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Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400): The Father of English Literature

John is a retired English teacher, world traveler, and sports enthusiast. He has studied the writings of William Faulkner for decades.


Chaucer's Place in English Literature and Our World

Surely, calling Geoffrey Chaucer the Father of English Literature is a valid and solid evaluation. In his time when Latin was the language of learning and religion through the church in England and French was the language of the court and government, Chaucer, pretty much individually raised his vernacular English Saxon dialect to the place of respectability where it still stands today.

English is an Indo-European Language which entered the island of the Britons in 449 CE with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the modern European countries of Germany and Denmark. The Jutes settled in southeast Britain, in the area of Dover, the Saxons across the south of the countryside, to the west of the Jutes, and the Angles to the north of the Saxons and Jutes toward Scotland . It was their land, "Angleland," which gave us our modern word England.

William the Conqueror (formerly William the Bastard), Duke of Normandy, won the war between his army and the army of King Harold of England on October 14, 1066 at the Battle of Hastings in southern Britain. This conquest made French, the official language of the Normans (French), the court and government language from the time of the conquest through William's descendants until 1154. The prestigious dialect of William's French court and his nobility lasted until Chaucer's time, as did the Latin language's power both in the church and education in the universities. For Chaucer to be able to displace both French and Latin with his West Saxon dialect in the centuries which followed was an enormous feat, still in place in our modern world.

Chaucer's Biography

We can conclude that Chaucer was obviously a brilliant person intellectually from his diplomatic and literary work, and and he was relatively closely related to royalty and the court in his day by various positions which he held. According to medieval scholars, he was probably born around1432 or1433 and died in 1400. At his death he was the first commoner to be buried in what became the "Poet's Corner" of Westminster Abbey to be followed in his burial by such literary greats as Tennyson and Browning, along with burials and remembrances of other literary figures of England in other parts of the church such ad Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Isaac Newton in other partw of the building,

Chaucer was descended from successful wine merchants and was "trusted and aided by three kings, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV." Nothing specific is known of his education, but it was certainly was good as we can see from his writings as they relate to other European literature of his day and before. His varied and important governmental activities indicate that he certainly knew French, as well as Latin and Italian. His writings show that he was generally familiar with earlier European writings as well as other national writings of his day.

In 1359, Chaucer was captured while serving in Edward's III's army on the continent, during the Hundred Years War, and the king paid a part of his ransom to return him to England. He is recorded as having gone to Spain, France, and Italy on diplomatic missions. He served as justice of the peace and a member of Parliament for a time and as "clerk of the king's works," overseeing the "Tower of London and Westminster Palace,"obviously an important post.

Chaucer's Literary Career

In addition to his supreme work, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer had a number of other writings, following the patterns of earlier and contemporary writers, including The "Parliament of Fouls", "a study of Christian love," written about 1380. He wrote "Troilus and Criseyde," set during the Trojan War, probably sometime in the mid 1380's. In "The Legend of Good Women" he began the "use of iambic pentameter couplets," which lasted until the writing of Pope in the 18th century and has been used from time to time until the present. It may be truly said that he invented this really popular from of English poetry ["Chaucer", biography.

Chaucer set The Canterbury Tales in his lifetime, perhaps beginning it in the late 1380's, possibly after the wife of his death of his wife in 1387. The plot of the Tales is set in April as the spring's warmth welcomed people outside after winter's cold. Written in the first person, the speaker in the poem tells how he goes to the Tabard Inn in Southerk, across the Thames River from London and was joined by 29 other pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, about 65 miles away, to worship at the site of St. Thomas a Becket's tomb after Becket had been killed in the cathedral by four knights who were followers of King Henry II on December 29, 1170.

The owner of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, proposes that they each tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, for a total of 120, 20 more than in Boccaccio's Decameron, a group of tales based on life during a great medieval plague in his home country of Italy. The Tales contain a number of story types: "courtly romance, racy fabliau, saint's life, allegorical tale, beast fable, medieval sermon, alchemical account, and, at times, mixtures of these genres" [Britannica]. One important aspect of the tales is their bawdiness, for which Chaucer much later in his life apologized and asked forgiveness for. Originally, he said in the Prologue that he had to say what the tale tellers actually said or that he would have been untrue to the speakers of the tales.

The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue in my edition of the great work, The Riverside Chaucer (1987), called on its cover, "The best edition of Chaucer in existence." In it, Chaucer tells us that the speaker in the poem (certainly Chaucer himself) after a pilgrimage, possibly following his wife's death in 1387. The exact date of the beginning of the pilgrimage is April18, we know because Chaucer tells us that the day is half way through the "corse" of the Ram, one of the zodiac signs. The narrator tells us that 29 other pilgrims arrive after him and that all are going to Canterbury with "ful devout corage" (spirit).

Obviously, 120 tales were too many for Chaucer to finish at about 45 years of age, when the and the average lifespan at the time was about 55 years. It seems obvious for some scholars that Chaucer, in choosing to make his goal 120 tales, he wanted to outdo by twenty more than Boccaccio's 100 tales in the Decameron, since Chaucer was well aware of Italian literature, having traveled to Italy, having and having met famous and important people there.

Chaucer's Surprising and Entertaining Characters

To me, the favorite aspect of Chaucer's writing in The Canterbury Tales, aside from the tales themselves, is his characterization of individual pilgrims. The framework of the Tales is the journey along a Pilgrims' Way" [ a well traveled path through the countryside]from London to Canterbury, some of which still survive until today. This framework of the pilgrimage brings a greatly diverse group of people together and allows the kinds of interaction that enables the tales to be told and pilgrims to interact around them. The 120 tales were too many for Chaucer to ever produce, and I read, or heard, somewhere that Chaucer had apparently thought about reducing the number of tales to 60, thirty each way to and from Canterbury. In fact Chaucer only finished 24, and that without all of the ties between characters on the journey and their tales.

Following, is a discussion of some of Chaucer's most fascinating characters, showing Chaucer's masterful creation of those people. Some of my evaluations are of my own thinking, and I am sure that some are from research or classes that I had or taught, without my being able to remember where or from whom I found some of these ideas.

KNYGHT: The Knight [pronounced with the K sounded in Middle English, [something like k-neet], was the highest pilgrim in the social order of the group going to Canterbury, and it was fitting that he should have told his tale first. It was also fitting this tale was one of chivalry, as Chaucer said of him, "he loved chivalarie,/Trouthe and honor, freedom and courtsie." He had been in battles all the way from Alexandria to Russia and from Moracco to Turkey, in fifteen "mortal batilles" and always showed himself brave. He had even fought for one "hethen" lord against another one.

Surely this last statement should not be true, that the , as a Christian knight, he should never have fought for any heathen lord, but he had done that. Though he was "a verray, parfit [perfect] gentle [noble] knyght," when considering the dozen or so places that he had fought, there is really only one word to describe him: "mercenary." This description is a wonderful example of Chaucer saying one thing and meaning something quite different, even the opposite. His position here is what I see in our world today, the knights, like American cowboys, have been romanticized almost beyond belief, presented as always almost being brave and heroic, while many were very flawed and not nearly as heroic or admirable as books and movies have usually presented them as being.

SQUIER: The squire, the knight's son, in training to become a knight himself, surely is Chaucer himself as a young man, since he went into King Richard III's service at about the squire's age, 20. He had two main parts of his life, soldering and socializing, the latter, especially with women. He was both good looking and talented, with wonderful clothes, always writing poems and singing, certainly to impress the ladies of fashion and style around him.

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YEAMAM. The Yeoman was a freeborn servant [between a squire and a page in social rank] whose duty was to serve the Knight wherever they were. He wore green clothing and was a "forster", Chaucer concludes. Obviously, this is a forester going "to town" we might say. As part for his preparation for the pilgrimage, he has "a sheef of pecok arwes bright and keen", and to shoot them, "a myghty bowe." On his arm he wore a "gay bracer" [arm guard] to protect his arm when shooting arrows. And on his side, he had "a swerd [sword] and a bokeler" [small shield]. In his other side he had a a "gay dagger." He wore a "St. Christopheer" medal around his neck along with a hunting horn.

Let us consider for a moment what Chaucer says of this forester. He is accompanying a knight and his son--on a religious pilgrimage with twenty-seven other people--A Religious Pilgrimage. He had 1. a 'mythty bowe" with arrows, with 2. an arm guard to protect him when shooting arrows, 3. a small shield, 4. a dagger, 5. and a hunting horn. Why, pray tell, did he possibly need these items of warfare and hunting on a religious pilgrimage? He had no use for these items; I see them being listed by Chaucer as gently poking fun at the Yeoman.

A NONNE, a PRIORESS. This Nun, being a prioress, was in charge of a nunnery at some level, and, on the surface, might be seen as a gentle and kind servant of the church, but her goodness at best is only skin deep, and beneath her surface appearance she reveals herself as quite unchristian in her tale. Perhaps the most important single word in Chaucer's description of the Nonne is "counterfete" in that she tried to follow the manners of the court in her ways of acting, even down to her manneers in of eating and speaking, the latter of which was to speak school speech, not the French of Paris. After all, her name was Eglantline, meaning "elegant." As a cleric, she should have wanted to be of service to her fellow human beings and not following customs of the court.

The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were taken by all clerics at the time, whether they obeyed them or not. Then Nonne kept pet dogs and fed them special meat dishes [surely disobeying her vow of poverty] and was even sad when people killed mice, but Chaucer makes no mention of her caring for poor people and their needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Chaucer finishes his description of this Nonne by describing what must have been a quite valuable "brooch of gold full sheene' with the words 'Amor vincit amni" written one it [love conqueors all]. However the really awful part of her character is revealed in her tale where she is shown to be very antisemitic, not surprising of even some clerical people in the medieval church, but very unlike the actions and teachings of Jesus.

A MONK was on the pilgrimage, another counterfeit cleric. He was not willing to stay in his cloister; rather he rode though the countryside which was his "lust".

A FRERE was, as well, a counterfit cleric. Chaucer said of him:

He hadde maad full many a marriage

Of yonge women women at his owne cost.

Unto his order we was a noble post.

This last line is pure sarcasm, relating to the two lines before it about one decent thing that the Fere did, to arrange for the young women in the countryside, whom he had seduced and impregnated. He also used his power of confession to allow him to be bribed and gain unlawful money that way.

"A CLERK there was of Oxenford" is the first of the good clergy in the Tales. After the Nun nd the Monk who are a mixture of good and bad cleergy people, the next two, the Clerk in training for the priesthood and the next pilgrim discussed here, the Parson are without mentionable fault.

The Clerk was a true scholar who would rather have

Twenty books of blak or reed,

Of Aristotle and his philosophie

than robes riche, or firthele [fiddle], or gay sautrie [a kind of harp].

There were other clerics on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, a poor "PERSOUN [parson] OF A TOWN", That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche," who was presented as a perfect servant of God in his church work. Then there was A SOMMONOUR who was the opposite of a dedicated church worker, and with him a PARDONER whose character was completely despicable. Hw sold counterfeit relics, such as pigs bones as bones of saithe nts, as well as pardons for sins which he said had come from Rome.

It seems to me that the SOMONOUR and the PARDONER were a gay couple from the song that the Somomour sand to the Pardoner: "Come hither, love to me., and that Chaucer accepted them as simply part of his society and the pilgrimage as much as straight people.

As far as I can see, Chaucer was realistic and even handed in his presentation of the church people, some heavenly good and some devilishly bad and some between.

My Favorite Characters

I have two pilgrims in The Cantrerbury Tales for greatly different reasons. The "good Wif was there OF biside BATHE". She was simply outrageous in her dress and actions, and a cloth maker of great fame. She had had five husbands in her youth, not counting "oother company' that she had known in her life. She was such a very religious church goer that she had been to Jerusalem three times, to Rome and other pilgrimage sites. In conclusion, Chaucer said of her,

Of remedies of love she knew perchance

For she koulde [knew] of that art the olde dance.

She knew the tricks of the trade of love. Her name was Alysoun.

The second is the MILLER. a thief using his "thombe" of gold which he used to cheat people in buying and selling of grain. He was a vulgar fellow. "His mouth was as greet as a greet forneys/ He was a gangelere [teller of dirty stories] and a goliardeys [a baffoon.] The reason that I liked the Miller so much is that his tale abput a woman named Alysoun in it is one of the funniest, while also being one of the most vulgar that I have ever heard.

Conclusion and Sources

I have the greatest respect for Chaucer as a member of his society and as a writer. As a young man he went to war to serve his country. Later, he he was in Parliament and had diplomatic missions as far away as Italy, as well as overseeing important government buildings on London.

As a writer, pretty much single handedly, he established his dialect of the English language as a sophisticated and literary and raised poetry in English to the place that it became one of the world's great languages with a literature to be admired around the world.

General information about Chaucer I found in and, and has a summary of the main ideas that Chaucer introduced in the poem, one being the place of the church in his society, without stating any conclusions as to how he felt about the importance of religion and the value of the church in his society. There are also general summaries of the various tales told in the great poem found in

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 John Murphree

The Tales

Jo Miller from Tennessee on August 22, 2021:

Very interesting article. Thanks for all the information.

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