Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury

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9780143127833: Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury

A lively, concise biography of the father of English literature and the tumultuous year that led to The Canterbury Tales
 
At the beginning of 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer—lauded today as the father of English literature—was a middle-aged Londoner with a modest bureaucratic post; his literary successes had been confined to a small audience of intimate friends. But by year’s end, he was swept up in a series of disastrous events that would ultimately leave him jobless, homeless, separated from his wife, and exiled in the countryside of Kent. Unbroken by these worldly reversals, Chaucer pursued a new life in art.

In this highly accessible social history, Paul Strohm, one of the finest medievalists of our time, vividly recreates the bustle of everyday life in fourteenth-century London while he unveils the fascinating story behind Chaucer’s journey from personal crisis to rebirth as the immortal poet of The Canterbury Tales.

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About the Author:

Paul Strohm has taught medieval literature at Columbia University and was the J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. He and his wife live in New York City and Oxford, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

Chaucer’s Crisis

Geoffrey Chaucer often wrote about reversals of Fortune. One of his most frequent literary themes is the impact of sudden turning points and transformations, blows of fate that alter or upend a situation. Some of his characters withstand such changes, and even find ways to turn them to their own advantage. His Knight, for example, muses upon a young man’s cruelly arbitrary death and still counsels his survivors to find ways of seeking joy after woe. The Knight’s proposed remedy is one that will recur several times in Chaucer’s poetry: “to make virtue of necessity” (“to maken vertu of necessitee”) by confronting bad circumstances and turning them to advantage if one can.

No wonder Chaucer favored this advice, since his entire career was a series of high-wire balancing acts, improvisations, and awkward adjustments. In his childhood he escaped the disastrous Black Death that ravaged all of Europe. As an adolescent he declined to pursue, or was discouraged from pursuing, his vintner father’s secure career in the London wine trade. He entered the more volatile area of court service instead. Early in that service he was packed off on a military adventure in France, where he was captured and held prisoner until ransomed by the king. He found his way to an advantageous marriage and a reputable position as esquire to the king, but was no sooner accustoming himself to that life than his political allies decided to deploy him elsewhere. They sent him back to London, where he was reimmersed in mercantile culture in the awkwardly conspicuous and ethically precarious post of controller of the wool custom, charged to monitor the activities of some of the richest and best connected and least scrupulous crooks on the face of his planet. He was given occupancy of quarters over a city gate—the very gate through which the rebels would stream (probably under his feet) during the Peasants’ Revolt. He was intermittently and undoubtedly disruptively tapped for membership in diplomatic delegations, including arduous trips over the Alps to Italy on royal business. Throughout, in court and then in the city, he maintained precarious relations with the most hated man in the realm, the overweening John of Gaunt. He was thrust into awkward and compromising dealings with the most controversial man in London, the unscrupulous wool profiteer Nicholas Brembre. He was in recurrent legal trouble, harassed over unpaid bills, and was the subject of a suit for raptus—abduction or even rape—brought on behalf of a young woman named Cecily Champagne. Briefly recalled to royal service in later life, he was exposed to dangerous travel and several times violently robbed, once in a Falstaffian location known as the Foul Oak in Kent.

Chaucer knew all about turbulence and change, but one brief period in his life posed a particularly severe challenge to his ideas about virtue and necessity. In the autumn of 1386 he was confronted by a clutch of adversities, not only disruptive of his personal and political life but potentially disastrous to his literary life as well. This was his crisis, his time of troubles. Its multiple origins, the hardships it imposed, and especially its remarkable outcome are the tale this book will tell.

In the perverse way of crises, this one interrupted a period of relative calm. For the preceding twelve years, between 1374 and 1386, Chaucer had lived in a grace and favor apartment over London’s Aldgate and settled into something approximating a routine on the Wool Wharf. As the autumn of 1386 approached, he was enjoying a high-water mark in his civic career. His duties as controller of the wool custom had recently been eased by appointment of a deputy, without interruption to his salary. His socialite wife, Philippa, was comfortably settled in Lincolnshire with her sister Katherine, mistress to the formidable Gaunt. Earlier that year Philippa had been inducted into the highly prestigious Fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral, along with the future Henry IV and other persons of consequence. His political allies in King Richard’s royal faction had just engineered his election as a shire knight, or county representative, for Kent in the Westminster Parliament. In both court and city he had proven and reproven his worth as a pliant and useful member of the group of literate civil servants comprising the administrative bureaucracy of later medieval England.

Although his selection as a shire knight was probably a result of his sponsors’ wishes rather than his own desires, he might have taken some satisfaction in the position. Shire knights were the top tier of elected parliamentary representatives, enjoying higher status and privilege than those from boroughs and towns. Besides, members of Parliament (MPs) usually had a good time. The numerous inns and taverns along Westminster’s King Street boomed. Despite civic attempts at regulation, prostitutes streamed toward Westminster and, especially, the freewheeling adjacent area of Charing Cross. MPs maintained an air of jollity, attending banquets and other collective events and also hiring private cooks and musicians to enliven private parties in their group accommodations.

Whatever its recreational advantages, though, Chaucer joined this Parliament on behalf of other people’s interests: those of Richard II, whom he had loyally served, and also the mercantile and political interests of the royal party in the city of London. And he joined it at a particularly unfortunate time. Richard was under unrelenting assault by the aristocratic followers of his uncle Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and this session was shaping up as an early and important test of strength. Its outcome would be disastrous for the king’s faction. These bad results for his allies were closely intertwined with Chaucer’s own life prospects. A petition approved and announced in Parliament encouraged his resignation from his patronage job on the Wool Wharf. Even as Parliament was meeting, previous city allies ousted him from his apartment in London; he could not return there, and would never again, in any settled or consecutive sense, be a resident of London. Other elements of his support system were crumbling. His controversial collaborator and associate, the high-handed London mayor Nicholas Brembre, was discredited. His volatile, aristocratic patron John of Gaunt was absent from the realm on a lengthy and quixotic and unpopular military adventure. Richard’s own problems would multiply in the coming two years, culminating in his near deposition and the condemnation of his closest followers during the Merciless Parliament of 1388. To these movements of state may be added a list of more purely personal woes, including the ebbing of Chaucer’s marriage (he was already living separately from his wife Philippa, and she would die the following year), a partial estrangement from his children (who were being raised in Lincolnshire, as young Lancastrians), and—puzzlingly, since he had worked among the most conspicuous grifters and profit takers of the realm—his own chronic insolvency. In what might have been a quiet time of personal consolidation, he suddenly found himself without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job, and—perhaps most seriously—without a city.

From our vantage point we might suppose that his literary reputation would have bought him some time and temporary credit. From a young age, and throughout all previous changes of fortune, Chaucer had resolutely pursued his literary aims. By 1386 he had written more than half of his poetry, a body of work already sufficient to establish him as the greatest English author before Shakespeare. Why then, in his time of trouble, didn’t doors fly open for him or admirers vie to provide him with support and succor? In fact, he was not yet a celebrated writer. His literary successes had been confined to a small and appreciative circle rather than shared by a more general literary public. He wrote not for hire or on command or, most certainly—prior to 1386—for fame, but simply because he wanted to. He had not made, and would never make, a penny from his verse. His supporters were few and private rather than numerous and far-flung. He had come to know some of them during his years of court service, and then others in the city, and they constituted a group of interested acquaintances rather than a national or international public. Moreover, in the years following 1386, many members of this circle were experiencing their own temporary privation, or even ruin. The end of 1386 would find him effectively on his own, adrift in Kent, without any of his customary life supports. His task, and opportunity, was to decide upon his own next course of action.

His responses to earlier trials had been practical and political, involving new posts, new alliances, new loyalties. This crisis found him temporarily bereft of practical options, and his riposte—his own attempt to make virtue of necessity—would be literary this time. His literary avocation would, in the years following 1386, become his principal area of endeavor, his full vocation, with results that we celebrate today. Already a successful writer, but among a limited circle of acquaintances, he would now accept the preconditions and burdens and excitements of public success. Previously fame-averse, he would embrace the challenges and implications of literary celebrity and perhaps even fame itself. He would set his sights on a career that didn’t yet exist—in England at any rate—as what we now call a man of letters, addressing an audience that didn’t exist yet either, a broadly constituted English literary public. For this trying moment in his life also provoked his most consequential literary stride. In the agitated circumstances of this difficult year, he would conceive and embark upon his masterpiece.

The 1386 crisis must be understood not just as an isolated event but also within the context of its antecedents and its consequences. The first section of this book will concern the run-up to crisis: Chaucer’s marital estrangement, his rather awkward perch over Aldgate, the contradictions and difficulties of his post at the wool custom, and his dispiriting parliamentary session. The second section will turn to his response. Above all, it will consider the new artistic resolve he formed during and after the crisis, his commitment to the ambitious and startlingly unprecedented project of the Canterbury Tales.

Two Chaucers?

This book proposes a connection between an author’s immersion in ordinary, everyday activities and the separately imagined world of his literary work. Every literary biographer faces the problem of bridging this practical and conceptual divide. But the problem is stretched to a breaking point in the case of a premodern writer who kept no personal diaries and maintained no regular written correspondence or other firsthand account of his motives and thoughts.

Not that the Chaucer biographer lacks evidence or material; the records of his official life and duties positively bristle with evidence, but of an exclusively public sort. His official duties are extensively documented in city records, accounts of the exchequer, grants and warrants of the king, John of Gaunt’s household registers, and other sources—but with one remarkable peculiarity. As far as existing records go, Chaucer the poet remains all but hidden from history. Based on the 493 documents of his official life published in the Life-Records,nobody would have known he was a poet at all. For these official and attested documents contain no mention whatever of the accomplishment for which we know him, his contribution to English poetry.

One could go so far as to imagine, speculatively, the existence of “two Chaucers,” the one busy in court and city and the other scribbling in obscure digs somewhere. The first with a public career conducted at a level of moderate visibility and the other as a private writer perfecting his art on his own terms. The records display a public man seeking advancement, forming political and factional ties, representing his king at home and abroad, and supervising the export of the most valued commodity in the land. The writer and private man is, by comparison, hardly to be seen. If that body of brilliant surviving literary works had not raised the question of authorship, and provoked a search to provide him with an identity and a life history, civil servant Geoffrey Chaucer might have escaped the mantle literary history has assigned him. As revealed in the public records of his career, this courtier and bureaucrat seems a busy enough man in his own right and hardly likely to have written all those poems, tales, scientific writings, and other treatises now credited to Chaucer’s pen.

Speculation about separate Chaucers needs a quick quashing, though, before it opens the door to the host of crackpot theories of disguised identities and faux authorship that have dogged Shakespeare and from which Chaucer has been blessedly spared. Fortunately for our sanity in this matter, a few slight shards of literary evidence, originating outside the protocols of official record keeping, imply a connection between the two otherwise separate identities. The French poet Deschamps writes to hail Chaucer the poet for his literary translations, and their link could only have been Lewis Clifford, a knight of King Richard’s chamber and an old friend whom the courtier Chaucer would have met while in royal service. Clifford, at least, would have had a simultaneous sense of “both” Chaucers, as would some other members of the court. Within the body of his incidental verse, Chaucer mentions the names of Henry Scogan and Peter Bukton and Philip de la Vache, all of whom the poet would have known in the first instance as members of the Edwardian and Ricardian courts. The “two Chaucers” also appear to merge at one moment within the body of the poetry itself. This is when, in his satiric House of Fame, the protagonist—one “Geffrey”—is described as completing his “reckonings” (that is, his work-related calculations) and going home at night to immerse himself in books. This Geffrey’s duties would seem a counterpart to Chaucer’s own record-keeping responsibilities at the Wool Wharf, and Chaucer can easily be imagined immuring himself with his books inside his rather garretlike apartment over Aldgate. At these few frail junctures, and hardly any others, the public servant and the private poet converge.

Aside from these few references, Chaucer’s extensively documented public life and his virtually undocumented artistic life remain more obstinately separate than those of any major English writer besides Shakespeare. Nor is he an Augustine or Abelard or Rousseau or Rimbaud, canvassing his own life for narrative material. Just as medieval anatomists were more likely to read Aristotle or Galen than to dissect frogs, so was Chaucer more likely to turn to books and his sense of literary decorum than to personal incidents as his starting point when he set out to craft a tale. He never wrote a tale about a merchant’s son who became a courtier, or a courtier who became a bureaucrat, or the wool trade and the Calais Staple, or a noisy apartment over a city gate, or a failed attempt to pack a Parliament, or any other subject demonstrably drawn from his life exp...

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