Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Birthday: Such is the greatness of Chaucer, the day he died is celebrated as the day he was born

From The Writer's Almanac:

The birthday of Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author), the first great English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales, is unknown, and so we instead remember him on the anniversary of his death, this day in the year 1400.

When Chaucer was a boy, his family lived in London. Little of his early life is known, the first glimpse of him coming in 1357 when he was a young page in a noble household. In 1359, Chaucer fought with the English army during the invasion of France, was taken prisoner, ransomed, and returned to England to spend the rest of his life in public service, becoming an esquire and a knight and fulfilling varied duties: comptroller for customs at the port of London, appointment as a commissioner of roads and as a forester, and engaging in secret diplomatic missions to foreign countries. Chaucer lived through several outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death, and witnessed the social and economic aftermath of the decimation of the English population.

Chaucer's great patron was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and third son of the king, and as John of Gaunt's power waxed and waned, so did Chaucer's fortunes. In 1366, Chaucer married Phillipa Pan, a "damsel of the queen's bedchamber," most probably becoming a father of two. From his writings, of which the only truly acid passage is an invective against nagging and scolding wives, it seems that Chaucer's married life was not particularly happy, that he was cynical about marriage and apparently in love with another woman.

It is also possible to glean from Chaucer's writing that he was not a particularly good administrator and far from thrifty with his own money, but that he was a well-loved man with many friends, including numerous contemporary poets, one of whom declared Chaucer "the firste [sic] finder [poet] of our fair language."

There is no sure dating of Chaucer's work, although his first major composition was probably his elegy for the first wife of John of Gaunt. Troilus and Cresyde, a tale of tragic lovers set during the siege of Troy is sometimes regarded as his finest. But it is The Canterbury Tales that is generally seen as Chaucer's masterpiece, as well as one of the finest English poems in existence.

Making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral was common in Chaucer's time; miracle stories connected to Becket's remains sprang up soon after his death, and many would travel to the shrine in hopes of securing their own. Chaucer's pilgrims, 29 of them as well as Chaucer himself, include a noble knight and his lusty squire, a superficial prioress, a boisterous and opinionated widow, and an unemployable academic, who set out from the Tabard Inn, which operated along the thoroughfare leading out from the London Bridge to Canterbury from 1300 until its destruction in the 19th century. As the pilgrims begin their journey, they agree to a friendly competition, each of them telling one story, the best storyteller to be rewarded with a free meal upon returning to the inn. The tales are funny, touching, bawdy, and humorously vulgar, and it is unfortunate for modern readers that Chaucer apparently never completed them, so that we will never know which pilgrim was the winner.

The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary work to mention the use of paper. Books of Chaucer's day were written by hand on scraped and stretched animal skins and a large Bible could require hundreds of animals to complete, making the distribution of written materials impractical and expensive. For this reason, none of Chaucer's writing was printed in his day, and it is likely that his manuscripts were only circulated among his friends and remained unknown to most people until well after his death.

The final record of Geoffrey Chaucer came on September 29, 1400, when he signed a delivery receipt for a large cask of wine. Although there is no formal record of his death or of how he died, it is possible he was murdered as part of a political intrigue. But 1400 was yet another plague year, and it is just as possible that Geoffrey Chaucer perished of a more natural agent. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in honor of his position as Clerk of Works, with only a leaden plate to mark his burial.

[Illlustration: Chaucer as a pilgrim, from the Ellesmere mss.]

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