Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World

by Donald Roy Howard

Hardcover, 1987




New York : Dutton, 1987.


"A William Abrahams book." A biography of the English poet focusing on the map, the poet, and the age in which he lived.

User reviews

LibraryThing member LydiaHD
This book is 502 pages long (not including chronology, appendices, reference notes, and references), and I loved it. There are lots of things that are unknown about Chaucer's life, and Howard has wonderful discussions of the possibilities. Was Chaucer's marriage happy or not? Did he ever meet Boccaccio? We don't know, and gosh, it's fun to read what Howard has to say about it. There is also an interesting discussion of how movable type changed - or created - ideas about plagiarism. And lots, lots more. You don't have to know or even care a bit about the 14th century to enjoy this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member waltzmn
Geoffrey Chaucer died with his greatest work, the Canterbury Tales, unfinished. Is there perhaps a slight irony in the fact that Donald R. Howard died with this major work about Chaucer unfinished?

Unfinished, but very close to done. Close enough to publish, and certainly close enough to show what it would have been like if finished. You need have no concerns about it being incomplete.

About whether it's true, now... that you have to worry about.

Howard was primarily a student of literature, and frankly, I'd be inclined to call this an historical novel rather than a biography. We have a lot of isolated facts about Chaucer (awards received, offices held, diplomatic missions undertaken, etc.), but we have little in the way of actual description of his life; we don't even actually know that the author of so many books was the same man as the fellow who fought in France (and was captured) in 1359, or who was a member of parliament thirty years later. If we want to fill in the many gaps in his life, we can only turn to inference, analogy, or deductions from his writings. It is a very uncertain process.

And that uncertainty hardly appears here. Oh, Howard expresses uncertainty about a lot of things. But mostly about the wildest speculations. Much that is inference is treated as fact, and much that is guesswork treated as inference. To someone who wants to know what is absolutely reliable, it's an uncomfortable process.

The other thing is, since Howard is so interested in literature, a very large fraction of the book is not about Chaucer but about Chaucer's writings. Of course, the writings are what survive; they are the reason we care, and Howard's comments about the writing are often better-founded than the tales about their author. But they aren't really biography.

None of which is to deny that this is a very interesting book. And most of it is probably true. But most of it has to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Like the tales of the pilgrims themselves....
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