In This Article Geoffrey Chaucer

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Companions and Guides
  • Life Records and Biographies
  • Textual Scholarship
  • Manuscript Facsimiles
  • Language and Style
  • Meter
  • History of Chaucer Criticism
  • Historically Oriented Criticism
  • Audiences
  • Intellectual Contexts and Traditions
  • Cosmology and Science
  • Gender Studies
  • Psychoanalytic Approaches
  • Post-structural Theory
  • Literary Afterlife and Reception History

Medieval Studies Geoffrey Chaucer
by
Andrew Galloway
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0016

Introduction

Since shortly after his death, Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340–d. 1400) has often been praised as the writer who most widely and momentously expanded both the range and the literary authority of English poetry in his own period and, in some views, of English literature in general. Chaucer’s status among and influence on writers of the century following his is itself of historical and literary importance. In his own time, however, he was not an isolated innovator. Instead, he was a contemporary or near-contemporary of many important continental writers, French and Italian, who defined new ambitions for literature’s scope and prestige, such as Oton de Grandson, Jean Froissart, Guillaume de Machaut, Eustache Deschamps, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio, some of whom he knew and all of whom he read at least to some degree. In addition, he was surrounded by a number of other writers in London and Westminster who also showed new ambitions for literature in English, some of whom he knew personally, such as John Gower (b. c. 1330–d. 1408), John Clanvowe (b. c. 1341–d. 1391), William Langland (b. c. 1330-d. c. 1390), Thomas Usk (b. c. 1350–d. 1388), and Thomas Hoccleve (b. c. 1367–d. 1426). By any measure, however, Chaucer was the most prolifically varied and lastingly influential English poet in the later 14th century, and most would agree he was one of the most vivid and original. His writing comprises over 33,000 lines of verse in his major works, Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1380–1388), The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390–1400), and his four dream visions (c. 1368–c. 1390, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women). In addition, there are nearly two dozen short poems and lyrics; a full prose translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae; a prose translation (with original prologue) of a guide for using an astrolabe, A Treatise on the Astrolabe; and, less securely attributed, another prose translation of a guide for constructing another instrument used for calculating planetary movements, The Equatorie of the Planetis. Lost works by Chaucer include short love lyrics (presumed to be juvenalia, probably but not certainly in French, possibly the surviving set of poems marked as the work of “Ch”), an apparently full translation of the Roman de la Rose (thought to survive in part among a fragmentary set of extant and partial English verse translations of that work), a translation of Lotario dei Segni’s (Innocent III’s) De contemptu mundi, and a translation of the pseudo-Origen homily De Maria Magdalena. Chaucer also mentions his poem called “The Book of the Lion,” about which nothing is known and little confidently guessed, other than that it was possibly an adaptation or translation of a French poem, such as one of those with a similar name by Machaut or Deschamps, and just possibly dedicated (as the name suggests) to Duke Lionel, a son of King Edward III, under whom Chaucer briefly served (in 1359) as a soldier in France, and in the household of whose wife, the Countess of Ulster, he held a menial role early in life (1356–1359). As the son of a London merchant and a lifelong participant in the civil service and royal court, Chaucer’s social position was always relatively comfortable and seems by the end of his life to have been moderately prominent, although his initial burial in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in a corner that was beginning to be used for graves of monastic officials, possibly reflects official recognition of his successful career as a civil servant and diplomat rather than as a literary authority. More obvious wealth and political power seems to have come only to Chaucer’s descendents, starting with his prominent son, Thomas (d. 1434), made member of the king’s council in 1424, whose daughter Alice became duchess of Suffolk and whose own grandson John, earl of Lincoln, was designated by Richard III as heir to the throne. In 1556 Chaucer’s body was moved to a more prominent monument against the east wall of the south transept that later became known as Poets’ Corner. But in spite of his repute among contemporary writers, such official acclaim for his literary stature cannot be found during Chaucer’s own life: the absence of any mention of Chaucer’s poetic labors in the copious records about his life confirms the clear distinction between his officially professional labors and his “amateur” poetic activities.

Reference Works

Dictionaries and glossaries for Geoffrey Chaucer range from the full entries in Davis, et al. 1981 and the full conspectus of Middle English in Kurath 1952–2001 to glossaries for more particular uses, such as Masui 1988 and Benson 1993. Besserman 1988 presents a commentary on critical discussions of Chaucer’s pervasive biblical allusions and citations, followed by line-by-line identifications. No Chaucer encyclopedia yet exists, but this lack is addressed in a one-volume form by Gray 2003. The Chaucer MetaPage is an online clearinghouse for many useful things, especially critical bibliographies, teaching tools, historical materials, and out of copyright (but digitally searchable) editions available online. The Harvard University Geoffrey Chaucer site provides a more selective and somewhat smaller range of resources tailored especially to undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Benson, Larry D. A Glossarial Concordance to the Riverside Chaucer. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1993.

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    Other concordances include the Harvard Geoffrey Chaucer website which is less convenient to use but more freely available. Based on the headwords in the Middle English Dictionary (Kurath 1952–2001), but only goes up to T, since that was as far as the Dictionary had progressed by 1993; no etymologies; uses the edited text of The Riverside Chaucer (Benson 1987, cited under Complete Works), so not useful for readings solely in the Hengwrt manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Does not include The Equatorie of the Planetis. The most complete concordance of the corpus nonetheless.

  • Besserman, Lawrence. Chaucer and the Bible: A Critical Review of Research, Indexes, and Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988.

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    Although the Bible is never Chaucer’s main source for any given poem or narrative in the sense that works by Boethius, Giovanni Boccaccio, Guillaume de Machaut, or Francesco Petrarch serve him as main sources, Chaucer’s use of the Bible and of scriptural allusion is continual and pervasive. Besserman’s volume tabulates such biblical uses line-by-line, and includes a useful survey of critical views of Chaucer’s uses of the Bible, detailed identification through each work, a scriptural index, and a bibliography to c. 1985.

  • Chaucer MetaPage.

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    Clearinghouse of links to a number of important resources and bibliographies, most noted in Bibliographies, but also some hidden in personal webpages and syllabi.

  • Davis, Norman, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, comps. A Chaucer Glossary. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

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    Still a valuable small glossary, with near-concordance completeness and etymologies. Originally published in 1979.

  • Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and SciencesGeoffrey Chaucer.

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    Array of tools and resources, from self-teaching tools to concordances and bibliographies. For general college level, with plenty of introductory advice and help, including sound clips.

  • Gray, Douglas, ed. The Oxford Companion to Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Tersely learned entries on historical and literary names and topics, with key references to pertinent critical and historical scholarship and some important entries by noted scholars; a one-volume encyclopedia. Critical topics are not individually covered but are briefly summarized in two excellent entries on criticism by Derek Pearsall.

  • Kurath, Hans, ed. Middle English Dictionary. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952–2001.

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    Superseded by a periodically updated and corrected version online, but some may find the print version easier or more suggestive for nearby entries. The most complete historical dictionary of English words in use during the period 1100–1500.

  • Masui, Michio. A New Rime Index to “The Canterbury Tales” Based on Manly and Rickert’s Text of “The Canterbury Tales.” Tokyo: Shinozaki Shorin, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important tool for tracking patterns in rhyme choices, such as those discussed in Masui’s other works.

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