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Geoffrey Chaucer

…I think some of Chaucer belongs to his time and that much of
that time is dead, extinct, and never to be made alive again.
What was alive in it, lives through him…_
–John Masefield
Geoffrey Chaucer?s world was the Europe of the fourteenth
century. It was neither rich or poor, happy nor sad. Rather, it
was the intermingling of these, a mixture of splendor and
poverty, displaying both worldly desire and spiritual purity.
Chaucer?s travels through it, mostly on ?the King?s business,_ or
civil service, shaped his writing, offering the readers of today
a brief glimpse into the world in which he lived.
Chaucer lived from approximately AD 1340 to 1400. The world in
which he lived was not one of peace or stability. Born the son
of a London vintner, he remained a Londoner for most of the rest
of his life, leaving the city only on ?the King?s business_.
The city of London was thus Chaucer?s environment for most of
his life. Aside from brief visits into other countries or areas
of England, he remained in the city, and it?s affects on his
writing was immense.
London of that time was not the London of today. It was a
walled city, guarded against invasion, but long enough time had
passed since such a threat had approached that the defenses had
loosened. Houses perched upon the walls, and Chaucer in fact,
lived for a time in a house built over Aldgate, (one of the gates
of the city).
London was a city less than three-quarters of a square mile in
size: It ran east and west along the Thames less than one and a
half miles, and extended northwards less than half a mile. Over
20,000 people were packed into this small area; the diversity of
the inhabitants was overwhelming. Londoners ranged from wealthy
to impoverished, from small to large, from shoemaker to
blacksmith to minstrel to priest. The city was thus fairly
close. Stone building mingled with tile, wood, and thatch.
While the major streets were fairly wide, small shops and stands
often spread out into the road, effectively narrowing it by up to
half it?s width. London Bridge (the only bridge in the city) was
home to a multitude of homes and shops, perched on top of the
span to conserve space.
Waste was disposed of simply. It was emptied out the windows
into the alley or street and slaughtering was done in he streets
as well, with scraps being tossed underfoot. Hogs were often
used to keep the streets clean, but were assisted by wild dogs
and scavenger birds. Open sewers ran through the streets and into
the Thames.
Most of the rest of Chaucer?s life was open at the courts of the
king of England. Here a startling change was apparent. The
filth of the streets disappeared, to be replaced by the splendor
so often associated with royalty.
The royal court of England was home to many in Chaucer?s time.
Courtiers, pages, knights, nobles, princes, and of course the
King and Queen. Chaucer rose through the ranks of the king?s
men, experiencing all aspects of court life. He was a page,
squire, court-bard, counselor and finally courtier to various
Many kings rose an fell in his lifetime. Chaucer began his life
in the king?s service in the reign of Edward III, and performed
his service a long while. He was important enough to Edward that
he was personally ransomed after being captured by the French in
the war between Edward and Charles, an honor usually reserved for
nobles. By 1378 Edward III had died, and Chaucer was the man of
Richard II. The country was caught up in a political battle
between the nobles of Gloucester and Lancaster. The actions of
these two nobles sent Chaucer reeling , his world constantly
changing about him.
The only stable item in Chaucer?s world was religion. The
institution of religion, the church, was quite prominent and
visible. Cathedrals dotted the cities of the world, and even the
smallest town had a church.
The glory of the Church may even have outshone that of the royal
court. Cathedrals were brilliant with magnificent carvings,
statues of precious metals murals, holy artifacts, and many other
gleaming treasures. Even the smallest church was home to some
splendor. The glory of the church, and the power it put forth
over the population made it a major political power of the time.
Chaucer was born in the early 1340?s. Very little is known
about the first stage of his life. However, two items are fairly
certain. It appears that Chaucer was the son of a London vintner
and relatively strong evidence supports that he attended one of
three grammar-schools: either St.Paul?s, St. Mary-le-Bow?s or St.
Aside from this slim bit of information details of Chaucer?s
early life are few. The next reliable bit of information places
him at around the age of fourteen, a page in the household of the
wife of Prince Lionel, the second son of Edward III. He held
this position for some time.
Chaucer?s first appearance into the king?s business appeared in
October of 1360, when he carried letters from Calais to England
during peace negotiations there. For this service he held the
official title of clerk of the king attached to the person of
Prince Lionel.
In this way, Chaucer began his life of service to his king. In
1368, Chaucer was awarded a royal reward for a long and valued
service to his job. His actual duties during this period were
apparently fairly hazy. He served as a sort of jack of all
trades. The only thing we know about Chaucer?s life between 1358
and 1367 is that he was imprisoned in France, during the hundred
years war, and was ransomed in March of 1360, for a rather large
sum. In this time Chaucer also married Philippa Roet, lady in
waiting to the Queen. She bore at least two children, Thomas and
?Lyte Lowys,_ a child who was delighted in arithmetic.
Between 1368 and 1387, Chaucer undertook nearly a dozen
diplomatic missions to Flanders, France, and Italy. Most were
important, many were so secret that they were not mentioned in
the histories of the time at all. In 1381, Chaucer was sent to
deal with marriage negotiations between Richard II and the
daughter of the French King. While Chaucer was not on diplomatic
missions, he was performing his duties in the position for which
he is best known, the Kings Custom Service. From 1374 to 1386,
he was the comptroller of London. When he was removed from the
post in 1386 he was instead granted the title ?Knight of the
Shire_, an important Parliament post, and later was placed as the
Clerk of the King?s works at Westminster, the Tower, and other
royal property in South England. Chaucer?s final post in the
King?s service was that of the keeper of the small royal forest
of North Pertherton. He held this post twice, from 1390 to 1391,
and from 1397 to 1398.
In 1399, he settled in Westminster. On Christmas Eve he leased,
for fifty-three years, the garden of the monks of Westminster, to
live in. However, he did not live long to enjoy his retirement.
Geoffrey Chaucer died in October 25, 1400.
In a time when literacy was a luxury affordable only by the very
wealthy and powerful, Chaucer?s writings stand out as unique.
The main language of literature of the time was Latin. Literacy
and fluency in Latin were taught as early as literacy in English.
In fact, many people could read Latin yet had treat difficulty
figuring out the simplest English sentences.
What little literature was not written in Latin was written in
French. Latin and French poetry was widely recognized as being
the only real literature of any worth. This of course, makes
Chaucer?s works even more unusual. Unlike most of the other
writers of the time, Chaucer wrote his works in English. It was
read in English to the Royal Court upon completion.
Chaucer?s writing career was not completely original nor free of
influences. His first works borrowed heavily form French and
Latin poems, and it was only later that some of his works became
more original. For example, Chaucer?s first recorded poem (the
Book of the Duchess) the opening lines are simply translations of
the openings of Froissart?s Paradys d?Amour. While this is the
most obvious use of the French poem, other nstances reminiscent
of the work appear throughout Chaucer?s poem. In the first part
of Chaucer?s career as a writer, it can be seen that his writing
is restricted by a style made popular at the time by French
As in the prominent French poetry of the time, the Book
demonstrates a love for detail and description. Chaucer never
quite escapes the French influences in his writing but escapes
some areas of French style.
It was not until Chaucer began writing his most well-known work
The Canterbury Tales, that he did this. Until this work, his
writings were simply translations of old myths, or barely
original poems written to fit the standards of French style.
Chaucer wished to write something more ambitious, original, and
memorable. The Canterbury Tales was the result. Chaucer?s style
of writing in The Canterbury Tales is quite different from his
earlier works. Hidden within the stories of the Pilgrims are
sermons and scoldings about the world he knew, and the evils he
saw within it. The Canterbury Tales have no single style
throughout, to which each shorter story is fit. Rather, Chaucer
gives each section of the poem it?s own style. In fact, the
over-ruling style of Chaucer?s last work seems to be no style at
all, each work is written to fit the subject.
Chaucer worked throughout his life to break away from the molds
which society had set about poetry in general, and his work in
specific. Instead of forging beautifully crafted lies and tales
about society, his poetry held up a mirror to reflect reality as
he saw it.
Chaucer?s growth out of the mold imposed by tradition is
illustrated by the steady departure of it in his writings. And
his final works, escaping at last form the accepted style, set
the stage for the beginnings of English literature.
Chute, Marchette. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York:E.P.
Dutton & Co, 1946.


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