Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales

The Poet’s Tale
Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales

Paul Strohm
Profile Books   284pp   £15.99

The records of Geoffrey Chaucer's official activities for the court are plentiful but they reveal nothing about his career as a writer. Worse, Chaucer's compositions contain only elliptical references to his life and contemporaneous events. Faced by these conundrums, Strohm follows Chaucer's advice and makes 'vertu of necessitee', narrowing his focus to one turbulent year and the known events of his subject's life.

Strohm has a time traveller's gift for animating historical materials with vivid, clear language. The arcane practices of the London wool custom; the corrupt activities of its collector, the grocer and mayor Sir Nicholas Brembre; city street life; the proceedings of the Wonderful Parliament and the riotous recreations available at Westminster – there are few better introductions to these topics as they impinged on Chaucer and impinge they did, with a vengeance. Come 1386, Chaucer had completed his masterwork, Troilus and Criseyde; enjoyed a lucrative position as controller of the wool custom, where he was Brembre's associate; was returned as a knight of the shire (MP) for Kent; and lived rent-free above Aldgate. But long-term separation from his socialite wife, Philippa de Roet, hardened into estrangement and consequent isolation from his former patron, John of Gaunt. At parliament Chaucer witnessed the trouncing of Richard II's faction, to which he was affiliated, by the Lords Appellant. In the prevailing winds of hostility towards royal appointees, he resigned his custom house post. He also lost his Aldgate accommodation.

Alienated, jobless and homeless, Chaucer took the path of necessitee and left the city of his birth when others were soon to lose their heads (his fellow writer, Thomas Usk, and Brembre among them), victims of the Appellants' purge. Cut adrift, Chaucer headed across into Kent where he conceived and began a new kind of literature, the Canterbury Tales. Like any Chaucerian tale, this episode is open to debate. Chaucer was perhaps more familiar with Boaccaccio's Decameron than Strohm allows; the evidence for his Kent exile is thin; and it was brief: by 1389, the crisis over, Chaucer was back in London to take up the significant royal appointment of Clerk of the Works. 

In his influential Social Chaucer (1989) Strohm delineated the son of a wine merchant who, having married a social superior and acquired his gentility from royal service not inheritance, was on the margins of more powerful groups: the nobility, landed gentry and great merchants. Now Strohm adds further characteristics: a creature of other people's designs, vulnerable to political struggles and expendable, something of a loner. He colours them with the occasional 'truth-saturated invention', such as Chaucer's feelings, but that is easily forgiven in a book so scrupulously attentive to historical sources and medieval poetry. Evidence from the latter is used sparingly. The paradoxical result is that The Poet's Tale is much more about history than literature – the very thing for which Chaucer is justly famous and revered. A bravura demonstration of how the two categories entwine is not the least of this book's many achievements.

Peter Brown is Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Kent and author of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, 2011).

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