Exploring the 14th Century
With Chaucer as Guide

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 1987

A Review of “Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World”
by Donald R. Howard

According to one of those recent gloom-and-doom studies of American education, half of U.S. high school seniors don’t know who wrote “The Canterbury Tales.” I’m not surprised; I’m just glad half of them do.

I wonder how many of the people who did the survey, and the editorial writers who agonized over its findings, have actually read Chaucer. Or have read him since their English 101 survey courses.

I’m talking about Chaucer in his own language, Middle English. So-called translations don’t work because maybe two-thirds of his language doesn’t need translating. It’s not grammar and syntax so much as vocabulary that makes reading Middle English laborious. Take the opening couplet of the “Canterbury Tales” prologue, for example:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote….

A word-for-word translation would go:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root….

But that messes up the meter and wrecks the rhyme. And the syntax now sounds quaintly “poetic.” The translator who tries to render Chaucer’s lines in something resembling the original’s metrical and rhyme schemes inevitably drives away some of their ease and spontaneity.

The reader of Chaucer also has to put up with footnotes. And the trouble with that is, as Samuel Johnson observed, “The mind is refrigerated by interruption.”

So no wonder people are ignorant of Chaucer. Which is unfortunate, because he’s probably the second-greatest English poet. Milton is the only other serious contender for best-after-Shakespeare. And for me, Chaucer is to Milton as Mozart is to Beethoven. Both are great, but the tie-breaker is which artist can both strike terror in your soul and make you laugh. Chaucer and Mozart can do that; Milton and Beethoven are long on terror, short on laughter.

A quarter-century after my own course in Chaucer, I still smile when I recall Alisoun’s giggle in “The Miller’s Tale,” the eagle’s bluster in “The House of Fame” or the barnyard fowls’ banter in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” And thinking of Criseyde’s despair and the fate of the rascals in “The Pardoner’s Tale” gives me a frisson.

Much of the delight Chaucer has given me came rushing back as I read Donald R. Howard’s biography of him. Actually, “biography” is too narrow a genre to stuff Howard’s book into, for it’s a work of history as well.

What we know for sure about Chaucer is mostly dry-as-dust stuff from official records of the 14th century English court, about the doings of a Geoffrey Chaucer who was first a page, then a soldier, then a diplomat and a civil servant. These records don’t even tell us what year Chaucer was born or what day he died. We know he married one of the queen’s attendants, but not how many children they had. We even know he was once accused of rape; we don’t know whether that means abduction or sexual assault or whether he was guilty of the charge. We have only circumstantial evidence, in fact, that the Chaucer of these records is also Chaucer the poet.

Faced with not only such scanty evidence but also the webs of conjecture that scholars have woven about Chaucer over the centuries, Howard nevertheless puts together a coherent and convincing picture of Chaucer the man. And he uses what we know of Chaucer’s life and his poetry to shed light on his world.

That’s quite an accomplishment, for the 14th century is almost as alien to ours as an imaginary civilization created by a sci-fi writer. Think, for example, of a world not only without television, movies, or radio, but without print. Newspapers and magazines didn’t exist; books were few and precious. It was a world not only without the internal combustion engine, but without road maps – and there were precious few roads. As Howard points out, our word “travel” comes from the French travail, meaning “toil.” To travel the distance from San Jose to San Francisco would take more than a day. A trip from England to Italy, such as the one Chaucer took in which he encountered Italian culture at the dawn of the Renaissance, took months, and was a trek through an uncharted wilderness in which one relied on strangers to point the way.

Before you get too swept away by the idea of a world without commuting and traffic jams, without talk shows and commercials, remember that it was also a world ignorant of microbiology, without antiseptics, with no clear sense of how disease was transmitted, let alone how it should be treated. Small wonder that the Black Death killed a third to a half of the population of England during Chaucer’s lifetime.

It’s tempting to compare Howard’s book with Barbara Tuchman’s best-selling “A Distant Mirror,” another portrait of what Tuchman calls “The Calamitous 14th Century.” Each book explores the age through the life of a representative man. Chaucer, and Tuchman’s central figure, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, lived at about the same time – the last 60 years of the century. But I think, for us moderns, Chaucer is a better guide to the age than Tuchman’s French nobleman. Chaucer was not only a poet, he was also a professional man, a sort of medieval middle manager, born to the merchant class and educated into the service of the courts of Edward III and Richard II. He had the opportunity to explore not only England, France and Italy, but also several levels of society, and with Howard’s help, we explore them with him.

Howard also crafts a full portrait of Chaucer himself, making us abundantly aware of Chaucer’s achievements. He helped transform English culture by introducing to it what he had encountered in France and Italy. When the literature of pre-Norman Conquest Britain – such as “Beowulf” and the Anglo-Saxon lyrics – had been swept away, not to be recovered for centuries, Chaucer created works that are the fountainhead of English literature. Even the language of Chaucer’s England was unsettled, as the Germanic stream of Anglo-Saxon crossed with the Romance stream of Norman French. The court stuck to French, and the language of learning was Latin, but Chaucer forged the vernacular, what we now call Middle English, into a powerful poetic instrument.

Howard’s book will probably be heavy going for the general reader only in its analysis of Chaucer’s less-familiar works. Nobody but scholars spends much time these days with “The Book of the Duchess” or “The Parliament of Fowls.” Even “The House of Fame,” which has wonderful sections, is too allegorical for the modern temperament. But Howard’s commentary will be invaluable for anyone who wants to dust off the old anthology and read a few “Canterbury Tales” or venture into Chaucer’s greatest work, “Troilus and Criseyde.”

Howard, a professor of English at Stanford, died last March of complications from AIDS, which it’s too facile to call the Black Death of our age. This book is as fine a memorial as any writer could want. There is an almost unbearable poignancy to its final sentence, in which Howard reflects on Chaucer’s attitude toward death: “One must think of the world while one is in the world; facing eternity, our thoughts become closed within the self, our words become silence, and all our works upon this little spot of earth seem like the waves of the sea.”