Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a prosperous vintner. He was made a page in the household of Prince Lionel in 1357 and served the years 135960 with the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed.

By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; herself lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. Subsequently, from 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 137273 and in 1378. From 1374 he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (137486) and clerk of the king's works (138991). He died on October 25th 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Chaucer was a prolific author but is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories around a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury. The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. Chaucer probably intended that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back, but he never finished the project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. The printing press had not been invented when Chaucer wrote his story, and The Canterbury Tales was passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

Chaucer's English is not difficult, once a few unfamiliar words are mastered. Some suggestions: Start with Basic Chaucer Glossary, and a pronunciation guide. Practice reading to an audio clip: many can be found on the Internet. Read The Canterbury Tales first in Nevill Coghill's verse translation (Hamondsworth 1951), in Vincent F. Hopper's selection (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: An Interliner Translation, Barron's Educational Series 1970) or David Wright's prose version (Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford 1964). Obtain a CD recording of The Canterbury Tales and listen incessantly until the work becomes familiar.

Chaucer is widely studied in academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, and very extensive resources are listed on Yahoo, and on the better Chaucer sites. Here will also be found links to the medieval literary and historical background. For enthusiasts these may also be useful: The Chaucer Review, Chaucer Scriptorium, and Derek Pearsall's Bibliography, Chaucer Illustrations, and A Chaucerian Cookery.

Most sites have bibliographies. These aside, a very basic guide is Rob Pope's How to Study Chaucer, Macmillan 2001, perhaps to be supplemented with John Spier's Chaucer the Maker, Faber 1951, Muriel Bowden's A Commentary on the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Macmillan 1959, and Derek Pearsall's The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, Blackwell 1992. More scholarly bibliographies are to be found at The Chaucer Review, Essential Chaucer and the New Chaucer Society.

Suggestion: The Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987. $47.00

A lavish volume for the Chaucer enthusiast. Most of the work is here, with extensive notes and glosses. More scholarly Chaucer companions exist, but these 1327 pages provide what most will need to enjoy a great English poet.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.