Geoffrey Chaucer, Poet, Spiritual Writer
25 October 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer, born around 1340, spent most of his life in what we would now call the Civil Service. He served under three kings (Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV) and had the trust of all three. Under the first two, he was head of diplomatic missions sent to France, Flanders, Genoa, and Milan to negotiate confidential agreements with those powers. He also held other positions, such as Member of Parliament, Chief of Customs for most items at the Port of London, Keeper of the King's Works (a post which made him responsible for maintainance and upkeep on such buildings as Westminster Palace and the Tower of London), and Subforester of North Pemberton (an office given him in his later years, probably as a sinecure). He died 25 October 1400, the model of a successful administrator, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, in those days an unusual honor for a commoner. But what everyone remembers about him is his writing. Its worth was recognized while he lived--he was accustomed to read his poems aloud to the Royal Couple and their court.

The two works of his chiefly read today are Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales. Both are available in paperback in the Penguin Classic series, translated by Nevill Coghill into modern English. Troilus and Criseyde is ISBN 0-14-044239-1 and costs $9. the Canterbury Tales is ISBN 0-14-044022-4 and costs $6. Professor Coghill used to appear on request before various groups to read from his Chaucer translations, and, on one occasion which he cherished long after, a lady came up afterwards and said, "That was wonderful. Thank you so much. We are so sorry that Mrs. Chaucer was unable to come with you."

C S Lewis's book, The Allegory of Love, which deals with allegorical love poetry from Ovid to Spenser, and with the late medieval ideal of Courtly Love (described briefly below) devotes a chapter of that book to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. I enthusiastically recommend this chapter, and also the one on Spenser. For someone not interested in the history of Western literature, the remainder of the book will contain some boring parts, but it is worth sifting through the chaff to find the wheat. Speaking only for myself, my whole understanding of what is meant by a subconscious desire or thought has been radically altered by reading it.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories supposedly told by a set of thirty pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral, to the shrine of Thomas of Canterbury, martyred in 1170. It is agreed among them that, to pass the time as they ride along, each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way there and two on the way back. That makes 120 stories, but Chaucer had completed only 24 of them when he died. The framework of the book gives him a chance to give us descriptive portraits of the pilgrims, a varied and fascinating group. (One notes, with a wince or a cynical wink, that Chaucer takes it for granted, and expects his audience to do likewise, that a mendicant friar or member of certain other religious groups will of course be a fraud.)

Most of the stories deal with the question of the proper attitude toward marriage, love, sex, and the connections between them. In Chaucer's day, the upper classes, at least, held that it was a man's highest privilege to select a lady and lay his heart at her feet, counting her smile an ample reward for years of faithful service. (This is what is meant by the ideal of Courtly Love. Perhaps some of you will remember the ice cream scene at the party at Twelve Oaks in the opening portion of the movie Gone With the Wind. That is a mild version of the ideal, except that in earlier days, a lady was expected to pick out just one man, and concentrate on making his life miserable.) On the other hand, a wife was obliged to obey her husband, and this did not fit the pattern of the knight serving his lady, ready to risk his life to satisfy her slightest whim. Chaucer explores this problem through the stories told by his pilgrims. The Miller's Tale is a light-hearted caper about a youth who has an affair with his landlord's wife. It is followed by the Reeve's Tale, with a superficially similar theme, but with themes of treachery and malice becoming explicit, as we are reminded that, quite aside from any religious prohibition, adultery has a way of turning out not to be just innocent fun-and-games. The Knight's Tale deals with two noble warriors, each prepared to fight to win the hand of his lady in marriage.

The Franklin's Tale I met years ago, when I had been disputing with my teacher about how Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew is to be interpreted--whether Shakespeare really believed that women ought to obey their husbands. He said, "Have you read The Franklin's Tale, from The Canterbury Tales? You ought to. You would love it, and it deals directly with this question." He then summarized the plot for me, and I promptly went home and read the original, and he was right--I loved it, and went on to read the rest of the tales.

The Franklin tells us of a knight who loved a lady and won her heart and hand, so that they were married. But they agreed that he would continue to obey her and let her make all the decisions for them both, except that in front of outsiders she must give him obedience and deference, lest he be laughed at. They lived happily together, but then he had to make a journey by sea. She went out often to the shore to look for his ship, and she noticed some dangerous rocks near the harbor, likely to sink a ship. She began to worry that her huband's ship would be wrecked coming home, and her husband drowned. Meanwhile, a squire, a young bachelor, saw her, became utterly obsessed by her, and finally told her, "I must have you or I will die." She answered, "Clear away those jagged rocks that endanger the ships, and I promise on my honor to be yours." He went away in despair. But he met a magician, who said, "For a thousand pounds, I will make the rocks disappear." The squire joyfully agreed and promised on his honor to pay the sum. The magician, with an appropriate spell, made the rocks appear to have vanished (although he did not actually remove them, which we all know is impossible--after all, this is the fourteenth century!). The squire rushed off to see the lady, and told her: "The rocks are gone, and you remember your promise. Naturally, I insist on nothing. I simply remind you that your honor is at stake. My sole concern is for your honor." The lady, who had unthinkingly made the promise in the certainty that the rocks would never be moved (as if she had said, "you shall have me when pigs fly"), saw that they were gone, and was utterly distraught. She fled home, and a few days later, when her husband returned home safely, she told him everything and asked him, "What shall I do?" He answered, weeping: "A promise is a promise. You must keep your word." Accordingly, she returned to the squire and said, "I am here, at my husband's word, to keep my promise." The squire realized how much in love the knight and the lady were, and how much her honor meant to them both, and said: "I release you from your promise. Go in peace." The lady returned to her husband, told him what had happened, and they were happy. Meanwhile, the squire gathered all his money, about five hundred pounds, gave it to the magician, and asked for time to pay the rest. The magician asked, "Did I not keep my part of the bargain?" The squire said, "You did." The magician asked, "And did you not have your pleasure of the lady?" The squire said, "No, I did not," and explained the whole thing. The magician said: "The knight behaved nobly, the lady behaved nobly, and you behaved nobly. Shall it be said that we scholars are alone incapable of nobility? Perish the thought! Take back your five hundred pounds and forget about the debt. This spell is on the house!" End of story.

The other stories, or most of them, deal in other ways with the question, "What ought to be the relation between a man and a woman, or between husband and wife?" In one story, a knight sets out on a quest to learn what it is that women want most, and arrives at the answer: "What they want most is to have their husbands show them as much consideration after marriage as before."

The book ends with the Parson's Tale, which is not a tale but a sermon on sin, and repentance, and confession, and forgiveness, and amendment of life. It is followed immediately by Chaucer's farewell remarks, in which he asks pardon for anything in his work that may have encouraged his readers to sin, but asks to be remembered for anything that has pointed them toward virtue, holiness, and the love of God.

The Tales Chaucer was still working on when he died. By contrast, his Troilus and Criseyde is a finished and polished work, a single long narrative poem (about 8239 lines), completed at least thirteen years before his death. It takes place during the Trojan War, and the point of view (as in Shakespeare's play on the same topic) is entirely that of the Trojans. The reason is straightforward. The English of Chaucer's time, like the Romans of Virgil's time, claimed to be descended from the Trojans. (There was a movement in Chaucer's day to rename London as "Troynovant" or "New Troy.") The story deals with a Trojan woman named Criseyde whose father is a soothsayer. He has foreseen the fall of Troy and accordingly deserted to the Greeks, leaving his daughter behind. Prince Troilus, son of the king of Troy, falls in love with her, visits her secretly, and woos her and wins her love. (Marriage is never mentioned, presumably because the king would never consent to having his son marry the daughter of a traitor.) They are happy together, until Prince Antenor is captured by the Greeks, and they (wishing to please the soothsayer) offer to return Antenor, but demand Cressida in exchange. Thus she and Troilus are parted, but she assures him that she will find means to return. But being once among the Greeks, she is afraid to try to return to Troy. A Greek warrior, Diomede, offers her his protection, and she accepts. Thus she betrays Troilus, who is reduced to despair. He fights fiercely in battle against the Greeks, and kills many of them, but is himself killed at last. Then, Chaucer draws the moral. Romantic love is a glorious feeling, but one cannot rest one's ultimate confidence on feeling. The love of Troilus and Cressida for one another, while genuine, and beautiful, and glorious, did not have the protection of the Sacrament of Marriage, and passes away like everything else that this world has to offer. For lasting love and lasting happiness, one must begin with the love of God, and love others in the context of that love. The closing lines of his poem read like this:

    Lo, such an end had Troilus for love!
Lo, such an end his valor, his prowess!
    Lo, such an end his royal state above,
Such end his lust, such end his nobleness
Lo, such an end this false world's brittleness,
    And such began his loving of Criseyde
  As I have told it you, and thus he died.
    Oh, all you fresh young people, he or she,
In whom love grows and ripens year by year,
    Come home, come home from worldly vanity!
    Cast the heart's countenance in love and fear
Upwards to God, who in his image here
    Has made you; think this world is but a fair
   Passing as soon as flower-scent in air.
    And give your love to him who, for pure love,
Upon a cross first died that he might pay
    Our debt, and rose, and sits in Heaven above;
He will be false to no one that wil lay
His heart wholly on Him, I dare to say.
    Since he is best to love, and the most meek,
   What need is there a feigning love to seek?
    Behold these old accursed pagan rites!
Behold how much their gods are worth to you!
    Behold these wretched worldly appetites!
Behold your labor's end and guerdon due
From Jove, Apollo, and Mars, that rascal crew!
    Behold the form in which the ancients speak
   Their poetry, if you should care to seek.
    O moral Gower, I dedicate this book
To you, and you, my philosophic Strode.
    In your benignity and zeal to look,
To warrant, and, where need is, to make good.
And to that truthfast Christ, who died on rood,
    With all my heart for mercy ever I pray,
   And to the Lord right thus I speak and say:
    Thou One and Two and Three and Never-ending,
That reignest ever in Three and Two and One,
    Incomprehensible, all-comprehending,
  From visible foes, and the invisible one,
Defend us all! and Jesu, Mary's Son,
    Make us in mercy worthy to be thine,
    For love of her, mother and maid benign!

PRAYER (traditional language)

O God, who hast enlightened thy church by the writings of thy Servant Geoffrey Chaucer: Enrich us evermore with thy heavenly grace, and raise up faithful witnesses who by their life and doctrine will set forth the truth of thy salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

O God, who have enlightened your church by the writings of your Servant Geoffrey Chaucer: Enrich us evermore with your heavenly grace, and raise up faithful witnesses who by their life and teaching will show to others the truth of your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

PRAYER (very rough drafts)

Blessed Lord, who hast given to mortals the gift of sexual Love, with its joys and cares and complexities and unanswered questions, and hast made known to us the duty of keeping promises and of showing justice and good will toward those about us: mercifully grant that, in our human loves, and in our choices concerning them, we may be guided by thy commandments and live according to thy will; that we and those we love may abide in thy gracious protection, and that our loves may be fitting images of the love between Christ and his Church; the which we ask through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
O almighty God, who hast so consecrated the state of Matrimony That in it is represented the spiritual marriage and unity between Christ and His Church: Look mercifully upon all who have sought thy blessing upon their lifelong vows, that they may love, honor, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their homes may be havens of blessing and of peace; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end.
O God, who hast made us in thine image, and hast placed us in a World of delights and dangers and disasters and duties and dilemmas: Be with us in our pilgrimage, refresh us with pleasant inns and good companions along the way, but keep our eyes always on our goal, and help us to accept every good thing as a gift from thee, to be responded to in obedience to thy will and commandments, that so our earthly loves may become vehicles and images of thy love, and we may at last arrive at that Heavenly City concerning which the Apostle hath said, that eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard, nor hath entered into the heart of man, such good things as God hath prepared for them that love him; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Heavenly Father, who dost give to us thy servants gifts Differing according to our calling: We praise thee for the gift which thou didst bestow upon thy servant Geoffrey Chaucer, of writing poems concerning human nature and human loves and desires, and showing us in them a guide that points to thee, the love which thou bearest toward us, and the love with we ought to have, and by thy grace are being brought to have, for thee, through thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.