Early Career

In 1359 Chaucer was sent abroad in the army of the king and was taken prisoner in France and ransomed in the following year. Prince Lionel (the eldest son of Edward III) himself contributed to the ransom to have Chaucer returned to England. Although it is not known when Chaucer began to write poetry, it is expected that it was around this time.

At the end of his life Chaucer looked back on his career and mentioned the many “songs” and “lays” he wrote, and though we have a number of short poems by Chaucer, few fit this description. It is possible that Chaucer was referring to the kind of courtly lyric he would have heard performed in the courts with which he was associated in his formative years, most (if not all of them) in French, quite plausibly the language in which Chaucer wrote these ephemeral works.  Although we cannot date it with any certainty, not least because it adheres so closely to its source text the fragment, it seems likely that Chaucer moved from such lyrics to the more ambitious translation of the Romance of the Rose (a 13th-century French poem begun by Guillaume de Lorris and later completed by Jean de Meun). We only have a fragment of this translation, but in those lines, it is possible to see Chaucer developing the poetic vocabulary that made his subsequent writings so distinctive as well as learning a variety of strategies of representation and poetic style.

Chaucer quickly ascended the ladder of patronage and so, by 1367, he can be found as a courtier in the royal household, where he must have met and then married Phillipa de Roet, a lady in attendance on Phillipa of Hainault, the queen of England. These connections also launched a more modern sort of working life (giving Chaucer what we might now call a “day job”) as a bureaucrat. That is, in 1374 he was appointed Controller of the Wool Customs, a significant position since wool was the basis of much of England’s wealth in the fourteenth century. He held this position for the next 11 years, during which time the king also sent Chaucer on important missions abroad, missions which appear to have been of a commercial nature, dealing with trade relations. These travels clearly widened Chaucer’s cultural horizons since it is about this time that Italian literature began to figure significantly in his writings, particularly the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Although we do not know when or how he had the opportunity for such study it is also clear that he learned a great deal in this period about the contemporary sciences, especially astronomy, medicine, physics, and alchemy.

Despite his day job, Chaucer was also extraordinarily productive, and wrote theParlement of Foules, translated Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae (a substantial Latin text) and completed two of his more ambitious classicizing texts, Troilus and Criseyde (arguably his magnum opus) and theKnight’s Tale,as well as what later became the Second Nun’s Tale.