Chaucer's Official Life HTML version

The researches of Sir Harris Nicolas, Dr. Furnivall, Mr. Selby and others have provided
us with a considerable mass of detailed information regarding the life and career of
Geoffrey Chaucer. Since the publication of Nicolas's biography of the poet prefixed to
the Aldine edition of Chaucer's works in 1845, the old traditional biography of conjecture
and inference, based often on mere probability or the contents of works erroneously
ascribed to Chaucer, has disappeared and in its place has been developed an accurate
biography based on facts. In the sixty-five years since Nicolas's time, however, a second
tradition--connected in some way with fact, to be sure--has slowly grown up. Writers on
Chaucer's life have not been content merely to state the facts revealed in the records, but,
in their eagerness to get closer to Chaucer, have drawn many questionable inferences
from those facts. Uncertain as to the exact significance of the various appointments which
Chaucer held, his engagement in diplomatic missions and his annuities, biographers have
thought it necessary to find an explanation for what they suppose to be remarkable
favors, and have assumed--cautiously in the case of careful scholars but boldly in that of
popular writers--that Chaucer owed every enhancement of his fortune to his "great
patron" John of Gaunt. In greater or less degree this conception appears in every
biography since Nicolas. Professor Minto in his Encyclopedia Britannica article
[Footnote: Ed. Scribners 1878, vol. 5, p. 450.] says with regard to the year 1386: "that
was an unfortunate year for him; his patron, John of Gaunt, lost his ascendancy at court,
and a commission which sat to inquire into the abuses of the preceding administration
superseded Chaucer in his two comptrollerships. The return of Lancaster to power in
1389 again brightened his prospects; he was appointed clerk of the King's works," etc.
Similarly, Dr. Ward in his life of Chaucer, after mentioning that Chaucer and John of
Gaunt were of approximately the same age, writes: [Footnote: English Men of Letters.
Harpers. 1879, p. 66.] "Nothing could, accordingly, be more natural than that a more or
less intimate relationship should have formed itself between them. This relation, there is
reason to believe, afterwards ripened on Chaucer's part into one of distinct political
partisanship." With regard to the loss of the controllerships Dr. Ward writes: [Footnote:
p. 104.] "The new administration (i.e. that of Gloucester and his allies) had as usual
demanded its victims--and among their number was Chaucer.... The explanation usually
given is that he fell as an adherent of John of Gaunt; perhaps a safer way of putting the
matter would be to say that John of Gaunt was no longer in England to protect him." A
little further on occurs the suggestion that Chaucer may have been removed because of
"his previous official connection with Sir Nicholas Brembre, who, besides being hated in
the city, had been accused of seeking to compass the deaths of the Duke and of some of
his adherents." [Footnote: It is curious that Dr. Waul did not realize that Chaucer could
not possibly have belonged to the parties of John of Gaunt and of Brembre.] Later, in
connection with a discussion of Chaucer's probable attitude toward Wiclif, Dr. Ward
writes: [Footnote: p. 134.] "Moreover, as has been seen, his long connexion with John of
Gaunt is a well-established fact; and it has thence been concluded that Chaucer fully
shared the opinions and tendencies represented by his patron."