Magazine article The Spectator

The First Great Englishman

Magazine article The Spectator

The First Great Englishman

Article excerpt

CHAUCER 1340-1400

by Richard West

Constable, L20, pp. 294

According to a recent ICM survey, there are sadly only 20 per cent of the population who know that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. So the appropriateness of this book, timed to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the poet's death, is as opportune as its market seems limited; no more limited, though, than biographies of Milton, whose most famous poem, Paradise Lost, a staggering 93 per cent were unable to name. A biography might seem a rather difficult task, however, for the facts (or even the reputed facts) about Chaucer's life are very few. But Richard West takes this as an advantage, offering his book as a leisurely stroll through a world of Chaucerian bric-a-brac, in which the poet himself makes only occasional entries. Thus on p. 94, amid a general discussion of the role of Ovid in education, we find a note of Eliza de Burgh, itemising the purchase of a short jacket, a pair of red and black hose and a pair of shoes for the young 'Gaifrido Chaucer'. Forty pages later, in the midst of a discussion of the Guelfs and Ghibellines, 'Geffrog de Chauserre, escuier englois', is granted a safe conduct overseas to Florence. In the meanwhile we have been entertained with brief historical discussions of mediaeval warfare (rather like 'a stag night or rugby club dinner'), and treated to discussions of mercantilism and anti-Semitism, which contain various serendipitous gems. For example, did you know that the modern London telephone directory `shows not one Chaucer among dozens of Chaus and Chaudhuris'? Or that birds `fell dead from the trees' during the Hong Kong `chicken flu' of 1997?

West seems fascinated by the war, and his glancing observations on it frequently spice up some fairly routine observations on mediaeval manners. It appears that Mussolini did not share Hitler's dislike of Jews, who became `prominent in the Italian Fascist party'; Britons faced the Black Death, as they did the Blitz of the 1940s', with self-discipline and phlegm; and modem readers of the Prioress's Tale have been forced to re-investigate its meaning `after Hitler came to power, and Der Sturmer in 1934 devoted a whole issue to Jewish ritual murder'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.