Who Is Geoffrey Chaucer?

Contemporary biographers suggest Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1340-1343. This timeframe is based on testimony he delivered at a recorded legal proceeding (a dispute between two families over the right to display a certain coat of arms in 1386). At that time Chaucer claimed to be “forty years old and more.” He was once a soldier who fought in the Hundred Years War, particularly during King Edward III’s siege of the French city of Rheims.


(Pictured above: A drawing of Chaucer from the famous Ellesmere Manuscript, a text of The Canterbury Tales dating back to the early 15th century – the second oldest and most complete manuscript of the text. It was clearly commissioned by a very wealthy patron, and the text passed through the hands of English gentry before  it came to the Ellesmere family. The Ellesmere text is currently owned by the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, CA.)

We are the fortunate beneficiaries of more information about Chaucer than most other 13th and 14th century individuals due to Chaucer’s work in the civil service. Chaucer was born to a family that arose from peasantry and eventually entered the halls of nobility. His great-grandfather was Andrew de Dynyngton, taverner who migrated from a small village to the larger town of Ipswich in East Anglia, before finally settling in London. Chaucer’s grandfather, Robert, was apprenticed to a man named John le Chaucer (“Chaucer” like “Taverner” was an occupational name). A “chaucier” in French was a maker of shoes. At any rate, John le Chaucer was killed in a brawl and he named Robert as a beneficiary in his will. Robert took his patron’s name as a sign of respect. In turn, Robert’s son, John, was a successful vintner and wine importer for the crown. He served the king’s wine cellar. John and his young family survived the Great Plague of 1348-1349 which killed over a quarter of England’s population. Many of his relatives died in the plague and they bequeathed their estates to John who became a wealthy man. The Chaucers moved to Thames Street in London and lived not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Geoffrey Chaucer grew up in the milieu of the royal house, working as a page before serving the king as a soldier and a bureaucrat, and finally as a diplomat earning a salary for life under King Edward III, as well as John of Gaunt. Chaucer married a woman named Philippa.

Chaucer became a supporter of the somewhat radical religious reformer, John Wycliffe. With the security of his employment, Chaucer wrote his first major poem The Book of the Duchess in 1374 and he dedicated it to John of Gaunt’s late wife. He also translated the popular Romance of the Rose. However, it wasn’t until his employment turned away from external military and diplomatic relations and to internal auditing that Chaucer found the time and security to write freely. He was given a flat to live in, where he wrote The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and Troilus and Criseyde. Like his earlier The Book of the Duchess, the former two read like French dream-like poetry, which owes a debt of gratitude to Dante, as well.

Troilus and Criseyde is Chaucer’s longest recorded poem. It is based on Giovanni Bocaccio’s Filostrato. The story follows the tragic love affair between Prince Troilus of Troy and the courtly lady, Criseyde, who eventually leaves him. Chaucer also devised a translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

Apparently, Chaucer may have forcibly abducted/raped a young woman (the medieval term was raptus). He was charged with the crime but never convicted, and it appears that he paid approximately half his yearly salary to the woman in question. Chaucer called several prominent businessmen and bureaucrats to his defense in the case, a testament to how well-connected Chaucer was.

After the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, in which tradesmen and farmers stormed the cit of London while looting and attacking certain noblemen, Chaucer left the city for the country as part of an effort to maintain a lower profile.

In 1387, his wife Philippa died while Chaucer was working on The Legend of Good Women, a collection of short stories about good women allegedly to placate Queen Anne of Bohemia (the first wife of Richard II) and make amends for his treatment of Criseyde in her betrayal of Troilus in his earlier work. He also embarked on The Canterbury Tales, which owes a debt of gratitude to Bocaccio’s Decameron, however much of Chaucer’s tales are entirely new works that do not rely on French and Italian styles that had once so enthralled Chaucer. He continually worked and re-worked the tales over the next thirteen years of his life, while also pausing to write both prose and poetry (including at least one scientific treatise).

He later returned to government work under the employment of King Richard II managing procurements and funding for building projects and salaries for workers. However, twice in the same week he was beaten and robbed while carrying his payroll. At his age it must have been considerably distressing. Thus, amidst popular unrest, he resigned his position after only two years. Following his resignation, Chaucer appears to have retired to Greenwich, living off his pensions and annuities. Toward the end of his life, Chaucer’s literary works were emerging as a source of national pride in England. One of his last writings was “A Complaint to his Purse” -a humorous praise of Henry Bolingbroke who deposed King Richard, and the work also requests a reinstatement of Chaucer’s pension. The pension was promptly granted.

A 19th century engraving of Geoffrey Chaucer by an unknown artist

During the last year of Chaucer’s life he lived at Westminster Abbey in a room overlooking the garden (it was not unusual for the church and monasteries to handle the enfeebled and elderly in need). Chaucer died in 1400 around the age of sixty. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. Prior to the burial of Chaucer, Westminster Abbey was typically reserved exclusively for royalty (dating back to Edward the Confessor in 1066).

There is a wonderful website called “Mapping Chaucer” that is an excellent resource for all things Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales: https://mediakron.bc.edu/mappingchaucer/home

Another top notch resource is: https://chaucermetapage.org/

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