Cover image for Chaucer's tale : 1386 and the road to Canterbury
Chaucer's tale : 1386 and the road to Canterbury
Strohm, Paul, 1938- , author.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Viking, 2014.
Physical Description:
xv, 284 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations, maps (some color) ; 22 cm
A "microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to the creation of The Canterbury Tales"--

This is the eye-opening story of the birth of one of the most celebrated literary creations of the English language. The middle-aged Chaucer did not enjoy the literary celebrity he has today--far from it. He was living quietly in London with a modest bureaucratic post, writing poetry for a small audience of intimate friends. For more than a decade, Chaucer had stayed precariously afloat in London's fierce factional politics. Aided by a strategic marriage and ties to the court of Richard II, he had enjoyed favor from two envied and despised men: the overbearing John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the unscrupulous wool profiteer and London Mayor, Nicholas Brembre. Suddenly, swept up by events beyond his own control, he lost it all. During the autumn of 1386 he was expelled from his London dwelling, humiliated in Parliament, pressured out of his job, and forced into exile in Kent. Unbroken by these worldly reversals, Chaucer pursued a new life in art. Cut off from his London audience, he invented a portable one--a tale-swapping pilgrim band. He converted his previously private literary career into a public one, in the grandest of terms. At the loneliest time of his life, Chaucer made the revolutionary decision to keep writing, to change the nature of what he was writing, and to write for a national audience, for posterity, and for fame.--From publisher description.
Chaucer's crisis -- A married man -- Aldgate -- The wool men -- In Parliament -- The other Chaucer -- The problem of fame -- Kent and Canterbury -- Laureate Chaucer.

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PR1905 .S77 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PR1905 .S77 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PR1905 .S77 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A lively microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to the creation of The Canterbury Tales

In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer endured his worst year, but began his best poem. The father of English literature did not enjoy in his lifetime the literary celebrity that he
has today--far from it. The middle-aged Chaucer was living in London, working as a midlevel bureaucrat and sometime poet, until a personal and professional
crisis set him down the road leading to The Canterbury Tales.

In the politically and economically fraught London of the late fourteenth century, Chaucer was swept up against his will in a series of disastrous events that would ultimately leave him jobless, homeless, separated from his wife, exiled from his city, and isolated in the countryside of Kent--with no more audience to hear the
poetry he labored over.

At the loneliest time of his life, Chaucer made the revolutionary decision to keep writing, and to write for a national audience, for posterity, and for fame.

Brought expertly to life by Paul Strohm, this is the eye-opening story of the birth one of the most celebrated literary creations of the English language.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Faith may have put medieval pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, but Strohm is sure that it was disaster that launched Geoffrey Chaucer on the task of writing his great poem about such a pilgrimage. In this remarkable literary inquiry, Strohm illuminates the way a staggering series of reversals personal, economic, political knocked Chaucer out of his career as a successful bureaucrat who occasionally wrote poetry for an intimate circle and into a radically different trajectory as a single-minded poet determined to reach an enduring audience. A carefully researched narrative shows Chaucer suffering emotional distress as his marriage decays, financial embarrassment as he loses his patronage position in the wool trade, and public humiliation as his loyalty to Richard II exposes him to parliamentary wrath. The setbacks of 1386 even deprive Chaucer of his Aldgate apartment. But as a man who could maken vertu of necessitee, Chaucer turns his straitened circumstances into an opportunity to act on a desire he had tentatively voiced in his Troilus and Criseyde that of pursuing fame as a poet. Chaucer thus withdraws from London to Kent and forever changes English literature by beginning The Canterbury Tales. The unearthing of a real-life tale as fascinating as any of Chaucer's own making.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1386, when Geoffrey Chaucer lost his bureaucratic job in wool customs-and the attached housing-the little-known poet left his native London and began his remarkable work, The Canterbury Tales, in exile. Strohm, an emeritus professor of medieval literature at Oxford and Columbia Universities, focuses on this one significant year in Chaucer's life and covers his Aldgate neighborhood and London political intrigue in minute detail. Strohm relates Chaucer's themes in specific works to life in London, and uses both a current translation and the Middle English version for each selection, which makes it easy for modern readers to follow. An unforgiving portrait of Chaucer's royal brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, appears to be based largely on one contemporary source; in fact, Gaunt's patronage of Chaucer allowed him to live comfortably when his income ebbed, since the writer was either comparatively honest or inept at corruption. Strohm's well chosen public documents and contextual excerpts from Chaucer's work offer a glimpse into Chaucer's personal life and literary ambition as well as insight into the horrible year that launched his greatest work. Strohm really shines at literary criticism, which he saves until the end, but this work is probably best for those who already harbor a deep interest in medieval literature or history. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

Like James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), this microbiography focuses on an important year in one writer's life. In this case, the year is 1386, and the writer is Geoffrey Chaucer. During his lifetime, Chaucer was known as a mid-level bureaucrat, not as the "father of English literature." For the 12 years before 1386, he lived a comfortable life above Aldgate, where he could enjoy the excitement of medieval London. However, 1386 was a crisis year for Chaucer. Perhaps the first unlanded MP, he served an ill-fated term in Parliament as part of Richard II's faction and ended up losing his job and his home. Set adrift in Kent, Chaucer reexamined his life and his aversion to literary fame. The result was the composition of The Canterbury Tales. This excellent microbiography not only provides an insight into the book's origins and Chaucer's reluctance to seek literary fame but also presents Chaucer's world with all its political intrigue. Strohm (Columbia) provides a fascinating postscript about how, within a decade of his death, Chaucer went from being almost unknown as a writer to being famous beyond his wildest dreams. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. --Leah Jean Larson, Our Lady of the Lake University



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 experience. Besides, even had he done so, we still wouldn't be able to distinguish between his faithful reportage and his indebtedness to a mixture of literary sources and pure inventions. His handful of apparent references to himself within his poems--as a wallflower at the dance of love or a hapless man ensnared by marriage--are far too conventional to be seized as literal life truths. Even the crucial reference in the House of Fame to "Geffrey" coming home at night from his day job and immersing himself in books occurs within a piece of literary invention and falls somewhere beneath the standards of hard evidence. Literary biographers are always on precarious ground when they go prospecting in an artist's body of written work seeking nuggets of buried life experience. The temptation is especially great for the biographer of a premodern figure for whom life evidence remains scattered and inferential. Supposed links between art and life often prove a kind of fool's gold, alluring but deceptive. For example, Chaucer's actual parliamentary involvements might seem sufficient warrant to look within his literary parliaments for such connections. Chaucer does, indeed, write about unruly parliaments in his Parliament of Fowls and also in Troilus , but both descriptions turn out to have been written prior to his own parliamentary term. Besides, the parliament of birds was an established literary trope of the day, and Giovanni Boccaccio, Chaucer's partial source for Troilus , already had the idea of situating the decision about Criseide in a quasi-parliamentary council of barons. Or consider a tantalizing moment in Chaucer's House of Fame when the overbearing Eagle shouts "Awak!" in Geffrey's ear--in voice and volume, Chaucer says, of someone he might (but does not) name ( "Ryght in the same vois and stevene / That useth oon I coulde nevene" ). One influential critic made the plausible suggestion that this must have been a rendition of Chaucer's own wife, Philippa, waking him up in the morning. Except that he probably wasn't living with Philippa at the time. And then other critics came along and suggested that the voice must have belonged to an officious servant, or to Lady Philosophy, or to Christ on Judgment Day. In other words, we'll never know. Perhaps the voice simply belonged to this particular noisy Eagle, and Chaucer can't name his source because he invented it. Alongside Chaucer's other personal reticences may be placed his general aversion to topical poetry or to poetry devoted to outside events or burning themes of the political moment. His Knight has been in numerous battles, but the account of his military experience avoids such hot-button instances as skirmishes in the Hundred Years War with France (despite his own experience in that intermittent war). Nor does he take the opportunity to comment on a subject of considerable personal importance, John of Gaunt's ongoing military adventure in Castile. The deposed king Pedro of Castile (Gaunt's father-in-law) and Bernabò Visconti (whom Chaucer may have met, or at least seen, in Italy) are mentioned as victims of Fortune in his "Monk's Tale," but only in general terms and not in any way suggesting personal acquaintance. He alludes to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and the rebels' shrill cries and their revenge on the Flemish community in his "Nun's Priest's Tale," but these were commonplaces. Besides, by comparing them to the din of the barnyard animals' pursuit of the fleeing fox, and by transposing these events into a mock-heroic register, he seems more interested in neutralizing their raw shock than in exploiting them for their own sake. His dour contemporary John Gower, seldom hailed for his contemporary relevance, is the one who tackles public events in his poetry and moves events like the Peasants' Revolt to the forefront as subjects of political commentary and moral observation. Wishing to move past the bare details of Chaucer's official life but unwilling to ransack his literary works in a vain search for hidden clues, I have pursued a third option. Intermediary between a writer's public life on the one hand and fictional and literary creations on the other are those activities comprising what might be called the "writing scene": all those matters of situation and circumstance that permit writing in the first place, the essential preconditions and occasions of literary art. Why then rummage around in an author's work for purported life details when the known circumstances of an author's daily life bristle with significant information about his or her exercise of his or her craft? When, for example, did the artist find time to write, or a place to write, or an appreciative audience, or a means of addressing that audience? Chaucer shows an active interest in such matters throughout his writings, scenes of literary enjoyment, such as the ladies hearing a romance of Thebes read aloud in Criseide's garden; worries about manuscript production and scribal error in his poem to Adam the Scrivener; evidence of direct address and lively interaction with an intimate audience scattered throughout his poems. The connections I will draw between his poetry and his life will involve those life arrangements that hindered or helped his writing, that advanced or retarded his search for an appreciative audience of his poems. The sequence of events unfolding in the autumn of 1386, would have an immense influence on the circumstances of Chaucer's art: on his writing scene, on his access to an audience, on the importance of audience to his work, on his ambitions for himself as a writer. In the end of it all, these altered circumstances will have an impact on the artwork itself, on its form and its means of presentation, and on what Chaucer hopes to accomplish by writing it. Within the practical details of Chaucer's ordinary life rests an explanation for his most extraordinary literary departure, the enabling idea of his final masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales . In the closing months of 1386 Chaucer experienced a devastating cluster of reversals that has every appearance of defeat. But sometimes the grim particulars of a defeat can create a new opening, a fresh alternative. All these frustrations, this eclipse of career, this forced relocation, this abrupt termination of a London life that had suited him well will create the incentive for a new life through art. A new art requires a new audience, and Chaucer will seek and find one--first, fictively, through his company of Canterbury Pilgrims, and then concretely, through an expanded and diversified reading public. Forgoing the customary comforts of a familiar audience, and discovering a voice (or, more accurately, a multiplicity of voices) in which to address a broadened literary constituency, Chaucer will remake himself. This partially compromised and marginally successful factionalist and bureaucrat will set himself on course to become what he is for us now: a poet shaped by circumstance but who also found a way to place himself beyond circumstance, to become a poet for all time. Chaucer may, in fact must, be seen in double vision: as the medieval poet that he was and as the poet of permanent themes and enduring stature that he aspired to be, situated in the "then" of his own time but also speaking to the "now" of ours. At one moment in his poetry he addresses this very issue. In his Troilus and Criseide he considers the predicament of Trojan lovers, long vanished in past time, and the obstacles to his own reconstruction of their emotions and experiences. They are completely unlike us but bafflingly like us as well. So much time has passed, he says, that speech itself has changed; they didn't even use the same words for things, and words that then had value now seem wondrously silly and strange. But--and here is his crucial point--for all their seeming oddity of speech or custom they got on with the business of life and achieved practical consequences we can still appreciate and understand. In love, he says, they fared as well as we do now ( "spedde as wel in love as men now do" ). They are taking their own and different avenues to recognizable objectives, following, as he figuratively says, different paths to Rome but getting there nonetheless ( "For every wight which that to Rome went / Halt nat o path" ). Differences, he wisely suggests, must be acknowledged, but some human emotions and objectives remain recognizable across time. My aim is to write an evidence-based account that respects the past as past, but that simultaneously seeks out linkages between that past and our present. At various points in the pages to follow I will attribute motives to Chaucer that, with modest adjustment, are close cousins to our own: motives of love (and accommodation to its absence), ambition (and its curious lack), loyalty (and its limits), financial security (and an apparent indifference to wealth), a wish for fame (and a disdain for its requirements). Such conceptions, or usages as Chaucer calls them, have their own distinctive medieval inflections. Love might have been a bit more pragmatic in Chaucer's day; even in the age of courtly romance excessive love was regarded as a fever and disease. Loyalty stood somewhat more to the forefront than today, and lapses in personal commitment were more severely judged. Financial security was often equated with entitlement to property, to which Chaucer had no practical access. Fame was perhaps even more ardently sought than it is today, although also seen as a precarious and double-edged aspiration. But even when such differences are acknowledged, these usages are sufficiently elastic, and share enough characteristics of our own, to provide a common ground for appreciation of this remarkable man's travails and all that he achieved. CHAPTER ONE A Married Man Those Aldgate mornings Chaucer awakened alone, or in any case without the company of his wife Philippa. She appears never to have lived with him there. Chaucer's lease was drawn to himself as sole occupant, whereas the previous lease for his London dwelling had been made out to a married couple--"to Walter Parmenter and his wife Joanna "--including both their names. Besides, a woman of Philippa's background would have been unlikely to enjoy such quarters in a fortified tower over a city gate. His relations with Philippa were companionate but, at least at this stage in their lives, distant, as a closer look at their particular circumstances will help to explain. Any marriage, even when amply documented or lived out before one's eyes, will retain its areas of private reserve. The more so with Chaucer and Philippa, whose marriage is glimpsed mainly in public documents and records--grants and annuities, household affiliations, ceremonial duties--and no private communications at all. Carefully examined, though, even taciturn records of financial transactions and public ceremonies have their partial tales to tell. Several telltale pieces of stray evidence--including her presence at a Lincolnshire social event and an annuity payment via the sheriff of Lincoln and the intimacy of their oldest son's connections with the Lancastrian household--suggest that Chaucer and Philippa lived apart far more often than they lived together during their thirty-year marriage. Like some twenty-first-century "commuting" marriages, theirs was conditioned by demands of simultaneous careers, economic necessity, and geographical separation. Perhaps the real surprise is that, with so many competing pressures and agendas, they stayed together at all. But they did, just barely, and here is what can be known of their story. A Squire of Lesser Degree Son of a successful London citizen and vintner, the young Chaucer initially sought a career in aristocratic service. A normal career track would have had him following his father into the wine trade, becoming a member of the vintners' guild, and living out his life among the prosperous bourgeoisie who effectively ran the city of London. But he, or his father, had other ideas. John Chaucer had been on the fringes of royal employment as a deputy collector of customs at Southampton and other ports, and knew something about launching a career that would take his son at least partway beyond his mercantile beginnings. Beginning in 1357, when Geoffrey was in his early teens, probably through connections his father had formed and exploited during his periods of royal service, he was taken on as a page in the household of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, and then in a merged household with her husband, Lionel, a son of Edward III. In setting on this track Geoffrey relinquished the comforts of a family home and economic security accompanying the path to guild master in a London trade. Awaiting him, instead, was a more socially prestigious but far less certain future as a participant in the court culture of his day. A page might be a mere chore boy, currying horses and carrying firewood and turning spits in the kitchen. (A haughty damsel in Malory's Morte d'Arthur insults the humbly reared Sir Gareth by claiming that he is a "luske and a torner of broches" --an idler and spit turner in a noble kitchen.) But a page might also be a young man with prospects, a more genteel and versatile kind of errand runner destined for better things--including the ranks of valet, esquire, or even knight. Geoffrey's post was of the latter kind. Early in his term of service he was fitted out with a "paltock" (a fashionable tuniclike garment) at the countess's expense, and one doesn't wear a paltock to grub out the stables. As a young man marked for possible future advancement, he was trusted to make local trips and conduct small business arrangements on behalf of his lord. On the same roster of domestic servants is a young woman who also seems to have been on an upward trajectory, one "Philippa Pan." The question is, was she Chaucer's future wife Philippa? The designation Pan remains mysterious. Pan might simply be a surname, which would argue against the notion that she is Chaucer's eventual wife, since Philippa Chaucer's surname was "de Roet." Or Pan might be an abbreviation for panetaria --anyone from "breadmaker" to "mistress of the pantry"--except that the household already had one. This Philippa was probably no commoner; Philippa had been a popular name ever since Queen Philippa's marriage to the young Edward III and arrival in England in 1327, but mainly among socially aspirational women. Although Philippa Pan is not necessarily "our" Philippa, we may reasonably suppose her so. She, like Geoffrey, received household gifts that designate her as a young woman from whom certain things might be expected: a holiday tunic of similar worth to his, together with an ornamental corset, leather work, and other marks of recognition. In any case, by 1366 doubt is resolved: There is a Philippa Chaucer. A document of 1366 names her asalady, or domicella , of the queen's chamber. Even given the lapse of a half-dozen years since the Ulster household, this would have been a young marriage. Each was about twenty-two years of age. A popular impression, abetted by Romeo and Juliet , is that matches were always arranged and that medieval people married extremely young. These points hold true for dynastic marriages, when thrones or substantial properties were at stake, but not for most others. Granted, in 1396 Richard II married the six-year-old daughter of the king of France, whom he happily pampered and treated as a little girl, and, more proximately, Edward III was only fifteen when he entered into his arranged marriage with his Philippa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the count of Hainault. But these dynastic marriages were exceptions. Richard II's marriage to his "expensive little morsel" of flesh was widely mocked, and Queen Philippa's youth was repeatedly commented upon. Early modern marriages, for members of the gentry (like Chaucer), suggest twenty-six as the average age for men, twenty-one to twenty-two for women. Chaucer's marrying in his early twenties was on the young side for the later fourteenth century, and this bare fact may suggest a relation initially marked by enthusiasm and free choice. In any case, it suggests an absence of reluctance, a sense that he considered this to be an advantageous marriage. This 1366 document locates Philippa in the entourage of the queen. In 1367 Chaucer would closely align their lives by entering into royal service as well. He is first described as a valettus , or valet, and then, in another document of the same date, named as a scutifer , or esquire, of the king. This title of esquire--whether a hasty correction or mark of recent promotion--means that Chaucer, as well as Philippa, has achieved a "gentle" social rank, putting each on the same side of the line that defined the two great social categories of the later Middle Ages, that separating gentlepersons from the bourgeoisie and others. Chaucer and Philippa were equals in the matter of gentility, but a gulf, and in fact even a double gulf, remained between them. Philippa's smooth accession to domicella , the female equivalent of knighthood, is easily enough explained. As the daughter of Sir Paon de Roet, a knight of Hainault who came to England in the entourage of Queen Philippa and remained, she was of a lineage that affirmed and secured her status. Her sister Katherine moved easily into the household of the Duke of Lancaster, beginning as an ancilla , or servant, to Duchess Blanche in 1365, and attaining the status of domicella soon after. Of course, both sisters brought a good deal to the table. Paon de Roet had been something more than a run-of-the-mill chamber knight. His title, in the entourage of Queen Philippa's sister Marguerite, countess of Hainault, had been Maistre Chevalier de l'Ostel, or chief knight of the household. In England, he would be given the title Guienne King of Arms by Edward III. These titles are undoubtedly somewhat pumped up, in lieu of other rewards. Nevertheless, Paon de Roet cannot be written off as a mere down-at-the-heels opportunist. Not simply a knight, he was granted some marks of special distinction within that privileged class. He executed tasks of trust and responsibility in England; Froissart, for example, names him as one of the knights delegated to provide safe conduct for the burghers of Calais on the occasion when their conqueror Edward III had condemned them to death. Furthermore, records show that Philippa Chaucer's nephew Thomas Swynford received an eventual inheritance in Hainault--suggesting that de Roet was no piker and had at least some lands to give. As son of a London wine merchant, Chaucer started a notch below and never caught up. The thing about his status of lesser, or meindre , degree is that--unlike many of his fellow esquires (who would eventually become knights)--he earned his rank not through birth but through service. The meindre would fall away; he would be known as an esquire of the king's household and, after he left it, simply as esquire. But this court had a glass ceiling, and odds were against an esquire who had earned his rank through service emerging as a knight. He had to make do with the status available to him, which is elsewhere expressed as that of mesnal gentil --a household gentleperson--not a "menial," as in our modern usage, but a member of the king's meynee , or band of undifferentiated household supporters. Their social differences are illustrated in a document of 1369, in which liveries of mourning are authorized for members of the household attending Queen Philippa's obsequies. Such ceremonial occasions served double duty as orchestrations and performances of social difference, and in this document differences are clearly displayed. Of black cloth for mourning garments, lords and ladies ( damoiselles ) receive a dozen yards, ladies of lesser rank (s ouz-damoiselle ) receive a half dozen, knights receive a dozen, and esquires of greater degree ( de greindre estat ) and lesser degree ( de meindre degree ) receive three yards. Philippa, together with sixteen ladies of the court, receives her six yards; Chaucer is down there with eighty-eight esquires of lesser degree and just scrapes into the category of those receiving three yards. If he had been looking for a match with a social equal, the subdamsels--that is, a social notch below Philippa--would have been the category for him. Such distinctions could be suspended or masked on some collective and ceremonial occasions. One can imagine a situation of provisional equity in which the entourages of the king and queen, mingling together in amity, might suppress their senses of small social difference--especially since all (although Chaucer barely) were on the same side of that divide of medieval society that separated the "gentils," or gentlepeople, from the immensely larger body of the ungentle with whom they shared the realm. The fifteenth-century household book of Edward IV imagines a social life for his esquires, in terms perhaps a bit old-fashioned for that century, but still evocative, and probably applicable to ladies of the court as well: The esquires of the household have been long accustomed, winter and summer, in afternoons and evenings, to gather into their lord's chambers within the court, there to keep honest company according to their knowledge and accomplishments, talking of chronicles of kings and other policies, or in piping or harping or singing, or military exercise, to help occupy the court and accompany strangers, until the time comes for departing. Although Chaucer presents his invented self in the Canterbury Tales as reclusive and tongue-tied, his short and topical poems written for social occasions reveal him as convivial, playful, and given to easy social exchange. His poetry could only have been written by an alert and enthusiastic social observer, and he can easily be thought to have thrived in the atmosphere of gaiety, regular festivity, and situational equality that would have prevailed in the royal household. Yet there's no doubt that, according to the social norms of the day, Chaucer "married up," that he would have had every reason to consider the alliance a social advantage. Contributing to Philippa's allure was the considerable prestige of her Hainault connection. This connection undoubtedly added a touch of glamour to the alliance, a hint of old family and Continental flair that surely intrigued a young and somewhat socially aspirant young man of mercantile and bourgeois origin. He could hardly have imagined at the moment of his marriage how important this connection was about to become. Hainault Chic Perched on the Francophone rim of what is now Belgium, scarcely a hundred miles from Paris, fourteenth-century Hainault enjoyed a reputation for high diplomacy, polished chivalry, and undoubted fashion. Militarily and politically it dominated the lowlands, and as a force in Europe it would have seemed, at least until Edward III's great victories of the midcentury, nearly equal to England itself. In fact, Hainault quite literally made Edward III the king of England, and by conquest at that. Here is the story: Near the end of Edward II's clouded and ineffectual reign, his rambunctious queen, Isabella, deep into her affair with Roger Mortimer, sought to secure her own influence by assuring her son Edward's succession to the throne. She turned, unsuccessfully, to her brother Charles IV of France for aid and then, opportunely, made the acquaintance of Jeanne, wife of William, count of Hainault (and her young daughter, Philippa) while still in Paris. In 1326 Isabella visited Hainault and, abetted by other frictions between Edward II and Count William, gained the support of the count and his brother, John of Hainault. As a derivative aspect of this alliance, and a guarantee of its fulfillment, a marriage contract was drawn between Prince Edward and Count William's daughter Philippa. The invasion of England transpired with the support of some seven hundred men under the command of John of Hainault, comprising much of the chivalry of the land together with common soldiers. Edward II was dethroned, and Queen Isabella and her son Edward gained the upper hand. Her son was crowned Edward III on February 1, 1327, and Edward and Philippa were married on January 24, 1328. One measure of the puissance and centrality of Hainault in English affairs is that the initial marriage contract, drawn under supervision of Queen Isabella and her paramour, Mortimer, promised a substantial dowry to Hainault , guaranteed by an English forfeit of ten thousand pounds if the marriage did not occur. Dowries could flow one way or the other, from bride to groom or groom to bride, although usually from the bride. In this case, Hainault's prestige, and its worth to England at this difficult juncture, is clearly exemplified in England's willingness to pay handsomely for the privileged association. Nor was this association to end. Count William of Hainault would serve as Edward III's principal strategist and ally in his decision to claim the crown of France. Relations between England's new king and the French had begun on a more positive note and--without the mischievous existence of the Hainault connection--the Hundred Years War between England and France might never have occurred. Excerpted from Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Principal Figuresp. xiii
Introduction Chaucer's Crisisp. 1
Chapter 1 A Married Manp. 15
Chapter 2 Aldgatep. 49
Chapter 3 The Wool Menp. 90
Chapter 4 In Parliamentp. 137
Chapter 5 The Other Chaucerp. 184
Chapter 6 The Problem of Famep. 203
Chapter 7 Kent and Canterburyp. 222
Epilogue Laureate Chaucerp. 238
Notes and Further Readingp. 259
Indexp. 279