Chaucer was probably born in London, where his father was a vintner, in about 1342 and lived there for most of his life. He may have attended the school at St Paul’s Cathedral, the nearest to his family home in Thames Street, but there is no record that he did. His legal knowledge and administrative appointments suggest some further education at one of the Inns of Court, but again there is no record of this. He moved to Kent in 1386 but returned to London some years before his death (1400).
Chaucer’s decision to write in English was not inevitable. He was bilingual in English and French, which had been the language of the upper classes since the Norman Conquest. His friend, John Gower, wrote poems in English, French, and Latin. But English was gaining ground, Chaucer’s choice turned out well, and his poems are still read today. They are indeed easier to read than those of his great contemporaries, the authors of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman, because he was a Londoner. Various dialects were spoken in fourteenth-century England but, because of the city’s political, religious, cultural, and commercial importance, that of London and the area around it grew to dominate and became the ancestor of what we now call Standard English. As well as the dialects used, literary styles, genres, and metres differed in different parts of the country. Chaucer, influenced by French verse, writes in octosyllabic and decasyllabic couplets and rime royal and in The Canterbury Tales his Parson disowns the native alliterative verse surviving in the north: “I am a Southren man; / I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre” (Chaucer 2008: 287).
Chaucer was a productive but not a full-time writer. As a young man, he served in military campaigns in France for Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and for King Edward III. Connections with the court helped his ability to be recognized, and he was sent on diplomatic missions to France and Italy, travels which clearly also enriched his literary gifts. Familiar already with French culture, he was introduced in Genoa, Milan, and Florence to the artistic brilliance of Italy and shared the reverence in which its poets were held. There is no evidence that he traveled as far as Rome, but two of The Canterbury Tales take place in the early Christian centuries of mission and martyrdom, the Man of Law’s story of Constance, daughter of the Roman Emperor, and the Second Nun’s life of St Cecilia. Chaucer knew that the church of Santa Cecilia stood, as it still does, on the site of her martyrdom.
Back in London, he became controller of customs and later clerk of the king’s works. This variety of experience fed the range of characters and discourses which proliferate in his poems. As controller of customs, he was granted a rent-free apartment above Aldgate, conveniently placed for his work at the Custom House on the Thames, probably noisy but with beautiful views of city spires, surrounding countryside, comings and goings through the gate, and the teeming metropolitan life close at hand. Medieval London was more violent than the modern city, and Chaucer probably witnessed from his Aldgate home the most dramatic urban violence of his lifetime, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Peasants’ Revolt, which was not confined to the peasantry, was sparked by the imposition of a poll tax but was also a consequence of attempts to curb improvements in the condition of laborers whose services had risen in value because of the depletion of the workforce by the Black Death. It began in Essex, spread to Kent, and culminated in the storming of London by hordes of rebels, many bursting into the city through Aldgate, intent on destruction and murder. One of Chaucer’s few references to contemporary events recalls a horrific episode which took place close to his parents’ home. Thirty-five Flemings who sought sanctuary in the church of St Martin Vintry, the Chaucer family’s parish church, were dragged out and beheaded. Their corpses were left at the corner of Thames Street. This vignette of political upheaval and anti-immigrant hate crime is put to mock-heroic use in the Nuns’ Priest’s Tale when a farmyard is in uproar because the fox has seized Chauntecleer the cock:
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille
As thilke day was made upon the fox. (Chaucer 2008: 260)
It is an incongruously comic context, but Chaucer must have been horrified by the murder of the Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, who was captured in a chapel in the Tower of London and beheaded on Tower Hill, and by the burning of John of Gaunt’s splendid Savoy Palace in the Strand. Chaucer’s experience of the routine life of London, the view from the walls, and the management of the gates even contributes to his picture of Troy in Troilus and Criseyde. After a sleepless night, Troilus waits all day on the wall with the skeptical Pandarus, straining his eyes to see Criseyde, a hostage in the Greek camp, return as she had promised. Finally he has to give up as the gates are about to close for the night:
The warden of the yates gan to calle
The folk which that withoute the yates were,
And bad hem driven in hire bestes alle,
Or all the nyght they mosten bleven there. (Chaucer 2008: 575)
Perhaps because his main sources and influences were French, Italian, and Latin, Chaucer did not write much about London. It tends to occupy a liminal place in his poetry, at the end of a dream vision and in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. His earliest surviving poem, The Book of the Duchess, relates a dream in which the narrator meets in a forest a man dressed in black who is grieving over the death of his lady. It concludes with the bereaved man riding home to “A long castel with walles white, / Be Seynte Johan, on a ryche hil” (Chaucer 2008: 346), a cryptographically discreet identification of the mourner as John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who possessed a manor at Richmond. Chaucer (or his persona, also called Geoffrey) is accused by an eagle in The House of Fame of taking no interest in what goes on right outside his doors. He knows nothing about his neighbors but goes home (presumably to Aldgate) as soon as his “rekenynges” are done and sits down with a book as “domb as any stoon” till he is dazed (Chaucer 2008: 356). He lives like a hermit.
However, the author of The Canterbury Tales knows a great deal about the society he inhabits. His pilgrims are “sondry folk” (Chaucer 2008: 23), a cross-section of society, comprising all ranks from a knight down to a ploughman. A pilgrimage is a brilliant device for bringing together people from different walks of life with different experiences and opinions and was a popular form of religious devotion. The shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury was the most popular destination for English pilgrims, though the indefatigable Wife of Bath has also been to Jerusalem, Rome, Boulogne, Compostella, and Cologne. They foregather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, as it is safer to travel in groups. Southwark, south of the Thames, was a convenient starting point for a journey to Canterbury. Outside the city boundaries and less subject to its regulations, it was noted for its inns as well as notorious for its brothels. The respectable Tabard, situated on the modern Borough High Street, was an unusually large inn, able to accommodate the 29 pilgrims. Not all are from London. There are also pilgrims from Oxford, Norfolk, and Bath, and the Canon’s Yeoman joins them at Boughton, a few miles from Canterbury. The ideal Parson has chosen to minister to a poor country parish and would not consider going to St Paul’s Cathedral to seek an easier life in London as a chantry priest or chaplain to one of the many affluent city guilds. Similarly the scholarly and impoverished Clerk of “Oxenford” was not “so worldly for to have office” (Chaucer 2008: 28) (The educated layman like Chaucer was a new phenomenon, able to do work previously restricted to the clergy because almost no one else was literate.). The London pilgrims, some of whom may allude to actual Londoners, do indeed seem worldly and money-grubbing or social-climbing or both. Even the Prioress affects the airs and graces of a courtly lady, though her winsome French is not entirely á la mode. While the English upper and middle classes were fluent in French, there were evidently various London accents and the Prioress speaks it “After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, / For Frensshe of Parys was to hire unknowe” (Chaucer 2008: 25). There was a Benedictine convent at Stratford-at-Bow, where the Queen’s sister spent many years and was visited by Lionel, Duke of Clarence, probably when Chaucer was a page in his household. The Merchant cannot stop talking about the profit he makes, though he is actually in debt and is guilty of usury and illegal dealings in the exchange of foreign currency. Perhaps the pilgrimage is a handy way of evading his creditors. The Sergeant at Law is a business man as well as a lawyer. In addition to the fees he earns from his clients, he has skillfully amassed a property portfolio. The Doctor has done very well out of the plague and regards gold as the best medicine of all. The Manciple, a domestic bursar for one of the Inns of Court, is an astute embezzler and, although much less educated, can outwit a whole community of lawyers. The guildsmen have been very successful in their various trades and, as they are dressed in one livery, belong to a parish, rather than a craft, guild, supporting their parish church and paying priests to celebrate masses for their dead. They may well become aldermen and have pushy wives who long to be called “Madame” and take precedence in church. The host, Harry Bailey, innkeeper of the Tabard, is also a sharp operator: the prize for the story-telling competition he initiates will be a dinner at his inn, paid for by all the other pilgrims. His description of the Cook’s shop, where flies buzz round and meat pies are reheated, suggests competition and exploitation at an even more basic level. Life in London has dangers as well as opportunities of every kind. The Cook tells the only tale set in London. Though short and unfinished, it features several familiar London types. A prudent shopkeeper decides to cut his losses and let a rogue apprentice break his indenture and leave to roister and gamble with other dissolute youths and live with a couple who keep a shop as a cover for prostitution. There it ends and everyone would wish it longer.
The pilgrims do not represent every rank of English society. None is royal. But Chaucer had connections with royalty. He had been a page in the household of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and John of Gaunt became his brother-in-law with his third marriage to Philippa Chaucer’s sister, a relationship that had lasted many years. The frontispiece to a manuscript of Troilus shows Chaucer reading a poem to the court. In the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer is commanded to make up for his story of Criseyde’s infidelity by writing a book about virtuous women and present it to the queen “at Eltham or at Sheene” (Chaucer 2008: 602). His royal contacts may also have secured him lodgings in a property in the precinct of Westminster Abbey where the Henry VII chapel now stands. He spent his last years there and died in 1400. He was buried in the Abbey, and his tomb was moved in 1556 to the south transept, which became Poets’ Corner, the location for the graves and monuments of writers.
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