The author is upfront about the central problem biographers have with Geoffrey Chaucer–there are simply no records of his private life at all. What he thought, felt, or said was not recorded by the poet or by anyone who knew him. While there are just under 500 documents related to Chaucer, these are all professional in nature: records of his work for Richard II, bills, contracts. Nothing related to the reason why he is still a household name, in importance to English poetry second only to Shakespeare. And some would dispute that.
Since we have no way of knowing how his time as an administrator in the London customs house tracking the movement of wool in and out of England affected him personally or artistically, Paul Strohm instead tells us what the conditions of London in 1386 were like. What was it like to work in the wool trade as Chaucer did? What was it like to live in the apartments above busy Aldgate next to the Holy Trinity Priory where Chaucer spent many years?
Sometimes this makes for interesting reading; sometimes not so much. Turns out the medieval wool trade is not all that interesting. It’s little wonder that given the chance, Chaucer choose not to include anyone involved in the wool trade in Canterbury Tales. In fact, it’s difficult to find much of London life in Canterbury Tales at all.
Once he moves on from the topic of wool, Mr. Strohm’s book is both more fun and more enlightening. I was struck by just how noisy Medieval London was. Chaucer lived above one of the city’s main gates, so all day long people and animals filed underneath his home. The nights were no quieter since many people spent them waiting to be first in line once the gates opened each morning. The priory bells rang day and night, sounding out for celebrations and mourning often ringing for two hours straight. In spite of this, Chaucer manages to write.
But it’s not until he is forced to leave London and the limited notoriety he has gained once Richard II is dethroned that he begins to work seriously on Canterbury Tales. What struck me most in this section is Strohm’s idea that Chaucer in exile from his London crowd creates a fictional audience for his tales. The Canterbury pilgrims themselves become stand-ins for the audience he left behind, breaking in on the telling, commenting, critiquing, praising each teller, rebuffing one tale with another. This fictional give and take is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Canterbury Tales after the poetry itself. The idea that it served to provide the poet the audience he left behind in the city is an intriguing one.
Two generations after Chaucer’s death, Strohm finds a growing commercial audience for work like Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was ahead of the game in England anyway, predicting an audience for poetry as he created one of his own.