Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1342 to a family with some ties to government bureaucracy (court and minting), but Chaucer’s father mainly made a living by producing wine. When Geoffrey Chaucer was around fifteen years of age, he managed to gain a position as page to the Countess of Ulster. In that position he acted as a servant and a messenger for his noble employer. Two years later, in 1359, Chaucer was sent to fight in the long-running Hundred Years War between England and France. French soldiers, however, captured the seventeen-year-old youth. Thankfully for Chaucer, he was not imprisoned for very long. The Countess of Ulster’s father-in-law, King Edward III of England, must have seen something he liked in young Geoffrey Chaucer, for he paid the boy’s ransom and negotiated his release in 1360.
Scholars believe that Geoffrey Chaucer’s time in France inspired the young man to begin his literary career. He started simple, translating the medieval French classic, the Roman de la Rose, into English. Alongside his writing and his service to the nobles, Chaucer was also an avid reader of multiple languages—and he likely had a photographic memory of the many sources he read. Besides his own English, he also understood Latin, French and Italian. French and Italian sources were Chaucer’s greatest inspirations (especially Giovanni Boccaccio in Italy), but he also could, and did, quote freely from Christian texts within and outside of the canonical books of the Bible.
As a servant to the nobility in England, Geoffrey Chaucer continued to increase in rank. He was promoted from his position as a page to the countess of Ulster to be a valet to the king of England. As a valet to the King, Chaucer was sent as a messenger to other countries, such as Italy, allowing him to come in contact with the great works of literature and poetry that would influence him in his own work. Around the same time he received his position as valet (in 1367), Chaucer also married his wife, Philippa de Roet. She was the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt, Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest patron in England.
Next, Chaucer began to climb the ranks of the civil service of England. He became the London Comptroller of customs and subsidies in 1374, and was then promoted to Comptroller of petty customs. Chaucer was next appointed as Justice of the Peace for the region of Kent in 1385, and even became a Knight of the Shire (for Kent) in 1386.
That same year, however, John of Gaunt temporarily left the country, causing Chaucer’s positions to be usurped by other, more favored, members of court. With so much new free time forced upon him in 1386, Chaucer took advantage of his empty schedule and began to assemble his best-known collection of poetry—The Canterbury Tales. Many of the poems included in The Canterbury tales were likely written earlier during Chaucer’s life, but he used his free time while John of Gaunt was out of England to compile and connect the various poems into a single framework, and then add new additions to the work. John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389, and Geoffrey Chaucer was given back his former position, but he continued to work on his great poetic achievement.
Even when Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he still had not finished The Canterbury Tales, which was planned to include thirty pilgrims telling four stories, each. In addition to The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote The Book of the Duchess, ABC of the Virgin, House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Legend of the Saints of Cupid.
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.