Geoffrey Chaucer is the famed medieval author of The Canterbury Tales. Though much is known about this and other works, it is more difficult to trace his biography. He is the best English writer of his time period. Much of his work is directly copied and enhanced from French and Italian writers, but this follows the literary convention of the time, where invention of new works was considered not as respectable as recreating or translating existing works.
Literary historians believe Chaucer was born in England in the 1340s CE. Chaucer became a page in 1357 to Prince Lionel, then served as a soldier for Edward III, and spent some time in France. He married Phillipa Roet, somewhere in this time period. His death is reported in the year 1400.
His first work The Tale of the Duchess, written in 1369, is a lament for the death of John of Gaunt’s wife. While he continued writing, Chaucer also continued to work for the English court. He served as an emissary to Italy on several diplomatic missions. His work in Italy is thought to have greatly influenced his writing, as he has often been compared to the poet Boccaccio. Canterbury Tales is quite similar in structure to Boccaccio’s work, the Decameron.
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Historians are also certain that the masterful work, Troilus and Criseyde derives from the influence of both classical work and Italian literature. These travels also brought Chaucer into contact with the work of Boetheus, who he would later translate into Middle English. Boetheus was a philosopher whose main work, Consolation of Philosophy was popularly read. Boetheus’ theories suggest that even when one comes into collision with bad luck or evil times, a rational frame of mind will be “consolation,” and help a person overcome such things.
This theory is repeated through Chaucer’s work and is most notable in The Parliament of Fowls, a work regarding the love choices of each of the birds, with the falcon unable to decide who to choose as a lover. Other short works by Chaucer include the The Legend of Good Women which is unfinished, and an unfinished translation of the French Roman de la Rose.
Troilus and Criseyde, a story of classic Greek origin, is a tragic tale of courtly love. The initial verse work on this theme is Boccaccio’s, in his work Filostrato. The Chaucer version is considered to be one of the finest pieces of literature, ever. The work is in verse, and chronicles the love of Troilus and Cressida (or Chrysies), set in the background of the Trojan War.
Chaucer’s last work, The Canterbury Tales, is considered to be his finest, though it is unfinished. The piece is brilliant and very funny, chronicling a game played by 30 characters on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The intended story was to have each character tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two stories on the return journey, at which point the characters would be judged on their stories. However, the work only includes about a fourth of this, with many characters not even telling one story.
Tales is significant in its analysis of a broad spectrum of human characters. Nuns, priests, widows, knights, and others are all described with keen wit. The most notable tales are probably “The Knight’s Tale,” and the “Tale of the Wyf of Bath.” The tales range from lofty to ribald, representative of a cross-section of human society.
The unfinished work is over 17,000 lines long. It would have been interesting to see Chaucer’s full work because his explorations of humanity are precise and sophisticated, as well as frequently quite amusing. As is, Tales is still considered a masterpiece.
Chaucer is innovative because he wrote in his native tongue, rather than in Latin, which was the convention of his time. His work is in Middle English, which differs significantly from modern English. Reading his texts in Middle English can be challenging, but is also rewarding. Perhaps the best collection of the Chaucer texts is the Riverside Chaucer, which includes translations of words, guides to pronunciation, and a comprehensive series of critical essays.