Geoffrey Chaucer

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Geoffrey Chaucer
BirthplaceLondon, England
Author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, diplomat

Chaucer, Geoffrey

(jĕf`rē chô`sər), c.1340–1400, English poet, one of the most important figures in English literature.

Life and Career

The known facts of Chaucer's life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records. He was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for many years. In 1359–60 he was with the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed.

By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 1372–73 and in 1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374–86) and clerk of the king's works (1389–91). The official date of Chaucer's death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Early Works

Chaucer's literary activity is often divided into three periods. The first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely on French models, especially the Roman de la RoseRoman de la Rose, Le
, French poem of 22,000 lines in eight-syllable couplets. It is in two parts. The first (4,058 lines) was written (c.1237) by Guillaume de Lorris and was left unfinished. It is an elaborate allegory on the psychology of love, often subtle and charming.
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 and the poems of Guillaume de MachautMachaut, Guillaume de
, c.1300–1377, French poet and composer. Variants of his name include Machault, de Machaudio, and de Mascaudio. He studied theology and took holy orders. In the service of King John of Bohemia he traveled through Europe on chivalric expeditions.
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. Chaucer's chief works during this time are the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose.

Italian Period

Chaucer's second period (up to c.1387) is called his Italian period because during this time his works were modeled primarily on DanteDante Alighieri
, 1265–1321, Italian poet, b. Florence. Dante was the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest of literary classics. Life
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 and BoccaccioBoccaccio, Giovanni
, 1313–75, Italian poet and storyteller, author of the Decameron. Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a Tuscan merchant and a French woman, he was educated at Certaldo and Naples by his father, who wanted him to take up commerce and law.
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. Major works of the second period include The House of Fame, recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae.

Also among the works of this period are the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse; the prose fragment The Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his son Lewis; and Troilus and Criseyde, based on Boccaccio's Filostrato, one of the great love poems in the English language (see Troilus and CressidaTroilus and Cressida
, a medieval romance distantly related to characters in Greek legend. Troilus, a Trojan prince (son of Priam and Hecuba), fell in love with Cressida (Chryseis), daughter of Calchas.
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). In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.

The Canterbury Tales

To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life.

The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrims—such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner—come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators understand his versification.


The best editions of Chaucer's works are those of F. N. Robinson (1933) and W. W. Skeat (7 vol., 1894–97); of The Canterbury Tales, that of J. M. Manly and E. Rickert (8 vol., 1940); of Troilus and Criseyde, that of R. K. Root (1926).

See C. Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (1960); G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and His England (1950, repr. 1963); M. A. Bowden, A Reader's Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer (1964); G. G. Williams, A New View of Chaucer (1965); M. Hussey et al., Introduction to Chaucer (1965); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Chaucer's London (1968); G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (1915, repr. 1970); I. Robinson, Chaucer's Prosody (1971) and Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972); P. M. Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry (2 vol., 1972); D. Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The Critical Heritage (2 vol., 1978); B. Rowland, ed., Companion to Chaucer Studies (1979); D. R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (1989). Bibliographies for 1908 to 1953 by D. D. Griffith (rev. ed. 1954) and for 1954 to 1963 by W. R. Crawford (1967).

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Chaucer, Geoffrey


Born circa 1340 in London; died there Oct. 25,1400. English poet.

Chaucer fought in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), and in the 1370’s he carried out various diplomatic missions in France and Italy. He held a number of administrative posts and was made a member of Parliament in 1386. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

In the words of J. Dryden, Chaucer was the “father of English poetry”; from the very beginning, contrary to the traditions of his formative environment, he wrote only in English (the London dialect). The first period of Chaucer’s creative work—approximately until 1379—is usually called his French period because of the strong influence on him of the courtly literature of France, as exemplified in his translation of the Roman de la Rose and in his narrative poem Book of the Duchess (1369).

Chaucer’s second period began after his travels to Italy and lasted approximately from 1380 to 1386; it was during this Italian period that all his major works prior to the Canterbury Tales were written—namely, the narrative poems Parliament of Fowls, House of Fame, and Troilus and Criseyde. The Legend of Good Women was Chaucer’s first collection of tales and the first long narrative poem in English written in decasyllabic verse form—later used in the Canterbury Tales as well. The few examples of Chaucer’s prose are inferior in expressiveness to his poetry.

The English style of Chaucer’s third period appears in its final form in the Canterbury Tales. This work, begun in the late 1380’s, was never completed. It consists of a General Prologue, followed by more than 20 tales—told by pilgrims as a way of shortening their journey to the tomb of St. Thomas á Becket—and an equal number of linking interludes. Most of the social groups living in England at the time are represented in the Tales. The general tone of the book is one of good-natured humor that is tolerant of human weaknesses; only the parasitic monks are consistently depicted in the satiric vein. The marvelous quality of Chaucer’s humanism is vividly revealed in the Tales’ optimistic affirmation of life, loving interest in man, sense of social justice, feeling for the common people, and democratic spirit.

Chaucer’s influence is most clearly evident in the realistic depiction of everyday life as it evolved in English literature. His influence was also very great in the development of the literary language and national poetry of England. The Canterbury Tales were first published by W. Caxton, the first English printer, in 1478(7). The first edition of selected works by Chaucer appeared in 1532. In 1866, W. Morris began working on a “medieval-style” edition of Chaucer’s works. The first and most complete Russian translation of the Canterbury Tales was done by I. A. Kashkin and O. B. Rumer.


The Complete Works, 2nd ed., vols. 1–7. Edited by W. W. Skeat. Oxford, 1952–54.
In Russian translation:
Kenterberiiskie rasskazy. Moscow, 1973.


Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, fasc. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1943.
Kashkin, I. A. “Dzhefri Choser.” In his Dlia chitatelia-sovremennika. Moscow, 1968.
Spurgeon, C. F. E. Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900, vols. 1–3. New York, 1960.
Coulton, G. G. Chaucer and His England. New York, 1957.
Robinson, I. Chaucer and the English Tradition. Cambridge, 1972.
Griffith, D. D. Bibliography of Chaucer, 1908–1953. Seattle, 1955.
Crawford, W. Bibliography of Chaucer, 1954–1963. Seattle-London [1967].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.