The effect of Chaucer's background

New ideas, new writing in English

Geoffrey Chaucer was a layman, yet very learned and aware of all the intellectual currents and debates of his age. This meant that he was in a position to write works in the vernacular which could equal the dignity and profundity of writings in Latin and the output of professional clerics or university-trained scholars and philosophers. He forged new intellectual styles and capabilities for literature in England and, because of this, is sometimes called the ‘Father of English’.

The late fourteenth century was seeing English increasingly used for administration (in 1362 the King first used English rather than French to address Parliament) and for the sorts of learned writings (history, devotional works, accounts of science etc.) which would previously have been more often composed in Latin or French.

A varied social spectrum

As an artist, Chaucer clearly took advantage of the unusually mixed and varied worlds he himself lived in during his life. His life in London put him at the crossroads of intellectual, religious, commercial and government activity. He had contact with many different classes and levels of contemporary English society. This is reflected in the social range of his Canterbury pilgrims.
His writings unite many different modes—religious, secular, comic, tragic, traditional and innovative—and Boccaccioinclude genres from popular, bawdy fabliaux to profound philosophical writings, love lyrics and aristocratic romance.
His known friends included university scholars, fellow civil servants and courtiers, members of the London business elite and other poets, including John Gower from England and Oton de Graunson and Eustache Deschamps from France. Chaucer was also one of the first English writers to respond to the writings of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy.

Chaucer the observer

Chaucer’s work tends to represent the standpoint of a detached observer:
  • He often creates a narrator who delegates, fictionally, responsibility to characters. This device invites readers to form their own judgements. The narrator of The Canterbury Tales is not presented as belonging to any particular class, profession or other background
  • His poetry is marked by a tendency to acknowledge conflicting interest groups and ideologies
  • He can represent ideas which are both conformist and radical, courtly and commercial, devout and secular, patriarchal and feminist.
A writer who adopts the persona of observer forces his readers to become active interpreters, not passive recipients, of his writings and ideas.