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Geoffrey Chaucer, Biography And Visits

Canterbury Cathedral

During Chaucer's lifetime many powerful people wanted to divide life up, into important and unimportant, sacred and profane, special and ordinary. The Church, for example, wanted a monopoly on what we think of as religion. Anything truly sacred existed only with the Church, and was shut away in a Latin Bible which the vast majority of people could not read. Chaucer did not see things like this. His most famous book, the account of a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales showed ordinariness in apparently special people, and special qualities of those considered ordinary. He wrote in accessible English of religious matters which the Church wished to keep hidden away in obscure Latin. Chaucer's pilgrims made a lighthearted journey, which nevertheless had revolutionary implications. His pilgrims went on the only real holiday that was available to people in the fourteenth century. Holidays today are typically both a time to relax, and a time of unusual physical effort, a time to broaden the mind, or to turn off the mind. Pilgrimage had similar contrasts. Some of Chaucer's pilgrims were on a spiritual quest, some were just taking a relaxing jaunt. In an age which strictly divided the meaningful from the ordinary, sacred from profane, Chaucer was to suggest that perhaps these categories meant nothing at all.




Position of Chaucer's wool wharf.

Chaucer was born around 1340, although the exact year of his birth is not known. He was the son of John Chaucer, a wealthy wine merchant who lived in Thames Street in the City of London. As a young man Geoffrey Chaucer became a page to the Countess of Ulster. The countess was wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, one of the sons of Edward III. Chaucer was to remain linked to the royal household throughout his career. He rose through the ranks of royal service, going on foreign expeditions, which began with a trip to France in 1359. Chaucer was captured by the French, and a ransom of six pounds was paid for his release. In 1374 Chaucer was made controller of the wool custom at the Port of London, a job he would continue until 1386. He worked on a wharf between the Tower of London and London Bridge. This picture, taken from London Bridge looking towards the Tower, shows the area of Chaucer's wool wharf as it appears today.





Position of the former Aldgate

John of Gaunt, Edward III's powerful sixth son, rewarded Chaucer for his years of loyal service with free lodging in a house over the Aldgate in what was then the wall of London. Traffic entering the city would pass beneath Chaucer's rooms. Today the walls of London only survive in a few places, and the Aldgate has gone; but the road that once ran through the Aldgate remains. The street now called Aldgate runs down towards Fenchurch Street, and about twenty yards before Fenchurch Street there is a road island where the gate once stood. A plaque on a wall beside the road carries a picture of the gate.

Although the gate has gone, there is a striking change as you leave Aldgate and start walking down Fenchurch Street. Crossing a single road junction the nature of the buildings changes completely. Quite suddenly you are in the City. Shiny headquarters of financial institutions tower on each side. Even without its wall, the City still exists. Walking down Fenchurch Street you are following the same route that Chaucer followed as he walked to work beside the Thames. On his walk Chaucer would pass close to the hovel of William Langland, author of Piers Plowman.

The years during which Chaucer worked at the Port of London were politically turbulent. The heir to the throne, Edward the Black Prince, died in 1376, and his father Edward III died the following year. This meant that Richard, son of the Black Prince, became king as Richard II whilst still a young boy, a situation which bred uncertainty. Meanwhile the Black Death raged, killing a significant proportion of the population. This led to profound social change. Losses to plague led to a labour shortage, which meant that the peasantry had more power, and were able to sell their labour to the highest bidder. Efforts to curtail these new freedoms led to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. The melee of the Peasants Revolt would have passed through the Aldgate, beneath Chaucer's rooms into the City. Through all these troubles the young king, and Chaucer, working at the wool quay, managed to survive. By the 1390s Chaucer's life, and the life of England as a whole had become quieter and more peaceful. By now Chaucer was working as clerk of the King's Works. His day job was supervising the building of a new nave at Westminster Abbey, and looking after maintenance at Westminster Palace, and St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Chaucer also had freedom to write, with the king's cultured court as his audience. Richard II, once he'd established his authority proved a thoughtful and relatively peaceable king, who at least temporarily, succeeded in bringing England's powerful nobles under control. His reign became a bright moment in a dark age. For a short time artists like Chaucer could spread their wings.

Chaucer wrote in English, a language that was becoming more important. Until now English had been a language that people used to conduct their unimportant day to day affairs. But that was changing. The radical Oxford theologian John Wyclif was calling for the Bible to be translated into English. Ironically it was actually a pope who started this pressure for translating religious writing into a more accessible form. In 1215 Pope Innocent III had called for teaching in the vernacular to bring congregations under closer control. An unintentional result of Innocent's plan was the encouragement of general debate about Christianity's basic beliefs. Innocent opened the door which the Church desperately tried to close afterwards. Although debate and questioning were never the Church's intention, events took on a momentum of their own. Now Chaucer and other poets, such as William Langland were busy writing about religion in English, going on voyages of exploration, when the Church wanted people simply to sit and listen. It is difficult now to appreciate how new and exciting writing in English was. Even writing itself was new. Until the thirteenth century culture was mainly spoken. Minstrels enjoyed their heyday in the thirteenth century, singing, performing acrobatics and reciting pieces from memory. By the fourteenth century these all round verbal performers were falling out of favour. Now it was written culture that brought prestige. Chaucer himself mocks the popular romances memorised by minstrels in The Tale of Sir Thopas. There was a sense that the old stories were too well known. Something new was needed. Writing was new in itself, and in the things it dared to discuss.


George Inn, Southwark

In 1396 Chaucer may have retired to Greenwich. He spent his last years writing The Canterbury Tales, which told the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from Southwark to Canterbury. Using the unusual freedom provided by Richard II's reign, Chaucer wrote with humorous clarity of the basic motivations of people on this journey. Church superstition and corruption were mocked in the characters of the Pardoner, Summoner and Friar. Religion was not seen as something essentially separate, that can be confined to, say, one special book, and is missing from all others. The Knight, right at the beginning of the General Prologue is described as having just got back from a campaign abroad. He doesn't even have time to change his clothes before he sets off on his pilgrimage. There is the sense of one journey moving seamlessly into another, as if the whole of life is a pilgrimage. Chaucer's pilgrims start their journey at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, which sadly was demolished in the nineteenth century. But part of the George Inn, which stood next door survives. Interestingly the pilgrims did not start their journey from the usual starting point of Southwark Cathedral. Chaucer's pilgrims set off from a pub down the road. Perhaps the journey was big enough to stretch all the way from a pub to a cathedral. The pilgrims would then have made their way down the Dover road towards Canterbury, telling stories as they went. The final story is told by the Parson as the pilgrims enter Canterbury. The final Parson's Tale is all about penitence, looking at what you've done and deciding on a new and better direction:

"Stondeth upon the weyes and seeth and axeth of olde pathes (that is to seyn, of old sentences) which is the good wey."

At the beginning of the journey, the Knight had demonstrated ordinary journeys of life merging into pilgrimage. Similarly at the end, the Parson sees pilgrimage as a beginning of a new journey onwards. As usual with Chaucer there are no clear distinctions, no definite beginnings and endings. The Church wanted to hold what we call religion for itself. Chaucer saw a much bigger and freer potential for this exploration.


Westminster Abbey

Ominously there is a Retraction following the Parson's Tale. It is probable that this piece, which seemingly has Chaucer remorseful for all his previous work, represents a convulsive change that came in 1399 when Richard II was deposed by Henry IV. Henry won the throne of England with help from the fearsome Archbishop Arundel, who was determined to stamp out all opposition to orthodox religion. Terry Jones describes the change that came to England in 1399 in memorable terms: "In 1399 almost overnight the country passed into an age of iron control, of Thought Police, and of intellectual strait jacketing on a level that has never been equalled before or since in this country. It was as if the nation passed from the permissive Sixties straight into Stalin's Russia." (Who Murdered Chaucer P2)

It was perhaps this change that compelled Chaucer into writing his Retraction, one of many written by fearful writers at the time. Chaucer took out a lease on a house in Westminster, then an island in the Thames and traditional place of sanctuary. Not even the king's authority was recognised here. King Richard respected this old tradition on a number of occasions, but we can be fairly certain that Henry and Arundel would have had no qualms about crossing bridges into Westminster to hunt for their enemies. It is not clear what happened to Chaucer. He could have died in the archbishop's jail at Saltwood Castle in Hythe. Perhaps he was attacked in the streets of Westminster itself, allowing a convenient quick burial in the Abbey. He could of course have died of old age, though quite why such a respected figure should die in complete obscurity is not clear. Sadly it seems possible, even probable, that Chaucer died at the hands of the agents of Henry IV or Archbishop Arundel.

Chaucer did not fit into this new age, where iron curtains split up various spheres of life and thought. Instinctively Chaucer broke down divisions, so that the whole of life became a carefree pilgrimage. Even in his Retraction Chaucer can't help quietly suggesting that wisdom is not confined to the Bible. He writes: "Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine." This is a reminder of what the Bible itself says in Romans: "what evere thing ben writun, tho ben writun to oure techynge." (15:4) All writing, secular writing included, can teach in the same way. Arundel in contrast wanted distinction. He wanted the Bible to be shut away from all other literature. As Boccaccio wrote, this attitude made poets into enemies of the Church: "These enemies of poetry utter the taunt that poets are liars... my opponents curse the poet and clamour for the extinction of poetry as replete with pranks and adulteries of pagan gods." (Preface to Genealogy of the Gentile Gods) Arundel wanted to shut poets away from the Church's territory. Within the Church he also wanted to make a clear distinction between heretics and true believers. To do this he created the acid test of transubstantiation. If you did not believe that by some magic the bread and wine used during a church service changed into the body and blood of Christ, then you were a heretic and risked being burnt at the stake. Chaucer had no time for any of this.


Approaching Canterbury Cathedral

Chaucer is famous for writing about a journey, and the point of a journey is usually assumed to be getting somewhere. I always feel that Chaucer didn't like getting somewhere. He seemed averse to making one point, without raising its opposite. Even in making a journey he seemed to dislike destinations, making sure that The Canterbury Tales, his companion towards the end of his life, could never really be finished. Each pilgrim was to tell four tales to pass the time on the journey. Chaucer didn't even come close to meeting that target before he died. There was far still to go, even when the Parson announces the final entry into Canterbury. For someone averse to endings like Chaucer, not getting to a destination can promise its own homecoming. Life is full of targets and deadlines, until you go on holiday and just lie on a beach. Sometimes the most worthwhile trip is one with no purpose. Chaucer might never have got where he wanted to go, his age may have ended in dark repression rather than the promised land; and yet Chaucer cheerful as ever somehow promises that we still travel on a very successful journey.













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