The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made the Canterbury Tales by Paul Strohm

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Written by Victoria

So what’s a medieval historian to do with a figure like Chaucer? A man who still exerts a fascination over his audience down through the centuries, and a man whose unusually active career in public service has resulted in a large number of administrative records that tell us everything and nothing about his life. There are apparently 493 documents available that concern his grants and awards from the king, his household registers, etc., but as to Chaucer the poet and the man, he remains an enigma. Paul Strohm suggests playfully that we could almost imagine

‘the existence of “two Chaucers,” the one busy in court and city and the other scribbling in obscure digs somewhere. The first with a public career conducted at a level of moderate visibility and the other as a private writer perfecting his art on his own terms.’

Strohm is quick to reassure readers than no such two Chaucers exist. But what he does instead, is to build the bridges between the two distinct halves of Chaucer’s life with the help of some cunning historical detective work. Taking the evidence available to him, he seeks to put together the ‘”writing scene”: all those matters of situation and circumstance that permit writing in the first place, the essential preconditions and occasions of literary art.’ The result is a fascinating patchwork of a highly particular time and place. For Strohm’s essential thesis in his book is that The Canterbury Tales emerged from a profound crisis in Chaucer’s public life which saw him unemployed and exiled in Kent. Over the space of one annus horribilus, Chaucer watched his careful career strategies collapse around him, and in the subsequent political wilderness, he turned to his writing to create a unique and lasting piece of extraordinary literature.

So, Geoffrey Chaucer was a man from a humble background who made good. He was born to a London wine merchant, a perfectly respectable trade, but made the leap into ‘gentle’ society when, aged about 14, his father found him a place as a page in the household of the Countess of Usher. There he met his wife, Phillipa Roet, daughter of one of the King’s Hainault knights and a significant step up the social ladder. Not least because his sister-in-law, Katherine Roet, became the long-term mistress and eventual wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The house of Lancaster was a supreme hothouse of patronage, and through his wife’s connections, Chaucer became a diplomat, travelling widely, and then found well-paid work in a London customs house, which came with an apartment in Aldgate. Strohm is particularly good on life in the heart of London at this time, and how publicly its citizens lived, obliged to step outside their cramped rooms to draw a glass of water or cup of ale, to buy bread or visit the public latrines. But they were also surrounded by an ever-changing landscape of crime, upheaval and ostentatious public display:

‘Crowds gathered to view royal entries and other spectacles. Distinguished visitors received formal escorts and processionals to and from the port of London. Religious ceremonials and pageants issued from St Paul’s on feast and holy days.’

The high life in London came to an end when Chaucer was sent by his political overlords to monitor the wool trade in Kent, or as Strohm puts it, to regulate ‘some of the richest and best connected and least scrupulous crooks on the face of his planet’, one of which was his own boss, Mayor Nicholas Brembre, the Collector of the wool. Wool was the chief export of the age and a lucrative one at that. Brembre, who makes a wonderful baddie for this tale, would eventually lose his head over the corruption that reformers teased out.

In 1386, Strohm argues, everything fell apart for Chaucer. Scandal in the wool trade, his parliamentary seat in jeopardy, his marriage in tatters, the powerful John of Gaunt far away in Castile, fighting his own battles, meant that the complex network of patronage that had raised Chaucer so high would now come to pieces beneath him. It seems that Chaucer resigned himself to living in a social and political wilderness in Kent, with little in the way of ready income. But turning to his writing brought him to a new kind of creativity. In the absence of a fond and familiar cohort about him, Strohm’s contention is that he created an imaginary band of listeners: ‘Chaucer’s varied cast of rogues, pitchmen, scammers … divines, social snobs, humble toilers [is] a miracle of imaginative inclusion.’ And to this rowdy, quarrelsome, mocking and yet sympathetic audience, he told the tales that would provide him with an alternative kind of legacy.

Readers should be warned that this is not a book of literary criticism. Very little is said about the tales themselves. And in a strange way, it can seem during parts of the book, as if Chaucer himself has gone on holiday, moved to the margins of the text in order for some of his larger-than-life peers to hog the page. But it is a formidable recreation of an era and a way of living that is utterly alien to us nowadays, and the detail that Paul Strohm brings to his story is extremely impressive. I particularly enjoyed the neat acts of deduction that he would make from otherwise ordinary snippets of information – for example, the amount of black cloth bought for mourning dress was a clear indication of the social status of the individual for whom the clothes were made. This is a dense, information-rich book, and you need to give it your full attention to get the best from it. But it is more than worth the effort.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Paul Strohm, The Poet’s Tale; Chaucer and the year that made the Canterbury Tales (Profile Books: January, 2015) 978-1781250594, 288pp, hardback.

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