Donald R. Howard

Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World

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Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World Summary

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Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (1987) is an award-winning literary biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, written by Stanford Professor of English Donald R. Howard. Chaucer was born in the fourteenth century and became a courtier, soldier, diplomat, and poet. Howard’s biography spans the length of Chaucer’s life, examining the complex politics and social influences of some of Chaucer’s greatest works, including the puzzling The House of Fame, the famous The Canterbury Tales, and his version of the doomed lovers Troilus and Criseyde.

In the preface, Howard lays out the caveats to his work, including an acknowledgment that we have very few facts about Chaucer’s life, and that those facts (such as dates) might well be incorrect or have a history of misinterpretation. He also points out that while biographers prefer to keep their subject’s lives and work in chronological order, such a method would enjoy limited success with Chaucer, who routinely started projects and either a) forgot, abandoned, or otherwise did not finish them, or b) revised or rewrote them months or even years after the original draft. This kind of detail can muddy the waters in terms of a reliable chronology. Indeed, throughout the book, Howard often makes suppositions and leaps of commonsense where known facts are lacking.

Many of the chapters function as historical, political, and cultural context; Chaucer figures only lightly in most of them. Howard builds a picture of the fourteenth-century medieval society and the influences that drove it. The book is divided into three chronological parts: “Into the King’s Service (1342-1372),” “To Italy (1372-1380,” and “Into Our Time (1380-1400).” Literary analysis and influences are interwoven with history—this book is not a conventional biography, which generally focuses on the subject with few digressions. For Howard, Chaucer is a witness and a ribbon that helps tie everything together, but he is not always the focal point of the text.

Chaucer came from a moderately wealthy family with a stable income and connections to the royal court. He was around six years old when the Black Death came to England in 1348. The Plague was one of his earliest memories—and certainly a traumatic one. The first major outbreak in 1348-1349 wiped out a third to half the country’s population, and Chaucer would see at least five more major epidemics over the course of his life. His early education would have been at home until the age of seven or eight, when he would be old enough to go to school. At fourteen, he would be considered almost an adult and expected to take on the responsibilities of one—adolescence typically lasted from fourteen to twenty-five years of age, when he would be considered a full adult. Consequently, he becomes a courtier in the household of Prince Lionel and his wife, Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. According to Howard, these early experiences and the education afforded to him as a member of a royal household would have been instrumental in shaping the poet he would later become, from the specter of death personified in the Pardoner’s Tale, to the myriad of memorable female characters populating his works, and the importance of war and chivalry.

As a young man of seventeen or eighteen, he went to war in France and was captured. His ransom was £16, the standard amount for a yeoman. However, it was unlikely that he spent any time in a conventional prison; noble captives and officers were often put on house arrest and treated as guests of the local nobility until they were ransomed. He disappears from records after the war, and we can only speculate about what happened to him from 1360-68. Howard makes the argument that he went on to study law at the Inns of Court during this time; after all, his diplomatic postings and experience would have required an understanding of the legal system, and there was one eyewitness account written some thirty years later that Chaucer had gotten into a street fight with a friar while there.

Chaucer marries Philippa, a damsel in the Queen’s own service. Her family is a little above his own in the hierarchy and possesses a similar amount of money. They remain married for twenty years until her death, have several children (at least one of whom might have been John of Gaunt’s issue, although Howard disagrees), but when she dies, he does not remarry. Whether they were happy or not is unknown; medieval marriages were built on economics, not sentiment. Still, Howard argues that Chaucer genuinely liked and understood women and that his works reveal empathy and appreciation for women that is unusual, even though he sometimes relies on stock humor about shrews and nags. Many of his works deal with the theme of love, both romantic love and courtly love.

In 1372, he is sent to Italy on the king’s business, and there he is exposed to the Italian literary scene in Florence, including the works (if not the persons) of Boccaccio and Petrarch, which influenced his works. Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, a premise that Chaucer echoed in his Canterbury Tales: travelers telling each other stories on the road. Petrarch influenced Chaucer’s poetry with elaborate blazons, and other poetic conventions, including the idea of love equaling war and bondage. The last four chapters deal with The Canterbury Tales. Howard examines the different groupings of stories and the way they relate to each other, and possibly, the way they might relate to Chaucer himself, or the broader society—for example, the Friar reflects the well-known corruption of the religious order (and Chaucer had allegedly come to fisticuffs with one when he was younger).

This biography won the California Book Award for Nonfiction (Gold), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography/Autobiography. Readers and reviewers of this book have found it both reliably researched and written in an engaging, conversational tone, a winning combination for specialists and generalist audiences alike. Other features of interest in this book are the photographic reproductions of medieval art found about halfway through the text, and back matter containing a comprehensive chronology, and appendices on Chaucerian English, Further Reading, the Order of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Reputation, and Reference Notes. Beyond being a biography of Chaucer, this book is also helpful for the enthusiasts of English medieval history and culture.