Chaucer’s places in time: a new biographical lens

Dr Marion Turner is Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in English at Jesus College, Oxford. She is an elected Trustee of the New Chaucer Society, and her research focuses on late medieval secular literature and history, especially Chaucer. Her new book, published in April 2019, Chaucer: A European Life, is a major new biography of Chaucer, the first for a generation. She was awarded a British Academy mid-career fellowship to work on the book, and in 2020, she will take up a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to work on her next book.

How did you come to be at Jesus College?

I have been at Jesus College since 2007. Before that I had done my undergraduate studies at Oxford, and an MA at the University of York before returning to Oxford for my doctorate. I held a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalen, and worked at King’s in London before taking up my current position. Oxford is a great place to be a medievalist and Oxford’s English department is truly one of the top English departments in the world – regularly ranked as the best in the world, in fact.

Why did you choose Chaucer?

Chaucer had an extraordinary life – he was a prisoner of war, a diplomat, a poetic innovator, a great traveller, an MP. There are so many wonderful stories to tell and explore.

I have researched Chaucer’s poetry for a long time. One of the things that drew me to Chaucer as a poet was how different he is to people’s expectations and preconceptions of him. People have particular ideas about canonical literature, and think of Chaucer as the father of English literature. But Chaucer would have found that view of himself very odd. He was not canonical during his lifetime; he was an experimental and innovative poet. While the canon is seen as exclusive, Chaucer focuses on the idea that everyone has a right to tell their own stories. Chaucer believed that people should make their own interpretative decisions, not just listen to the author.

So, I’d written extensively about Chaucer’s texts throughout my career, but writing a biography was a new venture. What I wanted to do was to make it a biography of the imagination, and really break down the idea of Chaucer as a staid father of English Literature. He was innovative, multi-lingual, well-travelled and inventive. In fact, he invented the iambic pentameter and was reading Italian poets such as Petrarch and Boccaccio before anyone else in England was. He’s often been used as an example of a nationalist English poet, yet the authors who influenced him most were writing in Latin, French and Italian. He was someone who travelled and read widely, and his life in England was also embedded in international contexts. Something that is surprising to many people is that in Chaucer’s day, London was part of a global trade network, for instance you could buy spices from Indonesia and silks from China.

You organised your biography in a very particular way – how did that come about?

At first, I couldn’t see how a new biography could be different to what had come before. I ended up going for a long walk and trying to think about whether this really was the project for me. I had the idea to make every chapter a specific place that meant something to Chaucer, and then it all fell into place in my mind. It became very exciting once I decided not to structure the book through strict chronology. While the biography is roughly chronological, the spatial structure allowed me to focus on specific environments that shaped Chaucer’s experiences and ideas. Some of the places are real locations, such as Genoa, or Navarre, some are structures such as the great household or the inn, and some are more conceptual, such as peripheries or the cage.

Biography is history, philosophy and literature all rolled into one. Writing a biography about someone from a long time ago is a very different process to writing about a modern subject as we don’t have diaries or letters to read. I decided not to try to get into the nitty gritty of his emotional life because I didn’t want to speculate too much. We can’t know how he felt about his mother or his wife, so the biography is not about getting to the core of his emotional life. It’s more about his imagination; what he saw, what he read, the rooms he lived in and the journeys he undertook. What does it mean to go to Florence and see Giotto’s frescoes? How does it feel to live without a private room of one’s own?

What have been the impact(s) of your research?

It has been wonderful to see enthusiastic interviews and reviews in publications such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Financial Times, as well as in the literary press such as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. I’ve done a lot of radio interviews and podcasts, and also recorded an audiobook. Chaucer: A European Life has been picked as a ‘book of the year’ recently by The Times, the Sunday Times, and also by the TLS, where it was described as 'an absolute triumph' by A.N. Wilson.

More personally, there have been so many communications and messages from the general public which is fantastic. Now that they’ve read the biography, they have changed their minds about Chaucer which is wonderful. The book has been able to reach a wider and more diverse group of people than the narrower scholarly work I have done in the past. This is a crossover book which is having an impact within the scholarly community, but also on people in the wider world. I have heard from creative writers who want help with research about medieval times, and there have been lots of people who want advice on what to read next; they’re excited to read more. People say that this has changed their idea of medieval England and Europe. They were especially surprised by how much people could travel in those days, and quite how multilingual people were, especially considering today’s globalised world.

People have also been surprised and amused by the  scandalous fashion choices and outfits detailed in the book. A fashionable, teenage side to Chaucer is not one that many know. You tend to think of authors as frozen in time, but how did he become who he became? He was once a teenager, a traveler, a lover, a father - he was many things.

When thinking about the past, there is a tension between familiarity and profound difference. On the one hand, just like today, older generations were criticising younger people’s fashionable clothes. Chaucer was a young man wearing tight trousers and middle-aged churchmen were scandalised. It can be easy, however, to go too far down that road of thinking that nothing has really changed. In fact there are stark differences as well as similarities between the 14th and 21st centuries. In contrast to today, this teenage boy didn’t choose his own clothes - he was dressed in these stylish garments by his employer who told him what to wear, when to eat, where to sleep. He didn’t have the same kinds of freedoms or privacy that we take for granted today.

What are some highlights from your work this year?

I’ve been so lucky this year to speak to so many interesting people. For me, a real highlight was the Hay on Wye literary festival – it is incredible to see so many people who love books all in one place, and to be somewhere where a talk on Chaucer can be staged in an 800 person theatre, and sell out at that!

One of my favourite interviews was ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio 4, with Andrew Marr. I was talking about my book alongside two other female academics who have done radical new work on Shakespeare and Dickens, so there was something really special about a programme featuring three female scholars talking about three of the most canonical of male writers. In the next few months I’m looking forward to events such as the Oxford Literary Festival and giving talks in New York and California. 

What will you be focusing on in future research projects?

I was recently awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to work on my next book, an exploration of female storytelling across time, provisionally titled The Wife of Bath: A Biography.

It will be a biography of Chaucer’s favourite character, from late antique sources, through the experiences of medieval women, to modern adaptations. From St Paul and Jerome to Zadie Smith and Patience Agbabi! It is a project about women telling stories across time.

Welcome to our Meet the Fellows section, where we profile some of our Jesus College Fellows and highlight the fascinating research they are working on. For a full list of Jesus College Fellows and Lecturers, please see here.