Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet during the Medieval Era. While he does not appear to
have been a social reformer, he drew attention to the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in his
works, The Canterbury Tales.
Scholars agree that little is known about Chaucer. We do not have much personal inform-
mation, such as “the memorabilia, letters, diaries, personal reminiscences, that cluster thickly
around such later figures as Byron, Shelley or Yeats” (Morrison 7). Most of what is known has
been gathered from official or public documents. According to West, “we don’t even know if
he was Anglo-Saxon or Norman French as Chaucer (from chaussier, a shoemaker) indicates”
(42). While not shoemakers, Chaucer’s “father and grandfather were both wine merchants,
apparently successful and rising men” (Morrison 7).
Geoffrey Chaucer was born sometime between 1340 -1345, in London, England. It is not known
what education level that Chaucer may have reached. Since he became a member of the
household of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, it is assumed that he had an opportunity to receive
higher education. It is believed that Chaucer could read French, Latin and Italian.
Society in Chaucer’s time was divided into three “estates”. Singman and McLean tell us that
“The first estate was the clergy, who were responsible for people’s spiritual well-being. The
second estate was the aristocracy, who were supposed to defend the nation with their military
might. The third estate was the commons, whose role was to labor and produce the country’s
When Chaucer was a young boy, bubonic and pneumonic plague struck Europe. The plague was
referred to as the “Black Death”. “In 1348-49, the Black Death reduced the nation in sixteen
months from perhaps four million to two million five hundred thousand, and precipitated the
class struggle” (Singman & McLean 2). As a result, there were labor shortages, causing laborers
to demand more pay and peasants to fight to free themselves from what could be considered
“slave labor” on local estates. We see greed bountiful in the Church at this time.
There is everywhere such a dearth of priests that many churches are left without the divine offices of mass, matins, vespers, sacraments and sacramentals. One could scarcely get a chaplain to serve at a church for less than 10 marks. And whereas before the pestilence, when there were plenty of priests, anyoe could get a chaplain for five or even four marks, or for two marks and his board, at this time there was hardly a soul who would accept a vicarage, laments a canon of Leicester (West 77)
At a time when there was much poverty and suffering, the Church continued to build expensive
Cathedrals. To the ordinary citizen, it seemed hypocritical for Roman Catholic Church to preach
against the sin of greed when the churches were so ornately built.
Chaucer performed public service, including diplomatic missions, for 3 kings during his lifetime.
They were Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV. Chaucer kept royal commissions throughout
most of his life, so it appears that his writings, which often made comment on human frailty
and the abuse of power, did not offend his royal employers.
Fletcher tell us that “according to his friend, pupil and fellow poet, Thomas Hoccleve, Chaucer
was ‘the first finder of our fair language’ (32). “At a time when most important poetry was
written in Anglo-Norman or Latin, his use of English played a central role in establishing the
literary language we recognize today (Fletcher 32). The Cantebury Tales was the first work by
a major poet to be written in Middle English. In Chaucer’s time, Middle English, was a
language considered to be for the poor, lowly or uneducated. Another factor making
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