Any scholar approaching the life of Geoffrey Chaucer faces imposing obstacles. These historical limitations were succinctly characterized by F.R.H. Du Boulay in his 1974 essay “The Historical Chaucer”:
“Nothing is more natural than the wish to give genius a human face. Yet 500 documents excavated with monumental labor and printed in the Life Records [Oxford, 1966] still leave the figure veiled. There can be little surprise at the exasperation of scholars with Chaucer’s habit of slipping into the background of historical events. Some have preferred the most fearful precision of conjecture rather than a blurring of the biographical edges… Criticism is disfigured by such rash dramatizations…”
Ackroyd is wise, especially given the modest scope of his volume, to eschew any potential world-breaking redefinitions of its subject. There is a definite limit to what can be known with any certainty on the life of Chaucer, and scholars have been trying to fill the gaps for centuries. What we know now — barring any unexpected blockbuster discoveries — is probably all we ever shall.
Which makes Chaucer something of a curious choice to be the first volume of Ackroyd’s new “Brief Lives” series, dedicated (in the words of the cover copy) to “bringing to life some of the most important men and women in the history of the world.” All of the conventional milestones with which we define the modern notion of biography are sorely lacking from Chaucer: his exact birth date is unknown, and the recorded date of his death is quite possibly wrong. His marriage, children and personal milestones are all shrouded in mystery. What we know of his life comes down to us in the form of copious legal and business documents preserved from the 14th century, along with a smattering of correspondence and, of course, his work itself. Imagine trying to construct an accurate image of your personality solely from court transcripts, employment records and poetry and you might begin to understand the difficulties.
From these disparate sources, however, scholars have painstakingly assembled the exhaustive catalog of everything we know about Chaucer. Ackroyd’s task is one of synthesis, placing the information we do know in the context of Chaucer’s era and his work, giving us perhaps as complete a vision of the man as could be possible in the space of barely 190 pages (not counting indices). The effect is not unlike that of a satisfying collegiate lecture, complete with peripatetic digressions and an amiable, almost breezy delivery.
The volume’s most gratifying success is its full and rounded portrait of the times in which Chaucer lived. Any person living in an era so far removed from our own would necessarily be shaped and surrounded by social and historical forces of a wholly alien nature. Context goes a great way towards solidifying our liquid understanding of the man’s life. We know, for instance, that Chaucer served as Controller of Wool Custom and Subsidy for the Port of London from 1374-1386, but this dry fact is bolstered by the knowledge that Chaucer was a member of a civil-servant class whose very existence contributed to societal stability during a period of considerable turmoil — the aftermath of the Great Plague and the Hundred Years’ War. A career diplomat in addition to his numerous tenures in the civil servant (including a stint as a member of Parliament in 1386), he typified the upwardly mobile middle-class that came into being in the wake of the early 14th century plague. The fact that Chaucer — essentially a taxman, collecting tariffs and levies — survived the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, despite the fact that taxmen were being murdered across London, serves as a fascinating example of his almost Zelig-like ability to maintain poise in the face of adverse circumstance.
But we don’t remember Chaucer for his contributions to English governance, we remember him as perhaps the single most significant architect of the modern English language. Although — frustratingly true to medieval form — Chaucer was a coy and enigmatic figure in his own work, extended poems such as The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Crisedye give us some of our best insights into the character of his times and, subsequently, of his own life. Ackroyd excels at providing textual examples from Chaucer’s poetry that accentuate our understanding of the man without, in the words of Du Boulay, succumbing to “rash dramatizations.” For instance, this famous passage from “The Knight’s Tale” —
“This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo /
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.”
— is used by Ackroyd to illuminate not only The Canterbury Tales greater structure (using the pilgrimage motif would have been an intimately familiar metaphor for medieval readers) but the intrinsically fatalistic nature of medieval society itself, as well as the potential ironies implicit in many of Chaucer’s religious themes. In this way, most importantly, Ackroyd acts as a magisterial guide through Chaucer’s work, providing singularly illuminative examples with which to gain entry into both the mindset of the man and his times.
While an abbreviated life of Chaucer should not be taken as a substitute for a more rigorous intimacy with the man’s work, a volume such as this serves as a perfect introduction to — or, as the case may be, re-acquaintance with — his life and work. For as long as we speak English, and probably even longer than that, Geoffrey Chaucer will be remembered as one of the singular forces in literary history. His life is studied with far more consistency and enthusiasm than those of any of the many kings and noblemen he served, and the irony of such an inversion would not be lost on such an humble and enigmatic figure.