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Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury
Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury
Paul Strohm
Viking, 2014
304 pp., $28.95

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Tom Shippey


Chaucer Before His Tales

And the year that changed his course.

Geoffrey Chaucer's life is unusually well-documented by mediaeval standards. More than 400 contemporary records of him survive, in which he appears not as a poet but as a moderately important civil servant with unusually good connections: receiving appointments, collecting his pay, being involved in legal issues, bearing witness in a heraldic trial. Paul Strohm's new book aims, very successfully, to put flesh on these dry bones, and in particular to home in on one year, 1386, which he sees as decisive for Chaucer, for his career, and for the whole later history of English poetry.

In order to do this, Strohm has to fill in considerable background on Chaucer's marriage, his residence, and most of all his job. To take the marriage first: in 1366, when they were both in their early 20s, Chaucer married Philippa de Roët, daughter of a Flemish knight. He was marrying up. Chaucer was the son of a London wine merchant, whose father had managed to place him at court, but he was only rated as "an esquire of lesser degree" while Philippa was an attendant of the queen, like herself from Hainault in Flanders. When the queen died Philippa, revealingly, received six yards of black cloth for mourning garments while Chaucer only got three.

Much more significant, Philippa was the sister of Katharine Swynford. Katharine had married a Lincolnshire knight, who was killed fighting in Aquitaine. While he was away, she had become the mistress of John of Gaunt, King Edward's brother, and probably the richest man in the kingdom. She bore him four children, and thirty years later John scandalized the great ladies of England by marrying his long-term mistress in order to legitimize their children. John and Katharine's families were unusually cohesive. Her children by John loyally supported their half-brother Henry, who would eventually seize the throne of England for himself, while her son by her first husband probably did his step-brother Henry an even ...

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