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Geoffrey Chaucer

Writing in 1700, the English poet John Dryden termed Geoffrey Chaucer the “Father of English Poetry”. Whilst criticising Chaucer’s verse as “not Harmonious”, he praised him for his characterisation, his “good Sense” and the fact that “As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off”. Whilst we might dispute Dryden’s criticisms of Chaucer’s poetry – which can be attributed to his ignorance of the 14th century English in which Chaucer wrote – the epithet with which he crowned Chaucer seems entirely suitable. A learned man who almost certainly knew French, Latin and Italian, Chaucer nonetheless chose to write all his works in English, a language which in the 14th century was still regarded as of low status: it was the language of everyday conversation and interactions, not the language of culture and learning. By writing poetry in English that was read in the highest circles in the land, Chaucer gave English a status that was normally reserved for Latin and French (the languages of the church and the court) and helped create a vernacular literature in this country.
Compared to Shakespeare, who lived 200 years after Chaucer and about whom we have very little certain information, we know a surprising number of details about Chaucer’s life. This is principally due to his entrance – at a young age – into royal circles, as a result of which his name appears in a number of records from the time. Born into a middle-class London family of wine merchants somewhere between 1340 and 1345, by the time he was a teenager Chaucer was working as a page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and daughter-in-law of King Edward III. Whilst this was a relatively menial position, it granted Chaucer entry into a system of royal patronage which proceeded to support him – and his writing - throughout his life. He was clearly highly valued by the monarchy and other members of the nobility: King Edward III’s ransom payment of £16 to liberate him from his French captors in 1360 has been estimated as being the equivalent of somewhere between £10000 and £25000 in today’s money, a not inconsiderable sum to pay, even for a king! Until his death in 1400 he was consistently supported – financially and otherwise – by the monarchy and nobility, enabling him to lead a comfortable lifestyle and, more importantly, to write.
Unlike many writers, who struggle to make a living or find recognition, Chaucer occupied a very privileged position. He had a ready immediate audience for his writing amongst the court, yet he quickly became popular with members of the emerging middle classes and women; his popularity in his lifetime is evident from the number of manuscripts of his work that still survive today: 83 of all or part of The Canterbury Tales and 16 of Troilus and Criseyde; this probably presents a fraction of the number in existence in the 14th and 15th centuries. Once the printing press arrived in England, Chaucer’s work was quick to be printed: The Canterbury Tales was the first principal text produced by William Caxton at his printing press in Westminster, and Chaucer’s popularity has never really waned. His achievements were acknowledged from the outset by his poetic contemporaries: Thomas Hoccleve in The Regiment of Princes (c. 1410-11) described Chaucer as “the first fyndere of our fair langage” and John Lydgate in The Fall of Princes (1430s) referred to him as the “lodesterre … off our language” (a lodestar is a star that is used to guide the course of a ship).
In addition to his elevation of the vernacular to the status of poetic language, Chaucer’s greatness also lies in the range of literary texts he produced: short lyric poems, elegies, dream visions, translations, saints’ lives, tragedies, beast fables, fabliaux (short verse tales, often crude in subject-matter, originally from France) and astronomical treatises. He was the first English poet to use the iambic pentameter (a poetic line ten syllables in length, in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, and so on), a poetic rhythm later used by Shakespeare. Whilst many critics rate Troilus and Criseyde, his tale of the tragic love story between Criseyde (a Trojan woman) and Troilus (a Greek soldier) during the Trojan War, as his masterpiece, it is The Canterbury Tales for which Chaucer is best-known and loved. Like his Italian near-contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who in The Decameron (c. 1350-53) used a frame narrative of 10 young people fleeing the plague in Florence and passing the time telling stories (10 stories each over 10 days, resulting in 100 stories), Chaucer also uses a frame narrative in his Canterbury Tales: his is the story of 30 pilgrims (one of whom is called Geoffrey Chaucer), from all walks of medieval society, who to pass the time on a pilgrimage from an inn in Southwark, London to Canterbury, to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered during the reign of Henry II, participate in a storytelling competition which is judged by the Host of the inn, Harry Bailey. Whilst Boccaccio’s interest lies principally in the stories that his 10 characters tell, Chaucer’s approach is more sophisticated. A number of his pilgrims are detailed satirical portraits of stock figures in medieval society – the dishonest Pardoner, hypocritical Prioress, fraudulent Miller, lecherous Friar – yet through their voices he grants them an individuality, and often a surprising amount of sympathy. The tales the pilgrims tell encompass a range of genres and subjects (chivalric romances, saints’ lives, fabliaux, beast fables), and there is some very astute matching of teller and tale.
Another feature that makes Chaucer’s writing – and specifically The Canterbury Tales - so fascinating, is his surprisingly (post)modern sensibility. Nowadays we are accustomed to reading metafictional texts – where the text draws attention to itself as a fictional text (famous examples include John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Ian McEwan’s Atonement), but Chaucer also made use of this device. He revels in the comic potential of such an approach, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Canterbury Tales. The poem opens with 'The General Prologue' in which the pilgrims are introduced, with many of them described in detail by the narrator. This narrator – a fictional Geoffrey Chaucer – is a comic persona: a naïve and simple figure who appears somewhat overwhelmed by many of the characters he encounters - he repeatedly refers to the Knight as “worthy” and adjectives used to describe characters are frequently made into superlatives through use of the word “ful”. But Chaucer saves his biggest joke for the storytelling competition when the fictional Chaucer’s first attempt – a verse romance called The Tale of Sir Thopas – is halted half-way through by the Host who complains that his “drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” Reading Chaucer both draws us into a deeply unfamiliar world – of religious practices and beliefs, of strange language – and makes us realize how little has changed over the last 600 years!
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Chaucer's birth

His parents are John Chaucer, a wealthy wine merchant, and Agnes de Copton.

Chaucer is in the service of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, and wife of Prince Lionel, the son of Edward III.

This is the first official record of Chaucer’s existence. He was probably a page – a knight’s servant.

Chaucer is captured by the French at the Siege of Reims

A member of Edward III’s expeditionary army which invades France, Chaucer is captured by the French at the Siege of Reims. He is held captive until King Edward III pays the £16 ransom. This took place during the first stage of the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453).
1360s – 70s

Chaucer translates excerpts of the medieval French poem Le Roman de la Rose into the Middle English The Romaunt of the Rose.

Le Roman de la Rose, composed in two stages in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, is an allegorical dream vision which instructs its readers on the Art of Love. Chaucer is believed to have produced the first part of the Middle English translation.

Chaucer marries his wife Philippa.

In 1368 there is a record of a Philippa Chaucer, a lady-in-waiting in the royal household. Nothing definite is known of Philippa’s origins, but one theory says she was the sister of Katherine Swynford, the mistress and later third wife of John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II and father of Henry IV, and one of Chaucer’s patrons (see below). Chaucer and Philippa probably had four children: Thomas (a knight), Elizabeth (a nun), Agnes and Lewis (to whom Chaucer dedicated his Treatise on the Astrolabe).

Chaucer enters Edward III’s service as an esquire; he is granted a royal annuity for life of £20.

An esquire was a knight’s attendant and shield-bearer. An annuity was a fixed sum of money paid annually; see also (1374).

Composes his first significant original poem, The Book of the Duchess.

The poem is a verse elegy for Blanche of Lancaster, first wife of John of Gaunt.

In 1372-3 and 1378 Chaucer makes trips to Italy on behalf of Edward III.

Chaucer becomes acquainted with the poetry of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio which will influence his own writing.

Chaucer receives annuities from both John of Gaunt and Edward III

John of Gaunt and Edward III’s support was a sign of the high esteem in which Chaucer was held by the nobility and monarchy; the annuities may have been granted in recognition of Chaucer’s writing.

Chaucer is appointed controller of the port of London customs - a post he occupies for 12 years - and a life-long lease on accommodation in Aldgate.

Both the post and the accommodation would have allowed Chaucer to enjoy a comfortable life-style with sufficient time for writing.

Chaucer writes The House of Fame.

A dream vision in which the poet finds himself in a glass temple decorated with images of famous people and their deeds. Guided by an eagle, he contemplates the nature of fame and the reliability of written accounts. The poem is influenced by Italian literature, namely Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In a Latin legal document Cecily Chaumpaigne releases Chaucer from any further legal action concerning “de raptu meo.”

Whilst the word “raptus” can mean “abduction”, it is more likely to refer to rape; Chaucer’s payment of a £10 out of court settlement suggests an admission of guilt.

Chaucer writes Troilus and Criseyde.

Chaucer’s poetic retelling of the tragic story of the lovers Troilus and Criseyde set against the backdrop of the Trojan War.

Chaucer relocates to Kent.

During this time he is appointed as a Justice of Peace (1385-89) and a Member of Parliament (1386). The move to Kent may have motivated the composition of The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer writers The Parliament of Fowls.

A dream vision, set on Valentine’s day, in which the narrator is taken by a guide to Venus’s temple where he witnesses the parliament at which the birds choose their mates.

Chaucer writes The Legend of Good Women.

vAnother dream vision: in the prologue Chaucer is reprimanded by the god of love and his queen for depicting women in a negative light in his poetry. To atone, he writes ten stories of virtuous women, including Cleopatra and Dido. This poem is the first significant literary work in English to use the iambic pentameter.

Chaucer writers The Canterbury Tales

The literary work for which Chaucer is probably best known.

He becomes clerk of the King’s Works

This role involved organising the King’s building projects; it included overseeing the building of the jousting enclosures for the 1390 Smithfield tournament.

Granted an annual pension of £20 by Richard II.

The pension is renewed by Henry IV when he takes the throne in 1399.
1400, 25th October

Chaucer dies and is buried in Westminster Abbey

1478 and 1483

William Caxton produces the first printed editions of The Canterbury Tales.


William Thynne edits the first printed collection of Chaucer’s works.

Thynne’s editions – he produced revised versions in 1542 and 1545 - were the first contribution to a Chaucerian canon. At least 28 of the texts included are now known to have not been written by Chaucer.

Chaucer’s remains are moved to a new tomb in the area of Westminster Abbey now known as Poets’ Corner

Chaucer was the first poet to be interred in Poets’ Corner.
15th century

Chaucer is honoured posthumously by his contemporaries, the poets Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate.

Hoccleve (c. 1368-c. 1426) refers to Chaucer in his short poem Lament for Chaucer and his long work The Regiment of Princes (c. 1410-11). Lydgate (c. 1370-c. 1451) praises Chaucer in The Fall of Princes (1430s).
16th and 17th centuries

Chaucer is the most widely printed English author, and the first to have his works collected in single-volume editions.

The popularity of Chaucer’s works led to an interest in Chaucer the historical figure; he was constructed by his editors as an archetypal English proto-Protestant in order to validate the beliefs of Tudor England.

Frederick James Furnivall founds the Chaucer Society.

Furnivall (1825-1910) produced a number of transcripts and parallel-text editions of different manuscript versions of The Canterbury Tales.

Walter William Skeat establishes the base text of all Chaucer’s works with his one volume edition for Oxford University Press.


The Chaucer Review is founded.

This is the preeminent journal of Chaucer studies.

Recent editions can be accessed online


The Canterbury Tales visitor centre opens in Canterbury.


The Canterbury Tales are adapted for a modern audience by the BBC.

Six of the best-known tales are chosen for an updated treatment.

Read more about the modern Tales

About the Contributor

Rebecca Selman has a PhD in Medieval English Literature from the University of Exeter. She teaches English in an inner London girls’ state school, where she has responsibility for A-level English.

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