Prologue - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)



There is an image of Geoffrey Chaucer, in early middle age, addressing a small audience of courtiers; he is standing on an enclosed platform (see opposite) with a richly embroidered tapestry draped across its rails. It is not a pulpit but Chaucer has raised his right hand in preacherly attitude; it is commonly assumed that he is reciting from his poetry, but no book is clearly visible. This picture forms the painted frontispiece for one manuscript copy of Troilus and Criseyde; it was executed in the early fifteenth century, but the portrait of Chaucer himself appears to have been copied from earlier originals. He has a forked beard, a moustache, and copious brown hair.

It may also be noticed here that his height is commonly estimated to have been five feet and six inches, average for the period, and that by his own testimony he was portly to the point of being plump. He is not depicted in the clerkly robe of the learned poet but, rather, in the fashionable dress of a courtier. This should be emphasised as one of the most significant aspects of Chaucer’s art. From the age of fourteen until the very end of his life, he remained in royal service. He was a familiar and indispensable part of the court, and acted as a royal servant for three kings and two princes. That is why the border of this frontispiece is composed of entwined leaves and flowers, in recognition of the playful distinction at the court between the followers of the leaf, the practitioners of chaste “fine amour, ” and the followers of the flower who engage in the worldly pursuit of “plaisaunce.Chaucer’s early verse was part of these love games.

The audience in the picture also repays examination. The figure of Richard II can be clearly seen, in golden robes, and it is significant that Chaucer should be so notably associated with him. Richard, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, was perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of English sovereigns. He was a king devoted to majesty and magnificence, in an age when feudal authority was in retreat. The very circumstances of the portrait, for example, emphasise the theatricality of poetic exposition in a culture possessed by an essentially dramatic vision. The vivid colour of the frontispiece is also an aspect of its drama, since colour was seen in highly allegorical terms: yellow was the colour of jealousy, blue of fidelity, while green was a token of disloyalty. The fourteenth century has been dubbed “an age in transition,” but all ages are in transition. The difference is that Chaucer came to maturity in a period when the evidence of change was all around him. His own fragmented and discontinuous work, The Canterbury Tales, is itself one indication.

Other figures, within this royal court gathered in a private park, have also been identified with varying degrees of certainty. Richard’s consort, Queen Anne, has been glimpsed; Chaucer’s first and most enduring patron, John of Gaunt, has also been seen among the press of courtiers. It has largely gone unremarked, however, that the audience is composed primarily of women. They were seen to be the natural audience for tales and romances of every kind. In succeeding centuries, in fact, the audience for the novel was deemed to be principally female. This may also provide a clue to the tone of Chaucer’s early and most courtly poetry.

Yet some of the women here do not seem to be listening to Chaucer; the apparently rapt attention of others could also be interpreted as boredom or bewilderment. By indirection this touches upon the nature of artistic invention in the period; it was attentive to the minute and individual details of depicted life. The portrait, like the art of Chaucer himself, is able to provide the illusion of a group in volumetric space together with the delicate rendition of such detail. Yet this passion for realism, if the anachronism may be permitted, is accompanied by the mystery of the overall form. The portrait of Chaucer addressing his audience is surmounted by the image of a procession beside the walls of a medieval castle, yet the meaning of this scene is unclear. Some believe that it illustrates a passage from Troilus and Criseyde itself; others suppose that it depicts a group of courtiers arriving at Chaucer’s recital, with the poet himself prominent among them.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet, but he was also a diplomat and an official who at various times supervised the building works of the king and the custom tariffs at the Port of London. He was appointed as a judge and as a Member of Parliament. He was a Londoner who found a natural audience among rich and influential London merchants, but he was also an enthusiast for French and Italian poetry. He excelled in translation. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales, but that work was composed towards the end of his poetic career. He had previously written dream visions, animal fables, moral legends and a long poem, Troilus and Criseyde, which has been described somewhat loosely as the first modern novel. He was prolific and various, accomplished and ingenious. He has been described as “the father of English poetry,” but he is a most perplexing parent. He professed himself to be bookish, but he was committed to an active and successful life in the world. He presented himself as reserved and quiet, but he was sued for debt and accused of rape. He is best known as the secular writer of parodies and sexual farces, but he was also possessed by a profound religious vision. Out of these contrasts, perhaps, a coherent picture may eventually emerge.


1 Chaucer reading or reciting to the court of King Richard II of England. Painted frontispiece for one of the manuscript copies of Troilus and Criseyde , dating from the fifteenth century. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, UK/BAL

2 Feeding the chickens. English illuminated manuscript, c.1340. From the Luttrell Psalter. British Library/AKG

3 Butchering and cooking meat, and carrying it to the table. English illuminated manuscript, c.1340. From the Luttrell Psalter. British Library/AKG

4 The Siege of Domme by Sir Robert Knolles (c.1325-1407) and Sir John Chandos (d.1370). Musee Vonde/BAL

5 Lady dressing her hair with the help of a maid. English illuminated manuscript, c.1340. From the Luttrell Psalter. British Library/AKG

6 Design for “Chaucer at the Court of Edward III.” Pencil on paper. By Ford Madox Brown (1821-93). Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery/BAL

7 Philippa of Hainault, French queen of Edward III. Photograph of tomb in Westminster Abbey/BAL

8 Map of Genoa and Florence, from “Civitates Orbis Terrarum,” coloured engraving, c.1572. The Stapleton Collection/BAL

9 The Shipman, detail from The Canterbury Tales. Huntington Library and Art Gallery/BAL

10 The Tower and St. Catherine’s. Stow’s “Survey of London,” 1754. Hand-coloured copper engraving. The Stapleton Collection/BAL

11 John Wycliff

12 The Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall. English school, fifteenth century. Inner Temple/BAL

13-14 The peasants’ revolt of 1381. British Library/BAL

15 Richard II presented to the Virgin. By the “Master of the Wilton Diptych” fl c.1395-99. National Gallery, London/BAL

16 Tapestry panel of Queen Dido, designed by William Morris (1834-96) to illustrate Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women.” Part of the designs for Red House, Bexleyheath. Victoria and Albert Museum/BAL

17 Stonemasons, by Bertrand Boysset (1355-1415). Giraudon/BAL

18 Historiated letter “D” depicting a philosopher with an astrolabe teaching from “The Physics” by Aristotle. French school, fourteenth century. Archive Charmet/BAL

19 “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Huntington Library and Art Gallery/BAL

20 “Here begynneth the knightes tale.” Illustration from a book by William Caxton. Woodcut, c.1484. BAL

21 Chaucer’s tomb in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. From a nineteenth-century aquatint. The Stapleton Collection/BAL

The author and the publishers are grateful to the Bridgeman Art Library (BAL) and akg-images (AKG) for assistance with picture research.

Family Tree Showing the Three English Kings
(Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV)
and the Two English Princes (Lionel, Duke of Clarence;
and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster)
for Whom Chaucer Worked



Chaucer addressing the court of Richard II


Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination Illustrated London