Cosmopolitan Chaucer: Marion Turner on the 14th-century poet’s inventive, international life

Geoffrey Chaucer is often hailed as the ‘father of English literature’. Yet, argues Marion Turner, who has written an acclaimed biography of the poet, this epithet fails to capture the radical nature of his work

Equestrian portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere manuscript of his Canterbury Tales (14th century).

How would you introduce Geoffrey Chaucer to people who might only have heard of The Canterbury Tales?

Chaucer had an incredibly interesting life. He was a diplomat, and travelled widely all over Europe – which people usually don’t expect from someone in the 14th century.

He was also an extraordinary innovator: he invented iambic pentameter, for example, which became the key poetic form in English. He wrote a huge variety of poetry in all kinds of genres, and was exceptionally widely read in many languages. So he brought something very new to English literature and culture.


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Your biography explores Chaucer’s life through the prism of places. What led you to structure it in that way, and why does his life benefit from that approach?

I realised that a chronological structure wouldn’t allow me to write about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell about Chaucer’s life – so I decided to structure the book through spaces. Some are real places that Chaucer visited, such as Genoa or Calais. Others are structures that we don’t have in the same way today but which formed people’s identities in the 14th century. And others are imaginative structures, such as the idea of the ‘threshold’, whose metaphors mattered to Chaucer.

This approach is particularly useful for Chaucer’s life because he was so widely travelled and did so many interesting things. It helps us understand how multinational and multilingual Chaucer was, but also the extent to which his era was one of enormous change.

What sorts of changes took place?

When Chaucer was about six years old, the Black Death hit. Of course, thinking about plagues feels horribly relevant right now, although the plague was far worse than what we’re experiencing. It caused enormous social change – and not necessarily the kinds of change you might expect. A lot of social mobility developed in its wake: greater numbers of people moved to cities, labour was more in demand because of the reduction in population, and people were able to earn and spend higher wages.

What do we know about Chaucer’s early life?

Chaucer’s father was a vintner, or wine merchant, and Chaucer was born in the 1340s right on the waterfront in London’s Vintry ward. It was a period in which there was enormous trade across the Silk Road into Europe. This meant that the mercantile quarter was an extremely cosmopolitan place to be brought up. The fact that Chaucer mixed with Italians and learnt Italian was crucial for his later career, for instance, because it meant that he was able to read poetry no on else in England was reading.

When he was a teenager, he got his first job in a great household, as a page to Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster. We know this from the first record to specifically mention Geoffrey, which describes an older woman buying him clothes. They were paltoks: very tight leggings and a short tunic, described as “extremely short garments which failed to conceal their arses or their private parts”. Chroniclers thought it was outrageous that young men were showing off their bodies in this indecent way; some even said it was the cause of the plague coming to England.

I love this anecdote because we get a sense that nothing really changes. Older people today still say: “The youth of today are outrageous – look at the terrible clothes they wear.” But on the other hand, it’s not familiar at all: this young boy was paid not in wages but in clothes, bedding and food; he didn’t get to choose what he wore; and he had to do what his rich employers wanted him to.

Chaucer went on to hold several positions in the royal household. How did his experiences there shape his worldview? He was attached to the royal household for most of his adult life. That didn’t mean that he was working in the court all the time, but that he was available for different kinds of missions. The fact that he was good at languages and diplomacy meant he was often sent to Europe to negotiate important marriages and peace treaties, for instance.

He then worked as a customs officer at the counting house at Wool Quay. It was a crucial job, because wool was England’s only major export product in the late 14th century. It was the absolute heart of the nation’s economy. And, later, he was clerk of the king’s works, in charge of the infrastructure of buildings such as the king’s palaces and the Tower of London.

We can see different phases of his life, in which he was influenced by different spaces and places. But it’s interesting that, in all of them, his life was outward-facing. Even when he was sat in his office in London, he was looking out at the boats coming and going on the river, just as he had when he was a boy.

Did this outward-facing nature reflect the wider society of England at the time?

Absolutely. This was a period in which every educated man in England was multilingual. You had to know French and Latin as well as English. And it wasn’t just men, either: lots of women would also have known French and English. Of course, this wasn’t true of the average field labourer, many of whom were not literate. But the world in which Chaucer moved, certainly, was very outward-looking.

We only need to look at the queens at court during Chaucer’s lifetime. [Edward III’s wife] Philippa of Hainault, for instance, was from a county that’s now split between Belgium and France; [Richard II’s first wife] Anne of Bohemia was from what is now the Czech Republic. These queens brought their entourages and their cultures, which was key for Chaucer. His friends were all interested in high French culture and how it could be translated into an English environment.

Which of his journeys in Europe had the most impact upon him?

His trips to Italy in the 1370s were particularly important because they let him observe very different ways of ordering society. He saw what it was like to live in a city-state run by an oligarchy rather than a monarchy, for instance. He also went to Lombardy, which was run by the Visconti tyrants, whose appalling absolutist behaviour was notorious.

Chaucer was very interested in these political models. But he also encountered Italian poetry, and devoured the work of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante. It was a crucial influence on him: a lot of the poetic forms that Chaucer developed derived from Italian poetic forms, for instance. It changed what he did in his own poetry, but also the wider English poetic form.

How did Chaucer become so influential?

Chaucer was respected and admired during his lifetime. He had good connections, key among them was [statesman and military leader] John of Gaunt, who was the most important man in England for many years. Chaucer worked for Gaunt in various ways – but, perhaps even more crucially, his sister-in-law was Gaunt’s mistress and, later, wife. The fact that he held positions at court and came from a mercantile background also meant that he had access to a wide range of important people who were reading his work.

He was also extremely good. It may sound obvious, but the fact that he was a brilliant, interesting, innovative poet was very important. His work is incredibly diverse, too, which means that, whatever you like, you can find it in Chaucer. If you want a romance, you can find that; if you want to read a very rude, bawdy tale, you can find that too.

Yet he was not read by huge numbers of people in his own lifetime. It wasn’t until the English language became increasingly important in the early 15th century that the new English poets began to promote him as ‘Father Chaucer’. So this guy, who had been quite an edgy poet in many ways, became established as a kind of patriarchal figure.

Then, in the late 15th century, merchant and printmaker William Caxton printed The Canterbury Tales. Again, that was partly because it’s an interesting, diverse work.

But the fact that Chaucer was writing in what’s known as the East Midland or London dialect was also important, because those were the kinds of texts that Caxton wanted to print. Other brilliant poems, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, were not printed until the 19th century – because it was in a north- ern dialect, and the north was left out of canonical English literature very early on.

To what extent were Chaucer’s later years devoted to writing The Canterbury Tales? – and how do the Tales reflect the fact that he had moved out of London by this point?

In the first half of the 1380s, Chaucer wrote a huge variety of texts, including his Dream Poetry and the epic romance Troilus and Criseyde. Although he did do some other things in the 1390s, he dedicated most of his time to The Canterbury Tales.

That’s partly because he had more time. He had moved to Kent and, though he held various jobs, was probably less busy than he’d been at the Customs House. But, in truth, he was always a prolific writer – one of those frustrating people who manage to hold down day job and come home to write a book in the evening. So the fact he devoted himself ore exclusively to the Tales was probably because he had found what really suited him. The very concept allowed Chaucer to write in different genres, styles and forms. Indeed, the key point of The Canterbury Tales is the idea of listening to stories from lots of different perspectives, which was new at the time.

What view should we have of Chaucer’s place in the world – and in history?

I’d like people to realise how innovative the 14th century was. It’s a surprisingly overlooked era, perhaps because people focus so much on the 16th century.

I would also like people to view Chaucer in this more innovative and outward-looking way, because the idea of him being the ‘father of English literature’ gives the impression he as a bit boring. People think that, because he’s the head of the canon, he must be very serious – but, actually, he’s incredibly funny. I’d like people to think of him as a young man travelling around Europe, picking up manuscripts and then riding back to England invent a new poetic form when he got back – all the while wearing his interesting trousers. And I’d like them to see him as someone who lived a long life filled with new and different ings right the way through it.

Interview by BBC World Histories Magazine editor Matt Elton

Marion Turner is associate professor in English at Jesus College, University of Oxford. Her latest book, Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton UP, 2019), is shortlisted for this year’s Wolfson History Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 15 June

This article is from the July 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine – on sale next month

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