Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess in 1369. The poem was, on one level, an attempt to ingratiate himself with the widowed duke, John of Gaunt, by consoling him in his grief. On a deeper level, however, it also presents all of Chaucer’s readers with a means of processing tragedy, trauma, and despair—through the power of poetry.
Death of Blanche, Wife of John of Gaunt
In 1368, Blanche, the young wife of John of Gaunt, suddenly passed away. John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was one of the most powerful landowners in the kingdom; he was the third of Edward III’s sons, and younger brother of the Black Prince and Lionel of Antwerp, who had been Geoffrey Chaucer’s lord.
At this juncture, Geoffrey Chaucer’s ambitious new sister-in-law, Katherine, moved in as the governess for the children that Blanche had left. It was not long before John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, turned his eyes to the pretty governess. Within a few years, and probably sooner, he and Katherine had become lovers—despite the somewhat inconvenient fact that she was married.
All of this was good news for young Geoffrey Chaucer, opening up the prospect of dizzying new connections to the House of Lancaster. And it was in this context that Chaucer wrote the earliest of his major poems, which was entitled The Book of the Duchess. He wrote this compelling work in 1369, about one year after Blanche’s death.
This is a transcript from the video series After the Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Healing through Reading
In The Book of the Duchess, the narrator himself begins in a state of insomnia and depression: one hint that the poem is not just about the grief of the Duke of Lancaster. He is exhausted, he says, in a daze. He does not know why, although he has suffered for eight years, and he despairs of ever finding a cure.
For of physicians there is but one
Who can heal me, yet that’s all done.
The identity of this person—the only one that can cure him—is left unstated: a lost love, perhaps, although the language of the poem also has resonances of the healing presence of Christ, the ultimate physician.
But the narrator of the poem finds a cure for his insomnia—and some solution for his troubles—in reading tales of long ago. Reading has begun taking him beyond his own worries, and his own anxieties, towards some form of healing.
The Forest Scene
In his dream, the narrator is awakened by a chorus of birds. In the room where he lies, he is surrounded by stained glass panels depicting the story of Troy, and the medieval chivalric legend of the Roman de la Rose. The sun shines in through the windows; the day is blue, crisp, and clear. He hears voices, summoning everyone for the hunt—so he leaps from his bed to join them. The dream-hunt is led by the emperor Augustus. A small dog then approaches the narrator and leads him into a beautiful green forest. The path that they follow, we hear, is radiant and ablaze with flowers.
The forest is pulsating with life: with countless deer, squirrels, and other creatures. It’s a vision of beauty that surely represents the possibility of hope in our lives. Yet there sits a sad young man, about twenty-four years old (we’re told), sitting disconsolately by an old oak tree, his head hanging down.
The Knight in Black
It’s worth noting that both Geoffrey and John of Gaunt themselves were both in their mid-twenties—the personal resonances seem clear. The young man is dressed in black, and rapt in his grief. He bewails the cruelty of Death, who has taken his beloved away; the blood has drained from his face. He asks why he is still alive. He is inconsolable, spurning any possibility of finding a cure for his grief.
The Knight in Black describes the loss of his beloved in terms of a game of chess. Fortune, deceitful and false, has tricked him in the game, stealing his queen. She has checkmated him—with a pawn, no less. He describes the lady’s virtues and beauty; she so much loved to live, he says, that dullness itself was afraid of her. Her name was White, he says—almost certainly a play on the name of Blanche—‘white’ in French.
The Knight unburdens himself through language, and confession. The lady had first denied him her love; but a year later, she granted him her ring. They had lived many a year together as a couple; “so well, I cannot tell you how”.
The narrator asks him, “Where is she now?” “She is dead,” the Knight states point-blank. For many critics, this admission—mundane, straightforward—marks the point at which the Knight comes to terms with his trauma.
The Spirit of Resilience
The Book of the Duchess is a work that feels its way tentatively toward healing. There’s a comic element to Chaucer’s caricature of a self-absorbed young man; but this element of humor co-exists with real pain, trauma, and despair.
Chaucer is handling a deadly serious topic with characteristic delicacy. His poem makes subtle allusions to the name of Blanche, “the White Lady”, and to the private agonies of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. But the poem also reflects a more general spirit of resilience, in the face of suffering, and a homage to the power of words as a source of healing. A bell rings twelve, and the dreamer awakes, his book still in his hand.
The Book of the Duchess encapsulates the spirit of the generations after the plague: life-affirming, even in the shadow of Death.
Common Questions about Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Book of the Duchess’
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess in 1369, about one year after the death of Blanche, the young wife of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster.
In The Book of the Duchess, the narrator finds a cure for his insomnia in reading tales of long ago. Reading takes him beyond his own worries, and his own anxieties, toward some form of healing.
The Book of the Duchess reflects a more general spirit of resilience, in the face of suffering, and a homage to the power of words as a source of healing.