Geoffrey Chaucer

Andrew Galloway

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI:
Geoffrey Chaucer

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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Since shortly after his death, Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340–d. 1400) has often been praised as the writer who most widely and momentously expanded both the range and the literary authority of English poetry in his own period and, in some views, of English literature in general. Chaucer’s status among and influence on writers of the century following his is itself of historical and literary importance. In his own time, however, he was not an isolated innovator. Instead, he was a contemporary or near-contemporary of many important continental writers, French and Italian, who defined new ambitions for literature’s scope and prestige, such as Oton de Grandson, Jean Froissart, Guillaume de Machaut, Eustache Deschamps, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio, some of whom he knew and all of whom he read at least to some degree. In addition, he was surrounded by a number of other writers in London and Westminster who also showed new ambitions for literature in English, some of whom he knew personally, such as John Gower (b. c. 1330–d. 1408), John Clanvowe (b. c. 1341–d. 1391), William Langland (b. c. 1330-d. c. 1390), Thomas Usk (b. c. 1350–d. 1388), and Thomas Hoccleve (b. c. 1367–d. 1426). By any measure, however, Chaucer was the most prolifically varied and lastingly influential English poet in the later 14th century, and most would agree he was one of the most vivid and original. His writing comprises over 33,000 lines of verse in his major works, Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1380–1388), The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390–1400), and his four dream visions (c. 1368–c. 1390, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women). In addition, there are nearly two dozen short poems and lyrics; a full prose translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae; a prose translation (with original prologue) of a guide for using an astrolabe, A Treatise on the Astrolabe; and, less securely attributed, another prose translation of a guide for constructing another instrument used for calculating planetary movements, The Equatorie of the Planetis. Lost works by Chaucer include short love lyrics (presumed to be juvenalia, probably but not certainly in French, possibly the surviving set of poems marked as the work of “Ch”), an apparently full translation of the Roman de la Rose (thought to survive in part among a fragmentary set of extant and partial English verse translations of that work), a translation of Lotario dei Segni’s (Innocent III’s) De contemptu mundi, and a translation of the pseudo-Origen homily De Maria Magdalena. Chaucer also mentions his poem called “The Book of the Lion,” about which nothing is known and little confidently guessed, other than that it was possibly an adaptation or translation of a French poem, such as one of those with a similar name by Machaut or Deschamps, and just possibly dedicated (as the name suggests) to Duke Lionel, a son of King Edward III, under whom Chaucer briefly served (in 1359) as a soldier in France, and in the household of whose wife, the Countess of Ulster, he held a menial role early in life (1356–1359). As the son of a London merchant and a lifelong participant in the civil service and royal court, Chaucer’s social position was always relatively comfortable and seems by the end of his life to have been moderately prominent, although his initial burial in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in a corner that was beginning to be used for graves of monastic officials, possibly reflects official recognition of his successful career as a civil servant and diplomat rather than as a literary authority. More obvious wealth and political power seems to have come only to Chaucer’s descendents, starting with his prominent son, Thomas (d. 1434), made member of the king’s council in 1424, whose daughter Alice became duchess of Suffolk and whose own grandson John, earl of Lincoln, was designated by Richard III as heir to the throne. In 1556 Chaucer’s body was moved to a more prominent monument against the east wall of the south transept that later became known as Poets’ Corner. But in spite of his repute among contemporary writers, such official acclaim for his literary stature cannot be found during Chaucer’s own life: the absence of any mention of Chaucer’s poetic labors in the copious records about his life confirms the clear distinction between his officially professional labors and his “amateur” poetic activities.

Article.  45045 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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