Chaucer and His World - The Gate at Canterbury Cathedral

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Chaucer & His World
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Chaucer and his World

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Each 'World' consists of two pages. The first provides a description of the characters and includes plot summaries, discussion points, theoretical and audio-visual materials. The second provides some background context and supporting downloadable images.

The Life and Work of Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in or around the year 1340. His father John Chaucer was a wealthy London vintner (wine merchant), who held a succession of offices in the customs service in London. He married Agnes, an heiress from another London merchant family. Together they owned considerable property in and outside London. John also inherited property from members of his family who had died during the Black Death of 1348/9, which increased his own wealth considerably. John Chaucer's position gave him access to royal and noble courts, and this, together with his considerable finances, may have enabled him to place his son Geoffrey as a page in the household of Elisabeth, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel, duke of Clarence, third son of the king, Edward III. Geoffrey is recorded in this position in the late 1350's. Elisabeth was a great heiress in her own right, and was one of a number of powerful women with whom Chaucer was to come into contact during the course of his life. In Elisabeth's household Chaucer received his education. Although he never went to university, Chaucer was extremely well educated, an indication of the quality of learning available in a noble household during the second half of the fourteenth century. He may later have attended one of the Inns of Court, like other younger members of the lesser aristocracy and gentry, but most of his education was not gained at any of the more 'public' institutions of learning. Chaucer would have attended lessons alongside the sons of royal and noble parents, also living in the household and being educated as pages and esquires (the next stage towards knighthood). Henry V (1413-1422), with the possible exception of Elizabeth I the most educated of English monarchs (he read Cicero for fun!) also received his education in this way, in the household of a powerful woman, Katherine Swynford, duchess of Lancaster - who was also Geoffrey Chaucer's sister-in-law.

A knight's armour, showing the different pieces with their lacing, and the linen undergarments
Chaucer passed on to the next stage - that of esquire - and went on campaign to France with Edward III in 1359. He was captured, and the king gave £16 (a very large sum of money) towards his ransom. In 1360 Geoffrey undertook a diplomatic mission to Calais for Prince Lionel, and then the records are silent until 1366, the year in which Chaucer's father died. In the same year Chaucer may have gone on pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostella in Spain, and in September he married Philippa de Roet, sister of Katherine Swynford, the long-term mistress of John of Gaunt. Gaunt was the fourth son of Edward III, who became the most powerful man in England after the acession of Richard II in 1377. Katherine eventually became Gaunt's third wife, and was the mother of his 'second' family, the Beauforts. It has been suggested that Chaucer's wife was also Gaunt's mistress, and that she was married to the faithful retainer in order to disguise her pregnancies (a common practice that Chaucer himself refers to in The Miller's Tale). Philippa received gifts from Gaunt and spent long periods away from home in his service, but the question has never been resolved.

In 1367 Chaucer made his first visit to Italy, for the re-marriage of Prince Lionel to a member of the Visconti family. By this time Chaucer was also connected with John of Gaunt - he wrote The Book of the Duchess, his first major poem, as a form of 'consolation' for Gaunt on the death of his first wife, Blanche. By 1369 he was in Gaunt's service, on campaign in Picardy. In 1372-3 Chaucer visited Italy again, visiting Florence and Genoa. It is not clear whether he met Dante, Petrarch or Boccaccio, but the last of these became a great admirer of Chaucer's work - the only English writer of his generation to have gained such an accolade. It is now believed that Chaucer was chosen for these diplomatic mission BECAUSE OF his knowledge of Italian. It used to be believed that he learned Italian on these trips, but scholars now think that he learned it at home, in London, from the Italian merchant community who lived close by his parents' home in the Vintry, city of London. In 1374 he received his first recorded royal grant - a gallon of wine a year for life, subsequently renewed by Richard II on his accession.

Also in 1374, Chaucer became Controller of the Customs on wool, sheepskin and leather, and went to live in a house over Aldgate in London, granted to him by the Mayor and Corporation of the city. He continued on diplomatic missions - in 1377 to Paris, where he met another future admirer, the great French poet Eustache Deschamps, and in 1378 again to Milan in Italy, to meet Bernabo Visconti and his commander-in-chief, the English mercenary John Hawkwood.

In 1380 Chaucer was released from a charge of rape by Cecilia Champagne, daughter of a London baker. She was paid £10 per annum. Was Cecilia bought off by Chaucer's representatives, or was he acting for someone else? Was Chaucer a rapist? This is an extremely contentious issue the truth of which, like the status of Chaucer's wife, may never be known.

After the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, Chaucer gradually distanced himself from his possessions and his work in London. From 1382 he began to employ deputies to do his customs work, although this was expanding. He had been building up estates in Kent from about 1375, and he retired to live there in the early 1380's. He became a Justice of the Peace in the county, and also represented Kent in Parliament as a Knight of the Shire in 1386. By this time he was attracting fame as a poet.

Philippa Chaucer died in 1386/7. It was at this time that Chaucer, having written Troilus and Criseyde, was beginning The Canterbury Tales. In July 1389, having survived the brief triumph of the Lords Appellant (during which time several of Richard II's most trusted servants, including the poet Thomas Usk, were tried and executed), Chaucer was made Clerk of the King's Works, an extremely prestigious and important appointment. Chaucer was attacked and badly wounded by highway robbers in 1390, and gave up the clerkship in 1391. A few weeks later, he was made deputy forester of the royal forest at North Petherton in Somerset. He continued to receive gifts and annuities from Richard II, and from Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt's son, who later deposed Richard and became Henry IV (in 1399).

At the end of 1399 Chaucer took a house in the environs of Westminster Abbey - people often moved into the precincts of religious houses when they retired. He died in October 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, because he was a former royal servant and a parishioner of the abbey - not because he was a great poet. Poet's Corner came much later!

Canterbury CathedralThroughout his life, Chaucer NEVER made a living from writing. He himself may have wanted to be remembered above all as a national poet, but he had to earn his living in royal service. There was no copyright to protect writers, and making a living as a poet was not possible at this time. We do not know how Chaucer originally intended The Canterbury Tales to be arranged, and we cannot know exactly when each of the stories was written. Chaucer appears to have changed his mind about this. Nor can we know haw many tales he intended to write, or might have written, had not his work, and eventually his death, prevented him. Some of the tales were circulated separately before The Canterbury Tales were finally put together. It was only after Chaucer's death, in the fifteenth century, that The Canterbury Tales became one of the most popular works of English literature.

Pilgrimage in Medieval England

Pilgrimages were not uncommon, even for poorer people, in medieval England. The objective was to visit a shrine, containing holy relics of some kind, in order to obtain forgiveness for sins and imperfections, or to ask God and a saint whose physical remains were kept at the site for mental, spiritual or physical healing. These were, of course, all part of the same 'package' to the medieval mind.

Some pilgrimages involved travelling over long distances, such as those to the Holy Land (or the shrine of St Catherine of Alexandria), to St Peter's in Rome, or to the shrine of St James (SantIago) at Compostella in Spain. These were the most popular long-distance places of pilgrimage. The shrine of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral was one of Europe's major places of pilgrimage, and Thomas was well-known on the Continent.
St Thomas's shrine was also one of the best-known and best-visited shrines of English saints - others were St Hugh, in Lincoln Cathedral, St Alban, at St Alban's, St Swithun at Winchester, St Etheldreda at Ely and St Cuthbert at Durham.

Ilam Shrine, Staffordshire

These large shrines were very elaborate, on carved stone bases topped by the wooden reliquary which contained the bones of the saint, often covered with gold and jewels. The pilgrim would usually be able to enter a small doorway beneath the reliquary, to pray for wholeness and healing. Great churches of pilgrimage often also contained mazes, set in the floor. The pilgrims would walk around the maze to the centre, retracing their pilgrimage in miniature, but also making a 'pilgrimage' through their own life and consciousness, in order better to pray for the saint's cleansing and healing intercession. This was not 'worshipping' the saint, but asking the saint, already in God's presence in heaven, to help the pilgrim with his/her prayers.

Canterbury was one of the most popular places of pilgrimage (containing, of course, the earthly remains of St Thomas Becket, martyred in 1171 - on the altar steps in his own cathedral for his opposition to King Henry II), along with Our Lady of Walsingham and the Holy Rood of Bromholm (both in Norfolk) and the Holy Blood of Hailes Abbey, in Gloucestershire. In the North, there was the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham and St John at Beverley, near York. Besides these, there were numerous other, smaller and more localised, shrines, where saints known to particular local communities carried out similar functions. Larger shrines made a great deal of money for the clergy who possessed them and the communities in which they were located, and were very grand: smaller shrines were plainer and humbler, but still 'sought after' by local clergy and communities.

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Chaucer and his world