The Journey That Changed Geoffrey Chaucer’s Life

Two Tyrants, Two Poets, and a Long Pilgrimage to Milan

Geoffrey Chaucer set off for Milan on May 28th, 1378. He departed “de civitate Londonie” and returned to London on September 19th. He was thus away for 115 days—as the accounts specifically note, because he was paid per day. He traveled in company with Sir Edward de Berkeley, a chamber knight. Berkeley, as we might expect given his superior status, was the leader of the mission: he was accompanied by nine mounted men and was paid 20s per day. Chaucer was accompanied by five men and their horses and was paid 13s 4d per day. The wages have clearly been worked out in relation to each other, as Chaucer was receiving exactly two-thirds as much as Berkeley: this, perhaps, is the weighting of knight to esquire. Chaucer was the deputy in this group of 16, and Berkeley and Chaucer appear to have been the only two named, chosen members of the embassy. Chaucer thus had a position of considerable importance, and had an entourage in his own right. Over the previous year or so, he had been dispatched on multiple journeys: to Flanders, Paris, Montreal, and perhaps to other parts of France.

The records are not always clear about how many journeys he went on, but there were several, and they dealt with possible treaties and marriage alliances with France. At this moment in his career, he was very much in the diplomatic world as well as in the milieu of the Custom House. His prior trip to Italy in 1373, his familiarity with treaty negotiations, and his knowledge of the Italian language particularly suited him to this trip. He received letters of protection, the equivalent of a passport, and he gave power of attorney to John Gower and Richard Forrester, so they could represent him should a lawsuit be brought against him while he was away. A deputy had been appointed to do his work in the Custom House. Berkeley and Chaucer were tasked with negotiating both with “Barnabo dominum de Mellan” (Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan), and with “Johannem de Haukewode” (John Hawkwood, English mercenary soldier, in charge of the White Company, and son-in-law of Bernabò).

There were well trodden routes to Italy at this time. This large group crossed the Channel and then proceeded by horseback, roughly following the Rhine, before crossing the Alps into Lombardy. A decent average speed for writers in no particular hurry would be 25 miles a day. From London to Milan is around 800 miles, so it would take a month or a little more. Chaucer was in his mid-thirties, traveling at the perfect time of year in terms of climate, so there is no reason to think that the journey would have been particularly arduous—unlike his winter crossings of the Pyrenees in 1366 and the Alps in 1372-73. Nor would it have been particularly exciting; most people would find such a trip somewhat monotonous. We don’t know if they told each other stories to pass the time.

Chaucer probably arrived in Milan around the end of June or beginning of July and stayed in Lombardy until mid-August—the height of the summer, and the first time he’d seen Southern Europe in summer light, or experienced the sensual pleasure of this climate. His mission was primarily to Milan, but it is probable that he also visited Pavia, an easy ride from Milan. Pavia was the home of Galeazzo Visconti, closely associated with Petrarch, and site of a great library in the awe-inspiring Visconti fortress. Chaucer arrived in Lombardy at an extraordinary moment.

Pope Urban VI had been elected in April, but his cardinals were already regretting his election, and a large group had withdrawn from Rome to Anagni. While Chaucer was still in Lombardy, they pronounced the election void (on August 2nd); and the day after Chaucer returned to England, they elected a rival pope, Clement VII. Chaucer was also in Lombardy when Galeazzo Visconti died at Pavia on August 4th. He had ruled jointly with his brother Bernabò, and his death initially allowed Bernabò even freer reign, until Galeazzo’s son, Giangaleazzo, executed a coup against his uncle in 1385, a turn of Fortune’s wheel memorialized in the “Monk’s Tale.”

In the 1370s Milan was a place of artistic diversity and innovation, described by one critic as “unrivalled in Europe as an artistic crossroads.”

Milan was framed by two massive palaces, the residences of the two Visconti brothers. Galeazzo’s palace still stands today, a vast fortress that now houses civic museums. Bernabò’s has gone, along with most of the magnificent Visconti church, San Giovanni in Conca. Today, part of its wall stands on an island in the middle of a busy road; one can walk down steps into the crypt but can only imagine the previous magnificence of the basilica, later eclipsed by the Duomo and then cut in half to make way for a road. San Giovanni in Conca was a late antique foundation, dating back to the fifth or sixth century.

Towards the end of the 13th century, radical restoration and rebuilding had added a great rose window and a 24-meter-high bell tower. Lavishly frescoed, it was incorporated into Bernabò’s palace in the second half of the 14th century when he was dramatically expanding the residence that he had inherited in 1354. In the years following their joint succession to the role of signori of Milan, the two Visconti brothers both built up their rival castles enthusiastically. They also harnessed the power of art and culture to enhance the Visconti image.

When Chaucer was in Milan, San Giovanni had recently acquired a huge statue of Bernabò riding his horse and staring ahead, held up by the female figures of Strength and Justice. It is a disturbing statue: Wallace has discussed its aggressive promotion of masculine virility and power, particularly demonstrated through the depiction of the horse’s genitals swinging behind the small female allegorical figures. Although Strength and Justice are supposed to be supporting Bernabò, they are relatively insignificant in size, and Bernabò’s sword suggestively dangles close to the head of Strength—he controls them. Indeed, his dominance of the beleaguered-looking allegorical women is peculiarly appropriate: he promotes not an objective justice but his own idea of justice; he supports strength only if he himself directs and channels it. This statue, shockingly placed on the altar, symbolized the aggressive secular power of the Visconti. Worshipping in that church must have seemed close to idolatry: not for nothing did Bernabò claim to be God in his own realm.

The statue itself also represents the Visconti interest in art and culture: it was carved by Bonino da Campione, the most admired master sculptor of the day. In the 1370s Milan was a place of artistic diversity and innovation, described by one critic as “unrivalled in Europe as an artistic crossroads.” The artistic experiments of Giotto had spread to Lombardy early, demonstrated particularly through the depiction of spatial depth, the representation of architecture, and the portrayal of narrative cogency. Giotto himself had painted frescoes in the older Visconti palace, which was destroyed and rebuilt by Galeazzo. The city was also full of sculpture. The older traditionalist Campionesi style had been replaced by a new fashion as Bonino da Campione and his followers were pioneering a greater naturalism and sense of space and weight in sculptural style.

As Chaucer approached the gates, he saw older carvings that celebrated the history of the city and that told stories through art: the sequences on one of the gates, for instance, unfolded the narrative of Ambrose chasing the Arians from Milan. In the churches and palaces of Milan, he saw the newer sculptural style, not least in Bernabò’s equestrian statue. New artistic and architectural work was everywhere in Milan and Pavia at the moment of Chaucer’s visit. Not only had the great palace fortresses of Milan been rebuilt in the 1360s, but Galeazzo’s huge castle at Pavia was built between 1360 and 1365, and it housed an exceptionally rich library. Bonino da Campione was at work in the 1370s, for instance constructing the tomb of Giovanni da Fagnano in 1376. In 1378, a new facade of Santa Maria Maggiore—the cathedral of Milan—was completed (only to be torn down and rebuilt a decade later). This flourishing of the visual arts went hand in hand with the encouragement and patronage of education and poetry. Pavia University had been founded by Emperor Charles IV in 1361. And manuscript production, the cultivation of libraries, and the making of poetry were all central to the Visconti self-image.

Chaucer very likely gained the cultural knowledge that was to transform his literary practice under the auspices of the most ruthless and feared tyrants of his time.

We see this emphasis on bookish and literary culture most clearly in the role of Petrarch in the Visconti regime. Petrarch’s position gave him space and time in which to write and to devote himself to his studies, but he was deeply compromised as the client of tyrants, a position that was politically and intellectually horrifying to contemporaries such as Boccaccio. Petrarch resided in Milan between 1353 and 1361, and regularly visited Pavia during and after this time, making his last visit to Pavia in May 1369, less than a decade before Chaucer’s probable visit. He died in 1374. A late 14th-century sculpture in Milan represents the figure of a poet laureate: fine-featured, calm, and crowned with laurel, he is an image of confidence and self-possession. The very existence of such an image bears witness to the new importance of the figure of the contemporary poet in 14th-century Italy.

Petrarch was a figure of towering cultural importance: himself a prolific poet, he was also at the forefront of humanist learning, rediscovering classical works that had been lost for centuries, languishing unread in libraries. He encouraged the beginnings of a new interest in Greek: in 1354 he received from the Byzantine ambassador a manuscript containing the Iliad in Greek, now MS Ambrosiana I. (By 1397, Manuel Chrysoloras was lecturing on Greek in Florence). In 1369, Petrarch had his scribe, Giovanni Malpaghini, copy a Latin translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Indeed, he patronized an atelier (workshop) around himself that produced Latin codices. His own library—which later came into the hands of Giangaleazzo Visconti—was extensive, and the Visconti brothers also built up impressive libraries at Milan and Pavia.

We have an inventory of the library at Pavia, made in 1426. Undoubtedly, many of the books there entered the library after Chaucer’s 1378 visit. However, critics have noted the extraordinary number of source texts used by Chaucer that are also present in this inventory—many of which were not available in England. The overwhelming likelihood is that Chaucer did indeed get hold of material here. His poetry in the 1380s demonstrates, in particular, extensive knowledge of Boccaccio’s poetry at a time when no one else in England seems to have had such knowledge. In Pavia, he could have found Boccaccio’s Filostrato, Amorosa Visione, Decameron, De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, De Claris Mulieribus, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, and De Montibus. The 1426 inventory details many other books by various authors that Chaucer certainly read: Virgil, Ovid, St. Jerome, Macrobius, St. Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Petrarch—although he would have had many other opportunities to read the classical and late antique texts. There were a large number of French translations of Latin texts here too, including multiple French translations of Boethius.

If he did indeed read books from the Visconti libraries, how did this work? His status as a deputy on a mission from the king of England would make it easy for him to gain favor and gifts from the Visconti. When they sent messengers to Richard II at the end of the year, Richard presented the envoys with the generous gift of 200 marks in gold and two silver-gilt cups. This kind of largesse was the norm. Moreover, the Visconti, somewhat surprisingly, were notoriously generous with their books: always happy to lend them out and to allow others to make copies, a practice that was “altogether exceptional.”

In Pavia, there were numerous willing scribes available at the university and at the scriptorium attached to San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro, a famous church very close to the fortress. So Chaucer may well have not only read new texts here but also acquired copies to take back home with him. He got copies of the Teseida and the Filostrato from somewhere, and this is by far the most likely place. William Coleman has demonstrated the similarities between a particular copy of the Teseida described in the inventory (item 881) and the text that Chaucer knew: the parts that are missing from this copy match the parts that Chaucer did not have available. Chaucer very likely gained the cultural knowledge that was to transform his literary practice under the auspices of the most ruthless and feared tyrants of his time.

The poetry of Dante and Boccaccio became Chaucer’s principal inspiration for the majority of his poetic career.

The library at Pavia was housed in Galeazzo Visconti’s fortress, a stone’s throw from San Pietro. This church still houses the tombs of two of the greatest writers in history, Boethius and St. Augustine. Chaucer, as an extremely cultured English visitor who previously worked for Lionel of Clarence, who was also buried here, probably saw these tombs: they were enough of an attraction that Giangaleazzo showed them to Henry of Derby when he visited a few years later. The church was made particularly famous in Chaucer’s day by contemporary poets. Dante wrote about Boethius in “Cieldauro” in Paradiso (10.128). In Boccaccio’s Decameron (10.9), the story also centers on San Pietro. Petrarch writes to Boccaccio about the fame of the church, and the tombs of Augustine and Boethius in his Seniles (5.1). The tombs of these long-dead writers (who were also revered as saint and martyr, respectively) were given fresh cultural capital in these contemporary writings. At the same time, the tomb of Augustine was itself rebuilt in the 1360s: a magnificent ark was sculpted over the preexisting monument.

The 14th century thus laid new claim to antiquity and framed the glories of the past through its own new styles and techniques. Although schools and universities focused on classical texts, the cultural world in which Chaucer moved was confident about the value and sophistication of the new. Virgil’s works, for instance, were for Dante and Chaucer an inspiration from which they could progress into new areas of literature. The crucial difference between the two authors was that Dante presents himself as surpassing Virgil by virtue of his Christian revelation, while Chaucer depicts himself as a bumbling incompetent—although he also takes pains to undermine an idea of Virgilian infallibility.

There is no doubt that, with the exception of the early Book of the Duchess, all of Chaucer’s long poems responded to Italian poetry, and that Italian poetry utterly transformed the kind of poet that Chaucer was. That is not to say that he abandoned French or Latin sources. Indeed, Italian literature was itself born out of careful reading of texts in these languages. However, the poetry of Dante and Boccaccio became Chaucer’s principal inspiration for the majority of his poetic career. We see this at the level of poetics, as Chaucer plays with Dante’s theories of poetry; we see it at the level of genre, as he embraces the vernacular tale collection in the wake of the Decameron; we see it at the level of subject matter, ranging from the story of Palamon and Arctic, to that of Troilus and Criseyde, to the fabliau stories of the Decameron. At a metrical level, the Italian poetic line prompted Chaucer to develop the English decasyllabic line, his most important formal contribution to English poetry. While there were some examples of ten-syllable lines in French poetry, Italian eleven-syllable lines, with their dependence on stress, had more in common with the line that Chaucer invented.

And it is profoundly significant that Chaucer did not develop this line until he had encountered, and was imitating, Boccaccio’s work. His first poems to use the pentameter are also those poems that draw closely on the Teseida; he then continued to use the line in his Filostrato-inspired Troilus and Criseyde. Seeing the kind of things that the Italian poets were doing inspired a kind of experimental frenzy in Chaucer and liberated him to indulge in his fascination for “newfanglednesse”—albeit (paradoxically) a “newfanglednesse” that was ostentatiously imitative in a European context. In poems such as A Complaint to His Lady and Anelida and Arcite, he tries out different kinds of poetic form within the same poem, experimenting with stanza length, rhyme scheme, and line length. Poetically, Chaucer’s consumption of Italian verse was exceptionally productive, generative, and liberating: it energized him and gave him tools and models for innovative literary play. Politically, his encounter with Italian literature and life was more problematic and troubling.

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Excerpted from Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission

Marion Turner
Marion Turner
Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford. Her book Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton, 2019) is the first biography of Geoffrey Chaucer written by a woman.





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