The year 1386 was the worst year of Geoffrey Chaucer’s life. But this was also the year where he made the best decision in his life. After a long period of going through every kind of worldly and professional upheaval, he set out to write his Canterbury Tales.
Around 1440, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, roughly one-third of the British population could read and write. Until then, books were painstakingly copied by hand. Because of this, there are very few surviving, fictional works by contemporary authors. The surviving ones, though, provide valuable insight into what people were really like. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the best for this format of people-watching.
Although Chaucer spent the majority of his mature working life as a fully engaged and somewhat politically compromised customs inspector on the London wool wharf, his poems don’t reflect this. However, due to the demanding nature of his job, he completed the majority of his writing in his limited free time. If there is a moment in The House of Fame when the first-person protagonist of his poems might have biographical content, it is when his guide, a sceptical eagle, describes him completing his “reckonings” and returning to the solitude of his quarters to read (and presumably write) late into the night, estranged from his more sociable neighbours.
During his 12 years working in the customs office and writing only at odd hours, Chaucer produced an incredible body of work, including ambitious poems modelled on French love-visions, his heartbreaking tale of love gone wrong in Troilus and Criseyde, a translation with interlinear commentary of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and more. It’s difficult to imagine a taxing and time-consuming day job overseeing the Wool Custom as the foundation for the composition of the greatest body of English writing prior to Shakespeare, but it clearly was. It provided him with important prerequisites for literary work: a stable (and rent-free) residence, an income stream from his political allies in court and City, and – most importantly – a devoted audience for his poems.
Chaucer’s job in London was always precarious. The king’s own advisers and allies in the City of London conspired to put him there as the scapegoat in a major profiteering scheme. His job as customs controller was to certify the honesty of the powerful and influential customs collectors, including the wealthy and imperious Nicholas Brembre, long-term mayor of London, and to ensure the proper collection of duties on all outgoing wool shipments. This appears routine until we consider how much was at stake: in the 14th century, wool duties contributed one-third of the realm’s total revenues. Furthermore, the customs collectors whose activities Chaucer was supposed to regulate were themselves large-scale wool shippers and wool profiteers, taking advantage of their positions to amass vast fortunes at the expense of the public. Their wealth enabled them to become king’s donors and lenders, multiplying their privileges and profits. Chaucer, as the lone watchdog of customs revenues, was unlikely to bring them to heel. His job was essentially to turn the other cheek.
Even though fortunes were amassing all around him, Chaucer does not appear to have personally enriched himself in this post, but passivity was not enough to save him. As 1386 came to a close, public opinion turned against his patron and ally Brembre (resulting in Brembre’s own execution two years later), and Chaucer appears to have been an early casualty of his king’s unpopularity and his associate’s impending fall. In October-November 1386, he was evicted from his City apartment, denounced – in his capacity, but not by name – in the parliament of which he was a sitting member, and pressed to resign as controller. He chose to live in voluntary exile in Kent for several years. In a short period of time, he was without a job, a city, a circle of friends, and a devoted audience for his poems.
The most difficult adjustment would have been his separation from his usual audience. This issue of readers was far more important to a mediaeval poet than it may appear now. Only a few highly ambitious and successful writers expected their works to be circulated in manuscript form to absent readers during the Middle Ages. Most writers, including Chaucer, wrote poetry privately, on wax tablets or whatever parchment was available, and then read it aloud to a small, responsive, and (most importantly) personally chosen group.
When he realised, near the end of Troilus and Criseyde, that he had completed a masterpiece that might one day be circulated in manuscript form to unknown readers, he was understandably disturbed. But, in the final days of 1386, Chaucer had an idea. He would continue to write, but for an imaginary audience. This would be his Canterbury pilgrim audience, and it would exist within the confines of his work. It would be a diverse group of listeners and tellers to whom he could assign any kind of story: religious and secular, serious and unserious, instructive and frivolous, devout and lewd. Its members would care, and care passionately, about stories and story-telling, and would be willing to embrace and reject, applaud and denigrate, and argue about literature and its effects. Above all, it would be a portable and perpetually available audience, impervious to disruption and change of circumstance. His poetry could now circulate in manuscript form to an unknown readership, but always through the words and diverse perspectives of its own band of interpreters.
The Canterbury Tales would be the first of his works aimed at an absent audience, manuscript circulation, and eventual literary fame. Nonetheless, he would never consider an absent audience to be a sufficient substitute for the intimate and interactive presence of the smallish group of literature-loving friends and associates who had shared the experience of his early poems. This loss necessitated restitution, but in what must have appeared to be the desolate circumstances of Kentish exile, no satisfactory restitution was readily available.
He drew on a cast of real characters he’d met while working as a bureaucrat, diplomat, and courtier for King Edward III and then for King Richard II, and the tales his pilgrims tell are based on well-known stories from across Europe; almost every one concludes with a piece of proverbial wisdom.
Chaucer’s pilgrims come from all walks of life and appear to be on their pilgrimage for a variety of reasons, the majority of which have nothing to do with spirituality or religious fervour. It is fitting that they begin their journey at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a highly suspect neighbourhood. Among the group are several churchmen who constantly embody the general perception of them.
Madame Eglantyne, the Nun or Prioress, is described as coy and refined. She spoke French, but as a product of Stratford Atte Bowe’s East End school, she was unfamiliar with Parisian-style French. Chaucer describes her as “all sentiment and tender heard,” but this is primarily for her spoiled little dogs. She also wears a gold brooch with a crowned letter “A” engraved with the motto Amor vincit omnia – Love conquers all, which suggests she has a secret lover. The monk is fat and ruddy, a keen hunter who follows the modern way of life and is unconcerned about the notion that hunters cannot be holy men or that a monk should spend much time alone in his cell.
The Summoner and the Pardoner are two of the most memorable characters. A summoner’s job was to bring miscreants before the ecclesiastical courts, and they had a bad reputation. Chauser’s Summoner was no exception, and he is depicted as a vile individual with a face livid with carbuncles and pimples, “hot and lecherous as a sparrow,” fond of garlic and onions, and it’s no surprise he terrified children. And Chaucer implies, rather crudely, that he is drawn to the equally unappealing Pardoner, who sold Papal indulgences, many of which were forgeries. The Pardones has link yellow hair, no beard, and a high voice, which Chaucer compares to that of a gelding or castrated horse.
Then there’s the Wife of Bath, who claims to have been married five times “apart from other company in youth,” and that he had travelled to Jerusalem with the crusaders, with all the implications for behaviour that entailed. Her widowhood gave her a lot of freedom, and her story is all about women taking control. On the pilgrimage to Canterbury, she’s probably keeping an eye out for husband number six.
So Chaucer, with his audacious vision of a vibrant and socially diverse band of part-time literati, triumphed over the deprivations of his own uprooted circumstances. He’d already written some fantastic poetry. But he is best remembered today for the Canterbury pilgrims, in all their heady diversity. It is because of them that he is considered a founding father of English letters.
Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, a lady in waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault, Edward III. They had several children, but as far as we know, he never wrote any poetry to her. Blanche of Lancaster, first wife of Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt, could have been the object of his own unattainable courtly love. Blanche’s death inspired the writing of The Book of the Duchess.