Chaucer: A European Life

Chaucer: A European Life

by Marion Turner


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A groundbreaking biography that recreates the cosmopolitan world in which a wine merchant’s son became one of the most celebrated of all English poets

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

Uncovering important new information about Chaucer’s travels, private life, and the early circulation of his writings, this innovative biography documents a series of vivid episodes, moving from the commercial wharves of London to the frescoed chapels of Florence and the kingdom of Navarre, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived side by side. The narrative recounts Chaucer’s experiences as a prisoner of war in France, as a father visiting his daughter’s nunnery, as a member of a chaotic Parliament, and as a diplomat in Milan, where he encountered the writings of Dante and Boccaccio. At the same time, the book offers a comprehensive exploration of Chaucer’s writings, taking the reader to the Troy of Troilus and Criseyde, the gardens of the dream visions, and the peripheries and thresholds of The Canterbury Tales.

By exploring the places Chaucer visited, the buildings he inhabited, the books he read, and the art and objects he saw, this landmark biography tells the extraordinary story of how a wine merchant’s son became the poet of The Canterbury Tales.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691160092
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/09/2019
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 377,750
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

Read an Excerpt


Vintry Ward, London

Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In the early 1340s, in Vintry Ward, London — the time and place of Chaucer's birth — a book went missing. It wasn't a very important book. Known as a 'portifory,' or breviary, it was a small volume containing a variety of excerpted religious texts, such as psalms and prayers, designed to be carried about easily (as the name demonstrates, it was portable). It was worth about 20 shillings, the price of two cows, or almost three months' pay for a carpenter, or half of the ransom of an archer captured by the French. The very presence of this book in the home of a merchant opens up a window for us on life in the privileged homes of the richer London wards at this time: their inhabitants valued books, objects of beauty, learning, and devotion, and some recognized that books could be utilized as commodities. The urban mercantile class was flourishing, supported and enabled by the development of bureaucracy and of the clerkly classes in the previous century. While literacy was high in London, books were also appreciated as things in themselves: it was not unheard of for merchants to accept books as payment, as a form of treasure.

The man from whom this book was stolen, Benedict de Fulsham, lived in Vintry Ward, and had worked with wines, as the king's butler, although he was primarily a pepperer, employed in the lucrative spice trade. The thief, Richard de Pembroke, was a tailor, probably a lowly one. Standing as pledges for the prosecution were two local men: one of these men was Richard Chaucer, the step-grandfather of the poet and himself a vintner, although he lived in the neighbouring Cordwainer Ward, a few streets away. The case was heard by the mayor, sheriffs, and aldermen of London on the Wednesday after the Feast of the Translation of St Thomas the Martyr, in the fifteenth year of Edward III's reign. This description of the date (12 July 1341 in our terminology) foregrounds the importance of both the king and the church. Time was measured according to the number of years that the monarch had been on the throne, and according to the moment in the liturgical year, a timescale punctuated by saints' and feast days. On a more microlevel, the very rhythms of the week and the day were determined by the time of the church too: there were meat-eating days and fast days, and the time of day tended to be marked in relation to the canonical hours, such as prime, terce, and nones. But merchant's time moved to a different beat: to the logic of the flow of money, to the rhythms of payment, delivery, debt, and interest, and to the calculation of the cost of delay. For the society into which Chaucer was born, city, church, monarch, and trade guild all exerted their pressures.

London life, then, was carefully regulated and ordered by a number of authorities. Another case, also from around the time of Chaucer's birth, illustrates the street-level policing of life in Vintry Ward. This case — heard on the Wednesday before the Feast of the Circumcision in the seventeenth year of Edward III (31 December 1343) — concerned an 'affray' in Vintry Ward three days earlier. John de Oxford, John de Cleuf, and Henry de Ledham were walking, holding a light before them, when they encountered John Harris, the beadle of the ward, and his men at La Ryole. They passed peacefully, but a little way behind them followed two more of John de Oxford's company, without a light. The beadle asked them what they were doing without a light, and where they were going, and a quarrel broke out. John de Oxford and Henry de Ledham now returned, drew their swords, and assaulted the beadle, wounding him in the right arm. The scenario immediately illustrates the careful policing of the wards. The beadle and his men were actively watching the nighttime streets and were alert to anything being done in darkness. Whether they were engaged in nefarious or innocent pursuits, John de Oxford and his friends were armed and drew their swords at the first hint of trouble. The incident occurred at La Ryole. The name of the street — a version of La Reole, a town in Bordeaux — is testament to the number of Gascon dwellers (many temporary, some more permanent) in Vintry Ward, and to the importance of the wine industry in the fabric of the ward. The name became corrupted to the Tower Royal or La Royal, because the king owned property there, and his mansion became the Queen's Wardrobe. The street reached up to the border of Vintry Ward and Cordwainer Ward, and it is likely that the beadle was policing the boundaries of the ward, the edge of his jurisdiction. Such boundaries were not marked by walls or other physical divisions; streets cut across multiple wards, and parishes could also straddle more than one ward, but everyone knew where the authority of one ward ended and another began.

Violence broke out quickly. John de Oxford, who is depicted as the instigator of this Vintry Ward affray, was a skinner, engaged in the often putrid but very lucrative fur trade. His name tells us his origins, and other contemporary documents identify him as the servant of Henry of Eynsham. Eynsham is a small settlement very close to Oxford, so we see here immigrant men from the same area working together in London. This was not the only time that John was engaged in fights in the street, and he was even imprisoned in 1340. His standing, however, was not affected: we find him in 1344 designated as one of twelve upstanding skinners with the good of the trade at heart, appointed to inspect the practices of others within the trade.

These cases give us a snapshot of Vintry Ward in the early 1340s, before the demographic and social upheaval brutally wrought by the plague, before the English victories at Poitiers and Crécy, before the dramatic rise of English as a literary language. These were years on the cusp of change. This was the decade in which gunpowder was developed and gold coins were first minted in London; at court Queen Philippa was patronizing Hainuyer poets from her native land; over in France and Italy, Machaut and Boccaccio were writing some of their greatest works — works that were to be hugely influential on Chaucer. While all educated English people knew French (and educated men all knew Latin), Chaucer's Thameside mercantile upbringing gave him the opportunity to mix with Italians and to learn their language — a skill that was to transform not only Chaucer's own poetry but English literature.

Vintry Ward was located on the river, where cargos of Gascon wine were unloaded and stored in the vintners' cellars before the ships were sent back to the Continent, piled high with English wool. To live in the middle of things, at the pulsing centre of a hectic, ever-moving city, is to experience a constant, intoxicating assault on the senses. The sounds of the city came from all sides: sellers shouting their wares, civic proclamations, the snufflings of animals such as pigs who found their way into houses and shops, carts and horses rumbling down the streets, and the bells. There were no public clocks in London yet, though they would arrive soon, and the tolling of the church hours was an important way of structuring the day. The small square mile or so of the walled and gated city supported 108 parish churches, including Chaucer's parish church, St Martin in the Vintry, so churches could be seen everywhere, punctuating the urban landscape. At street level, the cityscape comprised densely built tenements, many of which were made up of shops fronting the street with living quarters above and behind. Houses extended up about three storeys and down to the cellars, particularly important for the vintners (plate 1). Rooms also overhung the streets, although they had to be at least nine feet up so that a man could ride a horse underneath. In Vintry Ward, there were some magnificent residences, and the impressive houses owned by the wealthy merchants, complete with gardens and courtyards, were juxtaposed with multi-occupancy tenements.

There were, of course, public health problems in the medieval city. Chaucer's family property stretched back to the Walbrook, a river that today is wholly subterranean and that, in Chaucer's day, carried sewage to the Thames. Some people defecated in the open, animals could not easily be controlled, and offal, blood, and dung were transported out of the city in open carts. But civic officials were very much occupied with implementing public health measures. London had an aqueduct for piping water around the city, streets were regularly cleaned, and privies were common. The foremost historian of London cautions that 'there is no reason to suppose that medieval London was unduly squalid,' and that the worst problems developed in the sixteenth century, when the population rapidly increased. Sweet, more exotic smells were also to be found; incense was burnt in every church and a little way to the north of Chaucer's home, near the house of his grandparents, the pepperers congregated around Sopers' Lane. They sold a dazzling array of spices that would bewilder even the most sophisticated modern cook. The fourteenth-century desire for spices supported an extraordinary trade that brought the products of Southeastern Asia to the shops and tables of London. More commonly, in the streets, cookshops, alehouses, and brewhouses of London, one might eat a hot pie and drink some ale — or, in a tavern, one could drink wine. Wine was the lifeblood of Chaucer's family and their neighbours, and wine created the wealth and royal contacts that established the social identity of the Chaucers, along with other well-off vintners. The English strongly favoured the wines of Gascony; German wines were of much less interest to the medieval English palate. Standing in these streets — in Thames Street, where Chaucer lived, or on one of the myriad lanes, such as Three Cranes Lane or Oxenford Lane, that led off this major thoroughfare — one might touch almost anything: the warm fur worn by prostitutes as well as queens, the smooth stone of a church, a hard silver coin minted nearby in the Tower, the soft dough being taken to the baker's for cooking or the warm loaf of bread being brought back home, the heavy barrels of wine on which the area depended, a sheet of stiff parchment on which crucial accounts were carefully kept. Vintry Ward, ca. 1342, was a place of excitement, business, corruption, entertainment, and opportunity.

For a newborn baby, interiors are more important than streets. Chaucer was lucky. He was born to comfortably off parents who lived in a spacious house, and both his parents, John and Agnes, were alive for his entire childhood and young adulthood. When he was born, his extended family, in similarly affluent circumstances, lived close by. His grandmother, Mary, with her third husband, Richard Chaucer, lived on Watling Street, in Cordwainer Ward, in a house that Mary had originally inherited from her first husband, John Heron, a pepperer. (Her second husband, Robert Chaucer, was Chaucer's grandfather.) Chaucer's uncle, ThomasHeron, John's constant associate and friend, was based just round the corner from John and Agnes. Chaucer was born at a time when the idea of domesticity and the home was increasingly important. In the middle of the fourteenth century, not only did households seek privacy from outside observers, as lawsuits relating to overlooking and intrusion illustrate, but city dwellers were also concerned with the privacy of the individual within the house, demonstrated by the multiplication of rooms in London houses. The kind of house that Chaucer was born in had private spaces as well as public areas, and contained relatively luxurious furnishings. The Chaucer home — probably 179 Thames Street — certainly had extensive cellars and private rooms. There would have been a large hall, rooms upstairs known as 'solars' or living rooms, bedchambers, and a privy. The family might have all slept in one bedchamber, with apprentices in another bedroom. An inventory of the Vintry Ward home of a prominent vintner, Henry Vanner, taken in 1349, describes a house with a hall, three chambers, a kitchen, a storeroom, a chamber below the hall, a shop, and a cellar. Working from home, or living in the office, were standard practice for medieval merchants, whose houses were also places of business, and the household comprised the nuclear family plus apprentices and servants. Women often took part in running the business, and might keep running it themselves if they were widowed. Households such as Chaucer's were furnished and decorated with tapestries and hangings, comfortable beds and cushions, and display objects, such as silver plates and cups. He would have had a cot to sleep in and soft coverings to keep him warm.

Simple things matter to babies: being warm, having good-quality milk — his mother would have been well nourished, and generally mothers breast-fed their children themselves, until their child was between one and three — and being comfortable. Most of all, of course, babies need to be loved. We can't hope to find out anything about John and Agnes's emotional connection with their son, but most medieval parents loved their children, as do most modern ones, and contemporary accounts and advice manuals demonstrate that parents cared about the same eternal issues of childcare as new parents do today — most pressingly, often, how do you help the baby get to sleep? How do you soothe them? Bartholomeus Anglicus, writing in the thirteenth century, recommended rocking a baby to sleep, and singing to them, methods that are still the preeminent ways of getting babies to sleep. Very wealthy households even employed someone as a 'rocker' in nurseries. Parents or nurses and babies sometimes co-slept, not simply because of lack of space but for comfort. Indeed, a scurrilous story was spread that the real John of Gaunt had been accidentally smothered by a nurse in this way and replaced in the royal nursery by a butcher's son. Some advice manuals reveal neglect and abuse: William of Pagula's manual, written about fifteen years before Chaucer's birth, warns that parents must not tie a baby into a cot or leave them unattended for too long. Contemporary London records tell of tragedies and atrocities — a baby eaten by a pig, others killed by fire along with their parents in cramped living quarters, and, rarely, infanticide. Chaucer's young life, though, was privileged, and he is likely to have been cossetted and protected, insulated from some of the most egregious dangers of city life.

We do not know Chaucer's exact date of birth, but it was probably in 1342 or 1343. In 1386, he declared that he was more than forty years old, and that he had borne arms for twenty-seven years. If he first bore arms in 1359 (on the French campaign in which he was taken prisoner), he is likely to have been sixteen or seventeen at that point, possibly a little older. He was born, then, when Edward III had been on the throne for about fifteen years, after his father, Edward II, had been deposed in 1327. Edward and Phillippa of Hainault already had several children, including Edward the Black Prince, Lionel of Antwerp (one of Chaucer's first employers), and John of Gaunt, who was to be very important in Chaucer's life, and who was almost exactly the same age as him. Babies were born at home and baptized within a day or so at the parish church. Baptism was a fairly traumatic experience for the brand-new baby, as it involved immersion in water three times. The baby, with father and godparents, but not the mother — who was not allowed to enter the church until she underwent the churching ceremony a few weeks after birth, and who anyway would have been recovering from the difficulties of giving birth without much medical help — gathered in the porch or doorway of the church. The baby, as a non-Christian, could not enter the church before she or he had been instructed, exorcised, blessed, and named. The party then went to the font, near the door, for the anointing and baptism ceremony. The ritual had several different parts; its central purpose was to bring the child into the Christian community so that she or he had the chance of ultimate salvation. This entry into the Christian community also, of course, made the baby a member of an earthly group, the large community of Christians and the small, local community of the parish. The godparents, who usually lived nearby and hence were on hand, gave gifts and often the name; they became the child's spiritual family. The child's name — in this case, Geoffrey — was repeated twenty-four times during the service, in a symbolic establishment of his identity as a valued individual, set now on his path in life, with the support of his parents, their friends (the godparents), and the structures of the parish.


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Table of Contents

Plates ix

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgements xv

General Prologue 1

Part I Becoming

Prologue 11

Chapter 1 Vintry Ward, London 14

Chapter 2 Great Household 43

Chapter 3 Reims and Calais 70

Chapter 4 Hainault and Navarre 95

Chapter 5 Lancaster 120

Chapter 6 Genoa and Florence 145

Part II Being

Prologue 167

Chapter 7 Counting House 172

Chapter 8 Cage 197

Chapter 9 Milky Way 217

Chapter 10 Tower 239

Chapter 11 Troy 267

Chapter 12 Parliament 295

Chapter 13 Empire 314

Chapter 14 Garden 342

Part III Approaching Canterbury

Prologue 363

Chapter 15 South of the Thames 368

Chapter 16 Inn 392

Chapter 17 Peripheries 410

Chapter 18 What Lies Beneath 439

Chapter 19 Threshold 466

Chapter 20 Abbey 486

Epilogue: Tomb 506

Bibliography 509

Index 547

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“An absolute triumph.”—A. N. Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

“A hugely illuminating book. . . . Turner's writing is never less than perspicacious, and often slyly humorous.”—Tim Smith-Laing, The Telegraph

“[A] wholly beguiling, original, vividly written appreciation of the hugely innovative author and his rich cultural and political European background.”—Robert Fox, Evening Standard

"A great swirl of a biography, one more capacious and more ranging than any of its predecessors."—Joe Stadolnik, Los Angeles Review of Books

“[Turner] has forged a new kind of biography. . . . Her work promises to be definitive for some time to come.”—Mary Wellesley, Times Higher Education

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