Strohm (Humanities, Emeritus/Columbia Univ.; Conscience: A Very Short Introduction, 2011, etc.) brings his authority as a medievalist to this lively biography, focused on Geoffrey Chaucer’s radical change of fortunes in 1386.
At age 43, Chaucer lost his patronage job as controller of customs at the Wool Wharf, was evicted from his London apartment, and was living apart from his wife and mostly estranged from his children. In short, writes Strohm, “he suddenly found himself without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job, and—perhaps most seriously—without a city.” In these straits, however, he dedicated himself to the vocation of writing. Strohm notes that Chaucer had completed more than half of his literary works before 1386 but not The Canterbury Tales. Although he devoted time to his craft while he served in various court positions for more than 20 years, he did not yet consider himself a poet but instead “wrote as a matter of personal choice and not for acclaim or reward,” addressing his works to an audience comprised of close friends. That circle of friends, however, fell away with his ouster from London. Strohm argues that the format of The Canterbury Tales directly responded to this lack of audience with a bold artistic strategy: “[T]he vivid portrait gallery of Canterbury Pilgrims” became both tellers of tales and listeners, “a body of ambitiously mixed participants suitable for a collection of tales unprecedented in their variety and scope.” With little historical evidence of Chaucer’s personal life, Strohm judiciously mines official documents and Chaucer’s literary works to draw inferences about his private activities and associations and to reveal his attitudes about love, loyalty, politics and fame. He argues that Chaucer “undoubtedly possessed a competitive edge” over English poets and, intriguingly, his near contemporary Boccaccio.
With vibrant portraits of Chaucer’s contemporaries—including the imperious John of Gaunt and the shifty London mayor Nicholas Brembre—Strohm’s focus on one year in Chaucer’s life offers an expansive view of medieval England.