By Simon Doubleday, Hofstra University
Despite the magnitude of the plague, people did not simply surrender to gloom and despair. People, like poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his family, who survived the first wave of plague, adapted in the face of trauma and attempted to rebuild their worlds. This was a time of insecurity, instability, and uncertainty, but it was also filled with extraordinary creative energy.
Let’s begin by imagining a little boy, around five or six years old. The year is 1348. For most of his short life, the boy, whose name was Geoffrey, has grown up in the medieval city of London.
But last year, 1347, the boy’s father, John—a wine importer by profession—was given an important royal appointment in Southampton, on the south coast of England. And this appointment, this move to a new job, may quite literally have saved the lives of his family.
That very same year, the first ships carrying plague were sailing across eastern Mediterranean, bringing death on an unprecedented scale to the European continent. When plague arrived in England in the summer of 1348, London, like all major cities, was devastated. Bodies were buried hurriedly, often in mass graves. Many of the young boy’s relatives in London died. But the boy’s immediate family—the Chaucers—would all survive; in fact, they would thrive.
Geoffrey Chaucer would grow to become one of the most brilliant lights of the late Middle Ages: the renowned author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’.
This is a transcript from the video series After the Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
During that first wave of the pandemic, Geoffrey’s dying uncle, Thomas, had left a number of properties in London to Geoffrey’s father, John. One can only imagine the grief of the family: they would have remembered the horror of the plague years to the end of their lives. Still, the Chaucer family—like many others—found some financial benefit in the wake of tragedy and trauma. They would now have been able to afford a better education for their son, perhaps sending him to the grammar school attached to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, after the plague was over.
Here, at school, he would have learned his letters and rhetorical, logical, and mathematical skills. He would also have heard Tales of Antiquity, some of which would later surface in his own writing. Perhaps Geoffrey had an entertaining teacher, who instilled a love of storytelling that would never leave him.
Moving into Noble Household
But, his parents, flush with new money, had high hopes for their talented son.
When Geoffrey was about 14 or 15, they pulled off a small coup, managing to place him as a page boy in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, the countess of Ulster. Elizabeth was married to Lionel of Antwerp, the second of King Edward III’s surviving sons, so this was one of the greatest noble households of the realm.
In a flash, young Geoffrey had been whisked from the world of trade, coins, and grammar school into a new, courtly sphere.
He was expected to dress the part. Geoffrey wore the short tunics that were all the rage, and tight multicolored leggings. He would have cut a striking figure, as he moved into his mid-teens, and he may have met his future wife Philippa here.
Philippa was born into a class above Geoffrey’s family: a well-connected, French-speaking noble family from the borders of France and the Low Countries.
Expanding of Horizons for Young Geoffrey
In this aristocratic environment, Geoffrey Chaucer would have absorbed and observed a lavish courtly lifestyle. He would have breathed in its refinement, its love of French poetry and courtly music, its admiration for fine cuisine and extravagant display. He would also have begun to see much more of the world.
Elizabeth’s household, like most aristocratic households, moved around the country, and he would have traveled with them from London in the south to Yorkshire in the north. His horizons were rapidly expanding.
In 1359, still aged no more than 17, Geoffrey was also required to accompany his lord, Lionel of Antwerp, on a military campaign against the French. It was during the messy siege of Reims, in northern France, that he was captured and briefly held for ransom in the spring of 1360. This experience permanently colored his view of war, which he saw as an unglamorous business.
Chaucer: A Well-traveled Young Man
One year later, in 1361, a second terrible wave of plague, lasting two years, passed through England, killing perhaps an additional 10% of the population. Geoffrey was now approaching adulthood, and soon afterwards, may have entered the service of Edward, the Black Prince—brother of Lionel and the eldest of King Edward III’s surviving sons.
In the middle of the decade, he traveled even further afield—to the Spanish kingdom of Navarre, perhaps as a messenger on a diplomatic mission for the Black Prince. The journey was arduous, taking him across the snowy Pyrenees in the late winter, but for a young man of his age, it would have been undoubtedly thrilling.
The year of his journey, 1366, was a doubly significant one since it also witnessed his marriage to Philippa. Their marriage brought him access to Philippa’s elite social networks—and two years later, these networks looked as if they were about to pay off in a very big way.
Common Questions about How the Plague Affected Geoffrey Chaucer’s Family Fortune
Geoffrey Chaucer would have learned his letters, and his rhetorical, logical, and mathematical skills. He would also have heard Tales of Antiquity, some of which would later surface in his own writing. Perhaps he had an entertaining teacher, who instilled a love of storytelling that would never leave him.
Geoffrey’s parents pulled off a small coup, managing to place him as a page boy in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, the countess of Ulster. Elizabeth was married to Lionel of Antwerp, the second of King Edward III’s surviving sons, so this was one of the greatest noble households of the realm.
In 1359, still aged no more than 17, Geoffrey Chaucer was required to accompany his lord, Lionel of Antwerp, on a military campaign against the French. It was during the messy siege of Reims, in northern France, that he was captured and briefly held for ransom in the spring of 1360.