With close to five hundred records relating to his life surviving and the prospect of still more being found, Geoffrey Chaucer remains one of the best-documented premodern Britons. The commanding size and actuarial precision of the surviving Chaucer archive speaks volumes about the dedication of medieval society to tallying, record keeping and categorising: we know exactly how much Chaucer owed to whom and where he travelled to; we can retrace his footsteps and count his pennies. His life, oscillating between ledger and embassy, opens a window onto 14th-century London, an intimate city with a thriving mercantile culture that reached out to the rest of the known world. It is through Chaucer that we catch a glimpse of everyday life in London beyond the familiar opulence of aristocratic society.
When the Tudor antiquary John Leland first sketched Chaucer’s life in the 1530s, he inaugurated a vibrant industry that kept churning out pen portraits of the poet from one generation to the next. Each new biography moulded a different Chaucer according to the preoccupations of the time: progressive