Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner

This newest biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet, diplomat and court official is a tour de force. Whereas other biographies of the poet have examined what can be gleaned of this amazing man’s life from various contemporary documents, art, funeral effigies, family trees, etc. as well as his marvellous fictive works, Marion Turner starts with the premise that one writes what one knows, drawing on the familiar to compose fiction and fabliaux. Assuming this was also what Chaucer did, even when translating and appropriating other sources, she uses his works as a primary source (as well as many, many relevant contemporary documents and the work of chroniclers) to make sense of the various events in his life. Afterall, whether it was to whom he dedicated a piece of work or a character like the real-life Harry Baily owner of the Tabard Inn in Southwark who hosts the Canterbury Pilgrims, Chaucer wrote what and who he knew. As a consequence, this biography not only takes on a rich and new relevance as Turner invites us to examine everything Chaucer worked upon and rewrote and reworked, such as his tribute to the Duchess, Blanche Lancaster, The Book of the Duchess, or his translation and retelling of The Romance of the Rose or his unfinished and arguably greatest or best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, as a critique of both his own life and the times. Further, as Turner delves deeper into Chaucer’s works, she also deconstructs them and their meaning, providing another layer of denotation to not just Chaucer’s life, but his poetry. So this book is both biography and a wonderful literary analysis.

The title alludes to the fact that though Chaucer was a Londoner by birth and for most of his life, a man of the court, streets and castles and estates beyond, he was also very much a man of the world, traveling to various foreign ports for king and country, negotiating royal marriages, loans, fighting wars, able to speak other languages (naturally, French and Latin, but also Italian), meeting with despots, mercenaries and nobles. He also encountered the works of some of the greatest writers of the era and allowed them to influence his writings – Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio among them. He was perceived as a man of worth – not because of his birth, but because of his formidable talents and skills and his ability to dine with princes and paupers. So much so, he was ransomed for the kingly sum of 16 pounds when he was captured by the French when still very young. He was a man of the world as much as he was of the kingdom of his birth.

Patronised by John of Gaunt and paid annuities by three kings, Chaucer bore witness to many great and tragic events of his age: royal ascensions, falls, death, births, the plague, wars, famine, riots and rebellions as well as unjust and just behaviour. Married to Philippa, the sister of John of Gant’s infamous mistress and later wife, Katherine Swynford, he was also close to the centre of power in more than physical ways. Chaucer witnessed the best and worst of human behaviour and relationships and among all walks of life – what love, war, power, avarice, lust etc can do to people, how it can bring out the best and worst – and never lost his fascination for writing about these and the people who experienced them.

Able to remain on the right side of the monarch and the powers surrounding him for most of his life, Chaucer, though famous within his own lifetime, also managed to fly under the sometimes very taut and tense radar surrounding his primary patron, Gaunt, who was variously accused of treason, plotting against the king and was, for an extended period, the most hated man in England as the peasants (and others) blamed him for all the country’s perceived ills. So bad did feelings run, that during the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and which it’s likely Chaucer witnessed from his rooms above Aldgate, Gaunt’s main residence, the palatial and beautiful Savoy, was utterly destroyed.

It’s testimony to Chaucer that, unlike other Lancastrian cronies during the 1380s and 1390s, he managed to stay in the king’s (Richard II’s) good graces and thus avoid punishment, exile or death when so many others failed. Turner beautifully extrapolates how and why this may have happened – in no small part due to Chaucer’s great understanding of human nature and ability to walk in others’ shoes regardless of birth, education, beliefs, and even sex – all of which we’re privy to through his works. Perhaps the greatest irony is that while Chaucer was able to describe in allegorical and rich detail the pathos, sadness and joy love can bring, and place in his character’s mouths all sorts of notions about amour and marriage, his own doesn’t appear to have been too successful.

Despite this, his children went on to accomplish things their middle-class father, the son of a vintner, could once have only dreamed and which Chaucer, with his focus throughout his works on “gentillesse” as a worthy quality, despite rank, would have nonetheless appreciated. Some of the greatest bloodlines, houses and nobles descend from Chaucer’s grand-children. But the greatest gift he left us, and which Turner mainly celebrates and helps us to appreciate even more, are his works. But it’s as the “father of English Literature” that he’s best remembered – the man who gave the English their own poetry and voice in their own language, with eloquence, imagination, humour and beauty.  

This is a fabulous, erudite piece of scholarship that’s also beautifully written and easily understood. A wonderful addition to the Chaucer canon and a great read for anyone interested in history, poetry, literary analysis and, of course, the enigmatic, clever and always creative, Chaucer.

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A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

This was an intricately plotted, historically accurate medieval mystery, full of intrigue, tragedy and rich characters.

When a book of prophecies that foretells the death of the last twelve English kings and the current one, Richard II, is rumoured to be circulating in London, there are many ruthless folk out to retrieve it and for different reasons. Enter, stage right, one John Gower, who discovers the book is in the hands of those who don’t understand what it is they have or how dangerous it is – not just to king and country, but them. Tracking the book and the current holders proves more difficult than Gower could have foreseen, especially when other copies of the original start to manifest and Gower learns that not only is his best friend, poet, diplomat and customs official, Geoffrey Chaucer, somehow embroiled in what’s going on, but possibly his estranged son as well.

Determined to save the king and, if he can, those he cares about as well, Gower risks life and limb, journeying from the pungent and grimy streets of London, the stews of Southwark, the halls of Westminster and the hallowed cloisters of Oxford to get to the bottom of what’s swiftly becoming a deadly game – a deadly game of death. Further afield, there are those plotting revenge and the presence of the book has just made the possibility they might finally get to serve it more desirable than ever.

Filled with minute detail of the era, from fashions, political machinations and plots, real people of the period (rulers, politicians, poets, maudlyns, diplomats, mercenaries etc), I confess I first struggled with this novel as the desire to be authentic almost overwhelmed the story – a story that, I should add, presents London and, indeed England at that time as almost totally joyless and always dangerous. Having said that, one of the delights of this book is the way in which Holsinger brings to bear his incredible knowledge of the era as a medieval scholar, imbuing each and every page with sights, smells and sounds – even when you wish he hadn’t!

Image result for the canterbury tales

politics and wheeling and dealing is also spot on as the rich and powerful (and those who desire to be both) manoeuvre to either get closer to the throne, or bring it down. This is a grim and dark tale but it’s also incredibly clever and the weaving of actual historical figures, and the formation of what were to become major literary works (eg. The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Cresida as well as the work of John Gower – himself a burgeoning  poet of the time) with fictional ones is seamlessly achieved.

If you enjoy superbly crafted historical novels which really evoke time, place and people and a damn fine mystery, then this is the book for you.

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