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For an account of Chaucer's life, I must beg leave to refer the reader to the edition of Chaucer's Prologue, Knightes Tale, &c., by Dr. Morris, in the Clarendon Press Series; a volume to which I have frequently had occasion to refer in the Notes and Glossary.
But it is worth while to remark that Mr. Furnivall, by diligent searching amongst old records, has lately succeeded in finding out some new facts concerning Chaucer, which have been published from time to time in The Athenæum, and since collected and published in his Originals and Analogues of some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, published for the Chaucer Society, and dated (in advance) 1875. We hence learn that the poet was the son of John Chaucer, Vintner, of Thames Street, London, and Agnes, his wife. Also, that John Chaucer had a half-brother, named Thomas Heroun or Heyroun, both being born of the same mother, named Maria, who must have been married to one of the Heroun family first, and subsequently to John Chaucer. The will of Thomas Heyroun is dated April 7th, 1349, his executor being his half-brother John Chaucer, the poet's father. We also find that John Chaucer was the son of Richard Chaucer, Vintner, who in his will, dated Easter-day (April 12th) 1349, names Maria his wife, and Thomas Heyroun her son.
Richard Chaucer and Thomas Heyroun must have died nearly at the same time, carried off probably by the memorable plague of 1349. Chaucer's mother, Agnes, had an uncle named Hamo de Copton, a moneyer. The most interesting entries relating to the above matters are (1) that in which occur the words 'me Galfridum Chaucer, filium Johannis Chaucer, Vinetarii, Londonie' (City Hustings Roll, 110, 5 Ric. II, dated June 19, 1380), whereby the poet re-leases, to Henry Herbury, all his right to his father's house in Thames Street; and (2) that in which occur the words 'ego Johannes Chaucer, Ciuis et Vinetarius Ciuitatis Londonie, & Agnes Vxor mea, consanguinea & Heres Hamonis de Copton quondam Ciuis & Monetarii Civitatis predicte' (Hustings Roll, 93, dated January 16, 1366), being a conveyance by John Chaucer and Agnes his wife, of a part of her land inherited from her uncle Hamo de Copton, moneyer1. From the Clerk-of-the-Works' Accounts and the Foreign Accounts we learn that Chaucer was Clerk of the Works at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, on July 12, 1390, and was succeeded in the appointment by John Gedney, on July 8, 1391. Whilst holding this appointment, viz. on September 3, 1390, Chaucer was robbed, near the 'foule Ok' (foul oak), of £20 of the King's money, his horse, and other moveables, by certain notorious thieves, as was fully confessed by the mouth of one of them when in gaol at Westminster. The King's writ, wherein he forgives Chaucer this sum of £20, is still extant. In connection with the author of The Knightes Tale, it is particularly interesting to find that there is a writ dated July 1, 1390, allowing him the costs of putting up scaffolds in Smithfield for the King and Queen to see the jousts which took place in May, 1390. See Kn. Tale, 1023.
Chaucer tells us, in his Prologue, 11. 791-795, that it was his intention to make each of the pilgrims tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return-journey. But so far from fulfilling his proposed plan, he did not even complete so much as a quarter of it, since the number of tales do not even suffice to go once round, much less four times. No pilgrim tells two stories, though the poet represents himself
1 For the quotations, see The Athenæum, Nov. 29 and Dec. 13, 1873.
as being interrupted in his Rime of Sir Thopas, and telling the tale of. Melibeus in its stead; and we have no story from the Yeoman, the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, the Tapiser, or the Ploughman". The series being thus incomplete, it only remains to investigate to what degree of completeness the author succeeded in attaining.
It is easy to see that Chaucer may have had a good deal of material in hand before the idea of writing a connected series of tales occurred to him. The Prologue, answering somewhat to a preface, is one of his very latest works, and in his best manner; and before writing it, he had in some measure arranged a part of his materials. His design was to make a collection of tales which he had previously written, to write more new tales to go with these, and to unite them all into a series by means of connecting links?, which should account for the change from one narrator to the next in order. In doing this, he did not work continuously, but wrote-in the connecting links as they occurred to him, being probably well aware that this was the best way of avoiding an appearance of artificiality. The result is that some links are perfectly supplied, and others not written at all, thus affording a series of fragments or Groups, complete in themselves, but having gaps between them. A full account of these Groups, showing which tales are inseparably linked together, and which are not joined at all, is given in Mr. Furnivall's Temporary Preface to the Six-text Edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, published for the Chaucer Society in 1868. The resulting Groups are nine. Between these are distinct gaps, and it is by no means clear that the order of the Groups relatively to each other was finally determined upon. This relative order is, however, settled to some extent by occasional references to places passed on the
1 Warton wrongly adds, or the Host. But the Host was the umpire, not a tale-teller himself.
2 The term 'link,' and such terms as 'head-link,'end-link,' and the like, are to be found in the Six-text edition published by the Chaucer Society, whence I have copied them. See further, on this subject, in my Introduction to The Man of Lawes Tale.
road, and to the time of day. We are also perfectly certain that the Knight was to tell the first tale, and the Parson the last of the whole or partial series, thus leaving us only seven Groups to arrange. Another question at once arises, however, which must be settled before we can proceed, viz. whether the pilgrimage was intended to be performed all in one day, or in two, or three,
Any one who knows what travelling was in the olden time must be well aware that the notion of performing the whole distance in one day is out of the question, especially as the pilgrims were out more for a holiday than for business, that some of them were but poorly mounted (Prol. 287, 541), and some of them but poor riders (Prol. 390, 469, 622)”. In fact, such an idea is purely modern, adopted from thoughtlessness almost as a matter of course by every modern reader, but certainly not founded upon truth. Fortunately, too, the matter is put beyond argument by some incidental remarks. In the first Group, or Group A, occurs the line
*Lo Depeford, and it is half-wey pryme'i.e. it is now half-past seven o'clock (l. 3906). After which the Reve is made to tell a story, and the Cook also, bringing the time of day to about nine o'clock at the least. But in Group F, 1. 73, the Squire remarks that 'it is pryme, it is nine o'clock, which can only mean that hour of another day, not of the same
Still clearer is the allusion, in the Canon's Yeoman's Prologue, to the pilgrims having passed the night in a hostelry, as I understand the passage. This once perceived, it is not of much consequence whether we allow the pilgrims two days, or three, or four; but the most convenient arrangement is that proposed by Mr. Furnivall, viz. to suppose four days to have been occupied; the more so, as this supposition disposes of another extremely awkward allusion to time, viz. the mention of ten o'clock
1 In 1749, the coach from Edinburgh to Glasgow, forty-four miles, took two days for the journey. Twenty miles a day was fast. We may allow the pilgrims about fifteen miles a day. See Chambers' Book of Days, ii. 228.