(Ca.1343 - 1400)
The son of vintner John Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London between 1340 and 1344. By 1357, Chaucer was a page in the household of Prince Lionel (later the Duke of Clarence), whom he served faithfully for many years. Whilst in the Duke's employ, in 1359 Chaucer found himself serving with the army of Edward III in France. He was captured by the French, and ransomed back to the British in 1360.
By 1366, Chaucer had married Philippa Roet, rumoured to be the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife, and lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. In 1374, Chaucer was frequently employed on missions to the Continent, and visited Italy in 1372-73 and again in 1378. In this time, he held a number of official positions, including controller of customs on furs, skins and hides for the Port of London (1374-86), and clerk of the King's works (1389-91).
The 'Three Periods' of Chaucer's works:
Chaucer's works are usually defined within three periods. The first period includes Chaucer's early work, usually up to about 1370, which is largely based on the poems of Guillaume de Merchaut. Chaucer's main works of this period include the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 about the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt. Also within this period of Chaucer's work was the partial translation of the French poem, Le Roman de la Rose.
Chaucer's second period, known as the Italian period, incorporates his works up to around 1387. Titled the Italian period because his works were mainly modelled on Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, major works within this period of Chaucer's career include The House of Fame, a piece that recounts the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy and is parodied on Dante's Divine Comedy in The House of Fame. The Parliament of Fowls describes the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day, and is reputed to be a celebration of the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The Italian period also includes a prose translation of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophaie, and the unfinished Legend of Good Women - a poem telling of nine classical heroines that introduced the heroic couplet into English verse.
Coming into the third and final period of Chaucer's work, The Canterbury Tales, some say Chaucer achieved his 'fullest artistic power'. The masterpiece of The Canterbury Tales, written mostly after 1387, is an unfinished poem consisting of approximately 17,000 lines of verse, and is reputed to be 'one of the most brilliant works in all literature'. Introducing us to a group of pilgrims journeying from London to Canterbury, the poem exposes us to a deeper insight of 14th century English life though medieval attitudes, customs and religion. Whilst travelling to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, the pilgrims tell each other tales to pass the time. The tales make the poem incorporate a mixture of situations, some very serious; the tragedy of The Knight's Tale - some very humorous, as in The Miller's Tale.
Chaucer's original idea with the Canterbury Tales was for each of his 30 originally conceived pilgrims to tell four tales each - two per pilgrim whilst travelling to Canterbury, and two per pilgrim when travelling back to London. Unfortunately, however, only 23 of Chaucer's pilgrims ever received tales before his death.
"...it has been said of The Canterbury Tales that all of humanity moves through its pages. The stories are full of inimitable humour, at once friendly and shrewd. The points are often made casually, often with bludgeon strokes, but they are always human and illuminating." George Macy, founder of The Limited Editions Club
The official date of Chaucer's death is October 25, 1400. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.
The Macmillan Encyclopedia