As an English major and former high school teacher, the name Geoffrey Chaucer is forever embedded in my mind. The author of The Canterbury Tales, has cast a net of influence that has resonated over hundreds of years while intriguing, inspiring, and more often than not perplexing those tasked with reading his lengthy account of holy pilgrimage.
While many scholarly texts have examined the various themes associated with this canonical literary work, fewer historians or researchers have dug deep to unearth Chaucer as a human figure living and working in midst of the bustling 14th Century English landscape. With Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury, scholar Paul Strohm examines a particularly tumultuous year in the life of Chaucer, one that proved not only reformative to him as a person, but also proved to be shattering for the literary world, as well.
As the book begins, we’re introduced to Chaucer as a middle-aged Londoner clocking in at an unremarkable customs-related job in the wool industry and married to the higher-ranking and highly glamorous Philippa Roet. As things progress, a wild turn of events see Chaucer constantly on the move through varying positions of acclaim and renown, ultimately leading him to find rebirth as his true calling, that of distinguished author and pseudo-celebrity. Along the way, Strohm does an admirable job of portraying not just the tumult of Chaucer’s personal happenings, but those of society in general. The year 1386 was not an easy one to make one’s way in, a fact that is made clear throughout the book’s pages. With Chaucer as the main character, readers are taken on quite the historical ride.
The best parts of Strohm’s book deal with the byzantine intricacies and flat-out craziness of life in the 14th Century. Primitive sanitation practices caused awful putrid smells to waft upwards, baking residents of Chaucer’s neighborhood with a daylong, unceasing stench that, despite its’ unceasing presence, undoubtedly caused constant suffering by those caught in the down and upwind paths. Several hundred feet away also laid forth the severed heads of various vagrants, thieves, traitors, and “enemies” of the King. Rather than providing the horrific shock that we feel today, due in large part to the public beheadings made public by vicious terrorist organizations, the displayed heads during Chaucer’s time were not terribly alarming, but rather all part of the scenery that greets a day’s running of errands.
Speaking of the daily hustle and bustle, the activity under Chaucer’s perch was fast and fierce. Merchants loudly and eagerly touted their goods, while passersby bargained with, haggled for, and cursed at their offerings. Traffic patterns either ceased to exist or were loosely regulated as horse-drawn carriages vied for space alongside the busy pedestrians adding to the chaos, confusion, and filth of the city. With all of this taken into account, it’s a wonder anyone could get any work done, let alone create the literary proclamations Chaucer crafted, edited, and produced.
Additionally, readers learn a bit about the marriage practices common in that day and age. Contrary to popular belief, most people did not run off and get married, Romeo and Juliet style at the tender prom-like ages of 15 and 16. They waited a little longer, and in Chaucer’s case he did not marry Philippa until he was in his early 20s, still a bit on the young side for 14th Century grooms. Interestingly, Chaucer also “married up”. Philippa’s prestige and honor, associated to her through her connection and alliance to the Hainault clan, afforded her access and favor unavailable to the modestly reared Chaucer. As an esquire or mesnal gentil — a household gentleperson — Chaucer made the most of his attraction to Philippa and married her under circumstances not very common for those of his ilk.
As Strohm goes on to explain though, their marriage proved strained under the difficulties imposed by living in separate towns, their exclusive tastes and interests that failed to become mutual, and unsurprisingly, the strife caused by their varying degrees of social status. It seems that Philippa had little desire to make a home in Chaucer’s drafty Aldgate quarters, nor had she patience for the mundaneness of his daily work tasks and assignments. Had the pair lived amongst today’s tabloid, media-crazed age of decadence, they no doubt would have graced the pages of US Weekly or dabbled in a reality television series or two.
While the insight into Chaucer’s life and times provide a great deal of page-turning intrigue, the book slogs down a bit with lengthy passages discussing the English wool trade and the parliamentary procedures of which he was forced to be a part of upon his appointment. These are key elements of Chaucer’s background, but the circumstances surrounding these positions are less than lively to read about. While wool traders were a sneaky bunch, the minute details of their various trips, catalogs, and deposits ring a bit tedious after a few pages.
Likewise, while it’s interesting and a bit mind-boggling to read how a man with Chaucer’s unremarkable resume found himself a member of the English Parliament, it’s a chore to bear through the various rulings, arguments, and procedural nit-picking. The closing impression from these portions of the book is quite depressing, actually. One develops the realization that those traits once present amongst those in office or authority — power, lies, corruption, war, deceit, and greed — are still quite evident today in world politics and affairs. Or, as Roger Daltrey would come to sing many generations later: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Of course, what we all know Chaucer best not as a wool tradesman, an English parliamentarian, or a kept husband. What he’s remembered for is his extraordinary work as an author. This chapter in his life is finally addressed in the final third of the book, as Strohm examines the sources and inspiration for the poetry and then eventually the lively and ribald characters that graced The Canterbury Tales. This is an entertaining portion of anecdotes and historical reflection that show just how remarkable Chaucer’s gift for observation turned into equally impressive prose and poetry.
The idea of fame is also deeply examined as Chaucer’s feats are compared and contrasted to those of his predecessors and peers. Though never a self-promoter nor a famous figure in his time, Chaucer didn’t hesitate to voice his opinion of others’ writing or works of art. He peppers a great deal of his work with shade thrown in the direction of other more well-known authors, with particular vitriol aimed at Dante.
Like many artists today (James Franco, Lady Gaga, Dave Eggers), Chaucer considered the idea of fame, constantly questioning what it means and examining why certain works of literature reached large audiences while other works lag behind, unaccounted for. While not fully realized at the time, Chaucer’s writing, particularly his Canterbury Tales was re-inventing the concept of storytelling and revamping the structures by which authors could express themselves. Truly a unique and impressive individual, it’s a pleasure to see Chaucer’s human side researched and accounted for, for the most part, in such rich and lively detail.