Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400)

Major Works: The Book of the Duchess (circa 1370), The House of Fame (1370s), Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1385), The Canterbury Tales (circa 1387 forward).

Biographical notes: Chaucer, a contemporary of the Gawain poet, was the son of a London wine merchant. He was apprenticed in his early teens to the son of King Edward III, Lionel of Antwerp, who later became Duke of Clarence. Chaucer served with Edward III's army in France, where he was taken prisoner and held for ransom. In his mid-twenties he married the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt, who figures prominently in Shakespeare's Richard II and who was the father of Henry IV, the title character of Shakespeare's most famous and perhaps most successful history play. Chaucer held a number of positions at court, serving the king directly, and in government service throughout his life, and in a diplomatic capacity he traveled to France and and also to Italy on several occasions. He rose to the position of knight of the shire for Kent in 1386 and then became deputy forester in the King's Forest at Petherton in 1391. While Chaucer is clearly familiar with the bible and the workings of the church, he was not himself a member of the clergy. He was, however, notably well educated and fluent in English, Latin, French, and Italian. Although he wrote steadily from his twenties to the end of his life, Chaucer was never a professional writer. He was recognized in his own lifetime as a poet of extraordinary gifts, however, and he was buried in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey (Drabble).

Chaucer's literary standing: Though he is known by general readers mainly for The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has long been recognized by scholars throughout the centuries as one of England's premier poets. Even had he not written The Canterbury Tales, he would still be considered one of England's greatest literary geniuses. Read his other works!

The Canterbury Tales:
Socially mobile: In a time when social classes were fairly rigidly drawn and social mobility relatively limited, Chaucer was something of an exception, as he moved with relative ease from his lower-middle-class roots up the social ladder to become a member of the gentry. He never turned his back on his class roots, however, and he remained comfortable in both the drawing rooms of the great and noble and in their kitchens with the servants. Chaucer's experiences abroad and his comfortable familiarity with people of all social classes clearly worked to his advantage in The Canterbury Tales, where his knowledge and experience with people of all walks of life are evident in the wide array of characters in "The General Prologue" and throughout the tales.

Socially diverse pilgrims: The collection of pilgrims offers a cross-section of Chaucer's 14th-century England, from the upper classes through what we recognize now as the middle class, and down through the working man's "estate." The various ranks of clergy are well-represented as well. Such a diverse collection of pilgrims would have been hardly so egalitarian as they seem to be in The Canterbury Tales, but Chaucer's work offers a fairly unique glimpse into his medieval world, largely free of explicit bias as Chaucer's barbed wit pokes fun at nearly all of characters in different respects and degrees.

Reading points: As you read, consider or be on the lookout for the following:

Points of connection between the "General Prologue" and the individual tales.

Social diversity in "The General Prologue."

Portrayal of "the ideal (or stereotypical) vs. the real."

Persistent themes on deception or illusion vs. reality.

The various targets of Chaucer's mockery or satire, along social lines and especially involving the clergy.

Medieval anti-feminism—and hints of Chaucer's criticism of the negative views of women?

Universal types or themes that still hold relevance today.

Works Cited (and consulted)