Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in the early 1340s. His parents, John Chaucer, a vintner, and Agnes de Copton, were merchant class but comfortably wealthy. Chaucer likely received a good education at a local school, as his later writings demonstrate knowledge of Latin, Italian, and French among other things. By 1357, young Geoffrey had become a page in the household of Lionel, earl of Ulster and later duke of Clarence. In 1359-60, he served under Edward III during the Hundred Years' War and was captured by the French. After his ransom, he returned to Lionel's household. By 1366, he was married to Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa and sister to John of Gaunt's third wife. Together they had two sons, and perhaps two daughters.
Chaucer was frequently employed as a diplomat during the 1370s, visiting Italy at least twice. He also served as comptroller of customs in London (137486). Upon vacating this post, he moved to Kent, was appointed justice of the peace, and was elected to Parliament; Philippa died around 1387. Chaucer returned to London by 1389, when he was appointed clerk of the king's works (1389-91). He dabbled in administrative affairs afterwards, but never again achieved an important position. He died on October 25, 1400, and is buried in Westminster Abbey in what has become known as Poet's Corner.
Besides the above, there are only a few other facts known about Chaucer. He was sued for nonpayment of debts on several occasions, robbed at least once, and fined for beating a friar. Around 1380, a woman named Cecilia Chaumpaigne accused him of raptus (varyingly rape or abduction), but Chaucer paid 10 pounds to avoid legal action. Whether or not he was guilty remains unknown.
Chaucer's greatest achievement is the popularizing of the vernacular. All of his works are written in the London dialect of Middle English. Scholars traditionally divide Chaucer's literary endeavors into three periods: the French period, the Italian period, and The Canterbury Tales. The first period dates up to 1370 and includes The Book of the Duchess and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose. The Italian period (up to 1387) is indebted to Chaucer's travels and to the works of Dante and Boccaccio. These poems include The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Criseyde, and a translation of Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy. In writing Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the poetic form known as rhyme royal, which is sometimes referred to as Chaucerian stanza. Similarly, The Legend of Good Women introduces the heroic couplet to English poetry.
After Chaucer's return to London, he began working on The Canterbury Tales. Left unfinished at his death, it is a frame narrative poem that relates stories told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. This famed work displays a diverse picture of 14th-century English life, and it is deservedly commended for its vivid characterization and adroit poetic techniques.
See also General Prologue TO THE Canterbury Tales.
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