The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales by Pail Strohm, book review

Chaucer's misfortunes in 1386 shaped his literary legacy for generations to come
Click to follow

"Whan that aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote ...
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ..."

"When April's sweet showers have pierced the drought of March to the root, people yearn to go on pilgrimages."

It was April in January when I read Paul Strohm's superb biography of a year in Chaucer's life and found myself checking train times from Swansea to Canterbury. A yen for pilgrimage arose, not only to seek "the holy blisful martir" – martyred Becket's cathedral shrine – but in quest of Chaucer. Medieval folk venerated relics – bones, toenails, hair – for contact with the sainted and sanctifying dead. Today, a kind of grateful curiosity draws us to dead poets. Who was Chaucer exactly? A comic self-portrait appears as one of the Canterbury pilgrims. "What man artow?" (who the heck are you?) the host demands when it's Chaucer's turn to narrate: you keep goggling at the ground as if in search of hares – you girl's doll, cheer up! Is this bashful, dainty guy an image of Chaucer – or the opposite? Who knows?

No private diaries, personal letters or portraits exist. But open The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer comes alive. Lovable, laugh-aloud funny, wise, sceptical, tolerant, the poet brings his age to breathing life. Strohm represents Chaucer's characters – the "moneyman Merchant ... the sex-pest Friar, the conniving Manciple" – as our contemporaries. In the mind's eye we see "the Knight's rust-coloured tunic ... the Wife of Bath's gapped teeth ... the Miller's door-busting head". And we hear their voices.

High-quality records survive of Chaucer's public career as courtier and bureaucrat – more than 490 items – but practically nothing memorialises his poetic life. Strohm centres on a single year, 1386, at the end of which Chaucer "suddenly found himself without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job ... without a city."

Exiled from London and his literary circle, Strohm's Chaucer lost an audience, in an age before the printing press, when poetry in manuscript was read aloud in performance. The book's compelling thesis is that Chaucer's loss generated the invention of a "portable audience" within The Canterbury Tales: the pilgrims themselves.

Micro-history and micro-biography are small-scale, forensic, intimate forms, whose success depends on the canny choice of a date and contextual documentation. James Shapiro set a golden standard with A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005), reconstructing a turning point in Shakespeare's career. The Poet's Tale shows the biographer as avid scholarly detective, anatomising every scrap of the record – lawsuits, maps, Parliamentary records, reimbursements, archaeological remains – to unearth a hidden story.

One of Chaucer's overarching themes is the volatility of fortune, whose reversals – if we are wise – teach us "to maken virtu of necessitee". Strohm's Chaucer is essentially a small player in a world of venal power politics, "a politician of limited gifts, and not much of a factionalist either". A loyalist of Richard II, he'd risen by espousing the long-term losing party. Esquire to the king, Chaucer had made an advantageous marriage. But he and his higher-ranking wife, Philippa de Roet, sister to John of Gaunt's mistress, Katherine Swynford, lived apart and his association with the loathed Gaunt jeopardised him.

Deployed by his political masters to the post of controller of wool custom, Chaucer had the unenviable job of monitoring the activities of "some of the richest and best connected and least scrupulous crooks on the face of his planet". Strohm's portrait of the collector of the lucrative wool custom, corrupt magnate Nicholas Brembre, is formidable. When the royalist faction secured Chaucer's election to the 1386 Parliament, and Brembre's wheel came thundering down, so did Chaucer's. His grace and favour apartment was forfeit. Strohm assesses Chaucer's withdrawal from public life as "a matter of constrained choice". Chaucer became "a wanderer in Kent, with no fixed job and insufficient income".

One of the joys of The Poet's Tale is Strohm's imaginative reconstruction of Chaucer's London. His tower apartment over Aldgate, reconstructed from a later map, was a single chamber with five-foot walls and four- or five-inch slits which "may, by charity, be called windows, but only barely so". Rebels had streamed through the gate, under Chaucer's feet, during the Peasants' Revolt. Foetor from Houndsditch mingled with the stench of felons' or traitors' rotting heads on the gate. Carts with iron-rimmed wheels bellowed through the gate. "And now imagine," Strohm invites us, the 2,820-pound bell of Holy Trinity Priory, and its eight companion bells, along with those of other nearby churches, tolling and pealing for hours at a time, while Chaucer, like Geffrey in The House of Fame, sits "domb as any stoon" (stone-dumb) over his books, in a dark room reverberating with clangour.

Losing "that thick and involving texture of London life" meant forfeit not only of discomfort but of stimulation and conviviality. The listening audience Chaucer now lacked he invented as a fellowship of pilgrims: "Chaucer's varied cast of rogues, pitchmen, scammers ... divines, social snobs, humble toilers [is] a miracle of imaginative inclusion." The pilgrims narrate, perform, sympathise, critique, mock and quarrel, a diverse throng of voices. "This is a long preamble of a tale," grumbles the bored Friar to the loquacious Wife of Bath, who hasn't even begun her tale yet. "Myn herte is lost, for pitee" (My heart's lost in pity) is the Host's compassionate response to the Physician's tale. "Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!" (Your dirty rhyming isn't worth a turd) is his verdict on Chaucer's tale of Melibee.

From the misfortune of 1386, Chaucer moved towards a sense of authorial identity, preparing his literary legacy for generations to come. The pilgrims mediated "between Chaucer and the extended public he has begun to imagine". The poet's humiliated exile, Strohm compellingly suggests, is part of the deep story of how The Canterbury Tales came into being.