The Miller's Prologuer Tales
The travellers have just listened to the Knight's tale and agree on the high standing of the Knight's tale. The Miller offers to tell the next tale and is convinced that he will beat the Knight. The Host suggests that the Miller should wait as he is quite drunk. The Miller replies that he insists on telling his tale about a carpenter. The Reeve, who is a carpenter by trade, urges the Miller not to make jokes about carpenters. The Miller replies he has no intention to insult carpenters in general. Chaucer warns the reader for the Miller's rude language.
The Miller's tale is about an old carpenter who has a young wife and is duped by the suitor of his wife. The suitor is eventually duped by another suitor.
imageChaucer is mentioned no less than 493 times in contemporary documents, mostly lists of money paid out to people serving the king or other powerful figures. Through them we know many details about his career in royal and government service. The literary works played no apparent part in this public career and there is no indication in the court or public records of his writing activities. Yet there is no serious doubt that in the course of his busy working life, Geoffrey Chaucer found time to translate and write the various works that make him the first recognizable named "author" of England. The many documentary records mean that we can follow his life in far greater detail than, for example, that of Shakespeare. They establish the context in which he moved, although they shed little or no direct light on the works he wrote.
Chaucer's father, John Chaucer, occasionally held positions in the royal administration, but he was first and foremost a wine- merchant in London, an important member of the business community. Geoffrey Chaucer's mother's name was Alice. Geoffrey, probably their only son, was born some time around 1340. In 1386 he is noted in a legal record as being 'del age de xl ans et plus, armeez par xxvii ans' (of the age of forty years and more, bearing arms for twenty-seven years) and the years 1342-3 are popularly accepted as being the most probable years for his birth.
In 1348-9 Chaucer and his parents were fortunate to escape infection during the Black Death. The history of this pandemic begins with the arrival from the Middle East of a boat full of dying sailors in Sicily in October 1347. The plague, spread mainly by the fleas carried by infected rats, arrived in coastal towns of England in June 1348, and reached London early in 1349. Within eight months, some 2 million of England's 5 million inhabitants were dead. Some villages lost all their inhabitants, in many places more than half died, yet remarkably enough the normal functioning of society was not seriously interrupted. After this, there were regular outbreaks of the plague during Chaucer's lifetime and for centuries after, until the last Great Plague ravaged London in 1665. Most of Alice Chaucer's family died in the Black Death.
Records from 1357 show that Geoffrey Chaucer was already serving as a page in the household of the young Prince Lionel, later Earl of Ulster and Duke of Clarence (1338-68), one of the sons of king Edward III. In 1359 Chaucer was given the right to bear arms and fight for the king and his social title would then have been valettus or yeoman. He went to France that year in a small company led by Prince Lionel. There he was taken prisoner and had to be ransomed early in 1360. He returned to France briefly later the same year. After this there is no record mentioning him for several years, except a possible indication of a visit to Spain in 1366. Prince Lionel was in Ireland during these years but Chaucer may well have gone into the king's service instead of following him there.
By 1366 he had married Philippa de Roet, a maid to Edward III's Queen Philippa. Katherine de Roet, Chaucer's sister- in-law, was for many years the mistress, later the third wife, of the powerful magnate John of Gaunt (1340-99), another son of King Edward. Records show that by 1367 Chaucer was serving the king as a Valet, but now with the social rank of esquire. He was never knighted.
We have no indication of when Chaucer began to write but it seems likely that among his first experiments was an attempt to translate a few parts of the 13th-century French love-allegory le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose). All that exists of this translation are a few fragments, and not all those are certainly by Chaucer, but certainly the work itself exercised a profound influence on him. Oddly enough, Chaucer almost never uses the allegorical personifications that characterize the Romance of the Rose in his own writing. His first work seems to have been The Book of the Duchess, provoked by the death of John of Gaunt's wife Blanche, in 1368.
The royal accounts give an interesting glimpse of the ways Chaucer was paid for his services. For example, in 1368 he was given a license to travel from Dover to France with two horses. With that he received twenty shillings in English money for his expenses as well as ten pounds in foreign exchange. In 1374 the king awarded him one pitcher (about five liters) of wine each day for life; a few years later he was able to have this changed to a regular money payment. In 1377 he received forty shillings for winter and summer robes. Later he received regular annuities, but the monthly salaries normal today were unknown in his time.
He made a number of journeys abroad. It is possible, but very unlikely, that he attended the marriage of Prince Lionel in Milan in 1368. Poor Prince Lionel died while still in Italy, only a few months after his wedding. Certainly Chaucer was in Italy a few years later. records show that in 1372-3 he went to Genoa and then on to Florence on official business. Chaucer may well have learned Italian before this, from Italian merchants doing business with his father in his childhood.
The Italy he visited was not a nation-state but a patchwork of often very sophisticated city-states, each with its own ruler. It was a place of intense cultural activity. The great painter Giotto had already finished his work and died forty years before, not long after Dante; the first great steps in renaissance humanism had already been taken; poetry was immensely valued in society. When Chaucer arrived for his first visit, Petrarch (1304-74) was just completing the final version of his Canzoniere, Boccaccio (1313- 75) too was still active. Both were by then very famous old men and it is not at all likely that Chaucer could have met either of them. There were some great libraries in Italy but we do not know if he would have been allowed to view them. He was only a rather junior foreign envoy, after all.
Chaucer stayed some three months in Italy, but we have no information on his activities. Florence was the centre of the cult of Dante (1265-1321) and a year later a series of lectures on Dante was given there by Boccaccio. Probably it was on this first visit that Chaucer obtained a copy of Dante's works.
In 1374 Chaucer was made controller of wool customs in London, a difficult and time-consuming job, which meant he no longer had to be present regularly at court. He may have realized that political tensions were brewing between court and Parliament and wanted to find a quiet job away from trouble. In the same year he received the right to live rent-free in accommodation on top of the city gate known as Aldgate.
It seems likely that it was in or after 1374 that he composed The House of Fame, which shows strong influence from Dante but owes nothing to Boccaccio, of whose works Chaucer seems only to have learned on his second visit to Italy. This odd work is preserved, like the Book of the Duchess, in only a few copies; clearly Chaucer had not yet become a popular writer. The dating is made possible by references to his customs work in lines 652-5.
King Edward III died in 1377, less than a year after the death of his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. The Black Prince's son became King Richard II at the age of ten. In 1378 Chaucer again went on royal service to France and to northern Italy, as the junior member of an embassy to Bernabo Visconti, the Lord of Milan whom he later introduced into the Monk's Tale's list of great falls. Visconti was murdered in 1385.
He almost certainly brought back from this visit copies of Boccaccio's Filostrato, Teseida, and probably other works. Chaucer uses the Teseida in the fragment Anelida and Arcite, The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the Knight's Tale. The Filostrato is the basis for Troilus. The two youthful works by Boccaccio were particularly congenial to Chaucer, who obviously felt a deep affinity with the way they were composed, and adapted them in remarkably free and creative ways. It is not possible to decide whether Chaucer knew the Decameron directly, although its use of a framing device is thought to have inspired the structure of the Canterbury Tales.
Perhaps soon after his return from Italy, he wrote The Parliament of Fowls. This work is preserved in fourteen manuscripts, and many more have been lost; it was obviously far more widely known than the previous two works. Like them, it too is in the popular form of a dream-vision, inspired by a widely- read Latin classic, Cicero's Dream of Scipio from the commentary of Macrobius. This is precisely the book that Chaucer picks up at the start of the poem, before falling asleep and beginning to dream.
In 1381, London was the main focus of the so-called 'Peasants' Revolt'. This complex event was the climax of a number of different social processes and not all the people involved were peasants. It certainly reflected a widespread wish for freedom from older kinds of administrative control. Since so many villagers had died in the Black Death, labourers' wages had risen and the Parliament had several times tried to make laws reducing farm workers' wages. The imposition of new taxes, a poll tax in particular, in 1377, 1379, and 1380, increased resentment to breaking point. In London too, there were many discontented people.
In June 1381, the rebels from Kent reached London, claiming they wanted to obtain justice from the young king Richard II, whom they idolized. They plundered the city, burning John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace in revenge for his role in making the new taxes. They dragged a group of Flemish immigrants from a church and massacred them for taking work from Londoners. Finally, they entered the Tower of London and murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury.
King Richard agreed to meet the rebels' leaders at Smithfield and showed himself understanding. Then, while they were talking, the mayor of London suddenly struck down Wat Tyler, the main leader of the revolt, and in the confusion the other main figures were arrested. Many were later executed. There is no indication that Chaucer played any role in these events, although he does mention the leader from Essex, Jack Straw, in the Nun's Priest's Tale. Some of the rebels were idealists motivated by a kind of religious egalitarianism and quoting from an early version of Piers Plowman, but Chaucer probably saw them as a lawless rabble.
Almost certainly, Chaucer began to work on adapting the works by Boccaccio he had brought back from Italy soon after his return. Later, in 1386-7, he began to write The Legend of Good Women and in the Prologue to that unfinished work, Alceste defends Chaucer against the reproaches of the god of Love who is angry that he translated the Roman de la Rose and wrote Troilus, two works that give a negative picture of women (later parts of the Roman are fiercely anti-feminist). Alceste replies that Chaucer has written other works that encourage people to serve and praise Love. She names the House of Fame, 'the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse', the Parliament of Fowls, and a work she calls The Love of Palamon and Arcite. It is generally assumed that this last work is the adaptation of the Teseida that we know as the Knight's Tale in the Canterbury Tales.It would seem that Chaucer wrote that before or at the same time as he began work on Troilus and Criseyde, but did not distribute it before making it part of the Tales.
Troilus and Criseyde was written during the years 1381-6 and was the first of Chaucer's works to be widely admired. It and the Knight's Tale are both deeply marked by the influence of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy which he was perhaps translating at the time. Alceste, in her defence of Chaucer, later mentions that he translated Boece, the standard medieval name for Boethius. Chaucer mentions the work with some pride in the 'Retracciouns' at the end of the Parson's Tale. His translation is entirely in prose, following the model of Jean de Meun's French version which he used. In view of the strong Boethian influence on Troilus and the Knight's Tale, it seems fair to assume that Chaucer was translating Boethius at the same time as he was writing them. Perhaps he also wrote the short poems on Boethian themes at this time: The Former Age, Fortune, Truth, Gentilesse, and Lak of Stedfastnesse.
Thus, during the 1380s, Chaucer became widely known among the literary circles of London, and around him we find a few quite powerful men who seem to have constituted a 'Chaucer Circle': Sir Lewis Clifford (friend of the French poets Deschamps and Oton de Granson), Sir Richard Stury (friend of the French chronicler Froissart); Sir John Montagu (admired as a poet by the great French poet Christine de Pisan); and John Clanvowe, who later wrote the first 'Chaucerian' poem The Book of Cupid. To these should be added Henry Scogan, Thomas Hoccleve, Thomas Usk, John Gower, and Ralph Strode.
At the same time, Chaucer was active in society. In 1386 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Kent and at the end of the year he resigned from the position as controller of the wool custom. In 1385 he had become a member of the commission of the peace for Kent, the board of magistrates responsible for judging people charged with small offences at sessions held a few times each year. Chaucer seems to have left London at this time and gone to live in Kent. He may have realized that trouble was coming. In 1386-9 there was a fierce campaign by Parliament against corruption in the royal household, culminating in the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388, when a number of people in positions similar to Chaucer's were executed.
By refusing to take sides and by knowing when to withdraw, Chaucer survived with reputation intact. He became clerk of the king's works in July 1389, only a few months after King Richard had taken over the running of national business for himself. This was a very challenging position. He had to oversee building and repairs on the properties belonging to the king, paying wages, obtaining materials, recruiting workmen. During Chaucer's time in office, Henry Yevele was building the nave of Westminster Abbey. The main work overseen by Chaucer was the construction of a new wharf at the Tower of London. He also had to oversee the building of 'lists' for a royal tournament at Smithfield in 1390. These humble wooden lists must have contrasted sharply in his mind with the magnificent constructions he had described in such detail in the Knight's Tale. He lost his job rather suddenly in 1391. 1391 is also the year used as a model in his Treatise on the Astrolabe, which seems to have been written at this time for his son or god-son.
Chaucer probably went on living in Kent during this time. This was not necessarily far from London. There is some possibility that his home was in Greenwich, only a few miles down the Thames from London Bridge. These were now the years in which he did most of the work on the Canterbury Tales, still far from complete at his death. A considerable number of the separate Tales were undoubtedly completed before this, of course. The tale of Saint Cecilia, the story of Melibee, the tragedies told in the Monk's Tale, perhaps even the treatise on sin given to the Parson, must date from earlier stages in Chaucer's career.
The records seem to show Chaucer having problems with small debts during the 1390s. His income was irregular, but there are several records of new grants and some generous gifts, including an annual barrel of wine from the king in 1397. At some point he seems to have been named deputy forester for the forest of North Petherton in Somerset. He moved back into London in 1398, and took a lease on a house in Westminster in late 1399.
He was therefore well placed to experience the dramatic events of Richard's downfall. Richard had been trying to secure peace with France, and this did not please some of the most powerful lords, including his uncle the Earl of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Northumberland, who had public opinion on their side. In 1396, in a peace-making move, Richard married Isabella, the daughter of the king of France, to replace his first queen, Anne, who died in 1394.
In 1397 Ricard had Gloucester and others arrested. Gloucester was sent to France, where he was secretly murdered by Mowbray (Duke of Nottingham). Others too were exiled or executed. In January 1398 Richard made Parliament grant him an income for life, and forced various counties to pay him large sums in fines and loans. It seemed to some that the king wanted to be tyrant of England and to this end he appointed a Council where no one would oppose him. He surrounded himself with favourites and lived in greater luxury than any English king had ever known before. Richard was a great patron of the arts. When Mowbray and John of Gaunt's son the duke of Hereford (Henry Bolingbroke) accused each other of treason (both knew about the murder of Gloucester), Richard organized a formal trial by combat in September 1398. As they prepared to fight according to the rules of chivalry governing disputes between peers, Richard abruptly stopped the proceedings and exiled them both.
In February 1399 John of Gaunt died. In March Richard confiscated all Gaunt's properties that he had earlier promised Bolingbroke should inherit normally, declaring him banished for ever. Richard then left for a campaign in Ireland; he had no adviser who dared to tell him he was acting very foolishly. In late June Bolingbroke landed in the north of England and many of the powerful lords joined with him. At first he claimed to have come only for his lawful inheritance. The king returned from Ireland to find that he had no army left and was obliged to trust the promises made by the Earl of Northumberland. On September 30 Richard abdicated, and on October 13 Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV. Richard was murdered in prison early in 1400.
Henry IV quite quickly confirmed Chaucer in his positions and regular income but no money appeared, and he needed money for his new house in the garden at the east end of Westminster Abbey. He therefore sent the new king a poem, The Complaint to his Purse, which he may have written before. Whether because of it or not, he was paid soon after but did not collect the payment himself. Perhaps he was sick? Chaucer is traditionally said to have died on 25 October 1400 and was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey. A monument to him was erected during the reign of Mary Tudor in 1556, starting the tradition of "Poet's Corner."
Chaucer was not, then, a professional writer but a courtier and a civil servant. It is not possible to know what was the relationship between his writing and his public life. Perhaps at first it offered him ways to make himself noticed by the powerful people on whom he depended for work and income? Or was it mainly a private compulsion, yielding works shared with only a few like-minded friends?
Probably only five percent of the people in Chaucer's England could read at all, and many of them had no chance to read literary works. It seems to have been the practice, even at the court, for one person to read aloud from a manuscript book to a listening audience; there is a painting in one manuscript of Chaucer doing this himself, before the gathered court, but this scene is not a realistic portrayal. One vital characteristic of Chaucer's art is the way it plays with the contrasts between oral story-telling and written literature.
A survey of the shorter works
Chaucer's earliest works may be termed "occasional poetry", if we accept that the Book of the Duchess was written to console John of Gaunt on the death of his wife Blanche in 1369, and if the Parliament of Fowls was written to mark the marriage of Richard II in 1382. But nobody has found an occasion to explain the writing of the House of Fame, and none of these three works corresponds to a conventional kind of occasional poem.
In the Book of the Duchess (1334 octosyllabic lines), the love-sick narrator falls asleep as he reads the sad love story (from Ovid) of Ceix and Alcyone, and dreams he is in bed early in the morning, then out hunting. He follows a dog down a path, where he finds a knight dressed in black lamenting the loss of his lady; the narrator forces the knight to tell how good and beautiful she was, and at last obliges him to admit that she is dead. The other hunters reappear, a bell strikes, and the dreamer awakes with his book still in his hand.
The Parliament of Fowls (699 lines in rhyme-royal, seven- line stanzas rhyming ababbcc) begins with the narrator reading the Somnium Scipionis and reflecting on the nature of love; he falls asleep and the protagonist of Cicero's book, Africanus, leads him into a garden which is an illustration of the themes of the book. They reach the temple of Venus, which is full of emblems of the power and sorrows of love; finally, in a garden similar to that of the Romance of the Rose, the birds are gathered before the goddess Nature for a debate about the problem of a female eagle loved by three males. Lower class birds offer un-poetic, practical solutions to this impossible problem, and the debate is adjourned for a year so that the female can reflect quietly. The noise the birds make as they disperse wakens the narrator, who picks up other books in search of something he cannot find.
The House of Fame (2158 octosyllabic lines) consists of three books, and is incomplete. There is a Prologue on dreams and an invocation to Sleep; Book I tells of the dreamer's visit to the Temple of Glass where he finds images suggested by Book IV and other parts of Virgil's Aeneid. In Book II he is seized by a talkative eagle and carried up into the House of Fame in the heavens where he sees, during his visit in Book III, images of famous writers; in particular he sees how arbitrary Fame is. Beside the House of Fame he sees the Labyrinth, representing the confused complexity of human existence, with all kinds of false tidings carried by shipmen and pilgrims. An un-named figure "of great authority" appears and the poems stops short.
To these three works should be added two other titles: Anelida and Arcite, a strange fragment of a love story, and the incomplete Legend of Good Women. The Legend begins with a Prologue which exists in two versions, then uses the decasyllabic couplets so familiar freom the Canterbury Tales to tell nine stories of famous women: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle and Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra.
The Legend of Good Women, of which twelve manuscripts survive, breaks off in mid-sentence and there has been much debate as to whether Chaucer wrote more. In the 'Retracciouns' he calls it 'the book of the XXV. Ladies' and this same title was used by someone writing between 1406 and 1413. In the Introduction to his Tale, the Man of Law, praising Chaucer, refers to is as a 'large volume' and lists sixteen heroines although his list omits some whose tales survive. It seems better to think that by some accident much of the work was lost before it could be copied, perhaps just after Chaucer's death.
The first version of the Prologue suggests that Chaucer wanted to dedicate the work to Queen Anne. Since it refers to Troilus, it must have been written after about 1385-6. If the second version of the Prologue is indeed a revision of the first, the fact that references to Queen Anne have been removed suggests that the revision was done after her death in June 1394. It would be wrong to assume that the Queen really instructed Chaucer to write the work, or to take too seriously the Prologue's claim that it is a 'penance' for having written stories hostile to women. This literary device imitates one first used by the French poet Machaut.
The Legend has a bad critical reputation but today it is recognized as the work in which Chaucer finally honed his narratorial skills before embarking on the General Prologue and the compilation of the Canterbury Tales, many parts of which were already complete as isolated works or translations. The dominant concern in the Legend is to challenge and recompose by inversion the conventions governing the literary representation of women and gender roles.
It used to be claimed that Chaucer stopped writing it because he was bored by the repetition of silly stories about virtuous women and wanted to get on with the Canterbury Tales, only the Queen would not let him. This is not perhaps a very helpful approach. Chaucer was clearly fascinated by the questions he was dealing with and they continue in the Canterbury Tales.
The most important themes of all these works are love, nature, and the ways the literary imagination produces books about love and nature. They are all of them (except for the Anelida) in the form of dream-visions, and all of them play subtle games with literary references, many of them veiled or obscure. In particular, the way in which the House of Fame keeps echoing Dante is intriguing, for it is not sure who in England at this time could read or had even heard of Dante, except perhaps a few friends to whom Chaucer had spoken of him.
It is certain that Chaucer was an intense reader with a great interest in thoughtful writing; in the House of Fame (lines 652-7) the eagle scolds him:
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges,
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon;
And also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
and in the prologues to the Legend of Good Women he admits that "On bokes for to rede I me delyte/ And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence."