Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer Introduction

When English poet and civil servant Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he was given a burial plot in Westminster Abbey. He received the honor not because he was the author of the famous Canterbury Tales, but because he had served in the office of Clerk of the King's Works. Though history remembers him for his poetry, Chaucer spent most of his life leveraging his many connections in order to get jobs in the royal court. He served as a valet to King Edward III and fought for England in the Hundred Years' War. Only in his later years, with his career and royal pension secured, did he turn to poetry. He produced epic poems like Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. His best-known work, however, was The Canterbury Tales, the account of a storytelling contest between pilgrims en route to Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. The tales are a milestone of English literature, as well as a fascinating record of life in medieval England.

Look, we've been in your shoes. The unfamiliar cadence of Middle English can be jarring and difficult. Chaucer may be irreverent and bawdy, but it's hard to get the joke when you're still trying to figure out what the heck shoures are. Still, there's a reason they call him the Father of English Literature. Thanks to Chaucer, it finally became okay for an Englishman to write in his own language, instead of having to show off his prestige by writing in French. Love him or hate him, Geoffrey Chaucer is at the head of a long line that leads straight down to Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling. Get out those Middle English glossaries and start reading.

Geoffrey Chaucer Trivia

No copies exist of Chaucer's works in his own handwriting.

Chaucer originally planned to include 100 stories in The Canterbury Tales. He only finished 24.

Monty Python member Terry Jones is also an avid Medievalist. He has written several books on Chaucer, including Who Murdered Chaucer?, an exploration of the (unproven and unlikely) theory that Chaucer was murdered.

In "The Franklin's Tale" of The Canterbury Tales, a squire asks a magician to cause the tide to cover the rocks in Brittany so that he can win his lady. Turns out, that may not have been just a product of Chaucer's imagination. In 2000, astrophysicist Dr. Donald W. Olson calculated that an exceedingly rare astronomical alignment actually did cause a high tide to engulf Brittany around the year of Chaucer's birth.

Chaucer may have had two daughters in addition to his sons, Thomas and Lewis. In 1377, a woman named Elizabeth Chausier entered a convent in London and later became a nun of Barking Abbey. Scholars speculate that these women may have been Chaucer's daughters.

In 1374, King Edward III granted Chaucer a daily pitcher of wine. In 1398, the annual grant was increased to 252 gallons of wine per year.

In "The Clerk's Tale" of The Canterbury Tales, the hapless Griselda's husband decides to test her - first by telling her that their children are dead, and then threatening to leave her and marry their daughter. Fortunately, Chaucer ends the tale by admonishing husbands and wives alike not to give their spouses this kind of crap.

Geoffrey Chaucer Resources

Books

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400)
When Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he was more famous for having been the Clerk of the King's Works than for writing The Canterbury Tales. Oh, what a difference 600 years makes! This is the grand-daddy of all Chaucer works and a fascinating look into life in the fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (1382-1388)
True Chaucer buffs say that Troilus and Criseyde is actually his best work. Chaucer had a habit of starting poems and not finishing them. (If you think The Canterbury Tales is long, consider that Chaucer finished only 24 tales out of the 100 that he'd planned.) Troilus and Criseyde is the only poem that he actually completed. It's a Middle English take on the classic Greek love story.

Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (1994)
Chaucer poses a challenge to his biographers. There are significant legal and royal records that tell us about the dry details of his life, but nothing to reveal who he was as a person. This critical biography does its best to analyze Chaucer's character through his works and historical record.

G.K. Chesterton, Geoffrey Chaucer (1932)
Famed literary critic G.K. Chesterton wrote a series of biographies about the Great Writers. This is his take on Chaucer. It's a succinct, elegant guide to Chaucer's life and significance.

T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
The great English poet T.S. Eliot was fascinated by the 1170 murder of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury whose shrine Chaucer's pilgrims are en route to visit. He penned this play about the murder of Becket, who is now worshipped as a saint by Catholics and Anglicans.

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (2008)
Medievalist Ian Mortimer's book is a light-hearted guide to all things medieval. If you suddenly learned that you would be traveling alongside Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, this would be your guide to acting like a local. Mortimer explains customs, cuisine, and even bathroom habits of medieval Englishmen.

Music

Baba Brinkman, Rap Canterbury Tales
Baba Brinkman is a rapping Medievalist (wow, we have never typed those words) who hails from Canada. He possesses mad rhymes, as well as a master's degree in Medieval and Renaissance English literature (his thesis pointed out the parallels between hip hop and literary poetry). He has toured the globe with his one-man show "Rap Canterbury Tales." Word.

Nevill Coghill and Martin Starkie, Canterbury Tales - The Musical! (1969)
You read that right. In 1969, a rock musical about Chaucer's rascally pilgrims played on Broadway. The lyrics are cringe-worthy at times, but the musical's cheerful sauciness will eventually win you over. Ask your teacher for extra credit points if you agree to sing the songs in class.

Songs From the Taverne
Gather round for ye olde drinking songs. Pubs like the one owned by Host Harry Bailly in The Canterbury Tales were popular gathering spots in medieval England (and present-day England too, come to think of it). After a few draughts of ale, rosy-cheeked men would start to sing. This is an album of popular drinking songs.

BBC3, The Early Music Show
The Early Music Show is a recurring program on BBC 3 Radio. They have dedicated several episodes to Chaucer and the music from his era. Their playlist gives you a sense of the musical tastes of his era.

Middle English Lyrics
This great, online Medieval resource has a whole section on Middle English music. You can listen to audio snippets of Medieval music and read the lyrics in Middle English. You'll be a star at parties when you break out hits like "Fowles in the Frith": "Fowles in the frith,/ The fisshes in the flood,/ And I mon waxe wood/ Much sorwe I walke with/ For beste of boon and blood." Sing along!

Images

Portrait of Chaucer
A painting of Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve, who actually knew the writer and probably captured his likeness accurately.

Chaucer Engraving
An image of the writer from a 1602 edition of his works.

Canterbury Tales Illustration
A woodcut from the 1483 second edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury Cathedral
The pilgrims' destination.

Murder of Thomas Becket
A twelfth century depiction of Becket's murder at Canterbury.

The Pilgrims
Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, as depicted in a 1939 mural by Ezra Winter.

Movies & TV

The Canterbury Tales (1998)
This award-winning animated version of the Tales is a winsome telling of Chaucer's story. A series of acclaimed English actors voice Chaucer's pilgrims, including the hilarious Bill Nighy as the Merchant. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film, and it won a bunch of prizes in Britain.

Canterbury Tales (2003)
This live-action BBC miniseries recasts the Tales in a modern setting. The six episodes tell the tales from the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Knight, the Sea Captain, the Pardoner, and the Man of Law. A great cast and clever dialogue bring Chaucer's story to life, a mere 600 years later.

A Knight's Tale (2001)
The late, great Heath Ledger starred in this film version of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale." It's a loose adaptation of the Canterbury Tales story, with an emphasis on loose - don't watch this instead of reading the book. Still, it's fun to watch - and to imagine that everyone in the Middle Ages was as hot as Heath Ledger or Shannyn Sossamon.

Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales (2009)
This documentary focuses on Geoffrey Chaucer and the world he lived in. It's a fascinating look into the Middle Ages, as well as the complex world of royal politics and patronage in which Chaucer moved.

Murder in the Cathedral (1951)
This is the film version of poet T.S. Eliot's play about the murder of Thomas Becket. Becket's assassination does not actually appear in Chaucer's poem, but his shrine is the central focus of the pilgrim's trip. Fun fact: T.S. Eliot provides the off-screen voice of the Fourth Tempter.

Edward II (1991)
King Edward II was the father of King Edward III, the first king whom Chaucer served. This film is based on Christopher Marlowe's 1592 play about the monarch. It focuses on Edward II's rumored homosexuality and his affair with advisor Piers Gaveston. It offers a period look at Chaucer's era.

Websites

Harvard Chaucer Page
This is an excellent online resource, featuring a chronology of Chaucer's life, online texts of all the tales (in both the original Middle English and an exceptionally useful modern translation) and notes on social, cultural, and historical contexts that help you understand where Chaucer was coming from.

Geoffrey Chaucer Chronology
Professor Jonathan H. Hsy of George Washington University has compiled this hyperlinked chronology of Chaucer's life. Worth noting is the concurrent chronology of world events that took place during Chaucer's lifetime - and thumbnail biographies of the people in Chaucer's orbit.

Luminarium: Geoffrey Chaucer
Luminarium is an online library of medieval literature. Its Chaucer entry has a biography of the poet along with links to his works, quotes, and study materials. You can also browse the pages of Chaucer's contemporaries in order to better understand the world in which he lived and wrote.

The General Prologue - An Electronic Edition
As you've probably figured out by now, reading The Canterbury Tales for the first time - especially in Middle English - can be a bit tricky. Fortunately, this website (and Shmoop!) are here to help you out. Focusing on the Tales' "General Prologue," this site walks you through pronunciation, language difficulties, and other challenges to reading Chaucer.

Jane Zatta's Chaucer
The late Professor Jane Zatta of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville has left us with the legacy of this amazing online resource. She has insightful commentary on every single Tale, as well as links to commentary on the Middle Ages and other useful items.

Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog
Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog, and it's awesome. A Chaucer fan blogs (in Middle English, of course) about his daily activities in the modern world. A sampling: "Ich wryte this pooste of blog from an 'tavern of halydaye' in Grand Rapids in the realme of Michigan, wherat Kynge Richard and mynselfe haue ordrid 'Step Brethren' on the 'on demaunde.'" Brilliant.

Video & Audio

Canterbury Tales Rap
A Beastie Boys-style shout-out to Chaucer.

The Mark Steel Lectures: Geoffrey Chaucer
An informative and entertaining lecture on Chaucer by British comedian and columnist Mark Steel.

The Pardoner's Tale
"The Pardoner's Tale," read in the original English by grad student David Buchalter.

The Pardoner's Tale Rap
A rap performed by Baba Brinkman at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The Wife of Bath's Tale
Another scene of the rap performed by Baba Brinkman at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Primary Sources

The Canterbury Tales
The Tales in Middle and modern English.

Troilus and Criseyde - Middle English
The text of Chaucer's poem as Chaucer wrote it.

Troilus and Criseyde - Modern English
The text of Chaucer's poem using modern spellings.

Anelida and Arcite
A modern English translation of the poem. Link downloads a pdf file.

Parlement of Foules
The text of Chaucer's poem.

The Legend of Good Women
The text of Chaucer's poem.

A Treatise on the Astrolabe
Chaucer's 1391 scientific screed.

Assorted Chaucer Poems
A collection of Chaucer's shorter poems in the original Middle English.

Deposition of Geoffrey Chaucer, Esquire
Chaucer's 1386 testimony in a trial between Sir Richard Scope and Sir Robert Grosvenor.