While many writers of the Middle Ages, such as Marie de France or the Gawain-poet, remain obscure or anonymous Geoffrey Chaucer is a different case. As well as being – arguably – the greatest poet of the Middle English period, he was also a public servant who worked as a soldier, diplomat, comptroller of customs, justice of the peace, clerk of works and a forest official – so his life is well represented in surviving documents.
We don’t know when Chaucer was born, but a document dating to 1386 describes him as ‘forty and more’, so his date of birth was probably in the early 1340s. He was born into a prosperous merchant family in London. His father John Chaucer (c. 1312–1366), was a vintner (a wine merchant), who had married Agnes Copton (d. 1381), perhaps in the early 1330s. It is likely that Geoffrey was born in Thames Street, in the Vintry ward (the wine merchants’ district) of London.
What do surviving documents reveal about Chaucer’s life?
These records of Chaucer’s life map out a life of service. Sometimes these records are prosaic, such as when we learn that Chaucer received a summer robe from the crown in 1369, while at other times they are intriguing: in 1359–60 he was captured in France while in the retinue of the Black Prince, and a ransom of £16 was subsequently paid for his release. And at times the records are disturbing: in 1380 Chaucer was accused of the ‘raptus’ of Cecily Champain, who was probably the daughter of a baker named William Champain. ‘Raptus’ had a range of meanings in this period – it could mean rape, seduction or abduction of a minor. (Chaucer’s own father had been kidnapped by an aunt in 1324.) The precise nature of the 1380 incident is unknown, but Chaucer was cleared of charges in the affair.
Chaucer’s royal connections and patrons
Chaucer was well connected at the royal court. He was married to the sister of Katherine Swynford, who was the mistress and latterly the wife of one of the most powerful nobles in the realm – John of Gaunt, who was the uncle of the king, Richard II. It was probably through these kinds of connections that Chaucer found some of his patrons. He wrote the The Book of the Duchess for John of Gaunt, apparently to help him overcome his grief at the death of his first wife, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster. He also seems to have written The Legend of Good Women at the request of Anne of Bohemia, the wife of Richard II.
Chaucer’s life as a public servant also gave him the opportunity to travel. He made trips to France and Italy, and the influence of the literary cultures of these two countries can be seen in his verse, an example being The Legend of Good Women.
The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer’s literary works
Chaucer wrote in a range of poetic forms and genres. He composed dream visions such as The Book of the Duchess, The Legend of Good Women and The Parliament of Fowls, as well as Troilus and Criseyde – the great exploration of love and loss set during the Trojan War. He also produced philosophical and scientific works: he translated the Consolation of Philosophy, by the Roman senator and philosopher Boethius (c. 480–524 CE), and he wrote a treatise – a kind of how-to guide – on the astrolabe, which was an astronomical device.
These works show the range of his skill, but perhaps none have the scale and impressiveness of The Canterbury Tales – an ambitious collection of stories in a range of poetic (and in one case, prose) forms. It imagines a group of 31 pilgrims who meet while travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time, they decide to tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. This extraordinary work, which presents a portrait of late medieval Britain with humour and tragedy, was left unfinished when Chaucer died in 1400, but it – along with much of his other verse – is still celebrated as some of the greatest works in the English language.
Further information about the life of Geoffrey Chaucer can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.