Author's Note

This article is intended as a short synopsis of the British writer Geoffrey Chaucer's life and historical context. The information presented is relatively general knowledge and can be found in any biography or reference work about Chaucer. Consequently, sources have not been cited.

From Geoffrey to Genius: Life and Times of Geoffrey Chaucer

The scene kaleidoscopes – a motley menagerie of shining armor, gaudy colors, and rusty cloth sparkles through the dust of a winding road as a company of pilgrims sojourn to their destination. For those in the Middle Ages this sight occurs frequently and occasions little thought; for us today it represents a page from one of the greatest works of English literature – The Canterbury Tales. Thus we meet the author of this scene and of many like it, the “Founding Father of English Literature,” Geoffrey Chaucer. His works have had such an effect upon literature that it would prove useless to study them without studying the man who wrote them. Any investigation of English literature requires an understanding of the life and times of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer’s life provides the starting point of understanding his role in literature. Born approximately 1343, Chaucer lived in London for most of his life. His family was fortunate enough to belong to the nascent but nevertheless growing middle class. Though they never achieved great wealth, the Chaucers evidently could afford to give Geoffrey what modern educators might call a “classical education.” He learned French and Latin besides his native English and managed to get placed in an aristocratic household as a page. Chaucer’s training enabled him to embark upon a career in public office, essentially meshing him into the ruling class by function. But Chaucer never adopted the aristocratic attitude of the class to which he by title belonged. By nature of his job and his travels he encountered a wide variety of classes of people and a subsequent variety of people within those classes; he never belonged strictly to any particular class. The exact date for his composition of The Canterbury Tales falls in the last fourteen years of his life, approximately 1386-1400, although he had written most of his other works before then. Consequently, The Canterbury Tales would have received the influence of Chaucer’s whole life. Chaucer's unique experiences in both the common and the ruling classes allowed him to mesh and react the classes so marvelously in The Canterbury Tales – a difficult feat in a world which had not fully cast off the past three centuries’ segregated class mold of peasant, noble, and clergy. Clearly, if Chaucer had not lived the jack-of-all-trades life he had, his works would not have achieved the loved-by-all-readers status they have.

The time period in which Chaucer wrote his literature offered as much influence to his works as did his personal background. Century number fourteen had ripened with the days of knights, nobles, and chivalry coming to a close. A revolutionary new concept – a middle class – had begun to emerge, closing the gap between commoners and aristocrats. Feudalism had all but disappeared. Consequently, education circulated among the lower classes as much as it had among the upper. For an author like Chaucer this society provided an almost perfect audience. He could write in the Middle English vernacular of the newly-educated common classes without losing the patronage of the upper classes, and he could now without fear juxtapose the classes (like in The Canterbury Tales) when he might never have dared to do so in the century previous. Geoffrey Chaucer had the talent, and the fourteenth century had his audience.

The life and times of Geoffrey Chaucer help unravel the complexity of The Canterbury Tales and his other major works. Chaucer's wide variety of experiences reflects in his interaction of the different societal classes and the wide variety of works he composed. Additionally, the time period in which Chaucer lived and wrote underwent changes which opened the door to such masterpieces as he stood ready to bring forth. In a way Chaucer brings discredit to the phrase “genius is always misunderstood in its own time.” For him the phrase must be modified to say “genius is being at the right place at the right time with the right thing to say.” But history would have vindicated Chaucer's greatness even if his contemporaries had condemned him, for the key to his success certainly lies foremost in the diversity of experiences which punctuated his life and his capitalization upon those experiences. As a result, The Canterbury Tales and other works written by Geoffrey Chaucer achieve a contrast of medieval society’s classes as colorful as the caravan of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury.

Literature History

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