Sunday, April 21, 2013

Now to look at Chaucer himself

Here I am, back on the job. Took a brief hiatus for cataract surgery. What a wonder the result is! It's time, now, to begin our next topic--Geoffrey Chaucer, the man and also the character who is on pilgrimage in the Canterbury Tales. So let's return to expanding our point of view regarding Chaucer and his words.

Most fourteenth-century commoners, as Chaucer was, lived and died without a recorded trace. Fortunately, diligent researchers have gathered together an assortment of entries from which we know, or can make solid assumptions, about Chaucer's fortunes and how he spent his days.
     We'll consider ideas in the Tales that provide personal information about Chaucer-the-man by way of remarks about his pilgrim image. But first we'll look at the factual entries.
     During work being done at Westminster Abbey in the late 1800s, Chaucer's bones (which rest in the Poet's Corner in the Abbey) were exposed, and we learned that he was about five-foot-six.
     At nineteen he joined the army during what we now call the Hundred Years War. As a young soldier, Chaucer was captured, and held prisoner in Flanders, but eventually ransomed by his king.
     In the subsequent peace negotiations in the summer of 1360, Chaucer received his first recorded assignment as an envoy of the English crown, carrying official letters from England to Calais. From that small beginning as messenger just across the channel, he went on to serve in  positions of increasing trust. Diplomatic missions--some of them secret--took him to Spain, Italy, Flanders, and other areas of France.
     At thirty-four he became Controller of Customs, and later Controller of Petty Customs, as well. His duties entailed collecting taxes on wool, hides, and other commodities.
     No life is all roses. When he was forty, a charge of "raptus" was brought against the poet, a charge often optimistically explained as "abduction." It seems almost impossible for Chaucer-lovers to admit that this poet, with his head among the stars, could have had moments when his feet were in the mire. Raptus also means rape, plain and simple. A helpful and dedicated twentieth-century lawyer gave us an accurate analysis of the intent of fourteenth-century legal terms and procedures. We'll get into that after a bit.
     John Lydgate, the poet's contemporary, says Chaucer "made many a fresh ditty" that "excelled all other in our English tongue." Before you get too eager to read them, sad to say, they have not been preserved.
     We know that Chaucer's last residence was on the grounds of Westminster Abbey. It has been provokingly speculated that Chaucer's motive for living on the grounds of the Abbey could have been to gain the protection of sanctuary. And there is the "mystery" of his original manuscripts . . . Ah, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe he lived on the grounds of the Abbey to seek absolution for past sins. Many people, as they age, realize that it might be a good idea to "make peace with God" before it is too late. "Raptus" might weigh heavily on an aging soul.