The England of Geoffrey Chaucer

Fourteenth century England speaks directly to those of us who live in contemporary America.  It was a century that witnessed decades of famine, warfare, and abnormally bad weather. It was a time of significant importance of cities and towns in England reflecting the growth of wealth and education among the middle classes.  The fourteenth century also saw the emergence of influential professions outside the church among men of law, surgeons and physicians, bankers, important merchants and business agents.  And the fourteenth century tells of a time of the growing importance of Parliaments to express voices of various classes within a system of royal governance.

Geoffrey Chaucer was an important figure in England of the fourteenth century.  Born around 1340 before the middle of the century, he died in 1400 when it ended.  During that time he was a servant to the royal family, a soldier, a diplomat, a Member of Parliament, justice of the peace, controller of customs and in his spare time one of the greatest writers and poets of the English language.

As an official and servant of the king, Chaucer was very well traveled within southeastern England, France, Spain and Italy.  His emergence from the family of a wealthy vintner or wholesale wine merchant of London, and his extraordinary life experiences with many different classes of English and European people extend to us, through his writings, the lives, voices, and desires of his contemporaries.  We can have no photos or recordings from the fourteenth century, but Chaucer creates images for us of the people he knew.  He brings to life the voices of fourteenth century people in a way that we may know their opinions of each other and their sense of who they were.  Through Chaucer we meet the knight, the squire, the franklin, the manciple, the yeoman, the haberdasshere as well as the prioresse, the pardoner, the summoner and many others whose titles cannot be understood in our contemporary world.

Chaucer served the nobility of three different kings in his lifetime:  Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV.  Each noble family, in its own way, appreciated the writer, gained appointments for him, and supported his lifestyle with gifts of clothing, free dwellings, as well as gifts of food and wine.  Geoffrey Chaucer lived a good life in the fourteenth century but he continues to enrich our lives by sharing with us his images of those whom he knew in Chaucer’s England.

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