Chaucer grew up, and found his true place, in what he called "our citee." He was born, in the phrase of Oscar Wilde, into the purple of London commerce. He did not need to rise through his own individual effort because his position in urban society was comfortable and assured.
His paternal grandparents had come from Ipswich to London, part of that steady influx into the city from the Midlands and East Anglia; London had become the vortex for mercantile activity. His grandfather, Robert le Chaucer, was a mercer who like his grandson eventually entered the king's service; there was a strong affinity between trade and the court. He was also known as Robert Malyn, the surname meaning "astute." That was another characteristic he bequeathed to his famous scion. The derivation of "Chaucer" is more uncertain. It may come from chauffecire, to seal with hot wax in the manner of a clerk, but it is more likely to derive from chaussier or shoemaker and hosier. But this in itself has little to do with Chaucer's family—Robert le Chaucer acquired his name from his quondam master, a mercer named John le Chaucer who was killed in the course of a brawl.
The poet's father, John Chaucer, was a successful and influential vintner, or wine merchant, who also entered royal service; he was part of Edward III's abortive expedition against Scotland in 1327, and eventually became deputy butler to the king's household. In his early youth he was kidnapped by some agents for his aunt and forcibly removed to Ipswich, to take part in a marriage advantageous to that lady, but the aunt was sued and despatched to the Marshalsea prison. It is a bizarre episode but serves only to confirm the sporadic lawlessness and violence of fourteenth-century life. Chaucer's maternal grandfather, John de Copton, was murdered in 1313 close to his house in Aldgate. The city records reveal that murder, abduction and rape were commonplace; at a later date, as we shall see, Chaucer himself was accused of rape. Agnes de Copton, Chaucer's mother, was a notable addition to the Chaucer family; she was an heiress, owner of many tenements and of acres in Stepney; in addition she was niece and ward of the Keeper of the Royal Mint.
Geoffrey Chaucer first saw the light, therefore, in a wealthy and influential household. The date of his birth is not certainly known but all the available evidence suggests some time between 1341 and 1343. There is some evidence of a sister, named Katherine, but no contemporaneous record of siblings has been found. He was born in an upper chamber of the family house in Thames Street, which ran parallel to the river in the ward of Vintry, which of course was the district of the wine merchants. The house itself was commodious and well proportioned; in the records it is described as stretching from the river in the south to the stream called the Walbrook in the north, into which all the household refuse was dumped. Anyone who understands the topography of London will realise that this was indeed a large house, which must have possessed a sizeable garden stretching down to the Walbrook at the back. It contained cellars in which the barrels of wine were stored after being unloaded from the wharves a few yards away. On the ground floor, above the cellars and looking out upon the street, was a chamber which acted as his father's business premises; behind it there would have been a hall, in which the more formal aspects of familial life were conducted. There would have been upper chambers, a kitchen and larder, a privy and perhaps garret rooms.
The neighbourhood itself reflected the solidity and prosperity of the house. It encompassed the dwellings of other rich vintners, some of them with their own courtyards, but it was not necessarily a fashionable area. It was a place of work and commerce. There were several lanes and alleys leading down from Thames Street to the riverside and, in particular, to Three Cranes Wharf where the wines of Gascony were unloaded. A little to the west was Queenhithe to which fish and salt, fuel and corn, were brought in a variety of ships. Chaucer would have known intimately these clamorous thoroughfares—Simpson's Lane, Spittle Lane, Brikels Lane, Brode Lane most suitable for the passage of the carts, and Three Cranes Lane known in his childhood as Painted Tavern Lane. A few hundred yards away stood the Steelyard, the defended quarters where the German merchants lived and worked; a colony of Genoese merchants was also situated by the riverside, and it has been suggested that Chaucer's knowledge of Italian sprang from such early contacts. Certainly he came to maturity in a cosmopolitan city.
So we can imagine him standing in one of the principal thoroughfares of London, Cheapside, which he knew all of his life. He was the poet of sunrise rather than of sunset, which is as much to say that he was medieval rather than modern, and at dawn in Cheapside the whole city would awake around him. The bell rang at the church of St. Thomas of Acon, at the corner of Ironmonger Lane, on the hour before sunrise; then the wickets beside the great gates of the city were opened, and through the darkness trailed in the petty traders, the chapmen, the hucksters with baskets of gooseberries or apples, the journeymen, the labourers and the servants who lived outside the walls in the crowded and malodorous suburbs which were the city's shadow. At dawn the bells in the churches rang to proclaim the ending of the curfew, but already the majority of working citizens were awake and washed. There was a proverbial refrain:
Rise at five, dine at nine,
Sup at five, and bed at nine,
Will make a man live to ninety and nine.
Cheapside was a wide thoroughfare, but also a crowded and noisy one. There were terraces of tall timber houses, rising three storeys, with their gables turned to the street; they projected over the road, and were painted in vivid colours with their framework outlined in intricate patterning. They were built upon stone foundations but were completed with timber framing as well as wattle-and-daub. There may also have been smaller dwellings, of two storeys, and perhaps even a tenement made up of single rooms further divided by partitions for poor families. Certainly these "decaying" houses, as they were known, would have been visible along the lanes and alleys which ran off the main street. Yet Cheapside was known for its shops and its stalls of merchandise. At one end, a few yards past Old Jewry and by St. Mary Woolchurch, stood the Stocks market with its fish and flesh; sited a few yards apart from it were the quarters of the poulterers. At the other end of Cheapside, close to Paternoster Row and the cathedral church of St. Paul, was a large covered market in which tradesmen would sell their wares out of boxes or chests.
But the street was largely comprised of individual shops and sheds packed closely together, one for every ten feet (three metres) of road-space. Each trade had its own area so that, for example, the goldsmiths were situated between Friday Street and Bread Street; within the dim interiors Chaucer would have seen on display the spoons and phials, the rings and necklaces, the crucifixes of silver gilt and paternosters of amber or coral. Friday Street itself was named after the fish market which assembled there on that day, while Bread Street was known for its bakers and its cook-shops where ten eggs or a roast lark could be purchased for a penny and a hen baked in a pasty bought for fivepence. Just past the goldsmiths, between Friday Street and Bow Church, stood the shops of the mercers with their silks and fabrics, while opposite haberdashers sold hats and laces, boots and pen-cases. Other shops sold toys and drugs, spices and small-ware. In Paternoster Row, leading off Cheapside, were the stationers and booksellers with their psalters and calendars, doctrinals and books of physic. The signs of the different trades were suspended on poles, and there were drawings on the wooden walls of the shops as a symbol of what lay within. Most of these ground-floor shops were protected by an overhanging storey, or penthouse, where the shopkeeper and his family would live in one or two rooms. If a house boasted a small cellar or undercroft it would be utilised for storage or for trade, with ale one of the most easily available commodities.
Among the one-storey sheds and the two-storey dwellings, with whitewashed walls and thatched roofs, would be vacant plots and gardens. Down the smaller streets were shops and cottages, fences and barrels, with chickens and ducks, goats and pigs, roaming among them. Most of the pavements would have needed repair, and there were piles of refuse or manure on the streets waiting for the "raker" or "fermour" to remove them. The air was filled with the smell of burning wood and of sea-coal, of cess pits and butchers' waste.
At sunrise the great gates of the city were opened, and the long bakers' wagons from Mile End would bear their precious burden into the streets of the city; simnel bread was best, and cocket the worst. Horses and carts of every description would also begin their journey through the narrow streets among the porters and water-carriers and merchants. In a city continually expanding, there was building work everywhere. In the latter half of the fourteenth century the population of London has been variously estimated between forty thousand and fifty thousand but, whatever the density, the square mile within the walls was sufficiently noisy and active. The population of London was characteristically compared to a swarm of bees, busily engaged but when threatened dangerous and deadly. Yet the greetings upon the street, at any dawn, would have seemed beneficent enough. "God save you . . . God give you grace . . . God's speed . . . Good day, a clear day." Mixed with these greetings the cries of the street-sellers would already be added to the clamour and shouting which accompanied the start of each day. "Twelve herr... --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié .