Authors: Chaucer


"Geoffrey Chaucer," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Chaucer at


Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) is one of the major canonical writers of English literature. His major works include Troilus & Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales, and The Legend of Good Women. He translated a number of works into English, including Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and the Roman de la rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, written seriatim between 1230 and 1280. Chaucer wrote a treatise on the use of the astrolabe for navigation, time, sowing and reaping and so forth. His output was prodigious.

Although medieval readers valued Chaucer's Troilus & Criseyde more than The Canterbury Tales, students usually read the latter. The Tales are unfinished, and exist in a number of mansucripts. The manuscripts do not always correspond in the order of the tales nor in their content. All manuscripts date from after 1400, the year of Chaucer's death.

Chaucer is deceptively simple in his stories. They repay deep reading. The Tales take place on a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage begins with a meal at a tavern and ends with a meal (the Eucharist) at a church, Canterbury Cathedral. All the tales are framed by this interplay between the physical reality around us (represented by the physical meal at the tavern) and its deeper spiritual, philisophical, ethical, and social significance (represented by the spiritual meal at the church). The host, Harry Baily, requires that each pilgrim tell a story that both entertains and teaches an ethical lesson. As readers, we are asked to consider how successful each pilgrim is, and to ask ourselves about the relation between stories and our moral lives. Can people be influenced by stories? How can we be sure that the stories teach good lessons? Do we have any right to try to influence others morally?

Chaucer has long been considered an astute and close observer of the human condition. He asks us moral questions without judgment; he presents memorable, lovable rogues; and he offers a philosophically capacious view of the world around us. Chaucer seems to understand the diversity of the human condition as something to be celebrated, while at the same time inquiring into our shortcomings. He portrayed himself as a terrible storyteller, so bad that the other pilgrims cut him off. Chaucer understands himself to be as morally compromised as the rest of us.


1. Chaucer Preconceptions [sh]
2. Chaucer Questions [sh]