Chaucer’s Life and Times

  • Janette Dillon
Part of the Writers in their Time book series (WRTI)


The life of Geoffrey Chaucer is better documented than that of many a later writer. This is due to the fact that he entered service in one of the royal households at an early age and remained in public service for the rest of his life. His various duties and travels, together with the payments and gifts made to him, are therefore well documented in public records. The precise date and place of Chaucer’s birth are unknown. He was born some time in the early 1340s, most probably in London. The closest reference to his birth is his own testimony when giving evidence in the Scrope-Grosvenor trial of 1386 that he was then forty years old ‘et plus’ and that he had borne arms for twenty-seven years.1 He was the son of John Chaucer, a prosperous wine-merchant, or vintner, and Agnes de Copton, who later increased their prosperity through the inheritance of several properties. John Chaucer also served Edward III as deputy chief butler from 1347 to 1349 and held positions in the customs service, as had his father and other members of the family. The Chaucer family owned considerable property in the Vintry Ward in central London, an area occupied by noblemen and merchants as well as vintners. One of their holdings was in Thames Street, which ran parallel to the river one block north, and it has usually been assumed that Chaucer grew up in this house.2


Fourteenth Century Life Annuity Good Woman Canterbury Tale Song School 
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  1. 1.
    Chaucer Life-Records, ed. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 370–4. Where quotations concerning Chaucer’s life are not attributed they should be assumed to derive from the Life-Records (hereafter cited as LR). The records are all in either French or Latin, but quotations are usually given here in English translation.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The burdens of taxation are fully discussed by Barbara A. Hanawalt, ‘Peasant Resistance to Royal and Seignorial Impositions’, in Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages, ed. F. X. Newman, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 39 (Binghamton, NY, 1986) pp. 23–48. She notes that contemporary observers feared a peasant revolt in 1341 on account of the tax imposed in that year.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Jean Froissart, Chronicles, sel., trans. and ed. Geoffrey Brereton, rev. edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978) p. 92.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See, for example, W. M. Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III: Crown and Political Society in England 1327–1377 (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 21; andGoogle Scholar
  5. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Harmondsworth: Penguin, rpt 1982) ch. 14.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley, 2 vols, RS, 28 (1863–4) vol. I, p. 273;Google Scholar
  7. quoted in The World of Piers Plowman, ed. J. Krochalis and E. Peters (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975) p. 77. John B. Friedman, discussing the portrayal of the plague in the visual arts (‘“He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence”: Iconography of the Plague in the Late Middle Ages’, in Newman, Social Unrest, pp. 75–112), notes the emphasis placed on the insufficiency of the living to bury the dead in visual representations as well as written accounts.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    The full inventory of Ravenstone’s collection can be consulted in Edith Rickert’s useful collection of fourteenth-century documents, Chaucer’s World, ed. C. C. Olson and M. M. Crow (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1948) pp. 122–6. Rickert points out that library regulations seem to have allowed students to continue to borrow books after they had left the school.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    D. S. Bland, ‘Chaucer and the Inns of Court: A Re-Examination’, English Studies, vol. 33 (1952) pp. 145–55 has argued that the notion that Chaucer spent some time at the Inns of Court can be considered as ‘no more than a plausible theory’ (p. 149) and Richard Firth Green (Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980]) has shown very convincingly that the familia of the royal court received a wide-ranging education, and certainly up to the standard that future service in the king’s household offices would require.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 18.
    See, for example, J. I. Wimsatt, Chaucer and the poems of ‘Ch’ (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, Rowman & Littlefield, 1982). Wimsatt prints some French poems found with the marginal annotation ‘Ch’. Although there is no external evidence that these poems are by Chaucer, Wimsatt prints them in order to suggest ‘more precisely … what Chaucer’s French poetry might have been like’ (p. 1).Google Scholar
  11. 26.
    See David Wallace, ‘Chaucer’s Continental Inheritance’, in The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) p. 21, andGoogle Scholar
  12. J. A. W. Bennett, ‘Chaucer, Dante and Boccaccio’, in Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, ed. Piero Boitani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) pp. 90–1.Google Scholar
  13. 27.
    The Anonimalle Chronicle: 1333–1381, ed. V. H. Galbraith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1927) pp. 79–80; trans. Rickert, Chaucer’s World, p. 165.Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    Sermon 69 in M. A. Devlin, ed., The Sermons of Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester, 2 vols, Camden 3rd series, 85, 86 (1954). The translation quoted here is from the introduction, p. xxv. The fable was already popular with earlier writers. The French version, by Nicholas Bozon, is translated in Krochalis and Peters, The World of Piers Plowman, pp. 165–6. The allegory originally represented prelates and their parishioners.Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century 1307–1399 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959) p. 396.Google Scholar
  16. 39.
    Quoted in Michael Packe, King Edward III, ed. L. C. B. Seaman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) p. 120. Packe cites the relevant extracts from both Le Bel’s and Froissart’s accounts, and discusses their implications. As he points out (p. 121), there is still room for doubt about the truth. Packe also notes (p. 119) that Le Bel’s use of the verb ‘efforcha’ to denote rape is capable of the same ambiguity as the Latin ‘raptus’, though there is no ambiguity as to its intended meaning in this context.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    See Roland Blenner-Hassett, ‘Autobiographical Aspects of Chaucer’s Franklin’, Speculum, vol. 28 (1953) pp. 791–800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 42.
    Hist. Ang., vol. I, p. 323; cited in R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970) p. 103. Dobson collects and translates a very good selection from the contemporary chronicles.Google Scholar
  19. 46.
    Chronicon, ed. J. R. Lumby, 2 vols, RS, 92 (1889–95) vol. II, p. 135.Google Scholar
  20. 49.
    Polychronicon, ed. J. R. Lumby, 9 vols, RS, 41 (1865–86) vol. IX, p. 1. See also Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, p. 199.Google Scholar
  21. 50.
    The Major Latin Works of John Gower, trans. Eric W. Stockton (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962) p. 49.Google Scholar
  22. 54.
    See K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) for a full account of the careers of these knights and discussion of their Lollard inclinations.Google Scholar
  23. 56.
    Russell A. Peck, in an article entitled ‘Social Conscience and the Poets’ (in Newman, Social Unrest, pp. 113–48), argues that many of Wyclifs views found their way into poetry of the 1390s, with an emphasis on their implications for society and the individual rather than for theological orthodoxy. See also Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) ch. 9, ‘The Context of Vernacular Wycliffism’.Google Scholar

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© Janette Dillon 1993

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