Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of John Chaucer, a prosperous wine merchant, and Agnes de Copton. Around 1355 his fairly wealthy parents secured a position for the young Geoffrey as a page in a household of royal rank, that of Prince Lionel, the earl of Ulster, the future duke of Clarence and son of Edward III.

This provided a suitable environment to cultivate their son’s talents as he was exposed to the world of aristocracy and developed an appreciation for manners of the court. Chaucer was known for his keen observation of his surroundings. In such a setting, he would have also acquired knowledge of French and Latin, and he made his first acquaintance with his future patron, John of Gaunt.

After serving as a page Chaucer joined military service and fought in France. In 1360 he was captured but was released upon payment of ransom by Edward III. From 1374 to 1386 Chaucer was a customs controller in the port of London. It was an important post as the king’s revenue came mainly from customs duties.

Later he became a clerk of the King’s Works. In 1367 he became a yeoman in the king’s household and two years later was promoted to esquire. Chaucer married Philippa Roet in 1366, the sister of the mistress and future wife of his patron, John of Gaunt. Philippa Roet served the queen as a lady-in-waiting. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1387.

In his work for the king, Chaucer engaged in diplomatic missions to France, Italy, and Spain—centers of learning and literary production far more renowned than London at the time. It was in Italy that he met Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian novelist, whose writings he admired. Not surprisingly, continental European influences are found in his works.

Early in his career Chaucer displayed a tendency to adopt the French style. He was heavily influenced by French works such as the Roman de la Rose, an allegory about love written in eight-syllable couplets by two poets—Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. In 1369 Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess, likely for John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche, who died in the same year.

bronze statue of Geoffrey Chaucer
Bronze statue of Geoffrey Chaucer

While keeping the French influence, Chaucer began to be influenced by Italian authors such as Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio. One of his works, Troilus and Criseyde, was in fact based on Boccaccio’s Filostrato. Boccaccio provides the basis for four of Chaucer’s characters in his most famous work The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer died on October 25, 1400. His body was buried in Westminster Abbey and was later moved to Poets’ Corner at the east aisle of the south transept.

The 14th century was a golden period when the literary arts flourished in England. During this era known as the Middle Ages, literature in the English language enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. The English language became a source of pride for the English people.

The new status accorded to the language was due in no small part to Chaucer’s choice of the English language as the worthy medium of his own artistic expression. The intellectual milieu during the Middle Ages was very much characterized by philosophical concerns provided by Christianity. Christian allegory thus became a major feature of medieval literature.

Allegory is polysemous, in that multiple levels of meaning can be discerned. Sets of meanings are also intricately connected with other sets of meanings, creating a text that is significantly rich. All the meanings relate to a central theme, which is repeatedly alluded to in the text. Chaucer succeeded in marrying philosophical ruminations in a creative manner.

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400 during the aftermath of the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt. It is a collection of 24 tales recounted by different characters who are pilgrims. He adopts a powerful satirical style in writing The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer draws upon contemporary persons commonly found in medieval society, so his audience would be familiar with them.

Chaucer’s literary style was revolutionary in that he incorporated local dialects in his writing, such as in the “Miller’s Tale,” part of The Canterbury Tales. In the “Knight’s Tale,” the miller, who speaks in a drunken style, actually interrupts the protagonist. As a complex collection of stories of various characters from all social strata, male and female, The Canterbury Tales forms a valuable view of the workings of society during this volatile period in history.