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Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer is held by many as the ‘father of English poetry.’ Critics attribute his special relevance to his unconventional use of English and portrayal of the middle classes at a time when most poets avoided both. Whilst Chaucer depicts himself as a slow, bookish old man in most of his own poems, this self-portrayal is inaccurate - read on to find out what he was really like! You will learn about Chaucer's biography and major literary works.

Geoffrey Chaucer: biography

First, let's take a look at Chaucer's life.

Early life

Chaucer was born between 1340-1345, to John and Agnes Chaucer. Descended from a line of merchants, Chaucer’s family had no titles but their wealth and influence meant they were aristocrats in all but name. Some sources say that Chaucer attended St Paul’s Cathedral School, and it is presumed that at some point he studied law at the Inner Temple, an Inn of Court..

In Chaucer's time, an Inn of Court was a scholarly institution that housed and trained lawyers.

Geoffrey Chaucer began to pursue a position in court in 1357, working as a squire in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel, Earl of Ulster (later Duke of Clarence). Chaucer spent much of this time in service to aristocrats as the mediaeval equivalent of a butler, whilst also writing stories for the French Countess. Chaucer drew inspiration from many French poets during this time, particularly Guillaume de Machaut and Estauch Deschamps. It was during this time that Chaucer wrote ‘The Book of the Duchess’ (1368) and ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (1380-90).

Chaucer also met John of Gaunt during his time with the Ulsters, who would later influence Chaucer’s own political career by acting as his patron and orchestrating Chaucer's role in various diplomatic missions. The two were also eventual brother-in-laws, both marrying the daughters of French Knight Sir Paon de Roet. For Chaucer, this marriage allowed him to enter the world of aristocracy and brought him financial prosperity due to his wife’s large annuity.

Annuity is a term used to refer to a particular sum of money paid to someone each year. Most annuities last a person's lifetime. In medieval times, annuities were used frequently among the nobility. Today, annuities have evolved into complex financial products and mechanisms for large inheritances!

Career

By 1374, Chaucer was heavily involved in the politics of the court, being the modern-day equivalent of a civil servant. He was granted the position of Controller of Customs, giving him control of taxes on hides, skins and wool. This was a lucrative job that allowed Chaucer to wield some political influence. During this time, Chaucer also developed an interest in the Italian language and literature after a visit to Lombardy in 1378, which later influenced Troilus and Criseyde (1382-1386).

During the later 1300s, Chaucer’s career was adversely affected by the power struggles between the Lancastrians (John of Gaunt and his son, who would become Henry IV), and Richard II. Chaucer had allies on both sides of the war and managed to continue his posting in Richard II’s court without antagonising his old friend. Despite this, the late 1300s were financially stressful for Chaucer due to the death of his wife around 1387, which ended Chaucer's annuities. To make matters worse, Chaucer had been deprived of his flat in Aldgate the previous year. Chaucer exiled himself to Kent where he started to write The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400).

Chaucer was eventually reinstated in court. However, he switched jobs and became the Clerk of Public Works in 1389. This job involved him carrying large amounts of money out on the street, making it a stressful position. Chaucer was frequently robbed of both his money and the King’s (some sources say he was robbed four times in three days!) and he was eventually ‘retired’. In 1398, Chaucer was sued for his debts, resulting in him petitioning the new King Henry for money via poetry (‘The Complaint to his Purse’ (1398-1399)). The poem must have worked since the King granted Chaucer a respectable annuity. Despite this new wealth, Chaucer moved to a house on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, since creditors could not pursue him on church grounds.

Death

Chaucer died in 1400, the year after the ascension of King Henry to the throne. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, as this was his last place of residence. His tomb was dubbed the 'Poet’s Corner', starting a tradition of burying poets and erecting memorials to poets in Westminster Abbey.

After Chaucer’s death, his efforts to climb the social ladder paid off for multiple generations. Chaucer’s son, Thomas, became one of the richest men to live in London, and Chaucer’s great-great-grandson was named heir apparent to the throne of England!

Chaucer is often credited as the ‘first English author’, in that he wrote in English at a time when it was considered a language of the lower classes. The majority of the upper classes in Chaucer’s time spoke Latin and French and tended to prefer their poetry in these languages.

Geoffrey Chaucer: major literary works

Now we will discuss Chaucer's works.

The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400)

The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400) are a series of connected poems contained in an early version of the frame narrative.

A frame narrative is a type of literary technique which contains a story within a story. Often, one story is 'framed' by an introductory narrative which sets the stage and introduces the context of the second contained story.

This frame narrative was influenced by Italian literature, particularly Boccacio’s The Decameron (1349-1351), which Chaucer drew heavy inspiration from for his own poetry. Unlike Boccacio's wealthier characters, Chaucer’s pilgrims are from a range of middle-class professions, such as Pardoners, Summoners, Squires and Men of Law.

There’s no definitive proof of the order in which each character's tale goes, however evidence and logic suggest that Chaucer structured the tales to allow characters to take jabs and argue with each other. For example, a tale from the Miller about a cuckolded carpenter prompts a tale from the Reeve, a former carpenter, to tell a tale about a cuckolded miller (who also gets beaten up after his daughter is 'deflowered'). Similarly, the Wife of Bath takes a jab at friars in the opening of her tale, so it would make sense that the Friar responds to this jab in his own tale directly afterwards.

Chaucer, appearing as a pilgrim, also tells his own tale, but it is so uninteresting it is interrupted by the other characters!

The Canterbury Tales remained unfinished: Chaucer originally planned for three tales per pilgrim! There are also many pilgrims who appear in the prologue that never end up telling any tales.

The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400): themes

Let's take a look at the main themes in The Canterbury Tales.

Class and money

The pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales come from varying backgrounds and have a range of socioeconomic circumstances. Chaucer’s portrayal of the interactions between the pilgrims is intended as a reflection of his own observations of the class struggle in his time. Chaucer lived in the wake of the Black Death, which killed a third of Europe’s population, and decimated the lower classes.

As a result, the surviving labourers of Chaucer’s time found themselves in an advantageous position: since there was a shortage of labour, they could start charging more for their services and did not have to seek out work!

The Black Death was a plague epidemic that occurred across Europe and parts of Africa from 1346-1353. It is estimated to have killed between 75-200 million people.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Black Death, StudySmarter

Fig 1 - The plague epidemic in medieval times is known as The Black Death.

Various characters in The Canterbury Tales enjoy this new economic advantage. For example, the Miller displays dissatisfaction with his occupation and shows an ambition to better himself, something that would have been impossible before the Black Death. Chaucer also lived through the 1381 Peasants Revolt, which Socialist scholars studied as a marker of the end of serfdom in England. This event was the subject of many of Chaucer's peers' poetry. For example, John Gower parodied it in ‘Vox Clamantis’ (1370s). Chaucer's opinion on the revolt is unclear, likely because he was writing for the nobility, but he did parody Gower's poem in ‘The Nun’s Priest Tale.’

Serfdom was a class status that many peasants belonged to during medieval times. It was a form of indentured servitude, usually in the effort to pay off a debt, which involved peasants working in the lands of a noble to whom they owed money. Serfdom was characterised by a lack of rights over freedom of movement, freedom from degrading treatment and freedom to marry.

The corruption of the Church

The pilgrims are all religious, hence their journey to Canterbury. However, as most of the tales reveal, many of the pilgrims claim to be Christian but are far from virtuous. Chaucer was writing in the wake of the Black Death, which was so devastating that many had lost faith in the Catholic Church’s authority since it was seen as emblematic of the wealthy and corrupt. Chaucer expresses his frustration with the Church by portraying various religious pilgrims, such as the Pardoner, the Summoner and the Prioress. For example, the Pardoner is written as a morally corrupt character, who collects ‘indulgences’ on behalf of the Church in exchange for pardoning people’s sins (hence the name).

Indulgences are pre-written pardons for particular sins. Those who purchase pardons will usually also donate money to the Church via a pardoner.

However, the Pardoner reveals that he keeps the money he makes from these indulgences instead of giving it to the church. Whilst this behaviour is in itself quite immoral, for Chaucer’s audience this would have greater moral implications. Since the Pardoner’s customer’s money never reached the Church, they wouldn’t be seen as fully repenting for their sins. Therefore, the Pardoner essentially condemns many people to hell in exchange for money!

Dream visions: ‘The Book of the Duchess’ (1368), ‘The House of Fame’ (1374-1385) and ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (1380–90)

A dream vision is a poetic device in which the poem's narrator has a dream. During this dream, information or knowledge is revealed to the narrator symbolically.

‘The Book of the Duchess’ is one of Chaucer’s earliest poems and is widely thought (with only minor dissenters) to be an elegy to the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first wife.

‘The House of Fame’ (1374-1385) is a dream vision composed entirely of octosyllabic couplets. It concerns the narrator's dreams of famous figures and their deeds, symbolically represented by a temple that showcases various myths and legends in its decor. The poem is thought to be unfinished, however, some critics think that Chaucer intentionally left the poem open-ended.

Octosyllabic means that a line in a poem has eight syllables.

‘Fame’ here can also mean ‘rumour’ in medieval poetry!

'The House of Fame' contained the earliest known English usage of the terms 'galaxy' and 'milky way'!

‘The Parliament of Fowls’ is a 700-line poem in which Chaucer’s narrator is guided by Scipio Africanus the Elder, a Roman emperor, through celestial spheres to the temple of Venus, where he has various visions.

'The Parliament of Fowls' introduced the rhyme royal stanza to English poetry, which became popular during the Romantic period. It is also the first ever mention of Valentine's day in its modern context!

The rhyme royal stanza is a type of stanza that consists of seven lines and a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC. It is usually used in conjunction with iambic pentameter.

Dream vision themes

Let's explore the themes in the three poems.

Authorship

The dream vision can be considered a genre particularly suited to, and even generated by, the attempt to locate an authoritative perspective or interpretation with which the author may associate himself- Jacqueline T. Miller, The Chaucer Review, vol. 17(2)

As a literary form, dream visions typically need an authority or a guide by which the reader can trace the narrator's experiences in their dream. The author's function within the dream vision was to explain the dreamer's experience, and, more importantly, the significance of the dream to the dreamer. Therefore, the author/narrator is arguably the most important character of the dream vision. Chaucer's dream visions also raise questions of authorship in that he is constantly reworking and adapting older stories to incorporate his own narrative. For example, Chaucer often features characters and stories from the works of Ovid, Virgil and Boethius to add symbolic meaning to his dream visions.

Dreams and symbology

Dreams occupied a significant cultural space in medieval times. Many medieval thinkers distinguished between dreams that manifested as religious visions, which were treated with more seriousness, and dreams that manifested out of our own wants and desires, which were dismissed as meaningless. Therefore, dreams that were seen as more religious were given a sense of divine sanction. This means that Chaucer could use his dream visions to impart important moral messages. What those messages are is up for debate: Chaucer's use of symbology is rich and detailed, and especially in poems such as 'House of Fame' it is up to the reader to determine the exact meaning of the poem.

Troilus and Criseyde (1382-1386)

Troilus and Criseyde (1382-1386) is often credited as ‘the first English novel’ due to its exploration of its character's internal worlds and the text's linear plot. It is a long poem and looks very different from our own conception of the modern novel. Set during the Trojan War, it covers the tragic love story of Troilus and Criseyde. Troilus is a recognisable character from Ancient Greek literature, being the youngest brother of Paris, and lover of Helen of Troy. His romance with Criseyde is not ever mentioned in the Greek legend - this aspect of his story did not appear in the original account of the Trojan War but was popularised by Benoît de Sainte-Maure in the 'Roman de Troie' (1155-1160).

Troilus and Criseyde (1382-1386): themes

Now we will look at the themes in Troilus and Criseyde.

Gender

Being a love story, Troilus and Criseyde examines the interpersonal relationships and dynamics between men and women. Criseyde is portrayed as the archetypal romantic heroine and has been the polarising subject of many feminist essays since she ends up betraying Troilus and marrying another warrior at the end of the poem, an act that critics either praise or condemn. Some interpret Troilus as indecisive and weak, therefore deserving of Criseyde's abandonment. Others argue that Troilus was a loyal devotee to an unloving and deceitful Criseyde, who took advantage of his love for her.

Fortune and predestination

Despite being written by Chaucer, a Christian, the characters of Troilus and Criseyde occupy a pagan world of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses and are ultimately at the mercy of the fates. Whilst neither characters are subject to a prophecy, their romance is still doomed as Troy is fated to eventually fall to the Greeks, and the reader is constantly reminded that each action taken by the characters is shaped by divine fortune.

There is an added layer to the sense of inevitability in the poem. Chaucer's audience likely knew of the entire story of Troilus and Criseyde before he even penned it, since it was the subject of many other medieval French poets. Therefore, Chaucer places his own audience in the same position as the Greek Gods that he features in his poem: helplessly watching the future unfold in front of them.

Geoffrey Chaucer: English literature

Chaucer’s influence has extended far beyond his own time period. To many, his decision to write in English, along with his original and compelling tales, has established him as the ‘father of English literature.’ Alongside this, he has inspired other great English writers such as William Shakespeare, whose play Troilus and Cressida (1609), for example, directly takes inspiration from Chaucer’s own telling of the tale. Chaucer’s impact on culture can also be derived from various nods to The Canterbury Tales in book titles such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400) - Key takeaways

  • Chaucer was born between 1340-1345. He died in 1400.
  • Chaucer married the daughter of the French Knight Sir Paon de Roet, allowing him to ascend into the aristocracy.
  • Chaucer was a civil servant and a poet, writing mostly for the court. Much of his political power was derived from an important friendship with John of Gaunt, whose son would later become Henry IV.
  • Chaucer started writing The Canterbury Tales in 1386, however, he never finished it.
  • Chaucer's other famous works include his dream vision poetry ('The Book of the Duchess', 'The House of Fame', 'The Parliament of Fowls').

Frequently Asked Questions about Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer is a medieval author famous for writing works such as Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales. Whilst he was an author, he was also a civil servant, serving under Richard II and Henry IV.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote poetry, as was custom at the time for courtly writers. He also wrote in the English vernacular, a highly unusual choice for poets of his time. 

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first known poets to write in English instead of French or Latin. His works inspired many other great English authors and poets. 

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the late medieval period, between 1340-1400. 

Final Geoffrey Chaucer Quiz

Question

When was Chaucer born?

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Answer

Chaucer was born between the years of 1340-1345.

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Who was Chaucer's influential friend, brother-in-law who was also the father of the eventual King of England?

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John of Gaunt

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When did Chaucer die and where was he buried?

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Chacuer died in 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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What are three famous dream visions written by Chaucer?

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The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls.

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What famous poem did Chaucer write that later influenced a play by William Shakespeare?

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'Troilus and Criseyde' (1382-1386)

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What two major historical events did Chaucer live through that influenced his writings on class?

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The Peasants Revolt of 1381, and the Black Death

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Who did Chaucer marry in order to ascend into the aristocratic class?

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The daughter of the French Knight Sir Paon de Roet.

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The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400) remains unfinished, but how many tales did Chaucer originally plan for each pilgrim?

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Three tales per pilgrim.

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What Italian poet heavily influenced Chaucer?

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Giovanni Boccacio

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Which tale from The Canterbury Tales (1375-1400) parodied a poem concerning the peasant's revolt?

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'The Nun's Tale'

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Which famous holiday did Chaucer mention in ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (1380–90)?

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Valentines Day

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What is The Canterbury Tales about?

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The Canterbury Tales tells the story of 30 pilgrims travelling to Canterbury.

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Why is The Canterbury Tales important?

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The Canterbury Tales is important because it is the first major work of literature written in English.

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Is The Canterbury Tales hard to read?

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The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, which is very different to the English of today.

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What is the meaning of The Canterbury Tales?

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The Canterbury Tales was written to tell stories from a range of medieval society.

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Why was The Canterbury Tales banned?

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What kind of story is The Canterbury Tales?

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The Canterbury Tales is known as a frame narrative.

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How many pilgrims made the journey to Canterbury?

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There were 30 pilgrims including Chaucer who made the journey to Canterbury

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Whose tale was told first in The Canterbury Tales?

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The first tale to be told in The Canterbury Tales is 'The Knight's Tale'.

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Who acts as host for the pilgrimage?

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Harry Bailly acts as host for the pilgrimage.

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Why were the pilgrims travelling to Canterbury?

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The pilgrims were travelling to Canterbury to visit the grave of Thomas Beckett.

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