“And high above, depicted in a tower,
Sat Conquest, robed in majesty and power,
Under a sword that swung above his head,
Sharp-edged and hanging by a subtle thread.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer made a monumental decision. Estranged from his wife and children, evicted from his London home, terminated from his patronized job managing the customs of the Wool Wharf, Geoffrey Chaucer left London and ran into exile to save his skin and dove headfirst into his writing — the results his masterpiece for the ages, The Canterbury Tales.
Professor Paul Strohm, once J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, focuses his research and full attention to Geoffrey Chaucer’s most acute major life crisis, the year 1386, and constructs a highly detailed and fascinating micro biography which illustrates just how crisis can turn to opportunity, in Chaucer’s case how tragedy and adversity in one short year launched him to genius and immortality.
The fruits of Professor Strohm’s research is quite enlightening. For more that 20 years prior to the commencement of Chaucer’s opus, I was surprised to learn that his poetry was shared with only with those close to him, the watershed of 1386 finally pushing Chaucer to finally focus on his brilliance rather then the comforts of the privilege he enjoyed in partial measure from his marriage to Phillipa Roet, friend of the King Richard II and the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt.
Beyond Professor’s Strohm’s stellar analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer the man, I was most fascinated by his exquisite detailing of medieval life in London, as well as the political drama that Chaucer became entangled in. Medieval lovers will be enthralled by the detail, but those reading Strohm’s work to learn of just how 1386 leads to his literary brilliance crafted in The Canterbury Tales will need to be patient. The background details that will fascinate medieval history enthusiasts dominate at least the first half of the book.
John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancester enthusiasts beware! Professor Strohm’s conclusions of the forefather of both King Henry VIII and his first wife Catalina de Aragón are downright scathing. Is his analysis of John of Gaunt accurate? I will leave that to historians to decide. Whatever the truth of the matter, the argument is compelling and highly engaging.
Chaucer’s Tale, 1386 and the Road to Canterbury is not a book for everyone, nor is it intended to be. Geoffrey Chaucer lovers and medieval history enthusiasts, however, will find this a highly enjoyable, fascinating and engaging read. Chaucer’s own words best illustrate the fruit of Professor Strohm’s accomplishments. “Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” Amen.
Professor Paul Strohm, Anna S. Garbedian Professor Emeritus of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York City, also most recently was the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. A world renowned expert in medieval literature, Professor Strohm concentrates his studies upon the transition of literature from the medieval to early modern eras of English History. His previous publications include: Social Chaucer (Harvard, 1989, 1994); Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts(Princeton, 1992); England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and Textual Legitimation, 1399-1422(Yale UK, 1998); Theory and the Premodern Text (Minnesota, 2000); and Politique: Languages of Statecraft Between Chaucer and Shakespeare (Notre Dame, 2005).