A hot commodity—in this case, wool—accompanied, of course, by political and financial intrigue. Key players included wheeler-dealers unafraid of meeting their maker after committing extortion, bribery, physical intimidation and even murder. The players also included a well-connected mistress willing to secure benefits for her illegitimate children and her sister’s son, whose father was a government official in charge of a customs house where the commodity was appraised and taxed. The father labored late into the night in difficult circumstances, on stories and poetry that would immortalize his name. The father was Geoffrey Chaucer.
If some of this sounds somewhat twenty-first century, though set in the fourteenth, that ‘s because literary history and biography don’t get old when a good storyteller is at work. Paul Strohm, the J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English at Oxford, is better than good.
Chaucer’s Knight and others in the Canterbury Tales suffered great reversals of fortune, as did Chaucer himself , and Strohm does a fine job describing English politics and living conditions of the epoch in his book Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. “To maken vertu of necessitee, ’’ as Chaucer put it in our ever-evolving, melodious language, is as old as the oldest profession. Strom quotes this line early on, highlighting why Chaucer is still read and examined, as readers negotiate their own entanglements.
English court life is background in Canterbury Tales, and Strohm’s descriptions of pomp provide a fine setting for where he places Chaucer, at Aldgate Tower in London, working his day job and writing for carefully chosen friends.
A (typically) arranged marriage between Philippa of Hainault (in France) and King Edward III of England, in 1328, was marked by the kind of opulence (and labor of peasants and artisans) Strohm delineates so well when he says that Philippa’s arrival “set off a round of parties , the like of which mainland England had hardly seen……jousting, lance-play.’’ The Queen’s retinue included forty knights, each with varying numbers in their parties. Clothing was colorful and elaborate, musical instruments made melodies “merry England” justly became famous for as processions and events went according to complex protocol. Accompanying aromas were painful–not to mention sometimes lethal– and Strohm wants you to breathe it all in, to share his passion for Chaucer’s range, which roams from sublime to suffocating.
Chaucer’s sister-in-law Katherine was the longtime mistress and eventual wife of John of Gaunt, a constantly intriguing nobleman. Katherine and her sister, Chaucer’s wife, were survivors whose ethics were often opportunistic and almost always understandable given the lack of legal status accorded women in their day. Shrewdness was their necessity of invention.
Chaucer, often without his wife, was constantly observing, absorbing and chronicling, with, as Strohm points out, an exceptionally fair-minded attitude that leaves one even more indebted to what he did :
There is no difference, truly,
Between a wife of lofty social rank
Who treats her body shabbily
And a poor wench, other than this :
If their behavior’s equally amiss
The gentle one of highly ranked estate
Is still called “lady” in terms of love
And if the other is alone and poor
She ends up being called a wench or whore.
(There is no difference, trewely
Birwixe a wif that is of heigh degree
If of hir dishoneste she bee,
And a povre wenche oother than this—
Strohm quotes the whole passage in the original, as he does in other well-chosen places, to share the sound and influence on English of other languages over centuries. “Povre” is an easy example, meeting ear and eye like the word for ‘’poor” in French. Scholars continue to examine every extant line by Chaucer, highlighting languages and grammars and their effect on contemporary tongues. It’s fascinating territory that Strohm does not get bogged down in because that’s not his major purpose. It isn’t mine, either, though my latent word-nerd can’t resist mentioning the obvious link here to “poverty.”
When Chaucer toiled at his government post, London, we learn, was “principally governed by a system of twenty-four wards that varied in size and influence.” Chaucer was more interested in observing ward machinations than in getting too involved with them, and Strohm suspects this was deliberate because it had to be.
Part of the mystery with Chaucer is that there is little evidence that he called himself a poet or a storyteller. It just wasn’t done by someone with his gig, and he was practical enough and burdened enough by family obligations to know that he had to survive. His stories strongly suggest that he was not a cynic, but that he had more than his share of contradictions. One gets the impression that he was so clear-eyed it hurt, as when he portrayed a “Parliament of Fowls,” quarreling squawking birds to describe his time in Parliament.
Too many classic authors have been mistreated by leaden prose that understandably alienates anyone used to graceful exposition. All readers deserve that , and I have said as much in my earlier piece on treatments of Dante by Pru Shaw and Clive James. “Chaucer’s varied cast of rogues, pitchmen, scammers, sincere and insincere divines, social snobs, humble toilers, and the rest was, in its day, a miracle of imaginative inclusion,” Strohm declares neatly, summarizing a great pleasure of the Tales.
One of his appreciative examples from “The Miller’s Tale” works well here . It pauses in its account of sexual hi – jinx to gaze upon the spontaneous Alison from an aloof social height, comparing her to a fresh wildflower fit ‘For any lord to lay down in his bed.’ As usual, Strohm provides a translation (For any lord to leggen in his bedde) to remind us of a language that still lingers within us.
No one can fully explain genius or why some creative works continue to sustain us. The best one can do is help readers appreciate inner and outer drama, intricacies and subtleties that genius leaves behind. Paul Strohm, like a knight living up to a sacred oath, superbly serves his master.