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Customer reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
9
Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World
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on July 17, 2016
Supposed to be hard back, but turned out to be paperback. Book itself is good, bought for a course.
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on April 7, 2015
Great book
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 14, 2014
This provides one of the liveliest narratives on medieval times that I can recall; the added bonus that a leading Chaucerian wrote this just before his death in 1987 adds poignancy, given the final line of the text proper contemplates eternity. Donald R. Howard navigates the difficult path between speaking to his fellow scholars and welcoming a wider audience into the author's works, life, and times. He does this with verve; he shows what Chaucer would have seen and what he did read and where he did travel. He reminds us of how far Chaucer roamed, even if he was a bookworm who preferred staying in London.

The challenge, as Howard admits, is that facts for the Middle Ages are few, and liable to change. For much of this, Howard has to reason on probabilities. For instance, I consulted this wanting more on Dante and Boccaccio, given as a grad school prof (himself a medievalist) asserted Chaucer was likely the first person in England to read the Commedia, as he knew Italian so as to make his diplomatic visit there. Howard supplements this fact with supposition--Chaucer may have met Boccaccio, may have had a quarrel with him, may have therefore not cited him by name in his later literary works, may have rubbed a man twice his age the wrong way. This is all intriguing, but as Howard might have admitted, he has had to fill out much of the bare bones of Chaucer's record with such insights, and so the book turns more a depiction of Chaucer's world and works than his life, and this does fill the book. It is more readable, but it does have to make tangents.

It does, however, with insight. As Howard presented the pilgrim's perspective well in earlier studies, so here. He shows how the mental map of a traveler inverted, so a vague Earthly Paradise atop the half of the sphere named Asia beckoned, whereas Jerusalem was at the center, and bisecting the other half are Europe on the left, and then near the Devil's sinister hand, and Africa on the other quarter. He adds that the Southern Hemisphere was debated as possible back then, and that Columbus did not think any more than many then that the earth was flat. So, in a few pages, Howard corrects crucial ideas many have about medieval lore. He aligns his pitch at both scholars and everyday readers.

This tone sustains the interest that keeps the pace moving along. Howard has to compress a lot about the Canterbury Tales into the latter parts, the sections many may want expanded. Howard's previous The Idea of the Canterbury Tales book may be recommended as is his shorter one on pilgrimage as more in-depth on crucial topics. What provides this book's verve and infuses its pages is Howard's fascination with Chaucer and his time and influences, and now, as fewer turn to this author and his works for pleasure or even for coursework, this biography merits your time and your immersion.
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on January 28, 2013
Who would have thought an English professor would write a better history book than a historian? This book is really about Geoffrey Chaucer, but it necessarily includes a description of the times and context in which he lived. It's got a lot of details. It's going to take me 6 months to finish it. The author must have spent years writing it! (I guess the history books I've read tried to be a survey of the complete Middle Ages and basically touched too many topics too superficially. This book is a good, detailed, interesting history of the latter 14th century and how it affected one man's life)
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on September 1, 2008
This is an important introduction to, as the book's title says, the life, times, and works of Geoffrey Chaucer. For those who are thoroughly versed in the 14th century, or who are intimately familiar with Chaucer scholarship, this work will probably be a rehashing of familiar ground. However, as an introduction for a budding scholar or amateur enthusiast in history or literature, this work is second to none. This book is highly readable, even for those with a casual interest in the subject.

I took a class on Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", and I read this book as a prelude to the course. I feel that this work provided me with crucial context for Chaucer and his world, and enabled me to appreciate reading the "Tales" in their original Middle English at a much greater level. Thank you Dr. Howard!
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on February 8, 2003
Extensively detailed biography of this medieval great poet, of interest to anyone interested in the intricacies of medieval history and literature. Definitely not for the dilettante, though much of it is quite readable.
The book is approximately evenly divided between history and literary analysis. We learn of Chaucer's role as a soldier in the wars with France; of his role as appointed court poet and custom's officer; of the black death; of his travels to Italy; we are given a great deal of detail about his literary influences on the Continent and his major literary works, not limited to the Canterbury Tales. Really more for the literary medieval scholar, though anyone interested in history might like it. We learn that Chaucer was probably in London at the time of the Peasants' Revolt.
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If the business of a review is to compare one treatment of a subject with others as if we by some restriction cannot have all available to us, then I might find something to critique, just as I might prefer a particular version of Parsifal over another (which I do).But what amazes me is the availability of all the texts we have via Amazon and at such prices it becomes ridiculous contemplating it. By this account alone we should consider this the golden age of literacy. Think of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business a Edition by Postman, Neil published by Penguin Books (1986) Paperback. We are living in the Brave New World and the wealth of literature ends up with a book like this barely worth a penny.
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on July 23, 2013
This work is an immersion into both the life of Chaucer and the world in which he lived. It is history at its most comprehensively researched, written with a flare that seldom fails to keep at least one foot upon the ground. Never judgmental or fawning, this fine work of biography transports one into another time and place, all the while examining the influences that nurtured a creative genius whom many regard as the boldest writer in the English language. To read this book is learn more than any university course would ever teach you. When you've finished Donald Howard's work you will have learned literary history from a true master.
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on May 3, 2011
If I hadn't had a Chaucer-themed event I was preparing for, I would probably not have bothered to finish this book. Some of the problem is just poor editing - but then I notice that Howard died earlier the same year the book was published, and I can see how that sort of thing could interfere with the give and take of good editing. Some of it is that the literary biography is itself a tricky genre, and has to be done just right or it ends up falling between two stools - and Howard did not get it just right. And some of it is just that Howard comes across as an old fuddy-duddy - happily contemptuous of computers and of foreign languages*, and politically pro-Richard II to a degree I've never encountered before. And I don't need an explanation of why, on a journey to Genoa, Chaucer would not experience "jet lag" (jargon-quotes in the original).

I want to give it only one or two stars. But I did learn some new things just when I needed to, so maybe a grudging three.

* "To an English ear, French and Italian when spoken sound like a machine gun.... Heaven only knows what English must sound like to a French or an Italian ear" - Heaven, or he could ask any of 60-some million French citizens or 50-some million Italians. I should think Stanford would have a Romance Language department, but maybe it didn't occur to him to walk across campus and ask.
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