Geoffrey Chaucer in Aldgate

If Geoffrey Chaucer woke from 700 years’ sleep to find himself living, once again, in Aldgate, he might find it hard to get his bearings. There are few buildings of antiquity surviving amid the rat run of lorries, buses and cars. St Botolph’s of course, hard by the poet’s old home above the gate itself, but this is an 18th century church, replacing the 11th century building Chaucer would have known. There’s John Cass School. It looks old, but didn’t appear until more than 300 years after his death. And where is the London Wall with the Ald-gate marking the boundary between the City of London and Middlesex? After standing for a millennium and a half that was dismantled (this section at least) in 1761.

But shortly, a new structure will arise on Aldgate that would be recognised by the greatest English poet of the medieval period. The New Aldgate will be a ‘paleys upon pilars’, or Palace on Pillars to give it a modern English rendition: a wooden skeleton of the kind of house Chaucer would have seen all around him in the late 1300s, and a fanciful recreation of the rooms in which he lived above Aldgate in the late years of the 14th century. Such buildings would be swept away entirely by the Great Fire of 1666.

The installation forms part of the London Festival of Architecture and is inspired by two dream poems written by Chaucer while he lived in the rooms above the gate from 1374 to 1386. The dream poem or vision was a hugely popular genre in the literature of medieval and early modern Europe. Typically, the narrator falls asleep – beneath a tree on a summer’s day perhaps, or maybe in the midst of some unresolved crisis requiring answers. He (it’s almost always a he) then finds himself in a beautiful garden or fantastical city, a perfected or distorted version of the world. He then encounters a dream guide who leads him through a series of encounters. He tantalisingly, awakes before the significance of his encounters are revealed. We readers are left to unpick the meaning of what has passed.

Two of Chaucer’s greatest contributions to the dream poem genre were the Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Birds) and The House of Fame. Chaucer also produced the Book of the Duchess, and others may be lost to us. Perhaps the most famous dream poem is Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland’s The Dream of Piers the Plowman, though the form dates back at least to the eighth century with The Dream of the Rood. The genre died out during the Renaissance but perhaps has echoes centuries later in Pilgrim’s Progress and even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Aldgate is about to change again, undergoing major regeneration over the next few years (making it even less recognisable to our awakened poet perhaps), so maybe it makes sense to dig back a few hundred years to remind us of why it was here in the first place. Aldgate was, of course, designed as a way to keep people out of London. It was also many new Londoners first sight of the City, as they arrived from Essex and East Anglia. Geoffrey was a Londoner through and through, born in the capital in 1343, the scion of a family of wine merchants. But like so many cockneys the Chaucers had originally come from elsewhere. They were originally Ipswich merchants ( the family name is a corruption of the French “chausseur” or shoemaker). But at some point in the early 1300s, the family made their way down the ancient Ipswich to London road, trodden since Roman times, and down ‘Aldgatestrete’ into London. The modern A11 (the Whitechapel, Mile End and Whitechapel Roads) would for centuries be the highway for East Anglian traders and farmers bringing their wares for sale in the capital.

Then, in 1374, Chaucer and family moved into grace-and-favour apartments above the Aldgate, courtesy of his new job as Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London. And for the next dozen years, Chaucer took time off from counting the tax revenues from the port to dream up his stories, take up his pen and create some of the greatest works in early English literature.
The cockney Chaucer would people his poetry with colourful East End characters. In the Canterbury Tales, the prioress, Madam Eglantine, had learned her French with a cockney accent: “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe.” He wasn’t the first English poet to write in the vernacular, but at a time when French and Latin were the accepted languages of literature and court, with English considered a mongrel language worthy only of the working people, his use of colourful (and often filthy) English prose was bold indeed.

It was above Aldgate that Chaucer dreamed up his dream poems. And tasked with creating a structure that would yoke together Aldgate old and new, architecture firm Studio Weave hit on The Parlement of Foules and The House of Fame for inspiration when they were designing the Paleys upon Pilars. Both works, they observe: “include images of fantastic dream-like temples of impossible materials and scale, elevated on precarious, precious structures above vast, bizarre landscapes conceivable as analogies for the City”.

They do. In The House of Fame, the poet finds himself in a glass temple, decked with pictures of the famous and their deeds. But how accurate are these records, the scribe wonders? With an eagle as his guide, he meditates on the nature of fame and asks how trustworthy are the stories history tells us of great men. This poem, by the way, has the first recorded use of “Galaxy” and “Milky Way” in English. Two centuries later, Shakespeare would coin countless phrases that then entered and stayed in our lexicon, but Chaucer is our first great documenter of many of the words in the emerging language that would become modern English. In the Parlement of Foules our poet is reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. He falls asleep and the great Roman general Scipio appears and leads him through the heavens to Venus’s temple, where the birds are choosing their mates. The dream ends with a song welcoming the summer and the dreamer awakes, still questioning the nature of love, and returns to study his books once more. More questions, but again, no answers.

Chaucer and the family moved out of Aldgate in 1386, and he moved from job to job around southern England in the King’s employ, handomely pensioned and still writing. He disappears from history at some point in 1400: his poetry, of course, would run and run. And thanks to that, a vision of Geoffrey’s Aldgate will be recreated this summer. But Chaucer will not be coming back for a look, and the Palace – unlike its inspirations, will not endure for centuries. This “abstraction of the uppermost room of the old gate, an invocation of Chaucer’s luxurious dreamed temples, a kind of timber embroidery in the air above the busy Aldgate High Street, supported on pillars decorated with images from Chaucer’s illuminated manuscripts” will stand only for a few short weeks, during the Olympics and Paralympics, before disappearing forever.

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About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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