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Chaucer's Life And Works
Something has been already said as to the conflict of opinion concerning the period of
Geoffrey Chaucer's birth, the precise date of which is very unlikely ever to be
ascertained. A better fortune has attended the anxious enquiries which in his case, as in
those of other great men have been directed to the very secondary question of ancestry
and descent,--a question to which, in the abstract at all events, no man ever attached less
importance than he. Although the name "Chaucer" is (according to Thynne), to be found
on the lists of Battle Abbey, this no more proves that the poet himself came of "high
parage," than the reverse is to be concluded from the nature of his coat-of-arms, which
Speght thought must have been taken out of the 27th and 28th Propositions of the First
Book of Euclid. Many a warrior of the Norman Conquest was known to his comrades
only by the name of the trade which he had plied in some French or Flemish town, before
he attached himself a volunteer to Duke William's holy and lucrative expedition; and it is
doubtful whether even in the fourteenth century the name "Le Chaucer" is, wherever it
occurs in London, used as a surname, or whether in some instances it is not merely a
designation of the owner's trade. Thus we should not be justified in assuming a French
origin for the family from which Richard le Chaucer, whom we know to have been the
poet's grandfather, was descended. Whether or not he was at any time a shoemaker
(chaucier, maker of chausses), and accordingly belonged to a gentle craft otherwise not
unassociated with the history of poetry, Richard was a citizen of London, and vintner,
like his son John after him. John Chaucer, whose wife's Christian name may be with
tolerable safety set down as Agnes, owned a house in Thames Street, London, not far
from the arch on which modern pilgrims pass by rail to Canterbury or beyond, and in the
neighbourhood of the great bridge, which in Chaucer's own day, emptied its travellers on
their errands, sacred or profane, into the great Southern road, the Via Appia of England.
The house afterwards descended to John's son, Geoffrey, who released his right to it by
deed in the year 1380. Chaucer's father was probably a man of some substance, the most
usual personal recommendation to great people in one of his class. For he was at least
temporarily connected with the Court, inasmuch as he attended King Edward III and
Queen Philippa on the memorable journey to Flanders and Germany, in the course of
which the English monarch was proclaimed Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire on the left
bank of the Rhine. John Chaucer died in 1366, and in course of time his widow married
another citizen and vintner. Thomas Heyroun, John Chaucer's brother of the half- blood,
was likewise a member of the same trade; so that the young Geoffrey was certainly not
brought up in an atmosphere of abstinence. The "Host" of the "Canterbury Tales," though
he takes his name from an actual personage, may therefore have in him touches of a
family portrait; but Chaucer himself nowhere displays any traces of a hereditary devotion
to Bacchus, and makes so experienced a practitioner as the "Pardoner" the mouthpiece of
as witty an invective against drunkenness as has been uttered by any assailant of our
existing licensing laws. Chaucer's own practice as well as his opinion on this head is
sufficiently expressed in the characteristic words he puts into the mouth of Cressid:--