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Reviewed by:
  • Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner
  • Jonathan Stavsky (bio)
Marion Turner. Chaucer: A European Life. Princeton UP, 2019. 624 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-16009-2. Hardcover, $39.95.

In 1359, Geoffrey Chaucer took part in the siege of Reims; within the city walls, Guillaume de Machaut was experiencing this blockade from the other side, argues Marion Turner in her biography of the English author (73). A decade or so later, Chaucer wrote the Book of the Duchess in commemoration of the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, his lifelong patron. A reworking of Machaut's Fonteinne Amoureuse, Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne, and other francophone sources, the poem at once borrows from and cunningly transforms its models. This tantalizing juxtaposition of Chaucer's career and creative paths is made possible by the book's focus on space as its organizing principle. It thus joins a growing body of scholarship that explores the locations and trajectories of medieval literature. Since life unfolds over time as well as space, Turner's narrative produces fascinating chronotopes. In particular, she revisits London in a number of chapters, which describe its transformations from Chaucer's point of view as he changes his place of residence and moves in, out of, and around the capital. Chaucer is no less a study of this writer's "spatial poetics" (366) than it is an account of his life and times. To be sure, previous biographies have also turned to his works for evidence of his worldview. Yet this one gives free rein to literary interpretation, which [End Page 126] explains its monumental length and occasional lack of structural cohesion. Whereas some chapters (e.g., "Peripheries") offer a magisterial combination of historical research and close reading, others (e.g., "What Lies Beneath") fall short of integrating these methodologies.

Since its publication, Chaucer has attracted some two dozen reviews and garnered awards from The Times and The Times Literary Supplement: a rare event in the sphere of Middle English studies and a significant contribution to its vitality. While Turner usually avoids schematic comparisons between the poet's world and ours, she goes to great lengths to bridge the distance that separates it from us, to make him part of "the here and now" (508). Of course, very few children of prosperous London merchants are nowadays likely to enter the service of a noble household, lose most of their family to the bubonic plague, or spend a month traveling to southern Europe on horseback. However, in other respects, the Age of Chaucer emerges as what Barbara Tuchman once called the "distant mirror" of the present moment. Global trade brings material opulence and cultural exchange (at least to his milieu) but also exploitation, domestic unrest, ship-borne disease, and lust for power. Faced with mounting social tension and an increasingly authoritarian and incompetent regime, Chaucer strives to cultivate a "deeply secular" (8), "open-ended" (139), and "egalitarian" (364) worldview in his writings. Just as his "life experience placed him firmly in the realm of modernity" (266)—though "not unaware or uncritical of" its "problems" (266)—so do his poetic and political "choice[s]" position him "on the right side of history" (359).

This portrait of Chaucer is more relatable and possibly more accurate than its reverse: the conformist or conservative author that other studies have depicted. Nevertheless, both perspectives are limited and selective. Turner plays down evidence that might challenge her reading of Chaucer's works and, through them, his intellectual world. While the 20 chapters, 4 prologues, and epilogue of this biography follow its subject from "Vintry Ward" to "Tomb," through movable locations such as the "Great Household," general ones like "Garden," relative ones like "Peripheries," metaphorical ones like "Cage," ill-defined ones like "What Lies Beneath," and places he could only visit in his imagination, for example, the "Milky Way" and "Troy," there is no chapter called "Church" (the one titled "Abbey" is concerned with the entire town of Westminster). Houses of prayer do, of course, dot the landscapes Turner surveys, but they are treated as civic institutions [End Page 127] or monuments rather than as spiritual centers where Chaucer would have found beliefs, ideas, and...