The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

9 responses to “The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

  1. Will you be reading The Canterbury Tales?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The nearest Ive come to Chaucer js his portrayal in A Knights Tale…which is great fun if nothing else!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I watched it again a few weeks ago. I love it so much that I’ve got the DVD. Sadly, it’s starting to look a bit dated, but it’s a great romp and I don’t care that it’s a travesty, historically speaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read The Canterbury Tales when I was at university, but that’s so long ago I can’t remember many. Some were over my head in that I didn’t know enough about the medieval context. I’d like to read them again, because I think I’d now have a better feel for his satire, but I’m out of the habit of reading Middle English, so that’s a different challenge. . .

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it might be a fairly easy habit to get back into. I keep reminding myself that my friends who did English at university had to read it in their first year, which presumably meant reading much of it in the summer before they started, when they had no one to teach them the ins and outs of Middle English. I’m going slowly because I like to learn words, even if I can work out what they mean from their context. I look up and write down all the new ones as they come.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m now adding this book (AND Chaucer’s works) to my want to read list!

    Liked by 1 person

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