Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Death of Geoffrey Chaucer

       Having criticized one theory about Chaucer's death, I feel I should offer some other theory as to how he died and it should be more plausible than the one I criticized.

      The facts as we know them:
     The only date we have - October 25, 1400 - appeared on his tomb in Westminster Abbey in 1556 when his bones were possibly moved to the current position by a Nicholas Brigham who was moved to honour the poet.The Dean of Westminster, Arthur Stanley, made conflicting reports about Chaucer's body, finally placing a note on Abraham Cowley's tomb that Chaucer was buried near this stone.
     William Camden wrote that the poet's bones had been moved to this new tomb in 1600.
     Chaucer had been born about 1340 (alternate date had been 1328) in London. His father was a vintner, who had attended on Edward III.
    Chaucer had been a trusted civil servant to Richard II (last position was Forester) when Richard was deposed in 1399.
    Chaucer began his career in the household of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, before attracting Edward III's notice. He was ransomed by the king when he had been captured by the French in the Hundred Years War. John of Gaunt became his patron and Gaunt's third wife was sister to Chaucer's wife, so Chaucer was step-uncle by marriage to Henry IV and Richard II.
      Thomas Chaucer, Butler and trusted inner circle of Henry IV, is believed to be Geoffrey Chaucer's son on the evidence of Thomas Gascoigne, Chancellor of Oxford in the early 15th century. Thomas Chaucer's coat of arms has elements both from his mother 's (Roet) arms and his father's arms.
     In 1399 Henry of Bolingbroke marched into England while Richard was fighting in Ireland. He took over the country and captured Richard II, holding him prisoner until Richard's death a few months later.
     September 30, 1399 Henry of Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. Chaucer has lost all his previous royal appointments but Henry confirmed his annuities. These appear not to have been paid and Chaucer, feeling the sting of poverty, writes a poem in complaint to Henry.
     Christmas Eve 1399, Chaucer took out a 53 year lease on a house at Westminster Abbey where he is believed to have moved to. He was approximately 59 years old and in apparently good health.
     February 17, 1400, Richard II's body was displayed at the old St. Paul's cathedral.
    If Chaucer died in October of that year, as a resident of Westminster Abbey, he was entitled to burial at the abbey cathedral. As a member of Richard's inner circle, a famous writer, and related by marriage to the royal family, he was probably entitled to burial inside the cathedral.
    He did not leave a will (that we know of) but this was not unusual.
    By September 28, 1401 his apartment had a new tenant: Master Paul, most likely a former royal physician.
    William Caxton, who published his first edition of The Canterbury Tales on a printing press circa 1476, wrote in his epilogue to Chaucer's translation of Boethius that he placed a plaque at the site of the poet's burial at his own expense.
    The stone over Chaucer's burial place is reputedly sawn up to place John Dryden next to him in 1720.
      According to an article written by Henry Troutbeck, in 1889 the original burial site was disturbed for Browning's burial. At that time Troutbeck thought he examined the bones of Chaucer and calculated his height at 5'6" but they could have been Dryden's or any other person buried in the south transept. There are no Abbey records of Chaucer's body being exhumed after 1556.
    No one is certain who is in the current memorial to Chaucer, whether it is Chaucer, Dryden or perhaps even no one.
    No one is certain who was in the old burial place.
    1400 was a plague year. Adam of Usk reported that it was hard on the young as usual.
    Chaucer survived the Black Death of 1348 and all subsequent waves of plague which were always harder on the young, as reported by chronicles of the time. Most smaller waves arose in the spring and subsided in the fall. As Chaucer is reported to have died October 25 (no one knows where Brigham got this date from) this would be late for the plague season. As such, burial at Westminster Abbey might not have been possible and burial would have then been a plague pit. The last written record of him is him signing a receipt for wine on September 29, 1400.
     There is no report from contemporaries or writers in the following years who report any rumour of anything sinister in Chaucer's passing except to say he had died.

      I do not think it is likely that Chaucer died of the plague because it tended to kill young people who had not been exposed to it before. If the date of October 25 is correct, it is past the plague season.
At approximately 60 years of age, he could have died from so many things. Upper crust people seldom ate vegetables, which is why so many had gout. Drinking water was not safe so people, including children, drank 'weak beer' or wine. What would a lifetime of drinking alcohol and eating meat do especially to an old man?
     Chaucer had four children, it is not known what happened to any of them except Thomas. None of them erected a memorial on his tomb but, as a resident of the abbey, his body belonged to the abbey which should have wanted to keep it since it would likely attract visitors and money to the cathedral. And it is likely it was Chaucer's intention to be buried there. When Peter the Venerable gave Abelard's body to Heloise, he was under no obligation to do so and Abelard's fame as a philosopher and a teacher would have meant donations to Cluny Abbey. Peter's gift of Abelard's body to Heloise was very, very generous.

    So what do I think he died of? Old age. Heart attack, aneurism, stroke. All three are sudden enough and can be not preceded by any feelings of unwellness. Maybe he died in his sleep. There does not appear to have been anything traumatic or violent in his passing. One would hope some rumour would have sprung up immediately but there are none.

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