Widely regarded as the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) is the outstanding writer in English before Shakespeare, and 'The Canterbury Tales' is still widely read, studied and enjoyed.
Chaucer was born circa 1343 in London, though the exact date and location of his birth are not known. There are few details of Chaucer’s early life and education but compared with near contemporary poets, William Langland and the ‘Pearl Poet’, his life is well documented, with nearly five hundred written items testifying to his career.
The first time he is mentioned is in 1357, in the household accounts of Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster, when he became the noblewoman’s page through his father’s connections. He also worked as a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant, as well as working for the king, collecting and inventorying scrap metal.
Around 1366, Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet. She was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, who later (ca. 1396) became the third wife of Chaucer’s friend and patron, John of Gaunt. It is uncertain how many children Chaucer and Philippa had, but three or four are most commonly cited. His son, Thomas Chaucer, had an illustrious career, as chief butler to four kings, envoy to France, and Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas’ daughter, Alice, married the Duke of Suffolk. Thomas’ great-grandson (Geoffrey’s great-great-grandson), John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was the heir to the throne designated by Richard III before he was deposed. Geoffrey Chaucer became a member of the royal court of Edward III as a varlet de chambre, yeoman, or esquire on 20 June 1367, a position which could entail any number of jobs. His wife also received a pension for court employment. He travelled abroad many times, at least some of them in his role as a valet.
Chaucer’s first major work, The Book of the Duchess, was an elegy for Blanche of Lancaster (who died in 1369). It is possible that this work was commissioned by her husband John of Gaunt, as he granted Chaucer a £10 annuity on 13 June 1374. This would seem to place the writing of The Book of the Duchess between the years 1369 and 1374. Two other early works by Chaucer were Anelidaand Arcite and The House of Fame.
Chaucer wrote many of his major works in a prolific period when he held the job of customs comptroller for London (1374 to 1386). His Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde all date from this time. Also it is believed that he started work on The Canterbury Tales in the early 1380s.
Chaucer is best known as the writer of The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury; these tales would help to shape English literature. The Canterbury Talescontrasts with other literature of the period in the naturalism of its narrative, the variety of stories the pilgrims tell and the varied characters who are engaged in the pilgrimage.
Although Chaucer’s works were admired for many years, serious scholarly work on his legacy did not begin until the nineteenth century. Scholars such as Frederick James Furnivall, who founded the Chaucer Society in 1868, pioneered the establishment of diplomatic editions of Chaucer’s major texts, along with careful accounts of Chaucer’s language and prosody.