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Not So Insular

Rory McTurk

Chaucer: A European Life, by Marion Turner, Princeton University Press, xxii + 599 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0691160092

In what she engagingly calls a “General Prologue” to this biography of Chaucer, Marion Turner sets out to tell the story of the poet’s life and poetry “through spaces and places, rather than through strict chronology”. There is nevertheless a “roughly chronological” ordering of its twenty chapters. The book is in three parts, of which the first, entitled “Becoming”, has six chapters, the second, “Being”, eight; and the third, “Approaching Canterbury”, six. In addition to its “General Prologue”, which introduces the book as a whole, each of the three parts has its own short prologue, and the twentieth chapter is followed by an epilogue.

The first chapter, “Vintry Ward, London”, describes the part of the city in which Chaucer was born in the early 1340s, and emphasises the contrast between his life there and his subsequent association, attested by records dating from 1357-60, with the “Great Household” of Lionel, Duke of Clarence. The third chapter, “Reims and Calais”, covers Chaucer’s involvement in Edward III’s invasion of France in 1359-60, his imprisonment there until ransomed in March 1360 by the king, and the payment to him by Lionel in October of that year for carrying letters from Calais to England. Chaucer disappears from the records after this payment and does not reappear until February 1366, when we find him travelling in Navarre on a safe-conduct valid from February 22nd to May 24th, as described in the fourth chapter, on “Hainault and Navarre”, of which the former in Chaucer’s time was a county straddling the present-day borders of France and Belgium and the latter a kingdom straddling those of France and Spain. It was from Hainault that Edward III’s queen, Philippa, hailed, as did the family of her namesake Philippa de Roet, Chaucer’s wife. The fifth chapter, “Lancaster”, dwells on John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Chaucer’s almost exact contemporary, whose life touched his in many ways, and the sixth, “Genoa and Florence”, deals with Chaucer’s visits to those cities in 1372-73. Each of these chapters has something to say about the interrelationship of Chaucer’s life and work: discussion in the Vintry Ward chapter of the Black Death of 1348-49 prompts a quotation from the opening lines of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in which regeneration and healing are celebrated, and which illustrate, at ll 19-20, Chaucer’s fondness for moving from the general to the particular (“Bifil that in that seson on a day, / In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay …”). The Great Household chapter refers to the Reeve’s and Manciple’s Tales and Troilus and Criseyde in showing how privacy in Chaucer’s time was valued differently from the way it is today, while the chapter on Reims and Calais stresses Chaucer’s early acquaintance with French poetry, notably the Roman de la Rose, in which the separation by Guillaume de Lorris of the perspectives of narrator and audience clearly influenced Chaucer’s work, most especially The Canterbury Tales. In the fourth chapter it is suggested that Chaucer’s experience of walled cities in Navarre is reflected in the images of enclosure in the Manciple’s Tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Former Age. In the fifth chapter, on the House of Lancaster, much space is given to a discussion of The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer’s elegiac poem in the form of a dream vision on the death in 1368 of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first wife. (Turner quotes here the lines “I was ryght glad, and up anoon / Took my hors, and forth I wente / Out of my chambre …”, which are surely a classic case of Chaucer’s blurring of the boundaries between interiors and exteriors, referred to by Turner much later in the book. She leaves it to the reader, however, to notice the amusing, dreamlike impression these lines give of Chaucer having a horse in his bedroom.). In the sixth chapter, on Genoa and Florence, the recurrent phrase “I saugh” in The House of Fame is used to introduce a discussion of Chaucer’s general preference for a subjective, partial perspective (as opposed to an objective, all-embracing one), a feature characteristic of the paintings of Giotto, whose work Chaucer may have known. That he did know the writings of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, all of them well aware of Giotto’s work, is also noted (it is possible that he had begun to learn Italian in his childhood).

The second part of the book covers Chaucer’s life from the mid-1370s to the mid-1380s, his period as controller of the wool custom in the port of London. In the seventh chapter, “Counting House”, it is shown how the language of accounting is prominent in The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, and the Shipman’s and Parson’s Tales. In Chapter 8, “Cage”, the Squire’s and Manciple’s Tales are enlisted in support of the view that Chaucer differs from Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy he translated, in regarding a caged existence as protective and civilising rather than demoralisingly restrictive. In Chapter 9, “Milky Way”, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales are invoked to show how Chaucer differs from Boethius, Dante, Cicero and Macrobius in the way he moves in these texts from a bird’s-eye perspective to a street view, to a world viewed from above as harmonious but found at close quarters to be confused and fragmented. It is in this chapter that Turner departs most markedly from the "roughly chronological" scheme of her book, since she also discusses here Chaucer’s prose Treatise on the Astrolabe, most probably composed in 1391. Chapter 10, “Tower”, quotes from the Miller’s Tale the description of Alison’s complexion as brighter “Than in the tour the noble yforged new”, that is, than a gold coin minted in the Tower of London. The forging of the ploughshare used by Absolon with comically malicious intent in the Miller’s Tale is here seen as an ironic reflection of the forging of swords depicted on the wall of the temple of Mars in the Knight’s Tale, and the image of the tower used in connection with Alison is seen as suggestive of her relative freedom when compared with the image in the Knight’s Tale of the tower as a prison (for all that she is kept “narwe in cage” by her husband). Chapter 11, “Troy” compares the presentation of Troy in Troilus and Criseyde with London of the 1380s and posits 1381-84 as the likely years of the composition of Troilus and Criseyde, the Knight’s Tale, The Parliament of Fowls and perhaps the Second Nun’s Tale, all of them involving vulnerable heroines. While his tenure of the office of customs controller continued until 1386, Chaucer appears to have left London in late 1384 or early 1385 for Kent, since he became a justice for the peace there in 1385 and acted as MP for Kent the following year. In Chapter 12, “Parliament”, it is maintained that the emergence of the Speaker as the common voice of Parliament assisted Chaucer in developing, most evidently in The Parliament of Fowls and The Canterbury Tales, a poetic voice enabling him to present his characters as speaking both as individuals and as representatives of others. The Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowls are here seen as preceding Troilus and Criseyde in order of composition, and The House of Fame and The Legend of Good Women as following it, though The House of Fame may have been written alongside Troilus. In Chapter 13, “Empire”, which describes Chaucer’s second visit to Italy in 1378, it is argued that his interest as a poet in “tidings”, that is, varied, unreliable stories, evident above all in The House of Fame but also in the Man of Law’s Tale and elsewhere, implies a rejection on his part of Dante’s view of history as following a divine plan reflected in the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire, with which England became linked with the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382. In chapter 14, “Garden”, another rejection by Chaucer is argued for. It is maintained here that The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women with its F-Prologue, and the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales were written around much the same time, 1386-87, and that the garden setting of the F-Prologue, characteristic also of The Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowls and followed in the Legend by a repetitive sequence of poems with little forward progression, represented for Chaucer a poetry reflective of stasis, which he now rejected in favour of poetry reflecting movement, such as is found in The House of Fame and is developed in The Canterbury Tales (it should be noted however that he returned to the F-Prologue in revising it, as the G-Prologue, after the death of Anne of Bohemia in 1394).

The third part of the book covers Chaucer’s life from around 1386 to his death in 1400, the period of the writing of most of The Canterbury Tales. In the prologue to this part of the book Chaucer is contrasted with Dante in requiring his readers to look not through his text to find the hidden meaning (as in the case of Dante) but across it from one part to another, with comparison and contrast in mind. Thus, after a chapter of speculation on where in Kent Chaucer might have lived after leaving London (Chapter 15, “South of the Thames”), the sixteenth chapter, “Inn”, shows how the Tabard Inn in Southwark, the starting point for the pilgrimage to Canterbury as described in the General Prologue, contrasts socially and morally with the taverns of the Pardoner’s and Cook’s Tales; how the Knight’s and Miller’s Tales reflect a contrast and interdependence of genre and social class, also reflected in Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas; and how the Reeve’s Tale, albeit of the same genre as the Miller’s, nevertheless contrasts with it stylistically. In Chapter 17, “Peripheries”, Chaucer’s appointments as clerk of the king’s works in 1389 and somewhat later as forester for North Petherton in Somerset, both positions involving travel, are seen in relation to the geographical scope of The Canterbury Tales, the emphasis in the Tales on the periphery as much as on the centre (witness Osney and Trumpington in relation to Oxford and Cambridge in the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales respectively), and the idea of the forest as a corrective to the life of the court, as in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. In Chapter 18, “What lies beneath”, the influence on The Canterbury Tales of Saint Jerome’s antifeminist Adversus Jovinianum and Pope Innocent III’s heavily moralistic De miseria humanae conditionis, both referred to in the G-Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, is discussed. It is shown that Chaucer makes ironic, “source-twisting” use of Adversus Jovinianum in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the Merchant’s Tale, and of De miseria in the Man of Law’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale. “Gentilesse”, or nobility, is further shown in this chapter to be a proccupation of the Parson’s, Franklin’s, Squire’s, Clerk’s, and Wife of Bath’s Tales, the basic message being that true nobility is not a matter of social status or background. In Chapter 19, “Threshold”, it is argued that the Second Nun’s, Canon’s Yeoman’s, Manciple’s, and Parson’s Prologues and Tales are “threshold” texts in the sense that they are told when the pilgrims are on the outskirts of Canterbury, the destination never quite reached, and The Canterbury Tales as a whole is nearing its end. It is even implied here that in his unfinished poems – The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women and The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer is deliberately returning his readers to “the threshold of knowledge” in withholding from them the sense of an ending or of completion, such as a poem by Dante would impart, and leaving them to draw their own conclusions. After an account in the final chapter (Chapter 20, “Abbey”) of Chaucer’s leasing of a house in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in late 1399, the year of Henry IV’s (Bolingbroke’s) assumption of the throne, his petitioning poem to Henry (The Complaint to his Purse) and his Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales are themselves presented as “threshold” texts in that they resist closure, requiring responses from their readers to a greater extent than Chaucer’s earlier poem, An ABC, and the concluding words of the Parson’s Tale, with which they are respectively compared. The brief epilogue, entitled “Tomb”, describes Chaucer’s reburial in Westminster Abbey in 1556 following his recognition in the fifteenth century as the Father of English Literature. (It may be noted here that Turner says nothing of the view advanced by Terry Jones and others that Chaucer was murdered in 1402 at the instigation of Archbishop Thomas Arundel; see Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery, by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor (London, 2003), critically reviewed by Derek Pearsall in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 27 (2005). The book is, however, referred to in a footnote, and in the bibliography.)

In a book announcing itself as “a European life” of Chaucer and aiming to tell the story of Chaucer’s life and poetry "through places and spaces" it is disappointing to find that one place, Ireland, is hardly mentioned. It is noted that Lionel, Duke of Clarence, with whose household Chaucer is known to have been connected from 1357-60, spent the early 1360s in Ireland and oversaw the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366; otherwise all the book has to offer about Ireland is that the father of Lionel’s wife, Elizabeth, William de Burgh, 3rd earl of Ulster, who was murdered in 1333, was “the greatest landowner in Ireland”; that in Chaucer’s time England and Ireland were thought to be on the western periphery of the known world; that one of Chaucer’s assailants when he was robbed in 1390 was an Irishman; that Northumbria was Christianised by Irish and Scottish monks; and that Richard II was in Ireland as part of his bid for imperial power in 1394-95. The author is clear that Chaucer is known to have been with Lionel in Calais in October 1360 and that he then disappears from the record until February 1366, when he re-emerges in Navarre. The intervening period thus constitutes Chaucer’s “lost years”; as Turner writes: “we don’t know what Chaucer was doing in the first half of the 1360s”. She admits the possibility that he was with Lionel during that time, but does not go so far as to suggest that he spent that period, or part of it, in Ireland.

She does allow herself a considerable measure of conjecture at various stages of her narrative: in suggesting, for example, that Chaucer set out for Navarre from either England or Aquitaine; in speculating that he had read the Auchinleck manuscript; in arguing against Paul Strohm’s view that as controller of customs Chaucer was in a complicit relationship with Nicholas Brembre, the collector; in suggesting that he visited the library at Pavia in 1378; in surmising that he gave support to the Hanse merchants arrested in London in 1388; in suggesting that Lewis Clifford may have been godfather to his son Lewis; in arguing for Greenwich as his Kentish place of residence; in suggesting that Henry of Derby’s (Bolingbroke’s) gifts to Chaucer in the year preceding February 1st, 1396 were an acknowledgement of The Book of the Duchess and/or of the marriage of Chaucer’s son Thomas to Maud Burghersh; in presenting as “probable, if not provable” the view that the Canon’s Yeoman’s, Manciple’s and Parson’s Prologues and Tales were written as a sequence and mostly towards the end of Chaucer’s life; in surmising that Chaucer attended the court of Richard II in Oxfordshire in 1397; and in suggesting that he visited Calais in 1400, the last year of his life. (It is true that Chaucer was paid £10 by the hands (per manus) of Nicholas Usk, treasurer of Calais, on February 21st, 1400, but it is not certain that the payment was made in Calais, or that the phrase per manus necessarily implies direct payment to the payee, see Chaucer Life-Records, edited by Martin M Crow and Clair Olson (Oxford, 1966).

I have no objection to this recurrent element of conjecture in Turner’s book: indeed I suspect that she may well be right in most of the suggestions I have just listed. I simply regret that she cannot apparently bring herself to conjecture that Chaucer spent some at least of his lost years in Ireland. Once this possibility is admitted (and it is of course a possibility and no more), so many other interesting possibilities come up for consideration. It could be argued, for instance, that similarities between The House of Fame and the account by Gerald of Wales of the shrine of St Brigid of Kildare in his Topographia Hibernica (c 1188) suggest either that Chaucer had read this account or had heard traditions of the shrine while in Ireland, or both; that he became aware in Ireland of the Irish saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga (The destruction of Da Derga’s hostel), which also shows similarities to The House of Fame; that he was influenced in The Canterbury Tales by the twelfth century Irish prosimetric narrative Acallam na Senórach (Tales of the Elders of Ireland), which, like the Tales, consists of stories told within the framing story of a journey and reflects many different literary genres; that in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue as well as her Tale he was indebted to an Irish version of the Loathly Lady story reflected in Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedóin (The adventure of the sons of Eochaid Mugmedón); and that, in his pioneering use of the ten-syllable line (several times mentioned by Turner), he was influenced by the five-stress line characteristic of the amhrán (song) tradition of Irish poetry, of which the first recorded examples date from the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, but which is believed to have existed in Ireland well before Chaucer’s time. All of this is argued in my book Chaucer and the Norse and Celtic Worlds (Aldershot, 2005), reviewed most critically by Andrew Johnston in Anglia (Tübingen) 126 (2008), and most favourably by Heather O’Donoghue in The Review of English Studies 57 (2006). These Irish traditions, whether or not they influenced him, would seem to deserve a place in a “European life” of Chaucer, if only as a basis for comparison and contrast with his work, undertaken in a spirit of which Chaucer himself, as portrayed by Marion Turner, would surely have approved.


Rory McTurk is professor emeritus of Icelandic Studies at the University of Leeds.