If you ask most people what they know about Geoffrey Chaucer, they’ll probably reply that he was the bloke who wrote bawdy poems about people sticking their bums out of windows and breaking wind. Which, strictly speaking, is true. However, through his writing Chaucer not only managed to become considered as the father of English poetry, he also attained the lofty position of being this country’s first ever social commentator.
In this lecture, writer and broadcaster Mark Steel pores over the life of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose epic work The Canterbury Tales was one of the first ever books to roll off William Caxton’s printing press in 1476.
The son of a winekeeper, Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1342 in London at a time of enormous social change. When he was a young boy, the Black Death swept into England and whilst this was certainly bad news for most, Chaucer ended up becoming a notable beneficiary of its devastating effects. Up until this point, social mobility between the classes hadn’t really existed – essentially you stayed in the class that you were born into; which was either the nobility where you owned the land or the peasantry where you worked the land.
One consequence of the Black Death was that it created a labour shortage and as a result, the middle ranks of the Royal Court had to be replaced with un noble blood. Which is precisely where a young Chaucer fitted in. Now, for the first time it was actually possible to move from one social class to another and Chaucer took full advantage of this; his subsequent experiences went on to form a sturdy foundation for his later writings…
Join Mark Steel as he charts Chaucer’s course through history, his appointments to the royal household, his kidnapping in France, his marrying into the aristocracy, and how through the Canterbury Tales he bequeathed to us the first written sign of an England that we’d recognise today.
First broadcast: Tuesday 7 Oct 2003 on BBC Four