Author: Owen Gunnell

More Than Tales

Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2006
The society Chaucer wrote about is changed beyond recognition, yet ordinary English men and women emerge with greater vitality in his brilliant narratives than in the writings of many more recent poets. Owen Gunnell introduces his life and work.

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Remaking Chaucer: James Nesbit and Billie Piper recreate The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer was born into a mercantile family with serious aspirations: his father and grandfather had both served the king and the decision to send the boy to St Paul's suggests ambitions for his future. Nonetheless, the family home in the Vintry Ward of the City of London was above an inn, and one can imagine the schoolboy Geoffrey tiptoeing carefully around early morning detritus and recumbent drunks as he left for school in the cold light of dawn. In his later verse he displays an expert familiarity with the liquor available in contemporary inns, the symptoms of drunkenness, and even hints as to which vintages cause the worst hangovers. The Chaucer family had enough clout to get him placed in one of the royal households where he learnt the court etiquette required to ensure his advancement.

Service as a page was logically followed by that as a squire but here the records suggest a less than heroic performance: his military career was a fiasco – once in France he promptly managed to get himself captured and had to be ransomed at the king's expense.

His marriage to the sister of John of Gaunt's mistress (later the duke's second wife) placed him remarkably close to the royal family. A beautiful miniature painting in a luxury manuscript of Troylus and Creseyd depicts Chaucer, standing in a pulpit, surrounded by the court, reading the poem aloud. One biographer has plausibly suggested that the royal family probably looked on Chaucer as 'dear old Uncle Geoffrey'.

St Paul's had taught him Latin, and he spoke and read French (well enough to joke at the expense of a social-climbing prioress who affects French without realising that her cockney accent 'after the school of Stratford-atte-Bow' betrays her origins). His knowledge of Italian led the crown to use him as an intermediary in disputes with Italian merchants at English seaports. He may have picked up the language when visiting Milan as part of an ambassadorial mission.

These three languages gave him access to the most important literary models of the day. French was still the language of chivalry, a must for any aspiring court poet – the most important stories of King Arthur had appeared originally in French. But as a courtly language its literature was conservative. It is possible that Chaucer himself even wrote some of his lyrics in French. In the fourteenth century Italian was the language of the literary avant garde and Chaucer, who had read Dante, drew on the work of his Italian contemporaries Petrarch and Boccaccio.

To the wider reading twenty-first century public, Chaucer is probably notorious as the writer of a handful of short, bawdy tales. In fact the range of his works is remarkable. He was hailed in his own day as a 'great translator' and he produced an English text of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. If he was not actually the translator of the Romance of the Rose (and the style is close to his) several of his greatest creations such as the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath have their origins in his reading of the poem. He was also interested in astronomy and this resulted in his treatise on the astrolabe.

He was fascinated by the nature of dreams and their relation to the conscious world. The preoccupation wasn't innovative in itself - many of his predecessors and contemporaries including Dante and Langland had also written poems in the popular dream vision genre - but Chaucer worked within it to produce strikingly original results.

Of these, the Parlement of Fouls, a debate on the nature of love, is the most conventional though its cast of anthropomorphised talking birds, might remind the modern reader of Disney's creatures but for their lack of saccharine and an unstoppable and very English tendency to hurl class-based insults at each other. His elegy for John of Gaunt's first wife, the Book of the Duchess, does not offer conventional religious consolation but concludes numbly that it is all but impossible to share such a burden of grief.

But the strangest of the dream visions is the experimental, perhaps unfinished House of Fame which reveals an obsession with the kind of world in which reputation is ever subject to slander randomly won by the undeserving and lost by those who merit it. It is a universe presided over by the figure of Fame herself who makes and breaks good names and reputations with the ease of a medieval Max Clifford.

His greatest single poem, Troylus and Creseyde presents a cleared-eyed view of the vulnerability of women in the game of courtly love – by allowing us to share the heroine's thoughts (something Shakespeare largely denies us) and through the involvement of a naive narrator who is sometimes overcome with sentiment at Creseyde's plight. The poem enjoyed immense popularity being read long into the sixteenth century until it was finally replaced by Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis as a source for lovesick young men to pillage and plagiarise for words with which to woo.



Best known for a small handful of the Canterbury tales – the collection offers a portrait of a society on the make for all it's worth – a generally flawed but attractive company; with only two major exceptions Chaucer shows no inclination to pass judgement. His true contempt is reserved for the clerical conmen like the Pardoner and the Summoner who brag about their skill in exploiting the poor.

It's a long time now since Terry Jones Pythonised the figure of the Knight leaving general readers with the impression that all his campaigns had the same degree of moral justification as some grant the recent invasion of Iraq. Entertaining as the theory is, it won't stand scrutiny. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a form of 'estates satire' – estates are the medieval equivalent of class but divinely ordained rather than economically determined. The standard account identifies three ideals of fourteenth-century society – those who fight (the Knight), those who pray (the Parson), and those who labour (the Ploughman). The three provide a yardstick against which the general failings of less perfect beings can be measured; remaining somewhat shadowy figures devoid of the rich wealth of individual detail that delineates the other pilgrims.

The academic in me also wants to think that Chaucer hints at a fourth ideal: the clerk, admittedly the eternal student, stands for all who gladly learn and gladly teach – though as the students in the tales of the Miller and the Reeve demonstrate the stereotype of the smart-arsed undergrad obsessed with drink and fornication is nothing new.

As the Lollards were quick to point out, pilgrimage in the fourteenth century had degenerated into a medieval package tour. From the outset the religious motivation of the company (which includes Chaucer's own comically ineffectual alter ego) is in doubt.

A blow-out supper at the Tabard Inn ensures that the pilgrims are drunk enough to agree when Harry Bailley (the original Pub Landlord) proposes the story telling contest. Nor do they seem to realise that the proposed prize, a supper at the Tabard, will swell mine host's takings still further – nice one, Harry!

The pilgrims eat, drink, jest and take their turns to tell stories. But the niceties of social precedence break down immediately as the drunken Miller insists on telling his tale after the Knight's romance. It turns out to be a wonderfully obscene parody of the Knight's tale in which a hapless carpenter is ingeniously cuckolded. The paranoid Reeve, originally a carpenter by trade, butts in to get even with another story in which a scheming miller is outwitted and both his wife and daughter are "swived". Further quarrels errupt…and Bailley's pompous attempts to preserve decorum are doomed to failure.

The Canterbury Tales also presents us with a compendium of medieval genres: romance, fabliau, animal fables, saints lives, allegories, autobiographical confessions, an early criminal narrative, and even a sermon.

This narrative skill was matched by an extraordinary feeling for the way ordinary people speak. The Host ties himself in subjunctive knots trying to be genteel when addressing the Prioress, the northern accents of two Cambridge students hint at misplaced confidence in their ability to outwit a miller, the affecting delight with which the Wife of Bath recalls a life hard lived tinged with the melancholy awareness of fading beauty, and the sinister professional slickness of the Pardoner's sales pitch can still sicken us.

As only a man at the top of his game would dare to do, Chaucer equips his own naive persona with a tale of such dire poetic incompetence that it is rudely howled down by the other pilgrims. And who wins supper at the Tabard Inn? We shall never know because the collection was unfinished when Chaucer died at the turn of the fourteenth century. Perhaps it was always his intention that his reader should be the final arbiter.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey – close to what would later become Poets' corner. His place there probably reflects his status as a royal servant and the fact that he lived just round the corner rather than his fame as a poet. There were no professional writers in the fourteenth century – Chaucer depended upon sinecures from the court for his income – but his work and reputation established the idea of the poet in the English imagination. There had been great poets writing in the English of their day long before Chaucer, but we know nothing of their lives, and only one or two names. He is the first English poet of whom we have a painted portrait and the first great literary personality in the English canon with followers who proudly claimed to be following in his poetic footsteps.

Though in some ways the society Chaucer wrote about is changed beyond recognition, ordinary English men and women with all their humorous, pugnacious, and endearing individuality still emerge with greater vitality in his brilliant narratives than in the writings of many more recent poets. Don't take my word for it. While the Open University offers as yet no opportunity to study Chaucer, there are many cheap and accessible editions of his work in modern translation available and when reading these have whetted your appetite, do try the original – the spelling is strange to the modern eye but not hard to master and, with occasional help from a glossary, Chaucer is easier to understand than Shakespeare.




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