Friday, 19 December 2014

Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd.

A few weeks ago in a second hand bookshop I came across Chaucer, a biography by Peter Ackroyd first published in 2004, and I read most of it that night. It's part of Ackroyd's 'Brief Lives' series, he's also written biographies of Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Isaac Newton, and J. M. W. Turner, and they're all short biographies (Chaucer is about 170 pages long) intended to be a brief introduction. I read it as part of my Chaucer's Complete Works Challenge, hoping to learn a little about Chaucer himself, and also for some insight into his works.

The critics didn't respond overwhelmingly well to this short biography. The Telegraph found it "tired", The New York Times "careless" and "inane", and the Complete Review "ultimately unsatisfying". Fortunately, however, I found it otherwise on the whole: a great introduction to a man who very little is known about, but I did pick up on one or two errors (for example Ackroyd writes that Chaucer's "duties and employments from 1360 until 1367 remain unknown, and then a few pages later, "When Chaucer next appears in the historical record, in 1366..."). 

Chaucer reciting Troilus and Cruseyde.
We know that Chaucer was a poet of course; the author of The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde as well as many other works (listed here). He was also a diplomat, a judge, and a Member of Parliament. He lived in London, and was very well travelled. His grandfather (Robert le Chaucer) came from Ipswich and moved to London where the family settled. His father, John Chaucer, was a wine merchant, had been involved in Edward III's expedition against Scotland, and in his younger years was kidnapped and taken back to Ipswich where he would have been forced to marry had his aunt not been sued and imprisoned in Marshalsea (Marshalsea Prison was the setting for Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, 1855 - 1857). On his mother's side - John de Copton, his maternal grandfather, was murdered in 1313 near Aldgate, where, seventy years later, Geoffrey Chaucer lived from 1374-86.

Chaucer's early life is sketchy - he was born in Thames Street, London, somewhere between 1341-43, and may have had a sister called Katherine. He began work in royal service from the age of around 14 when his name first appears in public records in the accounts of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster which mentions expenses for a page's uniform for "Galfrido Chaucer Londonie". From then he travelled around the country visiting various royal households, and then France where he was captured and held hostage for a period of four months (and ransomed for £16). As with Shakespeare, there is also "lost years" of Chaucer's life: from 1360 - 1366 there is no record of him, his duties, or employment. Then, in around 1366 he married Philippa de Roet, the sister of Katherine Swynford. He continued his work as a diplomat and civil servant, and in the late 1360s he translated The Romaunt of the Rose.

In 1380 it would appear that Geoffrey Chaucer was accused of rape: on 1st May 1380 there are documents releasing Chaucer from the charge of rape by Cecily Champain. Ackroyd writes,
The medieval courts had proceeded no further with Chaucer's prosecution and, before we commit Chaucer to the sentence of posterity for rape, it might be as well to examine the evidence. Apologists for the poet have suggested that 'raptus', in the official document, signalled not rape as such but some kind of forcible kidnapping which was not uncommon in the period. It would have been usual, in that instance, for a phrase 'abduxit' or 'asportavit' to be included with 'rapuit'; no such addition was made. On the other hand if 'raptus' meant in the modern sense rape - that is, forcible copulation and coerced sexual intercourse - then it was usual for words such as 'violavit' or 'defloravit' to be employed. There was also a phrase of the same import, 'afforciavit contra voluntatem'. None of these words or phrases is included in the document. What, then, is the meaning of 'raptus'?
On this subject, having looked into it, there are a vast amount of theories. It's a rather disturbing element of Chaucer's biography; for now I'm concentrating on the fact that the charges were dropped. 

Chaucer's tomb in Westminster Abbey.
And so the biography continues, with rich and vivid descriptions of London life and the influence the city had on his work. Ackroyd writes of his poetry and translations (with particular attention to The Canterbury Tales), his inspirations, and some of his contemporaries, the 'Ricardian Poets' to borrow John Burrow's term: William Langland (Piers Plowman, 1370-90), the 'Pearl Poet' (who appears to be the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mid to late 14th Century) and John Gower (Confessio Amantis, 1386-90). It is a very good introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer, and I think it's easy to criticise it for not being more in depth: there are suggestions, for example, that Chaucer was murdered by enemies of Richard II. I would like more information on the Cecily Champain case (preferably exonerating him!), and a deeper reading of his works, particularly in the 'London context'. I'm very keen on reading more about Chaucer's particularly eventful life and these are questions I would not have even known to ask were it not for this biography. Surely this is the mark of a very successful introduction?

And so my Chaucer readings continue. I'm looking forward to reading Peter Ackroyd's retelling of The Canterbury Tales next year, and I'm glad Fanda's Literary Movements Challenge is beginning in January with the Medieval period. I hope to read a lot of Chaucer, and also the other writers of the 14th Century that I have on my Classics Club list - Langland and the 'Pearl Poet'. For now, though - I'm about a quarter of the way through The Romaunt of the Rose. Very much enjoying it so far!


  1. Based on your review, I've just ordered this book from my library. It would be nice to have an introduction before I start reading his works. :-)

    What you mentioned about rape ........... I was reading a similar claim with regard to Le Morte d'Arthur's creator, Thomas Malory. C.S. Lewis, in an essay about Le Morte, says Malory may have been accused of certain crimes because of family feuds and dynastic struggles. About his crimes, he says, "There is no need to suppose that Malory did all the things of which he was convicted ....... Cattle-lifting has always been a gentlemanly vice. The 'robberies' and 'extortions' may have been acts of private war not only permitted but demanded by honour. 'Attempted murder' may have been knightly encounter. Rape need mean no more than abduction. When Lancelot saved Guinevere from the stake and carried her off to Joyous Guard the law would have called it rape......" It's sometimes hard to get our heads around the fact that historically certain behaviours and events were viewed very differently than in modern times.

    1. Actually, just yesterday I ordered Richard II on the strength of your review :)

      Regarding the rape - it is rather complex, and I think even a degree in Medieval Law won't help because there doesn't seem to be that much information on what happened. It's interesting what you said about "acts of private war" - these were such interesting times, and I know so little about them - I think I'll have to get myself a history book!

      I'm starting to look forward to Le Morte d'Arthur, and I'm saving up your posts for when I come to read it! :)

    2. Oooo fun! Try to watch The Hollow Crown and if you can get the Archangel Audiobook with Rupert Graves reading Richard's part, it's wonderful. I think Graves' performance gave me half my angst for Richard and made me enjoy the play twice as much. And try to just sink into the verse. I think it's the only Shakespeare play written completely in verse and it's lovely!

      I've just bought some courses on the Early, High and Late Middle Ages, and I'm looking forward to getting to them. I also plan to concentrate on reading C.S. Lewis' scholarly work on Medieval Times: The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love, etc. And I have a Folio collection of Medieval works but I'm not going to delude myself that I'll get to them anytime soon.

      Have fun with Le Morte!

    3. Thank you, and thanks for all those recommendations! :D


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