I am so pleased to be able to share an extract from the Wolfson History Prize 2020 shortlisted book, Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner.
Chaucer: A European Life is a fascinating exploration of Chaucer’s life and travels in Europe and how it affected his writing. Written by the poet’s first ever female biographer, the book reveals how the “grandfather of English literature” was actually profoundly impacted by his experiences on the continent.
Here’s the extract:
Chaucer travelled to Lombardy— perhaps the most transformative of all his journeys— in the wake of the Good Parliament of 1376. After the English Commons’ extraordinary assertion of the rights of insurgent voices, Chaucer experienced a regime of absolutism and extreme brutality, a regime in which only the Visconti voice mattered. And while visiting this centralizing and terrifying state, Chaucer came into contact with literature that was to change his poetic trajectory completely. He also lived, for a few weeks, under a regime that simultaneously exalted violence and revered, sponsored, and promulgated culture. What he experienced there can only have been an assault on the imagination on an enormous scale. The negotiations of 1378 were part of a complicated European picture, in which the empire and the split papacy were struggling for dominance. The space of empire stretched across much of Western Europe. It also dominated the political imaginations of some of the greatest poets of the fourteenth century, and was increasingly important to England’s foreign policy in the reign of Richard II. When Chaucer visited Lombardy in 1378, he was swimming in the slipstream of imperial power broking, as the powers of Europe positioned themselves between the Scylla and Charybdis of Rome and Avignon. He also visited a state that was itself an imperial fief, and that was ruled by tyrants with imperial ambitions in their own region.
The idea of empire continued to shape English politics in various ways for the rest of Richard’s reign: in 1382, he married the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor; by the later 1380s, he was increasingly styling himself in imperial terms; at the end of his reign, he aspired to become the emperor himself. Chaucer had first-hand experience of secular rulers who attempted to impose a singular, dominant perspective on their subjects; he responded with poems that repeatedly rejected hegemonic ideologies and the idea of the sovereign voice and instead privileged tidings— stories, ideas, points of view— in all their messy multiplicity.
Both in his discovery of the ideas of Petrarch and Dante, and in his engagement with Italian politics, Chaucer encountered an ideology of history- as- destiny, a belief that a plan was unfolding in time, in the space of empire. The Holy Roman Empire dominated the political understanding of Petrarch and Dante; it had a particularly acute significance in the century of the Avignon papacy and the Schism, when papal power was moving away from its Italian heartland. From 1378 until 1417, two rival popes ruled from two rival centres, Rome and Avignon. For centuries, Italian city- states had wrestled with imperial- papal conflicts, originally supported by the Ghibelline and Guelf factions, respectively. The Visconti were ‘imperial vicars,’ originally dependent on imperial patronage for their position, and they increasingly modelled their own claims to authority on the language of imperial power.
Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (Princeton University Press) is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2020. The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020 will be announced in a virtual ceremony on Monday 15th June
Thank you to Ben at Midas PR for the opportunity to take part in this blog tour and for providing this marvellous extract.