02 September, 2015
Chaucer’s tale by Paul Strohm
From something to nothing to one of the greatest: 1386 was the year that made Chaucer famous.
Before then, he was a bit-part player in English politics, helped by his family connections. Although he only lived for a few years after 1386, it was the literary achievements of 1386 that wrote his name into literary history.
I fell in love with Chaucer’s work at high school when we read (translated) extracts from ‘The general prologue’. At university, I met and admired ‘The Wife of Bath’, and pondered the description of ‘The Knight’.
To think that none of these literary wonders (and the rest of The Canterbury tales) would probably never happen if Chaucer had remained in favour. Or, in the least, hadn’t been so closely linked to those who lost power.
This is the period that lay the seeds for the Wars of the Roses, and Chaucer was firmly tied to the Lancastrian side. By 1386, support for the king, Richard II, and his party was in decline. And the bureaucrats and local politicians at this time had FIFA well-beaten when it came to allegations of corruption.
Unlike today, some of Chaucer’s associates were punished by death. Put like that, Chaucer was lucky to get away with losing his job and house.
This microbiography will fascinate any medievalists out there.
A more general biography is Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd.
One of my favourite Chaucerian reads (of the non-fiction variety) is Who murdered Chaucer?
A feminine fictional approach to Chaucer’s time is Katherine by Anya Seton. In real life, Katherine [Swynford] was Chaucer’s sister-in-law – and the mistress of John of Gaunt.
Another microbiography you might like to try out is: 1599: a year in the life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro.
Title: Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the road to Canterbury (also published as The poet's tale: Chaucer and the year that made The Canterbury tales).
Author: Paul Strohm.
Recommended by Annie C, Helensville Library.
Annie C is a voracious and versatile reader, but her habitual reads are fantasy, romance, and a diverse selection of non-fiction subjects.