Geoffrey Chaucer and Cultural Confidence

By Gerald Therrien

Have you ever thought about where the English language, that we speak today, came from?

In school, we were told that there was some indigenous Celtic language, and when the Romans invaded, the Celtic got mixed in with the Latin. And when the Romans left, the Angles and Saxons invaded, and some Germanic words got mixed in too. And when the Normans invaded, some French got mixed into the pot as well.

But with all this mixture of different languages, Latin remained the language of public documents, of the churches, and of teaching. Some people point to a Greek influence on English, but any knowledge of Greek thought would have come through Latin translations.

A more serious study of Greek in England’s universities didn’t begin until after 1499, when Erasmus visited England and drew around him some like-minded thinkers, like Thomas More, and a revival in the study of Greek thinking began.

Thomas More and Erasmus- Two moral and literary giants of England (paintings by Hans Holbein)

But by the question – where did the English language come from? – I didn’t mean, where did English come from ‘technically’, but where did it come from ‘ideally’ – i.e. the idea of having a modern English language, an English that could be spoken by the average person, and not only the administrators, but a language that could build a culture for all the people.  

But today, the English-speaking world seems to be descending into a cultural civil war, forcing us to steer between the Scylla of neo-liberalism and the Charybdis of neo-conservatism. Only a proper cultural confidence of English/American history may provide us with a safe passage to our past and to our future.  

Around 1136 AD, just before the start of the civil war among the Norman rulers of Britain, known as the ‘Anarchy’, that brought the Plantagenets to the throne of England, a story was written (in Latin) that came to be called ‘the History of the Kings of Britain’ (Historia Regnum Britanniae) by a Welsh clergyman, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and it was written in much the same manner as Homer:

  “Thus it is that our poet [Homer], though he sometimes employs fiction for the purposes of instruction, always gives the preference to truth; he makes use of what is false, merely tolerating it in order the more easily to lead and govern the multitude … In this manner he undertook the narration of the Trojan war, gilding it with the beauties of fancy and the wanderings of Odysseus; but we shall never find Homer inventing an empty fable apart from the inculcation of truth.” [Strabo]  

Geoffrey tells a wonderful story of Aeneas’s great-grandson, Brutus, who sailed to Briton and founded New Troy (London), and then of the kings of the Britons (including Lear) until the Roman invasion, and after that, of the Germanic invasion of the Angles and Saxons, and later of the invasion from Brittany. And it is here that Geoffrey tells the story of King Arthur, and the attempt to unify the Britons and fight against the barbarians and invaders.

And perhaps seeing the coming civil war in his own time, Geoffrey tells this story of the great King Arthur, a story that could one day be used as a beginning of a cultural confidence for England, and perhaps end the civil war. But during the later Middle Ages and the age of the Crusades, this story of Arthur and his knights was changed, by people like Chretien de Troyes, into a chivalric romance.

But this ‘romantic imitation’ of ideas of fate and love was a problem for a proper and truthful English cultural confidence – a problem that began to be addressed ‘ideally’ by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 – 1400), at a time just before another civil war, known as the ‘War of the Roses’.   A good look at the history of this period can be found by reading Shakespeare’s history plays: ‘Edward III’ and ‘Richard II’ – the Plantagenet kings; ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ – the Lancaster kings; and ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Richard III’ – the kings during the ‘War of the Roses’ before the Tudors came to the throne.  

As the Lancastrians could be seen as a bridge from the Plantagenets to the Tudors, so in a similar way, Chaucer can also be seen as a bridge from the Middle Ages of Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Age of Spenser and Marlowe.   And Chaucer would be very close to the political fights that were ongoing during this time of change. He lived during the reigns of Edward III, of Richard II, and after Richard’s abdication (for a very short time) of Henry IV, the son of John of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster) – who was Chaucer’s good friend.  

Chaucer was born (possibly) around 1340, the son of a vintner in London, and lived during the years of the ‘black death’ in the British Isles, 1348-1351. He was (possibly) schooled at St. Paul’s, where he (possibly) learned Latin, French, and later, Italian. At around the age of 16, he became a page to the wife of Prince Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and upon her death, he became a page for the Queen.   Later he (possibly) studied law at one of the Inns of Court, and (possibly) at Oxford. Afterwards, he became a valet and squire to King Edward III, and he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting of the Queen, that he had first met while both were working for the household of Prince Lionel.  

Sometime during this period, Chaucer would become friends with Prince John of Gaunt, who became the Duke of Lancaster after marrying Blanche of Lancaster. After Blanche’s death in 1368, Chaucer would write a poem ‘The Book of the Duchess’ as a consolation to John.   Lancaster’s third wife, Katherine, was the sister of Philippa, Chaucer’s wife, and so Chaucer and Lancaster would become brothers-in-law. Lancaster’s son, the future King Henry IV, and his grandson, the future King Henry V, would (possibly) have met and spoke with, and (possibly) also have studied and learned from Chaucer. Lancaster would die eight months before the 32-year-old Henry IV became king, and Chaucer would die, of unknown causes (???), one year after Henry IV became king, when Henry V was 13 years-old. Lancaster’s and Katherine’s great-grand-son (and Chaucer’s great-grand-nephew) would become Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England !!!  

In December 1372, Chaucer was sent, as part of a trade mission, to Genoa in Italy, and he also visited Florence, where he was able to learn about Dante and his ‘Divine Comedy’ – and where it is thought that he (possibly) may have met Boccaccio at Florence or may have (possibly) met Petrarch at Arqua. And it would be this ‘Italian’ influence that helped Chaucer in his attempts at a beginning of an English school of poetry.  

In 1374 Chaucer became a comptroller of the wool customs in the port of London, and now having more time at home and less time at court, he wrote another poem ‘The House of Fame’.  

In 1378, Chaucer was sent on another mission to the Lord of Milan, where Chaucer could have experienced this lord’s great library, and maybe here he became acquainted with the poetical works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, because he brought back to England with him, copies of Boccaccio’s poems. Afterwards he wrote another poem, about St. Valentine’s Day, ‘The Parliament of Fowls’.   While most of us know Chaucer as the author of the ‘Canterbury Tales’, we should also remember him for these three poems, and for what these three poems all have in common – a dream. And in all three poems, he directly references ‘Scipio’s Dream’ by Cicero.

Part 1 – ‘The Book of the Duchess’

[Note: I have used “a modernised version or translation, retaining Chaucer’s rhyme scheme, and close to the original, but eliminating archaisms which would require explanatory notes” by A. S. (Tony) Kline (2007).A free download of Chaucer’s poem can be found at: While it is not 100% perfect, it is still a wonderful work and an enjoyable effort that gives us humble readers an easily read and easily understood insight into the mind of our English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.]

The poem begins with the author of our poem complaining that he cannot sleep, that he lives in a kind of apathy, where he feels neither joy nor sorrow, where he doesn’t care about anything, and where his ‘sorrowful imagination’ fills his head with such ‘melancholy’ and ‘fantasies’ that he fears that this may eventually kill him.

I wonder greatly, by this day’s light,
How I still live, for day and night
The sleep I gain is well nigh naught,
I have so many an idle thought,
Simply through default of sleep,
That, by my troth, I take no heed
Of anything that comes or goes,
Nor anything do like or loath.
All is of equal good to me,
Joy or sorrow, whichever be,
For I have feeling now for nothing,
But am, as it were, a dazed thing
Ever on the point of dropping down
For sorrowful imagination
Always wholly grips my mind.  
[lines 1-15]

But then, one night when our poet couldn’t sleep, he decided to read a book – Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’, and in this book, he found a tale of a king and queen – ‘Ceyx and Alcyone’. And now their story is told – that when Ceyx didn’t return from a sea voyage (where during a storm, he and all his crew were drowned) Alcyone was so worried and so sorrowful, not knowing if he was alive or dead, and so she prayed to Juno to show her ‘mercy’, and to tell her, in a dream, what had happened to her husband.

Juno sent her messenger to tell Morpheus, the god of sleep, that he should go and find the dead body of Ceyx, and so, wearing the body of Ceyx, he could appear to Alcyone in her dream, to tell her how he had drowned, so as to end her sorrow.

In the next part of the poem, our poet tells us that this story made him think that this would be wonderful, if it was true – that maybe here was a way that he could solve his problem of not sleeping!

And so, after promising a gift to Morpheus, or Juno, or anyone else, that would let him sleep and get some rest, he finally fell asleep and he had this dream. And he compares this telling of his dream, to Joseph telling Pharoah of his dream, and to Macrobius telling of Scipio’s dream.

[Macrobius Ambrosius Theodorius, who lived during the 5th century AD, wrote ‘Commentary on the Dream of Scipio’ that was widely copied and read, and this is how the ‘Dream of Scipio’ – the sixth book of Cicero’s ‘Republic’, survived and was passed down to later generations, including Chaucer.]

Scarcely had I that word said
Right thus as I have told it you,
When suddenly, I know not how,
Such a desire at once me took
To sleep, that right upon my book
I fell asleep, and therewith seemed
To dream so wholly sweet a dream,
So wonderful that never yet
I think has any had the wit
To know how my dream be read;
No, not Joseph, be it said,
Of Egypt, he that deciphered so
The dreams of the king, Pharoah,
No more than the least of us;
No, scarcely could Macrobius,
He who wrote the whole vision
Scipio dreamed, of that noble man
He who was called the African
Such marvels happened then –
Read my vision, it would seem,
Lo, thus it was, this was my dream.
[lines 270 – 290]

Now our poet is dreaming, and it’s a morning in May when he’s just been awakened by the sweet singing of the birds, and all the windows in his chamber were stained with the story of Troy, and all the walls were painted with the story of the Romance of the Rose.

[It has been claimed that Chaucer translated into old English ‘The Romance of the Rose’ (a 13th century French poem that was also about a dream of a search for love).]

While lying awake in bed, he heard the huntsman blow his horn to signal the start of the king’s hunt, and so he rose and joined the hunt in the forest. Then while walking in the forest, he came across a young knight, dressed in black, sitting against a tree, with his head hanging down in grief, reciting a song of sorrow.

Our poet asks the knight what makes him so troubled, and that if the knight would tell him why, then maybe he could help to ease his heart. But the knight says that nothing can cure his sorrow, but that if anyone that heard his story, didn’t have ‘ruth’ and ‘pity’ for him [i.e. compassion], then they must surely have an fiendish heart.

And whoever knew all, by my truth,
Of my sorrow, and had not ruth
And pity on my sorrow’s smart
He would have a fiend’s heart. [lines 591 – 594]

And now, we hear the knight tell his tale of woe to our poet. He blames his sorrow upon Fortune, and he compares his fate to a game of chess, where he lost his queen, and Fortune called out ‘Check’ and ‘Mate’! And the knight wished that he had studied more, so that he could have guarded his queen better, but then he said that ‘I hold that wish not worth a straw’ – that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, that he couldn’t have changed his fate, and that is why he is so sorrowful.

Yet, in truth, I say, what for and why?
I hold that wish not worth a straw.
It would never have aided me more,
For Fortune knows many a wile,
There are but few can her beguile [lines 670 – 674]

And so, our poet said that the knight should have some compassion for himself, and he tried to remind the knight of Socrates, who cared ‘not a straw’ for fate.

‘Ah, good sir’, quoth I, ‘say not so.
Have some pity on human nature
That created you as a creature.
Remember how once Socrates
Counted not a straw, not three,
Aught that Fortune could do.’ [lines 714 – 719]

Here our poet is referring to Socrates saying that instead of fearing death, he feared doing something that was unjust:

‘Then I, however, showed again, by action, not in word only, that I did not care a whit for death, if that be not too rude an expression, but that I did care with all my might not to do anything unjust or unholy.’ [Apology – 32d]

And now begins an argument between our poet and the knight.

‘No’, quoth he, ‘I can not so’.
‘Who so, good sir, by God!’ quoth I,
‘Nay say not so in truth, for, why,
Though you had lost queens twelve,
And then for sorrow slain yourself,
You would be damned in this case
As rightly as Medea of Thrace,
Who slew her children for Jason;
And Phyllis who for Demophon
Hung herself, well-away,
Since he had failed on that day
To come to her. Another rage
Had Dido too, Queen of Carthage,
Who slew herself since Aeneas
Was false, what a fool she was!
And Echo died since Narcissus
Would not love her, and right thus
Many another was folly done.
And for Delilah died Sampson,
Who slew himself beneath the pillar.
But there is none alive here
Would for a queen feel this woe!’ [lines 720 – 741]

Our poet tells the knight that this ‘romantic’ kind of love will end with him killing himself, and it’s not real love, it’s rage, foolishness and folly, and that he shouldn’t feel this way, over a queen. But now, the knight tells our poet that he has lost more than a queen – ‘I have lost more than you can see’, and so, the knight tells his story that since his youth, when he first began to understand what love is, he devoted himself to love.

But because love came first in thought
Therefore I forgot it nought.
I chose love as my first craft,
Therefore it bides with me at last.’ [lines 789 – 792]

Then one day, by Fortune, he chanced to see a lady that surpassed all others in beauty, both in manners and in appearance, and that she was all that entered into his thoughts. And many others also looked on her, hoping that she would take mercy on them – but ‘she gave not a straw’ for them all.

‘But many a one with a glance she hurt,
Though that little troubled her at heart,
For she knew nothing of their thought:
Though whether she knew or knew it not,
She gave not a straw for all, you see!
To win her love no closer was he
At home, than one who in India pined;
The foremost one was ever behind.
But good folk above all others
She loved as men love their brothers;
Of which love she was generous rarely
In certain places that proved worthy’ [lines 883 – 894]

But she gave ‘not a straw’, not because of pride, or ‘petty tricks’ but because she set her mind ‘without malice upon gladness’ – no one was ever harmed ‘by her tongue’, her word was ‘true as any bond’, ‘nor chided she’ whatever happened.

‘She so loved her own good name,
She wished to trifle with no man,
No, be sure, she would not stand
That any should live in suspense
With half-hints or sly countenance’ [lines 1018 – 1022]

And so, the knight set about to lay all his love, his joy, and his bliss upon her, and he even made songs of his feelings for her, but he was afraid to tell her. Then thinking that Nature couldn’t have made someone with such beauty and goodness, but ‘without mercy’, he finally told her his story (but not very well).

‘For many a word I over-skipped
In my tale, simply through fear,
Lest my words unfitting were.
With sorrowful heart to wounds wed,
Softly, quaking for pure dread
And shame, and halting in my tale
For fear, and my hue all pale,
Full oft I waxed both pale and red.
Bowing to her, I hung my head;
I dared not once look thereon,
For wit, manner and all were gone.
I cried ‘mercy’ and no more [lines 1208 – 1219]

And when he had finished telling his tale ‘she gave never a straw’, (or so he thought)!!!

And when I had my tale all told,
God knows, she gave never a straw
For all my tale, so I thought. [lines 1236 – 1238]

And he quietly slipped away and lived each day looking for sorrow. But after a year, and overcoming his fear, the knight decided to tell her that he only wanted ‘nothing but good, and honour, and to guard her name above all things’. And that it would be a pity if he should die because of his woe. When she now knew all of this, she showed him ‘the noble gift of her mercy’, and she gave him her ring, and he learned of her true compassion.

Our joy was ever endless new;
0Our hearts were so even a pair
That neither was contrary, I swear
Ever to the other, despite all woe.
For truly they suffered alike so
One bliss, and one sorrow both;
Equally glad and vexed both.
All was one, no quarrelling there.
And thus we lived full many a year
So well, I cannot tell you how.” [lines 1288 – 1297]

And so ended the knight’s tale. But our poet asked where is she now? And the knight replied that he had said that he lost more than our poet could see.

‘Alas! sir, how? How may that be?’
‘She is dead.’ ‘Nay!’ ‘Yes, by my troth.’
‘By God, then I pity you for your loss.’ [lines 1308 – 1310]

Our poet gives the knight ‘compassion’, (and shows that he does not have a fiend’s heart – lines 591 – 594). What more can the knight ask for, and what more can our poet give him – but compassion? The same ‘mercy’ and compassion that his lady had given him? And immediately, the huntsman’s horn rang out, and the king and his followers returned to his castle, when the castle bell now rang out – and our poet awoke.

Thought I: ‘This is so strange a dream
That I will, in process of time,
Strive to put this dream in rhyme
As best I can’, and that full soon.
This was my dream; now it is done. [lines 1330 – 1334]

And our dream and our poem have ended. And hopefully, Chaucer has shown us that melancholy and fantasies of ‘romantic love’ are ‘not worth a straw’, but that we should instead look to ‘mercy’ and ‘ruth’, and a compassion (and not fortune) that may change our fate.


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