The Father of English Literature. The Greatest English Author Before Shakespeare. Bard of The Canterbury Tales. Loyalist to King Richard II. We are acquainted with this Geoffrey Chaucer, whose life we have chosen to ignore because he is somewhat boring. But there is, you should know, another Chaucer, a darker and crazier man who wasted all of his money, never saw his wife, and routinely failed in the presence of politicians and royals. Inspired by Paul Strohm’s excellent Chaucer’s Tale, a new book about a terrible year in Chaucer’s life, I dug around in Chaucer’s biography and learned that his time on earth was a mix of Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Here, in short, is what I discovered:
Chaucer was born under the sign of lunacy. He should have understood that his family was bedeviled with madness after hearing stories of his great-aunt, who, in a fit of megalomania, kidnapped his 12-year-old father and tried to marry him off to a child bride. Later, Chaucer’s father — presumably traumatized for life — arranged his son’s way into a low-level court position. This earned young Chaucer a trip to France during the Hundred Years’ War, where he was quickly arrested and imprisoned, resulting in his ransom: £16, paid in full by King Edward III. That was a lot of money in 1360.
After a Jesus-like lost period, where he apparently wandered around Europe, Chaucer met his early 20s with a marriage to Philippa de Roet, personal assistant to the queen. The marriage was auspicious for Chaucer (remember his crazy great-aunt), not in the least because Philippa’s sister — Katherine Swynford, the era’s premiere Lady of Scandal — was mistress to England’s resident warmongering screwball, John of Gaunt. Luckily for Chaucer, Philippa was revered for her intelligence, calm demeanor, and ability to conceive children, one of whom later became the Chief Butler for four consecutive kings.
Yet Chaucer did not live with his wife. The couple appears to have cultivated an easygoing “commuter” or “dual career” marriage that involved little in the way of face-to-face contact. This meant that Chaucer, in London, was free to pursue his career in politics, where he first excelled and later failed dazzlingly and with terrific speed. At some point, Chaucer became the king’s squire, later a shire knight, and Philippa too achieved domicella, the female version of knighthood from which we take the word “dame.”
Soon enough, King Richard II tossed young Chaucer into the world of London politics by appointing him controller of wool customs, a position with surprising clout. Along with his newfound job, Chaucer was granted a weird apartment at the top of a gate in the busiest part of the city, this time by a corrupt mayor, one Nicholas Brembre, the Nucky Thompson of London in the Middle Ages. Then the king, in an obvious attempt to keep Chaucer as sozzled as possible, granted him a pitcher of wine every single day, to be collected at the port of London by way of the King’s Butler.
Plenty drunk on ambition and royal wine, Chaucer found himself overwhelmed in the nub of a corrupt city. As Mayor Brembre’s double-dealing pissed off more and more potential enemies, Chaucer, coward and nepotist, predictably looked the other way. This led to enormous problems when he later became a Member of Parliament for Kent, especially when the government took a reformist turn and bailed on the King, his pal Mayor Brembre, and also John of Gaunt. Chaucer, a bad parliamentarian, hated his job so much that he openly mocked his colleagues, calling them “zeros” and “mumble-mouths.”
It wasn’t long before Chaucer, master diplomat, was incriminated in the deposed king’s plot to trap and murder forty shire knights. When new legislation was passed that hinted pretty strongly that he should resign, Chaucer bolted for Kent, where he wandered around, took handouts, and continued writing The Canterbury Tales, one of the masterpieces of world literature, without which it would be impossible for me to write in the language that I’m using right now.
Later, Chaucer was mugged. Then he died. Then he was the first person buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Then a lunar crater was named after him, which makes sense because he was a lunatic. After that, he was played by a nearly shirtless Paul Bettany in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale. In 2014, I wrote myself into a piece about Chaucer, which makes sense, too, given that he also wrote himself into The Canterbury Tales.