Geoffrey Chaucer: Some Background to the Poet and his Times.

February 6, 2009 at 8:39 pm Leave a comment

Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in the history of literature. He is considered by many to be the father of English literature, particularly since he was the first major poet to use and to legitimate the vernacular English language in writing as opposed to Latin or French.

Chaucer’s Birth and Family

Chaucer was born in 1343 in London to a family of wine merchants. He began life, therefore, in a middle class background, which is a crucial aspect of his writing and the times he lived in. Unlike most authors and poets of his time –or any time up until the eighteenth century, for that matter — Chaucer’s life was well documented, mostly because he gained entrance to and traveled in illustrious and royal circles.

His big break came when he was a teenager. Since his father sold wine to members of nobility and royalty, he was able to get his son a job as a page to the court of the Countess of Ulster. This job essentially gave him a “foot in the door” to a career working with nobility and, eventually, royalty.

Chaucer’s Rise up the Aristocratic and Royal Ladder

After he was a page for the Countess, Chaucer worked for various members of nobility and for the state as a courier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and eventually for the king as a collector and surveyor of scrap metal (whatever that would have meant in the late 1300s).

During the early phase of the Hundred Year’s War, Chaucer went with the English army as part of King Edward III’s campaign against France, and was captured during the siege of Rheims in 1360. It is a testament to how valued Chaucer was that the King of England himself contributed the sum of money that released Chaucer from ransom, and returned him to England.

Chaucer’s Influential World Travelling

In his capacity as a diplomat and a envoy, Chaucer traveled all over Europe, a privilege only a small handful of people experienced. In his travels, he came into contact with a vast diversity of people from all social strata and cultures. In a diplomatic mission to Genoa and Florence in 1373, Chaucer came into contact with the burgeoning of the Renaissance, which had a giant influence on him and, as a result, the course of English literature. He came into contact with Italian poetry, narrative, painting and architecture. The writing, in particular, would influence The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer Dies Having Known and Worked for Three English Kings

In the last fifteen or so years of his life, he ran Customs for the port of London for the King, a very executive job. During this time he started writing. In 1389, he was appointed to the important job of clerk of the King’s works, a sort of foreman job for planning and executing any of the kings building projects. One of his last jobs was as forester for King Richard II, who was overthrown by Henry IV. Despite the overthrow, Henry IV kept paying Chaucer’s pension until Chaucer died around 1400.

A middle class son of a wine dealer grew up to work in the service of three British kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, all who admired him, and he went on to write some of the most central pieces of English literature!

The Rise of a Middle (or Merchant) Class.

Chaucer’s incredible career reflects the changing social and economic structures of England in the late 1300s. Before the 1300s, as I discussed, there were basically two classes. There was the Nobility, the wealthiest one or two percent of England, and there were the Serfs, everyone else.

As centuries passed, families began to pass on skills at trades and crafts they would pass on. By the time of the 12th into the 13th century, the products that peasants or serfs were able to make became a commodity for exchange. Instead of importing goods, or having certain products costume made expensively, aristocrats and nobility began to buy from and realize the benefit of trading with domestic and local merchants. Instead of enslaving the masses to maintain agriculture, those with money began to cultivate certain populations for the products and services they could offer. Particularly as trade between nations began to grow, London evolved into a bustling port.

This collapse in the two class society created a more mobile middle class that broke from agricultural serfdom, and began to find economic autonomy servicing the rich and, as time goes on, each other. By the time of Shakespeare, the popularity of theater was the result of a rapidly grown middle class that has some disposable income and a desire for leisure earned after a work week.

Chaucer grew up and lived during this expansion of a merchant class. Because his father served an important recreational function for the wealthy — wine distribution — he had connections through clients that allowed Chaucer entrance into a noble and aristocratic world.

As he worked his way up the ladder in the aristocratic and royal world of London (much like a young person working his way up the corporate ladder), Chaucer had access to and enjoyed many of the privileges of nobility. Importantly, he was not aristocracy, nobility or royalty. Evidence shows that he knew and fraternized with all of them, including three kings, but there were certain realms in which he would not be included, such as a Grammar School or University education. But, because of Chaucer’s work and access, and because class barriers allowed him to associate with all walks of life, he had exposure to a vast variety of humanity and experience, which is reflected in his writing, particularly The Canterbury Tales.

In short, he was a true social and literary Renaissance man many decades before the Renaissance itself settled in England.

Even though Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in English literature, it is important to recognize that no one at the time, including himself, would have called him a “poet” or an “author.” Chaucer would have called designated himself at whatever job he worked, such as Comptroller, or Forester, never, “poet.”

Writing in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, was not a career. There were no career writers in England until the eighteenth century, when the publishing industry made it possible for writing to become a commercial enterprise.

Poets or narrators, like Chaucer, created their work on the side. They usually distributed their work to other members of the court or nobility in limited circulation. Or, as in the case of Sir Gawain, a poem was written and used for an aristocratic or royal event, like a wedding, birthday or holiday. The Canterbury Tales was more than likely distributed for readership amongst Chaucer’s friends and colleagues in the various aristocratic spheres he traveled.

Depending upon how you choose to interpret a work, audience can be an important factor. It could be significant to know, for instance, when you read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that only rich and noble men would have read it.

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Entry filed under: British Literature.

Questions for Reading, Interpreting and Writing: Sir Gawain Online Translations of the Canterbury Tales.

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