Saturday, June 6, 2015

Geoffrey Chaucer and the Parables

Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340/3–1400)

As noted in a previous post, I had initially written sections on both John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. I then initially deleted the Gower section but upon rereading what I had written about both of them, I decided that Gower's contribution was more important to highlight in the book. So I will include what I wrote about Chaucer in the next few posts, none of which will appear in the book.

Many other important interpretations of the parables could be found in English literature during this period, such as Handlyng Synne (214.6635-6720), The Pricke of Conscience (84.3062-66) or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.16.252-71), all of which interpret the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Piers Plowman also discusses the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (B.1.183-87), the Unjust Steward (B.6.229-30), and the Talents (B.6.240-48; see Wailes 1986: 41-42). The most famous work during this time period, however, is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the greatest masterpieces in English literature. Chaucer was the most important English poet before Shakespeare, but his career also included roles as a diplomat and civil servant under three British kings.

Chaucer was born into a prominent family in London—his father and grandfather were successful wine merchants—that was also involved in government service. The first definite record of his life comes from 1357, where he is listed as a page (under the name of “Galfrido Chaucer”) in the household expense accounts of Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, one of the sons of King Edward III. Chaucer then served as a yeoman (a “valettus”) to Lionel in a military expedition to France, where Chaucer was captured during an unsuccessful siege of Reims (the king ransomed him for £16). This expedition was the first of many journeys that Chaucer would undertake to Europe on diplomatic missions. Chaucer also served in many other public roles (for details see Brown 2011: xii-3). Upon his death, Chaucer was only the second non-royal to be buried within Westminster Abbey, in a section that would soon be named the “Poet’s Corner.”

The Canterbury Tales is the most popular of Chaucer’s writings. Chaucer most likely began writing the Canterbury Tales around 1387, and the work remained unfinished at his death thirteen years later. Only 24 tales (some incomplete; e.g., the tales of the Cook and the Squire) of an estimated 120 tales that Chaucer planned to write are found collectively in various manuscripts (Hirsh 2003: 43; Chaucer 2008: xx). At first glance, the work appears to be merely a collection of fictional short stories of various pilgrims who make their way along the fifty-four miles from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Saint Thomas. These brilliant tales, however, integrate the sacred and the profane, spiritual insights and earthy humor, truth and deception, and numerous literary genres in poetic form, and they display a philosophical and psychological depth that creates an unforgettable band of travelers (see Lerer 2006: 243-4).

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