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Medieval helmets and shields on an old wooden table

This week the Guardian gave us a sneak preview of a forthcoming publication about the well-known medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Author of the famous story collection The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer was a busy man: civil servant by day, innovative poet by night. In his poem The House of Fame, he even described himself just how taxing this lifestyle was:

For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed [dazed] ys thy look

(For when your work is all done, and you have finished all your accounts, instead of rest and new pursuits, you go straight home to your house and, silent as any stone, you sit at another book until your eyes fully glaze over.)

In essence, this quotation reveals that Chaucer faced a challenge familiar to many creative writers – how to juggle his passion for writing alongside working at another job to pay the bills – and it is therefore no surprise to discover that he sometimes took much-needed time off work to pursue other, perhaps preferred, activities.

The National Archives hold hundreds of documents recording aspects of Chaucer’s career in government administration and a clutch of them demonstrate that Chaucer requested periods of leave from his job overseeing taxation on the import and export of wool.

Dr Olivia Robinson and Dr Emily Wingfield - University of Birmingham

The National Archives hold hundreds of documents recording aspects of Chaucer’s career in government administration and a clutch of them demonstrate that Chaucer requested periods of leave from his job overseeing taxation on the import and export of wool. Scholars have known about these documents for some time, but a soon-to-be-published article by Professor Richard Firth Green (Ohio)[i] suggests that one of these documents might even be in Chaucer’s own handwriting!

We keenly await details of the full publication! If true, we would have the first known example of Chaucer’s handwriting: further analysis – along the forensic lines pioneered by former Birmingham academic, Tom Davis – could lead to additional discoveries of Chaucer’s hand in other documents, shedding yet more light on his daily life. It is certainly fascinating to think about what Chaucer might have done during his leave. The request is dated 1385, slap bang in the middle of what we know to have been Chaucer’s most productive period as a writer!

The note also reminds us of the nature of the society in which Chaucer lived and worked. Chaucer is famed for writing in Middle English, but his request is written in French, and the subsequent formal record of his leave is made in English. Chaucer’s England was very much multi-lingual; London was a bustling cosmopolitan centre looking out to Europe and the world beyond.

There’s an undeniable thrill in the idea that we might be able to connect with the human beings who wrote the literature we love through the traces of their personal handwriting. Living in an increasingly digital age, handwritten and hand-crafted items – as all medieval manuscripts and documents were until the advent of the printing press – possess a uniqueness and a sense of connection to their makers that we feel more and more rarely. This is true even of a formulaic HR request!

The handwritten documents that record absences from work and similar administrative or legal questions may seem like dry and formulaic protocol to us, but they hold real potential to unlock key details and enable new hypotheses about the past. There is still so much to be discovered about Chaucer as an individual, and about the fourteenth-century world in which he lived and worked.

Scholars are only now beginning to grapple with the sheer scale of surviving records in the National Archives, for example, and new discoveries are being made all the time – including Linne Mooney’s ground-breaking discovery of the identification of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam, or the recent uncovering of a legal record which sheds new light on Chaucer’s implication in a case of raptus – abduction or rape; the discovery of that document made clear how complex questions surrounding employment status, social and gendered inequalities, and personal freedoms could be negotiated legally in Chaucer’s time.

Alongside that, of course, it also raised fascinating – and troubling – questions about the legal processes surrounding cases of sexual violence today, and the ways in which our understanding of Chaucer’s world and its handling of these issues might form an important vantage point for thinking about our own social assumptions and legal protocols.

There’s no doubt that the archives of our administrative past have more secrets to yield: records shedding light on the extraordinary life and times of the civil servant turned ‘Father of English Poetry’, and others, less well known, but whose experiences may none the less open up important questions for us today.[i]

Our thanks to our colleagues Professor Wendy Scase and Dr David Griffith for support with this piece.

Dr Olivia Robinson and Dr Emily Wingfield

[1] Green’s essay, and others in the same forthcoming issue of Chaucer Review, are written in memory of Derek Pearsall (1931-21), alumnus of the University of Birmingham - BA, MA English - and holder of a Birmingham honorary degree, and author of influential publications on Chaucer.