Was Chaucer A Crook?

11/13/2014 09:07 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Was Geoffrey Chaucer, father of English poetry, also something of a crook? The verdict is still out. But here's the evidence, including some not assembled before. You decide.

In 1386, Chaucer left a comfortable and moderately prestigious post as King's esquire, responsible for running various courtly and diplomatic errands for the Edward III, to take up a decidedly unpopular job as Controller of the Wool Custom on the London waterfront. Ironically, this posting returned him to Thames Street (the very street where he was born) and to duties similar to some exercised by his merchant father, whose life in the middling ranks of London society the young Geoffrey had previously sought to leave behind.

The Controller had the thankless job of keeping the Collectors of Customs honest -- certifying the authenticity of the considerable revenues they collected, in their administration of the enormously lucrative wool trade. The Controllers were inevitably men of lesser stature than the wealthy wool magnates whose activities they were expected to oversee. Nobody expected much of them. They were widely considered ineffective at best and actively criminal in most instances. Ineffective or actively criminal: which then was Chaucer?

One piece of relevant evidence is that unprecedented efforts were made to get Chaucer, a loyal king's man, into the job. This was a period of active collusion between King Edward III and a cabal of wealthy London merchants and wool traders who belonged to the royal faction in the City. In this case, the King and the leading wool merchants collaborated to coax him into the post. By special grant of the King's private seal, he was awarded a pitcher of wine daily, to be collected at the port of London -- certainly a way to get him and keep him on the job. (A pitcher, by the way, amounted to at least a gallon, more than he could consume and easily convertible into substantial revenue.) The Mayor and Aldermen granted him a London apartment, rent free, over one of the City's gates. John of Gaunt--powerful duke of Lancaster and momentarily on good terms with his father the King--weighed in with yet another incentive, an annual pension to Chaucer and his wife Philippa (her sister Katherine was also Gaunt's extramarital love interest). All this, together with persuasion by the King's Council if not the King, amounted to a proposition Chaucer could hardly refuse.

At stake were enormous wool revenues. Duties paid on wool amounted to fully one third of the total annual revenue of the entire kingdom. At every stage from their initial collection until their final delivery at the offices of the Exchequer, they were greedily observed, eyed up for personal profit. Like the giant marlin lashed to the side of Hemingway's old fisherman's boat, these revenues were vulnerable to various predatory inroads all the way.

Those with the greatest opportunity for profit were the Collectors themselves, who collected duty on bales of weighed wool before they were shipped abroad. Bribes, kickbacks, extortion, and other forms of profit-taking were easily available, and opportunities for profit expanded exponentially when the Collectors -- like the wealthy and influential mayors of London Nicholas Brembre and John Philipot under whom Chaucer served -- were "woolmen" themselves, exporters on a grand scale. Both men became so wealthy in office that they regularly lent money at interest to the King and kingdom, multiplying their influence yet again.

Chaucer's authority amounted to possessing half of the mould used to make a wax seal called the "Cocket Seal," employed to certify that a bale of wool had been properly weighed and duties paid upon it. Two halves were needed to make the finished seal. The other half belonged to the Collector, and a completed transaction required agreement (or collusion) between the Controler and the Collector, attesting each other's honesty. One can imagine, the advantage to an unscrupulous Collector -- which Brembre certainly was--of having a cooperative Controller on the job.

Frankly, this all looks bad for Chaucer. Yet one argument for his possible innocence remains. The government was in such dire financial straits that it frequently needed large sums of cash from lenders like Brembre and others, and it drifted into the practice of securing the loan by granting the lender custody of the Controller's half of the Cocket Seal, permitting the lender to repay himself directly from the revenue of customs into his own pocket until the debt was settled. For practically a third of the 12 years Chaucer served in his post, the Cocket Seal was out of his possession, and the two halves of the Seal were frequently in his patron Brembre's sole possession.

Perhaps Chaucer was neither an active criminal nor a virtuous reformer, but merely a mildly complicit fellow traveler in the slipstream of Brembre and other more greedy and less principled players. This would explain an otherwise discordant fact: that, although fortunes were being made all around him, Chaucer appears not to have made much money in his post. At any rate, several months after his resignation he was already short of cash, sued for debt, and casting rather desperately about for added revenue.

A balanced view would have him neither as a hero nor a villain but as a man who kept his head down, who knew how and when to look the other way. In short: an enabler. Unfortunately the activities he was enabling were those of Nicholas Brembre, a grasping, ill-principled, and ultimately deeply unpopular man. The day would come when Chaucer's reputation as enabler would do him no good in the City of London. During several weeks in October-November 1386 he would be forced from his London apartment, embarrassed by a reform-minded Parliament, resign his position, and depart London for self-exile in the quieter regions of Kent. But perhaps we should be grateful: this busy bureaucrat would suddenly -- and perhaps under circumstances not of his own choosing -- have plenty of time to write. And what he wrote was his masterwork: the Canterbury Tales.