Part 1. Geoffrey Chaucer - A Biography; Chaucer's Poetry; Food and His Poetry
The exact date of Chaucer's birth is not known, though it is generally believed to be somewhere between 1340 and 1350. His family can be traced back four generations to Robert le Taverner of Ipswich, who died about 1280. The family's original home was in Ipswich, but it seems that they always had business interests in London as well. Robert the Taverner was known in London as Robert Malyn, and Malyn may been the original family name. Robert's grandson (also named Robert) was Geoffrey's grandfather, and appears in various records under several different names: Robert Malyn, Robert le Dennington (a village near Ipswich), Robert the Saddler, and Robert Chaucer. The name Chaucer means a maker of chausses, a kind of shoe, so the modern equivalent might be Shoemaker. The family interests had always been connected with the leather and wine trades. Geoffrey's mother is believed to have been Agnes de Copton, and his father was John, a vintner. They lived in London, where the family resided at their business on Thames Street. They were of the prosperous middle class.
As Geoffrey was brought up in the cosmopolitan society of trade, he received a good education and could read and write in both French and English. In 1357 he became a page in the household of the Duchess of Ulster, the daughter-in-law of King Edward III. After five years he was promoted to squire. In 1359 was sent abroad to fight in what is now called The Hundred Year's War. He was captured near Rheims and was eventually ransomed off for 16 pounds, about $40,000 in modern money. The fact that King Edward paid for part of the ransom indicates that he was already being highly thought of. In 1366 he married Philippa de Roet, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and sister-in-law to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. More than likely this was an arranged political marriage and he felt no true companionship towards her, as he never dedicated poems to his wife or ever directly referred to her. His literary allusions to married life are mostly ironical and unflattering.
The Hoccleve Portrait
In 1373 he was sent to Italy on a trade mission and it was here that he became influenced by what was then the finest art and literature in the world. This experience had a tremendous effect on his development as a poet. He returned to London in 1374 and was made Controller of Customs on wools, skins, and hides in the Port of London. From 1374 to 1386 he traveled a great deal on the King's business, and for his diligent work received from the King the grant of a pitcher of wine daily for life. Also at this time John the Gaunt became his patron and gave him a life-pension. The City of London also gave him the lease of his house over Aldgate gate, where he stayed until 1385. It was the happiest period of his life, and it was then that he began to write his poetry. It was Chaucer who at this time introduced England to the new Italian style of poetry, perhaps the first breath of the Renaissance in London. He also wrote in the fashionable French-Medieval style, and was the first poet to write in English a poem using heroic couplet, later to become one of the most popular of verse forms. In 1386 he was made a Justice of the Peace and elected to Parliament as Knight of the Shire of Kent. Poet, diplomat, and man of business, Chaucer was a figure of position and influence.
Shortly thereafter his luck changed. When John of Gaunt was sent away on a military expedition and was replaced at King Richard's court, Geoffrey lost all his positions. Despite John's return in 1389, things were never quite the same for him, and even with an increase in his pension his finances were never again secure. He was appointed a clerkship which he lost in 1391, and soon both his wife and John of Gaunt had passed away. It was during this, a most unhappy time, that he began writing The Canterbury Tales, his most famous work. His last poems speak of sadness, of growing old, and of disillusionment. He never finished The Canterbury Tales. He died on October 25, 1400, and was the first poet to be buried in the section of Westminster Abbey that is now called Poet's Corner.
The Ellesmere portrait
Chaucer certainly did not make his living being a poet, though his pieces were enormously popular. He wrote for the sake of the art form, and his early writings reflect the life of the nobility and court he was familiar with. Works such as The Parliament of Fowles, The House of Fame, and The Legend of Good Women are all about, and intended for, the wealthy upper class. In 1386, when much of his life changed, so did his poetry. While living in Kent, missing his former life and home in London, he began writing The Canterbury Tales, a masterpiece that is not about the nobles or royals who had turned their backs on him, but about the people of the new and quickly emerging middle class. The story itself deals with a group of pilgrims, none of whom have greater status than members of the clergy and some who were common laborers and workers. Each one must tell two tales during their pilgrimage, and the tales themselves make up the bulk of the poem. At first this writing was simply an escape from outward and inward pressures, but soon he found pleasure in it. In the Tales he was able to comment on and laugh about the society that seemed to be falling in pieces around him. The work ended up not only being about the middle class, but for them as well, and he amusingly included himself among the cast of common characters who make their pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Although Chaucer was an over-weight man, it is known that he was very conservative in his diet and did not go to extremes in either quality or quantity. Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don't give the modern culinary historian much to work on.
The Canterbury Tales is a much different matter. Chaucer once again treats food only as a literary prop, but the types of dishes and foods that his characters consume are very effective clues to their personalities, habits, and traits, and help bring The Canterbury Tales to life. The Summoner's disreputable personality is heightened by the fact that he was fond of garlic and onions, a diet that would lead to a bad complexion and foul breath. The Prioress, who perhaps loves the finer life a bit too much, ate only the daintiest of morsels and fed her dogs only the finest of white bread while peasants were lucky to get only brown. The Franklin's generous character and wealth are reflected in the mention of his table, which was always prepared for dinner and where it "snowed" all manner of food and drink. At his house there was the finest of wines and meat pies, and his ponds were well-stocked with delicious fish. Friars, known for their love of good food and wine, were frequent guests of such wealthy men of property, a fact Chaucer's friar comments on at one point. Chaucer's monk was also a lover of the good life, and enjoyed hunting so much he usually preferred catching a rabbit for his dinner over ecclesiastical fare.
John of Gaunt entertained by the King of Portugal
In contrast to these rich pilgrims is the poor widow of the Nun's Priest's Tale, who leads a simple life: "Of spiced sauce she had no need at all. No dainty morsel passed through her throat; her diet was in keeping with her coat...she drank no wine, neither white nor red. Her table was served most with white and black, milk and brown bread, of which she had no lack, broiled bacon, and sometimes an egg or two."
Of course, the character of Roger Hodge, the wealthy quildsmen's hired cook, adds a great deal of culinary detail to the Tales. He was quite proficient at several dishes, including blancmange and mortreux, both common and popular during Chaucer's time. His cook could roast, boil, broil, and fry, but an intense depth is added to his character when it is revealed that he sells stale pasties and his stuffed goose frequently contains some of the flies that infest his shop! Clearly, Chaucer uses food as a way of introducing important elements of his pilgrim's characters, and even to infuse a little humor.
A Chaucerian Cookery continues with:
Book I. A Chaucerian Cookery
Part 2. The Franklin and the Cook; Feasting in Chaucer's Poetry
© 2000 James L. Matterer
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