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Who was Geoffrey Chaucer?

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Chaucer Statue - Canterbury" (CC BY 2.0) by nickstone333

Geoffrey Chaucer is often hailed as one of the greatest authors of all time - but, who actually was he? Let's take a look at his life, inspirations, and most famous works.

Early life

The life of Chaucer is unusually documented for someone of his time, probably due to the social standing of his family. Chaucer was born around 1343 in London, into a family who'd worked their way up into higher society. In 1357, Chaucer used these family connections to become the page of a noblewoman, Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster. In essence, a page was an apprenticeship of sorts to train men to be knights or other royal duties.

Of course, knights are almost synonymous to the medieval period - something that is still referenced in pop culture today, such as Betfair online slots like Templar Tumble, Red Knight, The Knight King, and Knight Rider, riffing off the chivalric duties of these royal appointments. As such, Chaucer's life as a page almost certainly shaped his later writing, not least The Knight's Tale. Whilst working as a page, Chaucer joined Elizabeth's wife Lionel of Antwerp in the English army to the Hundred Years' War. Chaucer was captured during combat at the siege of Rheims, with Edward paying the modern day equivalent of over £12,000 for his safe release.

In around 1366, Chaucer married the queen's lady in waiting, Philippa de Roet, and studied at the Inner Temple, allowing him to join the royal court of King Edward III. During this time, Chaucer travelled far and wide, for both pilgrimages and as an envoy. Later, Chaucer moved from Aldgate in London to Kent, as a commissioner for peace. Now, what do knights, pilgrimage, and Kent have in common? This is the beginning of Chaucer's most famous work - The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales - or, originally, Tales of Caunterbury - is a compilation of 24 narratives written in both verse and prose from the late 1380s until Chaucer's passing. The collection follows a group of people who are walking the well-trodden path from London to Canterbury, as part of a popular pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, which is situated within Canterbury Cathedral. To ease their boredom on the long walk, the characters take it in turns to tell their best story - the person who tells the best story wins a free meal at a pub when they get home!

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Canterbury-tales (CC BY 2.0) by Rezendi

What makes The Canterbury Tales so unique is that it was one of the first popular works of literature to be written in the Middle English vernacular. As such, Chaucer has often been heralded as the 'father of the English language' - or, as Thomas Hoccleve put it, 'the firste fyndere of our fair langage'. Later, Julian of Norwich published writings now called the Revelations of Divine Love, which is the first known piece of English literature written by a woman. Together, they are often known as the founders of English literature.

Unfortunately, Chaucer was potentially never able to finish The Canterbury Tales - it looks as though he had previously planned for four stories from 30 different pilgrims. Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey in London, with an engraved tomb crafted for him over a century after his death. The first writer to be buried in Poets' Corner, the area also memorialises William Shakespeare, the Brontė sisters, and Charles Dickens.

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