Kevin Saving on
The Poet's Tale – Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales
By Paul Strohm
(Profile Books. 2014)
Ours is -perhaps, paradoxically, rather shockingly- an 'unshockable' age. We have, nearly all of us, grown up listening to an increasingly raucous litany of revelations detailing the rapacity of our leaders: the parliamentary-expenses fiddles; the bankers' bonuses; the serial depredations of police and health service 'fat cat' executives. It should not, therefore, come as any great surprise to find our nation's first 'major' poet -still both widely read and admired- embedded in a fourteenth century farrago of graft and patronage, as documented here by professor Strohm in this fascinating and insightful examination of a single year in the career of Geoffrey Chaucer.
There have, of course, been previous -and similarly informative- dissections of literary anni mirabiles (notably from the Shakespearean scholar, James Shapiro) but 1386 was recognisably a pivotal moment in Chaucer's life: a year in which he completed Troilus and Criseide; a year during which he lost nearly everything, but still the year he followed his own dictum by 'maken vertu of necessitee' and found the inspiration for his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.
Not the least impressive aspect of this book is the manner in which Strohm interweaves evocations of late-medieval life with plausible conjecture as to the poet's own very personal circumstances. By 1386 Chaucer had lived over London's Aldgate south tower for a dozen years in what seems to have been a spartan, noisy, 'tied' quarters (probably only one sixteen by fourteen foot room) dingily lit by a couple of arrow-slits in the wall. His job (held over the same time-frame) as Controller of the Wool Custom -procured for him by a cabal led by John of Gaunt and the four-time mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre- was 'demanding, moderately compensated' and 'mildly complicitous'. His duties would have required him to be present at the Wool Wharf on most days, and for the entirety of the daylight hours. They would have entailed meticulous record-keeping and accounting. Significantly, the wool trade was at that time the 'kingdom's principal money-spinner', easily its biggest export commodity and a well-tapped source of revenue for the crown. Additionally, it was notoriously corrupt.
During his tenure Chaucer, a vintner's son, would most-likely have lived apart from his socially-superior and even more upwardly-mobile wife, Philippa, and their children. By the end of it, already middle-aged, he had completed over half of his eventual literary output -though none of it appears to have enjoyed widespread circulation. He would, Strohm surmises, have possessed a reputation no greater than that of 'a middling bureaucrat struggling to stay afloat in Westminster and London's troubled factional waters'. As a parliamentary member for Kent he seems at best to have been a marginal Richardian place-man, unable to further his patron's cause at a time when that monarch was the subject of repeated criticism. Certainly, if the satire The Parliament of Fowls is anything to go by, its author held no great regard for the practices or personalities of Westminster. In political terms, he had backed a number of the wrong horses: Richard the second's star was on the wane, as was that of the wool-profiteer, Brembre (condemned to death by the 'Merciless Parliament' just two years later). The haughty John of Gaunt (Chaucer's future brother-in-law) was absent in Spain, pursuing an ultimately futile claim to the throne of Castile.
Strohm judges that 'a balanced view of Chaucer's performance in office would have him neither as a hero nor as a villain, but as a man who kept his head down, an enabler. Unfortunately the activities he was enabling were those of Nicholas Brembre, a grasping, faultily principled, and ultimately deeply unpopular man'. At least the poet seems not to have benefitted greatly through peculation: he is known to have suffered financial difficulties in the late 1380s. The end of 1386 found him unemployed and having his 'grace and favour' Aldgate gatehouse -from within which he would, almost certainly, have witnessed the 'peasant's revolt' of five years earlier- effectively repossessed. He would go on to live a curiously itinerant existence in Kent over the next three years, borrowing extensively from -though never 'crediting'- the work of an Italian near-contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio, while crafting his own timeless patchwork of stories, purportedly told by a gaggle of disparate pilgrims.
If we latter day pilgrims live in a period of near-universal political disenchantment, it might possibly be of comfort to reflect that our forebears, if no worse than ourselves, were demonstrably no better. Strohm's Chaucer is someone we might relate to: a pawn among players; relatively-speaking, a victim; someone inextricably involved in -even compromised by- their times, without ever being wholly degraded by them.
Kevin Saving © 2016