(miniature from British Library, Harley 4866, f. 88)
What follows is a brief account of the highlights of Chaucer’s historical life. There is always a distinction to be made between this Chaucer and Chaucer the poet since the written records for these two people seldom intertwine. We have 499 documents that name Chaucer in his roles as a servant, bureaucrat and what we might call a legal person (as he was involved in various disputes recorded in court records) but they never refer to him as a ‘poet’. We have over 100 medieval manuscripts that preserve Chaucer’s literary writing in which scribes name him and he sometimes refers to himself but it is really on only one occasion that he refers to his life as a bureaucrat (falling asleep over his reading, after a hard day’s work). There is some reason to say, then, that the historical Chaucer does not matter to any reader of his poetry and prose writings. But there is occasional overlap, and, even more interestingly, a distinct lack of engagement with the highly politicized and rich social world in which Chaucer moved. It can be as interesting to track these absences as it might be to try to tease out historical reference.
Much has been written about Chaucer’s life elsewhere, and more detailed, but still short, accounts can be found in by Martin Crow and Virginia Leland in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. xv-xxvi, “The Life of Chaucer” in the Oxford Chaucer or by Christopher Cannon in “The Lives of Geoffrey Chaucer” in The Yale Companion to Chaucer, ed. Seth Lerer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 31-54 or by Christopher Cannon and James Simpson, in the “The Life of Chaucer” in the Oxford Chaucer (Oxford, 2023). For a more in-depth treatment, see Derek A. Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A critical biography (Oxford, 1992) or the more recent, award-winning, Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton, 2019).
A useful bibliography of other articles and books on Chaucer’s life can be found here on this Harvard website.
While it is impossible to capture the rich unfolding of Chaucer’s life — its cross-currents, contexts, and cultures — within something as flat as a list, this much-condensed timeline highlights some of the key dates in his life, and presents them alongside concurrent historical events.