Geoffrey Chaucer

Summary

Geoffrey Chaucer (London?, c. 1343 – possibly October 25, 1400) is considered the most important writer of Middle English literature. He was the creator of some of the most acclaimed works of poetry in world literature. Chaucer was not only an exceptionally gifted author and poet, but also led a busy public life as a soldier, courtier, diplomat, and official, holding a variety of public offices. During that career he was the confidant and protégé of three successive kings, Edward III (1312-1377), Richard II (1367-1400), and Henry IV (1367-1413). Yet Chaucer found the time to write thousands of verses that are still highly valued and admired by literature lovers today. In doing so, he demonstrated that the English of his day (now called Middle English) could be used in poetry just as well as French or Latin, earning him that title of “father of English literature. Although he wrote many works, he is most celebrated for his unfinished frame story The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer”s work is characterized by a wide variety of topics, genres, and styles. He illuminates the human pursuit of a meaningful existence in many different ways. In his work, he combines humor with seriousness and perspective when dealing with important philosophical questions. Chaucer is a poet of love, which he describes from lustful adultery to spiritual union with God. He offers a comprehensive view of weaknesses and follies, as well as the generosity of humanity.

The name Chaucer

The name Chaucer is an embellished form of the Latin calcearius, meaning “shoemaker.” The name occurred in the eastern counties of London at its earliest in the second half of the 13th century. Some of London”s Chaucers lived on Cordwainer Street, in the shoemakers” quarter, but a number of them were wine merchants, including both Chaucer”s father John and his grandfather Robert.

Chaucer”s family

Several generations of the Chaucer family lived in Ipswich, which is about 100 km northeast of London. The town exported wool to Flanders and imported wine from France, hence the family was active in the wine trade. In the late 13th century, Robert and Mary Chaucer, Geoffrey”s grandparents, settled in London, but retained their properties in Ipswich. Their son John married Agnes Copton, the niece of Hamo de Copton, the munter of the Tower of London. When Hamo de Copton died in 1349, during a plague epidemic, Agnes inherited all his properties in London. In the same year, John Chaucer inherited all the possessions of his half-brother Thomas Heyron. Chaucer”s parents thus owned a considerable number of properties in London and, like the rest of his family, John Chaucer was a wine merchant.

Childhood and adolescence

Chaucer”s date of birth is not known with certainty. The most obvious clue to this he gives himself in a statement at a trial in 1386. In it he says that he is “forty years and upwards,” which situates his birth year in the early 1340s. His birthplace is also unknown, but at the time Chaucer”s parents owned, among other things, a property on Thames Street in the wealthy Vintry Ward district in the heart of cosmopolitan medieval London. No documents have survived that tell anything about Chaucer”s school days, but his knowledge of the Latin classics shows that he received a solid education, which was common for the sons of prosperous merchants at the time. Near Thames Street were three schools, including the chaplaincy school of St. Paul”s Cathedral.In 1357 Chaucer was employed as a page by Elizabeth de Burgh (1332-1363), 4th Countess of Ulster, wife of Prince Lionel of Antwerp (1338-1368), 1st Duke of Clarence and son of King Edward III. In that year the countess made some purchases for the young Chaucer, which are mentioned in her partially surviving household book.

Soldier in the Hundred Years” War

When Edward III invaded France in 1359 during the Hundred Years” War (1337-1453), Chaucer joined Prince Lionel”s retinue and was part of the English army. During the siege of Reims, Chaucer was made a prisoner of war at Rethel, about 40 km northeast of Reims, around the turn of the year. Edward III paid a contribution of £16 towards the ransom in March 1360 and Chaucer was released. The last record of Chaucer while in Prince Lionel”s service dates from the peace negotiations in Calais in October 1360, when the prince paid him to transfer letters from Calais to England. In the following years 1360-1366, Chaucer most likely carried out several assignments and undertook trips. For example, in 1366 he received a free pass from Charles II of Navarre (1332-1387) to travel through Navarre. However, the reason for this trip is not known.

Chaucer”s marriage to Filippa Soot

In 1366, Chaucer was a member of the royal household as an ”esquire” and was granted an annual stipend by the king for services rendered and to be rendered. In September of the same year, one Filippa Chaucer was also granted an annual stipend for her position as lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault. This shows that she was married to Chaucer at the time. About the life of Filippa Chaucer not much is known with certainty. If she was indeed born Filippa (de) Roet, she was the sister of Katherine Swynford de Roet. Payne de Roet was a Flemish herald from Hainaut, who came to England in the retinue of Queen Filippa in 1328 and entered the service of King Edward III. Philippa became successively court lady to Countess Elizabeth, to Queen Philippa, and to Constance of Castile, the second wife of John of Ghent. Katherine Swynford was the mistress of John of Ghent for many years and would eventually marry him as well in 1396. Chaucer”s marriage to Philippa may explain the many favors that John of Ghent granted him. In 1386, Filippa Chaucer was inducted into the brotherhood of Lincoln Cathedral in the company of Henry, Earl of Derby, the later King Henry IV, Sir Thomas de Swynford, and other high-ranking individuals. Filippa Chaucer probably died in 1387, as the grant awarded to her then went away.

Descendants

It is not known with certainty how many children Chaucer and Filippa had.

Lyte Lowys mijn zoon … tendir leeftijd van tien jaar …

Lewis Chaucer was thus born in c. 1381.

Career

Chaucer had been part of a group of young men in the king”s service since 1367. At court, they carried out all kinds of assignments and were often sent to all corners of England to look after the king”s interests. Sometimes they served in the army and occasionally they were sent abroad as envoys. As a reward for their services rendered, they received equipment, a daily wage, annuities and appointments to public offices.Possibly Chaucer was studying law at the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London, during this period. His description of the ”Manciple” and the ”Man of Law” in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales shows that he was aware of the workings of the Inns of Court and the practices of the lawyers there. The offices he later held required the use of chancery letters and French or Latin legal formulas, all skills taught in the Inns of Court.

Chaucer was also friends with the French poet and chronicler Jean Froissart, with whom he traveled from Antwerp to Milan in 1368 in Lionel”s retinue to attend Lionel”s marriage to Violante Visconti, the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti. Petrarch may also have been present at that wedding.

During the 1370s and the 1380s, Chaucer avoided involvement in various political conflicts. This may have been the reason for the conspicuous lack of historical references in his work.In 1372-1373, he traveled to Genoa, Italy, as a mediator. It is possible that he was chosen for this assignment because of his knowledge of Italian. Chaucer had probably become familiar with that language from his youth through contact with Italian neighbors in Vintry Ward. He also visited Florence then, where Petrarch and Boccaccio resided. Both were then still alive. Even if Chaucer did not meet them personally, he must have heard much about them and certainly about Dante. The latter had died in exile fifty years earlier, but was still revered in Florence. It is quite possible that Chaucer got hold of manuscripts of the works of these authors during his visit.After his return from Italy, Chaucer was given the free life lease of the house above Aldgate, one of the six gates of the London city wall, in 1374. He was to maintain the building well and make it available in time of war, this for the defense of the city. In the same year he was also appointed controller of customs in the port of London. While holding this office, he was repeatedly sent abroad to look after the king”s interests.

During his tenure as controller, Chaucer”s name appears in a document, the meaning of which is still not established. One Cecilia Chaumpaigne withdrew her charge of “raptus and all other things” against Chaucer in May 1380. The definition of the term ”raptus” in the context of this incident has provoked much debate. It may have meant rape, or kidnapping. However, the record is clear and unambiguous, Chaucer is absolved of any responsibility.In 1386, Chaucer gave up his home in Aldgate and his job in customs, but he remained attached to the royal court and enjoyed prestige there as a poet.

Chaucer subsequently moved to Kent, where he held the office of justice of the peace. In addition, he was an MP for Kent for one year. After returning to London, Chaucer was appointed clerk of the Royal Works in 1389. During his tenure, no major building works were begun, but he did direct the repair work on the Palace of Westminster and on St. George”s Chapel at Windsor Castle. He continued the works on the Tower of London and oversaw preparations for the grand tournament hosted by Richard II at Smithfield in 1390.

Documents show that Chaucer was mugged and robbed three times in 1390. This is possibly why he gave up his post as clerk of the Royal Works. He was given a permanent appointment in 1391 as deputy logger at the Royal Forests of North Petherton in Somerset, a position he continued to hold for many years.

From 1397, the mood at court became more grim. Henry, the son of John of Ghent, was exiled in 1398. When John of Ghent died in 1399, Richard II appropriated his possessions. Henry returned from exile to claim his inheritance, settled with Richard II, and crowned himself Henry IV.We learn little about Chaucer during these years. In 1397 Richard II granted him an annual gift of a “butt” of wine, and in 1398 he received royal protection for travel to various places in England. The succession to the throne of Henry IV also seems at first glance to have made little change in his life. Henry IV renewed the allowances Chaucer had received from his predecessors and added a lifetime additional annual stipend.

In December 1399 Chaucer rented a house near Westminster Abbey on the site where the Henry VII Lady Chapel now stands. For a few months he continued to receive his royal allowances and arrears, but after June 1400 he is not mentioned in any official documents.

Chaucer”s exact date of death is unknown. His present grave in Westminster Abbey, which bears the inscription 25 October 1400, may not have been erected until more than one hundred and fifty years after his death. Chaucer did not owe that tomb in Westminster Abbey to his poetry. He was entitled to it because he was a member of the parish and a tenant of the Abbey and because citizens, in the service of the king, were buried near “their” king(s). No one in the England of 1400 could have foreseen that Chaucer”s grave would become the beginning of Poets” Corner and that Chaucer would be hailed as the origin of English poetry.

Authenticity

It is not easy to identify Chaucer”s works with certainty because no handwritten versions have survived and thus researchers have to rely on manuscripts and early printed editions. The main evidence for the identity of some works and their order is given by Chaucer himself in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women (417ff.)

Hij maakte het boek dat hoog in de Hous of Fame staat,

in de inleiding van The Man of Law”s Tale (over De legende van de goede vrouwen)

Cleped de Seintes Legende van Cupido

and in the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales.

Some of his contemporaries, such as Henry Scogan, John Lydgate, and John Shirley, also report the authenticity of some of Chaucer”s works. A number of lyric poems are believed to be by Chaucer, based on their attribution by scribes and on their conformity to his other works in style and subject matter.

Dating

There is very little concrete evidence to determine when Chaucer wrote his individual works. Obviously, there are no records of “publication,” and contemporary references to Chaucer”s works are rare. For example, Thomas Usk mentions Troilus and Criseyde in his Testament of Love, but that work is itself difficult to date exactly. And Eustache Deschamps” reference to Boece and The Romaunt of the Rose in his Ballade address a Geoffrey Chaucer from c. 1385, also offers little help in dating those works.

Chaucer”s works themselves contain little specific information about the date they were written. Only A Treatise on the Astrolabe contains an actual date, namely March 12, 1391. But there are indications in the text that, after an interval, Chaucer took up the work again in the spring of 1393 or even later. Only one work can be associated with a historical event: The Book of the Duchess with the death of Blanche of Lancaster in September 1369. But even this is of limited help, since it is not certain how long after Blanche”s death this poem was written. Moreover, the study of the relative dating of Chaucer”s works must also take into account issues of style and the increasing mastery of his poetry, which is not easy, given his varied literary accomplishments.

Chronology of major works

Academics have developed a chronology of Chaucer”s works on which there is broad consensus, though not general unanimity.

Short poems

For 1372

Between 1372 and 1380

Around 1385

Between 1380 and 1387

Between 1396 and 1400

Lost Works

In the prologue to The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer lists two works that are apparently lost:

Origenes op de Maudeleyne

En van de ellendige Engendrynge van Mankynde zoals de mens kan in Pope Innocent yfynde;

The latter is possibly a translation of Pope Innocent III”s De miseria conditionis humanae. Chaucer also mentions that he wrote many love poems

En vele ympne voor uw halydayes, dat highten balades, roundels, virelayes;

In de Retraction van The Canterbury Tales vermeldt hij “the book of the Leoun” en “and otherere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies, and moralitee, and devocioun”.

Disputed works

Some lyric poems are considered authentic by some scholars, rejected by others. Because the possibility exists that they are by Chaucer”s hand, they were included in the Riverside Chaucer anyway.

Unreal works

Some works are undoubtedly not by Chaucer although they were sometimes attributed to him.

Before Chaucer began writing, the English language had been in use for at least six centuries in prose and poetry, albeit with ups and downs. During the 14th century, English was increasingly used in all aspects of daily life. For Chaucer, therefore, it was obvious to write in English, although some of his contemporaries, particularly his friend John Gower, also used French and Latin. The Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript, which is the closest to Chaucer”s own spelling, shows that he used a standardized variety of English, which was also used in business and at court in London and Westminster. Chaucer himself drew attention in Troilus and Criseyde to the fact that there were a lot of English dialects in his time.

En omdat er zo”n grote verscheidenheid is in het Engels en in de tekst van onze tongen

A large number of words and expressions, many of French origin, were recorded for the first time in his work. Chaucer showed that English could be written with grace and vigor.

In the 14th century, two ways of composing English verse were common. Usually these were used separately from each other, although some authors combined them in the same work. One system originated in Old English and relied on the pattern of stressed syllables in each verse, connected with alliteration of the initial sounds. Usually the verses did not rhyme with each other. The second way came into use in England in the 12th century and was based on French and Latin examples. The technique relied partly on the number of syllables in each verse – usually with four stresses – and partly on linking the verses into stanzas or groups with rhyming endings. Chaucer used this technique in his early poems The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame. Early in his career, he also began to use verse lines with five stresses in stanzas with eight verse lines, including in the ABC and in The Monk”s Tale. Later he used the same verse in stanzas with seven verses in Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and some of the stories in The Canterbury Tales, among others. This technique was later called “rime royal. His greatest contribution to the technique of English verse was the use of the five-clause verse line in rhyming couplets, as in The Legend of Good Women and most of The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer”s works often reflect what he was reading and what he was working on at the time he wrote them. This forms the basis of the old, not entirely unjustified, division of his career into a French, Italian, and English period. His early works reflect his admiration for French courtly verse. His discovery of Italian poetry influenced both the form and subjects of his poetry. The time when he worked on The Canterbury Tales is marked by a change in his views on poetry and the depiction of life in the England of his day. But there were also the classics, which he learned about during his education, and the Bible as a source of information. In the late fourteenth century there was a busy interaction between Latin, Italian, French and English. This is illustrated, for example, by the story of “Griselda” in The Clerk”s Tale. It was written by Boccaccio in Italian and Petrarch made a Latin translation, which was translated into French by his friend Philippe de Mézières and then written into English by Chaucer.

Classic background

Chaucer uses the ancient world as a fictional or seemingly historical setting for stories set in a pagan past. He finds an abundance of tales, information, and aphorisms that he can use in his poetry. Moreover, it provides him with a collection of texts with authoritative status. In the Middle Ages, original work was not highly valued. Retelling stories is a way of making old material interesting, by adapting it to the concerns of the new author and his audience. As he himself puts it in Parliament of Fowls, like harvesting new crops in old fields.

Want uit oude velden, zoals men zegt, komt al dit nieuwe graan van her tot der. En uit oude graven, in goede voeding, komt al deze nieuwe wetenschap die men leert.

Chaucer, however, did so not in Latin, but in English, a language then spoken and understood only in one corner of the world and, moreover, divided into a multitude of local dialects and subject to rapid change. Yet Chaucer uses that English to make a direct contact with the great classical authors and to create the first English literature that can be compared to them.

Greek was virtually unknown in medieval Western Europe and Latin dominated the classical tradition. The few well-known Greek authors were read in Latin translation.

French background

In 13th and 14th century Europe, French culture was dominant. It was an important source of inspiration for Chaucer”s literary career. Like English, French was a language of dialects.

Chaucer”s French background consisted of both Anglo-Norman French and Continental French. Over the course of his life, the roles of both French dialects changed in relation to English society and literature. Possibly Anglo-Norman French ceased to be a spoken first language by the 1180s, but it continued to thrive as a language of administration and literature. It was the language in which Marie de France wrote her Breton lais, the genre Chaucer used in The Franklin”s Tale. Among other things, Marie de France also wrote two stories analogous to The Merchant”s Tale. Works in Anglo-Norman continued to be written in the 14th century, including Gower”s Miroir de l”Omme (c. 1374-1379) and Cinkante Ballades (c. 1399).

The 13th-century Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung was of the utmost importance to Chaucer. His dream verses were written in the vein of the elegant, fashionable “dits amoureux,” a late medieval genre of narrative poems, often dream poems, that focused on heartbreak and often dealt with philosophical and didactic themes, such as happiness, fame, and orientation. Chaucer translated the Roman de la Rose as The Romaunt of the Rose, although there is no consensus on its authenticity.

Several of The Canterbury Tales (The Miller”s Tale, The Reeve”s Tale, The Friar”s Tale, The Summoner”s Tale, The Merchant”s Tale and The Shipman”s Tale) belong to another well-known French genre, that of the fabliau: farcical tales with cynical, usually debauched subjects, a fast pace, and often what today is called a slapstick or absurd physical indignities, all leading to a hilarious denouement that brings some kind of justice.

Italian background

Thanks to their trading activities, the English became acquainted with Italy in the Middle Ages and cultural contacts were also developed. Italians had been active in the English economy since the 13th century, especially in the wool trade. Among other things, the Italian community in London and Southampton played an important role in the English merchant marine and in the culture of Chaucer”s time. During his youth, wealthy Italian families lived in his neighborhood and it is likely that he was introduced to their language even then.

Chaucer further traveled to Italy on at least two diplomatic missions, in the period 1372-1373 and in 1378. The route to Italy took about five weeks and went via Calais, through France, along the Rhine and over the Alps via the St. Bernard Pass. His first stay in Italy lasted about six months. He first visited Genoa and then traveled to Florence on a secret mission. There Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch were considered “the three crowns of Florence. The latter two were still alive at the time. In the prologue to The Clerk”s Tale, he writes that Petrarch lived near Padua, but nowhere in his oeuvre does he mention Boccaccio by name.

Chaucer knew La Divina Commedia by Dante, who in the 14th century was considered primarily an authority on the horrors of hell. The first known reference to Dante in English is in Chaucer”s House of Fame. References to Dante in this capacity still appear in several stories from The Canterbury Tales. Yet Chaucer also recognized La Divina Commedia as a poem about love, which can be seen in Parliament of Fowls. A host of allusions to Dante appear in his work.

If Chaucer ever met Petrarch, it must have been during his first trip to Italy, as Petrarch died in 1374. In The Clerk”s Tale, Chaucer has the “Clerk” tell of his trip to Padua, Petrarch”s home town.

… Ik zal je een verhaal vertellen dat ik in Padowe heb gehoord over een waardige klerk…

Academics disagree on whether Chaucer made that up or indeed experienced it himself. What is certain is that he had a copy of Petrarch”s Latin text in front of him when he retold the story of Griselda in The Clerk”s Tale. Petrarch”s text entitled De obedientia ac fide uxoria mythologia was itself an adaptation of the tenth story of the tenth day in Boccaccio”s Decamerone.

It is possible that Chaucer met Boccaccio during his trip to Florence, since Boccaccio lived in nearby Certaldo. Chaucer knew of the existence of the Decamerone, and may have read the work, but he did not quote it anywhere in his own writings. It is therefore unlikely that he had a copy of it. Yet Chaucer and Boccaccio adapted the same traditional stories, but each in his own way. Comparing them shows us interesting contrasts in their views of literature and their views of the world.The first story in The Canterbury Tales, The Knight”s Tale, has Boccaccio”s Teseida delle nozze d”Emilia as its source, and a possible source for The Franklin”s Tale is Il Filocolo, the fourth question about love.Several stories in The Canterbury Tales have analogous stories in the Decamerone:

The Bible

In Chaucer”s day, the Bible was commonplace. Formal education often began and ended with the (Latin) Bible. Those who could not read also had access to the Bible. Illustrations of Biblical texts abounded, not only in books, but also in murals, church furniture, and as sculptures. People were introduced to the Bible through the annual cycle of performances of plays by craft guilds, the “mystery plays. Chaucer refers extensively to those mystery plays in The Miller”s Tale, among other works.Allusions to the Bible he uses in several ways. For example, he enriches his writings by making comparisons with Biblical persons or events, or he uses the Bible as a source of wisdom and truth. More typical of him, however, is an indirect use of the Bible, namely in an ironic way that allows the reader to reflect on the difference between the Bible context and the situation of the characters in his stories. The problem with irony is that the reader assumes that the author has no intention of having his statements taken seriously. However, Chaucer”s true views are extremely difficult to determine. The very fact that he puts his statements in the mouths of fictional characters makes them unreliable when it comes to his personal opinion.

Literacy

Most manuscripts dating from before the 13th century in England were intended for an educated spiritual audience, a small but very powerful segment of the population. From the 14th century, there are quite a few manuscripts surviving written in the vernacular, often with worldly rather than theological or religious subjects. This indicates that they were made for a target audience of literate lay people. The transition from illiterate to literate culture in England was obviously very gradual, but in the growth of literacy in the late Middle Ages Chaucer and his contemporaries played a crucial role.

Medieval audience

Chaucer”s medieval audience of readers and listeners was very diverse. There were the courtiers, with whom he dealt professionally, the class of merchants, from whom he himself came, and his entourage of friends and companions. Sir Peter Bukton, Henry Scogan and Sir Philip de la Vache were certainly among them, since he addresses each of them in his respective short poems, Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton, Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan and Truth. Chaucer also knew the “Lollard knights,” a group of noblemen, followers of the Lollards, who no doubt enjoyed the protection of the Royal Household. They were familiar with his work. One of them, Sir John Clanvowe, was a poet himself. His dream poem Boke of Cupid was written in the vein of Chaucer”s Parliament of Fowls. Chaucer also had a female audience, mostly from the aristocracy and the class of merchants. These women, who could not always read themselves, had the opportunity to listen to texts, which were read to them in their homes. Chaucer”s Wife of Bath, for example, often quoted from both sacred and secular books, which she learned about through her husband, among others, reading to her.

15th to 17th century

This period runs from the time when Chaucer”s work, biography and reputation first became the subject of interest of a range of 15th-century poets and readers, listeners and commentators, such as Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate and for a number of printers such as Caxton, to the time of Spencer and the publishing work of Thynne, Stow and Speght.

Even during his lifetime, the afterlife of Chaucer”s work began when contemporaries wrote about him. In Testament of Love (c. 1387), Thomas Usk had Chaucer described by the God of Love as “the noble philosophical poet in English. In turn, John Gower had Venus greet him in the early review of the Confessio amantis as ”my disciple and my poet”. The reciprocal exchange of such compliments was common among a select group of active poets, thinkers, and writers and changed tone when one of them stopped writing for any reason.

Many of the most important poets, writers, and commentators, from John Skelton (1460-1529) to Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) expressed their respect for Chaucer. In the Shepherdes Calender, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) introduces himself as a successor to Chaucer, whom he relates to Virgil.The few negative criticisms of Chaucer were about his language, which was difficult to understand, his metrics, which were said to be unpolished and uncertain, and the use of immoral words and events in some of his works.

The two earliest translations of Chaucer appear in the 1630s, both being partial versions of Troilus and Criseyde, the first three ”books” were translated into English verse by Jonathan Sidnam (c. 1630), the first two into Latin by Sir Francis Kynaston (1634). The many positive responses to them showed respect for Chaucer as an author whose work should be preserved.

A few months before his death in 1700, John Drydens (1631-1700) published Fables Ancient and Modern. In it are four renditions of works by Chaucer: Palamon and Arcite, based on The Knight”s Tale; The Cock and the Fox, based on The Nun”s Priest”s Tale; The Wife of Bath her Tale and The Character of a Good Parson, an expanded version of the portrait of the ”Parson” (vicar) in the General Prologue. In his preface, Dryden provides an unabashed and perceptive critical assessment of The Canterbury Tales. He also explains why he decided to translate these texts and the method he used as a translator. Dryden found Chaucer to be a rough diamond that needed to be polished before it would shine. Therefore, he did not translate the texts literally and he omitted unnecessary or immoral words.

18th and 19th centuries

In the 1870s, the term “Middle English” became commonplace. It was then that the study of Middle English literature began in British universities and, among others, at Harvard University in the United States. Chaucer was immediately given a central place in this new discipline. By then, his work had already gone through a long history of critical examination, with a great deal of appreciation, but also with misconceptions. In 1868, Frederick James Furnivall founded the “Chaucer Society” in London, which brought Chaucer and his work into the public eye. In collaboration with Furnivall and the Chaucer Society, Walter W. Skeat published a seven-volume edition, The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1894-1897. That was followed in 1898 by a cheaper one-volume work, Pollard”s Globe edition.

A number of scientific breakthroughs changed the way Chaucer was read. Alexander Ellis” publication On Early English Prononciation in 1889, an account of his twenty years of phonological research, changed the understanding of how Chaucer”s verses should be pronounced. Many works that had been wrongly attributed to him over time were removed from his oeuvre, and research in archives refined his biography. Furnivall brought two previously unknown manuscripts into focus, the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript and the Ellesmere Chaucer manuscript, on which all modern versions of The Canterbury Tales are based.

Chaucer was also promoted outside university circles. By the end of the Victorian era, there were dozens of inexpensive editions of his work in circulation. There were also translations into modern English, some in verse form for an adult audience and some in prose for children.

Aimed at the affluent middle class, the beautifully illustrated Kelmscott Chaucer was published in 1896 by the prestigious Kelmscott Press, headed by the artist Edward Burne-Jones and the writer and designer William Morris. By the end of the 19th century, Chaucer”s poems and especially The Canterbury Tales were being read like never before.

20th and 21st century

In the 20th century, much was written about Chaucer in the academic and professional fields. As a writer of Middle English texts, he became an important object of linguistic analysis, and his life and works were the subject of historical, biographical, and critical studies.

Chaucer was also written about for non-academic readers. In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf wrote in The Common Reader that reading Chaucer was the most natural thing in the world. Woolf never studied at university, yet she read and wrote about English and other literary traditions. The Chaucer in her essay The Pastons and Chaucer is a poet who never shies away from real life. His poetry is about ordinary things, which he offers in a way where it is up to the reader to make meaning of them.

In his 1932 book Chaucer, Chesterton repeatedly writes that he is not a scholar, but that does not prevent him from making statements about Chaucer. According to him, it is as easy for an ordinary Englishman to enjoy Chaucer as it is to enjoy Dickens. It is not the books written about Chaucer that are important, but Chaucer himself. Chaucer provides the reader with a special insight into and tolerance for fallible human nature. Despite the great popularity of Chesterton”s book, general reviews on Chaucer were few and far between. Rather, biographies, fiction stories, or poems were written about his life and works, often drawing on Chesterton”s insights.

Wolf and Chesterton wrote for an audience that was familiar with the English literary tradition, an audience that, however, became smaller during the twentieth century. Since the great increase in higher education after World War II, on the other hand, a new kind of ”general reader ” has emerged, namely students. They are introduced to Chaucer by the fact that he is part of the canon of English literature. The timeless and universal quality of his poetry and the language he uses are crucial to his position in that canon. The 1987 scholarly edition, The Riverside Chaucer is hailed by Anthony Burgess as the best ever published on Chaucer. As a result, reading Chaucer becomes a true pleasure rather than a linguistic chore.

Manuscripts

Chaucer wrote his poems at a time when the production of manuscripts was increasingly becoming a commercial enterprise, independent of the monasteries and universities where they were traditionally made and preserved. It would be almost another century before William Caxton put the first English printing press into use. The cost of producing manuscripts – purchasing the basic material and employing scribes and illustrators – was considerable. In England in the late Middle Ages, secular manuscripts were made primarily in London and to order from clients. Few scribes will have had access to Chaucer”s original writings, and none of the 83 surviving manuscripts were written in his own handwriting. Although scribes usually worked carefully, errors could not be avoided. Sometimes they added bits of text themselves. In the 15th century, some scribes were very diligent. One of them devised his own story for the Plowman in The Canterbury Tales and another completed The Cook”s Tale.

Chaucer was aware of the problems that could arise in transmitting his texts. Both in Troilus and Criseyde and in his short poem Chaucer”s wordes unto Adam, his owne scriveyn, he stresses the importance of accurately copying his work. All indications are that he was anticipating an expanded audience, both geographically and socially.

Printed editions

In 1478 and 1483 William Caxton published the first two folio editions of The Canterbury Tales. These provide insight into the condition of this work before the advent of printing. Although they are printed editions, they are accorded manuscript status by textual scholars.

A number of editions of The Canterbury Tales date from the 15th and 16th centuries, usually in the form of collected works by Chaucer, including Richard Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, Thynne, Stow, and Speght. These early editions were largely based on Caxton”s editions. Thynne”s son claimed that his father owned 25 manuscripts by Chaucer, one of which had the remark examinatur Chaucer in the margin. Stow”s edition was also claimed to have considered a large number of manuscripts. By the end of the 16th century, readers were finding it increasingly difficult to understand Chaucer”s work. Around 1598, therefore, Thomas Speght published the first edition of Chaucer with a glossary.

Chaucer appears in both literary works and popular reading.

Despite the dramatic nature of many of Chaucer”s works, relatively few of them were adapted for stage and film. Adaptations of The Canterbury Tales in particular were made for stage, musical, ballet, opera, choral opera, film and television.

Science also honored Chaucer by giving his name to a small asteroid, the 2984 Chaucer, discovered in 1981 by Edward L. G. Bowell, and a lunar crater Chaucer.

Sources

  1. Geoffrey Chaucer
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer