Every age creates its own Chaucer. For Eustache Deschamps, a contemporary, he was the ‘grant translateur’. For Hoccleve, a disciple, he was ‘my deere maistir’ and ‘the firste fyndere [inventive poet] of our fair langage’. The 15th century revered him for his eloquence, while the 20th century gave us many Chaucers: genial naif, apostle of courtly love, austere Augustinian moralist, sycophantic courtier, ironist and, not least, duelling misogynist and feminist versions. In Marion Turner’s capacious biography – the first since Derek Pearsall’s in 1992 and the first ever by a woman – Chaucer is Bakhtinian and plural, a man of many voices. Much like his Canterbury pilgrims, he is always en route but never arriving.
We have more contemporary documents that mention Chaucer than any other premodern poet: 493 of them, meticulously compiled by Martin Crow and Clair Olson in Chaucer Life Records (1966). What they record is the career of a competent civil servant. A member of the king’s household and lifelong retainer of John of Gaunt, Chaucer served as a diplomat, controller of the wool custom, clerk of the king’s works, deputy forester, justice of the peace for Kent and Member of Parliament. In addition to his large poetic corpus, we have several prose works and a few tributes from admirers. But these literary and documentary records never meet. From the Life Records alone, we would never guess that Chaucer was a poet, nor did he leave any personal letters or diaries. Turner firmly renounces all attempts to analyse his psyche or emotional life. Many previous biographers have attempted to do so, but only by extrapolating from the poems of a writer who played his cards close to his chest. This is one reason there are so many Chaucers. As with Shakespeare, any ‘reading’ of the man is a thinly disguised reading of his work.
Turner offers instead a tapestry of interwoven tales. She traces Chaucer’s poetic development by examining his sources – French, Italian and Latin – and discusses the places and spaces of his eventful life. Some appear on maps (Reims, Hainault, Genoa, Navarre, the Tower of London, Southwark, Westminster Abbey), while others are mental categories (cage, empire, garden, inn). Turner’s subtitle scarcely needs stressing, but Chaucer and his England were thoroughly European. Not only did he travel widely and often, but his imagination was profoundly shaped by the places he visited, from the war-torn landscape of France to multicultural Navarre, from the slave markets of Genoa to the oppressive splendour of Milan. It is no accident that ‘The Clerk’s Tale’, the Canterbury Tales’s harrowing legend of an abused wife, takes place in Lombardy: Griselda’s husband, Walter, is modelled in part on Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan. Her story is more than a narrative about gender or a religious allegory; it is an object lesson in tyranny. Some tales are set even further afield: ‘The Squire’s Tale’ at the court of Genghis Khan; ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ takes its heroine from Rome to Syria to Northumberland, and finally back to Rome. But exotic locales also serve as heightened projections of the local. No one would have mistaken Athens and Thebes in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ or Troy in Troilus and Criseyde for classical reconstructions. Theseus builds a vast theatre for the tournament of Palamon and Arcite just as Chaucer himself, as clerk of the works, oversaw the construction of lists for the jousting at Smithfield in 1390. Most readers will remember the gorgeous (if alarming) iconography of Theseus’ temples to Mars, Venus and Diana, but the narrator also reminds us of their cost: ‘With many a floryn he the hewes boghte.’ As for Troy, the city under siege – all the more appealing for its aura of doom – it is very much a portrait of London, often called ‘New Troy’ at the time. ‘Both the Troy of Troilus and Criseyde and the London of the early 1380s,’ Turner writes, ‘were places split between a shining surface of processions, set pieces, feasts and parties, and an underbelly of violence, betrayal and fatal conflicts.’
Chaucer served under three kings, honing his diplomatic skills in the last decades of Edward III, surviving the tumultuous reign of Richard II (1377-99), and gaining the favour of Henry IV before what must have been a rather sudden death in 1400. To contextualise his career, Turner provides an extensive political, social, economic and cultural history of England over the second half of the 14th century. But our first glimpse of the young Chaucer is an amusing one. The son of an affluent London vintner, he was fortunate as a teenager to gain a place in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, whose husband was Edward’s second surviving son. Aged about 15, Chaucer ‘steps off the page as a fashion plate, dressed to the nines in clothes so breathtakingly fashionable and daring that contemporary commentators condemned them as causing the wrath of God to descend on England’. The offending garment was a ‘paltok’, a tunic so short and tight-fitting that it exposed the loins – the better to show off Chaucer’s shapely legs in black and red particoloured hose. (The Wife of Bath fell in love with her fifth husband – at the funeral of her fourth – when she saw his ‘paire/Of legges and of feet so … faire’.)
Over the course of three generations, the Chaucers demonstrated the remarkable upward mobility that was possible in the post-plague years. The family’s rise was enabled not by literary fame but by the patronage of John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II and for many years the most powerful man in England. Gaunt (so called because of his birthplace, Ghent) was Chaucer’s exact contemporary. The death of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, in 1368 occasioned Chaucer’s first long poem, The Book of the Duchess. Deferential, halting, yet oddly moving, it takes the form of a dream vision, in imitation of French poets such as Machaut and Froissart. Gaunt’s grief was widely seen as excessive, but he had also lost a brother, two infant sons and his mother at around the same time. Grief, however, didn’t stand in the way of remarriage. When Gaunt married Constance of Castile and, after her death, his long-term mistress, Katherine Swynford, the children of all three unions – as well as Katherine’s by her first husband, Sir Hugh Swynford – became one large blended family. Chaucer’s wife, Philippa, was Katherine’s sister, and so their children became part of this ménage. Thomas, his eldest son, was born around the same time as Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son by Blanche, who would seize the throne as Henry IV in 1399. It was Gaunt’s lavish patronage that enabled Thomas to make a brilliant marriage and become a substantial landholder. Alice, Thomas’s daughter, took as her third husband William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, and died a duchess.
While Philippa’s connections contributed to Chaucer’s worldly success, the marriage itself was a failure. The couple lived apart and their union was ‘at best a marriage that petered out’, though we don’t know why. Critics more speculative than Turner have made much of the most disturbing life record: a legal document which shows that in 1380 Cecily Champaigne released Geoffrey Chaucer from all charges related to her raptus, or rape. The quitclaim was witnessed by five powerful men and Chaucer paid a substantial fine. Does this mean he had in fact raped Champaigne? It could, though it could also mean a number of other things. The document is as ambiguous as one of Chaucer’s own tales, perhaps by design: legal manoeuvring might have resulted in the details being obscured. We will probably never know if Chaucer was a rapist. What we do know is that after this episode he began to think deeply about the nature of sexual consent. ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ is interesting in this context. Manuscripts indicate that Chaucer had at first assigned her a fabliau, a bawdy tale of adultery, but at some point he gave that tale to the Shipman and wrote a new one for the Wife of Bath – his only Arthurian legend. The tale centres on the rehabilitation of a rapist; Chaucer’s is the only one of several versions of this story in which the protagonist commits that particular crime. He must atone by fulfilling a quest Queen Guinevere assigns him, namely to learn ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren?’ The knight gets the correct answer from a hideous old hag, who demands as her reward that he marry and sleep with her – the closest counterpart to rape that a male author (or his female narrator) could imagine. The answer – sovereignty over their husbands – may disappoint; we would prefer if she had said ‘over themselves’. But that concept had yet to come.
Chaucer took more risks with his representation of Criseyde. Troilus, her suitor, is a courtly lover so passive that he now reads like a caricature (a distinctly postmodern response), but Criseyde is given fuller subjectivity than any other heroine in medieval romance. We see her deliberating thoughtfully, fearfully, wishfully and at length over her lover’s suit, resisting an intense campaign of manipulation by Pandarus. When she finally arrives in Troilus’ bed, after a series of plot twists so bizarrely comic as to defy summary, he rouses himself to stage a mock rape: ‘Now yeldeth yow, for other bote [remedy] is non!’ Criseyde’s response is fascinating: ‘Ne hadde I er now, my swete herte deere,/Ben yolde, ywis, I were now nought heere!’ In other words, ‘If I hadn’t yielded (or ‘been yielded’?) before now, sweetheart, I wouldn’t be here now!’ Active or passive? Though consent has been given at some point (it is Criseyde who initiates their actual lovemaking), it’s impossible to specify when. Her characterisation is wonderfully nuanced, but it proved too much for Chaucer’s audience. At the end of the poem a desperate Criseyde – sent behind enemy lines as a prisoner of war – betrays Troilus. After this, ‘false Criseyde’ became a byword, as the character herself predicts. In the prologue to Chaucer’s next major work, The Legend of Good Women, he portrays the God of Love as enraged with him because of Criseyde’s infidelity, which ‘maketh men to wommen lasse triste’. Cupid may be expressing the protests of actual readers (we have no direct evidence), but the literary tradition after Chaucer treated his heroine without mercy. In The Testament of Cresseid, a sequel by the Scots poet Robert Henryson, Cresseid is reduced to prostitution and – by counsel of the gods – stricken with leprosy.
Chaucer borrowed the plots of both ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and Troilus and Criseyde from Boccaccio, who was still alive during his first trip to Italy in 1372-73. Chaucer was there on royal business, negotiating with Genoese merchants to establish a designated seaport at which they could bypass the monopoly of the English wool staple. His mission was extremely controversial, because Genoese and Crown interests conflicted with those of the London oligarchs. Not long afterwards, Chaucer was appointed controller of the wool custom, in effect serving the other side – one of many instances of his political deftness. Along with his natural gift for diplomacy, his skills as a linguist served him well. Many educated Englishmen knew Latin and French, but Chaucer also spoke Italian, having grown up in the wine trade. As far as we know, he never met Boccaccio, and his literary relationship to him remains something of a mystery. The framed story collection was already an established genre when the Canterbury Tales were published, but Boccaccio’s Decameron is the nearest model. Chaucer diverged from it not only in violating audience expectations at every turn, but above all in choosing an array of wildly disparate voices as his storytellers, in contrast to Boccaccio’s well-heeled ladies and gentlemen. Strangely, Chaucer never names him. The Italian poets he does mention, Dante and Petrarch, shaped him in altogether different ways.
Chaucer was among the first English readers of Dante, although the mysterious Pearl Poet seems to have read him even earlier. During the 1370s and 1380s he engaged intensively with the Commedia, but his admiration chiefly took the forms of resistance and parody. As Turner argues, Chaucer is to Dante as Ovid is to Virgil, the two classical poets most widely studied and imitated in the Middle Ages. Virgil was too great a poet to be a mere propagandist for Caesar Augustus, and he wasn’t blind to the costs of conquest. His sympathies nevertheless lay with ‘pius Aeneas’ rather than forsaken Dido. To side with Aeneas was to side with divine will, masculine virtus, imperial destiny and immortal Rome. Dante raised the stakes even higher when he called the New Jerusalem ‘that Rome of which Christ is a Roman’.
Almost before the verses of the Aeneid had dried on the page, a writer of utterly different sensibility stepped forward to subvert them. Ovid was everything Virgil was not: a poet of illicit love, light-hearted flirtation and female voices. In the Metamorphoses, he gave flesh to an anti-establishment metaphysic, depicting the gods as amoral sadists in a world whose only constant is change. In the Heroides, a series of passionate letters from abandoned women to their betrayers, Ovid lets Dido tell her own story and berate the faithless Aeneas for sailing away by night, too cowardly to say farewell. Medieval readers were keenly aware of the two poets’ clashing accounts, but in The House of Fame Chaucer audaciously combines them. It’s his most explicitly Dantesque poem: ‘Geffrey’ rides on an eagle’s back like the pilgrim Dante, yet this bird is comic, not a source of transcendent revelation. The poem breaks off abruptly with the appearance of ‘a man of gret auctorite’ – but unlike Dante’s Virgil, he is never named and doesn’t speak. In fact, authority is typically undermined in Chaucer’s poems. Dante’s exalted voice may even have supplied the negative inspiration for his trademark bumbling persona. Ignorant and devoid of any poetic skill, Chaucer – according to one of his own characters – has ruined all the good stories. The English poet’s exaggerated humility responds to the Italian’s hyperbolic authority.
Turner insists that this streak of parody and self-parody stems from more than simple anxiety of influence or difference in artistic temperament. ‘Dante is a poet of truth,’ theological and political, she writes, who stakes his claim to greatness on that truth, whereas Chaucer, like Ovid, ‘suggests that when people believe in one truth, sovereign power and unchallengeable discourse … other people tend to get damaged, even killed’. Having seen the tyranny of the Visconti dynasty first-hand, he may have been appalled (as Boccaccio was) by Petrarch’s willing service to the lords of Milan. But he had also observed the despotic tendencies of Richard II at home. Chaucer was no democrat. He must have watched with horror as the rebels of 1381 burned books and records, murdered the archbishop of Canterbury, stormed the Tower of London, and razed Gaunt’s palace to the ground. His friend John Gower bitterly denounced the Peasants’ Revolt in his Vox Clamantis, comparing the rebels to animals. Even Langland, a writer of more plebeian sympathies, revised Piers Plowman to distance himself from the use some of the leaders of the revolt had made of it. Chaucer, by contrast, mentions the rising only once – in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, of all places, where the fox who has run off with Chauntecleer is noisily pursued by the household dogs and every beast in the barnyard: ‘Jakke Straw and his meyne/Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille/ Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille.’ Jack Straw had been a rebel leader, while the Flemish immigrants who competed with London merchants were among their prime targets. Chaucer’s context in this tale is mock-heroic, and it’s hard to know what to make of it. Years after the rising, discontent still simmered and periodically boiled over, so trivialising it (even to poke fun at Gower) seems an odd move. Chaucer kept his political views to himself or expressed them so obliquely, through layers of ambiguity and narrative distancing, that no critic has been able to pin him down.
One of those layered poems, The Parliament of Fowls, is on its surface a piece of elegant fluff. The bird parliament was a favourite genre for allegorical debates, and the premise here is that all birds choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day – a festival of love invented by Chaucer, who observed it on 3 May. On this occasion, the festivities are delayed by three aristocratic eagles, all spouting the language of courtly love to sue for the hand (or talon) of a female eagle who wants none of them. The poem was written to celebrate the impending marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, who indeed had other suitors, while Chaucer himself had been involved in negotiations for other brides. But his interest lies less in this inconclusive plot than in the dispute between avian gentils and cherles – Lords and Commons, as it were. As the cherles – waterfowl, wormfowl and seedfowl, perhaps standing for merchants, artisans and peasants – mock the eagles’ absurdity, Chaucer unmasks the courtly fiction that disguised political desire as erotic desire. Even more strikingly, the goddess Nature as convener of the parliament invites each class of birds to elect one member who can ‘seyn the verdit for yow foules alle’. The first Speaker of the Commons had been elected in 1376, shortly before Chaucer’s poem was written. This was a radical and lasting innovation, the Commons itself being a unique institution with fiscal powers unparalleled on the Continent. When the birds choose their representatives ‘by pleyn eleccioun’, ‘by oon assent’, ‘for comune spede’ (common profit), they are using current, highly charged political diction.
Beneath this graceful fiction Turner hears ‘insurgent voices’. They may be saying only ‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!’, but these ‘assertive voices are explicitly placed in a political setting’ that lets ‘impatient and vulgar’ lower-class speakers disrupt the charade of aristocratic lovemaking. Just as the goose, the duck and the cuckoo interrupt the eagles, Chaucer’s Miller will displace his Knight in the Canterbury Tales. The two pilgrims rehearse thematically similar yet tonally opposite tales in which two knights, or two clerics, compete for the same woman – though in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ she is an unwilling virgin and in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ a thoroughly willing wife. The conflict between the gentils and the cherles was the first of those jarring contrasts that would become one of the defining features of the Canterbury Tales. Another is its messiness. The tales are unfinished, full of cancelled links, of uncertain order – and the pilgrims never reach Canterbury, although they get closer as the frame narrative slows towards the end. Chaucer had a habit of leaving projects incomplete, restlessly moving on to new experiments. Many critics have read the closing ‘Parson’s Tale’, a prose treatise on penance, as Chaucer’s definitive last word, followed by the semi- penitent ‘Retraction’. Turner disagrees, taking the unworldly voice of the Parson as just one among many, no less partial and positional than the rest. Fittingly, she ends by rejecting the image of Chaucer as the ‘father of English poetry’ and finds his legacy instead in the suppressed and marginalised voices that he licensed to speak.