In This Article Geoffrey Chaucer

  • Introduction
  • Chaucer’s Life
  • Manuscript Facsimiles and Digital Copies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Companions and Guides
  • Language and Style
  • Sources and Influences
  • Manuscripts, Scribes, and Textual Scholarship
  • Historical and Political Contexts
  • Feminist and Gender Criticism
  • Chaucer and Religion
  • Afterlife and Critical Reception

British and Irish Literature Geoffrey Chaucer
by
Brendan O'Connell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0012

Introduction

In the Prologue to what is probably the first work in English about a scientific instrument, Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340–d. c. 1400) explains to his ten-year-old son, Lewis, that the “conclusions,” or mathematical demonstrations, expounded here in the mother tongue should suffice “as wel as suficeth to these noble clerkes Grekes these same conclusions in Grek; and to Arabiens in Arabik, and to Jewes in Ebrew, and to Latyn folk in Latyn” (A Treatise on the Astrolabe). This observation reflects a conviction implicit throughout Chaucer’s literary endeavor: that the English language was no less worthy a vessel for great ideas and literature than any other. Unlike his friend John Gower, Chaucer’s extant works are all in English; yet, unlike his contemporary William Langland, his work was profoundly shaped by engagement with European vernacular writers, including French writers such as Machaut, Froissart, and the authors of the Roman de la Rose, as well as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the Italian Trecento figures whose writings were at the forefront of a transformative debate about the uses of the vernacular. Indeed, to understand Chaucer’s remarkable literary achievement, it is essential to understand his literary output as the product of a profound engagement with a vast array of sources, including classical and early medieval works in Latin, French poetry of the 12th and 13th centuries, and works of the early Italian Renaissance, as well as a sizable body of English vernacular literature. While Hoccleve would later laud him as equal to Cicero in rhetoric, Aristotle in philosophy, and Virgil in poetry, Chaucer’s literary career was characterized by a series of poses that both denied and asserted his authority: in the early love-visions (c. 1368–c. 1387, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women), he is the hapless narrator of dreams he can scarcely understand; in his masterpiece Criticism of Individual Works: Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382–1386), he is the humble translator of a (fictional) Latin source; in Criticism of Individual Works: The Canterbury Tales (c. 1388–1400) he is the mere compiler of stories he has heard while on pilgrimage. The extraordinary generic and stylistic variety of this last work has become his signature: it would be hard to name another writer who writes so successfully in such radically distinct genres as romance, bawdy fabliau, hagiography, exemplum, tragedy, satire, and penitential treatise. Poets of the 15th-century such as Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, and Robert Henryson recognized that he paved the way for later writers in English: Hoccleve effusively praised him as “the firste fyndere of oure faire langage.” Many of the writers now buried or commemorated near Chaucer in “Poets’ Corner” at Westminster Abbey were demonstrably influenced by his works, including Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, while certainly no writer has a better claim to John Dryden’s accolade of Chaucer as the “father of English poetry.”

Chaucer’s Life

Many records of Chaucer’s life survive, but none refers to his career as a poet: these records, apart from the small number not then discovered, are presented in Crow and Olson 1966. Good summaries of Chaucer’s life can be found in The Riverside Chaucer (Benson 1987 [cited under Complete Works]), or in Gray 2012. A number of attempts have been made to produce biographies of Chaucer, of which the most successful are Pearsall 1992 and Strohm 2014.

  • Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

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    The definitive resource for records of Chaucer’s life, providing transcriptions of all key documents in their original languages (Latin and French).

  • Gray, Douglas. “Chaucer, Geoffrey (c. 1340–1400).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    Reliable overview of Chaucer’s life, offering a detailed account of his professional and poetic careers and a brief discussion of the canon and reception of his works.

  • Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

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    A highly respected biography that, while never claiming to fully synthesize the life and poetry, nonetheless traces a plausible account of the personal and professional frameworks in which Chaucer produced his key works.

  • Strohm, Paul. The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made The Canterbury Tales. London: Profile Books, 2014.

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    This lively and erudite biography ranges across Chaucer’s entire life, but it focuses on 1386 as a year of crisis that was pivotal to his personal and professional life and to his career as a poet. Accessible to a general readership but rewarding even for specialists.

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