Thursday, April 25, 2013

In the beginning, Chaucer . . .

The year 1340 generally serves as the agreed-upon year of Chaucer's birth, though it may have been two or three years later. The family background is the wine trade and serving in the king's household. As a boy, Chaucer would have been schooled in Latin and Latin authors. In 1357, an entry in the household accounts of Lionel, Duke of Ulster, indicates that Chaucer is a page there. Youngsters in such an environment learned grammar, reading and writing, languages (the royal family was as much French as English), matters of diplomacy, and how to serve their betters. With an eye to the future, these young men would be instructed in music, dancing, singing and conversing in Latin and French. Adolescent Chaucer and his fellow pages were well prepared.
     The family name, Chaucer, has been said to be a form of the French chaucier, which means shoemaker. The final  r,  however, would not be pronounced! I take the poet's name, instead, to be a form of chasseur, meaning hunter. That will be a fun factor after a bit.
     Young Geoffrey spent Christmastide of 1357 with Lionel's family. John of Gaunt, the Duke's younger brother, nearly Chaucer's age, joined them. (John would become a political power and the poet's patron in years to come.)
     In 1359, Chaucer served in the army of King Edward III as Edward renewed his effort to rule both England and France. Geoffrey's probable rank would be a man-at-arms; his primary weapon a simple spear wielded from horseback or on foot.
     Edward planned to cross the English Channel to Calais, an English possession on the coast of the County of Flanders, and march into France with his army--only fighting if attacked. (Remember Flanders!) The campaign, however, did not develop as planned. Instead of landing in the spring--the beginning of good weather--they actually arrived in Calais October 28! Edward's army faced steady rain followed by bitter cold.
     Weeks went by; the English army waited and endured. Knowing how spirit and discipline decline in a do-nothing army, Edward allowed (or ordered) raiding parties to keep up his army's morale. French forces slew, or captured stragglers and foragers from these small groups. Chaucer was among those captured. He was held prisoner until March 1360, when King Edward ransomed his valued servant.
     Shortly after Chaucer's release, the still hopeful king-to-be turned to a policy of devastation. The countryside was ravaged at will. The brutal onslaught proved effective. During peace negotiations a few months later, Chaucer received his first recorded assignment as an envoy of the English crown, carrying official letters from England to Calais.
     Several years follow where there is no record of Chaucer's whereabouts, but in 1363 a Philippa Chaucer became servant to the queen. When or where Philippa and Geoffrey were married is not recorded, but we know that our poet had taken a wife. He would soon become a man of the world.

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.