“Namore of this, for Goddes dignitee … Thy drasty riming is nat worth a toord!”

chaucerAll of us who are interested in language are, at some point, fully engaged with Chaucer.  I like to stay engaged with Chaucer even today through his blog (HERE)… but I digress.

I read today a piece at the UK’s Spectator about a new book on Chaucer.  The author seems to have identified where Chaucer probably lived.  Here is a sample:

The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales
Paul Strohm
Profile Books, pp.284, £15.99, ISBN: 97817812505945

Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do his work? From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favour bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate, the main eastern point of entry to the walled city of London.

‘Grace and favour’ makes it sound grander than it was. With the help of a wonderfully ingenious pattern of inferences — in particular an architectural drawing from 200 years later which happened to include a sketch of Aldgate’s north tower at its margins — Paul Strohm is able to reconstruct the room in which, after a long day weighing bags of wool and writing down columns of figures, Geoffrey Chaucer retired to scratch away at his verse.

Chaucer occupied a single bare room of about 16’ x 14’. The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. ‘Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble. Arrangement for a small fire might have been possible. Waste would be hand-carried down to the ditch that lapped against the tower and dumped there.’

You can imagine how cosy it was in winter. And the noise! Chaucer slept directly over the main London thoroughfare. Every morning at first light the portcullis would go rattling up, and thereafter ‘the creak of iron-wheeled carts in and out of the city, drovers’ calls, and the hubbub of merchants and travellers pressing for advantage on a wide but still one-laned road, probably made sleep impossible, five-foot walls or no five-foot walls’. That’s if he could hear anything over the incessant bong-bonging of bells from each of the three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door.

Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and faecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory (‘a populous foundation’, Strohm tells us jauntily), you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse’. ‘And then,’ Strohm adds with excellent tact, ‘there was the matter of felons’ and traitors’ rotting heads…’ This was an occupational hazard of living in a gatehouse tower. On the other hand, there was a nice view from the roof…


Absolutely go over there and read the rest.



Here is a bit more… I can’t help it…


Why was 1386 decisive? Because that was the year in which it all went south. As a young man, Chaucer had forsaken the safe, conservative route of following his father into trade as a vintner and sought a higher-risk career in aristocratic service. He became, in due course, an esquire — the right side (just) of the line separating gentlefolk from the rest of the population. But he would always be, as it were, from trade. His wife Philippa, his social superior to start with, was the family’s real ticket to promotion when her sister became mistress of John of Gaunt, the most powerful (and hated) man in the country.

For most of their adult lives Chaucer and his wife lived apart — she, and their sons Thomas and Lewis, were with the Lancastrian household in Lincolnshire. The adult Thomas used his father’s seal only once (‘S Gofrai Chaucier’); the piercing dedication to Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe — ‘Little Lowys my sone’ — is the only thing to connect Lewis Chaucer to his father.

What was Chaucer, in his rather solitary existence, like? (We know he didn’t bother taking up citizenship of London, or guild membership.) The work does provide tantalising, elliptical, jokey, modest self-portraits — remember the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, such a duffer that when he tries to recite a poem the host, Harry Bailly, finally exclaims: ‘Namore of this, for Goddes dignitee […] Thy drasty riming is nat worth a toord!’ — but they are suggestive rather than decisive. Still, the story of Chaucer’s professional life — congruent with his wanly disarming self-portrayal — does seems to invite the word ‘hapless’.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Where does his translation of Boethius come into all this, I wonder? – time to hit the books!

  2. Mike says:

    Alas, it’s not available on Kindle. That strikes it off my list lest I exhaust the precious remaining shelf space in my office.

    However, I’m wondering if this title, which is available for Kindle, isn’t in fact the same book.

  3. Mike says:

    Update: Judging by the table of contents, the book Fr. Z cites and the link I found are respectively UK and US editions of the same book. And the UK edition is available on Kindle.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    That is exactly how I feel when I read most of what is written in secular circles, anywhere, today.
    Incredibly amusing! I laughed aloud at it. How I love the language, when I comprehend it that is.
    By the way, when shall Talk Like Shakespeare Day be uponeth us?

  5. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. ‘Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble.” I never cease to marvel at how mediaeval scholars and authors could be so well-read and so prolific, and scribes produce the finely-lettered manuscripts that enabled them to be so!

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