The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales by Paul Strohm, review: ‘exacting but rewarding’

Pilgrims leaving Canterbury Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

Pilgrims leaving Canterbury Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

Biographers of Chaucer are faced with obstacles, not least a dearth of juicy information concerning his life. Chaucer may have left a big public footprint compared with other medieval authors – his contemporary, the Gawain poet, doesn’t even have a name – but outside his writing this mostly takes the form of legal documentation, notice of goods promised and received, property leased, and attendance at the wool custom. It’s hardly the stuff of Sylvia and Ted.

Moreover, Chaucer lacks the faux mystique of Shakespeare. The author of The Canterbury Tales is a big beast of English letters, but it takes a Bard to generate the truly enduring conspiracy theories. Few authorship controversies have attached themselves to Chaucer. Instead, we are caught between two stools: we know a relative amount about Chaucer the bureaucrat and next to nothing about the poet.

Paul Strohm is the latest in a modest line of biographers to take up the Chaucer challenge. His approach is fashionable: to select a pivotal year in a subject’s life and chivvy the narrative around it. James Shapiro did the same for Shakespeare in 1599; Tom Segev for Israel in 1967. Strohm’s choice of annus mirabilis is 1386.

Sadly for Chaucer, 1386 was more of an annus horribilis. In his early 40s and a shire knight, having enjoyed 12 years as the Controller of the wool exchange, monitoring “the activities of some of the richest and best connected… crooks on the face of the planet”, he was forced to resign and removed to the wilderness of Kent.

The reasons for this reversal owed less to Chaucer himself than to the complex web of patronage in which he was enmeshed, reaching right up to the beleaguered King Richard II and including the larcenous Mayor Nicholas Brembre, the Collector of the wool. Chaucer both relied on Brembre and was supposed to regulate him: a ludicrous conflict of interests.

There was nothing woolly about wool in 1386: it was the nation’s chief export and, along with taxes and “subsidies” (essentially legalised extortion), the crown’s “principal money spinner”. Brembre made a mint, then he fell foul of the reformers. “And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously,” comments Chaucer’s Monk. Certainly this was true for Brembre, who lost his head. Thankfully for us Chaucer kept his, and Kent proved to be his making. Strohm’s theory, and it’s an attractive one, is that, away from the small cohort of friends, acquaintances and private admirers that constituted his only “public”, Chaucer devised “an audience of his own invention”: the unruly gaggle of lively pilgrims at the heart of The Canterbury Tales.

Privation for Chaucer meant invention. Prior to the Kent years, he had produced a highly accomplished canon of poetry designed for private oral performance, including Troilus and Criseyde, but the Tales was of a different order. It wasn’t the first time a collection of stories had been arranged in such a framework – Strohm rightly cites Boccaccio’s Decameron, of which Chaucer is likely at least to have known – but it marked a fruitful development. […]

 

(From The Telegraph, Toby Lichtig, 14.01.2015)

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