On Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale

1386Paul Strohm’s new Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury is a great read. It proceeds by a series of chapters about Chaucer’s marriage, the lease of the apartment in the Aldgate, his work as a customs official in the wool trade, and the 1386 Wonderful Parliament, before moving to several shorter chapters that more explicitly consider literary work, on his shorter poems and his literary circle, the “Problem of Fame,” and Kent.

Unlike, for instance, Derek Pearsall, Strohm does not attempt a comprehensive account of Chaucer’s life, even during the decade this book covers. He focuses on the issues that coalesced in the moment of “crisis” that forced Chaucer’s move to Kent at the end of 1386. Other events that must have consumed much of his interest at the time—such as the Peasants’ revolt, or the accusation of raptus by Cecily Champain—are not at stake here. Nor does Strohm discuss Chaucer abroad, but only his domestic and economic life in London, which his narrative brings to a head in a re-telling of the Wonderful Parliament during the last months of 1386.

Here I want to talk about two points. First, Strohm brings to Chaucer’s London to life politically, socially, geographically, and materially that help medievalists, and their students, to understand the London in which Chaucer lived. Second, the book does not offer just description, but an argument about this moment in Chaucer’s life.

The book is not about Canterbury, nor about the Canterbury Tales (or, it is only briefly, in Chapter 7, on “Kent and Canterbury,” the shortest of the book’s chapters). Instead, the book’s great strength appears in the earlier chapters about London. These chapters are thick with details, about London street life, the cycles of local religious practice, social connections to Hainault, Philippa’s social class and role, how the crown obtained loans, the duties of the sergeants-at-arms in the first floor of the Aldgate tower, Chaucer’s position relative to the rest of the Kent delegation in Parliament, and how (some things don’t seem to change) members of Parliament voted themselves their pay.

His discussion of Chaucer’s wife Philippa and her relations is the most lucid and convincing discussion of their marriage and apparent estrangement I’ve ever read. Strohm describes the local culture in and around the Aldgate to the point that one can (unfortunately) smell it. His chapter on “The Wool Men” describes the politics and practicalities of the crucial wool trade: “the English crown was utterly dependent upon the wool trade as its most significant source of bullion,” and men were made and broken working in it (106). He describes how Nicholas Brembre and others enriched themselves off of wool, and how the “bribery culture” of the customs officials physically worked. (This may have involved Chaucer; Strohm published a more argumentative version of this point in the Huffington Post.) The narrative description of the October 1386 Parliament and the concurrent rise of the “anti-Brembre” coalition that propelled him into Kent provide the crescendo of his argument for the “crisis” that Chaucer at this point found himself a victim of.

And this indicates my second point: for Strohm, from the start, Chaucer’s “1386 crisis” is the key; at the end of this year Chaucer found himself “without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job, and—perhaps most seriously—without a city” (6, 5). That this moment was a crisis, and that he was “without” any of these, is the book’s key argument. Neither Donald Howard’s nor Derek Pearsall’s biographies of Chaucer contend that 1386 provided a “crisis.” Howard’s 1987 biography comes close when he names the latter half of the 1380s (not just this year) as “the worst of times” and “the darkest period of his life” (401). Pearsall, however, at one point outright avers that Chaucer’s life was not thrown into a sudden crisis by the events of 1386, saying that “there is no evidence that there was any witch-hunt of customs officials in the aftermath of the October Parliament” (205).

Concerning some of Strohm’s “withouts,” Pearsall cites the fact that his appointment “as a member of the commission of the peace for Kent” was first made on 12 Oct. 1385, and that it was renewed through 1389 (205). Not only was he with a job, but the appointment was, Pearsall argues, “a definite advance up the social and political ladder” and not, as Strohm argues, a demotion resulting from his Ricardian sympathies. And Pearsall’s discussion of Chaucer’s audience—he mentions, for instance, that Simon Burley, “one of the most influential men around Richard II” (206), also served on the commissions—implies that Chaucer’s audience and connections to London did not change all that much.

The issue of the Aldgate lease captures the difference here between Strohm and Pearsall. After Chaucer had lived in the apartment for twelve years, it was leased to Richard Forster on 5 October 1386. Pearsall argues that Chaucer was probably already living in Kent by October since many of the witnesses were from Kent when Chaucer appeared to give manprize for the appearance of Simon Manning in November at the Court of Common Pleas (204). Strohm, however, argues that it would have been a shock, pointing to an event on just the previous day, 4 October, when the mayor and aldermen of London agreed “that no future grants would be made of dwellings over the gates of the city.” He continues: “In short, Chaucer appears to have been the sole object of the initiative. The whole situation would be comprehensible if a change of city administration had brought about a new political party” (179).

Now, Pearsall is almost always a very circumspect scholar. It must be noted that he hedges his “it’s not a crisis” argument at a slightly later point, arguing that “It is clear that the years 1386-89 saw a radical change in Chaucer’s life, a change that accelerated as the political crisis deepened and as Chaucer realized what the situation might require” (208-09), spreading what Strohm sees as a critical moment over a number of years, as Howard did. And (I don’t think I missed it) Pearsall never even refers to the 4 October agreement.

That is, I’m not necessarily arguing for Pearsall over Strohm here. Which scenario presents the historically “correct” version is not entirely recoverable—we are not trying to read historical events here as much as Chaucer’s reactions to them—and to an extent, I’d argue that the difference comes down to differing writing styles. Pearsall’s careful prose, in which he proposes, and hedges the proposals with alternatives, only constructs claims as necessary. But lives can have crises, and (absent a diary in which Chaucer mulls over his anxieties, which we obviously lack) this style can make it difficult to claim one, since it shies away from using any more connective tissue than absolutely necessary among available data. (This, as an aside, seems be the anxiety about autobiography that Ardis Butterfield articulated during the NCS panel on “Writing Biography” this past summer in Reykjavik; she also is writing a biography of Chaucer.) This is not at all to say that Strohm’s style is not also careful: he is, rather, interested in the world in which these facts existed as much as to explain them, and his book is rewarding in great part because it provides much in the way of contemporary, local social and political history to thicken the tissues that support his argument. Which is to say, I may even assign some of it to my students.