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Shedding Historical Light on Geoffrey Chaucer

by Alice King

It is very difficult to get even a correct outline of the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer. We think we have a perfect view of him; we congratulate ourselves upon knowing the man just as he moved and spoke among his contemporaries; when suddenly we discover that we are looking at a puppet cunningly dressed up by some imaginative biographer. We believe that we have got him into a good historical light, when all at once a doubt whether he was or was not an actor in such and such events throws him again into shadow. We try to conjure him up, but he comes in so many forms that we grow utterly bewildered. Yet, notwithstanding all this, we reverence him so deeply and love him so dearly, that we cannot help striving to gain some idea of what he was like.

The dates given of Chaucer's birth are very varied, and range from 1328 to 1348. Probably some year midway between these two may be the right one. The accounts of his parentage are just as uncertain. Some give him a vintner for a father, some a merchant, and some a knight. In our opinion the former of these is the most likely origin for Geoffrey Chaucer. His rich but broad humor seems as if it must have sprung from the merry, vigorous heart of the common people, and the variety of characters depicted in the "Canterbury Tales" proves that he must have mixed with all sorts of men and women, both high and low. In after-life he was familiar with courts, and knights and ladies; but we fancy that in his youth he must have known intimately the cook, the wife of Bath, and the yeoman.

Whoever Chaucer's father may have been, he certainly gave him a very liberal education. His writings show that Chaucer was a good scholar, both in the classics and in divinity, and that, according to the ideas of the fourteenth century, he was far advanced in astronomy and the other sciences. Tradition says that he studied at both Cambridge and Oxford. This is not at all unlikely, for we find that reading young men of that day did sometimes really go from one university to the other. When he had finished his education in England, Chaucer went to Paris. There he may have gained that grace of carriage and manner for which he is said to have been always so remarkable.

We can picture to ourselves the handsome, free-spirited young fellow, with his ruddy Saxon face and ready Saxon wit, in the joyous capital of fair France; now whispering pretty nothings into the dainty ear of some dark-eyed grisette, now going home through the streets at daybreak, with a band of merry companions, shouting out in questionable French a jolly chorus; and now riding gayly forth to see how in a foreign land they understood the art of woodcraft. No doubt he sowed at this period a tolerable crop of wild oats, but at the same time he began to plant his laurels. He wrote very early his first long poem, "The Court of Love." This, like most of his earlier writings, is full of allegory and imagery. Though very gorgeous in coloring, and often literally overflowing with rich fancy, these first poems are rather wanting in the human interest of the "Canterbury Tales."

On his return to England Chaucer for a little while studied law. To judge by the only incident related of his legal life, he by no means entirely buried himself among musty old documents and ponderous volumes.

One afternoon, as young Chaucer was passing through the Temple with his temper made a little more irritable than usual, it may be by the heat of the sun, it may be by an additional cup of sack, it may be by the thought of an especially stiff piece of reading which was before him—it may be all three together—he met a friar. The priest came along with easy step and shining, rosy face, rejoicing at once in the odor of sanctity and of a good dinner. The sight of this placidly lazy and provokingly comfortable churchman had upon the man of law the same effect that the sight of a sleek tabby has upon a terrier. In two minutes Master Geoffrey has jostled against the friar and contrived to pick a quarrel with him. Hereupon followed a lively game at single-stick, in which, no doubt, Chaucer's fellow-students backed loudly the law against the church. At first the friar showed himself no mean hand with the quarter-staff. But by degrees he began to give way before his more active antagonist, and when the fray was over the churchman had learned in good earnest what was meant by the strong arm of the law; young Chaucer was, however, afterward punished for his misdeed, by being brought before a magistrate, reprimanded, and fined as a breaker of the peace; all of which could not exactly have added to the respectability of the legal brotherhood. Soon after this Chaucer gave up the law, which was, in truth, entirely unsuited to him.

By some means, perhaps through the good offices of a friend, he now contrived to get introduced at Court, where his winning face and tongue quickly brought him into favor with the royal family. John of Gaunt, King Edward's third son, who was then not the "time-honored Lancaster" of after-days, but a gay young prince, took a special fancy to Chaucer. Prince and subject were, without doubt, well agreed in the way they liked to amuse themselves, and probably they carried on many a wild frolic together. This early intimacy ripened into a solid friendship, which lasted throughout their lives.

After a while John of Gaunt determined to become a steady married man. A rich bride was found for him in Blanche, the heiress of Lancaster. She was a gentle lady, who yielded up readily to her princely husband the revenues and the other privileges which were hers as a countess in her own right; and who, after a few years of quiet married life, spent chiefly at her northern castle, passed away softly from the earth, without dreaming that her son was to be the future king of England, and that her family title was in after-days to become the watch-word on many a bloody field of civil strife.

In honor of Prince John's marriage, Chaucer wrote "The Parliament of Fowls," and in memory of Blanche's death "The Book of the Duchess." Chaucer seems to have had a true reverence and affection for the sweet household virtues and the wifely truth of this lady. The remembrance of her may perhaps have first suggested to him the image of Griselda. These two poems, connected as they were with the royal family, confirmed Chaucer's reputation as a writer of verse; and men and women began to point him out to each other and talk about him. In those days, however, it was quite impossible for any man to make literature his profession, and all his life, therefore, he could only take poetry as the business of his leisure hours. Then, no doubt, he really worked at it more than at the employment by which he lived; and no doubt, also, as he went about through the world, he was always learning something for his art. If this had not been the case, the name of Chaucer would not be what it now is in English literature.

At about this period Edward the Third set off for one of his many warlike expeditions into France. Young Chaucer, who was ready for everything, and who perhaps thought he should like to see a little of a soldier's life, entered the army and followed the king.

But the young soldier's experiences were not to be all of nights spent beneath clear starlit skies, and cheery communing with his comrades, and the eager glow of battle. Through an unlucky chance of war Chaucer was taken prisoner.

His prepossessing manners, and his knowledge of the French language and customs, gained during his stay in Paris probably, made his captivity a very easy one. But he had to sit still with folded hands while his countrymen were fighting, and in this season of forced inactivity he had time to repent past follies and to make good resolves for the future. At length, through an exchange of prisoners, the poet was set free. After that he never tried a soldier's life again, having most likely had quite enough of it.

Soon after his return to England, he got an appointment about the Court which brought him a settled income. He now began to think of making himself a home. Among those who followed in the train of Edward's queen, Philippa, when she came to England, were a certain knight of Hainault, called Roet, and his two little daughters. These children were now grown up into very comely young women. One, Catherine, had married an English gentleman, named Swynford. The other, Philippa, was maid of honor to the queen. According to Fanny Burney, a maid of honor has quite enough to do in the labors of dressing her mistress and herself; yet this industrious damsel, Philippa Roet, found spare time sufficient (between the business of clasping on jewels and arranging gracefully royal mantles, and contriving how to make an old dress look like new) to fall in love with Geoffrey Chaucer, and, what was more, to make the poet desperately in love with herself.

There being no impediment in the way, and the king and queen forwarding the matter, Chaucer and his Philippa were soon made man and wife. Not long after their marriage they had the misfortune to lose their generous mistress, the queen. Edward the Third, however, still treated Chaucer with favor. He made him one of the valets of his bed-chamber, and also gave him a high office in the customs. The two halves of his life must now have been strangely different. One was spent among velvet doublets, and waving plumes, and gilded armor, and all the many splendid vanities of a court; the other among heavy ledgers, and hard-handed sea captains, and casks of coarse spirit, and the most vulgar realities of a commonplace life. No wonder that a man whose time was passed among such contrasts should write by turns of a noble knight and a miller.

Several times King Edward sent Chaucer abroad on political missions. This is a great proof of the high esteem in which his master held him. In one of these journeys he went into Italy and saw the Mediterranean wash the marble quays of Genoa, and the stately towers of fair Florence raise themselves toward the blue sky. On this occasion, some of his biographers think, he visited Petrarch. This notion is, however, only founded on a passage in the "Canterbury Tales;" it is therefore our opinion that Chaucer, anxious as he must have been to despatch quickly the king's business, would hardly have spared time to go to Arqua, where Petrarch then lived, and that those who draw from the passage in question the inference that the two great poets must have met, are, as blundering critics often do, confounding the author with his characters. One of Chaucer's personages says that he heard a story he is about to tell from Petrarch; but that is no reason for concluding that Chaucer so heard it himself.

Rich must have been the dramatic anecdote and lively description which Chaucer brought home from these journeys. In those days of little travelling, an account of foreign countries must have had freshness and interest, even when it came from a commonplace man. What, then, must it have been on the lips of Chaucer?

Chaucer and the Canterbury Pilgrims.

In one of his absences, Chaucer's brother-poet, Gower, filled for him his post at Court. This is a delightful proof of the friendship which must have existed between the two. Many a ramble must they have taken together through the green fields in summer time, and many a flask of canary must have passed between them on winter evenings. Could the diary of Philippa Chaucer have been published after her death, as most certainly it would have been in this century, it would doubtless have contained conversations as interesting as those in the pages of Boswell.

Chaucer constantly received proofs of King Edward's favor. At one time a pitcher of wine was sent daily to the poet by his sovereign, and when this was discontinued, he was given an equivalent in money. Late in life a close connection was formed between the families of Chaucer and of his old friend, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Philippa Chaucer's sister, Catherine Swynford, who became early a widow, entered the Duke of Lancaster's household as a governess to the children of his first duchess.

The poet's own domestic life seems to have been very happy. Philippa appears to have been to him a bold and faithful helpmate in his journey through this world; and we believe that, could we trace closely her household influence, we should find that she first began to work the golden thread of religion into his life; for, notwithstanding that great coarseness which unluckily makes the "Canterbury Tales" unavailable as a book for family reading, but which we must chiefly impute to the customs of the age, Chaucer was, in the main, a religious man, and his poems are, in the main, religious poems. Chaucer was certainly a good father, and attended as far as he could to the education of his boys. His "Astrolabe," a work on astronomy, was written for his little Lewis, who was probably his father's pet.

On Richard II. coming to the throne, Chaucer got somewhat into trouble, through his leaning toward the side of the people in the civil broils which disturbed the early part of that king's reign. Some of the poet's biographers say he was so violent in his partisanship that he was obliged to fly from the wrath of government to Holland; but this is most decidedly a myth. Chaucer's nature was not of that stuff of which martyrs are made. He certainly, it is true, inclined to the popular cause. His friend and patron, the Duke of Lancaster, was the chief leader of the liberal party. No doubt the poet disliked tyranny in any form, and no doubt he wished to see the Church of Rome purged from her worst abuses. Very likely, also, he may have sometimes gone privately to hear Wickliffe preach, and his heart may have been drawn toward the new doctrines. But most assuredly he showed his feelings and opinions in a very mild, cautious way, and the only sign of the king's displeasure was a temporary stoppage of the pension which Chaucer had for some years received.

This must have made Chaucer and his Philippa, in the decline of life, know what straitened means were like; but doubtless cheery wit and merry smiles made home music and home light around the scantily spread table. Afterward, however, the pension was restored.

Of the "Canterbury Tales," that vast storehouse of humor, of pathos, of fancy, and of strong, manly common sense, we have no place to speak here. They were the work of his ripened powers in middle age, and probably the old man was still busy with them when he heard the whisper which called him to his rest.