A Courtly Training - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

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

Chapter 2. A Courtly Training


Chaucer’s formative education took place in the royal household. His name is first announced to the world in the accounts of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, in May 1357, when “ii s” were given to “Galfrido Chaucer Londonie”; in the same period the young Chaucer was given a “paltok” or short doublet suitable for a page in royal service. Princess Elizabeth was married to Prince Lionel, second son of Edward III, king of England; this is an indication that the Chaucers of London commanded enough influence and respect at court to place their son in an enviable position.

His life as a young page was peripatetic, travelling with the royal household from Windsor to Woodstock, Hatfield to Anglesey. The constant movement from castle to castle, estate to estate, was only increased when the household of Princess Elizabeth was merged with that of her husband in the autumn of 1359. Chaucer was now, nominally at least, a page in the service of Prince Lionel of Ulster. It was an education and a career, a profession and a duty. In his study of English law, composed in the fifteenth century, Sir John Fortescue claimed that the royal court furnished “schooling in athletics, moral integrity and good manners”; it was indeed a nursery in all the arts. The young Chaucer would have been provided with lodging and appropriate clothing, like the paltok mentioned in the household accounts, but his family would have been responsible for any other expenditure. It was money spent well, however, since their son would have grown up among the most noble and notable of his contemporaries; he was beginning to climb upon a gradually rising hierarchy which led to the summit of royal administration and good governance. There would have been a clerk or priest of the household who acted as pedagogus to the pages and taught them grammar and languages. In time, also, he would have been taught how to read, and to write, official documents; it is clear from his later service that he was instructed in all the arts of diplomacy. The courteous or “gentle” man, for example, must be “well-seyinge” and “full of wordes.” It might almost be the definition of a poet.

In these early years, however, he would have been an attendant and servant. There were instruction manuals which expounded the arts of civilised behaviour to the young page while waiting upon his elders and betters, with precepts such as “be careful where you spit, and keep your hand before your mouth … you must only hold the meat with three fingers of your left hand when you cut it. That is courtesy … do not bite your bread but break it.” The young Chaucer would also have been instructed in the arts of conversation, conducted in French or in Latin; he would have been taught, too, the basic elements of music, which would have included dancing and singing. In the Household Book of Edward IV, one of the duties of young squires lies “in pipeing or harpeing, synginges, or other actes marcealls, to help to occupy the court, and accompanie estraingers.” The young Squire, in The Canterbury Tales, sings and plays the flute:

Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day …
He koude songes make and wel endite.

It has often been supposed that Chaucer did indeed compose court songs on the themes of love and chivalry; nothing in his early education would disprove the idea. There can be no doubt, too, that he would have been acquainted with the chivalric romances which played so large a role in court entertainment; the evidence of his poetry suggests that he had a natural ear for cadence and for rhyme, and the difference between English and French verse would not have been lost upon him. The world of fable and of chivalric adventure was one of spectacle and of display, of ritual and formal measure; it may have encouraged a sense of magnificence and power but, in a sensitive and intelligent boy, it might also induce a sense of irony and of drama. The distinction between life and art was one that he himself would draw in his own poetry.

The young page was discouraged from playing dice or hazard, but there were games of more reputable pedigree to while away the vacant hours. All the activities of hawking and hunting were central to court life; hunting in particular encouraged a form of ritualised violence which well corresponded with the chivalric ideal. Chaucer introduced the pursuit into one of his earliest long poems, The Book of the Duchess, and his use of technical terms revealed that he was thoroughly familiar with it. At this late date hunting may be dismissed as an anachronistic and even barbaric sport, but in Chaucer’s lifetime (and far beyond) it was central to the idea of a civilised society: a measure of the distance we must travel in order to understand Chaucer and his world. It was an aspect of the chivalry that he extolled in his portrait of the Knight in The Canterbury Tale s, and indeed in “The Knight’s Tale” which follows the “General Prologue” of that poem.

The practice of chivalry was not necessarily romantic, however. The next reference to Chaucer in the royal accounts concerns his capture on the field of battle. He was in the company of Prince Lionel, despatched to France in order to further the plans of his father, Edward III, to be crowned king of France in Reims; it was a small company, part of a larger force led by Lionel’s brother, John of Gaunt, the king’s third son, and its role in any fighting was correspondingly small. Chaucer and his military companions may have been present at the siege of Reims, and may have taken part in the sporadic skirmishes in the vicinity. His observations of siege warfare there may emerge in some lines from The House of Fame, where he recalls “the roaring” of the stone when it is loosed from its catapult:


English soldiers besiege a French town

… . the rowtynge of the ston
That from th’engyn ys leten gon.

His company eventually made its way to the town of Réthel, twenty miles north-east of Reims, and by mischance Chaucer was captured in the neighbourhood by French forces at some time in the middle of November 1359. A chronicler has given a general account of how several knights and squires “were killed at night in their quarters, and … foraging parties taken in the fields.” It is likely that Chaucer was a member of one such foraging party, looking for desperately needed food and other supplies in the rain and winter landscape of hostile France.

He was ransomed, four months later, for the sum of sixteen pounds—an appropriate sum for a valettus, or yeoman, which Chaucer may now be deemed to have become. The poet never mentioned the incident in his later verse, unlike his French contemporaries who often engaged in autobiographical sallies. In The House of Fame, however, there is also a reference to the “pelet out of gonne,” and in the same poem there is an allusion to music played on trumpet, horn and bugle in order to excite feats of military ardour:

Of hem that maken blody soun
In trumpe, beme, and claryoun;

For in fight and blod-shedynge
Ys used gladly clarionynge.

Whether this comes from memory, or imagination, is an open question. There is an account of warfare in “The Knight’s Tale” which is couched in the alliterative form of Old English, as if his own memories were conflated with childhood reading of the English romances. Thus he describes how, “Ther shyveren shaftes upon sheeldes thikke.” Chaucer is often considered to be a “bookish” writer, and the poet himself went to some trouble to present himself in a similar light; it is as if he fled from his own experience into the realms of art. Indeed the image of the agreeable and diplomatic Chaucer seems somehow out of place in the context of murderous hostilities. It is known, however, that he returned to France seven months later in order to accompany Prince Lionel during the negotiations for a treaty; he was also considered reputable and responsible enough to take certain personal letters from his employer back to England. But nothing more is known about his experience of warfare. He emerges in this period as a recognisable, if junior, member of the royal household. A respectable and successful career lay before him.

The events of Chaucer’s life remain unrecorded for some years after the campaign in France of 1359 and 1360. In 1361 Prince Lionel was despatched to his Irish fiefdom as viceroy, but there is no evidence that the young page travelled with him. It is likely that he remained in England, therefore, but his duties and employments from 1360 until 1367 remain unknown. A similar period of Shakespeare’s early life has also receded from view, this happy coincidence of “lost years” reminding biographers that no one can ever be wholly understood.

It has been conjectured that Chaucer entered the household of John of Gaunt at this time; certainly Gaunt became his principal patron in later years, and awarded him a life annuity for his services. It has also been surmised that, on the departure of Lionel to Ireland, the young page entered the household of the king, Edward III, himself; an official document of June 1367 names “Geffrey Chaucer” as a yeoman in that household, “noster vallectus” or our valet, but this may imply that he had only recently assumed the post. From that time forward, in fact, he was customarily noted as one of the sovereign’s familia, and was generally travelling under the protection of the king.

There is a third possibility, and one more intriguing since it takes him out of the immediate context of court service. One of Chaucer’s sixteenth-century biographers and editors, Thomas Speght, believed that Chaucer had been enrolled for the study of law at the Inner Temple in London and that “manye yeres since, master Buckley did see a recorde in the same howse, where Geffrye Chaucer was fined two shillinges for beatinge a Fransiscane Fryer in fletestreate.” The supposition that Chaucer studied law may be dismissed as a further example of the wishful thinking of those who believe that a great and in some sense learned writer must have benefited from a formal education such as they themselves had once received. It seems not to occur to them that genius is genius precisely because it flourishes in the most unlikely conditions; as John Dickens said of his illustrious son, “he may be said to have educated himself, sir.”

Yet there are stray indications that Speght’s testimony is not wholly unreliable. Buckley was indeed keeper of the records at the Inner Temple; the offence and the fine, for which Chaucer is noted, were also apt and appropriate for the period. The standard wisdom of Speght’s contemporaries was that Chaucer had attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities, and that in any case the Inner Temple did not receive pupils; so his information was surprising as well as enlightening. That is no guarantee of its veracity, of course. Buckley may have wanted to attach “the father of English literature” to his institution, and did not care by what means this was accomplished. The offence of beating a Franciscan may also have been deemed highly appropriate for a poet who was often considered to be a proto-Protestant. The evidence, then, is ambiguous. Common sense and clerical expediency, however, would suggest that there must have been some training at the Temple in the fourteenth century. The mastery of law was protracted and difficult; it is recorded that, in 1381, books belonging to “prentices of the law” were burned in the street by a disaffected mob. In later years a legal education was considered to be a necessary preliminary to a career in royal and even ecclesiastical service. The young Thomas More, in many ways an apt image of his great predecessor both as a London writer and as a royal servant, was instructed at one of the Inns of Chancery.

There is indeed the incontrovertible fact that Chaucer was trained, or somehow trained himself, in all the arts of rhetoric. There can be no doubt that his poetry is established upon the rules and constraints of the rhetorical tradition, as it had been bequeathed in handbooks such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova. Chaucer knew all the procedures of repetition and personification, amplification and digression. There is indeed a hint of his attachment to the legal Inns in his description of a “gentil MAUNCIPLE was ther of a temple”:

Of maistres hadde he mo than thries ten,
That weren of lawe expert and curious.

It has been argued in recent years that much of the verse and drama of England emerge indirectly from the legal debates of the Inns where, under the guise of “Put the case that … ,” fictional narratives were created for the delectation of a judicial audience. The earliest plays were performed in the halls of the various legal Inns, and masters of prose such as More acquired their skills in the little theatres of the “moot” and the courtroom. In that sense Chaucer’s supposed sojourn in the Inner Temple would set an historical and literary precedent. But it cannot be proved. It can only be concluded that Chaucer employed technical terms used in legal discourse, and was very well acquainted with the procedures of judicial dispute such as “herbergage” (lodging):

“Ha! ha!” quod he, “For Cristes passion,
This millere hadde a sharp conclusion
Upon his argument of herbergage!”

Any residence at the Inner Temple would also help the biographer to explain Chaucer’s acquaintance with the other great poet of this period, John Gower, who had himself been a member of the same institution. Gower seems to have embarked upon a legal career, and by his own account wore “la raye mancé, ” the striped robe of the sergeant-at-law; he was a little older than Chaucer, and had already acquired a reputation as a writer of French poetry, but they were well enough acquainted for Chaucer to name him as his lawyer when he was despatched on royal business overseas. Theirs was, perhaps, a marriage of minds.