Here are ten things I learned about the eminent English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, from reading Paul Strohm’s “Chaucer’s Tale” that I didn’t get from reading the “Canterbury Tales” years ago:

  1. Chaucer lived during a very politically dangerous time in English history: the closing years of the Plantagenet dynasty;
  2. Chaucer hung around the royal court as a minor official who became very good at ingratiating himself with his superiors because of his organizational skills, especially in the business of collecting customs;
  3. Chaucer married up. Though his marriage was initially an advantageous move socially, it lost most of its lustre by middle-age;
  4. Most of his key literary work was done near the end of his life, when he withdrew to a solitary existence in his apartment at Algate;
  5. Chaucer was likely an eye witness to the devastating Watt Tyler Rebellion as it encroached on downtown London in 1381;
  6. Chaucer wrote for an imaginary audience who, in his mind, could respond to his tales in a most human way. Consequently, the “Canterbury Tales” are told in the setting of a mobile crowd hanging out in inns whilst a holy pilgrimage;
  7. His tale-tellers are men and women who have time on their hands to contemplate the failings of love;
  8. This pilgrimage contains people, from all walks of life, who offer their own take on what is right and wrong with society. It is this perspective that makes the Tales such a brilliant commentary on the times. Such honesty would not be found in the royal court;
  9. It is this open-road forum that allowed Chaucer to operate at his satirical best by working vicariously through fictional characters;
  10. Chaucer lived during a time when English was finally coming into its own as a written language. Reading his writings in middle English will treat the reader to some very fascinating insights into a society that was just learning the meaning of public life.