Son of a wine merchant and born in London around 1340, Geoffrey Chaucer is often considered as the first truly great English writer and is most well-known for his work The Canterbury Tales. Familiar to literary students across the world, this series of poems recounts the stories of various people whilst on a pilgrimage to Canterbury and is written in Middle English.
Not much is known about Chaucer’s life and history but his work has survived down the ages and is now more widely read than ever. He came from a reasonably prosperous family and went into public service which is why we have a little more information about him than would otherwise be the case. He became page to the Countess of Ulster, a job which would have taken the young writer into close contact with the influential court circle. During his life he would work as a courtier, a diplomat and even at some point directly for the King.
He accompanied the Duke of Clarence during the 100 Years War, was captured in France and released when the ransom of £16 was paid by the King Edward III. After traveling for a while, Chaucer married Philippa Roet and they had several children who also went into court service. He studied law and became part of the King’s inner circle, traveled more extensively across Europe in the role of a valet and began writing The Book of the Duchess.
Around 1373, on his European travels, Chaucer read medieval Italian poetry something which would have an influence on his stories and style, including The Canterbury Tales. At some point Edward III granted Chaucer a gallon of wine for the rest of his days which is broadly seen as a reward for some literary favor. When Richard II came to the throne this was changed to an annuity but little is known of what the poet had actually done to deserve it.
Shortly after, Chaucer worked in customs for the busy City of London port, a job he continued to do for the next 12 years. He probably started writing The Canterbury Tales around 1380 and survived some moments of turmoil such as the affair of the Lords Appellants who tried to curb the power of the King and were executed for their troubles. For a while he worked as the King’s clerk of works but is thought to have given this up after being mugged and robbed one day.
Apart from The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer also has a wider body of work including Parlement of Foules and Anelida and Arcite. Students have often struggled with the text of his works because they are written in Middle English.
The Canterbury Tales was different from much of the literary work that was being produced at the time because of its narrative and the fact that it dealt with many stories in one volume. He is thought to have drawn on real life people for his inspiration and many of the characters hold jobs that he would have been familiar to him such as a courtier, page, administrator and valet.
After the overthrow of Richard II, Chaucer fades out the history books and no one is sure what happened to him but it is thought that he died shortly after. He was the first man to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster and remains to this day the father of English literature.