Chaucer – Medieval Master Wordsmith
English is a very rich languange indeed and is possibly the greatest gift that Britain has bestowed to the world. During it’s rise to become the global language of today there have been many great wordsmiths such as the Venerable Bede, William Shakespeare, Austen, Milton and Dickens to name but a few. In this article we look at one of the oldest masters of them all Geoffrey chaucer, often described as the father of English literature.
Monday 17th April 1397 probably seemed like just another dreary day at the court of Richard II. The nation was at peace and, at least temporarily, the country’s troublesome barons were docile. In the stultifying atmosphere of the rigid royal protocol that Richard insisted on, it must have been a relief when part of the day’s entertainment was announced to be a reading by a 54-year-old courtier named Geoffrey Chaucer. What’s more, Chaucer’s work would be in English, an innovation to ears accustomed to Anglo-Norman French as a literary language.
No records remain to tell us of the court’s response, but we assume it must have been enthusiastic, for on this day, for the first time Chaucer read publicly from The Canterbury Tales, now universally recognised as the finest work by the first great vernacular writer in English.
Although known nowadays almost exclusively for his writing, Chaucer was no coddled court poet. He was a soldier and a high-ranking government official who led a life of high adventure and service to his king: writing was just his passionate hobby. He twice fought with the English army in France, first at 17, when he was taken prisoner at Reims and ransomed by Edward III for £16, and again at 26. He also went on diplomatic assignments for the king to Flanders, Spain, France and Italy, where he learned Italian and met Petrarch and Boccaccio. (Chaucer may have taken the framework of The Canterbury Tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron)
Despite his success in diplomacy, Chaucer must have been a fiery, quick-tempered man, for he was once accused of rape (he was acquitted) and later fined for beating a Franciscan friar in a London street.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s last and most famous work. He laboured on it for some thirteen years but never completed it. It is the story of a mixed group of 30 pilgrims, including a miller, a knight, a nun, a parson, a merchant, a physician and most famously the so-called Wife of Bath. During April they set off on horseback from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, amusing themselves with storytelling along the way. Two of the tales are in prose, and the rest are in poetry.
The prologue to this great work starts with the famous lines:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of march hath perced to the roote
In the 19th century an assiduous study of the text suggested that the first day of the tales was 17 April 1387, ten years to the day before Chaucer introduced his monumental poem to the court.
Chaucer died three years after his first presentation of The Canterbury Tales, on 25 October 1400, possibly of the plague. One bizarre theory, however, maintains that he was murdered on orders from Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, because the parson in The Parson’s Tale quotes the Bible in English, while the Archbishop was fanatically opposed to anything but Latin. Whatever the cause of his death, Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, a signal mark of honour for a commoner, but perhaps one he would have seen with a certain irony. As he wrote in The Knight’s Tale’,
What is this world? what asketh men to have? Now with his love, now in his colde grave, Allone, with-outen any companye.