|The man himself: gaze upon him in awe!|
Geoffrey Chaucer is likely the greatest English writers in its history. He is also the first poet whom we know any great detail about. As a great poet he was functioning in great times and it is vital that we understand those time in order to understand Chaucer.
Chaucer was a social poet. Fundamentally this means that Chaucer’s writings are about how people interacted with their peers, subordinates and superiors, and with their God(s).
Likely born in the year 1340, he died in the year 1400. He was a public servant and so was employed by the royal court where he had a variety of occupations: he served in the army, he was attached to the nobility, while at various times he was an ambassador and a member of parliament, a clerk of the king’s works and many other positions. Since records were meticulously kept we know that per year, Chaucer was paid by the crown £40 per year, a massive sum when the average wage of the day laborer was a single penny a day.
What is interesting to note about Chaucer is that while we have a great deal of information about him as a public figure and intellectual, we have no documentation of him as a poet. So, the question becomes—what is the relationship between Chaucer’s private life and his public life? This becomes more relevant once we consider that Chaucer’s works did not survive in any written form; meaning, scholars today have nothing which was written in Chaucer’s own handwriting. In fact, we do not even have a signature.
What do we have, then? A collection of manuscripts.
These manuscripts were produced in the 15th century and were attributed to Chaucer. Since Chaucer died in the year 1400, and the earliest written manuscript dates from 1415 or 1420, numbering some eighty different manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales. Since manuscripts were labor intensive to produce until the printing press was invented at the end of the 15th century—in 1476 with William Caxton’s establishment, textual production was an expensive and time consuming process; accordingly, the fact that we have any surviving manuscripts, let alone the dozens that we do, serves as a mark of Chaucer’s importance.
As Professor Seth Lerer suggests, one of the defining aspects of Chaucer’s works is the relationship between the public life and the interior, imaginary life; what are the tensions and contradictions of this life and what is the relationship between the world of experience and imagination? Especially when Chaucer’s record as a poet, though ‘off the books,’ was of such immense importance?
Chaucer was a man of the world: he travelled to France at least twice and to Italy; he knew French, Italian, and Latin. During these travels he likely would come into contact with other literary figures and perhaps brought home with him manuscripts from those lands which he visited. Clearly, he would incorporate such experiences into his own works and they would inflame his passions. Obviously, Chaucer is a European poet immersed in the genre and generalities of the continent.
Chaucer wrote several kinds of poems. He wrote commissioned works for courts (these were usually longer works), and shorter poems for friends, which were often appeals for patronage where he asks for money; case in point, as soon as Henry the Fourth gains power, Chaucer writes to him, appealing to his ego, and begs for money (classic Chaucer!). Such works can be used as lenses for Chaucer’s longer works.
Part of understanding Chaucer is to understand how he wrote about men and women not simply as characters in a text but characters in life. Chaucer was one of the first writers of this period to truly define his characters in relation to gender roles, what it meant to desire as a man and woman, the function of marriage, and what it meant to have an identity as a man or woman. Because of this, Chaucer’s representation of marriage is filled with conflict and argumentation, but laughter as well. This is where the medieval man and woman live out their lives.