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Life and Career
The known facts of Chaucer’s life are fragmentary and are based almost
entirely on official records. He was born in London between 1340 and
1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357 he was a page in the
household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for
many years. In 1359–60 he was with the army of Edward III in France,
where he was captured by the French but ransomed.
By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of
John of Gaunt’s third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s
queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on
diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 1372–73 and in
1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions, among them
comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London
(1374–86) and clerk of the king’s works (1389–91). The official date of
Chaucer’s death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer’s literary activity is often divided into three periods. The
first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely
on French models, especially the Roman de la Rose and the poems of
Guillaume de Machaut. Chaucer’s chief works during this time are the
Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death
of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the
Roman de la Rose.
Chaucer’s second period (up to c.1387) is called his Italian period
because during this time his works were modeled primarily on Dante and
Boccaccio. Major works of the second period include The House of Fame,
recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The
Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St.
Valentine’s Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II
to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius’ De consolatione
Also among the works of this period are the unfinished Legend of Good
Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the
heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English
verse; the prose fragment The Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his
son Lewis; and Troilus and Criseyde, based on Boccaccio’s Filostrato,
one of the great love poems in the English language (see Troilus and
Cressida). In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the seven-line
stanza later called rhyme royal.
The Canterbury Tales
To Chaucer’s final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic
power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly
after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the
most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of
pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at
Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together,
the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English
The pilgrims’ tales include a variety of medieval genres from the
humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate
medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and
religion. Through Chaucer’s superb powers of characterization the
pilgrims—such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly
prioress, the evil summoner—come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master
storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after
1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th
cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators
understand his versification.
The best editions of Chaucer’s works are those of F. N. Robinson (1933)
and W. W. Skeat (7 vol., 1894–97); of The Canterbury Tales, that of J.
M. Manly and E. Rickert (8 vol., 1940); of Troilus and Criseyde, that of
R. K. Root (1926).
See C. Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (1960); G. G.
Coulton, Chaucer and His England (1950, repr. 1963); M. A. Bowden, A
Reader’s Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer (1964); G. G. Williams, A New View of
Chaucer (1965); M. Hussey et al., Introduction to Chaucer (1965); D. W.
Robertson, Jr., Chaucer’s London (1968); G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and
His Poetry (1915, repr. 1970); I. Robinson, Chaucer’s Prosody (1971) and
Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972); P. M. Kean, Chaucer and the
Making of English Poetry (2 vol., 1972); D. Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The
Critical Heritage (2 vol., 1978); B. Rowland, ed., Companion to Chaucer
Studies (1979); D. R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World
(1989). Bibliographies for 1908 to 1953 by D. D. Griffith (rev. ed.
1954) and for 1954 to 1963 by W. R. Crawford (1967).
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