Life of Chaucer

For a brief chronology of Chaucer's life and times, click here.

Geoffrey Chaucer led a busy official life, as an esquire of the royal court, as the comptroller of the customs for the port of London, as a participant in important diplomatic missions, and in a variety of other official duties. All this is richly recorded in literally hundreds of documents (see Martin Crow and Clair C. Olson, Chaucer Life Records (Austin, 1966)). But such documents tell us little about Chaucer the man and poet.

Nor does Chaucer himself tell us all that much. He is a lively presence in his works, and every reader comes to feel that he knows Chaucer very well. Perhaps we do. There is a certain consistency in the character of Chaucer as he appears in his works, and occasional biographical passages, such as this from The House of Fame, seem to ring true:

        "Wherfore, as I seyde, ywys,
        Jupiter considereth this,
        And also, beau sir, other thynges:
        That is, that thou hast no tydynges
        Of Loves folk yf they be glade,
        Ne of noght elles that God made;
        And noght oonly fro fer contree
        That ther no tydynge cometh to thee,
        But of thy verray neyghebores,
        That duellen almost at thy dores,
        Thou herist neyther that ne this;
        For when thy labour doon al ys,
        And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
        In stede of reste and newe thynges
        Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
        And, also domb as any stoon,
        Thou sittest at another book
        Tyl fully daswed ys thy look;
        And lyvest thus as an heremyte,
        Although thyn abstynence ys lyte."
        (House of Fame, 641-60)

This has the ring of truth, and yet we can never be sure how much is true and how much a role that Chaucer adopts for his poetic self. The only non-fictionalized scrap of autobiography that we have from Chaucer is the record of his deposition in the Scrope-Grosvener Trial. It reveals Chaucer as a curious and sociable character, rather like the man who scurried about meeting and talking to all the nine and twenty pilgrims that gathered at the Tabard.

By the 1380's Chaucer had earned wide admiration for his work, and a number of contemporaries mention Chaucer and his poetry. Naturally enough, they describe Chaucer's works rather than Chaucer the man.

A biography of Chaucer therefore depends on some extrapolation and the exercise of good judgement, not always apparent in works of this genre. For a good brief life of Chaucer see that by Martin Crow and Virginia Leland in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. xv-xxvi, and, slightly altered, in The Canterbury Tales Complete pp. xiii-xxv. For an excellent full treatment see Derek A. Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A critical biography (Oxford, 1992) [PR 1905.P43 1992].


For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on Chaucer's life, click here.