This biography of Chaucer is as much a portrait of the period as of the man. Perhaps more so, but I will come back to that.
In the first three chapters we have a brief background history, always illustrated by quotations from the Canterbury Tales. By the end of the third chapter, we know who Chaucer was, and the setting in life that produced the Canterbury Tales.
But it does not stop there. In Chapter 4, West confronts us with Chaucer’s attitude to Jews in the context of fourteenth-century anti-semitism. There is no beating about the bush. We are shown, by contrast, Boccaccio’s fairness towards Jews and Saracens, as in the Decameron stories of Abraham and of Melchizedek. “Boccaccio’s even-handed attitude to the three religions was as rare in fourteenth-century Europe as it is in the Middle East today ”
By contrast, Chaucer’s attitude to Jews is “more open to debate.” “For hundreds of years after its publication, the Prioress’s Tale was not regarded as shocking by lovers of Chaucer,” though there were exceptions: Wordsworth, for instance, spoke of its ‘fierce bigotry’. Some Chaucer defenders would claim that he intended us to take the story and the attitude as typical of the speaker. Certainly he put it into the mouth of a woman who was “more whore than nun,” and certainly he knew that the Popes had repeatedly condemned “the blood libel”. Still, whores are no more likely to be anti-semitic than nuns and this white-washing does not really help. West gives us Chaucer as he was, warts and all.
Chapter 5 is a very good account of the Black Death, including a discussion of why Chaucer does not seem more concerned about the plague and all the other horrors of life in the “calamitous fourteenth century”. Describing the period during which the plague was rampant in England, it includes details quite new to me, such as men wearing fashions so effeminate as to constitute transvestitism, but West points out that “Chaucer does not condemn men who dress like women but those who dress to show off their masculinity.” His Poor Parson also “denounces the wearing of very long gowns which trailed in the mire, when the extra material could have been used to clothe the poor.” (In a note, West mentions that “similar criticisms greeted the Paris ‘New Look’ for women’s skirts after the Second World War, when clothes were still rationed in England and France.” I don’t remember that when Mary Quant introduced the mini-skirt, the other half was used to make a free mini-skirt for a poor girl. The absurd comments of the self-righteous never cease to amaze me.)
We see Chaucer in battle, in 1359, at Rheims, under Edward III. He spoke French, of course, and knew France well. There is a chapter on The Romance of the Rose, “the biggest single influence on Chaucer’s style, imagery and plots ” which was translated into English by Chaucer and others for an eager English public who, then as now, had the idea that sex was more exciting in France. West quotes a story he “heard in Lancashire about a coal miner who one year went for his holiday to Paris rather than Blackpool. To the questions of his inquisitive friends, he merely answered: ‘I’ll tell you one thing about Paris: fooking’s only in its infancy in Wigan.'” Nothing changes.
We see Chaucer in Florence in 1372-3, and then in Lombardy, home of the infamous Visconti brothers. He was presumably at the wedding feast of Violante, thirteen-year-old daughter of Bernabo Visconti, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, brother of the Black Prince and John o’Gaunt. Lionel died (probably as a result of the feast) and Violante “was married off to a new husband, the Marquis of Montferrat, who supposedly got his sexual excitement from strangling young male servants.” (This chapter is full of gory details.) Chaucer was also part of the mission to Lombardy when Bernabo tried again a few years later, this time betrothing another daughter, Caterina, to Richard, son of the Black Prince; fortunately for Richard, soon to succeed to the throne as Richard II, this fell through.
This book is not, then, a biography pure and simple, as other reviewers have also pointed out. In fact there is much missing from it that one might expect to find in a biography. But it does what it sets out to do, namely give us an account of “the life and times” of its subject. By the time you finish reading it you know much more not only about about Chaucer and but about the whole astonishing fourteenth century. Wyclif, the Peasants’ Revolt, John o’ Gaunt, the minority of Richard II: Chaucer saw it all.
He also plays quite a large part in Mariana’s life in my novels –
starting Mariana de la Mar 2,
THE UNDEPARTED DEAD