The Plantagenet Era Saw the Transition From Anglo-Saxon to English
Now welcome, somer, with they sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!
Chaucer – excerpt from The Parliament of Birds
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) wrote The Canterbury Tales, and was the greatest English poet before Shakespeare. He legitimized the literary use of English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. As a result, Chaucer is widely regarded as The Father of the English Language. His works were highly eclectic, with topics running the gamut from fart jokes to spiritual union with God. However, his writings consistently reflected a pervasive humor, even when they explored serious philosophical questions.
Chaucer was born into a wealthy family, and attended school at Saint Paul’s cathedral, where he was influenced by the writings of Virgil and Ovid. His father secured him a position as a royal page – a stepping stone to knighthood and future advancement. In his teens, Chaucer took part in the opening of the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and ransomed by the king for a considerable sum. As an adult, he pursued a career as a courtier, civil servant, and diplomat.
Chaucer’s first major poem, written in the early 1370s, was The Book of the Duchess, an elegy to the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, son of king Edward III and father of future king Henry IV. It earned Chaucer a comfortable annuity from the powerful widower. Most of his major accomplishments were penned between 1374 and 1386, when he was comptroller of London. It was a job that afforded him plenty of free time, in which he wrote major works such as Parliament of Birds and The Legend of Good Women. It was during this period that he began his signature work, The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer became the towering literary figure of his day, and after his death in 1400, he was the first to be buried at what would eventually become known as “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey. There, English literary luminaries such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy joined him over the succeeding centuries.