Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the reign of Edward III, lived through that of Richard II, and died the year after Henry IV ascended the throne. His life thus covers a period of glaring social contrasts and rapid political change. Chaucer was born in London most likely in the early 1340s, though the precise date and location remain unknown. His father and grandfather were both London vintners and several previous generations had been merchants in Ipswich. His family name is derived from the French chasseur, meaning “shoemaker”. We know practically nothing about his childhood, but it is evident from the wide and varied scholarship with characteristics his writings that he must have enjoyed the advantages of a liberal education. At seventeen he received a court appointment as a page to the wife of the Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s son. In 1359 he was with the English army in France, where he was taken prisoner, but was soon ransomed for 16 pounds. Sometime after this, he married and became valet of the king’s chamber. From that time onward he was for many years closely connected with the court. He was often entrusted with diplomatic missions on the continent, two of them being to Italy. He was thus brought into direct touch with Italian culture in the days of early Renaissance and may even have met Petrarch and Boccaccio, to the former of whom he makes pointed reference in the prologue to the Clerkes tale. During these years he received many marks of royal favour, and for a time sat in Parliament as the knight of the shire of Kent. But after the overthrow of the Lancastrian party and the banishment of his special patron, John of Gaunt, he fell on evil days, and with approaching age felt the actual pinch of poverty on the accession of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, things mended with him, and the grant of a royal pension at once placed him beyond want and anxiety. At Christmas, 1399 he took a long lease of a house at Westminster which suggests that he still looked forward to many years of life. But he died before the next year was out and was buried in the part of Westminster Abbey which afterwards came to be known as Poet’s Corner.
Society and government in England in the early 14th century were challenged by the Great Famine and the Black Death. The economic and demographic crisis created a sudden surplus of land, undermining the ability of landowners to exert their feudal rights and causing a collapse in incomes from rented lands. Wages soared, as employers competed for a scarce workforce. The legislation was introduced to limit wages and to prevent the consumption of luxury goods by the lower classes, with prosecutions coming to take up most of the legal system’s energy and time. A poll tax was introduced in 1377 that spread the costs of the war in France more widely across the whole population. The tensions spilt over into violence in the summer of 1381 in the form of the Peasants’ Revolt; violent retribution followed, with as many as 7,000 alleged rebels executed. A new class of gentry emerged as a result of these changes, renting land from the major nobility to farm out at a profit. The legal system continued to expand during the 14th century, dealing with an ever-wider set of complex problems. By the time that Richard II was deposed in 1399, the power of the major noble magnates had grown considerably; powerful rulers such as Henry IV would contain them, but during the minority of Henry VI they controlled the country. The magnates depended upon their income from rent and trade to allow them to maintain groups of paid, armed retainers, often sporting controversial livery, and buy support amongst the wider gentry; this system has been dubbed bastard feudalism. Their influence was exerted both through the House of Lords at Parliament and through the king’s council. The gentry and wealthier townsmen exercised increasing influence through the House of Commons, opposing raising taxes to pay for the French wars. By the 1430s and 1440s, the English government was in major financial difficulties, leading to the crisis of 1450 and a popular revolt under the leadership of Jack Cade Law and order deteriorated, and the crown was unable to intervene in the factional fighting between different nobles and their followers. The resulting Wars of the Roses saw a savage escalation of violence between the noble leaderships of both sides: captured enemies were executed and family lands attainted. By the time that Henry VII took the throne in 1485, England’s governmental and social structures had been substantially weakened, with whole noble lines extinguished.
Chaucer’s Work in General
It is usual and convenient to divide Chaucer’s literary career into three periods, which are called his French, his Italian, and his English period, respectively. His genius was nourished, to begin with, on the French poetry and romance which formed the favourite reading of the court and cultivated society during the time of his youth. Naturally, he followed the fashion and his early work was done on French models. Thus, besides translating proportions at least of the popular Roman de la Rose, he wrote among other quite imitative things, an allegory on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s wife which he called The Bake of Duchesse (1369) and which is wholly in the manner of the reigning French school. Then almost certainly as a direct of result of his visits to Italy, French influences disappear and Italian influences take their place. In the second period (1370-1384), Chaucer is the disciple of the great Italian masters, for The House Of Fame clearly owes much to Dante, while Troylus and Cryseyde by far his longest single poem, is based upon and in part translated from, Boccaccio’s Filostatrato. To the close of this period, the unfinished Legende of Good Women may also be referred. Finally, he ceases to be Italian as he had ceased to be French and becomes English. This does not mean that he no longer draws freely upon French and Italian material. He continues to do this to the end. It simply means instead of being merely imitative, he becomes independent, relying upon himself entirely even for the use to which he puts his borrowed themes. To this last period belong, together with sundry minor poems, The Canterbury Tales in which we have Chaucer’s most famous and characteristic work.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales (Middle English: Tales of Caunterbury) is a collection of 24 stories that runs to over
17,000 lines written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. In 1386, Chaucer became Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace and, in 1389, Clerk of the King’s work. It was during these years that Chaucer began working on his most famous text, The Canterbury Tales. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return. All this is explained in the prologue after which Chaucer proceeds to introduce his fellow Pilgrims. According to the program each of the pilgrims had to tell four stories, the poet’s plan was a very large one. He lived to complete a small portion only, for the work as we have it is merely a fragment of 24 tales. Yet even as it stands its interest is wonderfully varied for Chaucer is guided by a sense of dramatic propriety and so the tales differ in character as widely as do those by whom they are told. It should be noted that in no case are the tales original in theme. Chaucer takes his raw material from many different sources, and the range of his reading and his quick eye for anything and everything which would serve his purpose wherever he found it, is shown by the fact that he lays all sorts of literature, learned and popular, Latin, French and Italian under contribution. But whatever he borrows he makes entirely his own and remains one of the most delightful of our storytellers in verse.
The name was given to a group of 15th‐ and 16th‐century Scottish poets who wrote under the influence of Geoffrey Chaucer (or of his follower John Lydgate), often using his seven‐line rhyme royal stanza. The most important poets of this group were Robert Henryson, who’s Testament of Cresseid, continues and reinterprets the story of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and William Dunbar, who’s Lament for the Makaris briefly, pays tribute to Chaucer. Other figures are Gavin Douglas, Sir David Lyndsay, and (if his authorship of The Kingis Quair by accepted) King James I of Scotland. The term, unfortunately, diverts attention from the genuinely original character of these poets and is thus not much favoured in Scotland.
With Chaucer, English Literature made a brilliant beginning, but it was only a beginning and after his death, we enter upon a long barren period in history. In trying to explain the unproductiveness of the fifteenth century we have of course to remember that there can never in any circumstances be great books unless men are born who are capable of writing them and that the dearth of great books for a hundred and more after Chaucer may therefore simply be the result of a dearth of literary talent. It is perhaps noteworthy that the fifteenth century was not in England an age of great men in any field of activity. But we also must recognize that even when talent exists it depends upon favourable conditions for its expression, and in the fifteenth-century conditions were the reverse of favourable. The country was distracted by political conflicts mainly due to the Wars of Roses, during which many great nobles were killed. The low state of education has also to be emphasized. Mental activity in the universities was wasted in endless and profitless controversies over the dry abstractions of mediaeval philosophy.