BORN: c. 1343, London, England DIED: 1400, London, England NATIONALITY: British, English GENRE:
Poetry MAJOR WORKS:
The Book of the Duchess (c. 1368–1372) The Parliament of Fowles (c. 1378–1381) Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382–1386) The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386–1400)
Widely regarded as the ‘‘father of English poetry,’’ Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the foremost representative of Middle English
literature. The originality of his language and style, the liveliness of his humor, the civility of his poetic demeanor, and the depth of his knowledge are continually cited as reasons for the permanence of his works. Due to his familiarity with French, English, Italian, and Latin literature, Chaucer was able to combine characteristics of each into a unique body of work that affirmed the rise of English as a literary language.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The son of John and Agnes (de Copton) Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer was born into a family of London-based wine merchants sometime in the early 1340s. He would serve three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV.
Chaucer first appears in household records in 1357 as a page in the service of Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. By 1359 he served in King Edward’s army in France during the early part of the Hundred Years’ War, a protracted territorial struggle between England and France that persisted throughout the fourteenth century, but was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom the following year, freeing him from the French, and Chaucer must have entered the king’s service shortly thereafter.
In the Company of John of Gaunt By 1366, Chaucer married Philippa Pan, another courtier who attended the Countess of Ulster. She was the sister of Katharine Swynford, who became mistress and subsequently wife to John of Gaunt, Edward III’s fourth son and the primary power behind the throne. John of Gaunt appears to have become Chaucer’s patron, because the pair’s fortunes rose and fell together for the next three decades. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366 on what would be the first of a series of diplomatic missions to the continent over the next decade. In 1368, the death of John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster, occasioned Chaucer’s composition of the Book of the Duchess, which was circulating by the time he went to France in 1370. Blanche had most likely died of the bubonic plague, a pandemic that started in central Asia and spread to Europe beginning in the 1340s, killing twenty to sixty percent of the population by the end of the century.
In this, his first major work, Chaucer attempts to soothe John of Gaunt’s grief. Although most of the lines have parallels in other French court poetry, the Book of the Duchess never reads like ‘‘translation English,’’ since it converts the insincere language and sentimental courtly romance imagery of the French models into a poignant reality—a beautiful woman is dead, and the Knight mourns her.
Italian Influences Chaucer traveled in Italy in 1372–1373, stopping in Genoa to negotiate a trade agreement and visiting Florence concerning loans for Edward III. He then returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London, a post he would hold until 1386. Chaucer’s career as a civil servant continued to flourish; he visited France and Calais in 1376 and 1378, and Italy again in 1378, and he gained additional customs responsibilities in 1382.
Critics believe that Chaucer next wrote the House of Fame and the Parlement of Foules (c. 1378–1381). Although the exact sequence of these works is indeterminate, both are thought to comment upon the efforts to arrange a suitable marriage for the young Richard II, John of Gaunt’s nephew: the Parlement on the unsuccessful efforts to gain the daughter of Charles V of France, and Fame on the actual betrothal of Richard with Anne of Bohemia in 1380.
Chaucer’s love affair with the Italian language, nurtured by his visits in 1372–1373 to Genoa and Florence and in 1378 to Lombardy, flowered in the following decade with his composition of Troilus and Criseyde. By 1385, Chaucer was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. The following year he became a member of Parliament.
A Critique of Church Corruption The Canterbury Tales, started sometime around 1386, is considered Chaucer’s masterpiece. Organized as a collection of stories told by a group of travelers on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a` Becket in Canterbury, The Canterbury Tales reflects the diversity of fourteenth-century English life. Notable in the work are thinly veiled, and sometimes not-so-thinly veiled, criticisms of the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The Friar, for example, is a greedy man more concerned with profit than saving souls. The Summoner and the Pardoner are both villainous characters who prey on the genuine religious devotion of common people. Such characters are reflections of the growing concern over the corruption of the church—concerns that would ultimately lead to the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century. The work also reflects the intellectual curiosity that characterized medieval Christianity. The
character the Clerk, an impoverished young student from Oxford University, for example, is presented as highly sympathetic.
Bawdy Humor The Canterbury Tales is also filled with humor that can be considered bawdy, if not crude, even by modern standards. Some historians have speculated that the seemingly endless war between France and England and the terrible devastation of the bubonic plague prompted many people to seek simple physical enjoyment in life in any way they could, including in drinking, eating, and sex. Discussions of those types of pleasures, and jokes about them, are peppered throughout Chaucer’s text. Chaucer originally planned to write more than one hundred stories for his Tales, but he died without finishing.
Works in Literary Context
Chaucer is renowned as a pioneer in English language literature primarily because he was one of the first writers of literature in English. Latin had long been the standard language for writing in Europe, although Chaucer had read and appreciated the works of such Italian-language writers as Boccaccio and Petrach, both of whom influenced his work.
Vernacular Literature: Writing in English In the fourteenth century, England had little literary reputation and English was not considered a ‘‘literary’’ language. English was considered a rough tongue, strictly a spoken language for the common people. Critic Jeffrey Helterman explains, ‘‘It would have been surprising in the fourteenth century for anyone to think of writing in his native tongue, and this was particularly true for Chaucer’s role models. The first impulse for a medieval writer who was writing something he wanted remembered was to write it in Latin.’’ Chaucer, however, chose to write his major works in English, perhaps striking a blow for the common man. If Chaucer himself had not erased all doubt as to the power and beauty of the English language, fellow Englishman
William Shakespeare would, two hundred years later, with brilliant plays written in blank verse English. Shakespeare followed consciously in the footsteps of Chaucer, and his debt to the earlier writer is widely noted by critics.
The Frame Tale The Canterbury Tales, although unfinished, is a brilliant advance on the frame tale as practiced by Boccaccio in The Decameron. A framed story is one which one or more stories are set within a situation that is laid out at the beginning: for example, in The Canterbury Tales, the narrative frame is the pilgrimage being made by all the characters. The stories told about and by the characters are set within this narrative frame. It should be noted that there is no certainty that Chaucer knew of The Decameron’s existence. In the days before printing presses, fragments of a manuscript were gathered with no concern for a whole work or even an individual
author; Chaucer may have known a tale from The Decameron without being aware of the whole book.
In The Decameron, the tales of the day hang statically on the pegs of a topic; not even the black plague impacts much on Boccaccio’s tale-telling. His tales, clever as they are, remain isolated in the narrative. Not so in Chaucer— each character uses his tale as a weapon or tool to get back at or even with the previous tale teller.
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Chaucer’s Views of Medieval Society in "Canterbury Tales" Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the “The Canterbury Tales,” shows his views of medieval society through various characters in “The Canterbury Tales.”
Chaucer’s expresses his views of society through characters in “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer’s views of medieval society are based on his opinions on certain people. Throughout “The Canterbury Tales” Chaucer tends to criticize or The Canterbury Tales The Canterbury Tales are a series of stories written by the late, great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The tales are about a group of twenty-nine pilgrims who set off on a pilgrimage to a cathedral in Canterbury, England, about five miles south of London. The cathedral was a special place. It was a shrine where The Effects of Characterization in The Canterbury Tales In Geoffrey Chaucer’s work, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer implements various techniques of characterization in “The Prologue” to express attributes of characters in the work. Chaucer reveals the personality of a character by directly commenting on a character’s past experiences, interests, actions, and personality. In addition, Chaucer characterizes the pilgrims to provide a perspective of the English – Chaucer’s Attitude Towards Wealth In the masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer described his characters by classification. Chaucer describes the character’s wealth as an impression on the character, good or bad. Chaucer’s attitude helped to create feelings for the characters that were described throughout the work. Chaucer attitude towards the guildsmens’ showy wealth was opposing of their real character. Reader response to Canterbury tales In his prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are involved in this fictional journey and who will tell the tales. One of the more interesting of the characters included in this introductory section is the Knight. Chaucer initially refers to the Knight as «a most distinguished man» and, indeed, his sketch of