Geoffrey Chaucer

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Geoffrey Chaucer ([ ˈtʃɔːsər ], * around 1342/1343, probably in London , † probably October 25, 1400 in London) was an English writer and poet who became famous as the author of the Canterbury Tales . In a time in which the English seal still primarily to Latin , French or Anglo-Norman was written, used Chaucer the vernacular and thereby raised the means English literature language. His family name derives from the French. chausseur , "shoemaker", off.

Portrait of Chaucer as a pilgrim in the Ellesmere manuscript (around 1410) of the Canterbury Tales


Chaucer came from a wealthy London wine merchant family. The first written mention of his name can be found in 1357 in the household book of the Countess of Ulster, Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Prince Lionel of Antwerp . Lionel, a son of King Edward III. , was one of the military leaders in the invasion of France in 1359. Chaucer also took part in it as a soldier and was captured by the French for a short time near Reims in 1360 , but was ransomed for £ 16. During the peace negotiations that began shortly afterwards in Calais , he served as a courier in Lionel's service.

Thereafter, no historical trace of him can be found until 1366. From this year a letter of protection from King Charles II of Navarre has come down to us, who granted Chaucer and three companions safe passage through his kingdom to the Castilian border. In the years that followed, Chaucer repeatedly carried out diplomatic missions on behalf of the English king.

John of Gaunt

In 1366 he married Philippa Roet , a lady-in-waiting of the royal consort Philippa of Hainaut and daughter of Sir Gilles, called "Paon de Roet", who had come to England in the wake of the royal consort. Her sister Catherine Swynford was mistress from 1372, later the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of the king. So it was that Chaucer was able to enjoy the duke's patronage in the following years. The marriage to Philippa had at least two sons, Thomas and Lewis, and presumably two daughters, Elizabeth and Agnes. Details are only known from Thomas Chaucer , who later became one of the wealthiest and most politically influential minds in England.

From 1367 Geoffrey Chaucer was listed as a member of the royal household, sometimes as a valettus (valet), sometimes as an esquier (squire), at least as a member of a group of about 40 men, which was to make itself generally useful at court. Presumably he also studied at the Inns of Court , the London school of law. From 1366 to 1370 he was sent abroad four times on royal commission and traveled to France, Flanders and probably also Italy. It is believed that Chaucer was present in Milan at the wedding of Lionel in 1368 with Violante, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti , and that on this occasion he might have met Petrarch and Jean Froissart , two of his literary role models.

His first literary merit is probably his translation of the French Roman de la rose into Middle English. The Duchess's book , an eulogy for Blanche of Lancaster , John of Gaunts' first wife, who died in 1368, is considered his first own poem . 1372–73 he traveled to Genoa and Florence on royal commission. It was on this trip at the latest that he learned Italian, and he probably came into contact for the first time with the poetry of Boccaccio and Dante , which he later used to write the Canterbury Tales .

In 1374 he was appointed customs inspector for wool, fur and leather exports. Wool was England's most important export item at this time and so Chaucer was responsible for raising enormous sums of money, with which the royal court was financed to a considerable extent. In addition to his professional income, he was also awarded an annual allowance of £ 10 from his mentor John of Gaunt from that year (presumably as a reward for the Duchess's book ), and King Edward III. also granted him a gallon of wine a day for life . In 1377 he again traveled to France and in 1378 to Milan to conduct secret military consultations with the despot Bernabò Visconti . A court document has come down to us from 1380 in which Chaucer is released from the charge of having committed raptus on a baker's daughter . To this day, researchers argue about whether this crime should be translated as “rape” or “kidnapping”.

After 1382 he increasingly delegated work in the customs house to his deputies, and in 1385 he moved to Kent . Just a year later he represented this county in the House of Commons , the English lower house. His close ties to the royal court were his undoing in 1386, when the parliamentary opposition prevailed against King Richard II and John of Gaunt; all his offices were stripped from him. Chaucer's wife died in 1387, and despite his previously modest income, he now accumulated debts. In 1390 he was appointed clerk of the works by Richard II , i.e. the overseer of the royal building projects. In this capacity he was robbed by brigands in September of the same year ; Some researchers suspect that Chaucer staged the robbery in order to pay off his debts with the supposedly stolen money. His office was withdrawn after only a year. Instead, he was appointed forest ranger of the royal forests in North Petherton, Somerset , and maintained his contacts with the royal court in the years that followed. It was also during this period that most of the Canterbury Tales were formed .

When Henry IV , the son of Chaucer's late patron John of Gaunt and his first wife Blanche, ascended the English throne in 1399, Chaucer's annual salary was increased considerably; the poem attributed to Chaucer The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse ("Chaucer's complaint to his purse") is interpreted as an indication that the money was not paid out. He settled back in London, where he died a year later, probably on October 25, 1400 - at least that is the date that can be read on his tomb today; however, it was not built until the 16th century. He was buried in Westminster Abbey ; beginning with Edmund Spenser , the best English poets were traditionally buried in the Poets' Corner around his grave from 1599 . He has been the namesake for Chaucer Island in Antarctica since 1959 .


Portrait of Chaucer in Thomas Hoccleves The Regiment of Princes (1412)

Geoffrey Chaucer is considered to be the founder of modern English literature. Although Old English produced a rich literature in the early Middle Ages , this writing tradition ended abruptly after the invasion of the Normans in 1066. From then on, French or Anglo- Norman was the language of the upper and educated classes. It was not until the 14th century that English regained prestige and Chaucer was one of the first to use it as a literary language and is therefore considered the "father of English literature".

His work is strongly influenced by ancient, French and Italian models, but also contains metrical , stylistic and content innovations that established the independence of early English literature. It is usually divided into three creative phases, each reflecting his literary influences and ultimately his emancipation from his role models. Chaucer's early work is considered to be his “French”, the writings dated from 1370 as the “Italian” phase. Most of the Canterbury Tales emerged after 1390 in its "English" phase.


Old English poetry was based on the Germanic alliance , which is also occasionally found in Chaucer's work. Chaucer took the end rhyme from the literary tradition of the Romance languages, experimented with various French and Italian poem forms and adapted them to the grammatical and rhythmic characteristics of the English language. He started out from the French ballad verse developed to maturity by Guillaume de Machaut . In French, the ballad verse consisted of eight lines with the rhyme scheme [ababbcbc]. The same rhymes were taken up again in three consecutive stanzas. Chaucer adhered strictly to this requirement in shorter poems like Truth or Gentilesse . In Italian, the French ballad stanza corresponded to the ottava rima used by Boccaccio . In French the lines usually had eight, in Italian eleven syllables ( endecasillabo ) . Chaucer usually made use of ten-syllable iambic five- syllables ( heroic verse ) and thus introduced the verse that was subsequently most used in English poetry.

By omitting the seventh line of the ottava rima , Chaucer created a form of poetry that was later called rhyme royal and has found many imitators in English literature. As an example, consider the first stanza of The Parliament of Fowls :

The lyf so short, the craft so long to
lerne , Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye alwey that slit so yerne:
Al this mene I by Love, that my felynge
Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge
So sore, iwis, that whan I on hym thynke
Nat wot I wel wher that I flete or wynke.

The last two lines represent a so-called heroic couplet , that is, two iambic five-lifter coupled in pair rhymes. They form the metrical basis for most of the Canterbury Tales and for much of Chaucer's epic poetry written in English .

The "French" phase (before 1372)

Chaucer's first literary work is The Romaunt of the Rose , a translation of the Roman de la Rose , the most influential and longest French poem of the late Middle Ages with over 22,000 verses. It has only been partially preserved, although it is unclear whether Chaucer even completed the translation. In editions of the works, the font, first printed in 1532, is divided into three fragments, which linguistically differ greatly from one another. Only for “Fragment A” (lines 1–1705) is Chaucer's authorship considered certain, for “Fragment C” it ​​is controversial, for “Fragment B” it is refuted. The Romaunt of the Rose is still quite bumpy metrically and linguistically, but Chaucer later borrowed many motifs from it that shape his later poems, in particular the dream as the frame of a poem.

ABC is also a translation from French. Guillaume de Deguilleville's poem is a praise to the Blessed Virgin; the first letters of the stanzas correspond to the alphabet.

The Book of the Duchess (The Book of the Duchess) is Chaucer's own first poem. It is an eulogy for Blanche, the first wife of Johann von Gent, who died in 1368. It was probably created on the occasion of one of the commemorations that the prince had annually on the anniversary of her death. It is a dream poem based on the French model and describes the widower's grief in the allegorical language of court poetry.

The "Italian" phase (1372–87)

The House of Fame (The House of Fama) is dated around 1380 and is also a dream poem, but it stands out from Chaucer's earlier poetry content significantly. It meanders seemingly aimlessly, but in numerous excursions it deals with a wide range of topics, from the meaning and purpose of art, truth and lies in historiography to scientific explanations about the nature of sound and air. The poet Geffrey finds himself in his dream in the glass temple of Venus and reads the story of the fall of Troy engraved on a brass plaque. From there a talkative eagle carries him to the house of the goddess Fama and he experiences how she distributes the fame completely arbitrarily among the supplicants. At last he enters the house of rumors built of twigs, where an unspecified “man of great repute” is cornered by strange figures - there the poem breaks off. Some motifs - such as the eagle - are borrowed from Dante's Divine Comedy , and the poem is also peppered with more or less parodic references and swipes at ancient authors, especially Virgil's Aeneid , Ovid's Metamorphoses and Boëthius , so that it is often used by critics as a treatise on literary theory was read.

Boëthius De Consolatione philosophiae ("On the Consolation of Philosophy") also translated Chaucer into English around 1380 as Boece . It is preserved in a manuscript from the early 16th century.

Anelida and Arcyte deals with the unfortunate love of the Armenian Queen Anelida for the Theban nobleman Arcyte. Anelida's lamentation forms the central part of the unfinished poem . This dramatic monologue is a very eloquent portrayal of their state of mind and is structured strictly symmetrically with the introduction, verse , antistrophe and epode . Some parts of Anelida and Arcyte - such as the legend of the seven against Thebes - are borrowed from Statius Thebais , the lamentation of love is primarily a French genre, and the narrative situation clearly shows the influence of Boccaccio's Teseide , but the actual story is Chaucer's own creation .

The Parliament of Fowls (Parliament of birds) is another dream poem. The 100 stanzas in “rhyme royal” are one of the first examples of Valentine's Day as a festival of love. As in The House of Fame , the narrator is a poet who tries in vain to learn something about love from old books. Bent over Somnium Scipionis , Scipio's dream described in the last part of Cicero's De re publica , the poet falls asleep and, in the dream, is led by Scipio himself to the garden of love. There the birds gathered for courtship chaired by the goddess Natura. The long hesitation of a lady eagle, who cannot decide between three admirers, is interrupted by the goddess, who then begins negotiations on the choice of mate for the other birds. The pigeons plead for eternal loyalty, while the cuckoo praises promiscuity. Chaucer's cheerful allegory is often interpreted as an occasional poem on the occasion of the marriage of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia .

In Troilus and Criseyde , love is not allegorically transfigured, but rather illuminated in its psychological complexity in a very modern way. The verse epic, also held in the “rhyme royal”, is about the love of the Trojan prince Troilus for Criseyde ( Cressida ). With the help of her uncle Panderus, Troilus can win her over, but he ultimately loses her to the Greek warrior Diomedes. Chaucer ends the poem with the advice to young lovers to turn to God's heavenly love instead of love on earth; this statement, like the entire poem, is clearly shaped by Boëthius' philosophy. However, the direct model of Chaucer was Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (around 1340).

In The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer commemorated the abandoned women in history and mythology and the "saint" Cupidus; this theme is borrowed from Ovid's Epistulae heroidum . The story of Cleopatra , Thisbe , Dido , Medea and Hypsipyle , Lucretia , Philomele , Phyllis and Hypermestra is told in detail . The prologue is probably the first epic poem in English literature that is consistently written in heroic couplets . Chaucer used this verse in most of the Canterbury Tales .

The Canterbury Tales

Woodcut from the second edition of the Canterbury Tales ( William Caxton , 1483)

Most of the Canterbury stories were written after 1388, in Chaucer's "English" phase. His literary model was, however, Boccaccio's Decameron (1353). From this collection of 100 novellas, Chaucer mainly adopted the organizational principle of the framework plot; the stories themselves are Chaucer's own creation.

The famous prologue provides the framework for the event: the poet is on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. In a tavern at the gates of London, he comes across a crowd of 29 like-minded people and joins them. The innkeeper suggests that each of the pilgrims should tell two stories on the way there and back, also with the ulterior motive of keeping the guests in a drinking mood. In the prologue, Chaucer characterizes each pilgrim in short, but very realistic portraits. The result is a scaled-down image of English society at the time, because every class is represented, from knights to nuns and farmers. A pilgrimage was the only plausible opportunity at which such a colorful society would actually have come together, and so the framework also proves to be an instrument of a realistic representation.

Of the originally planned 120 stories, Chaucer completed only 22, two more remain fragments. Two tales ( The Pastor's Tale and The Tale of Melibeus ) are prose novellas , the rest of them usually rhymed in iambic pentameters according to the aabbcc scheme. Today's standard text was compiled from various manuscripts, so that a total of ten related fragments can be distinguished. Some of them refer to one another in terms of content, but the original sequence of the stories can no longer be reconstructed beyond doubt.

The diversity of the Canterbury Tales is what makes them so attractive. Chaucer gave each of his pilgrims a characteristic language and a suitable story, so that a multitude of different genres exist side by side, but still represent a unity through the framework story. In this way, Chaucer is able to combine pious legends of saints, courtly poetry and coarse pranks elegantly and without contradiction. In recent times, interpretations that interpret the Canterbury Tales as class satire have proven particularly fruitful .

Scientific works

Chaucer probably wrote a kind of instruction manual for an astrolabe (Treatise on the Astrolabe) for his son . This writing is considered proof that he was also technically and scientifically adept. An astronomical work with the title Equatorie of the Planetis , discovered by Derek de Solla Price in 1952, pursues some of the subjects dealt with in the Treatise and is linguistically quite similar; but it is still doubtful whether it came from Chaucer's pen.

Tradition and history of effects

The Hengwrt manuscript
The beginning of the knight's narrative from the Ellesmere manuscript

Chaucer's works were praised at home and abroad during his lifetime, for example by John Gower , Thomas Usk and Eustache Deschamps . After his death in 1400, Chaucer was canonized as the “morning star of English poetry”, especially by the court poet John Lydgate . Chaucer's style was often imitated and some of his imitators' poems were considered Chaucer originals until the 20th century. His works were copied in manuscripts and with each copy errors, changes or dialectal variations got into the original text, so that finally numerous versions, some of them considerably different, in particular of the Canterbury Tales , circulated. The basis for all today's editions is the so-called Ellesmere manuscript, which was created around 1410. The Hengwrt manuscript in the Welsh National Library in Aberystwyth is believed to be even older (around 1400) and may even have been made by the same copyist as the Ellesmere manuscript, but with discrepancies that suggest censorship. For example, the story of the woman from Bath is noticeably defused here.

The enthusiasm for Chaucer continued unabated throughout the 15th century, and the Canterbury Tales were also one of the first books to be printed in England. The first edition, printed by William Caxton , appeared in 1478, the second in 1483. Two dramas by Shakespeare go back at least indirectly to Chaucer: Troilus and Cressida and the apocryphal tragicomedy Two Noble Kinsmen ( Two Noble Kinsmen ) , based on the story of the knight .

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chaucer's fame faded mainly because Middle English became more and more incomprehensible to readers due to significant sound shifts and other linguistic developments. John Dryden praised Chaucer as "the father of English poetry" and translated some tales into New English . The romantics' opinions of Chaucer differed. Many valued him because of the supposed originality of his poetry, Lord Byron called him "obscene and despicable". In the 19th and 20th centuries his works became the subject of modern literary studies. The Chaucer Society (since 1978 New Chaucer Society ) has published an annual anthology of essays since 1868, which is now called Studies in the Age of Chaucer .

The most famous poem of the English- Modern , TS Eliot's The Waste Land ( The Waste Land , 1922) begins with a reference to the first words of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales :

Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich license
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his half cours yronne,

The Waste Land

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The Canterbury Tales have been adapted several times for the theater, also presented as a musical and filmed several times, including by Pier Paolo Pasolini ( I Racconti di Canterbury , 1972).

The early canonical position of Chaucer also had a significant influence on the standardization of the English language on the basis of the London office language , which Chaucer also used. The Oxford English Dictionary ascribes the first written mention of numerous English words to Chaucer's work, including in the letter A only the words acceptable , alkali , altercation , amble , angrily , annex , annoyance , approaching , arbitration , armless , army , arrogant , arsenic , arc , artillery and aspect .

The asteroid of the inner main belt (2984) Chaucer and the lunar crater Chaucer are named after Chaucer .


Editions of works and translations

  • Canterbury Tales . With an introduction, notes and a glossary by John Matthews Manly, H. Holt and Company, New York 1928.
  • The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer . 2nd ed., Edited by FN Robinson, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1957.
  • Five Canterbury Tales - Five Canterbury Stories . Middle English - German, edited and translated by Dieter Mehl , Langewiesche-Brandt, Ebenhausen 1958.
  • The Canterbury Tales - The Canterbury Tales . Middle English / German, selected and edited by Heinz Bergner, Reclam, Stuttgart 1982, ISBN 978-3-15-007744-3 .
  • The Riverside Chaucer . 3rd ed., Edited by Larry D. Benson, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988, ISBN 0-19-282109-1 . (Applies to the English standard edition today)
  • Canterbury Tales . Edited by AC Cawley, reissued with revisions, Everyman's Library, London & Rutland (VT) 1990, ISBN 978-0-460-87027-6 .
  • The Canterbury Tales . Edited by Joerg O. Fichte, 3 volumes, Goldmann, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-442-90512-5 . (Original Middle English text with German prose translation)
  • The Hengwrt Chaucer digital facsimile . Edited by Estelle Stubbs. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester 2000, ISBN 0-9539610-0-1 .
  • Caxton's Canterbury Tales: The British Library Copies on CD-ROM . Published by Barbara Bordalejo. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester 2003, ISBN 1-904628-02-8 or ISBN 1-904628-03-6 (different licensing).
  • The Miller's Tale on CD-ROM . Edited by Peter Robinson. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester 2004, ISBN 0-9539610-2-8 .
  • The Nun's Priest's Tale on CD-ROM . Published by Paul Thomas. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester 2006, ISBN 0-9539610-3-6 .
  • Troilus and Criseyde . Edited by Stephen A. Barney, Norton & Company, New York 2006, ISBN 978-0-393-92755-9 .
  • Troilus and Criseyde . A New Translation by Barry Windeatt, Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-955507-9 .


The literature on Chaucer's work is immense, not least because it goes back hundreds of years. An annotated bibliography on the current state of research appears in Studies in the Age of Chaucer . A systematic online bibliography can be found here on Harvard University's excellent Chaucer page.

Web links

Commons : Geoffrey Chaucer  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Geoffrey Chaucer  - Sources and full texts (English)
Wikisource: Geoffrey Chaucer  - Sources and full texts


Texts (Middle English)

Individual evidence

  1. Lexikon des Mittelalters II, Sp. 1775-1780.
  2. ^ WW Skeat (Ed.): The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1894-1897) 1899, Volume 1, p. IX.
  3. ^ Lutz D. Schmadel : Dictionary of Minor Planet Names . Fifth Revised and Enlarged Edition. Ed .: Lutz D. Schmadel. 5th edition. Springer Verlag , Berlin , Heidelberg 2003, ISBN 978-3-540-29925-7 , pp. 186 (English, 992 pp., [ONLINE; accessed on September 28, 2019] Original title: Dictionary of Minor Planet Names . First edition: Springer Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg 1992): “1981 YD. Discovered 1981 Dec. 30 by E. Bowell at Anderson Mesa. "
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 2, 2008 .