In A Nutshell
In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer took a post at the head of London’s wool trade. It was such a corrupt position that his career ended when the position was abolished for all trades across the board, as it was deemed too broken to fix. At the time, merchants, exporters, and officials were making a fortune taking bribes, skimming off the top of the profits, taking false weights, and running any of a number of scams. Just how involved in this all Chaucer was, we’re not sure, but it definitely puts The Canterbury Tales in a rather different light.
The Whole Bushel
Love him or hate him, we all had to read him. We all know Chaucer as the author of The Canterbury Tales, an epic, delightful, and unfinished set of stories that gives us an incredible look into life in the 14th century. But Chaucer wasn’t always known as a writer. While he was undoubtedly gathering information and observation on the lives of those around him—which would make his work so incredibly valuable later on—he was ripping people off.
Chaucer never had it rough. Originally the king’s esquire, he worked for King Edward III as a sort of glorified royal clerk. And after that, in 1386, he started working as the Controller of the Wool Custom in London. If the wool trade doesn’t seem like the stuff of organized crime today, that’s exactly what it was in 1386.
He wasn’t the first man to be put in charge of the wool custom, and by the time he took over, it was already known as a trade that was based on smuggling, skimming off the top of the profits, bribery, and all sorts of profit-making schemes and scams. Before Chaucer, one of the Controllers had been the Lord Mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre. People called him an emperor (and not in a good way), and at one point, he nearly succeeded in changing the name of London to “New Troy.”
Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, called out all the fraud that was going on in the wool trade. In his work Mirror of Mankind, he uses the fictional, supernatural Triche as his instrument to explain the rampant corruption of the day. Triche is the butcher that sells old meat, he’s the brewer that dilutes his product, he’s the goldsmith that mixes in other metals. And, he’s the wool trade officers, accepting bribes and taking off the top.
Gower wrote the work just before Chaucer took over the position, which he held for 12 years. At the end of those years, the Controllers’ positions were eliminated entirely, deemed too corrupt to fix.
So that leaves the question of how deeply Chaucer was actually involved in the shady dealings that were going on at the London wharf. No one knows for sure, but there’s some evidence that allows us to make some guesses.
The push to get Chaucer appointed was a major one, and that appointment came with an agreement between Edward III and a group of rich, upper-crust merchants and traders. In order to persuade him to take the position, it came with a rent-free London apartment, an annual pension to support both Chaucer and his wife, and a gallon of wine every day.
A lot of what went into the position was decorative; they weren’t the ones doing the heavy lifting, but they were the ones overseeing everyone who was. There were two men filling much the same position—the Controller and the Collector. Each man had half of a wax seal, and that full seal meant that the product had gone through all the proper channels. Both were in a position to make a mint, but only as long as the other one was cooperative and receptive to the whole idea.
While that seems to point to the idea that an agreeable Chaucer would have been the man that the king—and the merchants—would have pushed to appoint to the post, it’s also possible that he was more of a bystander than an actual participant in the rampant fraud that was going on in the wool business. Either way, history’s pretty sure that he either looked the other way or had his hands in the till, and that puts the stories of some of his pilgrims in a whole new light.