The 3 Stages of Chaucer's Work
When he wasn't holding positions at court or serving in other public offices, Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) was reading and writing. Although some of the facts of his life remain unknown, much of Chaucer's poetry has survived for nearly 700 years. His "Canterbury Tales" and other works proved revolutionary for their time. Literary critics and historians have tended to partition Chaucer's literary career into three major periods: the French, the Italian and the English.
What is referred to as Chaucer's French period lasted until 1372, according to the "Norton Anthology of English Literature." During this time, Chaucer translated the "Roman de la Rose," a French poem written during the 1200s. He also wrote his "Book of the Duchess," an elegiac poem that shared much with contemporary French poetry of the time but also departed from that poetry in important ways. Chaucer's extensive reading of Latin poets such as Boethius also influenced his own work.
A journey to Italy in 1372 kicked off what is now widely considered to be Chaucer's Italian period, which lasted from 1372 to 1385. The trip introduced him to the works of contemporary Italian writers, such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. At the end of this period, Chaucer wrote his longest poem, "Troilus and Criseide," a love poem that he adapted from Boccaccio's "Il Filostrato."
During the final period of Chaucer's literary career, sometimes referred to as the English period (1385-1400), Chaucer wrote the work for which he is now best known, "The Canterbury Tales." In this classic of English literature, Chaucer tells the stories of a group of disparate travelers on a journey. Often sharp and funny, "The Canterbury Tales" was more innovative and less formulaic than other contemporary English poetry, such as the work of John Gower.
Chaucer was born into a middle-class family of wine merchants around 1343. His work in the army and in various public positions enabled him to travel to France and Italy. He died in 1400. About 150 years later, a monument to Chaucer was put up in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. Although Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which can be difficult for today's students to read, many students find the rewards of reading Chaucer to be worth the challenges.
- "The Oxford Companion to English Literature," 5th ed.; Margaret Drabble, ed.; 1985
- "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," 4th ed.; M.H. Abrams, ed.; 1979
Elisabeth Dahl is a freelance writer and copyeditor who has worked in publishing since 1991. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University, where she was a Writing Center Associate Fellow.