Chaucer: The Life and Times of the First English Poet


Buoyantly blending biography with history and literary criticism, this engaging new life of Geoffrey Chaucer follows the career of a man whose courtly offices situated him at the center of cultural and political activity in medieval London and whose poetry, especially the masterwork The Canterbury Tales, became a primary force in the evolution of modern English.

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Buoyantly blending biography with history and literary criticism, this engaging new life of Geoffrey Chaucer follows the career of a man whose courtly offices situated him at the center of cultural and political activity in medieval London and whose poetry, especially the masterwork The Canterbury Tales, became a primary force in the evolution of modern English.

Intimacy is the foundation upon which any happy sexual relationship is based. The author of 30 books about health and sexuality shows how attidues toward intimacy are formed, explores how greater intimacy can improve sex, and provides practical exercises to make intimate loving work. Illustrated with full-color photographs.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For the 600th anniversary of Chaucer's death, biographer West (Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures) concentrates more on the times than the life. Chaucer's era, which encompassed the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, John Wycliffe's proto-Protestantism and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, is not without interest. Finding Chaucer often on the periphery of these events, West is left to argue that it was a pivotal era for England, in transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and between a French-dominated culture and a homegrown national identity. As for his treatment of Chaucer, about whom little is known, West relies on a discussion of translation of the French medieval bestseller Le Roman de la Rose to Canterbury Tales. Despite the chronological remoteness of the era, West colors in his subject matter with contemporary parallels, sometimes stretching the point, such as comparing the plot of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde to that of Casablanca. More often than not, in West's presentation Chaucer was neither as forward-looking nor as reactionary as some other biographers, such as Terry Jones or G. K. Chesterton, would have it--he was simply a man of his time. Students of literature looking for a historical context in which to put Chaucer will find edification here, but the man still remains at a distance. 8 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Geoffrey Chaucer's life encompassed one of the most important eras in medieval English history. He survived the Black Death, fought in the Hundred Years' War, traveled as a diplomat, and served at court during the Peasant's Revolt and the murder of Richard II. He also happened to pen one of the greatest works of English literature, The Canterbury Tales. West (Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures) has written a splendid biography that combines history and literary criticism. He places Chaucer within his historical context and examines his life and writings. Though West argues that modern attitudes color perceptions of Chaucer and his times, he does not back away from the thorny issues that modern scholars have raised, such as Chaucer's alleged anti-Semitism, his treatment of women, and his religious beliefs, to name a few. West's book intentionally avoids an academic approach and is thus a nice complement to Derek Pearsall's excellent and scholarly The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (LJ 11/15/92). Readers wanting an informative and entertaining biography will find this study just the right thing. For public library literary collections.--Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Chaucer: 1340-1400, The Life And Times Of The First English Poet is an engaging new portrait of the life and times of Geoffrey Chaucer whose career included courtly offices situated him at the center of cultural activity in medieval London, and whose poetry became a primary force in the evolution of modern English. Richard West is a distinguished journalist who has meticulously researched Chaucer's life and blends biography with history and literary criticism into a coherent presentation of a literary genius who survived the Black Death as a child, fought in France during the Hundred Years War, was a diplomat to Italy, served in the English court during the Peasants' Revolt and murder of Richard II -- and whose central work, The Canterbury Tales, illuminated the nature of human life in the Middle Ages in such a way as to capture the respect and attention of readers for more than six hundred years. Highly recommended, essential reading for students of Chaucer and his writings.
Kirkus Reviews
A general overview of the author of The Canterbury Tales, his writing, and the times he lived in, by historian and biographer West (Daniel Defoe, 1998, etc.). It is startling to note that 600 years have passed since the death of the poet who gave us"Whan that the month of May / Is comen, and that I hear the fowles singe." Chaucer's place in literary history is obviously significant: a near contemporary to Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, he was the first to introduce the word"tragedye" into the English language. And his private life was as variegated as his Tales: he lived through the end of the Black Plague, served as a soldier in the Hundred Years' War, was a successful civil servant, and even became a member of Parliament. West's examination raises some interesting questions. Why doesn't the Black Plague figure more prominently in Chaucer's writing? Did he share the anti-Semitism that was so widespread among his contemporaries? How did he react to the social unrest of the Peasants' Revolt? What were his religious opinions? West's approach is too broad and unfocused overall, and he jumps wildly from biography to social history to basic textual explication—frequently distracted even more by tangential digressions. Moreover, despite his hope of writing about Chaucer"for the general public," his account is neither accessible enough to interest a general reader nor deep enough to merit significant academic attention. Pass it by for Derek Pearsall's The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1992) and Lillian M. Bisson's Chaucer and the Late Medieval World (1998)—both superior alternatives.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786709250
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 1/16/2002
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.79 (h) x 0.85 (d)

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Chapter One

Canterbury Pilgrims

On 28 December 1999, a pilgrimage of Christians was making its way to pay respects to the memory of Archbishop Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Although these pilgrims had begun their walk from `every shire of England' and from every part of the British Isles, they converged on the route from Southwark to Canterbury that Chaucer's pilgrims had followed in 1386. Geoffrey Chaucer died on 25 October 1400. Thus Kent and its famous cathedral took the lead in celebrating not only the end of the second millennium but the sixth centenary of the county's favourite poet.

    Chaucer's age was the first when people began to think in these hundred-year terms, but there was still no agreement on how they should be numbered, so that what in England has come to be known as the fourteenth century was called by the Italians the `three hundred' (trecento), a constant cause of bewilderment to students of the Renaissance. Moreover the keepers of calendars in those days reckoned the start of the new year not in mid-winter but in early spring, not in January but in March, and so Chaucer's pilgrims set out for Canterbury `When that Aprille with his showres swoot/The drought of Marche hath perced to the root ...'.

    The pilgrims who walked through Kent in those dying days of December 1999 were passing the scenes of the great events of Chaucer's lifetime. As a soldier and diplomat on missions to France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, Chaucer frequently took the Canterbury road to the Channel ports, such as Sandwich, Deal and Dover. As anofficial of the Customs and Excise, he supervised the export of goods from London and Kent, especially the sale of wool and cloth through the staple, or monopoly, at Calais, which had been won from France in 1349. Later, as superintendent of public works, Chaucer combined with the architect Thomas Yevele to rebuild the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, as they had done in Westminster Abbey. Through his connections at Canterbury, Chaucer acquired the lucrative post of ward to the son of a wealthy landowner at nearby Betteshanger.

    Although no vestige remains at Southwark of the Tabard Inn where Chaucer's pilgrims assembled, the nearby Church of St Mary's is now Southwark Cathedral, newly refurbished and given access once more to the Thames. Here one can see the tomb of Chaucer's fellow poet and friend John Gower, who lived here during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when a mob released the prisoners from the Marshalsea, looted St Mary's Church, and murdered the Flemings who ran Southwark's brothels.

    Anti-immigrant feeling still runs high in south-east London and the Medway towns. It was here that some white thugs murdered a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, while further east at Gravesend a Kosovar refugee died in a gangland knifing just before the new millennium.

    Most of the pilgrims in December 1999 must have spared a thought or at least a glance for the much-trumpeted Dome at Greenwich with its `Faith Zone' for multi-religion, multi-ethnic Britain. Chaucer was living at Greenwich for the last few years of his life but did not speak well of the town in his writing. The Host in the Canterbury Tales calls Greenwich contemptuously `an Inne of Shrews', or nest of thieves — perhaps a reference to the occasion when Chaucer was held up or mugged there, twice in the same day.

    And so, at the close of the millennium, two columns of pilgrims came together at Rochester on the Medway to start the final leg of their walk to Canterbury. It was here in the Canterbury Tales that the Host, Harry Baily, called on the Monk to contribute a Tale after those told by the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve and the Man of Law.

`My lord Sir Monk,' quoth he, `be merry of cheer, For you shall tell a tale trewely. Lo, Rochester here standeth faste by.'

    Chaucer's bantering tone is all the more odd since at this time, when the pilgrims were passing through Rochester, all this part of the Kent Coast was living in fear of a French invasion. From the start of the Hundred Years War, which lasted through Chaucer's lifetime and into the fifteenth century, the French had repeatedly raided and sacked the Cinque Port towns such as Hastings, Sandwich and Rye, usually in revenge for English atrocities. During the 1380s, when England was losing the war, Richard II called out the Watch, or militia, along the Thames Estuary and the Channel coast, while Parliament warned that France meant `to destroy the English language and occupy English territory, which God forbid, unless a remedy of force is found'. The churches of Kent were forbidden to ring more than one peal of bells except in the case of a French invasion.

    Then in 1386, the year in which Chaucer set his Canterbury Tales, King Charles VI of France decided to carry the war from the coast to the heart of Kent. A high Mass was celebrated at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to bless the proposed invasion. The largest fleet of the war so far was assembled at Sluys, the port of Bruges, equipped with huts to serve as a base camp on English soil. The French hoped to exploit the political troubles of Richard II, especially the absence abroad of his uncle and best commander John of Gaunt, who had left for Spain to pursue his claims to the throne of Castile. As the Earl of Salisbury warned King Richard in Parliament: `Your majesty must not be surprised if our adversary the King of France prepares to invade us; for since the death of our most potent and famous prince Edward [Richard's grandfather, Edward III, or perhaps Richard's father, the Black Prince] this kingdom has incurred several risks of becoming destroyed by its own subjects.'

    On the advice of Parliament, which included Geoffrey Chaucer as a member for Kent, King Richard sent archers to reinforce some of the coastal towns which the French might attack. According to Sir John Froissart, the leading chronicler of the Hundred Years War, the English were ready to let the French put ashore in Kent for a few days, then starve them to death. To this end they proposed to destroy the bridge over the Medway at Rochester. This alone would have stopped the pilgrims getting from Southwark to Canterbury in 1386.

    Moreover, St Thomas's shrine at Canterbury was at risk, since both sides in the Hundred Years War regarded holy relics as the richest form of booty. The governor of Dover Castle, Sir Simon Burley, who feared that the French would soon land on the coast near Deal, took it upon himself to warn the abbot of Christ Church Canterbury to hand over St Thomas's relics for safe keeping. According to Froissart, who was a friend of Burley, the abbot gave him short shrift: `How, Sir, can you wish to despoil the church of its jewel? If you are afraid you can shut yourself up in your castle at Dover: however, the French are not bold enough to advance so far!'

    The abbot was right, for Charles VI abandoned his plans to invade Kent, as did Louis XIV, Bonaparte, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler.

    Yet where they failed, other invaders had succeeded long before, the Roman armies and later the Roman missionaries and it is arguable that without the influence of their rulers and their writers the England of Chaucer and our time would hardly have existed, never mind been worth the effort of defence.

Julius Caesar and his army put ashore in 55 BC on the beach that runs north from the cliffs at Dover only miles from the old Kentish settlement on the Stour that would become the city of Canterbury. When Caesar went on to conquer the people of south-east Britain, he claimed to have found that of all the Britons, `by far the most civilized are those who inhabit Cantium, which is an entirely maritime region, nor do they differ from the Gallic custom.' Admittedly Caesar's firsthand knowledge of Britain was confined to Cantium, or Kent, but his observations were nevertheless correct. Although south-east England had broken away from the continent in a geological shift about six thousand years earlier, both sides of the Channel were inhabited by the same Celtic people, known to the Romans as Belgae, who spoke the same language and shared the same attributes of civilization, such as horse-drawn chariots, sailing ships and a silver or copper currency.

    Julius Caesar's failure to come back to Britain after the campaign season of 54 BC did not mean that Cantium lost touch with the empire. The British leader Cassivelaunus continued to pay tribute not to Rome itself but to the flourishing Roman colony of Gaul, which was run by Latinized Belgae, similar to their cousins, the Cantii. There was also a flourishing trade across the Straits of Dover, with Britain exporting corn, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting-dogs, and importing luxury goods such as wine, oil, bronze furniture, pottery, silver and glass-ware.

    The Romans returned in AD 43 to occupy and rule Britain for the next four hundred years. They brought with them the apple trees that would help to make Kent the orchard as well as the garden of England. They also began the extraction and smelting of iron ore between Tunbridge Wells and the Channel. The Kentish settlement on the Stour developed into the fortress town of Durovernum, complete with the Roman amenities of an amphitheatre, public baths and a grid of streets between the gateways. Much of Durovernum was brought to light by workers clearing the rubble after the Luftwaffe raid on Canterbury of 1 June 1942, and can now be seen in the Roman museum near the Cathedral.

    Roman officials and the British collaborators built farms and elegant villas throughout those parts of Kent that now form the outer suburbs of London. It was here in Kent that the Romans built their most famous road, the Watling Street joining London and Westminster to the Channel Ports. In Chaucer's time this still formed most of the route of the Canterbury pilgrims.

    Although Latin did not take over popular speech in Britain as in Italy, Spain, France or even distant Romania, it lived on in the law, the Church and above all in education, as we shall see from Chaucer's knowledge of Ovid and Virgil. He often makes fun of the struggle the English had in coping with French and Latin as well as their own developing language. Two of the most villainous pilgrims use dog Latin to cheat and baffle the ignorant. The Pardoner tries to squeeze more money out of his congregation by preaching upon the text that avarice is the root of all evil (`Radix malorum est cupiditas'), while the Summoner frightens his victims with Latin tags before hauling them up in court on sexual offences:

And when that he well drunken had the wyn,
Then would he speke no word but Latyn.
A few terms had he, two or three,
That he had learned out of some decree ...
But who-so would him try on other things,
He had then spent all his philosophie.
`Ay, questio quid juris' wolde he crye,
He was a gentil felow and a kynde;
A better summoner shulde men nowher fynde.
He wolde suffer for a quart of wyn
A good felaw to have his concubine
A twelve month, and excuse him utterly.
And fooles coude he deceive privily.

Chaucer would have loved the nineteenth-century Irish story about the judge in a case of cattle theft who asked the defending counsel: `Is your client aware of the saying "Questio quid juris?"' [or some such tag] and received the answer: `My lord, on the Connemara mountain top, where my client dwells, they talk of little else.'

    The funniest use of Latin in Chaucer is made by the barnyard cock Chaunticleer in the Nun's Priest's Tale. He has been quarrelling with his favourite hen about dreams, predestination and other abstruse matters, but now wants to make it up with her and enjoy her sexual favours:

`Now let us speke of mirthe, and stay al this;
Madame Pertilot, so have I blis;
Of one thing God hath me sent large grace;
For when I see the beautee of your face,
Ye be so scarlet red about your eyen,
It makith al my drede for to dyen,
For, al so sure as "In principio
Mulier est hominis confusio"
(Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
Womman is mannes joye and mannes blis.)
For when I feel a-night your softe syde,
Al be it that I may not on you ryde,
For that your perche is made so narrow, altas!'

Here is a joke within a joke, within a joke, for the Latin words really mean: `In the beginning, woman is man's confusion, or downfall.' But does his wife Pertelot spot the deception? Does Chaunticleer himself really know what the Latin words really mean? Chaucerian scholars have never agreed on this, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out: `I suspect that he [Chaucer] has made a good many jokes that his critics cannot see; and one or two which the commentators have sat down grimly and resolutely to prove not to be jokes at all!'

    It was during the Roman occupation of Britain that Christianity spread from Palestine westward across the Mediterranean until it established itself in the cities of Rome and Constantinople. This was the age of the Acts of the Apostles, the early fathers and eremites, the saints and martyrs who suffered under Nero and Diocletian.

    Christian missionaries also preached the faith throughout the British Isles, apparently winning most converts in northern England and Wales. It was a Roman general stationed at York who later won power as the Emperor Constantine, ended the persecution of Christians and himself took up the Cross and joined the Church after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Only two years later, bishops from York, London and Colchester attended a Church council at Arles in Provence.

    Some modern scholars believe that when the pagan cults were outlawed, British Christians joined in looting the now illegal temples, rather as Protestants took advantage of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. The British also joined in the theological squabbles that splintered early Christendom. The monk Pelagius (c.360-420), the founder of the Pelagian heresy, was a Welshman said to have lived at Bangor-is-y-Coed, on the River Dee.

    It was from this period, when the Rome of the Caesars was turning into the Rome of the Popes, that the Second Nun takes her tale of the martyrdom of St Cecilia. The saint emerges as one of those tough pious women so admired in the fourteenth century, who brings on her death by insulting the Roman chief of police. The Second Nun introduces her tale of the early Church with a very medieval hymn to the Virgin Mary, translated almost verbatim from Dante's Paradiso Canto 33 `Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio'. Dante's hymn is supposedly sung by St Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian Order and one of Chaucer's favourite writers:

Thou mayde and mother, daughter of thy son
Thou well of mercy, sinful soules cure
Whom that high God in bounty chose alone
Humblest and best of every creature.

    Cecilia is pushed into marriage with a man she does not know but succeeds in staying a virgin on her wedding night. She persuades her husband to leave their bridal chamber and meet the leader of the Christians, Pope Urban, in the Catacombs. For this she is taken before the imperial chief of police, Almachius, who orders her to sacrifice to Jupiter and, when she refuses, starts an interrogation:

`What maner woman art thou then?' quoth he.
`I am a gentil-woman born' quoth she.
`I axe thee' quoth he, `though thee it greve,
Of thy religioun and of thy byleve.'
`Ye have bygone your question foolishly,'
Quoth she, `that wolden two answers conclude
In one demande; ye axen ignorantly.'

Cecilia is condemned to be boiled to death in a bath but escapes triumphant:

The longe night and eek a day also,
For all the fire, and eek the bathes heat,
She sat all cold, and felt of it no woe;
It made her not one drope for to sweat,
But in that bath her deth she moste get.

    Chaucer's favourite Latin author and philosophical mentor, Anicius Manlius Boethius (c.475-524), or Boece in English, lived in Rome during the age sometimes called `The Barbarian Disruption' between Pope Urban of the Second Nun's Tale and Pope Gregory the Great, `the apostle of the English', who sent Augustine to Canterbury in 596. Between the start of the third and the end of the sixth century, southern Europe came under attack from wave after wave of hordes from eastern Europe and Asia, including the Huns, Teutons, Goths, Avars, Slavs and Vandals. The city of Rome was twice conquered and looted, first by the Visigoths in 410 and then in 476 by the Ostrogoths under their King Theodoric.

    Ever since Gibbon, most historians have roughly concurred with the view of Henry Osborn Taylor: `The Goths were the best of the Barbarians and Theodoric was the greatest of the Goths. Under Theodoric the relations between Goths and "Romans" were friendly. It was from the Code of Theodosius and other Roman sources that he drew the substance of his legislation. His aim was to harness the relations of the two peoples and assimilate the ways of the Goths to those of their more civilized neighbours.'

    Boethius was born about AD 475 and went into public service under Theodoric, at one time becoming Consul. He was also a poet, scholar and follower of the late Roman Stoic philosophers, whose teaching of fortitude — stoicism — has entered the English language. Boethius devoted his spare time to translating Greek authors such as Plato and Aristotle, and compiling texts of ancient knowledge on mathematics, music and geography.

    As a champion of `Roman' liberties under a foreign occupation, Boethius fell out with his Visigothic masters, was thrown into jail and tortured to death at Pavia in about 524. While in prison, Boethius wrote the book for which he is still famous, the Consolation of Philosophy, a series of meditations in prose and verse. Like Dante before him, Chaucer adapted passages of the Consolation in his poetry, but also translated the whole of it into English prose. `It must be supposed that Chaucer would apply more than common attention to the author of such celebrity,' wrote Samuel Johnson, who prided himself on his Latin, `but in fact he has attempted nothing higher than a version strictly literal, and has degraded the poetical part of prose, that the constraint of versification might not obstruct his zeal for fidelity.'

    Johnson forgot or did not know that Chaucer had adapted much of Boethius in the Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and some of the shorter poems. The fact that Chaucer wanted to give a translation in simple English prose (much homelier and less Latinate than Johnson's polysyllables) suggests that he also sympathized with the efforts of Wyclif to make the Bible available to a broader public.

    The Consolation of Philosophy, as its name suggests, was written by Boethius to counteract the fear and loneliness of prison. To develop his argument and provide himself with companionship, he wrote in the form of a three-way conversation between himself and two female spirits, representing Fate and Philosophy — the first of them cold, if not malign, but the second kind and encouraging. However, Philosophy scolds Boethius when he forgets his lesson:

`But say me this, remember thou what is the end of things, and whither the intention of all things tendeth?'
`I have heard it told, sometime', quoth I, `but dreryness hath dulled my memory.'
`Certes,' quod she, `thou knowest whennes that alle things bien comen and procede?'
`I woot well,' quod I, and answered that God is bygnnynge of al.
`And how may this be,' quod she, `that syn thou knowest the bygnnynge of things, that we knowest not wher is the ende of things?'

On such occasions we feel that Philosophy's schoolmarmish catechism must have been worse than secret police interrogation.

  &nb Like failed politicians of every age, Boethius is keen to settle scores with his rivals and enemies:

`How often have I resisted and withstonden thilke man hight Conigaste that made always assaults against the proper fortunes of poor feeble folk ... How often eke have I cast out him, Trygiwille, Provost of the King's house, both of the wrongs that he had begun to do and eke fully performed.'


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on the Text
1 Canterbury Pilgrims 1
2 Edward III goes to War 21
3 The Rise of the English Merchants 37
4 The Black Death: Chaucer and the Jews 53
5 The Black Death: Why it was Soon Forgotten 76
6 Chaucer as Schoolboy and Soldier 94
7 The Romance of the Rose 116
8 Chaucer in Florence 133
9 Chaucer in Lombardy 153
10 Wyclif and the Friars 166
11 The Peasants' Revolt 187
12 Troilus: War and Chivalry 206
13 Troilus: Chaucer and the Novel 223
14 The Knight's Tale 242
15 The Wife of Bath on Women and Marriage 256
16 A Trueborn Englishman 277
Notes on further reading 292
Index 295
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