An eminent French critic, complaining that the biographers of men of letters have recently given more attention to their correspondence, diaries, and other intimate records than to their literary productions, expresses the fear that the present period in criticism may be remembered as "I'âge des petits papiers." The writer of the life of Chaucer is at least in no danger of going to the extreme described. He may resort too freely to conjecture, as scholars have occasionally done in the attempt to use every scrap of evidence for the reconstruction of Chaucer's life and times. But he will have no private papers to draw upon, and the public records at his disposal deal almost entirely with official appointments and business transactions — the external facts of the poet's career. In the end, for the most part, the biographer will have to let Chaucer's works speak for themselves, rather interpreting him by them than interpreting the writings by the personal experiences of the author.
Within their limited range, however, the recorded facts about Chaucer and his family are rather numerous. More than three hundred entries have been discovered, besides many relating to Thomas Chaucer, and more are constantly coming to light. But the story that they yield can be briefly recapitulated.
The year of Chaucer's birth is unknown. His own testimony, at the Scrope-Grosvenor trial in 1386, that he was then "forty years old and more" makes probable a date somewhat later than 1340. The fact that he was in military service in France in 1359 is also consistent with the assumption that he was born about 1343-44.
His father was John Chaucer and his mother probably Agnes, mentioned as John Chaucer's wife in 1349. She is described in the same document as a relative and heir of Hamo de Copton, and is to be identified, on the evidence of a recently discovered cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, with his niece Agnes, daughter of James de Copton. She cannot have been married to John Chaucer before 1328, when, according to documentary evidence, he was still single, and a date considerably later seems likely in view of the fact that she had been married earlier to a man named Northwell, kinsman of William de Northwell, keeper of the King's wardrobe, and that after John Chaucer's death, in 1366 or 1367, she became the wife of Bartholomew atte Chapel. John Chaucer, born between 1310 and 1312, was the son of Robert Chaucer, who in 1307 had married a widow, Mary Heyroun (perhaps born Stace). Robert Chaucer died before 1316, and in 1323 Mary married Richard Chaucer, perhaps a kinsman of Robert. She died before April 12, 1349, as appears from Richard's will, which was proved in July of the same year.
According to John Philpot's Visitation of Kent, Geoffrey Chaucer had a sister Catherine, who was married to Simon Manning of Codham, and through her many New England families trace a connection with the poet's line. Of other children of John Chaucer nothing is known. Elizabeth Chaucy, for whose admission to Barking Abbey John of Gaunt gave £51-8-2 in 1381, is held by some to have been a sister of Geoffrey, and by others to have been his daughter.
name Chaucer or Chaucier (Fr. "Chaussier") would indicate that the family was once occupied with shoe-making, and their earliest known residence in London was in Cordwainers' Street. But Chaucer's immediate ancestors — his father, grandfather, and step-grandfather — were vintners or wine-merchants. They appear to have been prosperous people, with rising fortunes and some standing at court. In 1310 Robert . . .