A Conversation with Paul Strohm, Author of CHAUCER’S TALE, 1386 and the Road to Canterbury


Peter Strohm, Professor of English Medieval Literature, Columbia University, NYC
Peter Strohm, Professor of English Medieval Literature, Columbia University, NYC

Justine Sha, Publicist of Penquin Books, recently graciously shared the following promotional information about Professor Peter Strohm’s new book, CHAUCER’S TALE 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers rarely shares promotional material, but we are very excited about this particular release. After all, is there any more influential or brilliant poet and author than Geoffrey Chaucer? Penguin shares the following…

At the start of 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer was a middle-aged Londoner with a distasteful customs job and husband to a higher-ranking wife located in another city. By 1387, he was forced to leave London jobless, a widower, and without political allies. In this quick and punchy microbiography, CHAUCER’S TALE: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Viking; On-Sale: 11/17/14; 978-0-670-02643-2; $28.95), medieval scholar Paul Strohm unravels how this calamitous year led to Chaucer’s rebirth as a literary celebrity and the beginnings of his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales.

17th Century Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, Artist Unknown
17th Century Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, Artist Unknown

While there are books that have already looked into the story behind Shakespeare’s evolution as a writer, such as A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro, so far none have done so with equal verve for Chaucer – and for the “Father of English literature”, it would seem long overdue. CHAUCER’S TALE explores the street life of 14th century London, the scandalous behavior of Parliament, the beneficial relationship between Chaucer, his wife Phillipa, and her sister Katherine Swynford, the mistress of John of Gaunt. But when all of this was ripped away, the sometime-poet relocated to the isolated Kent. There in the loneliest time of his life, Chaucer arrived at the most revolutionary idea: to invent his own audience in his writing — and yet more revolutionary — an audience that featured members of every stratum in society.

CHAUCER’S TALE is an accessible and lively social history that casual readers can enjoy alongside Chaucer fans and medieval history enthusiasts.

About the Author:
PAUL STROHM has been J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English at the University of Oxford and Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. He has previously been departmental Chair and President of the Faculty Council at Indiana University, and has held various national offices and posts with the American Association of University Professors. Author of acclaimed scholarly volumes, he now tackles a new assignment: telling Chaucer’s story to a new and more general audience that loves literature but hasn’t specialized in the middle ages. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Oxford, England.




Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer
Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer


Q: To his contemporaries, Chaucer was not yet known as the literary man we see him as today. What did he do besides write poetry?

A: He had a number of day jobs, and was good at them. For instance, he served for twelve years as a customs official in the wool trade, policing the richest and least scrupulous men in the City of London.

Q: Customs officials are rather notorious; was Chaucer himself an honest man?

A: Fortunes were being made all around him, but he left the job poor. He seems not exactly to have been a crook himself, but spent a good deal of time “looking the other way.”

Q: When and why did he start writing poetry?

A: He had been writing all along, for his own pleasure and for a circle of close friends. Only midway though, when the customs job was going sour, did he think seriously about writing for a larger public, circulating his poems in manuscript to people he didn’t know.

Q: Who was Chaucer’s wife and what role did she play in his life?

A: Her name was Philippa, and she had court connections. Her sister was the notorious Katherine Swinford, mistress of John of Gaunt (the most powerful man in the land), and Chaucer got some crumbs from that table. Chaucer doesn’t seem to have been much of a family man, though; he and Philippa lived mostly apart and evidently had the medieval equivalent of a “dual career” marriage.

Q: As a biographer, where do you get your evidence for things like that?

A: All kinds of scraps survive. 494 of them, to be exact. Things like a daily pitcher of wine on the waterfront, a gift from John of Gaunt, a trip overseas on behalf of the King. But they’re an accidental mix, and don’t exactly add up to a life story. Not one of them, for example, describes Chaucer as a poet. So that’s where the biographer comes in. You put them together, lots of little intuitive leaps, in the most conscientious way you can.

Q: You talk about the “Road to Canterbury.” What put him on that road?

A: What got him started was those great Canterbury pilgrims. He was out of a job, living alone, cut off from his London audience, and he got the idea of writing a poem that contained its own audience. A poem and a social life, all in one.

Q: Was Chaucer ever a pilgrim?

A: No sign of it. He was a writer; he made things up. He may never have gone to Canterbury. But medieval Christians thought of life itself as a kind of pilgrimage, so the idea was always there, close at hand.

Q: So here’s the life over here, the poetry over there. What does a knowledge of Chaucer’s life contribute to an understanding of his poetry?

A: In his poetry, Chaucer presents a version of himself as a naïve enthusiast. People used to sometimes take that at face value, to think of him as a simple man, and to miss out on his rather splendid cynicisms. Nobody who knew anything about Chaucer’s life could ever suppose him a simple man, or expect anything less than plenty of irony and sharp wit in his poems.




Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer


“…Remarkable…The unearthing of a real-life tale as fascinating as any of Chaucer’s own making.”
—Booklist (Starred Review)

“Strohm brings his authority as a medievalist to this lively biography… 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.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Strohm’s well chosen public documents and contextual excerpts from Chaucer’s work offer a glimpse into Chaucer’s personal life and literary ambition as well as insight into the horrible year that launched his greatest work. Strohm really shines at literary criticism…”
—Publishers Weekly

“Paul Strohm illuminates how 1386 marked a decisive year for Geoffrey Chaucer, one in which he went from accomplished coterie poet to the popular author of the work of genius for which he is celebrated to this day: The Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer’s Tale, Strohm, one of the finest medievalists of our time, brings this turbulent moment in Chaucer’s England to life, recovering in vivid detail the professional and creative pilgrimage that led Chaucer to compose so memorable a fictional one.”
—James Shapiro, author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare


Coming Soon!!!!!!!!!! Watch for QAB’s Review!

chaucer cover

To Purchase, Click the Link Below!

CHAUCER’S TALE, 1386 and the Road to Canterbury


Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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