Geoffrey Chaucer occupies a unique position in the Middle Ages. He was born a commoner, but through his intellect and astute judgments of human character, he moved freely among the aristocracy. Although very little is definitely known about the details of his life, Chaucer was probably born shortly after 1340. Although the family name (from French "Chaussier") suggests that the family originally made shoes, Chaucer's father, John, was a prosperous wine merchant.
Both Chaucer's father and grandfather had minor standing at court, and Geoffrey Chaucer's own name appears in the household accounts of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and wife to Prince Lionel. As a household servant, Chaucer probably accompanied Elizabeth on her many journeys, and he may have attended her at such dazzling entertainment as the Feast of St. George given by King Edward in 1358 for the king of France, the queen of Scotland, the king of Cyprus, and a large array of other important people. Chaucer's acquaintance with John of Gaunt (fourth son of Edward III and ancestor of Henry IV, V, and VI), who greatly influenced the poet, may date from Christmas 1357, when John was a guest of Elizabeth in Yorkshire.
Chaucer had a high-born wife, Philippa, whom he probably married as early as 1366. Chaucer may also have had a daughter, Elizabeth, and two sons, "little Lewis" (for whom he composed the Astrolabe, a prose work on the use of that instrument of an astronomer) and Thomas.
Chaucer was one of the most learned men of his time. He made numerous translations of prose and verse, including Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, saints' legends, sermons, French poetry by Machaut and Deschamps, and Latin and Italian poetry by Ovid, Virgil, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. He also shows a wide knowledge of medicine and physiognomy, astronomy and astrology, jurisprudence, alchemy, and early physics. His knowledge of alchemy was so thorough that, even into the seventeenth century, some alchemists themselves considered him a "master" of the science — not a pseudo-science in Chaucer's time.
According to the legend on his tomb in Westminster Abbey, the poet died on October 25, 1400.
Public Positions and Service
During 1359 to 1360, Chaucer served with the English army in France and was taken prisoner near Reims. He was released for ransom — toward which Edward himself contributed sixteen pounds — and returned to England. Later that same year, Chaucer traveled back to France, carrying royal letters, apparently entering the service of Edward as the king's servant and sometimes emissary.
Although he again served with the English army in France in 1369, by 1370 Chaucer was traveling abroad on a diplomatic mission for the king. Having been commissioned to negotiate with the Genoese on the choice of an English commercial port, Chaucer took his first known journey to Italy in December of 1372 and remained there until May 1373. He probably gained his knowledge of Italian poetry and painting during his visits to Genoa and Florence.
Chaucer's high standing continued during the reign of Richard, who became king in 1377. Throughout most of 1377 and 1378, his public services were performed chiefly in England. Chaucer received various appointments, including justice of the peace in Kent (1385), Clerk of the King's Works (1389), and, after his term as Clerk of the King's Works (sometime after 1390), deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset. During this time, he was also was elected Knight of the Shire (1386) and served in Parliament.
Chaucer continued to receive royal gifts, including a new annuity of twenty pounds, a scarlet robe trimmed with fur, and, after 1397, an annual butt of wine (104 gallons). When Henry IV was crowned, he renewed Richard's grants and gave Chaucer an additional annuity of forty marks. Throughout his public career, Chaucer came into contact with most of the important men of London as well as with many of the great men of the Continent. We have records of his frequent dealings with the chief merchants of the city, with the so-called Lollard knights (followers of Wyclif, to whom John of Gaunt gave protection), and with the king's most important ambassadors and officials.
Payments to the poet during the last years of his life were apparently irregular, and his various "begging poems" — "Complaint to his Purse," for instance — together with records of advances which he drew from the royal Exchequer, have sometimes been taken as evidence that Chaucer died poor; but this is by no means certain. At any event, Geoffrey Chaucer's son Thomas took over Geoffrey Chaucer's new house in the garden of Westminster Abbey and remained in high court favor after Chaucer's death.
Chaucer has presented caricatures of himself again and again — in such early poems as The Book of the Duchess, The Parliment of Fowles, Troilus and Criseyde, The House of Fame, and The Legend of Good Women, and also in his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's narrators are, of course, not the "real" Chaucer — except in certain physical respects — but the various caricatures have much in common with one another and certainly reveal, either directly or indirectly, what Chaucer valued in a man.
With the exception of the Troilus narrator, a very complicated and special case, all Chaucer's narrators are bookish, fat, nearsighted, comically pretentious, slightly self-righteous, and apparently — because of a fundamental lack of sensitivity and refinement — thoroughly unsuccessful in the chief art of medieval heroes: love. We may be fairly sure that the spiritual and psychological qualities in these caricatures are not exactly Chaucer's. Chaucer's actual lack of pretentiousness, self-righteousness, and vulgarity lies at the heart of our response to the comic self-portraits in which he claims for himself these defects.
The ultimate effect of Chaucer's poetry is moral, but it is inadequate to describe Chaucer as a moralist, much less as a satirist. He is a genial observer of mankind, a storyteller, as well as a satirist, one whose satire is usually without real bite. He is also a reformer, but he is foremost a celebrator of life who comments shrewdly on human absurdities while being, at the same time, a lover of mankind.