Canterbury Tales

Chaucer, Geoffrey

Geoffrey Chaucer (jĕf´rē chô´sər), c.1340–1400, English poet, one of the most important figures in English literature.

Life and Career

The known facts of Chaucer's life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records. He was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for many years. In 1359–60 he was with the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed.

By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 1372–73 and in 1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374–86) and clerk of the king's works (1389–91). The official date of Chaucer's death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Early Works

Chaucer's literary activity is often divided into three periods. The first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely on French models, especially the Roman de la Rose and the poems of Guillaume de Machaut. Chaucer's chief works during this time are the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose.

Italian Period

Chaucer's second period (up to c.1387) is called his Italian period because during this time his works were modeled primarily on Dante and Boccaccio. Major works of the second period include The House of Fame, recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae.

Also among the works of this period are the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse; the prose fragment The Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his son Lewis; and Troilus and Criseyde, based on Boccaccio's Filostrato, one of the great love poems in the English language (see Troilus and Cressida). In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.

The Canterbury Tales

To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life.

The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrims—such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner—come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators understand his versification.

Bibliography

The best editions of Chaucer's works are those of F. N. Robinson (1933) and W. W. Skeat (7 vol., 1894–97); of The Canterbury Tales, that of J. M. Manly and E. Rickert (8 vol., 1940); of Troilus and Criseyde, that of R. K. Root (1926).

See C. Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (1960); G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and His England (1950, repr. 1963); M. A. Bowden, A Reader's Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer (1964); G. G. Williams, A New View of Chaucer (1965); M. Hussey et al., Introduction to Chaucer (1965); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Chaucer's London (1968); G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (1915, repr. 1970); I. Robinson, Chaucer's Prosody (1971) and Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972); P. M. Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry (2 vol., 1972); D. Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The Critical Heritage (2 vol., 1978); B. Rowland, ed., Companion to Chaucer Studies (1979); D. R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (1989). Bibliographies for 1908 to 1953 by D. D. Griffith (rev. ed. 1954) and for 1954 to 1963 by W. R. Crawford (1967).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer; Nevill Coghill.
Penguin Books, 1969 (Revised edition)
A Companion to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
Margaret Hallissy.
Greenwood Press, 1995
The Canterbury Tales
Helen Cooper.
Oxford University Press, 1996 (2nd edition)
Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales
William Witherle Lawrence.
Columbia University Press, 1950
Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1988
Librarian’s tip: This is a book of literary criticism
Geoffrey Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1988
Librarian’s tip: This is a book of literary criticism
Chaucer's Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales
Laura C. Lambdin; Robert T. Lambdin.
Praeger, 1999
Chaucer's Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in the Canterbury Tales
C. David Benson.
University of North Carolina Press, 1986
The Unity of the Canterbury Tales
Ralph Baldwin.
Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955
Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales
Edward I. Condren.
University Press of Florida, 1999
Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales
J. Stephen Russell.
University Press of Florida, 1998
The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse
Geoffrey Chaucer; Joseph Glaser.
Hackett, 2005
Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition
Katharine S. Gittes.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Society and Nature in the 'Cook's Tale.' (Chaucer)
Woods, William F.
Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring 1996
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Eighteenth-Century Modernizations from the Canterbury Tales
Betsy Bowden.
D.S. Brewer, 1991
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