CantApp: The General Prologue
An Edition in an App
Richard North, Barbara Bordalejo, Terry Jones and Peter Robinson
Performed by Lina Gibbings
With contributions from
Claire Pascolini-Campbell, James Robinson, Vicky Symons and Mari Volkosh
2020. Scholarly Digital Editions, Saskatoon
To cite this edition: CantApp: The General Prologue. An Edition in an App. Edited by Richard North, Barbara Bordalejo, Terry Jones and Peter Robinson. Scholarly Digital Editions, Saskatoon, 2020. www.sd-editions.com/CantApp/GP
Chaucer’s life (c. 1340-1400) was not brief by the expectations of his day, and yet some think he might have lived longer. He died, at any rate, before the completion of his most famous work, the Canterbury Tales. This half-finished group of alleged pilgrims’ stories from London to Canterbury ends effectively at the cathedral doors before confession and a planned return to London. So famous is the Canterbury Tales that it heads all modern editions of Chaucer’s works, regardless of such earlier and more polished literary achievements as his first three dream vision poems (c.1373–c.1380), the Boece (c.1385) and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1386). It might thus be fitting to create a teleology for Chaucer that leads through these literary foothills to the Canterbury Tales as the summit of his career. However, Chaucer’s works have their downs as well as ups, no less than his fortunes, as we shall see for the year in which he began the Canterbury Tales.
His career began with a multilingual childhood. Chaucer’s father’s family were merchants from Ipswich in East Anglia. Had he kept the surname of Robert, his grandfather, he would have been called Geoffrey Dinnington. Robert, however, settled in London where he took the name le chaucer (‘shoemaker’) from an occupation to which he was presumably apprenticed before making his mark as a wine importer. The family house was a 'tenement' (building) in the Vintry Ward south of the eastern end of St Paul’s, on Thames Street, one block north of the river. Robert’s son John, also a vintner, increased his wealth by marrying Agnes Copton, daughter of a moneyer at the mint in the Tower of London. John, like his son Geoffrey after him, worked also for the London customs house. Geoffrey was born to John and Agnes in the early 1340s in the middle reign of King Edward III (1327-1377). Growing up in the Vintry Ward, he would have mixed socially with mercantile families of Gascons from Aquitaine, Flemings from Flanders and Genoese from northern Italy, whose languages he would have picked up as a child. In addition, Chaucer’s school, though no records survive of it, would have taught him Latin through the works of such Classical poets as Virgil, Ovid, Statius and Claudian.
One of young Chaucer’s neighbours was Edward’s queen Philippa (1310/15-1369), owner of the Tower Royal in the Vintry Ward, where perhaps at times she also resided. There is no evidence that the Chaucers were presented to her, but the first extant record of Geoffrey, in a book of household accounts from June 1356 to April 1359, shows him to have been a page in the household of her son, Prince Lionel of Antwerp. The book reveals that in April 1357 Lionel’s wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster (1332-1363), paid for Chaucer the teen to be dressed in a new short jacket, red and black hose, and shoes; from her he also received 2s (shillings) and 6d (pence) for expenses at Christmas. Named in the same book as maid to the countess is one Philippa Pan (for Paon de Roet), whose father had come to England with Queen Philippa from Hainault in Flanders. The younger Philippa became Chaucer’s wife. A year or two later, in December-January 1359-1360, Chaucer followed Lionel to northern France in an English army, to join King Edward III, who was laying siege to Reims. Chaucer, soon captured there, was so much missed by the royals that they paid a ransom for him to which King Edward contributed £16 (for a civil servant, about two years’ salary). By 1 March 1360 Chaucer was released and in May the treaty of Brétigny followed, marking the end of the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1360). Later that year, in October 1360, Chaucer carried a letter from Lionel back to the king. He was now an esquire, deputy to the king’s chief chamberlain. His service to the English crown, which also accounts for most of his literary productions, continued until his death, which was probably in the early reign of the Queen’s grandson, King Henry IV (1399-1413).
For the next six years no record of Chaucer survives, although in one of them he probably married Philippa, now lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa. Probably also he studied law at the Inns of Court. Then he started travelling again. A document survives in Pamplona according to which King Charles II (‘the Bad’) of Navarre (1349-1387) grants Chaucer a safe conduct from 22 February to 24 May 1366. Possibly Chaucer was on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, but since pilgrims took the camino (‘road’) to St James later in the year, in the high summer, it has been argued that he was really on a diplomatic mission. This would have been on behalf of Edward III or his eldest son Prince Edward (the Black Prince, 1330-1376), who ruled the province of Aquitaine just north of the Pyrenees. One year later, in February 1367, Edward and his brother John of Gaunt, i.e. Ghent (1340-1399) led an Anglo-Gascon army through Navarre to Nájera, where they restored King Pedro I (1350-1369) of Castile to his throne by defeating the Franco-Spanish army of his usurping half-brother King Enrique II (1369-1379). Victory was temporary, for the Black Prince contracted dysentery, retired to Aquitaine and lived for ten more debilitated years, dying in 1376, one year before his father. In 1369 Pedro was deposed again and this time murdered by Enrique in Montiel in southern Spain; in 1371 Gaunt married Pedro’s daughter, Princess Constanza (1354-1394), in Bordeaux. On 29 January of the following year, Gaunt, by now a patron of Chaucer, took Pedro’s title, King of Castile. He spent the next fifteen years trying to take this kingdom from King Enrique and his heirs.
Chaucer, who would have had to speak Castilian Spanish for his mission to Navarre, as well as French, may also have been trusted for Italian. On 17 July 1368 he passed at Dover for a journey which lasted until at least the end of October. The itinerary is not given, but may have been Milan, where at this time his former lord Prince Lionel, widowed in 1363, was marrying Violante, niece of Duke Bernabò Visconti. Having established an alliance with the Visconti brothers for his father, Lionel died in Milan of botulism on 17 October, after five heroic months of feasting and drinking. Chaucer’s next record of service was to Gaunt, Lionel’s brother; King Edward paid him £10 to accompany Gaunt on campaign in Picardy in 1369. Chaucer went overseas on royal business again in 1370. In 1372-73 he took a more substantial commission from King Edward, who, having gone back to war with France in 1370, used him to hire mercenaries from Genoa. Chaucer travelled there as king’s esquire with two Italian merchants from London, also visiting Florence. Back in England, a few months after his return, Chaucer was commissioned to restore a ship to her master, a Genoese merchant, in Dartmouth. He was now in his early thirties. Having undertaken five royal missions to Europe, plus this, all within seven years (1366-1373), he began to settle down.
Around this time he composed The Book of the Duchess for John of Gaunt. On the face of it this poem is a shocking English blend of several French dits amoureux ('poems about love') by poets including Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) and Jean Froissart (c.1337-1405). Everyone at court knew their works as well as the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose, some of which Chaucer translated. But The Book of the Duchess was the first such poem in English. Chaucer writes it as a tragi-comic dream vision allegory, but the poem had an elegiac purpose. It honours the memory of Duchess Blaunche of Lancaster, who had died of the plague on 12 September 1368. Blaunche had been the first wife of Duke John, whom Chaucer indirectly, but rather more persistently, also honours in the poem. For the rest of Gaunt’s life the day of Blaunche’s passing was commemorated annually in the Savoy Palace, his house outside the City on the Strand. No date is known for when the poem was composed, but this probably followed Gaunt’s bereavement by a number of years. Chaucer might have written it for one of these commemorations, perhaps for 1373, while Gaunt was leading an English army in a chevauchée (‘mounted raid’) more than 550 miles south from Calais to Bordeaux, in his first bid to take Castile. Not until 12 September 1374 was Gaunt there to commemorate Blaunche in person.
Earlier in 1374, Chaucer was appointed to a tough job in the civil service, which he held for twelve years until 1386. On St George’s Day (23 April), possibly as the jocular reward for a poem, the elderly King Edward granted Chaucer a gallon of wine daily for life. A few weeks later, on 10 May 1374, Chaucer moved from Thames Street into a rent-free apartment for life over Aldgate. Then, on 8 June, the king appointed him controller of customs, at £10 a year, for duties on the country’s wool, sheepskin and leather. On 13 June, Gaunt granted Chaucer a life’s annuity of £10 for services rendered by him and also by his wife to Queen Philippa, his now deceased mother. The collectors of the king’s taxes on import and export were successful merchants long known to Chaucer who traditionally advanced the king his money on the strength of sums they would later claim from the revenue. Working to check the accuracy of their figures, with receipts which averaged £24,000 a year, was a job that called for tact as well as skill in an arithmetic still done in Roman numerals. Chaucer did well on both counts: he knew the officials from his London childhood; and his calculating brilliance is borne out separately by an interest in astronomy which culminated in his Treatise of the Astrolabe (1391), as well as in planetary passages in his other works. On 12 July 1376, Chaucer was granted the value of a forfeited cargo coming to £71, 4s and 6d, more than seven times his annual salary. He continued to travel, to France and Flanders in 1377 and again in 1381. On the death of Edward III in 1377, Chaucer’s royal favour was renewed. The council of Richard II (1377-1399), ten-year-old son of the Black Prince, confirmed him in his daily gallon, which, one year later, they allowed him to commute for an annuity of 20 marks (i.e. £13, 6s and 8d). On 20 April 1382, Chaucer had his controllership extended to the export of other merchandise and to imports of wine. After a few years, however, he began to delegate this work to deputies, probably to spend more time on his writing.
Chaucer’s second great work is The House of Fame, a carefree dream allegory which pays homage to the Paradiso, final work of Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). It is assumed that Chaucer read Dante in 1378, when the royal council sent him back to Florence to reaffirm King Edward’s alliance with the Viscontis. This was his last trip to Italy and The House of Fame was probably written and performed in 1379-1380, not long after his return. In this poem Chaucer explores the causes and meaning of celebrity. Socially here he seems to have arrived. He refers to himself topically, as if he were a character known about town. There is a Dantean eagle, but actually a parody of someone in the audience (lines 561-562), who alludes to Geoffrey coming home from work and reading and drinking alone in his flat over Aldgate (lines 653-57). Through the eagle Chaucer also pretends to be too old to learn astronomy (lines 964-999). And yet, for all its buzz, The House of Fame appears to be missing an ending. Perhaps the poem was later censored because it ended with a reference to King Richard which was too topical for its own good.
Mostly Chaucer lived without his wife Philippa, with whom, however, he had at least one son, Thomas. The life annuity from John of Gaunt which Philippa began to receive in 1371 was collected far from London in Lincolnshire, where she waited on Gaunt’s second wife Constanza. Not far from Philippa, in Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire, lived her sister Katherine, who became Gaunt’s mistress in c. 1370, probably before the death of her husband, Sir Hugh Swynford (1340-1372). In these ways Chaucer’s marriage, like his career, served the needs of the royal family. That The House of Fame calls him a loner may sanctify a separation from Philippa that was common knowledge.
Here we run into Cecily Champagne. Cecily, older than 21 because, unusually for a woman of this time, she was acting on her own, signed a legal document on 1 May 1380 releasing Chaucer from omnimodas acciones tam de raptu tam de aliqua alia re vel causa (‘all actions concerning rape or any other business or case’). Three days later, on 4 May, she acknowledged her release of Chaucer before witnesses, five powerful friends of his in the Court of Chancery, where the bill is preserved. The word raptus, which needs additional words if it is to mean the less grave ‘abduction for financial advantage’, points to an earlier or imminent charge of sexual assault. Three documents apparently pertaining to this case were enrolled nearly two months later in the court of the mayor and aldermen of London: in the first, signed on 28 June, two citizens (Richard Goodchild, cutler, and John Grove, armorer) release Chaucer from all actions of law; in the second, signed on the same day, Cecily Champagne releases the same two men also from all actions of law; in the third, dated to 2 July, Grove acknowledges a £10 debt to Champagne, to be paid over at Michaelmas (on 29 September; it was). These three later documents, plus Chaucer’s collection of debts and liquidation of assets in the first half of the following financial year, have been taken to mean that Champagne made her release of Chaucer conditional on a sum equal to more than half of his annual salary, which Chaucer, not desiring celebrity in this case, paid her through Grove (Pearsall 1992: 135-36). It has been suggested that Grove was the principal, but still it seems more likely that this was Chaucer. The uncomfortable truth may be that Chaucer was guilty, if not of rape, then of an affair with a woman which either turned into, or was later wrongly claimed to be, harassment with violence. There is a speculation that his son Lewis, said to be ten years old in the preface to Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe in 1391, was his child not by Philippa, but by Cecily.
Datable to this tangled period is Chaucer’s third dream vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls, in which the poet ascends to a celestial garden in which to learn the inner and outer workings of love. Chaucer’s première of this work has been dated to 1380 on the grounds that its crowning glory, a long parliamentary complaint in feathers on the socially disruptive impact of slow royal marriage negotiations, might refer indirectly (and less pointedly than the missing ending of The House of Fame, into which it has also been read) to the betrothal in that year of King Richard to the French princess Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394). Italian influence on this poem is very strong. Chaucer here uses ‘rhyme royal’, a new type of stanza with lines of ten or eleven syllables, which he had pioneered a little earlier in Anelida and Arcite on the formal basis of the Teseida (c. 1341) of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Chaucer was greatly indebted to Boccaccio. Although he nowhere names him, it remains possible that they met on Chaucer’s first recorded visit to Florence, where Boccaccio lived, in early 1373. Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), whom Chaucer not only assimilates but also names (in The Prologue to the Clerk’s Tale, line 31), also lived near Florence. Nobody knows if Chaucer met him either.
Chaucer borrowed occasionally from Petrarch and comprehensively from Boccaccio in his next great work, The Book of Troilus, or Troilus and Criseyde, datable to c. 1386. This poem is about the joys and ‘double sorrow’ of King Priam’s second son during the Siege of Troy. It falls into five books and probably took six years to write. To some extent it mirrors the new civil discord of Chaucer’s days. Not long after he started work on it, England turned upside down in the Peasants’ Revolt of June 1381. The war with France had taken a turn for the worse; in the south-east, two peasant armies from Essex and Kent, enraged at the re-imposition of poll tax to pay for this war, converged on London to address the king. On arrival they joined forces with a mob from Southwark and the City, beheaded the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer, murdered all the Flemish immigrants they could find and looted and burned the Inns of Court as well as Gaunt’s Savoy Palace on the Strand. Gaunt, the execution of whom was one of their leading demands, was lucky to be campaigning in Scotland. King Richard his nephew, fourteen years old and with quill-pushers rather than soldiers for bodyguards, faced down the rebels first at Mile End on 14 June and then at Smithfield a day later. When their leader Wat Tyler was stabbed in a scuffle with William Walworth, who was Mayor of London and an associate of Chaucer, the mobs dispersed. Although Parliament pursued the other ringleaders, it rescinded the poll tax and began to look for a peace with France.
Chaucer worked on Troilus throughout this anarchic period and its aftermath, alongside the Boece and The Complaint of Mars, works which he finished in c. 1385. The Boece is an all-prose translation of a French adaptation of The Consolation of Philosophy (AD 524), in which Boethius, a noble sitting on death row, resigned himself to death in the knowledge that this was part of God’s plan. Troilus and Criseyde, a ‘tragedye’ (V.1786) completed a year later, is no less profound. Its plot had had a dry run in The Complaint of Mars, a drama of planetary conjunctions in which Mars loses Venus to Mercury. In the bigger poem, Troilus, a prince struck down by love, pines away for Criseyde, a beautiful older woman and widow; allows his friend and servant Pandarus, her uncle, to orchestrate an affair with her, in which they are both deliriously happy; then loses her through negligence to Diomede when she has to leave Troy for the Greek camp after a prisoner exchange. There is a Dantean apotheosis in which Troilus, killed in battle and now sitting in the stars on the threshold of heaven, laughs wildly at the suffering of mankind. Chaucer’s immediate source was Il Filostrato (‘the love-lorn’), an eight-book work of grievance which Boccaccio, soon to be dropped by his own lady, Princess Maria d’Aquino, wrote as an angry young man while working in his father’s bank in Naples (c. 1340). Chaucer’s maturer poem engenders a similar temptation to read it as a roman à clef for London and the English royals. History aside, however, this work is read for its depth of characterisation. It is the love story that makes Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer’s greatest, most polished, work. Chaucer fills it out with lyrical reflections, with planetary references which modernise the narrative to 1385-1388, and with Boethius, whose argument he distils (up to a point) through a meditation on free will by Troilus in Book IV.
Not everyone liked Criseyde: one contemporary response to Troilus and Criseyde, that of the god of Love no less, may be read in the dream-vision Prologue of Chaucer's next work, the Legend of Good Women: ‘And of Criseyde thou hast seyd as thee lyste, / That maketh men to women lasse triste [i.e. 'trusting']’ (F.332-33). Here Chaucer finds himself rebuked in a May garden by Cupid and also by his queen, Alceste (i.e. Alcestis), who sets him the penitential task of composing tales in which men mistreat women. It has been suggested that this poem was commissioned by Richard’s Queen Anne, or by his mother, Princess Joan of Kent. However that may be, Chaucer appears to have worked on the Legend slowly, leaving texts around which were copied at different stages of completion. In its surviving form, the Legend is a collection of tales (told in rhyming couplets of ten or eleven syllables, like most of the Canterbury Tales) of ten women in nine sections: Cleopatra; Thisbe; Dido; Hypsipyle and Medea; Lucrece; Ariadne, Philomela; Phyllis; and Hypermnestra. The Man of Law, one of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, advertising this work in his Prologue, lists eighteen women (the above, plus Deianira, Hermione, Hero, Helen, Briseyde, Laodamia, Penelope and Alcestis). Since Chaucer’s reference to the Legend in his Retractions, effectively his death-bed testament, calls this work ‘the book of the XXV. Ladies’, we know that the extant version represents less than half of a final draft which seems to have gone missing in the years after his death. Apparently unsatisfied with this work, Chaucer rewrote its Prologue in c. 1396. Although the Legend of Good Women has passages of individual beauty, this revised prologue is widely regarded as inferior to the original, while it is agreed that in its entirety the Legend is a failure.
Perhaps this was due to a period of suffering in Chaucer’s life. In 1386 or 1387, Chaucer’s wife Philippa died and his fortunes fell even further in tandem with those of the king. Probably in 1385 Chaucer had relocated to Greenwich or elsewhere in Kent, where, in October of that year, he was appointed a justice of the peace. In 1386, Chaucer resigned his controllership and the lease to the Aldgate apartment and began to serve Kent as a Member of Parliament. Chaucer had seen which way the wind was blowing: the French were winning the war and threatening an invasion; King Richard filled London with troops but failed to pay them; to that end in October his chancellor asked Parliament for higher taxation; Parliament refused; Richard left London to muster an army for himself. Richard’s supporters in London were new men like Chaucer, highly able but bourgeois officials some of whom he had put in place. Now they became vulnerable. Parliament gathered around the Lords Appellant: Archbishop Thomas Arundel of York (1353-1414) and others including Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. These aristocrats were called ‘Appellants’ because they appealed, or accused, the king’s favourites of treason. In the Merciless Parliament of February 1388, two old associates of Chaucer, Nicholas Brembre the Mayor of London and Sir Robert Tresillian the Lord Chief Justice, were condemned and beheaded. Executions of several of Richard’s chamber knights followed. Chaucer survived, perhaps because of The Book of the Duchess, which honours Bolingbroke’s mother, perhaps because he had removed himself to Kent.
From his three years of crisis came the work for which Chaucer is best known. It has been argued by Paul Strohm (2014) that this downturn gave Chaucer’s work a new vitality, in that in 1388-1389, as he wrote the General Prologue, he would have had to create a virtual audience of pilgrims to replace the real one of courtiers and royals which he had left behind in London. As a project, this half-finished collection of tales began some time after 1385. If Chaucer had ever planned it as a magnum opus, as he may have done if he presented The General Prologue to King Richard in 1389, his increasing business from 1389 for this king probably turned the Canterbury Tales into an occasional pastime. From then on, Chaucer was often on the road, travelling in and out of London in two new jobs by appointment to the king -- an improvement on three years of failure before.
In May 1389 Richard II wrested power back from the Appellants. Chaucer returned to the court and on 12 July Richard appointed him to an even more lucrative position, Clerk of the King’s Works. This change enhanced Chaucer’s new literary direction. As he travelled with a payroll around Richard’s scattered projects in England, supervising constructions and repairs, Chaucer would have encountered real-life versions of the aristocrats and bourgeois he impersonates in the Canterbury Tales: such pilgrims as the Monk, the Prioress, the Reeve, the Franklin or the Wife of Bath. This extends to villains like those in the Pardoner’s Tale, for between one and three times in September 1390 Chaucer was beaten up and robbed of great sums of the king’s money (records vary), as he rode through Surrey and Kent. Although the king did not ask him for repayment, we may suppose that Chaucer became tired of this job: he formally left it on 17 June 1391. Within a few years he was working as king’s deputy forester in Somerset.
All this experience helped him to create the Canterbury Tales, a work which survives in ten groups or Fragments. The procession of narrators rides from London to Canterbury, yet this route does not match the order of villages in the text, and there is other evidence of revision. Over ten years of writing Chaucer made many changes and it seems that the Fragments were assembled and edited after his death.
The General Prologue introduces the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn at Southwark, one day before they ride off down the Old Kent Road towards Canterbury, where it is assumed that each will be confessed at the shrine of Thomas Becket. Initially Chaucer stylises them from high to middling station as the perfection of various occupational roles. He based their portraits on literary archetypes from medieval estates satire, although some of them were doubtless modelled also on personal acquaintance: Harry Bailey, their host and landlord of the Tabard, is named more than twenty times as a real inn-keeper in documents from 1375 to 1398. As for the genesis of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer had already celebrated class antagonism in the Parliament of Fowls, while both the anthologising format and metre had been tried out in The Legend of Good Women. Although his narrative device, a story-telling contest with prize, is meant to be Bailey’s idea, this was already in Boccaccio’s Decamerone (‘Ten by ten’), a collection of 100 novelle (‘narrative novelties’) from the mid fourteenth century. Boccaccio’s narrators, three noblemen and seven noblewomen and their servants hiding out in the country for a fortnight, while the plague does its worst in Florence, award a prize for the best story out of ten for each of ten days (with four off for relocation and holidays). Chaucer’s Host, on the other hand, proposes four stories from each pilgrim, two for each leg of the journey, with the winner to get a free supper at the Tabard at the cost of everyone else. And yet his ambitious plan is soon forgotten. In the Tales themselves we get one tale each from all pilgrims but Chaucer, who, in the middle of Fragment VII, tells two (the Tale of Sir Thopas and Melibee). The pilgrims are enormously varied. Particularly important is the polyphony of their narrations. Contrary to Boccaccio’s device, the Canterbury Tales works diversely, through friendships, rivalries, and even bitter enmities which shape the class-determined genre and individual motive of each tale. As for his own point of view, Chaucer never judges nor lets us know what he thinks. His ambiguity may have reflected a need for assimilation and caution in King Richard’s polity, which in the later 1390s became dangerously unstable.
Chaucer lived to see the end of his patron King Richard II. In 1397 Richard overplayed his hand and arrested as many of the Lords Appellant as he could find. Some he executed for treason; others, including Archbishop Arundel (now) of Canterbury and his kinsman Henry Bolingbroke, he exiled. When John of Gaunt died in 1399 (three years after becoming Chaucer’s brother-in-law, by marrying Philippa’s sister, his mistress Katherine Swynford), Richard confiscated his estates, so depriving Henry of his inheritance. The same year saw Arundel and Henry jointly invade England. The archbishop orchestrated a coup whereby Henry deposed and murdered his cousin, making himself King Henry IV (1399-1413).
Henry had acknowledged Chaucer as his, or at least his father’s, loyal servant before his exile, when he gave him a fine scarlet gown in 1395-1396; around this time Chaucer was charged to deliver £10 to him from the royal exchequer. When Henry became king, he renewed Richard’s grants to Chaucer and even paid him an annuity of 40 marks. It has been suggested that The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, a short poem which rewrites Henry’s coup as an accession by ‘free eleccion’ (line 23), hints to the king that these grants were not paid. Even so, it appears that Chaucer could be sure, within limits, of his welcome in Henry’s court. On Christmas Eve (24 December) 1399, Chaucer took out a 53-year lease of a house near Westminster Abbey. He continued to collect his grants, or had them collected, and took payment on 21 February and 5 June 1400 of some of the arrears due on his annuities from the royal exchequer. Then he disappears from the record, although a later tradition, probably from 1555 and based on an inscription (now illegible) on his tomb in the same abbey, claims that he died on 25 October 1400.
A biography ought to end here, but it seems that Chaucer’s death is no less ambiguous than his life or writing. Terry Jones and others (2003) have argued that Chaucer was in good health and that he disappears so discreetly from the record because of a religious clampdown, because Archbishop Arundel, a reactionary who would have taken exception to the gallery of ecclesiastical crooks and misfits in the Canterbury Tales, may have had him murdered under form of law.
Benson, Larry D., et al. ed., The Riverside Chaucer: Based on the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer edited by F.N. Robinson, 3rd edition (Boston, MA, 1987)
Jones, Terry, and Robert Yeager, Terry Doran, Alan Fletcher and Jeanette D’Or, Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (London, 2003)
Mann, Jill, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, 1973)
Mann, Jill, ed. with introduction and notes, the Canterbury Tales (Harmondsworth, 2005)
Pearsall, Derek, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, Blackwell Critical Biographies 1 (Oxford, 1992)
Strohm, Paul, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1989)
Strohm, Paul, The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made The Canterbury Tales (London, 2014)
Turner, Marion, Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton, NJ, 2019)
The Canterbury Tales is regarded as Chaucer’s most famous work, written between 1386 and his death in or soon after 1400. It is a collection of twenty-four stories told by twenty-three pilgrims (including Chaucer, who tells two) from many different walks of life, all as they make the same journey on horseback to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The writing of the General Prologue, probably late in 1388 and more than a year after his narrative is set, may be taken as the moment when what might have been a loose collection of stories comes into focus as a single complex narrative.
The General Prologue begins with the most famous description of a spring day in literature. It is set half way through April 1387. Chaucer celebrates pilgrimage as an occasion for holiday and then introduces his pilgrims to us as he met them at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, where they have gathered to leave for Canterbury the following day. Most pilgrims have detailed portraits, revealing occupation and social class, appearance, deportment, inner character and sometimes name. All but three are men and socially Chaucer begins at the top. Thus, after a Knight, Squire and Yeoman, he describes a Prioress, who rules a convent of nuns in Stratford in East London; then a Second Nun and three priests (including the Nun’s Priest), a Monk (actually an abbot) and a Friar. Then there is a Merchant, Clerk (a student at Oxford), Sergeant (or Man) of Law and Franklin (a rich landowner, lower than the Knight). So far this is a list of fourteen aristocracy and gentry. Chaucer then moves down a little: five guildsmen, then a Cook, Shipman and Doctor of Physic; a Wife of Bath; two brothers, a Parson and Ploughman; a Miller, a Manciple (i.e. an accountant) at the Inns of Court; finally, a Reeve, Summoner and Pardoner. The Pardoner is a corrupted aristocrat but the others are of humble background. After we have met all the pilgrims, Harry Bailey, landlord of the Tabard, suggests a game: each pilgrim to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back; Harry to be the judge and to award a free meal at the Tabard to whichever pilgrim tells the most profound and yet entertaining tale. The company drinks on it, appoints Harry as their ‘governour’ (line 813) and turns in. Next day they mount up and set off. When the company reaches ‘the Wateryng of Seint Thomas’, a brook two miles south-east of London, Harry halts the procession, reminds the pilgrims of their agreement, and prepares them to draw lots for the order of play. The Knight draws for first place and begins his tale ‘as ye may heere’ (line 858).
Following Paul Strohm, we may assume that after completing Troilus and Criseyde in 1385-6, Chaucer conceived his next work as a collection of tales, and began work on some of the individual tales. At some point Chaucer decided to put this collection within the pilgrimage frame, as explained in the General Prologue. The presence of several fully realized pilgrim portraits within the General Prologue and the existence of complete tales told by those pilgrims suggests that some tales had already been written before Chaucer wrote the General Prologue: thus all the tales of Fragment I (Knight, Miller, Reeve) and those of the Wife of Bath and Pardoner. On the other hand, there is evidence that the General Prologue was conceived some time early in the composition process: hence the uncertainty over the number of pilgrims, and the gulf between the aim of four tales for each pilgrim and the number (less than one for each) actually written. A date of around 1388/1389 fits these: see The date of the General Prologue. See too The world première of the General Prologue for the suggestion that the General Prologue might have been composed specifically to introduce Chaucer's new work to the court of Richard II, on Chaucer's return to royal service in mid-1389. As promised in the General Prologue, the Knight’s Tale leads the way: this poem was Chaucer’s revision of his English adaptation, years before in around 1380, of an even longer Italian epic, the Teseida of Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1341), which he turns into a four-part tragedy of Palamon and Arcite and their love for Emily. Over the next decade Chaucer’s plans changed, so that the potential number of tales was never realised. Perhaps he had been planning in the region of 120, for the General Prologue has some thirty pilgrims, not counting Harry who will not tell a tale; and Harry asks each pilgrim for four. Yet this plan does not survive the General Prologue. On the way to Canterbury no more than twenty-three pilgrims tell stories; each tells only one, bar Chaucer, who tells two. Moreover, the narrative ends in Canterbury, without a return journey, so the work was also half-finished.
Witness to this is the way the Canterbury Tales have come down to us. Although there are as many as 84 manuscripts and four separate early printed texts of this work, it seems that all versions descend from a manuscript in Chaucer’s lifetime which has not survived. In addition, all versions fall into ten groups, or Fragments, which had yet to be joined into a coherent narrative. Clearly Chaucer was nowhere near finished. Consistent with this is the fact that the quality of tales diminishes towards the end; nor do all place-names in the narrators’ Prologues match the villages and towns between London and Canterbury in the order in which they occur. In this way, the Canterbury Tales, in their final state, are best defined as a project or even an experiment in polyphony, the art of impersonation. Chaucer had seen many social types in his career and now he set about playing their roles.
After the General Prologue there is thus a diverting moral descent in stories from the Knight, Miller, Reeve and Cook in the rest of Fragment I. This moves into the more serious subject of marital devotion and marriage within the stories of Fragments II-VII. Counterpoint to this theme is a third, the question of Christian salvation, which permeates the Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales in Fragment III; rears up with the Pardoner and Prioress in Fragments VI and VII; speaks insistently through the Second Nun and Canon’s Yeoman (a late intruder) in Fragment VIII; and finally directly through the Parson in Fragment X – as if Chaucer, working through most of the 1390s, knew that his own end was in sight. It may not be chance that his Retraction survives appended to the Parson’s Tale. This short statement takes us from literature to Chaucer’s life. It has the force of a deathbed literary testament or confession, in which the author declares ‘doctrine’ to be the best ‘entente’ and renounces ‘my translations and enditynges of worldly vanitees’ as well as ‘the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne’: i.e. those works which have since made him famous.
Paul Strohm argues in his The Poet's Tale that 1386 is the key year in both Chaucer's life and in the composition of the Canterbury Tales. Sometime before 1386 Chaucer completed his other great masterwork, Troilus and Criseyde, leaving him free to work on something even more ambitious. At the beginning of 1386, Chaucer was living a settled life in London as Controller of the Customs for the Port of London. He had held this post for some twelve years, longer than anyone else managed in that period, and he had a comfortable house over the city gate at Aldgate, just a few minutes walk from the customs house. His task as controller of customs was to check and certify that the right taxes were levied on key goods leaving London (wool, sheepskins, leather) by the collector of the taxes. As these taxes supplied up to a third (in an average year, around £25,000) of all the taxes collected for the King, this was a highly responsible post. It was also an extremely difficult post, as it involved working with, and reaching agreement over large sums of money with, the collector of the taxes. By its nature, the post of collector attracted some of the most notorious and hated individuals of the time, among them Nicholas Brembre, lord mayor of London and famous for his ruthlessness and corruption. For Chaucer to last twelve years in this post speaks for his astuteness and diplomacy.
Chaucer's duties as Controller, though tricky, were not specially onerous, and indeed in 1385 he was permitted to appoint a deputy. But in 1386 Chaucer's world (and indeed that of the whole of England) was upended. At the beginning of the year, Richard II was eighteen years old, and on the point of taking the full authority of kingship. He had succeeded his grandfather Edward III on his death in 1377. His father, Edward the Black Prince, Edward III's eldest son, should have succeeded Edward III, but he died in 1376 leaving his son Richard (then 10 years old) to become king on the death of Edward III in 1377. By 1386, the young King Richard had come to rely on a small group of councillors and personal favourites. This led to discontent among many of the nobility who were not in this small group. The leaders of this discontent were three powerful nobles. One of them, Thomas Woodstock, Earl of Gloucester, was a younger brother of Edward the Black Prince, and so Richard's uncle. The other two initial leaders were the Earl of Arundel and of Surrey, and the Earl of Warwick. Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, the son of Edward the Black Prince's eldest surviving brother John of Gaunt, joined this group, along with another younger aristocrat, the Earl of Nottingham. These five nobles are known as the "Lords Appellant". In 1386, they acted: in effect, executing a coup d'état against Richard. In November 1386 they achieved legal power through a commission to govern England in place of Richard. In 1387 they crushed an attempt by supporters of Richard to mount an armed rebellion on his part. This gave them complete power, and in 1388 they used this power to punish their enemies and Richard's friends, in the "Merciless Parliament".
Many of Chaucer's friends and acquaintances fell victim to the Lords Appellants' reign of judicial murder. Nicholas Brembre was hanged in 1388. If there were any thought that Chaucer's status as a poet might protect him, the fate of Thomas Usk shows otherwise. He was a minor poet, the author of the Testament of Love, which mentions Chaucer as the author of a poem on Troilus. He fell foul of Gloucester and was hanged in 1388. Most heart-breaking of all: Simon Burley, the king's childhood tutor, who carried the exhausted ten-year old Richard on his shoulders during his coronation, and whom Chaucer knew and who shared his literary tastes, was executed by the Lords Appellant in May 1388, apparently for nothing more than being Richard's friend.
Even before the Lord's Appellant assumed full power in late 1386, one may detect their influence in Chaucer's leaving his post as Controller of Customs in October 1386. For the next three years, it appears he lived in Kent: far enough from London to keep himself safe from the Lords Appellant. Further, the leisure gave him the opportunity to conceive and start a work on a scale beyond anything he had before attempted. This was the work we now know as the Canterbury Tales. Incidentally, in the manuscripts closest to Chaucer (and indeed all surviving manuscripts written before 1500) it is labelled "The Book of the Tales of Canterbury".
Accordingly, we might date the beginning of Chaucer's writing of the Canterbury Tales to 1386. By 1389 he would have written enough of the Tales to have conceived its whole shape and most of the cast of pilgrims who he has tell the stories which make up the Tales. We can suppose that by 1389 he was ready to write the General Prologue: an interim introduction, as it were, to his work-in-progress. The presence in the General Prologue as we have it of several fully realized pilgrim portraits and the existence of complete tales told by these same pilgrims suggest that these tales had already been written before Chaucer wrote the General Prologue: thus the tales of Fragment One (Knight, Miller, Reeve) and of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. A further argument for a date around 1388-1389 is the reference to "Myddelburgh" (modern Middlesbrough) in line 277. As Hales pointed out, from 1384 to 1388 the wool staple was established at Middlesbrough, rather than Calais. This meant that every English ship exporting wool had to pass through Middlesbrough before the wool could be sold to foreigners: a matter of some import, if the Merchant were a wool exporter. Further, there are several indications that the General Prologue, as we have it, was composed some time relatively early in the writing of the Tales:
Yet, it appears at the time he wrote the Prologue that he was confident he could carry out the extraordinarily ambitious program of four tales for each pilgrim: some one hundred and twenty tales in total. In fact, we have just 24 tales, several of which are incomplete.
The easiest explanation of these inconsistencies within the Prologue, and between the Prologue and the Tales, is that the Prologue was written before it became clear to Chaucer how far his work would fall short of the aim of some 120 tales. Some scholars have argued that the Prologue was written in sections: first up to lines 542-544, which read like a note of work yet to be done, the second from there to the end (Hammond; cf. Andrew I, 93-94. There can be little surprise that the notoriously unfinished Tales has an inconclusive introduction.
The images you see in this App show the General Prologue as it appears in the Hengwrt manuscript, now in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (MS Peniarth 392D). This manuscript has been long regarded as one of the best single sources for the text of the Tales, for two reasons:
Recent scholarship has suggested two further factors which contribute to the pre-eminence of Hg:
There is much yet to learn. Concerning Adam Pinkhurst: various aspects of Mooney’s arguments (and even the identification itself) have been questioned by recent scholars, and one may expect that continuing research into contemporary documents will cast more light on the writing of the Hengwrt manuscript (cf. Warner and de Hamel). Concerning the second factor: research continues within the Canterbury Tales Project, and by other scholars, into the history of the copying of the manuscripts, and into the place of Hg within the tradition. In particular, we still lack a clear picture of the relationships between the two premier manuscripts Hg and El, both written by this same scribe (who might or might not have been Adam Pinkhurst). Nonetheless, Hg remains, for us, the best place to start exploring the text of the Tales.
The images in the App were derived from the digital photographs of the manuscript taken by the National LIbrary of Wales for the Canterbury Tales Project, and published in Estelle Stubbs’ edition of Hengwrt. We are grateful to the National Library of Wales for permission to use these images in this publication. The manuscript may be further studied, with higher resolution images, at https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/manuscripts/the-middle-ages/the-hengwrt-chaucer/.. The ongoing work of the Canterbury Tales Project can be seen at www.textualcommunities.org: click on the link to the Project on the opening page.
This edition is a reader’s edition: its aim is to make the text as easily accessible as possible in sense, metre and pronunciation for beginner readers of Chaucer. When required, the text has been emended to clarify sense and to present the best literary form of the Canterbury Tales. In practical terms, this means readings are not retained just because they are archetypal (as one might do in a scholarly edition), but that they might be replaced by other readings as found in other witnesses or inferred by the editor. Departures from the Hengwrt manuscript (National Library of Wales Hengwrt Peniarth 392D: Hg) which affect the text’s literary aspect are italicized and explained in notes.
I have only commented on readings which affect the text’s meaning, but I have noted significant variants that include word change (a preposition substituted by a different one, the definite article [the], substituted by a demonstrative adjective [that], and other variants not found in the edited text but which might be of interest to the reader). I have not commented on verbal morphological variation even in cases in which there is a change of tense. For such scholarly detailed work, the reader might do better consulting The Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, or the editions by John Manly and Edith Rickert, or that by Elizabeth Solopova.
Manuscript punctuation depends on many factors (scribal practice, idiosyncracy) and might prove a hindrance rather than a help to the reader. All punctuation in this edition has been modernized. The convention of capitalizing the beginning of every line is retained throughout.
This text follows the spellings of the Hg manuscript. Hg is likely to be the oldest extant manuscript of the Tales, and its spellings might follow Chaucer's usage.
The Hg spelling has not been preserved in the following instances:
It was my pleasure to have contributed to the CantApp as an extension of the performance work Dr. Robinson and I did for my MA in 2015. The act of performing the Canterbury Tales is hardly new. Generations of scholars have happily picked up the words of Chaucer and spoken them aloud to the delight of others. My own contribution was simply extending this tradition.
What was it like to perform as Chaucer? It’s almost too easy! All one must do is speak the words and let Chaucer’s unmatched wit and lyrical beauty carry you along with it. As you recite the carefully and masterfully organized alliteration, elision, and meter of the Tales you can almost feel Chaucer’s guiding hand, like a director, telling you how your physicality can work seamlessly with his words.
In oral performance, it is much the same. One can simply lose all sense of time and space when reciting the lyrical words of the Tales. Yet there are opportunities for exploration within the poem. One such opportunity came to me while memorizing the General Prologue. While attempting to cram the forty-five lines of the Summoner’s portrait into my head, I noticed a strange shift in tone upon reaching the lines:
He was a gnetil harlot and a kynde
A bettre felawe sholde men night fynde (647-8).
These lines had followed a long list of why the Summoner was a less than pleasant man. It occurred to me that perhaps Chaucer meant it to seem as though his initial description of the Summoner had just been meant as a humorous exaggeration. So I presented these lines following that interpretation. In silent reading, this bizarre shift is hard to spot. But in performance, it is hard to ignore. Whether this interpretation was correct or not matters little. It demonstrates how even within Chaucer’s meticulously constructed poetry there is still room for play and exploration.
What of my experience performing as Chaucer the Pilgrim, the assumed character who interacts with this bizarre cast of assembled rogues? Actually, the performance work made Dr. Robinson and myself wonder if there was any need for there to be a pilgrim at all! We found much joy and success in having me just present Chaucer the author telling stories to an assembled group. What needeth wordes mo? The idea that I, the actor, needed to portray Chaucer, the author, pretending to be Chaucer, the pilgrim, is enough to give my poor audience quite the headache. Just as I came to trust that the words themselves were enough to guide my performance without me getting in the way, I came to trust that Chaucer was more than capable of telling stories without a fictionalized narrator getting in the way.
It was one of the pleasures of my life to support this marvelous work. I will end with some advice to any who wish to similarly perform Chaucer’s work: Learn the words, then stay the heck out of the way!
In 2015, many of the team responsible for this App (Bordalejo, Jones, Gibbings, Robinson) came together to re-enact how we imagined the General Prologue might have been first performed. You can see this performance at the University of Saskatchewan Department of English website. Our initial aim was to explore a conclusion Robinson and Bordalejo had reached about the earliest manuscripts: that they are to be seen (at least in part) as prompts to and records of a performance, rather than purely as works to be enjoyed on the page. Terry Jones had long held the same view. Particularly, we thought of this presentation of the Tales as not simply a reading aloud, but as a true performance, likely with Chaucer as the performer. This led naturally to other questions: when might they have been performed, who was the audience, and where? Earlier, we explained why 1389 would be a possible year for Chaucer to have written and presented the Prologue. But why June 6? We chose this date as it falls exactly between two critical dates: 3rd May 1389 and 12 July 1389.
On the first of these days, 3rd of May 1389, occurred one of the most dramatic events in medieval English history. Above, we explain how the "Lords Appellant" seized power from the young King Richard in 1386, and used that power viciously against Richard and his associates. It appears that Chaucer gave up the controllership of Customs in October 1386 and spent the following three years in Kent to escape the easy reach of the Lords Appellant: a move that may have saved his life. On the 3rd of May 1389, in a council meeting in the Marcolf Chamber within the Palace of Westminster, Richard declared himself of age and took back the authority of the kingship: effectively, performing a coup d'état against the Lords Appellant. In the following days he dismissed several of the Lords Appellant from their offices and installed his own choices in their place: notably Edmund Stafford as Lord Privy Seal (Toute, pp. 454-458).
On the second of these days, 12 July 1389, King Richard appointed Geoffrey Chaucer as Clerk of the King's Works. This was one of the most responsible and powerful posts in the court. The Clerk was in charge of all the building and maintenance of ten royal residences (including the Tower of London, Eltham and Sheen palaces), of other significant buildings including the Palace of Westminster, and of many other facilities: hunting lodges, parks, mills, ponds and more. That Richard entrusted so significant a task to Geoffrey says everything about the regard in which Geoffrey was held.
Accordingly, we imagine a performance of Geoffrey's new work on June 6, precisely between these two dates. We placed the performance in Richard's favourite palace, Sheen Palace, in the fields on the river west of the city of London. We saw this performance as serving several purposes. It would act as a celebration of the King's assumption of power a month before. It would be a "welcome back" to court for Geoffrey. And, of course, it would introduce to the King and Court the extraordinary new work on which Geoffrey had been working, while in effective exile the last three years (it would not be too farfetched to suppose that the Prologue was composed for performance on such an occasion). One could see a performance at this moment as heralding the "Ricardian Renaissance": the burst of cultural activity around Richard's court in the early 1390s, of which the Tales is the most familiar expression. Further, we supposed that due to the kind of miraculous circumvention of the usual rules of time and space for which Pythons are justly famous, Geoffrey Chaucer had told just one person about his work-in-progress: his friend Terry Jones. We prefaced the performance with Barbara Bordalejo interviewing Terry Jones about Mr Chaucer's new work. Sadly, this was one of the last public appearances by Terry Jones.
The initiative for this App came from a suggestion in 2012 by Mari Volkosh, then a student of Richard North's at University College, London. Mari observed that an App might be a good way for readers to encounter the General Prologue, and she drafted an initial specification for the App. Some of the visual features of that design -- notably, the appearance of the buttons at the top of the screen -- have survived, after many revisions, all the way into this published version.
Richard North admits to little knowledge of computers and so contacted someone he thought might know how to make an App: Peter Robinson, of the University of Saskatchewan. Richard also knew Peter from Oxford, where both were part of the remarkable group of Ursula Dronke's graduate students, along with Gudrun Nordal, Carolyne Larrington and Matthew Driscoll. Peter had no idea how to make an App, but fortunately his son James (of Open Signal, 32 million downloads and counting) did know. James advised us to use PhoneGap, and six years later, here we are. Peter had by then been working for years on the Canterbury Tales project, exploring the text of the fifteenth-century manuscript of the Tales, and brought in Barbara Bordalejo, who has provided the textual notes for this edition. In 2015 Lina Gibbings joined the project, following the remarkable set of performances of medieval and renaissance works which he gave in Saskatoon beginning in that year. It is his voice you hear reading the General Prologue. Terry Jones was an early enthusiast for this project, and kindly gave permission for us to use his translation of the General Prologue. He also supported us with his generous hospitality, including a memorable lunch at a pub in Hampstead Village, and -- of course -- his characteristic shrewd insight into Geoffrey Chaucer. It takes a serious humourist to know one. Richard wrote parts of this introduction, and with Claire Pascolini-Campbell and Vicky Symons, produced the notes and glosses. Over the years, Peter figured out how to make the App, and failed to prevent the many delays between inception and completion.
It was with considerable sadness that we learnt of Terry's death little more than a week before the public release of this App, on 3 February 2020. We are glad that he had a chance to see the nearly finished App, and to hear Chaucer's words once more, in December 2019.
This is Geoffrey Chaucer's work. He the man.