Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Chaucer and the City

Chaucer and the City

Series: Chaucer Studies
Volume: 37
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Chaucer and the City
    Book Description:

    Literature of the city and the city in literature are topics of major contemporary interest. This volume enhances our understanding of Chaucer's iconic role as a London poet, defining the modern sense of London as a city in history, steeped in its medieval past. Building on recent work by historians on medieval London, as well as modern urban theory, the essays address the centrality of the city in Chaucer's work, and of Chaucer to a literature and a language of the city. Contributors explore the spatial extent of the city, imaginatively and geographically; the diverse and sometimes violent relationships between communities, and the use of language to identify and speak for communities; the worlds of commerce, the aristocracy, law, and public order. A final section considers the longer history and memory of the medieval city beyond the devastations of the Great Fire and into the Victorian period. Dr ARDIS BUTTERFIELD is Reader in English at University College London. Contributors: ARDIS BUTTERFIELD, MARION TURNER, RUTH EVANS, BARBARA NOLAN, CHRISTOPHER CANNON, DEREK PEARSALL, HELEN COOPER, C. DAVID BENSON, ELLIOT KENDALL, JOHN SCATTERGOOD, PAUL DAVIS, HELEN PHILLIPS.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-455-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. List of Contributors
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  7. Map
    (pp. xiv-xiv)

    • 1 Chaucer and the Detritus of the City
      (pp. 3-22)

      As I write, Bruce Nauman’s exhibit Raw Materials is just closing at the Tate Modern on Bankside directly across the river from St Paul’s.¹ He has used the vast echoing space of this former industrial turbine hall to create an aural sculpture in which fragments of twenty-two of his earlier works are uttered in great swirling, billowing mutterings over and between the heads of the gallery’s visitors. The work recalls the interlocking, repetitive patterns of the music of Steve Reich, particularly City Life (1995).² Three of the sections of City Life are built around samples of language, including short snatches...


    • 2 Greater London
      (pp. 25-40)

      Chaucer’s imagination was steeped in London life and London language. His writings are infused with urban discourses such as curial prose and the legal complaint, and some of his earliest readers were Londoners (most famously Thomas Usk).¹ Chaucer often refers to London geography in a throwaway manner² and his poetry sometimes invokes the city in detail of breath-taking vibrancy.³ His life was, of course, profoundly bound up with London through his family background, his jobs, and his home above the walls.⁴ This essay is concerned with investigating what ‘London’ might mean and suggest – both geographically and culturally – in...

    • 3 The Production of Space in Chaucer’s London
      (pp. 41-56)

      Wordsworth’s 1807 sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ imagines London as a colossal human being, slumbering at dawn and wearing the beauty of the morning ‘like a garment’, its ‘mighty heart . . . lying still’.¹ In Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840–41), Charles Dickens, one of the greatest recorders of nineteenth-century London, addresses that very heart:

      Heart of London, there is a moral in thy every stroke! as I look on at thy indomitable working, which neither death, nor press of life, nor grief, nor gladness out of doors will influence one jot, I seem to hear a voice within thee...

    • 4 Chaucer’s Poetics of Dwelling in Troilus and Criseyde
      (pp. 57-76)

      Whether London is absent from the Canterbury Tales or not, in this essay I ask how and why parts of Troy are so insistently present in Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer does not give us, except obliquely, what most writers of Troy-books do, namely long, visually rich descriptions of Priam’s imperial Troy being built up and then burnt to the ground.² Nor does he limit himself as Boccaccio had, mainly to a single subjectively rendered love story. Instead, he interweaves two sharply juxtaposed experiences of Troy, one focused on the practice of everyday life in ancient Troy, the other, on the...


    • 5 Chaucer and the Language of London
      (pp. 79-94)

      As the dreamer in Piers Plowman looks down into the ‘deep dale’ beneath the ‘tour’, what at first appears to be ‘alle manere of men . . . werchynge’ soon thickens into an urban press, the bustle of daily labour along the streets of what is eventually identified as ‘London’.¹ As Langland represents it, this city is less a place than a mass of people, a vast ‘assemblee’ of barons and burghers, bakers and brewers, weavers and tailors, tinkers, and miners, each differentiated from one another by their defining ‘craft’ (Prologue, 217–22). When these people are individualized, moreover, they...

    • 6 The Canterbury Tales and London Club Culture
      (pp. 95-108)

      Investigations into the historical reality of a writer’s audience often end before they have begun, with acquiescence in the proposition, argued by W. J. Ong in an influential essay of thirty years ago, that ‘The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction’.¹ This proposition is always to some extent true, is more or less taken for granted by the private silent reader, and is an attractive alternative to the frustrations that commonly attend efforts to establish a historical audience on the basis of evidence that is necessarily patchy and inadequate. Such frustrations often find release in the speculative re-creation of historical...

    • 7 London and Southwark Poetic Companies: ‘Si tost c’amis’ and the Canterbury Tales
      (pp. 109-126)

      The narrative frame that Chaucer chooses for the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury, as the Hengwrt manuscript heads the work, is only intermittently about a pilgrimage to Canterbury. It is a collection of stories, a ‘book of tales’, set in motion by the Host’s suggestion at the end of the General Prologue that the journey should become the opportunity for a competition, with a reward for the winner:

      And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle –

      That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas

      Tales of best sentence and moost solaas –

      Shal have a...


    • 8 Literary Contests and London Records in the Canterbury Tales
      (pp. 129-144)

      Perhaps no English poet has been better situated than Chaucer to describe the institutional workings of London. His family was prominent in the commercial life that was central to the city, and he himself, even when under royal patronage, held a number of jobs that involved him closely with municipal affairs and the powerful international merchants who controlled the economic and political life of London. As controller of customs in the port of London, Chaucer worked under such magnates as Nicholas Brembre, John Philpot, and William Walworth, all of whom served as aldermen and mayors of the city. The wealthy...

    • 9 The Great Household in the City: The Shipman’s Tale
      (pp. 145-161)

      Medieval cities are unreceptive of any simple economic or institutional explanation. Cities or towns were not singular mercantile, capitalist cells evolving in isolation from a primitive feudal countryside. Towns and countryside were interdependent and pervasively implicated in each other’s development.¹ Yet to say that complex explanations are called for is not to abandon the city as formless or impossible for medieval writers to imagine (or simplify). Mercantile ideas of the city and class identity were formed in the midst of the diversity which has been identified as the fundamental characteristic of medieval urban society.² Cities and towns, by this definition,...

    • 10 London and Money: Chaucer’s Complaint to his Purse
      (pp. 162-174)

      What is commonly considered to be Chaucer’s final poem, the Complaint to his Purse, is about money: it is a begging poem based on a witty comparison between a recalcitrant mistress and an empty purse. It juggles with the tropes of love poetry and exploits puns in its inimitable serio-comic vein. There have been various attempts to locate Chaucer’s inspiration in earlier begging poems by Deschamps, who was, like Chaucer, a royal servant who was often short of money,¹ but none have been particularly persuasive: the fact that both Latin bursa and French bourse are feminine nouns may have been...


    • 11 After the Fire: Chaucer and Urban Poetics, 1666–1743
      (pp. 177-192)

      The London destroyed by the Great Fire was Chaucer’s London. As dawn broke over the capital on 2 September 1666, ‘London within the wall remained a medieval city’,¹ and it was predominantly London within the wall that had been reduced to ashes by sundown on 7 September.² More particularly, the fire originated in London’s most Chaucerian neighbourhood. During the period he was resident in the city as Controller of the Wool Custom, the poet would most days have walked the half-mile or so from Aldgate to the Wool Quay, near Billingsgate, between the Tower and London Bridge; and that half-mile,...

    • 12 Chaucer and the Nineteenth-Century City
      (pp. 193-210)

      This essay argues that the warm acclaim the Victorians gave to Chaucer reflects to a significant extent the era’s own anxious and conflicted responses to rapid urbanisation. And correspondingly, changes in the perception of Chaucer between 1800 and the Edwardians have parallels in changing attitudes to the city during that period.

      The 1868 Westminster Abbey Chaucer Window chose only images from the Flower and the Leaf and General Prologue to represent Chaucer’s genius (together with words from Truth), typifying the mid nineteenth century’s, to many modern readers, extraordinary esteem for the (apocryphal) Flower and the Leaf, regarded as foremost among...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-224)
  14. Index
    (pp. 225-232)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-235)