Poet Geoffrey Chaucer was born circa 1340 in London, England. In 1357 he became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster and continued in that capacity with the British court throughout his lifetime. The Canterbury Tales became his best known and most acclaimed work. He died October 25, 1400 in London, England, and was the first to be buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer was born circa 1340, most likely at his parents’ house on Thames Street in London, England. Chaucer’s family was of the bourgeois class, descended from an affluent family who made their money in the London wine trade. According to some sources, Chaucer’s father, John, carried on the family wine business.
Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have attended the St. Paul’s Cathedral School, where he probably first became acquainted with the influential writing of Virgil and Ovid.
In 1357, Chaucer became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster, the Duke of Clarence’s wife, for which he was paid a small stipend—enough to pay for his food and clothing. In 1359, the teenage Chaucer went off to fight in the Hundred Years’ War in France, and at Rethel he was captured for ransom. Thanks to Chaucer’s royal connections, King Edward III helped pay his ransom. After Chaucer’s release, he joined the Royal Service, traveling throughout France, Spain and Italy on diplomatic missions throughout the early to mid-1360s. For his services, King Edward granted Chaucer a pension of 20 marks.
In 1366, Chaucer married Philippa Roet, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet, and the marriage conveniently helped further Chaucer’s career in the English court.
By 1368, King Edward III had made Chaucer one of his esquires. When the queen died in 1369, it served to strengthen Philippa’s position and subsequently Chaucer’s as well. From 1370 to 1373, he went abroad again and fulfilled diplomatic missions in Florence and Genoa, helping establish an English port in Genoa. He also spent time familiarising himself with the work of Italian poets Dante and Petrarch along the way. By the time he returned, he and Philippa were prospering, and he was rewarded for his diplomatic activities with an appointment as Comptroller of Customs, a lucrative position. Meanwhile, Philippa and Chaucer were also granted generous pensions by John of Gaunt, the first duke of Lancaster.
In 1377 and 1388, Chaucer engaged in yet more diplomatic missions, with the objectives of finding a French wife for Richard II and securing military aid in Italy. Busy with his duties, Chaucer had little time to devote to writing poetry, his true passion. In 1385 he petitioned for temporary leave. For the next four years he lived in Kent but worked as a justice of the peace and later a Parliament member, rather than focusing on his writing.
When Philippa passed away in 1387, Chaucer stopped sharing in her royal annuities and suffered financial hardship. He needed to keep working in public service to earn a living and pay off his growing accumulation of debt.
The precise dates of many of Chaucer’s written works are difficult to pin down with certainty, but one thing is clear: His major works have retained their relevancy even in the college classroom of today.
Chaucer’s body of best-known works includes the Parliament of Fouls, otherwise known as the Parlement of Foules, in the Middle English spelling. Some historians of Chaucer’s work assert that it was written in 1380, during marriage negotiations between Richard and Anne of Bohemia. Critic J.A.W. Bennet interpreted the Parliament of Fouls as a study of Christian love. It had been identified as peppered with Neo-Platonic ideas inspired by the likes of poets Cicero and Jean De Meun, among others. The poem uses allegory, and incorporates elements of irony and satire as it points to the inauthentic quality of courtly love. Chaucer was well acquainted with the theme firsthand—during his service to the court and his marriage of convenience to a woman whose social standing served to elevate his own.
Chaucer is believed to have written the poem Troilus and Criseyde sometime in the mid-1380s. Troilus and Criseyde is a narrative poem that retells the tragic love story of Troilus and Criseyde in the context of the Trojan War. Chaucer wrote the poem using rime royal, a technique he originated. Rime royal involves rhyming stanzas consisting of seven lines apiece.
Troilus and Criseyde is broadly considered one of Chaucer’s greatest works, and has a reputation for being more complete and self-contained than most of Chaucer’s writing, his famed The Canterbury Tales being no exception.
The period of time over which Chaucer penned The Legend of Good Women is uncertain, although most scholars do agree that Chaucer seems to have abandoned it before its completion. The queen mentioned in the work is believed to be Richard II’s wife, Anne of Bohemia. Chaucer’s mention of the real-life royal palaces Eltham and Sheen serve to support this theory. In writing The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer played with another new and innovative format: The poem comprises a series of shorter narratives, along with the use of iambic pentameter couplets (seen for the first time in English).
The Canterbury Tales is by far Chaucer’s best known and most acclaimed work. Initially Chaucer had planned for each of his characters to tell four stories a piece. The first two stories would be set as the character was on his/her way to Canterbury, and the second two were to take place as the character was heading home. Apparently, Chaucer’s goal of writing 120 stories was an overly ambitious one. In actuality, The Canterbury Tales is made up of only 24 tales and rather abruptly ends before its characters even make it to Canterbury. The tales are fragmented and varied in order, and scholars continue to debate whether the tales were published in their correct order. Despite its erratic qualities, The Canterbury Tales continues to be acknowledged for the beautiful rhythm of Chaucer’s language and his characteristic use of clever, satirical wit.
A Treatise on the Astrolabe is one of Chaucer’s nonfiction works. It is an essay about the astrolabe, a tool used by astronomers and explorers to locate the positions of the sun, moon and planets. Chaucer planned to write the essay in five parts but ultimately only completed the first two. Today it is one of the oldest surviving works that explain how to use a complex scientific tool, and is thought to do so with admirable clarity.
From 1389 to 1391, after Richard II had ascended to the throne, Chaucer held a draining and dangerous position as Clerk of the Works. He was robbed by highwaymen twice while on the job, which only served to further compound his financial worries. To make matters even worse, Chaucer had stopped receiving his pension. Chaucer eventually resigned the position for a lower but less stressful appointment as sub-forester, or gardener, at the King’s park in Somersetshire.
When Richard II was deposed in 1399, his cousin and successor, Henry IV, took pity on Chaucer and reinstated Chaucer’s former pension. With the money, Chaucer was able to lease an apartment in the garden of St. Mary’s Chapel in Westminster, where he lived modestly for the rest of his days.
The legendary 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died October 25, 1400 in London, England. He died of unknown causes and was 60 years old at the time. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey. His gravestone became the center of what was to be called Poet’s Corner, a spot where such famous British writers as Robert Browning and Charles Dickens were later honoured and interred.
“The Canterbury Tales” (Middle English: Tales of Caunterbury) is a collection of twenty-four stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. In 1386, Chaucer became Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace and, in 1389, Clerk of the King's works. It was during these years that Chaucer began working on his most famous text, “The Canterbury Tales”. The tales, mostly written in verse, although some are in prose, are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
After a long list of works written earlier in his career, including “Troilus and Criseyde”, “House of Fame”, and “Parliament of Fowls”, “The Canterbury Tales” is near-unanimously seen as Chaucer's magnum opus. He uses the tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Chaucer's use of such a wide range of classes and types of people was without precedent in English. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of insights into customs and practices of the time. Often, such insight leads to a variety of discussions and disagreements among people in the 14th century. For example, although various social classes are represented in these stories and all of the pilgrims are on a spiritual quest, it is apparent that they are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual. Structurally, the collection resembles Giovanni Boccaccio's “The Decameron”, which Chaucer may have read during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372.
It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer's time, and several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.
While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems, the intended audience of “The Canterbury Tales” is more difficult to determine. Chaucer was a courtier, leading some to believe that he was mainly a court poet who wrote exclusively for nobility.
“The Canterbury Tales” is generally thought to have been incomplete at the end of Chaucer's life. In the “General Prologue”, some 30 pilgrims are introduced. According to the Prologue, Chaucer's intention was to write four stories from the perspective of each pilgrim, two each on the way to and from their ultimate destination, St. Thomas Becket's shrine (making for a total of about 120 stories). Although perhaps incomplete, “The Canterbury Tales” is revered as one of the most important works in English literature. It is also open to a wide range of interpretations.
The question of whether “The Canterbury Tales” is a finished work has not been answered to date. There are 84 manuscripts and four incunable (printed before c.1540) editions of the work, dating from the late mediæval and early Renaissance periods, more than for any other vernacular literary text with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the Tales' popularity during the century after Chaucer's death. Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have been originally complete, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to ascertain whether they were copied individually or as part of a set. The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists' errors, while it is suggested that in other cases Chaucer both added to his work and revised it as it was being copied and possibly as it was being distributed. Determining the text of the work is complicated by the question of the narrator's voice which Chaucer made part of his literary structure.
Even the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Tales are not Chaucer's originals. The very oldest is probably MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), written by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The most beautiful, on the other hand, is the Ellesmere Manuscript, a manuscript handwritten by one person with illustrations by several illustrators; the tales are put in an order that many later editors have followed for centuries. The first version of The Canterbury Tales to be published in print was William Caxton's 1476 edition. Only 10 copies of this edition are known to exist, including one held by the British Library and one held by the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Chaucer wrote in late Middle English, which has clear differences from Modern English. From philological research, we know certain facts about the pronunciation of English during the time of Chaucer. Chaucer pronounced -e at the end of words, so that care was [ˈkaːrə], not /kɛər/ as in Modern English. Other silent letters were also pronounced, so that the word knight was [kniçt], with both the k and the gh pronounced, not /naɪt/. In some cases, vowel letters in Middle English were pronounced very differently from Modern English, because the Great Vowel Shift had not yet happened. For instance, the long e in wepyng "weeping" was pronounced as [eː], as in modern German or Italian, not as /iː/.
Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer's own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe with whom he seems to have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence that Chaucer himself wrote the Tales. Because the final -e sound was lost soon after Chaucer's time, scribes did not accurately copy it, and this gave scholars the impression that Chaucer himself was inconsistent in using it. It has now been established, however, that -e was an important part of Chaucer's grammar, and helped to distinguish singular adjectives from plural and subjunctive verbs from indicative.
No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of The Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organise the journey. Harold Bloom suggests that the structure is mostly original, but inspired by the "pilgrim" figures of Dante and Virgil in “The Divine Comedy”. New research suggests that the “General Prologue”, in which the innkeeper and host Harry Bailey introduces each pilgrim, is a pastiche of the historical Harry Bailey's surviving 1381 poll-tax account of Southwark's inhabitants.
The “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to “The Canterbury Tales” than any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Death). It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. A quarter of the tales in The Canterbury Tales parallel a tale in the “Decameron”, although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Some scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he must have merely read the “Decameron” at some point, while a new study claims he had a copy of the “Decameron” and used it extensively as he began work on his own collection. Each of the tales has its own set of sources that have been suggested by scholars, but a few sources are used frequently over several tales. They include poetry by Ovid, the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions in which it was available at the time (the exact one is difficult to determine), and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to use the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' “Consolation of Philosophy” appears in several tales, as the works of John Gower do. Gower was a known friend to Chaucer. A full list is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopaedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's “Summa Praedicantium”, a preacher's handbook, and Jerome's “Adversus Jovinianum”. Many scholars say there is a good possibility Chaucer met Petrarch or Boccaccio.
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