Chaucer ellesmere

Chaucer as a pilgrim, from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Portrait of Chaucer from the 17th century.
Occupation Author, poet, philosopher, bureaucratdiplomat

Geoffrey Chaucer (?1343 - 25 October 1400), known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, alchemist and astronomer, composing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Among his many works, which include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde, he is best loved today for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is a crucial figure in developing the legitimacy of the vernacular, Middle English, at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin.


Geoffrey Chaucer The Founder of Our Language11:47

Geoffrey Chaucer The Founder of Our Language

Chaucer was born in London sometime around 1343, though the precise date and location of his birth remain unknown. His father and grandfather were both London vintners; several previous generations had been merchants in Ipswich. (His family name derives from the French chausseur, meaning "shoemaker".[1]) In 1324 John Chaucer, Geoffrey's father, was kidnapped by an aunt in the hope of marrying the twelve-year-old boy to her daughter in an attempt to keep property in Ipswich. The aunt was imprisoned and the £250 fine levied suggests that the family was financially secure - bourgeois, if not elite.[2] John Chaucer married Agnes Copton, who, in 1349, inherited properties including 24 shops in London from her uncle, Hamo de Copton, who is describedTemplate:By whom as the "moneyer" at the Tower of London.

Geoffrey Chaucer - Illustration from Cassell's History of England - Century Edition - published circa 1902

Geoffrey Chaucher, from Cassell's History of England (1902). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While records concerning the lives of his contemporary poets, William Langland and the Pearl Poet are practically non-existent, since Chaucer was a public servant, his official life is very well documented, with nearly five hundred written items testifying to his career. The first of the "Chaucer Life Records" appears in 1357, in the household accounts of Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster, when he became the noblewoman's page through his father's connections.[3] He also worked as a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant, as well as working for the king, collecting and inventorying scrap metal.

In 1359, in the early stages of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III invaded France, and Chaucer travelled with Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, Elizabeth's husband, as part of the English army. In 1360, he was captured during the siege of Rheims. Edward paid £16 for his ransom,[4] a considerable sum, and Chaucer was released.

After this, Chaucer's life is uncertain, but he seems to have travelled in France, Spain, and Flanders, possibly as a messenger and perhaps even going on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Around 1366, Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet. She was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, who later (ca. 1396) became the third wife of John of Gaunt. It is uncertain how many children Chaucer and Philippa had, but three or four are most commonly cited. His son, Thomas Chaucer, had an illustrious career, as chief butler to four kings, envoy to France, and Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas' daughter, Alice, married the Duke of Suffolk. Thomas' great-grandson (Geoffrey's great-great-grandson), John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was the heir to the throne designated by Richard III before he was deposed. Geoffrey's other children probably included Elizabeth Chaucy, a nun at Barking Abbey.[5][6] Agnes, an attendant at Henry IV's coronation; and another son, Lewis Chaucer.

Chaucer probably studied law in the Inner Temple (an Inn of Court) at this time. He became a member of the royal court of Edward III as a varlet de chambre, yeoman, or esquire on 20 June 1367, a position which could entail a wide variety of tasks. His wife also received a pension for court employment. He travelled abroad many times, at least some of them in his role as a valet. In 1368, he may have attended the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp to Violante Visconti, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti, in Milan. Two other literary stars of the era were in attendance: Jean Froissart and Petrarch. Around this time, Chaucer is believed to have written The Book of the Duchess in honour of Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of John of Gaunt, who died in 1369.

Chaucer travelled to Picardy the next year as part of a military expedition, and visited Genoa and Florence in 1373. Numerous scholars such as Skeat, Boitani, and Rowland[7] suggested that, on this Italian trip, he came into contact with Petrarch or Boccaccio. They introduced him to medieval Italian poetry, the forms and stories of which he would use later.[8] The purposes of a voyage in 1377 are mysterious, as details within the historical record conflict. Later documents suggest it was a mission, along with Jean Froissart, to arrange a marriage between the future King Richard II and a French princess, thereby ending the Hundred Years War. If this was the purpose of their trip, they seem to have been unsuccessful, as no wedding occurred.

In 1378, Richard II sent Chaucer as an envoy (secret dispatch) to the Visconti and to Sir John Hawkwood, English condottiere (mercenary leader) in Milan. It has been speculated that it was Hawkwood on whom Chaucer based his character the Knight in the Canterbury Tales, for a description matches that of a fourteenth-century condottiere.

File:Geoffrey Chaucer.jpeg

A possible indication that his career as a writer was appreciated came when Edward III granted Chaucer "a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life" for some unspecified task. This was an unusual grant, but given on a day of celebration, St George's Day, 1374, when artistic endeavours were traditionally rewarded, it is assumed to have been another early poetic work. It is not known which, if any, of Chaucer's extant works prompted the reward, but the suggestion of him as poet to a king places him as a precursor to later poets laureate. Chaucer continued to collect the liquid stipend until Richard II came to power, after which it was converted to a monetary grant on 18 April 1378.

Chaucer obtained the very substantial job of Comptroller of the Customs for the port of London, which he began on 8 June 1374.[9] He must have been suited for the role as he continued in it for twelve years, a long time in such a post at that time. His life goes undocumented for much of the next ten years, but it is believed that he wrote (or began) most of his famous works during this period. He was mentioned in law papers of 4 May 1380, involved in the raptus of Cecilia Chaumpaigne. What raptus means is unclear, but the incident seems to have been resolved quickly and did not leave a stain on Chaucer's reputation. It is not known if Chaucer was in the city of London at the time of the Peasants' Revolt, but if he was, he would have seen its leaders pass almost directly under his apartment window at Aldgate.[10]

While still working as comptroller, Chaucer appears to have moved to Kent, being appointed as one of the commissioners of peace for Kent, at a time when French invasion was a possibility. He is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Tales in the early 1380s. He also became a Member of Parliament for Kent in 1386. There is no further reference after this date to Philippa, Chaucer's wife, and she is presumed to have died in 1387. He survived the political upheavals caused by the Lords Appellants, despite the fact that Chaucer knew some of the men executed over the affair quite well.

On 12 July 1389, Chaucer was appointed the clerk of the king's work, a sort of foreman organising most of the king's building projects.[11] No major works were begun during his tenure, but he did conduct repairs on Westminster Palace and St. George's Chapel, Windsor, continue building the wharf at the Tower of London, and build the stands for a tournament held in 1390. It may have been a difficult job, but it paid well: two shillings a day, more than three times his salary as a comptroller. Chaucer was also appointed keeper of the lodge at the King’s park in Feckenham Forest, which was a largely honorary appointment.[12]

In September 1390, records say that he was robbed, and possibly injured, while conducting the business, and it was shortly after, on 17 June 1391, that he stopped working in this capacity. Almost immediately, on 22 June, he began as deputy forester in the royal forest of North Petherton, Somerset. This was no sinecure, with maintenance an important part of the job, although there were many opportunities to derive profit. He was granted an annual pension of twenty pounds by Richard II in 1394.[13] It is believed that Chaucer stopped work on the Canterbury Tales sometime towards the end of this decade.

Not long after the overthrow of his patron, Richard II, in 1399, Chaucer's name fades from the historical record. The last few records of his life show his pension renewed by the new king, and his taking of a lease on a residence within the close of Westminster Abbey on 24 December 1399.[14] Although Henry IV renewed the grants assigned to Chaucer by Richard, Chaucer's own The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse hints that the grants might not have been paid. The last mention of Chaucer is on 5 June 1400, when some monies owed to him were paid.

He is believed to have died of unknown causes on 25 October 1400, but there is no firm evidence for this date, as it comes from the engraving on his tomb, erected more than one hundred years after his death. There is some speculation—most recently in Terry Jones' book Who Murdered Chaucer? : A Medieval Mystery—that he was murdered by enemies of Richard II or even on the orders of his successor Henry IV, but the case is entirely circumstantial. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in London, as was his right owing to his status as a tenant of the Abbey's close. In 1556, his remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, making Chaucer the first writer interred in the area now known as Poets' Corner.


Chaucer's first major work, The Book of the Duchess, was an elegy for Blanche of Lancaster (who died in 1369). It is possible that this work was commissioned by her husband John of Gaunt, as he granted Chaucer a £10 annuity on 13 June 1374. This would seem to place the writing of The Book of the Duchess between the years 1369 and 1374. Two other early works by Chaucer were Anelida and Arcite and The House of Fame. Chaucer wrote many of his major works in a prolific period when he held the job of customs comptroller for London (1374 to 1386). His Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde all date from this time. Also it is believed that he started work on The Canterbury Tales in the early 1380s. Chaucer is best known as the writer of The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury; these tales would help to shape English literature.

The Canterbury Tales contrasts with other literature of the period in the naturalism of its narrative, the variety of stories the pilgrims tell and the varied characters who are engaged in the pilgrimage. Many of the stories narrated by the pilgrims seem to fit their individual characters and social standing, although some of the stories seem ill-fitting to their narrators, perhaps as a result of the incomplete state of the work. Chaucer drew on real life for his cast of pilgrims: the innkeeper shares the name of a contemporary keeper of an inn in Southwark, and real-life identities for the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law and the Student have been suggested. The many jobs that Chaucer held in medieval society—page, soldier, messenger, valet, bureaucrat, foreman and administrator—probably exposed him to many of the types of people he depicted in the Tales. He was able to shape their speech and satirise their manners in what was to become popular literature among people of the same types.

Chaucer's works are sometimes grouped into first a French period, then an Italian period and finally an English period, with Chaucer being influenced by those countries' literatures in turn. Certainly Troilus and Criseyde is a middle period work with its reliance on the forms of Italian poetry, little known in England at the time, but to which Chaucer was probably exposed during his frequent trips abroad on court business. In addition, its use of a classical subject and its elaborate, courtly language sets it apart as one of his most complete and well-formed works. In Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer draws heavily on his source, Boccaccio, and on the late Latin philosopher Boethius. However, it is The Canterbury Tales, wherein he focuses on English subjects, with bawdy jokes and respected figures often being undercut with humour, that has cemented his reputation.

Chaucer also translated such important works as Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris (extended by Jean de Meun). However, while many scholars maintain that Chaucer did indeed translate part of the text of Roman de la Rose as The Romaunt of the Rose, others claim that this has been effectively disproved. Many of his other works were very loose translations of, or simply based on, works from continental Europe. It is in this role that Chaucer receives some of his earliest critical praise. Eustache Deschamps wrote a ballade on the great translator and called himself a "nettle in Chaucer's garden of poetry". In 1385 Thomas Usk made glowing mention of Chaucer, and John Gower, Chaucer's main poetic rival of the time, also lauded him. This reference was later edited out of Gower's Confessio Amantis and it has been suggested by some that this was because of ill feeling between them, but it is likely due simply to stylistic concerns.

One other significant work of Chaucer's is his Treatise on the Astrolabe, possibly for his own son, that describes the form and use of that instrument in detail. Although much of the text may have come from other sources, the treatise indicates that Chaucer was versed in science in addition to his literary talents. Another scientific work discovered in 1952, Equatorie of the Planetis, has similar language and handwriting compared to some considered to be Chaucer's and it continues many of the ideas from the Astrolabe. Furthermore, it contains an example of early European encryption.[15] The attribution of this work to Chaucer is still uncertain.

Critical introductionEdit

by Thomas Humphry Ward

English poetry, distinguished on the one hand from the ‘rym dogerel’ of the romancers, which is not poetry, and on the other from Beowulf, which is poetry but not, in the ordinary sense, English, begins in the reign of Edward III, with Chaucer and his lesser contemporaries. In them we see at a glance that the step has been taken which separates the rhymer from the poet, the "maker," who has something new to say, and has found the art of saying it beautifully. The poet, says an Elizabethan critic, "can express the true and lively of everything which is set before him, and which he taketh in hand to describe" — words that exactly meet Chaucer’s case, and draw the line between himself and his predecessors. In the half century before Chaucer there had indeed been isolated poems — a lyric or two of real freshness and beauty — but not till that time of heightened national life, of wider culture, and of more harmonised society into which he was born, was there a sufficiency either of ideas or of accessible poetical material on English ground to shape and furnish an imaginative development like his. To him first among the writers of English it was given to catch and to express "the true and lively" throughout a broad life of human range and feeling. Before him there had been story-telling, there had been stray notes of poetry: but in Chaucer England brought forth her first poet, as modern times count poetry; her first skilled and conscious workman, who, coming in upon the stores of natural fact open to all alike, was enabled to communicate to whatever he touched that colour, that force, that distinction, in virtue of which common life and common feelings turn to poetry. And having found her poet, she did not fail to recognise him. Very soon, as Gower’s ‘Venus’ says of him in the often-quoted lines,

‘Of ditës and of songës glad
The whiche he for my sakë made
The land fulfilled is over al.’

The themes of his books run glibly from the tongue of his own ‘Sergeaunt of Lawe,’ like matter familiar to all. His literary contemporaries felt and confessed in him the Poet’s mysterious gifts, and his height above themselves. The best English poetical opinion, in the mouth of Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Dryden, has continuously acknowledged him; while the more our later world turns back to him, and learns to read and understand him, the stronger grows his claim in even our critical modern eyes, not only to the antiquarian charm of the story-teller and the ‘translateur,’ but to the influence and honours of the poet.

Chaucer then is for us the first English poet, and as such has all the interest that attaches to a great original figure. But he makes no parade of his originality; on the contrary, like all mediæval writers, he translates, and borrows, and is anxious to reveal his authorities, lest he should be thought to be palming off mere frivolous inventions of his own. Other men’s work is to him an ever open storehouse to be freely used, now for foundation, now for ornament. Hence with a writer like Chaucer the examination of his sources is at once more possible and more fruitful than is the case with a later poet. We know that every writer is in a great measure the creation of the books he has read and the times he has lived in; but with a modern writer, or one like Virgil, it is impossible to disengage these influences with any real success. Not so with Chaucer and the poets of a young, unformed civilisation; they bear on their foreheads the traces of their origin. They reflect simply and readily the influence of the moment; happiness or sorrow, success or failure, this book or that—each has its instant effect on their work, so that it becomes a matter of real importance for him who would appreciate an early poet to know what he read and how he lived.

Accordingly, from very early times, from the time of Stowe, Speght, and the Thynnes, those who have cared for Chaucer have shown a curiosity about the influences that formed him. A century ago, Tyrwhitt did as much as one man could to set the study of these influences on a sound footing, and in our own day the labours of the Chaucer Society and of Professor Ten Brink and other Germans have furnished us with a nearly complete apparatus for conducting it. With infinite industry, such as is shown in Mr. Furnivall’s Six-Text edition of the poet, they have given us what materials exist for settling Chaucer’s text; they have separated, on evidence both internal and derived from the circumstances of his life and times, his genuine work from the spurious pieces that tradition had thrust upon him; and they have skilfully tracked his poems to their sources. On ground so prepared we may tread firmly, and even in a short sketch like the present, which attempts no more than to present results that are generally agreed upon, it is possible to speak with some approach to certainty.

Chaucer was a great reader, and in more than one well-known passage he tells us what he felt for books.

‘On bookës for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence,’

he says, in the prologue to the Legende of Goode Women. Books are to him the soil from which knowledge springs:—

‘For out of oldë feldës, as men saith,
Cometh al this newë corn from yeer to yere,
And out of oldë bokës, in good faith,
Cometh al this newë science that men lere.’

He reads "the longë day ful fast"; and it is no vain fancy which would discover in the book-loving "Clerke of Oxenford" some traits that the poet has transferred from his own character.

He knew Latin, French, and Italian, and was familiar with the best that had been written in those languages. His Latin studies included Boethius, whose book De Consolatione Philosophiae he translated into English; Macrobius, as far as the Somnium Scipionis is concerned; Livy and others of the great Roman prose writers, and many of the poets, "Ovide, Lucan, Stace," with Virgil and probably Claudian. But it must be remembered that he read Latin not as we read it, but as we read a modern foreign language, rapidly rather than exactly, with more desire to come by a rough and ready way to the sense than to be clear about the structure of the sentences. He cared very little either for grammar or for prosody; he talks of Ænas and Anchses, and some would believe that he makes of Lollius, the correspondent of Horace, "myn auctour Lollius," a historian of the Trojan war.[16] In the same way, of the historical study of Latin literature, of the conscious attempt to realise the life of classical times, there is no trace in Chaucer. His favourite Latin writers were unquestionably Boethius and Ovid, as they were the favourites of the middle ages in general; Boethius, of whom a recent editor has counted nineteen imitations before the end of the fifteenth century, and Ovid, whose Ars Amandi and Metamorphoses were the storehouse of the mediæval love-poet and story-teller.

Nothing, on the other hand, shows more clearly the limitations of Chaucer’s genius than his attitude towards Virgil. No "long study and great love" had made him search the volume of that "honour and light of other poets" as Dante was made to search it; on the contrary, he prefers the romantic exaggerations of Statius, and it is for the rhetorical Lucan that he reserves the epithet of "the gret poete." Among the Good Women of the Legende comes Dido, it is true, and her story is taken more from the Æneid than from the Heroides. But what a change has passed over the tale since the religious Roman, charged with the sense of destiny, called away his hero from the embraces of the love-lorn queen to the work of founding the empire of the world!

  ‘The fresshë lady, of the citee queene,
Stood in the temple, in her estat royalle,
So richëly, and eke so faire withalle,
So yong, so lusty, with her eighen glade,
That yf the God that heven and erthë made
Wolde han a love, for beautë and goodnesse,
And womanhode, and trouthe, and semlynesse,
Whom sholde he loven but this lady swete?
Ther nys no woman to him half so mete.’

Such is Dido; while the grave Trojan, for whom in Virgil the gods are contending, becomes in Chaucer’s hands a mere vulgar deceiver, a "grete gentilman" indeed to outward seeming, that has the gifts of pleasing, and can

‘Wel doon al his obeÿsaunce
To hire at festeÿngës and at daunce,’

but hollow at heart, false in his oaths and in his tears; in a word, a cool, unscrupulous seeker of bonnes fortunes. And again, at the central point of all, what has become of the ‘conscious heaven’ and ‘pronuba Juno’?

  ‘For ther hath Æneas yknyled soo,
And tolde her al his herte and al his woo;
And sworn so depë to hire to be trewe
For wele or woo, and chaungë for noo newe,
And as a fals lover so wel kan pleyne
That sely Dido rewed on his peyne,
And toke him for housbonde, and was his wife
For evermor, whil that hem lastë lyfe.’

Chaucer, in fact, is purely mediæval in his rendering of antiquity, and among the ancient writers he turns with the greatest sympathy to those in whom the romantic element is strongest. The spirit of the Renascence is stirring within him, but it is not in his relation to the ancients that we detect it; it is rather in his ‘humanism’—in his openness of mind, in his fresh delight in visible and sensible things, in his sense of the variety of human character and motive, and of the pity of human fate.

French poetry plays a far larger part in Chaucer’s work than do the classical writers. Whether or not his name implies that he was partly French in blood, he certainly spent some time in France, first as a prisoner of war (A.D. 1359) and afterwards on the king’s business. He began life as a page in the household of the Duke of Clarence, where French was no doubt spoken as much as English; and his attention was early drawn to that trouvère-literature which in the days of his youth formed the chief reading of the court circles.

In point of fact, all his writings up to 1372 (the date of his first visit to Italy) are either translations or imitations, more or less close, of French poems; and even after he had returned, impressed with the ineffaceable charm of Italy, he still looked to France for much of his material. One of his earliest and one of his very latest poems, the A.B.C. and the Compleynte of Venus, are translations from De Deguileville and Gransson; the Boke of the Duchesse derives much from a poem of Machault; the Ballads and Roundels, of which a few remain to us, probably out of very many, are French in form; and it is in a poem of Eustache Deschamps that we find what appears to be the first model of the ten-syllabled rhyming couplet which Chaucer made his own, and which has since become one of the most distinctive forms of English verse. The comic stories in the Canterbury Tales are mostly based on the fabliaux, a department of literature which has always seemed to belong pre-eminently to the countrymen of la Fontaine.

But among French poems, that which made the deepest mark on him was the Roman de la Rose, the first and principal specimen of what M. Sandras, Chaucer’s French critic, has happily called the psychological epic. This poem, as is well known, was begun by Guillaume de Lorris under Louis IX, and continued at immense length by Jean de Meung forty years later, under Philip the Fair; the former poet’s work being an elaborate and thrice-refined love allegory, and that of the latter being a fierce satire against all that the Middle Age was accustomed to reverence—women, nobles, priests. The two parts of the poem, however, agreed in form; that is, they substituted for the heroic romances of the preceding centuries those allegorical abstractions, those "indirect crook’d ways," with which scholasticism had infected European thought. L’Amant, in his search for the Rose of Beauty, Déduit, Papelardie, l’Oiseuse, Faux-Semblant, are, as a French critic puts it, "members of the family of Entities and Quiddities that were born to the realist doctors." The vogue of the Roman was immense, and Chaucer, that "grant translateur," translated it, as the Prologue to the Legende bears witness, and as Lydgate also affirms in his catalogue of the master’s works.

The most recent critics, with Mr. Bradshaw and Professor Ten Brink at their head, have indeed denied Chaucer’s claim to that version of the Romaunt which till lately has always passed for his; and in obedience to their opinion we have separated from the body of Chaucer’s acknowledged writings the passage of that poem that we are able to quote; but the question is one which, as far as Chaucer’s debt to French literature is concerned, is of little importance. Translate the Romaunt he certainly did, and the impression it made upon him was deep and lasting. On the one hand it furnished him with a whole allegorical mythology, as well as with his stock landscape, his stock device of the Dream, and even (we may at least imagine) confirmed him in the choice of the flowing eight-syllabled couplet for the Hous of Fame; and on the other, it furnished him with those weapons of satire which he used with such effect in the Pardoner’s prologue and elsewhere.

Twenty years ago a vigorous attempt was made in M. Sandras’ Étude sur Chaucer to show that the English poet, though a man of original genius, was in point of matter, from first to last, an imitator of the trouvères. A more rational criticism has since then put the case in a truer light, and shown not only the bold independence of his models which Chaucer exhibited from the beginning, but the fact that it was only in early life that he got his chief models from France. The great event of his life was undoubtedly his first Italian journey, during which, if we are to trust an old tradition that has never been disproved, he met Petrarch at Padua.

From this time onward he wrote with a firmer pen and with a closer adherence to truth, and the foreign examples that he henceforth followed were not French but Italian, not Guillaume de Lorris and Machault, but Dante, Boccaccio, and, to a certain extent, Petrarch. He does not, it is true, altogether depart from his old methods; the dream of the Romaunt reappears in the Parlement and in the Hous of Fame; the May morning and the daisy introduce the Legende. But there is no comparison between the workmanship of the two periods, and whereas that of the first is loose and disjointed, that of the second — except perhaps in the case of the Hous of Fame, which is more than half comic, a sort of travesty of the Divina Commedia, and therefore not to be judged by strict rules — that of the second is compact, well-ordered, and guided by the true artist’s mastery over his materials.

Italy in fact gave to Chaucer at precisely the right moment just that stimulus and that external standard which he required for the true completion of his work; and rendered him in its own way the same service that the study of Greek rendered to Europe in general a century later. His debt to Italy was both direct and indirect. From Dante, whose genius was so wholly unlike his own, he took a great number of isolated passages (the Troylus and the Parlement especially are full of reminiscences of the great Florentine); and he took also, as we said, the hint for the Hous of Fame, that most notable burlesque poem, where the serious meaning lies so near to the humorous outside. From Petrarch,

‘Whos rethorykë sweete
Enlumined al Itaille of poetrye,’

he took, besides minor borrowings, the "Clerkes Tale", almost exactly translating it from the laureate’s Latin rendering of Boccaccio’s story. From Boccaccio, whom by a strange irony of literary fortune he seems not to have known by name, he freely translated his two longest and, in a sense, greatest poems, Troylus and Criseyde and "The Knightes Tale"; and it is possible, though by no means certain, that the framework of the Canterbury Tales was suggested by the Decameron.

But more important than this direct debt was what he indirectly owed to these great writers. He first learnt from them the art of constructing a story, that art which, as he afterwards developed it, has made of him unquestionably our chief narrative poet. It was from them—for, strange to say, he had read Virgil without learning it—that he first learnt the necessity of self-criticism; of that severe process, so foreign to the mediæval mind, which deliberates, sifts, tests, rejects, and alters, before a work is sent out into the world.

So much for Chaucer’s books and their effect on him. Were there however no more in him than what his books put into him, he would be of no greater importance to us than Gower or Lydgate. It takes more than learning, more than a gift for selection and adaptation, to make a poet. Those intimate verses, which we have quoted from the Legende, themselves proceed to tell us of a passion which is stronger in him than the passion for reading. "I reverence my books," he says,

  ‘So hertëly that there is gamë noon
That fro my bokës maketh me to goon
But yt be seldom on the holy day,
Save certeynly whan that the moneth of May
Is comen, and that I here the foulës synge,
And that the flourës gynnen for to springe,
Farewel my boke, and my devocioun!’

What he here calls May, with its birds and flowers, really means Nature as a whole; not external nature only, but the world with its rich variety of sights and sounds and situations, especially its most varied product, Man. As to his feeling for external nature, indeed, it might be called limited; it is only to the birds and the flowers, the ‘schowres swote’ and the other genial gifts of spring that it seems to extend. Not only is there no trace in him of that "religion of Nature" which is so powerful a factor in modern poetry, but there is nothing that in the least resembles those elaborate backgrounds in which the genius of Spenser takes such delight.

Nay, in the poet to whom we owe the immortal group of pilgrims, there is little even of that minute local observation of places and their features, that memory for the grave-covered plains of Arles or the shattered banks of the Adige, which made a part of Dante’s genius, and gives such vividness to the phantom landscape of his poem. While the Inferno has been mapped out for centuries, it is only to-day, after long discussion, that our scholars are able to make a map of the pilgrimage to Canterbury. But although the distinctive sense of landscape is for the most part absent, how keen is the poet’s eye for colour, for effective detail! Who but Chaucer, while avoiding altogether the inventory style of the ordinary romancer, a style on which he himself poured ridicule in his Sir Thopas, could have brought such a glittering barbaric presence before us as this of the King of Inde?—

  ‘The gret Emetrius, the King of Inde,
Upon a stedë bay trapped in stele
Covered with cloth of gold diapred wele,
Came riding like the god of armës, Mars.
His cote-armure was of a cloth of Tars
Couchëd with perlës white and round and grete;
His sadel was of brent gold new ybete;
His mantelet upon his shouldre hanging
Bret-ful of rubies red as fyr sparkling;
His crispë heer like ringës was yronne,
And that was yelwe and glitered as the sonne …
And as a leon he his looking cast.’

Or such a sketch in black and white as this first glimpse of Creseide?—

  ‘Among these other folkë was Creseide
In widowes habit blak: but nathëles
Right as our firstë lettre is now an A
In beautee first so stood she makëles;[17]
Her goodly looking gladed all the prees.[18]
Nas never seen thing to be praised derre,
Nor under cloudë blak so bright a sterre,
As was Creseide, they sayden everichone
That her behelden in her blakkë wede.’

Or such an intense and concentrated piece of colour as his Chanticlere?—

  ‘His comb was redder than the fyn coral
And batayled as it were a castel wal;
His bil was blak and as the geet[19] it schon;
Like asure were his leggës and his ton;[20] 5
His naylës whiter than the lily flour,
And like the burnischt gold was his colour.’

As for the world of man and human character, it is here admittedly that Chaucer’s triumphs have been greatest. In this respect his fame is so well established that there is little need to dwell on qualities with which he makes his first and deepest impression, and which moreover will be abundantly illustrated by the extracts which follow. In his treatment of external nature, there are limits beyond which Chaucer cannot go—the limits of his time, of a more certain, a more easily satisfied age than ours. But in his sympathy with man, with human action and human feeling, his range is very great and his handling infinitely varied. The popular opinion of centuries has fixed upon the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as his masterpiece, because it is there that this dramatic power of his, this realistic gift which can grasp at will almost any phase of character or incident, noble or trivial, passionate or grotesque, finds its fullest scope.

Other fourteenth-century writers can tell a story (though none indeed so well as he), can be tragic, pathetic, amusing; but none else of that day can bring the actual world of men and women before us with the movement of a Florentine procession-picture and with a colour and a truth of detail that anticipate the great Dutch masters of painting. To pass from the framework of other mediæval collections, even from the villa and gardens of the Decameron, to Chaucer’s group of pilgrims, is to pass from convention to reality. To reality; for, as Dryden says in that Preface which shows how high he stood above the critical level of his age, in the "Prologue" "we have our forefathers and great-grandames all before us, as they were in Chaucer’s days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of Monks and Friars, and Canons, and Lady Abbesses, and Nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered."

It is not enough for a poet to observe, however: what he observes must first be transformed by feeling before it can become matter for poetry. What distinguishes Chaucer is that he not only observes truly and feels keenly, but that he keeps his feeling fresh and unspoiled by his knowledge of books and of affairs. As the times went he was really learned, and he passed a varied active existence in the Court, in the London custom-house, and in foreign missions on the king’s service. From his life his poetry only gained; the Knight, the Friar, the Shipman—nay, even young Troylus and Constance and "Emilye the schene,"— are what they are by virtue of his experience of actual human beings. But it is even more notable that the study of books, in an age when study so often led to pedantry, left him as free and human as it found him; and that his joy in other men’s poetry, and his wish to reproduce it for his countrymen, still gave way to the desire to render it more beautiful and more true.

Translator and imitator as he was, what strikes us in his work from the very earliest date is his independence of his models. Even when he wrote the Boke of the Duchesse, at a time when he was a mere novice in literature, he could rise and did rise above his material, so that one enthusiastic Chaucerian, in his desire to repel M. Sandras’ charge of "imitation servile," flatly refuses to believe that Chaucer ever read Machault’s Dit at all. This indeed is too patriotic criticism; but it is certainly true to say that Chaucer worked up Machault and Ovid in this poem, as he worked up his French and Italian materials generally, so as thoroughly to subordinate them to his own purpose.

The most striking instance of this free treatment of his model is, of course, his rendering of the Troylus and the "Knightes Tale" from Boccaccio. The story of Palamon and Arcite possessed a great fascination for Chaucer, and it seems certain that he wrote it twice, in two quite distinct forms. With the earlier, in stanzas, which has perished except for what he has embodied in one or two other writings, we are not concerned; but it is open to any one to compare the "Knightes Tale", in the final shape in which Chaucer’s mature hand has left it to us, with the immense romantic epic of Boccaccio. Tyrwhitt’s blunt common-sense long since pointed out the ethical inferiority of the Teseide; and we may point in the same way to the judgment that Chaucer has shown in stripping off episodes, in retrenching Boccaccio’s mythological exuberance, in avoiding frigid personifications, and in heightening the interest of the end by the touches which he adds in his magnificent description of the Temple of Mars. In the Troylus the difference between the two poets is even deeper, for it is a difference as much moral as artistic. Compare those young Florentine worldlings — for such they are — Troilo and Pandaro, with the boyish, single-minded, enthusiastic, pitiable Troylus, and his older friend who stands by to check his passionate excesses with a proverb and again a proverb, like Sancho by the side of the Knight of la Mancha; worldly experience controlling romance! Compare Griseida, that light-o’-love, that heroine of the Decameron, with the fragile, tender-hearted and remorseful Cryseyde, who yields through sheer weakness to the pleading and the sorrow of ‘this sodeyn Diomede’ as she has yielded to her Trojan lover:

  ‘Ne me ne list this sely womman chyde
Ferther than the storië wol devyse;
Hire name, allas! is published so wyde,
That for hire gilte it ought ynough suffise;
And if I mighte excuse her any wyse,
For she so sory was for her untrouthe,
Ywis I wolde excuse hire yet for routhe.’

"Routhe" indeed, pity for inevitable sorrow, is a note of Chaucer’s mind which for ever distinguishes him from Boccaccio, and marks him out as the true forerunner of the poet of Hamlet and Othello. To him the world and human character are no simple things, nor are actions to be judged as the fruit of one motive alone. Who can wonder if, possessed with this new sense of the complexity of human destiny, he should sometimes have failed to render it with the clearness of an artist dealing with a simpler theme? Those critics are probably right who pronounce the Troylus inferior to the Filostrato in point of literary form; but their criticism, to be complete, should add that it is far more interesting in the history of poetry.

The first of a poet’s gifts is to feel; the second is to express. Chaucer possesses this second gift as abundantly as he possesses the first. The point which contemporary and later poets almost invariably note in him is, not his power of telling a story, not his tragedy, his humour, or his character-drawing, but his language. To Lydgate he is

‘The noble rethor poete of Britayne;’

his great achievement has been

‘Out of our tongue to avoyde all rudënesse,
And to reform it with colours of swetenesse.’

To Occleve he was "the floure of eloquence,"

‘The firstë fynder of our faire langage.’

Dunbar, at the end of the fifteenth century, speaks of his "fresh enamel’d termës celical"; and long afterwards Spenser gave him the immortal epithet of :‘the well of English undefiled.’

Chaucer, like Dante, had the rare fortune of coming in upon an unformed language, and, so far as one man could, of forming it. He grew up among the last generation in England that used French as an official tongue. It was in 1362, when Chaucer was just entering manhood, that the session of the House of Commons was first opened with an English speech. Hence it is easy to see the hollowness of the charge, so often brought against him since Verstegan first made it, that "he was a great mingler of English with French," that "he corrupted our language with French words." Tyrwhitt long since refuted this charge; and if it wanted further refutation, we might point to Piers Plowman’s Vision, the work of a poet of the people, written for the people in their own speech, but containing a greater proportion of French words than Chaucer’s writings contain.

And yet Chaucer is a courtier, a Londoner, perhaps partly French by extraction; above all, he is a translator, and some influence from the language he is translating passes into his own verse. The truth is that in his hands for the first time our language appears as it is; in structure of course purely Germanic, but rich, assimilative, bold in its borrowings, adopting and adapting at its pleasure any words of any language that might come in its way. How Chaucer used this noble instrument is not to be demonstrated; it is to be felt. De sensibus non est disputandum; it is vain to discuss matters of personal experience, to point to qualities in a poet’s verse which must really be judged by the individual ear. Otherwise we might dwell on Chaucer’s use of his metre, which varies in such subtle response to his subject and his mood; or on his skill in rhyming, though, as he says, ‘ryme in Englisch hath such skarsetë’; or on the ‘linked sweetness’ of the love-passages in the Troylus; or on the grandeur of his tragic descriptions, where the sound gives so solemn an echo to the sense:—

  ‘First on the wal was peynted a forest,
In which ther dwelleth neither man ne best,
With knotty knarry bareyne treës olde
Of stubbës scharpe and hidous to byholde
In which ther ran a swymbel in a swough.’

These qualities come into view at a first reading of Chaucer; and why should the pleasure to be gained from them be kept for the few? "How few there are who can read Chaucer so as to understand him perfectly," says Dryden, apologising for "translating" him. In our day, with the wider spread of historical study, with the numerous helps to old English that the care of scholars has produced for us, with the purification that Chaucer’s text has undergone, this saying of Dryden’s ought not to be true. It ought to be not only possible, but easy, for an educated reader to learn the few essentials of Chaucerian grammar, and for an ear at all trained to poetry to tune itself to the unfamiliar harmonies. For those who make the attempt the reward is certain. They will gain the knowledge, not only of the great poet and creative genius that these pages have endeavoured to sketch, but of the master who uses our language with a power, a freedom, a variety, a rhythmic beauty, that, in five centuries, not ten of his successors have been found able to rival.[21]



File:Chaucer Hoccleve.gif

Chaucer wrote in continental accentual-syllabic verse, a style which had developed since around the 12th century as an alternative to the traditional Anglo-Saxon accentual verse.[22] Chaucer is known for metrical innovation, inventing rhyme royal, and he was one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, a decasyllabic cousin to the iambic pentameter, in his work, with only a few anonymous short works using it before him.[23] The arrangement of these five-stress lines into rhyming couplets, first seen in his The Legend of Good Women, was used in much of his later work and became one of the standard poetic forms in English. His early influence as a satirist is also important, with the common humorous device, the funny accent of a regional dialect, apparently making its first appearance in The Reeve's Tale.

The poetry of Chaucer, along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardise the London Dialect of the Middle English language from a combination of the Kentish and Midlands dialects.[24] This is probably overstated; the influence of the court, chancery and bureaucracy—of which Chaucer was a part—remains a more probable influence on the development of Standard English. Modern English is somewhat distanced from the language of Chaucer's poems owing to the effect of the Great Vowel Shift some time after his death. This change in the pronunciation of English, still not fully understood, makes the reading of Chaucer difficult for the modern audience, though it is thought by some Template:Who that the modern Scottish accent is closely related to the sound of Middle English. The status of the final -e in Chaucer's verse is uncertain: it seems likely that during the period of Chaucer's writing the final -e was dropping out of colloquial English and that its use was somewhat irregular. Chaucer's versification suggests that the final -e is sometimes to be vocalised, and sometimes to be silent; however, this remains a point on which there is disagreement. When it is vocalised, most scholars pronounce it as a schwa. Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary is recognisable to the modern reader. Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time but Chaucer, with his ear for common speech, is the earliest manuscript source. Acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of the many English words first attested in Chaucer.


Widespread knowledge of Chaucer's works is attested by the many poets who imitated or responded to his writing. John Lydgate was one of the earliest poets to write continuations of Chaucer's unfinished Tales while Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid completes the story of Cressida left unfinished in his Troilus and Criseyde. Many of the manuscripts of Chaucer's works contain material from these poets and later appreciations by the romantic era poets were shaped by their failure to distinguish the later "additions" from original Chaucer. Seventeenth and eighteenth century writers, such as John Dryden, admired Chaucer for his stories, but not for his rhythm and rhyme, as few critics could then read Middle English and the text had been butchered by printers, leaving a somewhat unadmirable mess.[25] It was not until the late 19th century that the official Chaucerian canon, accepted today, was decided upon, largely as a result of Walter William Skeat's work. One hundred and fifty years after his death, The Canterbury Tales was selected by William Caxton to be one of the first books to be printed in England.


Chaucer is sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition and the "father" of modern English literature. His achievement for the language can be seen as part of a general historical trend towards the creation of a vernacular literature after the example of Dante in many parts of Europe. A parallel trend in Chaucer's own lifetime was underway in Scotland through the work of his slightly earlier contemporary, John Barbour, and was likely to have been even more general, as is evidenced by the example of the Pearl Poet in the north of England.

Although Chaucer's language is much closer to modern English than the text of Beowulf, it differs enough that most publications modernise his idiom. Following is a sample from the prologue of "The Summoner's Tale" that compares Chaucer's text to a modern translation:

Original Text Wikipedia Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell
In spirit ones by a visioun; In spirit, once by a vision;
And as an angel ladde hym up and doun, And as an angel led him up and down,
To shewen hym the peynes that the were, To show him the pains that were there,
In al the place saugh he nat a frere; In all the place he saw not a friar;
Of oother folk he saugh ynowe in wo. Of other folk he saw enough in woe.
Unto this angel spak the frere tho: Unto this angel spoke the friar thus:
Now, sire, quod he, han freres swich a grace "Now sir", said he, "Have friars such a grace
That noon of hem shal come to this place? That none of them come to this place?"
Yis, quod this aungel, many a millioun! "Yes", said the angel, "many a million!"
And unto sathanas he ladde hym doun. And unto Satan the angel led him down.
--And now hath sathanas,--seith he,--a tayl "And now Satan has", he said, "a tail,
Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl. Broader than a galleon's sail.
Hold up thy tayl, thou sathanas!--quod he; Hold up your tail, Satan!" said he.
--shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se "Show forth your arse, and let the friar see
Where is the nest of freres in this place!-- Where the nest of friars is in this place!"
And er that half a furlong wey of space, And before half a furlong of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve, Just as bees swarm out from a hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve Out of the devil's arse there were driven
Twenty thousand freres on a route, Twenty thousand friars on a rout,
And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute, And throughout hell swarmed all about,
And comen agayn as faste as they may gon, And came again as fast as they could go,
And in his ers they crepten everychon. And every one crept into his arse.
He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille. He shut his tail again and lay very still.[26]

Manuscripts and audienceEdit

The large number of surviving manuscripts of Chaucer's works is testimony to the enduring interest in his poetry prior to the arrival of the printing press. There are 83 surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (in whole or part) alone, along with sixteen of Troilus and Criseyde, including the personal copy of Henry IV.[27] Given the ravages of time, it is likely that these surviving manuscripts represent hundreds since lost. Chaucer's original audience was a courtly one, and would have included women as well as men of the upper social classes. Yet even before his death in 1400, Chaucer's audience had begun to include members of the rising literate, middle and merchant classes, which included many Lollard sympathizers who may well have been inclined to read Chaucer as one of their own, particularly in his satirical writings about friars, priests, and other church officials. In 1464, John Baron, a tenant farmer in Agmondesham, was brought before John Chadworth, the Bishop of Lincoln, on charges he was a Lollard heretic; he confessed to owning a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie" among other suspect volumes.[28]

Printed editionsEdit

Template:Unreferenced section William Caxton, the first English printer, was responsible for the first two folio editions of The Canterbury Tales which were published in 1478 and 1483.[29] Caxton's second printing, by his own account, came about because a customer complained that the printed text differed from a manuscript he knew; Caxton obligingly used the man's manuscript as his source. Both Caxton editions carry the equivalent of manuscript authority. Caxton's edition was reprinted by his successor, Wynkyn de Worde, but this edition has no independent authority.

Richard Pynson, the King's Printer under Henry VIII for about twenty years, was the first to collect and sell something that resembled an edition of the collected works of Chaucer, introducing in the process five previously printed texts that we now know are not Chaucer's. (The collection is actually three separately printed texts, or collections of texts, bound together as one volume.) There is a likely connection between Pynson's product and William Thynne's a mere six years later. Thynne had a successful career from the 1520s until his death in 1546, when he was one of the masters of the royal household. His editions of Chaucers Works in 1532 and 1542 were the first major contributions to the existence of a widely recognised Chaucerian canon. Thynne represents his edition as a book sponsored by and supportive of the king who is praised in the preface by Sir Brian Tuke. Thynne's canon brought the number of apocryphal works associated with Chaucer to a total of 28, even if that was not his intention. As with Pynson, once included in the Works, pseudepigraphic texts stayed within it, regardless of their first editor's intentions.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chaucer was printed more than any other English author, and he was the first author to have his works collected in comprehensive single-volume editions in which a Chaucer canon began to cohere. Some scholars contend that 16th-century editions of Chaucer's Works set the precedent for all other English authors in terms of presentation, prestige and success in print. These editions certainly established Chaucer's reputation, but they also began the complicated process of reconstructing and frequently inventing Chaucer's biography and the canonical list of works which were attributed to him.

Probably the most significant aspect of the growing apocrypha is that, beginning with Thynne's editions, it began to include medieval texts that made Chaucer appear as a proto-Protestant Lollard, primarily the Testament of Love and The Plowman's Tale. As "Chaucerian" works that were not considered apocryphal until the late 19th century, these medieval texts enjoyed a new life, with English Protestants carrying on the earlier Lollard project of appropriating existing texts and authors who seemed sympathetic — or malleable enough to be construed as sympathetic — to their cause. The official Chaucer of the early printed volumes of his Works was construed as a proto-Protestant as the same was done, concurrently, with William Langland and Piers Plowman. The famous Plowman's Tale did not enter Thynne's Works until the second, 1542, edition. Its entry was surely facilitated by Thynne's inclusion of Thomas Usk's Testament of Love in the first edition. The Testament of Love imitates, borrows from, and thus resembles Usk's contemporary, Chaucer. (Testament of Love also appears to borrow from Piers Plowman.) Since the Testament of Love mentions its author's part in a failed plot (book 1, chapter 6), his imprisonment, and (perhaps) a recantation of (possibly Lollard) heresy, all this was associated with Chaucer. (Usk himself was executed as a traitor in 1388.) Interestingly, John Foxe took this recantation of heresy as a defence of the true faith, calling Chaucer a "right Wiclevian" and (erroneously) identifying him as a schoolmate and close friend of John Wycliffe at Merton College, Oxford. (Thomas Speght is careful to highlight these facts in his editions and his "Life of Chaucer.") No other sources for the Testament of Love exist—there is only Thynne's construction of whatever manuscript sources he had.

John Stow (1525–1605) was an antiquarian and also a chronicler. His edition of Chaucer's Works in 1561 brought the apocrypha to more than 50 titles. More were added in the seventeenth century, and they remained as late as 1810, well after Thomas Tyrwhitt pared the canon down in his 1775 edition.[30] The compilation and printing of Chaucer's works was, from its beginning, a political enterprise, since it was intended to establish an English national identity and history that grounded and authorised the Tudor monarchy and church. What was added to Chaucer often helped represent him favourably to Protestant England.

File:Chaucer 1602.jpg

In his 1598 edition of the Works, Speght (probably taking cues from Foxe) made good use of Usk's account of his political intrigue and imprisonment in the Testament of Love to assemble a largely fictional "Life of Our Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer." Speght's "Life" presents readers with an erstwhile radical in troubled times much like their own, a proto-Protestant who eventually came around the king's views on religion. Speght states that "In the second year of Richard the second, the King tooke Geffrey Chaucer and his lands into his protection. The occasion wherof no doubt was some daunger and trouble whereinto he was fallen by favouring some rash attempt of the common people." Under the discussion of Chaucer's friends, namely John of Gaunt, Speght further explains:

Yet it seemeth that [Chaucer] was in some trouble in the daies of King Richard the second, as it may appeare in the Testament of Loue: where hee doth greatly complaine of his owne rashnesse in following the multitude, and of their hatred of him for bewraying their purpose. And in that complaint which he maketh to his empty purse, I do find a written copy, which I had of Iohn Stow (whose library hath helped many writers) wherein ten times more is adjoined, then is in print. Where he maketh great lamentation for his wrongfull imprisonment, wishing death to end his daies: which in my iudgement doth greatly accord with that in the Testament of Love. Moreover we find it thus in Record.

Later, in "The Argument" to the Testament of Love, Speght adds:

Chaucer did compile this booke as a comfort to himselfe after great griefs conceiued for some rash attempts of the commons, with whome he had ioyned, and thereby was in feare to loose the fauour of his best friends.

Speght is also the source of the famous tale of Chaucer being fined for beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street, as well as a fictitious coat of arms and family tree. Ironically—and perhaps consciously so—an introductory, apologetic letter in Speght's edition from Francis Beaumont defends the unseemly, "low", and bawdy bits in Chaucer from an elite, classicist position. Francis Thynne noted some of these inconsistencies in his Animadversions, insisting that Chaucer was not a commoner, and he objected to the friar-beating story. Yet Thynne himself underscores Chaucer's support for popular religious reform, associating Chaucer's views with his father William Thynne's attempts to include The Plowman's Tale and The Pilgrim's Tale in the 1532 and 1542 Works.

The myth of the Protestant Chaucer continues to have a lasting impact on a large body of Chaucerian scholarship. Though it is extremely rare for a modern scholar to suggest Chaucer supported a religious movement that didn't exist until more than a century after his death, the predominance of this thinking for so many centuries left it for granted that Chaucer was at least extremely hostile toward Catholicism. This assumption forms a large part of many critical approaches to Chaucer's works, including neo-Marxism.

Alongside Chaucer's Works, the most impressive literary monument of the period is John Foxe's Acts and Monuments…. As with the Chaucer editions, it was critically significant to English Protestant identity and included Chaucer in its project. Foxe's Chaucer both derived from and contributed to the printed editions of Chaucer's Works, particularly the pseudepigrapha. Jack Upland was first printed in Foxe's Acts and Monuments, and then it appeared in Speght's edition of Chaucer's Works. Speght's "Life of Chaucer" echoes Foxe's own account, which is itself dependent upon the earlier editions that added the Testament of Love and The Plowman's Tale to their pages. Like Speght's Chaucer, Foxe's Chaucer was also a shrewd (or lucky) political survivor. In his 1563 edition, Foxe "thought it not out of season … to couple … some mention of Geoffrey Chaucer" with a discussion of John Colet, a possible source for John Skelton's character Colin Clout.

Probably referring to the 1542 Act for the Advancement of True Religion, Foxe said that he "marvel[s] to consider … how the bishops, condemning and abolishing all manner of English books and treatises which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet authorise the works of Chaucer to remain still and to be occupied; who, no doubt, saw into religion as much almost as even we do now, and uttereth in his works no less, and seemeth to be a right Wicklevian, or else there never was any. And that, all his works almost, if they be thoroughly advised, will testify (albeit done in mirth, and covertly); and especially the latter end of his third book of the Testament of Love … Wherein, except a man be altogether blind, he may espy him at the full : although in the same book (as in all others he useth to do), under shadows covertly, as under a visor, he suborneth truth in such sort, as both privily she may profit the godly-minded, and yet not be espied of the crafty adversary. And therefore the bishops, belike, taking his works but for jests and toys, in condemning other books, yet permitted his books to be read."

It is significant, too, that Foxe's discussion of Chaucer leads into his history of "The Reformation of the Church of Christ in the Time of Martin Luther" when "Printing, being opened, incontinently ministered unto the church the instruments and tools of learning and knowledge; which were good books and authors, which before lay hid and unknown. The science of printing being found, immediately followed the grace of God; which stirred up good wits aptly to conceive the light of knowledge and judgment: by which light darkness began to be espied, and ignorance to be detected; truth from error, religion from superstition, to be discerned."

Foxe downplays Chaucer's bawdy and amorous writing, insisting that it all testifies to his piety. Material that is troubling is deemed metaphoric, while the more forthright satire (which Foxe prefers) is taken literally.


John Urry produced the first edition of the complete works of Chaucer in a Latin font, published posthumously in 1721. Included were several tales, according to the editors, for the first time printed, a biography of Chaucer, a glossary of old English words, and testimonials of author writers concerning Chaucer dating back to the 16th century. According to A.S.G Edwards, "This was the first collected edition of Chaucer to be printed in roman type. The life of Chaucer prefixed to the volume was the work of the Reverend John Dart, corrected and revised by Timothy Thomas. The glossary appended was also mainly compiled by Thomas. The text of Urry's edition has often been criticised by subsequent editors for its frequent conjectural emendations, mainly to make it conform to his sense of Chaucer's metre. The justice of such criticisms should not obscure his achievement. His is the first edition of Chaucer for nearly a hundred and fifty years to consult any manuscripts and is the first since that of William Thynne in 1534 to seek systematically to assemble a substantial number of manuscripts to establish his text. It is also the first edition to offer descriptions of the manuscripts of Chaucer's works, and the first to print texts of 'Gamelyn' and 'The Tale of Beryn', works ascribed to, but not by, Chaucer."


Chaucer was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, in what became known as Poets' Corner. His current tomb and monument there were constructed by poet Nicholas Brigham in 1556.[31]

Three of his poems ("The Love Unfeigned," "Balade," and "Merciles Beaute") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[32]

Early criticismEdit

The poet Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer and considered him his role model, hailed Chaucer as "the firste fyndere of our fair langage."[33] John Lydgate referred to Chaucer within his own text The Fall of Princes as the 'lodesterre…off our language'.[34] Around two centuries later, Sir Philip Sidney greatly praised Troilus and Criseyde in his own Defence of Poesie.[35]

Modern scholarshipEdit

Although Chaucer's works were admired for many years, serious scholarly work on his legacy did not begin until the nineteenth century. Scholars such as Frederick James Furnivall, who founded the Chaucer Society in 1868, pioneered the establishment of diplomatic editions of Chaucer's major texts, along with careful accounts of Chaucer's language and prosody. Walter William Skeat, who like Furnivall was closely associated with the Oxford English Dictionary, established the base text of all of Chaucer's works with his edition, published by Oxford University Press. Later editions by John H. Fisher and Larry D. Benson have offered further refinements, along with critical commentary and bibliographies.

In 1966, the Chaucer Review was founded, and has maintained its position as the preeminent journal of Chaucer studies.

Popular cultureEdit

  • Powell and Pressburger's 1944 film A Canterbury Tale opens with a re-creation of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims; the film itself takes place on the road to, and in, wartime Canterbury.
  • The plot of the detective novel Landscape with Dead Dons by Robert Robinson centres on the apparent rediscovery of The Book of the Leoun, and a passage from it (eleven lines of good Chaucerian pastiche) turn out to be the vital murder clue as well as proving that the 'rediscovered' poem is an elaborate, clever forgery by the murderer (a Chaucer scholar).
  • In Rudyard Kipling's story 'Dayspring Mishandled', a writer plans an elaborate revenge on a former friend, a Chaucer expert, who has insulted the woman he loves, by fabricating a 'mediaeval' manuscript sheet containing an alleged fragment of a lost Canterbury Tale (actually his own composition).
  • Both an asteroid and a lunar crater have been named for Chaucer.
  • Chaucer was portrayed in the movie A Knight's Tale by Paul Bettany.
  • Kafka's Soup, a literary pastiche in the form of a cookbook, contains a recipe for onion tart à la Chaucer.


The following major works are in rough chronological order but scholars still debate the dating of most of Chaucer's output and works made up from a collection of stories may have been compiled over a long period.

Major worksEdit

Short poemsEdit

File:Balade to Rosemounde.jpg
  • An ABC
  • Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn
  • The Complaint unto Pity
  • The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse
  • The Complaint of Mars
  • The Complaint of Venus
  • A Complaint to His Lady
  • The Former Age
  • Fortune
  • Gentilesse
  • Lak of Stedfastnesse
  • Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan
  • Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton
  • Proverbs
  • To Rosemounde
  • Truth
  • Womanly Noblesse

Poems of dubious authorshipEdit

  • Against Women Unconstant
  • A Balade of Complaint
  • Complaynt D'Amours
  • Merciles Beaute
  • The Equatorie of the Planets - A rough translation of a Latin work derived from an Arab work of the same title. It is a description of the construction and use of a planetary equatorium, which was used in calculating planetary orbits and positions (at the time it was believed the sun orbited the Earth). The similar Treatise on the Astrolabe, not usually doubted as Chaucer's work, in addition to Chaucer's name as a gloss to the manuscript are the main pieces of evidence for the ascription to Chaucer. However, the evidence Chaucer wrote such a work is questionable, and as such is not included in The Riverside Chaucer. If Chaucer did not compose this work, it was probably written by a contemporary.

Presumedly lost worksEdit

  • Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde, possible translation of Innocent III's De miseria conditionis humanae
  • Origenes upon the Maudeleyne
  • The Book of the Leoun - The Book of the Leon is mentioned in Chaucer's retraction. It is likely he wrote such a work; one suggestion is that the work was such a bad piece of writing it was lost, but if that had been the case, Chaucer would not have mentioned it. A likely source dictates it was probably a 'redaction of Guillaume de Machaut's 'Dit dou lyon,' a story about courtly love, a subject about which Chaucer frequently wrote.

Spurious worksEdit

Derived worksEdit

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Workes of our Antient and Lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer, Newly Printed: In this Impression you shall find these Additions: 1. His Portraiture and Progenie shewed. 2. His Life collected. 3. Arguments to euery Booke gathered. 4. Old and obscure Words explaned. 5. Authors by him cited, delcared. 6. Difficulties opened. 7. Two Bookes of his neuer before printed (edited by Thomas Speght). London: Adam Islip, for Geor. Bishop, 1598.[36]
  • The Workes of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer, Newly printed: To that which was done in the former impression, thus much is now added. 1 In the life of Chaucer many things inserted. 2 The whole worke by old copies reformed. 3 Sentences and prouerbes noted. 4 The signification of the old and obscure words prooued: also caracters shewing from what tongue or dialect they be deriued. 5 The Latine and French, not Englished by Chaucer, translated. 6 The treatise called Iacke Vpland, against friers: and Chaucers A.B.C. called La priere de nostre Dame, at this impression added (edited by Thomas Speght). London: printed by Adam Islip, 1602.[36]

See alsoEdit

Chaucer's poem "Truth"01:50

Chaucer's poem "Truth"


  • Chaucer: Life-Records, Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olsen. (1966)
  • Hopper, Vincent Foster, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Selected): An Interlinear Translation, Barron's Educational Series, 1970, ISBN 0812000390
  • Morley, Henry, A first sketch of English literature, Cassell & Co., 1883, from Harvard University
  • Skeat, W.W., The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899.
  • Speirs, John, "Chaucer the Maker", London: Faber and Faber, 1951
  • The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. Houghton-Mifflin, 1987 ISBN 0395290317
  • Ward, Adolphus W. (1907), Chaucer, Edinburgh: R. & R. Clark, Ltd 


  1. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by W.W. Skeat). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1899; Vol. I p. ix.
  2. Skeat (1899); Vol. I, pp. xi-xii.
  3. Skeat (1899); Vol. I, p. xvii.
  4. Chaucer Life Records, p. 24
  5. Power, Eileen (1988), Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, pp. 19, ISBN 0819601403,, retrieved 19 Dec. 2007 
  6. Coulton, G. G. (2006), Chaucer and His England, Kessinger Publishing, pp. 74, ISBN 9781428642478,, retrieved 19 Dec. 2007 
  7. Companion to Chaucer Studies, Rev. ed., Oxford UP, 1979
  8. Hopper, p. viii He may actually have met Petrarch, and his reading of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio provided him with subject matter as well as inspiration for later writings.
  9. Morley, Henry (1890) English Writers: an attempt towards a history of English literature. London: Cassell & Co.; Vol. V. p. 106.
  10. Saunders, Corrine J. (2006) A Concise Companion to Chaucer. Oxford: Blackwell; p. 19
  11. Morley (1890), Vol. 5, p. 245.
  12. Forest of Feckenham, John Humphreys FSA, in Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeology Society's Transactions and proceedings, Volumes 44-45 p117
  13. Ward, p. 109.
  14. Morley (1890); Vol. V, pp. 247-48.
  15. Simon Singh: The Code Book, page 27. Fourth Estate, 1999
  16. Horace to Lollius, Epp. I. 2. 1 — "Trojani belli scriptorem, maxime Lolli, /Dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste relegi." Dr. Latham supposes that Chaucer mistook the name of the person addressed for the historian, and Prof. Ten Brink suggests that he read — "Trojani belli scriptorum maxime, Lolli, Dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste te legi.’ The false quantity would be no argument against this ingenious supposition; but what is more to the point is that the context shows Horace to be writing about a third person. Besides, it is not certain that Chaucer had read Horace.
  17. without mate or peer
  18. crowd
  19. jet
  20. toes
  21. from Thomas Humphry Ward, "Critical Introduction: Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 9, 2016.
  22. C.B. McCully and J.J. Anderson, English Historical Metrics, Cambridge UP 1996, p. 97.
  23. Marchette Gaylord Chute, Geoffrey Chaucer of England E.P. Dutton 1946, p. 89.
  24. Edwin Winfield Bowen, Questions at Issue in our English Speech, NY: Broadway Publishing, 1909, p. 147
  25. "From The Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern". The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York, London: Norton, 2006. 2132-33. pg. 2132
  26. Original e-text available online at the University of Virginia website, trans. Wikipedia.
  27. Benson, Larry, The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 1118.
  28. Potter, Russell A., "Chaucer and the Authority of Language: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular in Late Medieval England", Assays VI (Carnegie-Mellon Press, 1991), p. 91.
  29. A Leaf from The Canterbury Tales. Westminster, England: William Caxton, [1478]
  30. The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer: To Which are Added an Essay on his Language and Versification, and an Introductory Discourse, Together with Notes and a Glossary by the late Thomas Tyrwhitt. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1798. 2 Volumes.
  31. Geoffrey Chaucer, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  32. Alphabetical list of authors: Brontë, Emily to Cutts, Lord. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  33. Thomas Hoccleve,The Regiment of Princes, TEAMS website, Rochester University
  34. As noted by Carolyn Collette in 'Fifteenth Century Chaucer', an essay published in the book A Companion to Chaucer ISBN 0631235906
  35. 'Chawcer undoubtedly did excellently in his Troilus and Creseid: of whome trulie I knowe not whether to mervaile more, either that hee in that mistie time could see so clearly, or that wee in this cleare age, goe so stumblingly after him.' The text can be found here
  36. 36.0 36.1 Search results = au:Thomas Speght, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Nov. 28, 2016.

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