'com hider, love, to me!' (the Pardoner, General Prologue, Canterbury Tales, RC, 34, l. 672) or 'my lief is faren in londe' ('my love has gone into the country'; Chauntecleer and Pertelote, The Nun's Priest's Tale, RC, 254, l. 2879). He certainly had some knowledge of alliterative poetry (the Parson's '“rum, ram, ruf” by lettre'; RC, 287, ll. 42–3), still enjoying its late flowering, especially in the north and north-west midlands, but also known in London. Chaucer uses strongly alliterative patterns in his description of the tournament in The Knight's Tale—'ther shyveren shaftes upon sheeldes thikke', for example (ibid., 60, l. 2605)—and of the battle of Actium in The Legend of Good Women. Added to this is the acquisition, at some point, of a remarkable knowledge of Italian vernacular literature. But this first makes its presence felt in poems that he wrote at a later time.
There is no doubt that The Book of the Duchess was occasioned by the death of the Duchess Blanche. In the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women it is in fact listed as 'the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse' (RC, 600, text F, l. 418), and in The Book of the Duchess itself there are word plays (ibid., 341, l. 948; 346, ll. 948, 1318–19) which link it with her and her husband John of Gaunt, earl of Richmond (until 1372) and duke of Lancaster. The poem's Man in Black and Lady White have similarities with the duke and the duchess, but are not exact replicas of them: the treatment of the bereavement is symbolic and tactfully detached, and the poem's concerns are general as well as specific. The poem is an early work, but not by any means an immature one. It is deeply indebted to the French love-visions and dits amoureux, but their motifs and topics are transformed into something more complex. Chaucer experiments with a narrative voice that has a distinct individuality and with a dream-vision that is made to seem positively dreamlike. The poem's consolatory pattern is equally original: it does not make use of the traditional Christian topics of consolation. The recollection of the growth of love brings some consolation, though at the end the Man in Black is unable to forget that his lady is dead, and 'wax [grew] ded as stoon' (ibid., 346, l. 1300). The dreamer can simply offer a human expression of pity—'Be God, hyt ys routhe!' (ibid., 346, l. 1310).
Journeys on the king's service—Italy
In 1372–3 (1 December – 23 May) Chaucer made his first recorded journey to Italy. He went with two important Italian merchants to negotiate for the king with the doge of Genoa over the use of an English port. The outcome of the mission is not known, but there was a flourishing trade between Genoa and England, and by the end of the century there was a Genoese community in London, where the galleymen had their own quay near the Tower. A peace treaty had been made in 1371, and this was followed by treaties to ensure freedom of commerce. No doubt this is the background for the journey. Chaucer's companions were Giovanni del Mare, who was at this time acting as agent for the king in the hiring of Genoese mercenaries, and Jacopo Provano, who had undertaken an earlier journey on secret business for the king, perhaps to do with the peace treaty. He was in Italy probably for three months, extending his journey to visit Florence, perhaps to discuss the king's financial arrangement with the Bardi bankers. Chaucer may well have been chosen for this mission because he already had some knowledge of the language, which he could have learnt from Italian merchants in London.
The visit was certainly significant for his literary development. There is no evidence that while he was in Italy he actually met Petrarch (d. 1374) at Padua or at Arquà, or Boccaccio (d. 1375) at Florence or at Certaldo, but he may have heard about them, and found manuscript copies of their works. And at Florence the writings of Dante (d. 1321) were the subject of intense veneration and study. Chaucer's later visit to Italy in 1378 probably consolidated his knowledge. All three writers were to influence his later work. Petrarch's Latin version of the story of Griselda is the source of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale. Much more unusual is Chaucer's knowledge of some of Petrarch's vernacular love poetry: in Troilus and Criseyde he very appropriately places an eloquent translation of a sonnet from the Canzoniere into the mouth of the love-stricken Troilus (RC, 478–9, ll. 400–20). From Boccaccio, Chaucer took even more—although curiously he is never mentioned by name. The Knight's Tale is based on the Teseida, and Troilus and Criseyde on Il Filostrato: he almost certainly possessed his own copies of these poems. He seems also to have drawn on the Latin De mulieribus claris and De casibus virorum illustrium and on the Filocolo. Parallels with some other works have been noted, but direct borrowing is difficult to prove. The great question hangs over the Decameron, which is in so many ways similar to The Canterbury Tales as a great comédie humaine. Similarities of outlook and of technique have convinced some that Chaucer had probably read that work; sceptics point to the absence of exact evidence of direct borrowing and maintain that he probably had not. Dante did not provide plots (apart from the brief and grim story of Ugolino in The Monk's Tale), but his influence was profound. Chaucer calls him 'the wise poete of Florence' (RC, 120, l. 1125) and 'the grete poete of Ytaille' (ibid., 248, l. 2461). He echoes the Divina commedia at a number of moments of high emotion—and makes use of it in more comic contexts in The House of Fame. In Dante, Chaucer found poetic discussions of philosophical ideas; he may well also have been influenced by Dante's idea of the 'noble vernacular' and his practice of it in a poetic that was flexible enough to allow easy transitions from one level of style to another and the use of homely images and simple words in the most sublime moments. Furthermore, as Chaucer saw, Dante thought of himself as a 'grete poete' with a high calling, and although he seems to claim a humbler position for himself (when Dante meets the great poets of the ancient world, he is invited to join them, and walks at the end of the group, whereas Chaucer in the final section of Troilus and Criseyde sends his 'little book' to kiss the steps where they walk), there is in reality an underlying confidence in and self-awareness of his calling as a poet which owes much to his great predecessor. The acquisition of such an exceptional knowledge of these writers did not suddenly happen in a few months in 1372–3, though that visit may have been the germ of a longer process of reading and re-creation. What is clear is that Chaucer's knowledge and use of Italian vernacular literature is not matched by any other English writer in the fourteenth century, nor by any of those who followed him in the fifteenth.
Soon after Chaucer's return to England he was involved in another Genoese affair. On 11 November 1373 he was sent to Dartmouth to arrange for the restoration of a Genoese merchant ship the Seinte Marie et Seint George, which had for some unknown reason been arrested, to its master, Giovanni del Nigre, who had previously carried men and goods for Giovanni del Mare. The Shipman in the 'General Prologue' of The Canterbury Tales (RC, 29, l. 389 ff.) is associated with Dartmouth (thought to be a notorious haunt of pirates): the rich buccaneering merchant John Hawley, who like the Shipman did not worry overmuch about 'nyce conscience' (ibid., 30, l. 398) in the taking of rival ships, was building tenements in Dartmouth at this time.
Chaucer at the custom house and Aldgate
The next few years of Chaucer's life are reasonably well documented, and seem to have been prosperous ones. As an esquire of the king's chamber he received winter and summer robes. In 1374 the king, who was celebrating the feast of St George at Windsor, granted him a gallon pitcher of wine daily for the rest of his life. This was renewed in 1377 by Richard II, and in 1378 it was commuted for an annuity of 20 marks. In the same year he was appointed comptroller in the port of London, responsible for the customs or export tax on wool, skins, and leather, a considerable volume of revenue. This was an arduous post, and represented a distinct shift from a life centred on the royal court, although Chaucer remained an esquire of the king's household (as against the king's chamber). It has been remarked that it probably demanded not only efficiency but an ability to work with a superior—the collector of customs (usually a wealthy merchant)—who in some known cases was making a profit for himself. Also in 1374 he was granted a lease for life, rent-free, of a dwelling over Aldgate, one of the city gates close to the custom house. This grant is presumably connected with his appointment to the comptrollership and his status as an esquire of the king: it has been suggested that it may have been due to the favour of John of Gaunt. It was a busy part of London, home to a variety of crafts (ranging from fishmongers and chandlers to brewers and armourers), with shops and tenements and gardens, and an important thoroughfare. It was here that Chaucer wrote The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and probably Troilus and Criseyde, and here that he returned from the customs quay to read with the intensity that he makes the Eagle poke fun at in The House of Fame:
For when thy labour doon al ys,And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,In stede of reste and newe thyngesThou goost hom to thy hous anoon,And, also domb as any stoon,Thou sittest at another bookTyl fully daswed ys thy look.
RC, 356, ll. 652–8
From the rest of the decade come indications of an established civic position and reputation. In 1375 he was mainprize or surety for John Romsey, formerly in the royal household, who had become treasurer of Calais, for his appearance before the exchequer to give an account of properties taken from Thomas Langton convicted of sedition. In the same year the guardianship of two Kentish heirs—Edmund Staplegate, heir to a rich Canterbury merchant, and William Soles—was granted him by the king. This was commonly done for favourites and members of the household: 'the guardian became responsible for maintaining the heir in a manner appropriate to his estate and for keeping the property from deterioration' (Life-Records, 295). In 1378, with another esquire, he was mainprize for Sir William Beauchamp, who was granted the custody of Pembroke Castle and other lands during the minority of the late earl's heir.
Chaucer also went on several royal missions: in 1376 on 'the king's secret affairs' to some unspecified destination with Sir John Burley; and several times in 1377 to 'divers parts beyond the seas' (Life-Records, 44–6), where the 'secret affairs' probably had to do with peace negotiations, and the 'divers parts' included Paris and Montreuil. The negotiations at Montreuil concerning peace and the possible marriage of Richard to a French princess are mentioned in Froissart, with the name of Geoffrey Chaucer appearing among the English delegates. That he is not recorded as receiving livery of mourning for the death of Edward III (21 June) probably indicates that he was abroad at the time. In 1378 (28 May – 19 September) he was again sent (by Richard) to Italy, to Lombardy, as a companion of Sir Edward Berkeley, to treat with Bernabò Visconti, the ruler of Milan, and Sir John Hawkwood, his general and son-in-law, on 'matters touching our war' (ibid., 53–61). The 'tirauntz of Lumbardye' (Prologue, The Legend of Good Women, RC, 599, text F, l. 374) seem to have made a lasting impression on Chaucer: the fate of Bernabò, 'god of delit and scourge of Lumbardye' is recorded in The Monk's Tale (RC, 247, ll. 2399–406). Possibly a more peaceful aspect of the Visconti family also made an impression. It may well be (although there is no firm evidence) that Chaucer was able to visit the great Visconti libraries, that of Bernabò in Milan and of Galeazzo in Pavia. It has been suggested that it was here that he first gained extensive knowledge of the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Chaucer's letters of general attorney (to protect him against losing lawsuits by default during his absence) were granted under the names of Richard Forester (possibly a fellow esquire of Chaucer mentioned in 1369, and perhaps the same man who took over Chaucer's Aldgate dwelling in 1386) and John Gower, the poet, making his first appearance in the records as Chaucer's friend.
At Michaelmas 1379 Chaucer appointed an attorney to act for him in a plea by an unidentified Thomas Stondon for contempt and trespass. It is not known what this referred to: ‘trespass’ covered a wide variety of offences against persons or property. Nothing further is heard of the case in later legal records, and it may have been settled out of court. A year later he was involved in a mysterious lawsuit involving a charge of the raptus of one Cecilia Chaumpaigne, or Cecily Champain, who seems to have been the daughter of William Champain or Champneys, a baker (d. 1360). The formal document enrolled in the court of chancery on 1 May 1380, and acknowledged by her on 4 May, is an unconditional agreement to release Chaucer from all actions concerning her raptus or any other matter or cause. Later documents add some further information, but do not throw much light on the case. On 30 June two citizens, Robert Goodchild, cutler, and John Grove, armourer, acknowledged a general release to Chaucer of all legal actions, and Cecily Champain also did so to Goodchild and Grove. On 2 July, Grove made a recognizance that he owed Cecily Champain £10, which was to be paid at Michaelmas—as it was. It is not clear what lies behind all this. Grove may have been acting as an intermediary between Chaucer and Cecily, or may perhaps have been the principal in the case, with Chaucer an accessory. The nature of the offence (if there was one) is also obscure. The term raptus may mean physical rape or seduction or abduction, usually of a minor. This had happened in the case of Chaucer's father, who was kidnapped by an aunt in 1324 when he was aged twelve. All that is known for certain is that Chaucer was cleared of responsibility, and that the witnesses who supported him were his friends and men of high standing—Sir William Beauchamp, chamberlain of the king's household, Sir John Clanvow and Sir William Neville, knights of the king's chamber, John Philipot, collector of customs, and Richard Morel, a London grocer. It is clear that he took trouble to find weighty support, but the reason for this remains unknown. There has been much speculation concerning the case—that, for instance, the 'little Lewis' mentioned in the Astrolabe was Chaucer's son by Cecily—which has to remain unproven.
Works of the 1370s and early 1380s
The glimpse of Chaucer coming home after his 'rekenynges', presumably at the customs, seems to place The House of Fame after 1374, when he began there. Various dates have been proposed, often on the basis of unproven suppositions: that the poem alludes to one or other of the attempts to find a bride for Richard II (c.1379–80 for instance, and the failed negotiations with Caterina Visconti, or the joyful tidings of the match with Anne of Bohemia), or that it must be related closely to Chaucer's Italian journeys and their effect (because the influence of Dante is marked, while that of Boccaccio is not, suggests that it is before 1378, the date of his second journey, after which his use of Boccaccio is much more evident). Perhaps it may be tentatively placed in the very late 1370s or very early 1380s. Whenever it was written, and in spite of the fact that it is unfinished and that it sometimes seems a little chaotic, it is a work of great brilliance. The lament of Dido in the first book and the comic exchanges in the second between the voluble Eagle and his interlocutor Geffrey, whom he is carrying aloft through the spheres to the house of the goddess, are often singled out for praise. But these are not isolated. Under a coruscating surface it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking poem. A concern with the nature of Fame (observed with some scepticism and detachment), and its links with Rumour, and with poetry and the nature of language is expressed through a series of visual images and dramatic scenes. The whole presents a remarkable blend of comedy, fantasy, and a profound interest in science and natural philosophy. Dante seems to have given a new dimension to Chaucer's imagination.
This was a productive period in Chaucer's career as a writer. Probably not too distant in time from The House of Fame are The Parliament of Fowls and the translation of Boethius—and perhaps a number of other poems. It is generally agreed that The Parliament of Fowls was written after The House of Fame, and it must have been written before the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women, where it is mentioned, but the exact date is disputed. It is a dream-vision, in which the poet sees the birds congregating on St Valentine's day to choose their mates under the aegis of the goddess Nature. The final scene in which three noble eagles plead their case as suitors for a beautiful female eagle has suggested to many commentators the negotiations in 1380 for the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia (whom he married in 1382). No certainty is possible: the poem would fit such a context, but it is not an ‘occasional’ poem in any limited sense, since it is concerned with much wider questions, exploring for instance love and its relation with nature and society. A later date at the beginning of May 1385, suggested on the basis of astronomical references (with the dream parliament taking place on 14 February 1384), might be supported by the confidence and sophistication of the writing. Again, ideas are presented through contrasting and complementary images and scenes, but within a much more coherent structure than in The House of Fame. Here comedy (notably, but not exclusively, in the squabbling of some of the birds) coexists with seriousness and learning. The way in which diverse attitudes are given their voice seems a clear premonition of the technique of The Canterbury Tales. That the poem survives in fourteen manuscripts (many more than the two preceding longer poems) might suggest not only that it was well liked, but that perhaps Chaucer's reputation as a poet was spreading.
An impressive poem, but one which unfortunately is impossible to date with certainty is Anelida and Arcite. Its very eloquent opening is based on Boccaccio's Teseida, the source of The Knight's Tale, but the situation that follows may well have been invented by Chaucer. Anelida is betrayed by her lover, and in despair makes a lament, remarkable for its emotional intensity. It is often thought to come from the 1370s, but it has been suggested that it has elements in common with Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women, and may have been written in that period.
The prose Boece, also mentioned in the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women, again defies precise dating. It is usually placed in the late 1370s or the early 1380s. Chaucer had a deep and continuing interest in Boethius and the questions which the Consolation of Philosophy raises: the effects are most obviously found in Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale, but the influence can be seen in many of his later works. His short moral and philosophical poems on Boethian topics—'The Former Age', 'Fortune', 'Truth', 'Gentilesse', 'Lak of Stedfastnesse'—may well have been written later in his career.
It may also be that one or two poems that were later used in or revised for The Canterbury Tales come from this period or a little later. Alceste's list in the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women produces two convincing candidates:
al the love of Palamon and ArciteOf Thebes, though the storye ys knowen lyte;
RC, 600, text F, ll. 420–21and 'the lyf also of Seynt Cecile' (ibid., 600, text F, l. 426). The first must be some version of The Knight's Tale—presumably the final phrase indicates either that the story (of the Teseida) was not widely known, and, or alternatively, that Chaucer's version had not been widely circulated. The life of St Cecilia is the subject of The Second Nun's Tale. There is no way of ascertaining how much revision, if any, was later done.
Life in London, c.1380–c.1386
Chaucer makes only a few appearances in the records of these years, which saw one of the most sensational events in the history of medieval London. He appears (with Ralph Strode) in February 1381 as mainprize for the London draper, John Hende, who was later to become mayor, in a dispute over lands in Essex. It is not known if he was in Aldgate in 1381 at the time of the peasants' revolt. It was one of the gates by which the rebels came into the city, and some of the victims (including many Flemings) came from the Vintry ward where he still owned his father's house in Thames Street (which he quitclaimed to the merchant Henry Herbury four days after the revolt was suppressed). A number of the men prominent in its suppression—John Philipot, Nicholas Brembre, and William Walworth—were associated with Chaucer at the custom house. Unlike Gower's horrified account in the Vox clamantis, Chaucer makes only one certain allusion to the events, and that in the mock-heroic context of the pursuit of the fox in The Nun's Priest's Tale, which was so noisy that:
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meyneeNe made nevere shoutes half so shrilleWhan that they wolden any Flemyng kille.
RC, 260, ll. 3394–6
In the following few years Chaucer's name appears sporadically. On 20 April 1382 there is a record of his appointment or reappointment as comptroller of the petty custom in the port of London, and he was given permission to appoint a deputy. It is known that deputies had carried out his work during earlier visits to France (1377) and Italy (1378), but he now seems to have made more extensive use of them. He appointed Henry Gisors (who later succeeded him as comptroller of the petty custom in 1386) for the period from 23 June to 1 November, since he 'will be greatly occupied' (Life-Records, 165), and another deputy in November 1384 for a month because of 'urgent business of his own' (ibid., 167). On 17 February 1385 he was given permission to appoint a permanent deputy at the wool customs. There is no record of such an appointment by Chaucer, but William Lambourne acted in his place as deputy comptroller of the petty custom in Michaelmas term 1386. It may be that Chaucer was beginning gradually to end his connections with the custom house (by December 1386 he had given up both his comptrollerships) and perhaps his connections with London. The reasons are not known: speculation that he may have wished to spend more time writing, or that he was becoming dissatisfied with his work at the custom house, is not unreasonable, but remains unproven. However he was still connected with the court: on 10 September 1385, as an esquire of the king's household, he received livery of mourning for the funeral of the king's mother, Joan of Kent.
Retires from the custom house and moves to Kent, c.1386–c.1389
In 1386 Chaucer retired from his comptrollerships, and gave up the lease of his dwelling in Aldgate (which was granted to Richard Forester on 5 October 1386). He moved to Kent, possibly to Greenwich—'ther many a shrew [rascal] is inne', as he makes Harry Bailly say in the 'Prologue' to The Reeve's Tale (RC, 78, l. 3907)—or had already done so, since on 12 October 1385 he was appointed as a member of the commission of the peace for Kent. The appointment was renewed in 1386, and Chaucer remained a justice of the peace probably until 1389. His duties involved working with magistrates dealing with a range of felonies and trespasses from walking or riding armed in conventicles, and ambushes, to infractions of the laws concerning weights and measures. His colleagues included Sir Simon Burley, a favourite of the king, and Sir Robert Tresilian, the chief justice of the king's bench. In 1386 he was also elected as a knight of the shire to represent the county in parliament. This was the Wonderful Parliament (1 October – 28 November 1386) which, in reaction to the strong expression of hostility to the king's group of favourites, set up a commission of government to oversee the royal household.
On 15 October of this same year Chaucer gave evidence before the high court of chivalry for Sir Richard Scrope against Sir Robert Grosvenor in a controversy over the right to bear certain arms. He testified that he had seen the arms in question borne by Sir Richard and his cousin Sir Henry when he was on military service before the town of Réthel, that it was commonly agreed that these were the Scrope arms, and that once in London while he was walking along Friday Street he saw them displayed outside a house and was surprised to be told that they were not the Scrope arms but those of the Grosvenors. His friends Sir Peter Bukton, Sir John Clanvow, and Sir Lewis Clifford also gave evidence in this celebrated trial. It demonstrates that he had some very well-connected acquaintances, and also perhaps that he had a greater interest in chivalry than some modern critics are prepared to allow him. On 13 November in the court of common pleas he is recorded as mainprize for the appearance of Simon Manning of Kent to answer a charge of debt, again suggesting that he was now firmly based in Kent.
In 1387 Chaucer seems to have made his last mission abroad. On 5 July 1387 he received letters of protection to go to Calais with Sir William Beauchamp, now captain of the town. Chaucer's wife, Philippa, probably died in this year before 7 November. Her name is not found in the records after 18 June 1387, presumably because of her death. Up to that date her annuities—for her service in the household of Queen Philippa and in that of Constance, duchess of Lancaster—had been regularly paid. She may have had to divide her time between the household of her husband and that of Constance: the phrase used of her, 'nostre bien ame damoysele' (Life-Records, 86), is usually used in the register of John of Gaunt for a lady in immediate attendance on the duchess. She appears from time to time as the recipient of gifts—a silver goblet at new year in 1380, for instance. On 19 February 1386 she was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral at the same time as Henry, earl of Derby, the oldest son of John of Gaunt, together with Thomas Swynford and John Beaufort, the sons of her sister Katherine. John of Gaunt and his father had been admitted to this fraternity in 1343. On 26 March 1387 King Richard and Queen Anne were enrolled when they made a visit to the cathedral. It had a shrine of St Hugh of Lincoln, who is referred to in The Prioress's Tale (RC, 212, l. 684), and it has been suggested that the tale was first read on this occasion. Sadly, the records reveal nothing of the character of Philippa Chaucer nor of the nature of her relationship with her husband during the twenty years of their marriage, and further speculation—whether the voice of the Eagle in The House of Fame arousing him:
Ryght in the same vois and stevene [voice, tone]That useth oon I koude nevene [name]
RC, 355, ll. 561–2is some domestic allusion, or whether their relationship was a distant one, or a warm one, because they did not see too much of each other—must remain unfounded.
In 1387–8 political tensions increased. In November 1387 the duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock, and his followers (the appellants) charged with treason a number of favourites and associates of the king, and in the Merciless Parliament of February 1388 achieved the condemnation of Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, Archbishop Neville, Sir Robert Tresilian, Sir Nicholas Brembre, and others, including Sir Simon Burley and Thomas Usk. Some fled and others were executed. Three of those killed in 1388—Brembre, Burley, and Tresilian—were men with whom Chaucer had worked closely, but exactly how he was affected by this purge of the king's household is not known. On 1 May 1388 he transferred his exchequer annuities to John Scalby. It is not clear whether this was done to raise some money or because of the political situation, in which the grants of annuities by the king were under attack, and represents a cautious attempt to distance himself from the household.
Chaucer continued, however, to serve on the Kent peace commission, and in 1387–8 sat as a member on a commission of inquiry at Dartford on a case of abduction, which may have some relevance to the interpretation of the Cecily Champain affair. Isabella, the daughter and heir of William Hall, had been taken from the house of her guardian, Thomas Carshill, at Chislehurst by three men including her husband, John Lording (rapuerunt et abduxerunt is the phrase used). Here it looks as if the husband was recovering his young wife 'who had been carried off from the house where he had placed her in agreement with her friends' (Life-Records, 381). The defendants were eventually pardoned. In 1388–9 he was mainpernor for Matilda Nemeg or Nemghen (or perhaps Nijmegen), alleged to have left the service of Maria Alconbury before the end of the agreed term of her service. It is not known what his connection with her was. It may well be that he was at this time living in somewhat reduced circumstances. On 16 April 1388 he was summoned for a debt of £3 6s. 8d. by John Churchman, a grocer and merchant, and in Michaelmas term 1388 for a debt of £7 13s. 4d. by an innkeeper, Henry Atwood.
Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women
Before 1388 Chaucer had completed a masterly long narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde. Its survival in sixteen manuscripts and three early prints testifies to its popularity with early readers. It is impossible to fix a precise date within the range of possibilities that have been offered, from 1381 to 1388. If the phrase 'right as oure firste lettre is now an A' (RC, 475, l. 171) is, as is often assumed, a compliment to Queen Anne, it would indicate a date after January 1382. A more certain final limit is fixed by the execution of Usk on 4 March 1388, since in his Testament of Love he names it and alludes to Troilus's speech on necessity. However, the date of this work is not certain (it has been suggested that it was written not during his final imprisonment but in an earlier one, December 1384 – June 1385). Nor can the date of The Legend of Good Women (probably 1386–7), in which it is also mentioned, be fixed with certainty. The 'philosophical Strode' to whom, with Gower, it is 'directed' for correction if need be, is almost certainly the Londoner Ralph Strode, and he died at some point in 1387. Another possible indication is the allusion in book 3 to a rare planetary conjunction, which apparently actually took place on 9 June 1385. It would seem most likely (since Chaucer was something of an expert in astronomy) that this was deliberately made in the course of the writing of the poem. Perhaps the suggestion of the early editor, R. K. Root, that it was completed between the spring of 1385 and the end of the year 1386, or, at the very latest, the early months of 1387, still has most to be said for it.
Chaucer's main source was Boccaccio's poem Il Filostrato. While keeping to the outline of its plot, he transformed it into a profound treatment of the joy and sorrow of human love. The complex narrative pattern weaves together scenes of pathos and ecstasy and moments of comedy (and in the figure of Pandarus, Chaucer created one of the great comic characters in English). The progress of love—and its loss—is charted with great sympathy and sensitivity: the figure of Criseyde in particular becomes far more complex, enigmatic, and fascinating than Boccaccio's heroine. The poet sometimes presents the story in a dramatic scene with nothing but dialogue; at other times he will comment on it, like a chorus, or like a simple onlooker. The poem consistently raises (even if it does not always answer) wider philosophical questions—of the nature of human love and its place in the cosmos, and of destiny, free will, and the human condition.
'The Complaint of Mars' also treats the perplexities of love. The fervent and bitter 'complaint' is that made by Mars on leaving Venus in the morning when Phoebus had discovered the lovers. It is an impressive and interesting poem which shows Chaucer putting together in a very original way a variety of literary material, and combining the mythographical and the astrological in a complex structure. The astrological details point clearly to 1385, and it was presumably written in or about this date.
Probably a year or two after this Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women. It must come after Troilus and Criseyde since in its 'Prologue' the god of Love reproves Chaucer for having told that story—in which a woman is unfaithful to her lover—and instructs Chaucer to make by way of penance a glorious legend of good women, the saints of Cupid. In the F version of the 'Prologue' there is a reference to Queen Anne, which places it between 1382 and 7 June 1394 (the G version of the 'Prologue', in CUL, MS Gg. 4.27, in which this reference is lacking probably comes from 1394). Possibly the poem was the result of a royal request (the 'Prologue' has a distinctly courtly atmosphere) or written for a particular event, but there is no firm evidence. As it now is, the work contains nine legends (Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Lucretia, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra), and is unfinished. There are some strong hints that Chaucer had in mind a larger collection. In his (late) 'Retractions' he calls it 'the book of the xxv [or in some manuscripts xv or xix] ladies'. Before that in the 'Introduction' to The Man of Law's Tale (RC, 88, ll. 61 ff.) he gives a list of the ladies which does not agree with either number, and which omits two of those whose stories are found in The Legend of Good Women as it now stands, and adds several other names. It is possible to speculate that the legends of some of these were written and have not survived and, or alternatively, that he may have intended to write them or thought that they were possible material.
The Legend of Good Women seems to have been popular and influential in the fifteenth century, but, although the 'Prologue' has often been praised, modern critics in general have not treated the whole work kindly, too easily assuming, without any convincing evidence, that Chaucer abandoned the work because he was bored with it, or that its ironies amount to nothing but a total rejection of the whole idea. This is to miss its subtle Ovidian blend of contrasting tones and the power of many of the scenes of pathos. It is the last of his dream-visions, and his first experiment with a ‘framed’ collection of stories.
Clerk of king's works, 1389–1391
Chaucer's official career was by no means over. On 12 July 1389 Richard II, now back in control, appointed him clerk of the king's works. He was responsible for the administration of construction and repair at Westminster, the Tower of London, other castles (such as that at Berkhamsted), and seven manors (including Eltham and Sheen). He also had the duty of overseeing parks, hunting lodges, the mews for the royal falcons at Charing Cross, and a variety of other tasks. It was an important position, involving large sums of money, and Chaucer was assisted by a comptroller and a staff of deputies and clerks. His work brought him into contact not only with humble craftsmen but with some prominent figures in contemporary architecture, like the master mason Henry Yevele. He was involved in the expensive task of rebuilding and enlargement of the wharf beside the Tower, and in the erection of scaffolds for the king and queen and other noble spectators at the jousts held at Smithfield in May and October 1390. It has been suggested that this experience underlies the description of the way in which the lists were made up royally (on a much grander scale) in Athens in The Knight's Tale (RC, 50, ll. 1882 ff.). In March 1390 after a great storm (which blew down 100 oaks at Eltham) had caused damage along the Thames he was appointed to a commission for walls and ditches. And on 12 July in that year he was made clerk of the works for St George's Chapel, Windsor, and commissioned to repair the chapel which was 'on the point of ruin and of falling to the ground' (Life-Records, 408–13).
On 3 September 1390 Chaucer was waylaid and robbed of his horse, other property, and £20 of the king's money by highwaymen at 'le Foule Oke' in Kent (Life-Records, 477–8). He may well have been carrying wages from Westminster to Eltham. The records of the trial of his assailants, Richard Brierley and others, may suggest that two other robberies took place almost immediately afterwards, at Westminster and at Hatcham, but it is not certain whether there was one robbery or three. About ten months later, on 17 June 1391, the clerkship of the works was transferred to John Gedeney. The reasons for Chaucer's retirement or removal are not known. Suggestions such as that it was perhaps connected with the robbery (whether because he feared another attack or because he was thought to have carelessly allowed himself to be robbed), with his discontent with unsatisfactory financial arrangements (at the end of his term his audit showed £87 still owing to him), with advancing years and a desire to have more leisure for writing, or that he had not proved very energetic, must all remain conjectures.
At some point during the 1390s Chaucer seems to have found another appointment, as deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset. The evidence comes from lost park rolls quoted by the eighteenth-century antiquarians Thomas Palmer and John Collinson, and the date of the appointment remains obscure. It may be that there were two—possibly 1390–91 and March–September 1399. Nor is it clear what his duties were: perhaps he was again involved in the managing of men and considerable revenues. During this period he presumably continued to receive the annuity of £10 that John of Gaunt had granted him, though those records have not survived. Other surviving references suggest that he was well settled in Kent. On 4 May 1393 he was a witness at Woolwich to a charter of release and warranty for the transfer of Woolwich Manor and other property from John Horn, a London fishmonger, to Sir Nicholas Sarnesfield, the king's standard-bearer, and his wife; and on 21 February 1395 he was witness to a transfer of the manor of Spittlecombe with other estates from the archbishop of York to the archbishop of Canterbury and others—including a Sir Philip la Vache, who may be the Vache addressed in the envoi to the short poem now called 'Truth' (Life-Records, 506–8); and (on 5 March and 6 April 1396) to their transfer back to the archbishop of York, and finally to one of the king's butlers, Gregory Ballard (who appointed Chaucer one of his attorneys).
On 28 July 1392, just after receiving £13 6s. 8d., part of the sum owing to him as clerk of the works, Chaucer took out a loan of 26s. 8d. from Gilbert Maghfeld, a prosperous merchant and moneylender (whose customers included Henry Scogan and Gower, as well as royal dukes and bishops). The reason for it is not known, and it was quickly repaid. Two actions for debt against him—by William Venour, grocer and a former mayor of London, who was probably acting as a moneylender, for £3 6s. 8d. in June 1393, and by another grocer, John Layer, for £2 4s. in Trinity term 1394—were probably eventually settled out of court. However, payments were also coming in. In Easter term 1393 there was a gift of £10 from King Richard for 'good service' (Life-Records, 120), and on 22 May a payment of £66 13s. 8d. due from his clerkship days, from the estate of Sir William Thorpe assigned to him in 1391. In February 1394 the king granted him an annuity of £20, perhaps in recognition of his work as clerk of the works (and which more or less replaced the exchequer annuities he had surrendered to Scalby in 1388). In 1395–6 Henry of Derby gave him fur to trim a gown of scarlet.
The Canterbury Tales and other late works
Chaucer's most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, occupied the last decade of his life. However, a number of other works also come from this period, such as the Horatian 'Envoy de Chaucer a Bukton', which refers the recipient to the Wife of Bath, and almost certainly the similar 'Envoy de Chaucer a Scogan'. The Treatise on the Astrolabe, an introductory technical work addressed to 'little Lewis my son', may date from the earlier part of 1393 (it uses the year 1391 for its calculations, and it has often been assumed that it was begun in this year). Its material is drawn from the earlier works of 'olde astrologiens', notably Messahalla, and it 'offers an excellent introduction to the geometry of the spheres' (North, 38). Chaucer may well also have been the author of a more advanced treatise (1393?), The Equatorie of the Planetis, though his authorship of this has been disputed. These works are of considerable interest, both as early examples of technical scientific treatises in English prose and as evidence of his exceptionally well-informed interest in contemporary science. Astronomical and astrological passages and references are found throughout his works, some of which, it has been argued, indicate a system of astronomical dating, and, perhaps, other astrological schemes at work in his task of creating and ordering his narrative material. There are, in addition, many references to other sciences—alchemy, physiognomy, medicine, physics (the nature of sound in The House of Fame). Among the great English poets Chaucer stands out for his interest in and knowledge of science.
It is impossible to fix the time at which he conceived the idea of a collection of stories within the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The work is not mentioned in the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women, and, although at least two of the tales were in existence in some form before then, the majority must have been written later. It was left unfinished: the extant version consists of about 17,000 lines of verse and prose, in ten fragments. Just over eighty manuscripts survive, of which fifty-five are complete or nearly complete. The earliest, from the early fifteenth century, is the Hengwrt manuscript (in the National Library of Wales), which has a text apparently close to what Chaucer wrote, but a rather disjointed ordering of the tales; the slightly later Ellesmere manuscript (in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California), carefully written and produced and containing excellent miniatures, has most frequently been used as the base text for modern editions (the hand responsible for both manuscripts has been identified as that of the scrivener Adam Pinkhurst). In fact, what most readers think of as The Canterbury Tales is the Ellesmere version, an attempt (sometimes a distinctly editorial one) to present the fragments that Chaucer left in a coherent form, but not what Chaucer himself would have eventually published.
There are clear indications of incompleteness and of revision in progress. Most obviously, the ambitious scheme of story-telling implied in the agreement in the 'General Prologue' that each pilgrim should tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back is left unachieved or abandoned. Only twenty-two pilgrims tell a single tale each, and Chaucer himself tells two. There is no reference either to arrival at Canterbury or to a return to Southwark (the remarks at the beginning of fragment 10 and the Parson's final words sound ‘closural’, but in a general way). The Cook's Tale and The Squire's Tale are unfinished, and although The Cook's Tale ends fragment 1, at the beginning of fragment 9 the Cook is asked to tell a tale, without any reference to the earlier attempt. Some evidence seems to suggest that Chaucer had moved a tale from one teller to another: it is often thought that The Shipman's Tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath, and the Man of Law declares 'I speke in prose' (RC, 88, l. 96) just before he begins a tale in verse.
The unfinished nature of The Canterbury Tales has presented problems both for editors and for critics. The order of the fragments is one. All manuscripts, whatever their ordering of the central fragments, begin with the 'General Prologue' and end with The Parson's Tale, and fragments 9–10 are explicitly linked. Recent editors have followed the Ellesmere order, which makes good sense of what remains. This assumes that the topographical references to the progress of the journey, which are inconsistent in this order, would probably have been revised had Chaucer completed the work. An attempt by Henry Bradshaw to put these places in the right order, which involves moving fragment 7 to a position after fragment 2 (an order found only in one late manuscript), is found in the earlier editions of W. W. Skeat and others. Critics have engaged in a lively debate about the work's unity and structure. At one extreme are those who insist that it is work in progress, a series of fragments, and that the modern desire for a unified book should be resisted; at the other those who are convinced that it has a clear integrity and a unifying idea—though there has not always been agreement over what that is. Most have preferred a middle ground, recognizing that, although it was not ‘published’ in any final, revised form, there are a number of unifying factors—the pilgrimage, the authorial presence, recurring motifs, patterns of ideas or themes (like marriage, for instance)—which suggest an elaborate (if unfinished) structure of debate or discussion.
There has been less argument concerning the literary quality of The Canterbury Tales. It has been a popular work for centuries, and is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of English literature. The excellence of the individual narratives and the vividness of the pilgrims (both in their introductory descriptions in the 'General Prologue' and in the way they behave within the framework) are immediately evident. The work is infused with a great sense of diversity and dramatic life. The pilgrims are from a variety of social classes and callings, thrown together by chance, and there are disagreements, quarrels, and conflicts. The Reeve is angered by the Miller's story; the Knight has to intervene in a violent quarrel between the Host and the Pardoner. There are moments or passages of apparent self-revelation. There are interruptions, and unforeseen events—the Cook falls off his horse; the Canon flees when his Yeoman is about to reveal his secrets. The ‘realism’ of the work is carefully contrived and controlled by the imagination of a literary artist. Chaucer's observation of the life around him certainly played a vital part (once or twice he even uses the names of real people—Roger of Ware, cook, or Henri Bayliff, hosteler—and may have taken hints for his characters from these and others), but rhetorical skill and the originality with which he transformed traditional stereotypes (like those of estates satire—of the characteristic failings of various occupations or social groups) were equally important. The same variety is characteristic of the Tales. The work offers what is in effect an anthology of medieval literary genres, ranging from saint's life to bawdy fabliau. Sometimes one tale will seem to comment, obliquely or directly, on its predecessor, or offer a startlingly different point of view—in fragment 1 the aristocratic noble love of The Knight's Tale gives way to the more earthy passions of The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale. From the whole, serious ideas and matters of earnest emerge, but in the spirit and setting of ‘game’. The remark about the reaction of the audience at the end of The Miller's Tale, 'diverse folk diversely they seyde', could well serve as a motto for the work.
Records of grants and gifts continue into Chaucer's final years. On 1 December 1397 the king granted him a tun of wine (252 gallons) annually (Life-Records, 117); this was later confirmed by Henry IV. A royal warrant of protection for two years for going on the king's 'arduous and urgent business' in divers parts of England, issued on 4 May 1398 (ibid., 62–4), remains obscure. No particular business has been discovered, and it has been suggested that Chaucer obtained it as a general protection against a lawsuit or proceedings in the exchequer. He never seems to have made use of it. At about this time he was sued for a debt of £14 1s. 11d. (probably for a purchase of underwood while he was clerk of works) by the widow of Walter Buckholt. The case seems to have been settled out of court or dropped. Chaucer took the lease of a house in Westminster on 24 December 1399, a tenement in the garden of the lady chapel of the abbey, although he may have moved to London before then.
The beginning of 1399 saw the death of John of Gaunt, and the enforced abdication of Richard II. Henry IV on his accession confirmed Chaucer's annuity of £20 and made a further annual grant of 40 marks. However, this document, dated 13 October 1399, seems to have been antedated, and was actually issued about 16 February 1400. Chaucer seems however to have received only partial payments. On 9 November the king granted him a gift of £10 as payment of the arrears of his former annuity, but this was not paid until 21 February 1400. Payment of the grant of 13 October was mandated in May, but all that seems to have been forthcoming was a payment of £5 on 5 June 1400, and it seems that he received nothing from his new annuity. It is often thought that the 'Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse', a witty ‘begging poem’, was written, or perhaps revised, with the addition of the envoy to Henry as 'conquerour of Brutes Albyon' (RC, 656, l. 22) at some point during this period, though it is not known whether it was ever presented to the king or, if it was, whether it had any effect.
That the payments of 21 February and 5 June were not made to Chaucer in person—which had been his consistent practice previously—may well suggest that he was by then in ill health. Exactly how and when he died is not known for certain. Dr Thomas Gascoigne in the fifteenth century tells a story of a deathbed repentance, in which he died lamenting that he would not be able to revoke or destroy what he had written about the wicked and foul love of men for women. This is sometimes regarded as the context for his 'Retractation'—more properly 'Retractions' as he calls it ('my retracciouns'; RC, 328)—which appears at the end of The Canterbury Tales, immediately after The Parson's Tale. However, it is certainly possible that Gascoigne constructed his story from the retractions themselves, which list a number of his works as 'enditynges of worldly vanitees'. This passage bristles with difficulties. It seems to move from 'this litel tretys' (presumably The Parson's Tale, or, with a touch of humour perhaps, the complete Canterbury Tales) to a kind of farewell to poetry in general. A number of famous cases of authors' remorse at the sinful nature of their writing have been adduced, and the general tone here seems penitential. On the other hand the remark in the list—'and many another book, if they were in my remembrance'—sounds less so, and more like a characteristic change of tone. It has been suggested that Chaucer knew that the retractatio was something of a commonplace, and that he was using it with some irony, and primarily to record the list of his authentic works (a practice that he had indulged in twice before). A further complication is that his term 'retracciouns' may be an allusion to St Augustine's Retractationes, a work of revisions rather than retractions. If so, his word 'revoke' may mean 'call back to memory' rather than 'withdraw'. It is impossible to be certain about the interpretation. Perhaps his 'retracciouns', blending different tones in his usual manner, should be seen as his farewell rather than as a final repentance.
There is no record of Chaucer after 5 June 1400, and no will survives. Between 28 September 1400 and 28 September in the following year the Westminster tenancy passed to a Master Paul. The traditional date of his death, 25 October 1400, depends upon an inscription placed on a tomb in the abbey in 1556, and may very well be correct. He was buried, according to Caxton, at the entrance to the chapel of St Benedict in Westminster Abbey. The fact that he was not buried in the church or cemetery of St Margaret in the abbey precinct, of which he was a parishioner, but in the abbey itself, suggests that he specifically requested burial in the latter. The sixteenth-century tomb (now in Poets' Corner) probably contains his remains: 'bones which were exposed when Robert Browning was buried in the east aisle of the transept in 1889 were measured by the coroner, who estimated that they had belonged to a man about five feet six inches in height' (Life-Records, 549).
Apart from the evidence of the bones, and one or two joking references which Chaucer himself makes to what may have been a certain portliness of figure—in the 'Prologue' to 'Sir Thopas', 'he in the waast is shape as wel as I' (RC, 212, l. 700); and in the 'Envoy … a Scogan' 'rounde of shap' (ibid., 655, l. 31; cf. ibid., 659, Merciles Beaute, l. 27)—the early portraits are the only available source for some idea of his appearance. There are eight of these surviving. A tradition of portraiture was established early, and seems to have attempted to achieve some lifelikeness. Probably the earliest, and certainly the best-known, is in the Ellesmere manuscript, in which the bearded figure of Chaucer the pilgrim is shown riding on his horse. Another group is found in manuscripts of Thomas Hoccleve's Regement of Princes. In one of his passages in praise of Chaucer (whom Hoccleve probably knew, and whom he regarded as his master) he says that he has caused his likeness to be made to bring him to mind. It seems likely that the picture which he meant to accompany this would make some attempt at lifelikeness. That in BL, Harley MS 4866, is an expressive portrait which resembles that in Ellesmere, though Chaucer is here represented as a standing figure with one hand indicating the text and the other holding a rosary. Two others survive in other manuscripts of the work; others have been cut out. A well-known frontispiece to a manuscript of Troilus (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 61) has an idealized picture of Chaucer reading to a courtly group (but not, as was formerly claimed, to the 'court of Richard II'). Three others, in manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, are stylized depictions. The 'Hoccleve pattern' goes into the illustrations in the early printed editions. Neither the portraits nor his writings, however, afford much scope to biographical critics in search of self-revelation and personality. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer was a chameleon-like dramatic writer, who could produce many persons and voices, and the bland surface of portraits and of public records gives almost no hint of what must have been an intense inner imaginative life.
Chaucer seems to have left two sons: Thomas Chaucer, who became a rich landowner and a skilful civil servant, and Lewis, who, apart from the Astrolabe, appears only in a single record of 1403. It has sometimes been conjectured that he also had two daughters, an Elizabeth Chaucy and an Agnes, but there is no good evidence to support this. The family continued through Thomas's daughter Alice Chaucer, whose third husband was William de la Pole, earl (later duke) of Suffolk. Her son John de la Pole married Elizabeth, the second daughter of Richard, duke of York (1411–1460), remained in favour through various vicissitudes, and died in 1492. His male line died out in the first half of the sixteenth century.
The canon and reception of Chaucer's works
The canon of Chaucer's works can be established from his own lists (in the 'Prologue' to The Legend of Good Women, the 'Introduction' to The Man of Law's Tale, and the 'Retractions'), confirmed and supplemented by Lydgate ('Prologue' to The Fall of Princes). Three named works—'The Book of the Leoun', 'Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde' (apparently a translation of the De miseria conditionis humanae, or De contemptu mundi, of Pope Innocent III, probably written 1386/7–1394), and 'Origenes upon the Maudeleyne' (probably a version of a medieval meditation wrongly attributed to the saint)—have not survived, nor, probably, have all of his lyrics. There remain some doubtful attributions—The Romaunt of the Rose, The Equatorie of the Planetis, and a number of shorter poems, now usually labelled by editors 'doubtful' or 'poems not attributed to Chaucer in the manuscripts'. Fifteenth-century scribes, followed by early printed editions, attributed to him a number of works which are certainly not written by him—for example, The Ploughman's Tale, Gamelyn, and The Floure and the Leafe. These were removed from the canon in an editorial process that began in the eighteenth century with Thomas Tyrwhitt and culminated in the nineteenth with Henry Bradshaw and W. W. Skeat.
Such attributions are of course a clear testimony to the high opinion in which Chaucer's poetry was held by his successors. However, there is evidence that he was admired in his own day. Usk's Lady Love calls him 'the noble philosophical poete in Englissh' and praises his 'goodnes of gentil manliche speche' (W. W. Skeat, ed., Chaucerian and other Pieces, 1897, 123), and Gower's Venus refers to him as 'mi disciple and mi poete' and 'myn owne clerk' (Gower, Confessio amantis, 8.2941–57). Most unusually for a poet writing in the English vernacular he receives a eulogy from abroad, in the form of a ballade by Eustace Deschamps in which he is called a 'great translator' (E. Deschamps, Œuvres complètes, ed. A. H. E. Queux de Saint-Hilaire and G. Raynaud, Société des Anciens Textes Français, 11 vols., 2, 1880, 138–9). This high poetic reputation is confirmed by the existence of a number of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century poems which are to a greater or lesser degree Chaucerian, imitating his style or subject matter. The Kingis Quair, probably by James I of Scotland, is one distinguished example. His early followers, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, wrote eloquent and emotional panegyrical laments, and throughout the century other writers, both English and Scottish, followed them, and even though it became a traditional literary topic their words often express a genuine admiration. Usually his name is linked with those of Gower and Lydgate as the founder of a poetic tradition. He is praised both for his eloquence and the way he 'illumined' the English language and for his 'sentence'. The reputation of the others faded, but Chaucer's remained high. From the time of Caxton, who published Chaucer in extenso, his works were available in print. Sometimes reproved for his bawdry, sometimes neglected, he nevertheless found a series of enthusiastic readers (including other poets, such as Spenser and Dryden).
Not surprisingly, they have tended to emphasize those aspects of his work which seemed to be especially relevant to their own times and tastes, and, often, to recreate Chaucer in their own image. Thus in the sixteenth century his anti-clerical satire made him into an early Reformer, 'a right Wycliffian', as John Foxe the protestant martyrologist said. In the (unpaginated) 'Life' printed in John Urry's 1721 edition he seems to have become a philosophical eighteenth-century gentleman:
his course of living was temperate and regular; he went to rest with the sun, and rose before it, and by that means enjoyed the pleasures of the better part of the day, his morning walk and fresh contemplations … he was a great scholar, a pleasant wit, a candid critick, a sociable companion, a stedfast friend, a grave philosopher, a temperate oeconomist and a pious Christian.
Other more ambivalent, ironic, and sceptical Chaucers lurk in the pages of twentieth-century criticism. Readers increasingly found Chaucer's language difficult, and had to be helped by glosses, vocabularies, and modernizations. His metre too, misunderstood until the eighteenth century, was often thought to be stumbling and awkward. Nevertheless his admirers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced some appreciative and intelligent criticism, from Dryden's enthusiastic preface to his modernizations in the Fables (1700) to Warton's argument in The History of English Poetry (1774–81) that:
his genius was universal, and adapted to themes of unbounded variety: that his merit was not less in painting familiar manners with humour and propriety, than in moving the passions, and in representing the beautiful or the grand objects of nature with grace and sublimity.T. Warton, The History of English Poetry, 1774–81, 457
Nineteenth-century men of letters continued to respond to Chaucer, praising his realism, his naturalness, and his powers of characterization. This century saw remarkable advances in the study of English philology and in the understanding of Chaucer's literary background. The literature of medieval Europe was becoming more accessible, and Frederick James Furnivall's Early English Text Society (1864–) began to make lesser-known Middle English texts available. Furnivall founded the Chaucer Society in 1868: it produced a series of parallel-text editions of Chaucer manuscripts, and began the collection and publication of sources and analogues and of Chaucer life records. The century's scholarly endeavours culminated in W. W. Skeat's six-volume edition of the complete works of Chaucer (Oxford, 1894). Another significant development was the establishment of English language and literature as an academic subject in universities. Chaucer became a set author, often serving as a bridge between language and literature. Individual tales in ‘school editions’ (sometimes bowdlerized) became a compulsory part of the secondary-school English curriculum—a situation that did not change until the latter part of the twentieth century. The earliest academic criticism of Chaucer was written by professors in the new English departments. The Skeat edition was reviewed by W. P. Ker (1895), professor at University College, London, and by two of the founders of the influential American academic tradition, G. L. Kittredge of Harvard, and T. R. Lounsbury of Yale.
In the course of the twentieth century the professors came to outnumber the men of letters. A historical approach, attempting to place Chaucer in his literary and historical milieu, remained dominant, but criticism reflected other general trends and fashions. The close attention to the text encouraged by the ‘new criticism’ emphasized Chaucer's ironies and ambivalence. There was an increased interest in his narrative and rhetorical techniques, and in his reception. The last quarter of the century saw the application of a host of other approaches—feminist and sociological criticism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on—which brought, or attempted to bring, new insights. Throughout the century a steady output of editions and linguistic studies continued. The New Chaucer Society, founded about a century after its predecessor, encouraged scholarly work, organized international conferences, and produced the specialist journal Studies in the Age of Chaucer.
Over the centuries writers, readers, and critics have responded very differently to Chaucer's work, and have emphasized different aspects of his many-sided achievement, but almost all would agree with the verdict of Hales that 'what strikes us is his extraordinary originality' and that (with the possible exception of Langland) 'except Dante, there is no poet of the middle ages of superior faculty and distinction' (DNB).
- M. M. Crow and C. C. Olsen, eds., Chaucer life-records (1966)
- The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson, 3rd edn (1987) [modern edn of complete works, abbreviated in text as RC]
- D. Pearsall, The life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1992)
- F. R. H. Du Boulay, ‘The historical Chaucer’, Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. D. S. Brewer, Writers and Their Background (1974)
- G. Kane, Chaucer (1984)
- J. D. North, Chaucer's universe (1988)
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- D. J. Price, ed., The equatorie of the planetis (1955)
- J. M. Manly, New light on Chaucer (1926)
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- G. Kane, The autobiographical fallacy in Chaucer and Langland studies (1965)
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- S. Ferris, ‘The date of Chaucer's final annuity and of the “Complaint to his empty purse”’, Modern Philology, 65 (1967–8)
- L. M. Matheson, ‘Chaucer's ancestry: historical and philological reassessments’, Chaucer Review, 25 (1991), 171–89
- C. Cannon, ‘Raptus in the Chaumpaigne release and a newly-discovered document concerning the life of Geoffrey Chaucer’, Speculum, 68 (1993), 74–94
- A. Brusendorff, The Chaucer tradition (1925)
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- The complete works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 4 vols. (1899–1902)
- L. R. Mooney, ‘Chaucer's scribe’, Speculum, 81 (2006), 97–138
- BL, M/438 [microfilm]
- Bodl. Oxf., MS Fairfax 16 l. 423
- CUL, MS Gg.4.27
- Hunt. L., Ellesmere MS
- NL Wales, Hengwrt MS
- drawing, Hunt. L., Ellesmere MS
- drawing, BL, Add. MS 5141
- drawing, BL, Lansdowne MS 851
- drawing, BL, Royal MS 17 D.vi, fol. 93v
- manuscript illumination, CCC Cam., MS 61
- manuscript painting, BL, T. Hoccleve, ‘De regimine principum’, MS Harley 4866, fol. 88 [see illus.]
- portrait, Rosenbach Library, Philadelphia, MS 1083/10
- print (after manuscript drawing), NPG
- John [John of Gaunt], duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399), prince and steward of England
- Katherine [née Katherine Roelt; married name Katherine Swynford], duchess of Lancaster (1350?–1403), mistress and third wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster
- Pinkhurst, Adam (fl. 1385–1410), scribe to Geoffrey Chaucer
- Chaucer, Thomas (c. 1367–1434), administrator and speaker of the House of Commons
- Chaucer [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c. 1404–1475), noblewoman
- Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450), administrator and magnate
- Pole, John de la, second duke of Suffolk (1442–1492), magnate
- Richard of York, third duke of York (1411–1460), magnate and claimant to the English throne