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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 1. Chaucer’s Life

OF the date of the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer we have no direct knowledge. But indirect evidence of various kinds fixes it between 1328, when his father, John Chaucer, was still unmarried, and 1346, before which date his own statement, at the Scroope-Grosvenor suit in 1386, of his age as “forty years or more” would place it. Within this rather wide range, selection has, further, to be guided by certain facts to be mentioned presently; and, for some time past, opinion has generally adopted, in face of some difficulties, the date “about 1340.” John Chaucer himself was a citizen and vinter of London, the son of Robert le Chaucer, who, in 1310, was collector of the customs on wine, and who had property at Ipswich and elsewhere in Suffolk. In 1349, John was certainly married to an Agnes whose maiden surname is unknown, who survived him and, in 1367, married again: therefore, unless she was the vintner’s second wife, she must have been Chaucer’s mother. The father seems to have had some link of service with the royal household, and the poet was connected with it more or less all his days. Probably he was born in Thames Street, London, where his father had a house at the time of his death in 1366.

We first hear of Chaucer himself (or, at least, of a Geoffrey Chaucer who is not likely to be anyone else) in 1357, when he received a suit of livery as member of the household of Edward III’s son Lionel (afterwards duke of Clarence), or of his wife Elizabeth de Burgh. Two years later, he served in France, was taken prisoner at a place called “Retters” (alternately identified with Retiers near Rennes, and with Rethel near Reims), but was liberated on ransom by March 1360—the king subscribing £16(=over £200 now) towards the sum paid. Seven years later, on a June 1367, Edward gave him an annuity of 20 marks for life, as to dilectus valettus noster, and he rose to be esquire at the end of the next year. Meanwhile, at a time earlier than that of his own pension, on 12 September 1366, another of half the amount had been granted to Philippa Chaucer, one of the damsels of the queen’s chamber: and this Philippa, beyond reasonable doubt, must have been the poet’s wife. If she was born Philippa Roet or Rouet, daughter of Sir Payn Roet, a Hainault knight, and sister of Katharine Rouet or Swynford, third wife of John of Gaunt, Chaucer’s undisputed patronage by “time-honoured Lancaster” would have been a matter of course. But we do not know Philippa’s parentage for certain. There is also much doubt about the family that Geoffrey and Philippa may have had. The poet directly dedicates, in 1391, his Astrolabe to “little Lewis my son,” who was then ten years old; but of this son we hear nothing more. On the other hand, chancellor Gascoigne, in the generation after Chaucer’s death, speaks of Thomas Chaucer, a known man of position and wealth in the early fifteenth century, as Chaucer’s son: and this Thomas took the arms of Rouet late in life, while, in 1381, John of Gaunt himself established an Elizabeth Chaucer as a nun at Barking. Beyond these facts and names nothing is known.

Of Chaucer himself—or, at least, of a Geoffrey Chaucer who, as it is very important to remember, and as has not always been remembered, may not be the same in all cases—a good many facts are preserved, though these facts are in very few cases, if any, directly connected with his literary position. By far the larger part of the information concerns grants of money, sometimes connected with the public service in war, diplomacy and civil duties. He joined the army in France again in 1369; and, next year, was abroad on public duty of some kind. In 1372, he was sent to Genoa to arrange for the selection of some English port as a headquarters for Genoese trade, and must have been absent for a great part of the twelvemonth between the November of that year and of the next. On St. George’s day 1374, he began to receive from the king a daily pitcher of wine, commuted later for money. In the following month, he leased the gatehouse of Aldegate from the corporation, and a month later again, was made controller of customs for wool, etc., in the port of London, receiving, in this same June, an additional pension of £10 a year from John of Gaunt to himself and his wife. Wardships, forfeitures and other casualties fell to him, and, in 1377, he went on diplomatic duties to Flanders and to France. In 1378, after the death of Edward III and the accession of Richard II, it is thought that he was again in France and, later in that year, he certainly went once more to Italy, in the mission to Bernabo Visconti of Milan. These duties did not interfere with the controllership; to which another, that of the petty customs, was added in 1382, and we have record of various payments and gifts to him up to the autumn of 1386, when he sat in parliament as knight of the shire for Kent, and gave evidence in the Scroope-Grosvenor case.

Then the tide turned against him. In the triumph of the duke of Gloucester and the eclipse of Gaunt during his absence in Spain, Chaucer lost his controllership; and it would appear that, in 1387, his wife died. In May 1388, he assigned his pensions and allowances to another person, which looks like (though it cannot be said certainly to be) a sign of financial straits in the case of a man whose party was out of favour. But the fall of Gloucester and the return of John of Gaunt brought him out of the shadow again. In July 1389, he was made clerk of the works to the king at various places; and, in the next year (when, as part of his new duty, he had to do with St. George’s chapel, Windsor), commissioner of roads between Greenwich and Woolwich. This latter post he seems to have retained; the clerkship he only held for two years. On 6 September 1390, he fell twice in one day among the same thieves, and was excused robbed of some public money, which, however, he was excused from making good. During parts of this year and the next, he held an additional post, that of the forestership of North Petherton Park in Somerset. In 1394 he received from Richard a fresh pension of £20 (say £300) a year. But, judging by the evidence of records of advances and protections from suits for debt, he seems to have been needy. In 1398, however, he obtained an additional tun of wine a year from Richard; while that luckless prince’s ouster and successor, John of Gaunt’s son, added, in October 1399, forty marks to the twenty pounds, making the poet’s yearly income, besides the tun of wine, equal, at least, to between £600 and £700 of our money. On the strength of this, possibly, Chapter (who had given up the Aldegate house thirteen years before, and whose residence in the interval is unknown) took a lease of a house in the garden of St. Mary’, Westminster. But he did not enjoy it for a full year, and dying (according to his tomb, which is, however, of the sixteenth century) on 25 October 1400, was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the chapel of St. Benedict, thus founding Poet’s Corner. That he was actually dead by the end of that year is proved by the cessation of entries as to this pensions. Almost every known incident in his life has been mentioned in this summary, for the traditions of his residence at Woodstock and of his beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet street have been given up—the latter perhaps hastily. One enigmatical incident remains—to wit, that in May 1380, one Cecilia de Chaumpaigne gave Chaucer a release de raptu meo. There is, however, no probability that there was anything in this case more romantic or more shocking than one of the attempts to kidnap a ward of property and marry him or her to somebody in whom the kidnapper was interested—attempts of which, curiously enough, Chaucer’s own father is known to have been nearly the victim. Otherwise, “there is namore to seyn,” so far as true history goes. And it does not seem necessary to waste space in elaborate confutation of unhistorical traditions and assertions, which, though in some cases of very early origin, never had any basis of evidence, and, in most cases, can be positively disproved. They have, for some decades, passed out of all books of the slightest authority, except as matter for refutation; and it is questionable whether this last process itself does not lend them an injudicious survival. It will be observed, however, that, in the authentic account, as above given, while it is possible that some of its details may apply to a Geoffrey Chaucer other than the poet whom we honour, there is not one single one of them which concerns him as a poet at all. There are, however, one or two references in his lifetime, and a chain, unbroken for a long time, of almost extravagantly laudatory comments upon his work, starting with actual contemporaries. Though there can be little doubt that the pair met more than once, Froissart’s mention of him is only in reference to diplomatic and not literary business. But Eustache Deschamps, perhaps, on the whole, the foremost poet of France in Chaucer’s time, has left a ballade of the most complimentary character, though, already anticipating the French habit of looking always at French literature first, it addresses him as grant translateur, which, beyond doubt, he was. In a certainly contemporary work of English prose, The Testament of Love, which, for sheer want of careful examination, was long attributed to Chaucer and which is now decided to be the work of one Usk, who was executed in 1386 by the Gloucester faction, Chaucer is spoken of with equal admiration, and his work is largely drawn upon. Scogan, another contemporary and a correspondent of his, celebrates him; and a far more important person than these, the poet Gower, his personal friend, has left a well-known tribute. The two principal poets of the next generation, in England, Occleve and Lydgate, were, the former certainly, the latter probably, personal friends likewise: and, while both are copious in laudation, Occleve has left us a portrait of Chaucer illuminated on the margin of one of his own MSS. Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the chorus of praise from poets, Scotish as well as English, continues unabated and uninterrupted. Caxton, though never executing a complete edition, repeatedly prints part of the works and is followed by others; and, towards the middle of the sixteenth century, in a passage which writers on Chaucer have generally missed, Lilius Giraldus, one of the foremost humanists od Italy, in a survey of European letters, recognises the eminence of Chaucer in English.