Geoffrey Chaucer


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Geoffrey Chaucer (born 1340/44, died 1400) is remembered as the author of The Canterbury Tales, which ranks as one of the greatest epic works of world literature. Chaucer made a crucial contribution to English literature in using English at a time when much court poetry was still written in Anglo-Norman or Latin.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London. He was the son of a prosperous wine merchant and deputy to the king's butler, and his wife Agnes. Little is known of his early education, but his works show that he could read French, Latin, and Italian.

In 1359-1360 Chaucer went to France with Edward III's army during the Hundred Years' War. He was captured in the Ardennes and returned to England after the treaty of Brétigny in 1360. There is no certain information of his life from 1361 until c.1366, when he perhaps married Philippa Roet, the sister of John Gaunt's future wife. Philippa died in 1387 and Chaucer enjoyed Gaunt's patronage throughout his life.

Between 1367 and 1378 Chaucer made several journeys abroad on diplomatic and commercial missions. In 1385 he lost his employment and rent-free home, and moved to Kent where he was appointed as justice of the peace. He was also elected to Parliament. This was a period of great creativity for Chaucer, during which he produced most of his best poetry, among others Troilus and Cressida (c. 1385), based on a love story by Boccaccio.

Chaucer took his narrative inspiration for his works from several sources but still remained an entirely individual poet, gradually developing his personal style and techniques. His first narrative poem, The Book of the Duchess, was probably written shortly after the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, first wife of John Gaunt, in September 1369. His next important work, The House of Fame, was written between 1374 and 1385. Soon afterward Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and wrote the poem The Parliament of Birds.

Chaucer did not begin working on The Canterbury Tales until he was in his early 40s. The book, which was left unfinished when the author died, depicts a pilgrimage by some 30 people, who are going on a spring day in April to the shrine of the martyr, St. Thomas Becket. On the way they amuse themselves by telling stories. Among the band of pilgrims are a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath. The stories are interlinked with interludes in which the characters talk with each other, revealing much about themselves.

According to tradition, Chaucer died in London on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the part of the church, which afterwards came to be called Poet's Corner. A monument was erected to him in 1555.

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