GEOFFREY CHAUCER, the first poet to write in modern English, was born about 1340 inFrench he was 'of the
Thames Street, London. His father, John Chaucer, was a prosperous wine merchant. His grandfather, Robert le Chaucer, was collector of the customs on wine in 1310, and had property at Ipswich and elsewhere in . Although Chaucer's father was at one time a purveyor to King Edward III and Chaucer himself was connected with the royalty all through his life, he was not of noble birth. According to R.D. Suffolk
There is evidence that Chaucer's father escaped wedlock with his cousin John. Instead he married Agnes, the niece and heiress of a citizen and property-owner of
, Homo do Copton by name. She brought him a good deal of fortune by virtue of which he owned many pieces of property in and around London . Agnes survived John and married again in 1367 and unless she was his second wife, she must have been Geoffrey's mother. London
Chaucer was a handsome and attractive man. He was of pleasing manners, of gay and whimsical humour, occasionally liable to moods of seriousness and gravity that became him well and did not diminish his welcome at the King's palace. He had a well-built stature which in his middle years inclined towards corpoleney. His face was full and smooth. His complexion was fair, reflecting a shade of paleness. He had short, thin, dusky hair. His wheaten beard fashioned into a forked shape and in his expansive, marble like unwrinkled forehead, the eyes constantly tended towards the ground. The host in the Canterbury Tales remarks:
What man art thou...
That lookest as thou wouldest find a hare;
For ever on the ground I see thee stare.
There is reason to believe that the Host's downcast look, the strict attention, the labouring thought, the hand waving for silence, the manner of address in speaking, the smooth familiar way of arguing, the respectful way of stating his objections, and, in short, every expression as judge and reporter of the tales of the Canterbury pilgrims is a description of Chaucer himself.
Of Chaucer's early education no definite record is available. It can be only guessed how and where he received the education which fitted him for his career as courtier and poet, for no certain knowledge about the years of his life, prior to his appearance in the retinue of Countess of Ulster in 1357 is accessible. Miss Ricket thinks that it is possible that Chaucer attended the school connected with
's cathedral where the almoney library contained many volumes of the classics. This inference is based on a statement made by Speght in 1598. According to him Chaucer studied at the St. Paul where it is on record that he was fined two shillings for beating a Franciscane Frayer in Fletestreate. The education given at the Inner Temple was an expensive one, but it would not have been beyond the means of a man of John Chaucer's wealth, and it would certainly have offered the most desirable form of training for a young man destined for a career at court. Temple
Young men in Chaucer's time had their education either at the University, or in some nobleman's house as pages. It appears that Chaucer was never a university scholar. At the age of seventeen when he became a page in Prince Lionel's house-hold he was lucky enough to have there the benefit of society of the highest refinement. His imagination was fed by scenes of the most brilliant court festivities. He had opportunities as well as royal encouragement in the exercise of his poetic genius which led to a refinement of expression in his own language. Wherever Chaucer might have studied, one fact is certain. His education was well attended to. He possessed a remarkable acquaintance with the classics, divinity, astronomy, chemistry, physiogonomy, philosophy, rhetorics and every other branch of the scholastic learning of the age. He was, therefore, in the words of A. C. Baugh no untaught phenomenon.
Chaucer married Philippa in 1366. She was one of the 'domicellae' of the queen's chamber and it is on record that on September 12, 1366, an annuity of ten marks was granted to her by the king, perhaps on the occasion of her marriage. Whether Chaucer had any former intimacy with her is not known. She was, according to a generally acceptable theory, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet, a knight of
Hainaut and King of arms of in the time of Edward III. He came to Guienne in the train of Queen Philippa, who was a princess of England Hainaut, and it is more than likely that his daughter was named after the queen. Chaucer Philippa died in 1387. That Chaucer was a faithful husband is very improbable. It is also equally improbable that his married life was a happy one. As E.W. Edmunds notes indiscriminate love-making was a commonplace aspect of the decadent chivalry of the time, and Chaucer's various complaints about unknown lady-loves must have had some basis in fact. A heart-breaking passion for a married woman would not have aroused a blush in his environment. The age was a strange mixture of restraint and licence in regard to the female sex. The fickle Cressida and the light-of-love demurely modest were common types. And the biting irony with which Chaucer often refers to wedded life as in the Clerk's Tale (1381) seems to reflect his own experience.
Chaucer had a chequered public career. He became a page in the household of Elizabeth, wife of Lionel, duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward III in 1357 at the age of seventeen. In 1359, he joined the army of Edward III when that king invaded
, and was there taken prisoner. He was set at liberty in March 1360 when Edward paid £16 towards his ransom. France
In 1367 the King granted him life-pension of 20 marks in consideration of his services, as being one of the valets of his household.
In October 1368, his patron, Lionel died. Chaucer's services were consequently transferred to his next brother, John of Gaunt, duke of
In the autumn of 1369, when 29-year old Blanche, the first wife of John of Gaunt passed away. Chaucer did honour to her in an elegy entitled 'The Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse'.
From 1370 to 1386, Chaucer was attached to the court, and employed in frequent diplomatic services. In 1372 he visited
, Genoa and Pisa . His eleven-month stay in Florence during this period exercised a marked influence on the development of his poetic genius. Diplomatically, too, his mission to Italy was very successful. The King granted him a pitcher of wine daily at the celebration of the great festival at Italy on S. George's day, Windsor April 23, 1374. On June 8, 1374, he was appointed to the important office of Comptroller of the Customs and Subsidy of Wools, Skins and Leather, and on June 13, 1374 he received a life pension of £10 from the duke of for the good service rendered by him and his wife Philippa to duke, his consort and his mother. In 1375 (November 8) the crown conferred upon him the custody of the lands and person of one Edmond Staplegate of Kent which considerably raised his income. On Lancaster July 12, 1376, the King granted him a sum of £71 4s.6d., being the value of a fine paid by one John Kent for shipping wool without paying the duty thereon. In February 1377, Chaucer was employed on a secret mission to Flanders, and received for it, in all, the sum of £30. In April 1377 he was sent to , to treat for peace with King Charles V. For this service he received in all the sum of £48 13s.4d. On France June 21,1377, King Edward III died, and was succeeded by his grandson Richard II.
In January 1378, Chaucer seems to have been employed in
. Soon afterwards he was again sent to France , from May 28 to Italy September 19, 1378, on a mission to Lombardy, to treat with Barnabo Visconti, duke of . Before leaving Milan on this business, Chaucer appointed his friend John Gower, the poet, as one of his agents to represent him in his absence. England
By deed of
May 1, 1380, one Ceclia Chaumpayne released Chaucer from a charge (not ascertained so far) which she had brought against him.
In addition to the Comptroller of the Wool Customs to which he was appointed in 1374, Chaucer was oppointed Comptroller of the Petty Customs on
May 8, 1382. In 1390, he was appointed (with five others) to superintend the repairing of the banks of the Thames between Woolwich and . In the same year, he was robbed at Hatchmen which is near Deptford and Greenwich . Greenwich
In 1386 Chaucer was elected a knight of the shire for
, in the Parliament held at Westminister. In August 1386 when his patron John of Gaunt was deposed by his brother Thomas duke of Kent , while the former was in Gloucester , Chaucer was relieved of his post of Comptrollership and consequently reduced to so much poverty that he was compelled to raise money upon his pensions, which were later assigned to John Scalby on Spain May 1, 1388.
In 1387 Chaucer lost his wife Philippa to whom he alludes in his Envoy to Bukton. It was probably at this time that he composed portions of his greatest poem, the Canterbury Tales.
After the restoration to power of John of Gaunt's Lancastrian party in 1389, Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King's Work at Westminister on July 12, at a salary of 2s. a day. In 1390, he was also appointed Clerk of the works at
Chapel at St. George's , and was put on a Commission to repair the banks of the Windsor Thames between Woolwich and . Greenwich
In September 1390, he was twice robbed of some of the king's money (£101 at Westminister and £91.3s. 6d. at Hatcham,
Surrey) but the repayment of these sums was forgiven him.
In 1391, for some unknown reason, he lost his appointment as Clerk of the Works.
In February 1394, Chaucer received a grant from the king of £201 a year for life. Nevertheless, he seems to have been in want of money because he made applications for the advancement of money from his pension.
In 1398 Chaucer was made sole Forester of North Petherton Part, instead of Joint Forester, as in 1390. In October of the same year, the king granted him a tun of wine yearly, for his life-time.
On September 30, 1399, Henry IV became king of England and Chaucer addressed to him a complaint regarding his poverty in response to which Henry granted that the poet's pension of twenty marks should be doubled, in addition to the £201 a year which had been granted to him in 1374.
On Christmas eve of 1399, Chaucer took a long lease of a house in the garden of the Chapel of St. Mary, Westminister. This house stood near the spot now occupied by king Henry the Seventh's Chapel. The lease is in the Muniment Room of Westminister Abbey.
The traditional date of Chaucer's death is
October 25, 1400, in the second year of Henry IV. His death doubtless took place in his newly acquired house at Westminister; and he attained to the age of about sixty years. Of his family, nothing is known. His 'little son' Lewis probably died young; and there is no evidence earlier than the reign of Henry VI that the Thomas Chaucer whose great grandson, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was declaredh eir to the throne by his uncle, Richard III, in 1484, was Chaucer's son. As Thomas Chaucer was a man of great wealth, and of some mark, there should had been an early and undoubted evidence regarding his parentage.
Chaucer was buried in Westminister Abbey ; the first of the poets to lie in Poets' Corner.
Temperament and Philosophy
Chaucer had a very genial temperament. He would radiate love and affection, sympathy and understanding for one and all. He knew that evil was as essential a feature of life as good and as such he had the unique power of liking people whom he did not respect. His spiritual sanity showed itself in being able to take at once his heathenism so lightly and his Christianity so weightily; in treating the gods and the grim fates as trifles, and the little relics and holy tokens as if they were large things. He was in fact a whole man—the voice, not of a party, not of a country, but of mankind. His philosophy was all-inclusve. He saw life reflected in a mirror of many facets...mysterious, perplexing, beautiful, sordid, serious, mean, refined, bestial, changefu and infinitely interesting. Since he had an amazing fund of golod will and tolerance in his generous heart, he never hated the world, nor did he undervalue it or despise it. He only distrusted it, as mellowed and matured old gentlemen might distruct a bridge made by larky little boys. His literary works, especially the Canterbury Tales, indicate that he had abundant zest for life. All his characters live life of this or that sort with a ceaseless round of joyful activities. And strangely enough the vicious are as busy in his world as the virtuous, both drinking deep at the fountains of existence according to their individual tastes. It is thus obvious that Chaucer was a man of catholic attitude. He had the comprehensive vision of a true dramatic poet like Shakespeare on whose stage all the players had opportunities to act and express themselves according to their peculiar temperaments and philosophies. Again, like Shakespeare Chaucer was a poet of humanity, accepting all, rejecting nothing, but at the same time maintaining a profound moral sense about men and their actions. He had, indeed, a delightful temperament and a cheery philosophy even in a vicious and sordid world because his humanism had fostered in his heart springs of inexhaustibe love for men and women of every hue and complexion.
Attitude Towards Man-Woman Relationship
Chaucer had a balanced view about man-woman relationship. He knew that both men and women suffer from peculiar vices and vanities. As to the question of superiority of the one to the other, he gives us a healthy debate in his Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath is a dominating lady who has experienced conjugal relations with five husbands and will welcome the sixth one whenever God will send him. Apart from these legitimate sexual alliances, she had some undisclosed company in her youth. Her conception of man-woman relationship is favourably biased towards her own sex. She believes that man is unfit for dominion over his wife. He should therefore abandon the age-old idea of keeping a woman in his thraldom. According to her, the wife is the head of the house and man is no match for woman, anyway. Obedience is, therefore, not her duty, but the husband's. Let men sink back to their proper level, and cease their ridiculous efforts to maintain a position for which they are not fit. Then marriages will be happy, otherwise there is no hope for anything but misery in wedlock. To this imbalanced view is the reply given by the
. He offers a very sensible approach to the relationship between the sexes. In true marriage, he argues, there should be no assertion of sovereignity on either side. Love must be the controlling principle,...perfect, gentle love, which brings forbearance with it. This is undoubtedly a practical solution to the problems of man-woman partnership in a home, and since Chaucer is an advocate of harmony in the game of life, there is reason to believe that the Franklin is here voicing the poet's own attitude towards man-woman relationship. Franklin
Chaucer was not an orthodox religionist. He did not question fundamental religious beliefs such as the providence and trinity of God, redemption from sin and entrance into enternal bliss offered by Christ, the son of God. He had faith in the sanctity and ideal beauty of the virgin mother of Christ, the authority of the Church and the doctrines of salvation. But this belief was inherited rather than a personal testament. G. G. Coulton says that as a boy Chaucer had knelt unthinkingly ; as a broken old man, he was equally ready to bow again before Eternal Omnipoetence, and to weep bitterly for his sins. But, in his years of ripe experiences and prosperity and conscious intellectual power, we must think of him neither among the devout hunters of shrines and sanctuaries nor among those who sat more austerely at the feet of Wycliffe's Poor Priest; rather among the rich and powerful folk who scandalised both Catholics and Lollards by taking God's name in vain among their cups, and whetting their worldly wit on sacred mysteries.
From all available evidence it appears that Chaucer was a good Catholic. But he was also an acceptable member of the Christian community as whole. His attachment to a particular branch of Christianity did not make him rigid in any way. He was, to all intents and purposes, a free soul. In fact while having holiness in his heart, he did not abandon his worldly interests. His scientific knowledge, intellectual curiosity and appetite for the joys of life tended to make him a secular man. A laudable aspect about him is that even in his secular attitudes he was not void of fundamental religious piety. As G.K. Chesterton puts it Chaucer had charity that was the heart and not merely the mind of ancient Christendom. And between the black robes of Gower, his contemporary poet, and the grey gown of Langland, another poet of the age, he stood clothed in scarlet like all the household love, emblazoned with the Sacred Heart.