By Kathryn Walton
Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most famous poets of the Middle Ages, but like many struggling writers today, he held several day-jobs. Here are some of the many jobs that Chaucer had over the course of his life.
Geoffrey Chaucer is probably the most famous English author of the Middle Ages. Most undergraduate students and even some high school students who take an English course will likely encounter one or more of his written works. Even if you’ve never read any Chaucer, you’ve probably heard his name alongside the other historical “greats” of the English literary world. His works like The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are celebrated as masterful and complex pieces of poetry that exemplify medieval English literature at its best.
But like many across history, Chaucer didn’t write to pay his bills. He paid those through a variety of day-jobs.
Here are a few of Geoffrey Chaucer’s many day-jobs.
Chaucer was born sometime in the early 1340s into a family of merchants. His father, John, came from a long line of merchants, and John himself was a successful London wine merchant and eventually a freeman of the city. So, Geoffrey probably first encountered the working world with his father in his wine business. We know nothing of these formative years because no records of Chaucer’s activity survive, but in all likelihood, Chaucer’s first job was as an assistant to his merchant father.
Chaucer officially entered the working world as a page in a courtly household. He worked in the household of the countess of Ulster, Elizabeth de Burgh. Elizabeth was married to Prince Lionel, one of the sons of Edward III, and so the household was well-connected and busy. As one of the countess’s retainers (we assume he was a page), Chaucer would have performed whatever services were required of him. As a young teenager he would have accompanied her on her journeys to all the various royal residences.
In 1359, while he was a member of the household of the countess of Ulster, Chaucer also entered military service. Chaucer accompanied Prince Lionel’s company on an expedition to France where he may have served in the division of Edward the Black Prince. The Black Prince was besieging the city of Rheims at that time, and it is thought that Chaucer took part in that campaign. At some point, Chaucer was even captured and held prisoner by the French. The king eventually paid a handsome ransom for his release in March of 1360.
By 1367, Chaucer was a member of the royal household. He is described in surviving documents as an esquier or a valettus. These were men who were dispatched on administrative or diplomatic missions in England and in Europe. In this role he travelled around England and Europe carrying messages to important individuals and engaging in diplomatic talks with foreign governments.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what kinds of messages Chaucer carried or what kinds of missions he went on. All that survives are records of Chaucer receiving royal permission to travel to certain places at certain times, and how much money he was paid for so doing.
In 1370, for example, he received “a letter of protection to go in the king’s service (…for an unspecified purpose) to ‘parts beyond the sea’” (I quote here from the entry on Chaucer in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). We have no idea where he went or why.
Some of his later trips were recorded. We know that in 1372-3, for example, he was sent to Italy by the king to see the doge of Genoa and negotiate over the use of a port in England. Later in the same decade he also traveled on “the king’s secret affairs” to “divers parts beyond the sea.”
What exactly these diverse affairs were and where these parts beyond the sea were have inspired a great deal of interest. In all likelihood, they had to do with peace negotiations in various parts of Europe, but we will never know for sure.
After Chaucer had established himself in the king’s service, he took on a role as a public servant. In 1378 he was appointed as the comptroller in the port of London. In this post he was responsible for the customs or export tax on various goods including wool, skins, and leather. Since a large volume of these goods came through the port, this was a busy job, and Chaucer was granted rent-free accommodations close to the port to help him complete it. He maintained this position until 1386.
During his working life, Chaucer was also charged on a few different occasions with criminal offenses, making one of the job titles that he can claim as criminal. In 1379, for example, he was charged by Thomas Stondon for contempt and trespass. It is not known what this refers to, and there are no further surviving records about the charge.
In 1380, he was also involved in a lawsuit concerning the raptus of a woman named Cecilia Chaumpaigne, or Cecily Champain. Once again, what this refers to exactly has not been concretely proven. Raptus can refer to rape, or it can refer to abduction, and scholars have spent a lot of time arguing about the specifics of Chaucer’s crime. Overtime scholarly consensus has leant more heavily towards rape, but all that we know for certain is that Chaucer was charged, money exchanged hands, and he was eventually cleared of responsibility.
Chaucer was also fined two shillings at one point for beating a friar in Fleet Street. Chaucer, evidently, was not a particularly nice person.
Justice of the Peace and Member of Parliament
Despite his own criminal record, when Chaucer retired from London in 1386 and moved to Kent, he was appointed as a justice of the peace for the county. In this role he would have worked with local magistrates to deal with a range of felonies committed by people in the community. He would have dealt with a variety of things including small infractions to laws concerning weights and measures and more serious things like armed ambushes.
In that same year he was also elected as a knight of the shire for Kent, so he represented the county in parliament that year. That means he would have participated in what is known as the Wonderful Parliament, which set up a parliamentary commission to oversee the king’s household.
Avoider of Political Downfall
The period of history in which Chaucer lived and worked was a tumultuous one, and he was connected with numerous figures who took big political falls – often fatal ones. Chaucer, on the other hand, always managed to avoid major political downfall. In 1381, for example, some members of the peasantry marched on the city of London to protest extensive taxation. In the process, they executed a number of individuals involved in government finances. Although Chaucer was living over one of the gates through which the group entered, and although he was directly involved in taxation, he seems to have been unaffected by the revolt, which he barely mentions in all his writing.
You can read my feature on “Piers Plowman and The Great Uprising” for more on the connection between that event and another work of medieval literature.
In 1388 Chaucer survived another deadly political event. The Merciless Parliament in that year attempted to bring down a number of King Richard II’s personal favourites and removed the king from the throne for a time. Several people that Chaucer was closely connected with, including fellow poet Thomas Usk, were executed in the upheaval, but again Chaucer avoided any harm despite his close connection with the court of Richard II.
Clerk of the Kings Works
Chaucer re-entered public life in London in the 1390s after Richard II was restored to the throne. He was appointed by the king in 1391 to be the Clerk of the Kings Works. In this role, he was responsible for the administration of building works. During his time, he oversaw repairs at a number of important buildings including Westminster and the Tower of London. He also oversaw the royal parks and hunting lodges and even administered the construction of tournament grounds in London. This was an important position, and Chaucer would have worked with and overseen a huge number of individuals.
Chaucer’s final recorded position is as a forester in Kent. In 1391, Chaucer seems to have left his position as Clerk of the Kings work in London and retired to Kent. There he took up a position as a deputy forester. It is not exactly clear what his duties in this role would have been, but it is during this time that he completed much of his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, so perhaps they were less onerous.
The Importance of Day-Jobs
As you can see, Chaucer’s career was varied. He held down many different day-jobs. These day-jobs paid the bills, but they also, I would suggest, helped make him a successful writer.
His day-jobs introduced him to new literary forms, new stories, and new ideas. His travels to Italy as a diplomat, for example, allowed him to bring a new style of verse to the English literary world. His work in a courtly household inspired him to use and transform courtly styles of literature. And his interactions with everyone from merchants to labourers to politicians allowed him to create diverse and engaging characters.
Far from being an encumbrance, his day-jobs shaped his writing. Without them, he might not remain the celebrated figure that he is today.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: British Library MS Harley 4866 fol. 88r