Chaucer’s Traces

By Joe StadolnikJune 26, 2019

Chaucer’s Traces

Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner

IN 1366, A NOTARY in Navarre recorded a grant of safe passage to “Geoffrey de Chauserre, English squire” throughout the small Iberian kingdom in the Pyrenees. This Navarrese notary didn’t know it at the time, but he had put to paper a “life-record” — one more fleeting archival appearance by Geoffrey Chaucer, Middle English poet, as he went about the less poetic business of soldiery, civil service, and diplomacy over the course of his life (c. 1343–1400). For years any evidence of Chaucer’s trip to Navarre had escaped his biographers as they systematically hunted down life-records. They first did so under the antiquarian auspices of the Chaucer Society (their Life-Records was published in 1900), and then working in English departments (most notably as part of the Chaucer Research Project, directed by J. M. Manly and Edith Rickert from 1924 to 1938). In 1955, Suzanne Honoré-Duvergé discovered the young Chaucer in Navarre in time for the record to be included in Chaucer Life-Records (1966).

Chaucer left no diaries, letters, notebooks, or memoirs, so any biography will rely heavily on the life-records for the piecemeal facts of his life. Put to paper first as formulaic documents, these writs and memoranda mentioning Chaucer have since attracted a strange kind of critical attention. Excerpted from their documentary context in account books and court ledgers, they get appraised for possible significance for his poetic career, and elevated to the material for literary history. Edith Rickert, for example, staged this moment of interpretation in an evocative photograph reproduced in a foreword to her Chaucer’s World (1948).

Digital image courtesy of the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01685, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Rickert poses before a mound of documents in some disarray; some are bundled, others loose-leaf and looking at any moment ready to slide off the table. Here’s the proverbial haystack, made a prop in this scene of the Researcher at Work. The task is to search out the illuminating fact, and make it speak to the life and works of Chaucer. Rickert examines a small packet from some royal accounts “such as Chaucer himself would have kept,” says a caption. Much like reading his dream visions, classicizing epics, or the saints’ lives, reading the Chaucer Life-Records demands a critical sensibility for these more ordinary genres — expense reports, receipts, leases, and travel documents.

Marion Turner’s Chaucer: A European Life revels in this fundamental practice of Chaucer biography: sorting through the heaps of records and reading them with a critical eye in order to narrate the long sweep of Chaucer’s poetic career from a youth spent writing courtly love songs in French, to the polyvocal maturity of the Canterbury Tales. Turner sticks so close to the Life-Records because, as she says in the prologue, she subscribes to a forensic principle that “every contact leaves traces.” Life-Records is taken up as a treasury of those contacts between poet and people, poet and places, poet and institutions. In the book’s epigraph, we learn that Jorge Luis Borges once claimed to be “all the books that [he has] read, all the people that [he has] met, […] [and] all the cities that [he has] visited.” This theory of literary formation and identity drives Turner’s practice of chasing down Chaucer’s known associates, and roaming freely from one documentary detail to the next. It follows, then, that Chaucer: A European Life sprawls to six hundred pages. Turner gathers up all those books, people, and cities into a great swirl of a biography, one more capacious and more ranging than any of its predecessors.

The book’s subtitle hints at a timely polemic — Chaucer, acclaimed as the “father of English poetry” since his death, led a European life rather than a narrowly English one — but Turner makes no such argument outright. “Brexit” appears nowhere in the text, and she never claims to be the first to appreciate Chaucer’s engagements with cultures across the Channel. (Scholarship in this vein is already a venerable Chaucerian tradition; see classic studies like Charles Muscatine’s Chaucer and the French Tradition [1957] and David Wallace’s Chaucerian Polity [1997].) The subtitle, instead, is but one facet of Turner’s declared project: Chaucer led a European life in so far as the Continent was the space for many formative social and literary encounters, each one leaving its trace. Chaucer was “of Europe” insofar as he lived alongside it and passed through it.

But English contacts mattered too. Turner opens with a report on a 1340s burglary a few streets away from Chaucer’s childhood home, among the wine merchants of London’s Vintry. Chaucer: A European Life sets out from there in the Vintry, moving through spaces like Calais and Florence and the “counting house” on the Thames quayside where he worked for a decade; “Parliament,” where he was a Member; the more generic spaces of “Inn” and “Garden”; and rather more abstract ones like “Empire” and “Cage.” Chaucer is seen always in juxtaposition: as a neighbor, “consummate networker,” and visitor.

Turner’s account of Chaucer’s visit to Navarre exemplifies the book’s way of moving from a Chaucer life-record, to his life, and finally his work. The grant of safe passage in Iberia prompts a wandering exploration of the Navarrese physical and political landscape. Chaucer wound his way through a strategic mountain pass into a kingdom caught in the middle of a dynastic struggle for the Castilian throne, which had become a theater-by-proxy of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Turner reads beyond the solitary life-record brought to light by Honoré-Duvergé to describe Chaucer’s arrival in a political and social context. Whatever Chaucer’s party was doing passing through Navarre, we learn they were far from lone Englishmen at the court of Charles II in Olite. English squires and envoys were streaming into Olite in the days before and after Chaucer’s arrival, filling up the Navarrese register. And Englishmen weren’t the only foreigners incoming; they were joined by mercenaries drawn to the lucrative prospect of employment in the Castilian conflict. On the day Charles II granted Chaucer safe passage, he also made special provision for the passage of the war machines of the ruthless Eustache d’Auberchicourt. (Six years before, a teenaged Chaucer witnessed the same man turn the French countryside around Reims into a killing field.) Chaucer then watched the Navarrese plan for the mercenaries’ arrival accordingly. Turner notes how the kingdom scrambled to defend against them as they passed through: felling trees, fortifying walled towns, organizing forces. Perhaps most importantly, Charles II contracted d’Auberchicourt himself.

So described, Chaucer lived a “European Life” through perilous times and in perilous places; he was a witness to the devastations of Europe’s war even as he dropped in on its sophisticated court cultures like Olite. Chaucer never alluded directly to his time there, but Turner finds other ways to coordinate his time there with his poetry. Walls loomed large over a hunkering-down Navarre, and a pragmatic self-interest guided the realpolitik of its king. These are the lessons Chaucer is supposed to have drawn — traces of contact, with eventual poetic expression in the claustrophobia of Troy under siege in his epic Troilus and Criseyde, or his nostalgic look back at a time without “doubleness and treachery” in a more obscure Boethian adaptation called The Former Age. As Chaucer leaves Navarre and shows up in the Life-Records in Milan, Parliament, or a London suburb, Turner follows him in there, too, to wonder about the traces left on his poetic imagination in these spaces. Her pursuit of Chaucer in the making, in the end, becomes an exhaustive catalog of contacts, which then underpin arguments of interpretation that cover the entire Chaucerian canon.

But in Navarre the pursuit takes some strange and less convincing turns. Chaucer, Turner says, visited a country where “people of three major religions cooperated to make society work,” a space of coexistence and accommodation — often amicable, often difficult — among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in towns like Tudela and Pamplona. The stress is certainly on the amicability, though, as Turner freely speculates about Chaucer’s possible transactions with Muslim stablehands and Jewish doctors. She reads an order by Charles II, issued a day before Chaucer’s apparent arrival, as an order to the Jews of Pamplona to protect fellow Jews of the countryside seeking shelter from marauding mercenaries, attesting to the king’s special interest in their safety. Fair enough. But should we take this as evidence that Chaucer visited a culture of neighborly, if qualified, harmony? Probably not. For one, there’s a slight misreading here: the king orders the Christian official in charge of the Jews of Pamplona — not the Jews themselves — to allow them entry. [1] And, indeed, much of the order seems as much interested in protecting the refugees from Pamplonan officials and townspeople as from invading armies. This adjacent life-record suggests that even temporary accommodation of difference, in extreme circumstances, need be enforced from on high. Navarrese society might have been constitutively “multicultural,” to use Turner’s own term, but its multiculturalism was reluctant and uncooperative at best.

Turner chooses to make Chaucer’s journey to Navarre a story of “expanded horizons.” Like a tourist down from London, Chaucer learned lessons in the accommodation of difference. This is a life-record plucked out of the archival heap and read under the rosiest light. Her reader is left to wonder how to reconcile this picture of Chaucer, the young student of Christian-Jewish cooperation, with the poet who later offers blood libel as pilgrims’ entertainment in the Canterbury Tales. The Prioress tells the tale of a choirboy murdered by Jews in a far-off Asian city. Any reader of the “Prioress’s Tale” confronts a basic question — to whom can we attribute the antisemitism? To the poet? The pilgrim? Medieval popular religion? But Turner never goes there, despite going everywhere else with the poet. The “Prioress’s Tale” only comes up in passing. Its “extreme anti-Semitism” warrants brief mention, but is made out to be an impersonal antisemitism held secondhand, “exposed” by the Prioress’s telling. Forgetting about the “Prioress’s Tale” here effectively allows her readers to keep imagining Chaucer as a “congenial soul” who — perhaps much like them — travels with an open mind, happily transacting with the locals across class and creed. This biography proclaims a hope to bring this canonical medieval poet to life before a broad, modern audience. But must Chaucer be made congenially, innocuously modern to do that?


In its best moments, Chaucer: A European Life depicts the poet’s life in vivid, compendious detail. But this ambition to recreate the “multiple kinds of environment” shaping Chaucer’s poetic imagination contends everywhere with a countervailing tendency to accommodate Chaucer to our own century. Consider, for example, that Chaucer is introduced early on as “a deeply secular poet.” So his experiments in medieval devotional genres — like the miracle and martyrdom in the “Second Nun’s Tale,” or the penitential “Parson’s Tale,” or his “ABC to the Virgin” — are not seen to register his imaginative engagement with theology, or his life of contacts with popular religious practice. Instead they each reflect Chaucer’s forward-thinking in their own way: his interests in challenging patriarchy, in a subjective morality, or in realizing one’s individuality, respectively. Perhaps Turner considers the matter of Chaucer’s belief to be a matter of his “emotional life,” which she admits to being “beyond the biographer’s reach.” Yet this recusal does not prevent her from crediting him with a variety of investments and passions elsewhere. Not only is his writing made deeply secular, Chaucer’s literary program is imputed to be a “protodemocratic” one, conceived and circulated as a “more social and less exclusive model of literary production”; he is “endlessly fascinated by the mysteries and ambiguities of poetry, by the endless possibilities that lie beneath.” Whose investments are these, really?

Turner recuses herself, too, from exploring the most scrutinized of Chaucer’s life-records, one that is also the most troubling to Chaucer’s congenial image. In 1380, one Cecily Champaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions such as they relate to my rape.” Turner is reluctant to draw any conclusions from the document: they had “some kind of encounter, almost certainly sexual, perhaps nonconsensual,” but she offers no verdict: “[W]hat happened between Chaucer and Cecily Champaigne cannot be recovered by us; it remains uncertain, unknowable perhaps to anyone but the two of them.” This might be true; but weren’t we to think Chaucer, like Borges, was all the people he knew? Doesn’t “every contact leave a trace”? Here Chaucer: A European Life forgets its strident rhetoric of encounter, and forgets its meticulous method of parsing life-records for any and all insight into the experiences and commitments shaping his poetry. After a few summary statements on the case, readers are too easily allowed to forget about Cecily Champaigne. Turner does nothing with it, though her usual method would have us wonder how litigation over this encounter could have shaped the “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a story of its rapist-protagonist’s seeming recuperation and eventual reward. Rather than reckon with any of these prospects, Turner moves on from the raptus in the Life-Records to devote more substantive attention to Chaucer’s stint as a keeper of the king’s falcons.

For all its range and richness, ultimately, Turner’s story of Chaucer’s “European Life” is in many ways a too sympathetic one. This is a comfortable version of Chaucer, ready for easy and wide public consumption: he’s cosmopolitan, secular, broadminded, politically savvy yet independent. The book’s deliberate accessibility, and its evocation of a more relatable Chaucer, deserves some praise. But this approach runs a risk, that the same enthusiasm to make Chaucer more accessible will gloss over what makes him uneasily medieval, someone who thought and moved through the world in ways impossibly remote and alien to us. This critical kind of appreciation of Chaucer might be harder for professionalized readers to package for students and nonspecialists, but it would be truer to his life.


Joe Stadolnik is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, where he studies medieval English literature and culture.


[1] Jean-Auguste Brutails, Documents des Archives de La Chambre des Comptes de Navarre 1196-1384 (Paris: Bibliothèque de L’École des Hautes Études, 1890), 141.

LARB Contributor

Joe Stadolnik is a researcher and editor based in Chicago. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago and at the Institute for Advanced Studies at UCL. He is working on a biography, The Unsettled Life of Duarte Brandão, and an academic monograph about medieval alchemy and genre.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!