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Chaucer's Times
The biography of Geoffrey Chaucer is no longer a mixture of unsifted facts, and of more
or less hazardous conjectures. Many and wide as are the gaps in our knowledge
concerning the course of his outer life, and doubtful as many important passages of it
remain--in vexatious contrast with the certainty of other relatively insignificant data--we
have at least become aware of the foundations on which alone a trustworthy account of it
can be built. These foundations consist partly of a meagre though gradually increasing
array of external evidence, chiefly to be found in public documents,--in the Royal
Wardrobe Book, the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, the Customs Rolls, and suchlike
records--partly of the conclusions which may be drawn with confidence from the internal
evidence of the poet's own indisputably genuine works, together with a few references to
him in the writings of his contemporaries or immediate successors. Which of his works
are to be accepted as genuine, necessarily forms the subject of an antecedent enquiry,
such as cannot with any degree of safety be conducted except on principles far from
infallible with regard to all the instances to which they have been applied, but now
accepted by the large majority of competent scholars. Thus, by a process which is in truth
dulness and dryness itself except to patient endeavour stimulated by the enthusiasm of
special literary research, a limited number of results has been safely established, and
others have at all events been placed beyond reasonable doubt. Around a third series of
conclusions or conjectures the tempest of controversy still rages; and even now it needs a
wary step to pass without fruitless deviations through a maze of assumptions consecrated
by their longevity, or commended to sympathy by the fervour of personal conviction.
A single instance must suffice to indicate both the difficulty and the significance of many
of those questions of Chaucerian biography which, whether interesting or not in
themselves, have to be determined before Chaucer's life can be written. They are not "all
and some" mere antiquarians' puzzles, of interest only to those who have leisure and
inclination for microscopic enquiries. So with the point immediately in view. It has been
said with much force that Tyrwhitt, whose services to the study of Chaucer remain
uneclipsed by those of any other scholar, would have composed a quite different
biography of the poet, had he not been confounded by the formerly (and here and there
still) accepted date of Chaucer's birth, the year 1328. For the correctness of this date
Tyrwhitt "supposed" the poet's tombstone in Westminster Abbey to be the voucher; but
the slab placed on a pillar near his grave (it is said at the desire of Caxton), appears to
have merely borne a Latin inscription without any dates; and the marble monument
erected in its stead "in the name of the Muses" by Nicolas Brigham in 1556, while giving
October 25th, 1400, as the day of Chaucer's death, makes no mention either of the date of
his birth or of the number of years to which he attained, and, indeed, promises no more
information than it gives. That Chaucer's contemporary, the poet Gower, should have
referred to him in the year 1392 as "now in his days old," is at best a very vague sort of
testimony, more especially as it is by mere conjecture that the year of Gower's own birth
is placed as far back as 1320. Still less weight can be attached to the circumstance that
another poet, Occleve, who clearly regarded himself as the disciple of one by many years