Chaucer’s Tale; 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm. Viking Press, 2014.

It must be difficult to find a topic about Geoffrey Chaucer that hasn’t been exhausted. Paul Strohm has picked a pivotal year in Chaucer’s life. In 1386 Chaucer lost his appointment as Controller of Customs of the wool trade. He was also more-or-less booted out of his lodgings of many years above Aldgate, London.

Chaucer is often called the father of English literature. He wrote in the vernacular (Middle English), French and Latin being the two dominant literary languages of the English realm at this time. Much is known about his official life, less about his literary life.

Strohm describes literary works of the fourteenth century as aural (heard) rather than read. The printing press would not be introduced into England until 1476; and even then paper was always in short supply. Parchment, made from animal skins, was expensive, and difficult to conserve. Each parchment copy would have been ordered individually, rather like the books-on-demand arrangement in our century that for a time seemed a solution to keeping books in print.

These readings given to his London audience were interactive, perhaps like that of present-day performance artists. A literary work would be introduced with a prologue, like the introductory remarks that precede a poetry recital by a member of the Creative Writing Program, UF.

Strohm describes in much detail Chaucer’s lodgings above Aldgate, The gate has disappeared, but one can imagine what these “digs” were like from the nearby surviving structures. They consisted of two rooms in a turret, “Spartan” and cramped certainly, though well situated in terms of Chaucer’s place of work, the wool wharf and warehouse, on the Thames.  Apparently the rent was affordable.

Chaucer’s neighborhood would have been a noisy and smelly place with considerable wheeled traffic during the day. The Gate was closed at sunset whereupon the street-life changed to “pub crawlers” and all of the nuisances associated with their inebriation. Chaucer was apparently a good Catholic; Would he have enjoyed the ‘holy racket’ of church bells summoning worshipers to the various masses performed in both Holy Trinity Priory, nearby, and St. Botolph’s without Aldgate?.

Revenue from the export of English wool to the Flanders and Italian textile industry was important to the royal revenues. Richard II and Edward III were fighting the Hundred Year’s War in France, suppressing the Scots, and defending the crown against domestic opposition to its prodigality.

That revenue stream from wool exports was being much diverted into a number of pockets, legitimate in some cases, but part of what historians dismissively call “corruption.” Chaucer had opportunities to enrich himself and definitely important patrons of his were profiting from that corruption. Nicholas Brembre, four-time mayor of London and a patron of Chaucer’s, cornered the wool market for a time. Eventually he slipped on that slippery slope of “corruption” and was hanged in 1388 for ‘treason,’ which generally meant that he either threatened the powers-that-be, or stole from them, or both.

Strohm calls Chaucer “complicitous,”   a “fellow traveler,” or as we would say these days, keep himself “under the radar.” But Strohm contends that Chaucer was probably not on the take. At least judging from his fortune, or lack thereof, as of 1386 his years in the royal service had not made him a rich man.  Not a social reformer, he may, nevertheless, have provided some constraint against the less scrupulous. By 1386 his writing career was flourishing, though also not a source of income.

That year Geoffrey Chaucer retired (was retired) and got elected as a Member of Parliament from the county of Kent (His wife had property there.) Hence he continued in the King’s service but with the title of “esquire” and below the status of “knight.” That lowly ranking suggests to Paul Strohm that Chaucer’s career as a parliamentarian was not that glorious either.

This was a pivotal time for the evolution of the English Parliament, with the burgesses joining the knights for purposes of deliberating on the business of the Crown. These “commoners” gradually separated themselves from the great magnates of the realm and thus the “house of commoners” and “house of lords.” Chaucer returned to court service and London briefly in the 1790s, but then settled into completing his great masterpiece.

That never happened, and most of the assembling of the various tales and their prologues only came about after his death in 1400. The Canterbury Tales, as it has come down to us, was largely the work of a professional scrivener, Adam Pinkhurst. Geoffrey Chaucer probably never quite understood how- or even desired – to become a writer-celebrity. In northern Italy Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and others were fashioning that persona, not yet possible in Chaucer’s England.

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