Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
John Chaucer, a vintner and citizen of London, married Agnes, heiress of one Hamo de Copton, the city moneyer, and owned the house in Upper Thames Street, Dowgate Hill (a site covered now by the arrival platform of Cannon Street Station), where his son Geoffrey was born. That his birth was not in 1328, hitherto the accepted date, is fully proved (Furnivall in The Academy, 8 Dec., 1888, 12 Dec., 1887). John Chaucer was connected with the Court, and once saw Flanders in the royal train.
Geoffrey was educated well, but whether he was entered at either university remains unknown. He figures by name from the year 1357, presumably in the capacity of a page, in the household books of the Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Prince Lionel, third son of King Edward III (Bond in Fornightly Review, VI, 28 Aug., 1873). The lad followed this prince to France, serving through the final and futile Edwardian invasion, which ended in the Peace of Bretigny (1360), and was taken prisoner at "Retters", identified by unwary biographers as Retiers near Rennes, but by Skeat as Rethel near Reims, a place mentioned by Froissart in his account of this very campaign. Thence Chaucer was ransomed by the king, who, when the Lady Elizabeth died, took over her page and later (1367) pensioned him for life.
Chaucer was married before 1374; probably the Philippa Chaucer named in the queen's grant of 1366 was then Geoffrey Chaucer's wife (Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer, I, 95-7). It seems clear that he could not have been happy in his marriage (Hales in Dict. Nat. Biog., X, 157). He had two sons and a daughter, if not other children. Gascoigne tells us that his contemporary, Thomas Chaucer, was the poet's son. This statement, long discredited, is now fully endorsed by the best authorities (Hales in Athenaeum, 31 March, 1888; Skeat, ibid., 27 Jan.1900). Thomas Chaucer's mother was Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Paon or Payne de Roet Guienne king at arms. Roet had another daughter, Catherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who was for Gaunt's mistress and eventually his third wife. Thus Chaucer became the brother-in-law of the great duke, who from 1368 onwards had been his most powerful patron. Thomas Chaucer (b. about 1367; d. 1434), later of Woodstock and Ewelme, became chief butler to four sovereign, as well as Speaker of the House of Commons (in 1414). His sister Elizabeth (b. 1365) at sixteen entered Barking Abbey as a novice, John of Gaunt providing fifty pounds as her religious dowry. Lewis Chaucer, the "litel sonne Lowys", for whom the "Astrolale" was written, is supposed to have died in childhood.
From about his twenty-sixth year Chaucer was frequently employed on important diplomatic missions; the year 1372-3 marks the turning point of his literary life, for then he was sent to Italy; circumstances make it extremely probable that either in Florence or at Padua he made Petrarch's acquaintance (Lounsbury, Studies, I, 67-68). The young King Richard II granted Chaucer a second life pension. It is startling to find him, in 1380, concerned in a discreditable abduction (Athenaeum, 29 Nov., 1873; from the Close Roll of 3 of Richard II). He was made comptroller of the petty customs of the port of London and complains of the burden of official life in "The House of Fame" (lines 652-60); and it would appear from the prologue the "Legend of Good Women", and through the influence of the new queen, Anne of Bohemia, he was enabled by 1385 to secure a permanent deputy. At this time he gave up housekeeping in Aldgate, and settled in the country, presumably at Greenwich, where he had a garden and arbour.
The intrigues of the partisans of the king's uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, involved Chaucer's fortunes in partial ruin. The grants made to Philippa, his wife, ceased in 1387, so that we may suppose she was then dead; during the spring of 1388 Chaucer was obliged to sell two of his pensions; in 1390 he was twice in one day robbed of the king's money, but was excused from repaying it. Until King Richard recovered power Chaucer had lean years to undergo. For a while he was Clerk of the Works at Windsor, Westminster and the Tower, but proved thriftless and unsuccessful in business affairs, and gave little satisfaction. Unrivalled opportunities and the fostering care of successive sovereigns could not keep him from anxiety, if not penury, towards the end. It is noticeable that his latest and most troubled period produced the "Canterbury Tales". Within four days after his accession King Henry IV, the son of Chaucer's first benefactor, increased Chaucer's remaining income by forty marks per annum. The poet then leased a pleasant house in the monastery garden at Westminster, and there, hard by the Lady Chapel of the Abbey (now replaced by the loftier erection of Henry VII), he died.
For a century and a half his only memorial in Westminster Abbey was a Latin epitaph written by Surigonius of Milan, engraved upon a leaden plate, and hung up, probably at Caxton's instigation, on a pillar near the grave. The present canopied grey marble altar-tomb, on the south side, was set up by Nicholas Brigham, in 1556; all trace of its votive portrait of the venerated master disappeared long ago.
The "Canterbury Tales" were first printed by Caxton, from a faulty manuscript, in or about 1476-7; later by Pynson, and by Wynkyn de Worde. Other pieces were collected, and, between 1526-1602, often published with the "Tales". Many of these, attributed to Chaucer even by his earliest great modern editor, Tyrwhitt, are now known not to be his. (Skeat, "Chaucer's Minor Poems", Oxford, 1896; or, Idem "Chaucerian Pieces" in the "Complete Works", Oxford, 1897, suppl. vol.) Chaucer's genuine major poems are assigned to this chronological order: The "Romaunt of the Rose", that is, the first 1705 lines — the remainder being rejected as not Chaucer's (see Chaucer Society Publications, 2nd Series, No 19, 1884) — dates from about 1366, and "The A.B.C.", from the same period; the "Book of the Duchess" from 1369, the "Complaint of Pity" from 1372; "Anelida and False Arcite" from 1372-4; "Troilus and Cressid" from 1379-83, the "Parliament of Fowls" from 1382; the "House of Fame" from 1383-4; the "Legend of Good Women" from about 1385-6; and the "Canterbury Tales" as a whole, from 1386 onwards until after 1390. It is curious that the first draft of the lovely Tales by the Second Nun, the Man of Law, the Clerk, the Knight, and part of the Monk, should have been produced early; and that the Tales by the Miller, the Reeve, the Shipman, and the Merchant, as well as the Wife of Bath's Prologue, should have been produced after 1387. Chaucer's objectionable work is, therefore, not the work of his youth.
To the intense affection, frequently expressed, of Hoccleve, we owe the first and best of Chaucer's portraits, familiar through reproduction. It appears in the margin of "The Governail of Princes", or "De Regimine Principum" (Harl. manuscript 4866, in British Museum). In it we see Chaucer, limned from memory, in his familiar hood and gown, rosary in hand, plump, full-eyed, fork-bearded. (For detailed accounts see Spielman, "The Portraits of Geoffrey Chaucer", London, 1900, first issued in the "Chaucer Memorial Lectures", 111-41.) Like Dryden, he was silent, and had a "down look"; this physical characteristic was partly due to a most genuine modesty, partly to the habit of constant reading.
Chaucer indeed read and annexed everything, and transmuted everything into that vocabulary of his, all plasticity and all power. He is a cosmopolite, chiefly influenced by Ovid, by his own contemporary Italy, a debtor, if ever man was, to the whole spirit of his age; he has its fire, its impudence, its broad licentiousness; he has rather more than his share of its true-hearted pathos, its exquisite freshness and brightness, its sense of eternity. The so-called "Counsel of Chaucer" sums up, at a holy and serene moment, his philosophic outlook. He had unequalled powers of observation, and gave a highly ironic but most humane report. He is an artist through and through, and that artist had been a soldier and a diplomat, hence his genius, even in its extremes of mirth has balance and health, remoteness and neutrality — it is never bitter, and never in the least "viewy". Matthew Arnold (Introduction to Ward's "English Poets" 1885, I, pp. 34-35) accuses him of a lack of what Aristotle calls "high and excellent seriousness". But "high seriousness" is not quite the note of the fourteenth century. Chaucer's is the master-note (submerged all over Europe since the Reformation) of joy.
This brings us to the question of his personal religion.
Foxe (Acts and Monuments of the Church, 1583, II, 839) started the absurd theory that Chaucer was a follower of Wyclif. The poet's own abstract habit; his association with the prince who (probably actuated by no very high motives) withdrew his favour from the contemporary reformer when solicitude for a purer practice ran into heresy and threatened revolt; his close friendship with Strode, a Dominican of Oxford and a strong anti-Lollard — these things tend of themselves to denote Chaucer's views in the matter. The opposite inference is "due to a misconception of his language, based on a misconception of his character" (Lounsbury Studies, II, 469). Like Wyclif, Chaucer loved the priestly ideal; and he draws it incomparably in his "Poor Parson of Town". Yet, as has been said, that very "Parson's Tale", in its extant form, goes far to prove that its author, even by sympathy, was no Wyclifite (A.W. Ward, "Chaucer", London, 1879, p. 134, in "English Men of Letters Series").
Passionless justice was the bed-rock of Chaucer's mind. He paints that parti-coloured Plantagenet world as it was, not interfering to make it better, nor to wish it better. Where the churchman type was gross, he represents it grossly. It is well, however, to recall that the famous episode of his "beating a Friar in Fleet street" is the invention of Speght, further embroidered by Chatterton; and that the prose tractate, "Jack Upland", full of invective against the religious orders, is proved not to be Chaucer's. His attitude towards women is just as two-sided. He shows in many a theme a reverence toward them which must have been fed by that "hy devocioun" to Our Lady which is beautifully apparent in his pages, and which Hoccleve mentions in recalling his memory; but dramatic exigencies, Boccaccio's example, presumable hard domestic experience, a laughingly merciless psychology, and a paralyzing outspokenness, contrive too often, as readers regret, to fight it down.
He has been held up as a rationalist, on the strength of a few passages, and against the enormous mass of testimony which he furnishes on the soundness of his Catholic ethos. Of that, after all, as of its absence, Catholics are the best judges. The "Nuns' Priest's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 4424-40) raises the question of predestination, only to drop it. The context shows that the poet thinks his sudden side-issue not trivial or tedious, but quite the contrary, he quits it only because he cannot "boult it to the bren", i.e., sift it down, analyze it satisfactorily. Again, the "Knight's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 2890-14) implies that the author has no mind to dogmatize upon the final destiny of poor Arcite, newly slain. Both these instances have been cited in the masterly chapter on "Chaucer as a Literary Artist" (Lounsbury, Studies, II, 512-15, 520), to prove, in the one ease, an easy dismissal of a mere scholastic dilemma; in the other, Chaucer's disbelief, or half-belief, in immortality. They prove, rather, a restraint in dogmatizing about the destiny of the individual, a restraint practiced by the church itself. "The Legend of Good Women" opens with some fifteen lines, the purport of which need never have been questioned. They mean nothing if they do not mean that knowledge by evidence is one thing, assurance by faith another thing; and that lack of sensible proof can never discredit revelation. A somewhat playful confession of belief has here been turned into a serious profession of agnosticism, through sheer lack of spiritual understanding. His "hostility to the Church", as Professor Lounsbury calls it, is certainly not borne out by Chaucer's going out of his way, as he does, to defend her from age-long calumnies; for instance, in the "Franklin's Tale", and in the section "De Ira" of the "Parson's Tale", he witnesses to her horror of superstitions and false sciences. Chaucer, in short, though none too supernatural a person, had a most orthodox grip on his catechism.
The "Preces", or prose "retracciouns", which are usually painted at either end of the "Canterbury Tales" date from the evening of Chaucer's life. To Tyrwhitt, Hales, Ward, and Lounsbury, who suspect undue priestly influence, the "Preces" are, in their own words, "morbid", "reaction and weakness", "a betrayal of his poetic genius", "unbearable to have to accept as genuine". In the course of them, Chaucer disclaims of his books "thilke that sounen in-to sinne" i.e., those which are consonant with, or sympathetic with sin. Skeat is the only editor who understands Chaucer in his contrition (Notes to the "Canterbury Tales", in the Oxford Press complete edition, 475). Gascoigne (Theological Dictionary, Pt. II, 377, the manuscript of which is in the library of Lincoln College, Oxford) unwittingly parodies the situation, and represents the old sinner "Chawserus" as dying while lamenting over pages, quæ male scripsi de malo et turpissimo amore. To the secular point of view it has all seemed, and may well seem, mistaken and deplorable. But nothing is manlier, or more touching and endearing, than this humble self-subordination to conscience and the moral law. "Except ye become as little children" is the hardest saying ever given to the intellectual world. These are great geniuses, Geoffrey Chaucer not least among them, to whom it was not given in vain.
The standard recent editions of Chaucer are: (1) "Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Annotated and Accented, with Illustrations of English Life in Chaucer's Time. New and revised edition, with illustrations from the Ellesmere manuscript" (Saunder's ed., London, 1894); (2) "The Student's Chaucer; being a Complete Edition of his Works" (Skeat ed., Oxford, 1895); (3) "The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous Manuscripts" (Skeat ed. 7 vols., Oxford, 1894-7); (4) "The Canterbury Tales done into Modern English, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat" (The King's Classics Series, Gollancz ed., 1904).
APA citation. (1908). Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03642b.htm
MLA citation. "Geoffrey Chaucer." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03642b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.