Painting Chaucer as a Little Englander, as many have done, does him a disservice. It is time to reclaim the great man from the Brexit tendency, says CHARLIE CONNELLY
Every year on October 25, the anniversary of Chaucer’s death, I heave my copy of The Riverside Chaucer from the shelves, haul it to the sofa and lie full length with its whopping 1,300 page complete works-ness on my chest, spending a good hour or so immersing myself in some of the finest, funniest and most heartrending verse ever produced in these islands.
Although everyone knows Chaucer for his epoch-defining Canterbury Tales there is an entire body of work going way beyond that. His epic Troilus and Criseyde inspired the Shakespeare play of the same name, while his translation from the French of Le Roman de la Rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and completed by Jean de Meun around 40 years later, is the work that arguably made the biggest literary impression during his lifetime.
There is a wealth of shorter verse too, from the searing unrequited love of A Complaint to His Lady (‘My dere herte and best beloved foe/Why lyketh yow to do me all this woe?’) to the graceful adoration of To Rosemounde (‘For as the cristal glorious ye shine/And lyke ruby ben your chekes rounde’).
For a writer there is plenty to recognise: in The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, written a year before his death, he laments the lightness of his wallet (‘Quene of comfort and good companye/Beth hevy ageyne, or ells moot I dye’) and there’s even a playful admonition to Adam, his scrivener, that echoes today’s authors’ whinges about their editors (‘But after my mayking thow wryte more trew/So oft adaye I mot thy werk renewe/It to correcte and eke to rub and scrape/And al is through thy negligence and rape’).
This year I went for The Parliament of Fowls as my anniversary read, a frankly trippy dream vision in which the narrator, a student of love, is led through the Temple of Venus by a guide to where Nature has convened a parliament of birds at which males make their case for pairing off with particular females. The poem features the first reference to St Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers (‘For this was on Seynt Valentynes day/Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make [choose his mate]’) and is a brilliant, if semi-delirious masterpiece of style and content.
In the last couple of years in particular I’ve found myself delving back into Chaucer more often than usual in search of solace and sanity because, strange as it may sound, reading the work of the first great writer in English is a tremendous comfort to a Europhile during these troubled Brexit times. Back at the tail end of the 14th century in England, Latin was the language of religion while French was the language of the court and the legal professions. English was seen largely as the vernacular of the lower orders, an oral form of communication not suited to usage among the corridors of power, trade and culture.
Chaucer is often described as the father of literature in English and is hence often held up as a patriotic trailblazer for the English nation, scratching away with his pen, ploughing a lonely parochial furrow against the cultural hegemony of the foreigners on the other side of the English Channel.
It’s a school of thought that took hold during the 19th century when a fresh English national narrative was required for a nation careering around the globe painting chunks of the map a bold imperial pink.
In 1837, for example, the Edinburgh Review described Chaucer as, ‘a national poet formed by national circumstances… It was in Chaucer that the literary spirit of the English people, vigorous, simple, and truthful, found its voice’.
Twelve years later the North British Review posited that the author, ‘lived among a people possessing in the highest degree those distinctive features, that sharp and prominent nationality which distinguishes the present inhabitants of England from every other people’.
In Chaucer’s England, published in 1869, Matthew Browne asks, ‘Who is an Englishman more English than Chaucer?’ The Canterbury Tales, he continues, ‘contain more Englishness than any other poem in the language’. The poet is, he writes, ‘every inch an Englishman’ notably due to ‘the objectivity of his mind’, while the English are, ‘par excellence, colonists, missionaries, gatherers together, founders of social groups, makers of history’.
By the time G.K. Chesterton came along things were really getting out of hand. ‘Chaucer is the father of his country rather in the style of George Washington,’ he wrote in 1932. ‘It is not too much to say that Chaucer made not only a new nation but a new world; and was none the less its real maker because it is an unreal world. And he did it in a language that was hardly usable until he used it; and to the glory of a nation that had hardly existed till he made it glorious’.
Chaucer has, according to Chesterton, ‘our native hills for his bones and our native forests for his beard’.
This is the same kind of shallow sense of self-regarding patriotism that helped to fire the Leave campaign and continues to dominate the bone-headed approach of the government to the Brexit negotiations today. Particularly since the referendum I’ve heard Chaucer cited as an example of British – by which they mean English – exceptionalism and separateness.
It’s a school of thought that couldn’t be more spectacularly, forehead-knucklingly, pants-on-fire wrong. Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve found myself turning to Chaucer more often recently is that he is the archetypal British European.
Chaucer would have been utterly appalled by the idea of the England he knew cutting itself off from the continent. There can be no doubt at all that were Geoffrey Chaucer around in the early summer of 2016 he would have been a passionate, drum-beating, flag-waving Remainer. You don’t have to take my word for it, either. It’s a fact confirmed in an excellent new book by the academic and former president of the New Chaucer Society David Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction (Oxford University Press, £10.99). It’s a short book, clearly and passionately written, ideal for anyone looking for a way in to Chaucer but also one that looks beyond the poems and the man to provide a modern context.
‘Chaucer was first and foremost a European,’ says Wallace, tackling the issue head on.
Chaucer, born around 1340 on the banks of the Thames to a wine merchant father, travelled widely in Europe, first in the service of Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster, and then on behalf of Edward III and Richard II.
Despite spending his entire life under the shadow of the Hundred Years War Chaucer spent a great deal of time in France, Italy and Spain (he may even have undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela) and was even captured and held to ransom in France in 1359, costing Edward III £16 to secure his release.
His diplomatic travels also exposed Chaucer to the latest European literature. A multilinguist, as a young man he devoured the works of Dante and was hugely influenced by Plutarch and Boccaccio in particular. Chaucer owned two manuscripts by Boccaccio, whose relative scarcity would have cost him a fair amount, and the latter’s Decameron, a series of tales told by characters fleeing the Black Death of 1348, was a major inspiration behind the Canterbury Tales (in Chaucer’s England, incidentally, it’s clear Matthew Browne is not a fan, writing of the Decameron, ‘the whole conception is evidently Italian – cowardly, romantic and thin’). Indeed it’s possible that Chaucer might have met both Plutarch and Boccaccio at a society wedding in Milan in 1378, which must go down as one of the greatest literary meetings in history and possibly the only one to feature bets on the length of the best man’s speech.
As Williams points out, the last thing Chaucer intended when he decided to write in English was to pull up a linguistic drawbridge against the rest of Europe.
‘The English Chaucer chose to write, one might say invent, opens out to Europe rather than withdraws from it,’ he writes. ‘His aim… is to make English illustrious by European standards as a European language. And strangely, in this regard, he showed the way to the future, for English really did become, at least before Brexit, the patois, the lingua franca of all Europe. The notion of an un-European England would, for Chaucer, make no sense at all’.
Choosing to write in English for Chaucer did not mean rejecting other languages, nor did it mean he felt English to be a superior language. Far from it. He would have spoken French every day in London, he would have used his Italian almost as often. In his work as the chief comptroller of wool in the port of London he would have heard and used languages from all over Europe at the dockside.
English was just one of many everyday tongues he used and to claim Chaucer as some kind of nationalist does one of our greatest authors a terrible disservice.
Take the Canterbury Tales, for example, held up by many as a classic example of, and even manifesto for, English identity. The journey from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury takes place in England but the tales told by the pilgrims are frequently set elsewhere: in classical Greece and Rome, in Italy, in Paris, in Brittany, even in Asia.
Most of the pilgrims themselves, while English, are not particularly likable (the Knight in particular is, well, a bit of a dick) and Chaucer is more than once wryly sarcastic about the Arthurian legends that are also co-opted as a foundation for a particular notion of Englishness.
There have always been dissenting voices struggling to be heard, however, and it’s possible to trace a thin but significant Europhilic Chaucerian line back from Williams’ book.
The playwright Algernon Swinburne wrote in the early 1880s, for example, ‘In all his poems of serious or tragic narrative we hear a French or Italian tongue speaking with a Teutonic accent through English lips’.
Meanwhile, in November 1940, at the height of the war, the Times described Chaucer as, ‘a poet of a shared culture between England and France. To that culture at least we are finding our way back and through it we may one day recover the larger sense of the common European inheritance on which the survival of our civilisation depends’.
It’s that kind of shared inheritance that Chaucer so emphatically represents and would passionately defend. The English works he produced were designed to contribute to, not detach from, European culture.
If Chaucer was defining Englishness it was as part of a shared European heritage, declaring himself part of something, not seeking definition by rejection and isolation.
Geoffrey Chaucer remains fresh and relevant today – Williams cites dub poet Jean Binta Breeze’s brilliant The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market from 2000, while last year’s collection of Refugee Tales from the Comma Press is firmly in the tradition of its Chaucerian forebear – and as well as being cited as the first great writer of English literature it’s important also to remember him as one of our first and finest British Europeans.