Chaucer’s Hidden Iberian Influence

Scholars have long investigated the French, Italian, and English influences on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. However, they have largely neglected the impact of authors and texts from the Iberian Peninsula.

There are several routes by which Chaucer could have been exposed to Iberian sources. First of all, he may have come into direct contact with Spanish and Catalan texts during his time in the Iberian Peninsula. In 1366, Chaucer travelled to Castile, receiving a safe conduct from the king of Navarre en route, and he may have been in the Iberian Peninsula for over a year. Some scholars have even hypothesized that Chaucer was at the battle of Nájera on April 3, 1367, with his future companions Thomas Percy, William Beachamp, John Devereaux, and Guichard d’Angle.

Chaucer could also have encountered Spanish texts through his connection to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of his principal patrons. In 1372, John of Gaunt married Constance, the oldest surviving child of Pedro I of Castile. This marriage allowed the duke to claim the throne of Castile in the name of his wife following her father’s overthrow and death. It also led to his palace at the Savoy becoming a type of Castilian court in exile. Given his relationship with John of Gaunt, as well as his wife’s position as one of Constance’s attendants from 1372-1387, it is likely that Chaucer would have come into contact with Castilian exiles while visiting the Savoy. Although John of Gaunt was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining a crown for himself, he did arrange for one of his daughters, Philippa, to become queen of Portugal, and another, Catherine, to become queen of Castile.

Chaucer’s interest in the Iberian Peninsula is clear throughout his work. Chaucer mentions “Spain,” or things Spanish in ten of the stories of the Canterbury Tales (Yeager 194-195). Chaucer also mentions Petrus Alfonsi in the Tale of Melibee, and he provides a detailed account of Pedro I’s death in the Monk’s Tale.

The mention of Alfonsi is particularly evocative because it suggests one possible area of Iberian influence. In the early twelfth century, Alfonsi wrote the Disciplina Clericalis, which was the first instance of a frametale – a popular literary structure in Arabic and Middle Eastern literature that embeds various discrete stories within a larger framing device – being composed in Latin (Wacks 25). Around a century and a half later, Alfonso X had the Arabic frametale Kalila wa-Dimna translated into the Castilian Calila e Digna. In the following decades, the frametale became a popular vernacular literary structure in the Iberian Peninsula. For instance, Ramon Llull, Don Juan Manuel, and Juan Ruiz all composed frametales in the early fourteenth century. This development in the Iberian Peninsula may have had an important, although indirect, influence on the composition of Chaucer’s own frametale, the Canterbury Tales.

Some scholars have also argued for a more direct influence. John Barker, for instance, argues that the many textual similarities between the Libro de Buen Amor and Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale could not have been accidental (609). Although he admits that both texts could have used the same source, Pope Innocent III’s De contemptu mundi sivi de miseria condicionis humane, Barker claims that the shared details in both texts – such as drunkenness, taverns, and gambling – suggests that the Libro de Buen Amor was the immediate source for the Pardoner’s Tale (610).

Another scholar, Thomas Garbáty, argues that Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato was not the only source for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (459). Instead, he posits that Chaucer was also influenced by the twelfth-century Pamphilus de Amore and the Libro de Buen Amor. In addition to being a re-telling of the story from the Pamphilus, Garbáty claims that Chaucer’s Criseyde bears a strong resemblance to Juan Ruiz’s Doña Endrina, that Pandarus matches the traditional stereotype of a Spanish “trotaconventos” (a Spanish term for a go-between), and that Boccaccio’s Troilio was far too bold to have been the inspiration for Chaucer’s Troilus (468-469).

Additionally, Eugenio Olivares Merino has shown that Chaucer may have based his account of Pedro I’s death in the Monk’s Tale on Pero López de Ayala’s history of the king (492). In particular, the second stanza includes a clear criticism of Bertrand du Guesclin, which is included by López de Ayala but not found in contemporary accounts of the event composed in French, Catalan, or Latin.

One final area where Iberian influence may be seen in Chaucer’s work is in his figure of the Pardoner. Among the reasons that the Pardoner is such a fascinating character is that he is a religious figure who is open and unrepentant about his own misdeeds. Although anticlerical literature was fairly common in the Middle Ages, it is difficult to think of another religious narrator who presents himself in such a negative way, except for one: Juan Ruiz’s pseudo-autobiographical narrator of the Libro de Buen Amor, the Archpriest of Hita.

Chaucer was not only influenced by French, Italian, and English texts, but also by works coming out of the unique political and cultural milieu of medieval Iberia. One of the most important Iberian contributions was the development and transmission of the frametale literary structure to Europe, first in Latin translations, and eventually in original vernacular compositions. In addition to this indirect influence, however, there are strong arguments suggesting that Chaucer was exposed to and directly influenced by specific Iberian authors and texts, although further study is needed.

Bretton Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Humanities
Boğaziçi University



Barker, John. “Influencia de la literatura española en la literatura inglesa.” Revista de cultura y vida universitaria 23.4 (1946): 593-610.

Garbáty, Thomas. “The Pamphilus Tradition in Ruiz and Chaucer.” Philological Quarterly 46 (1967): 457-470.

Olivares Merino, Eugenio. “Juan Ruiz’s Influence on Chaucer Revisited: A Survey.” Neophilogus 88 (2004): 145-161.

Wacks, David. Framing Iberia: Maqamat and Frametale Narratives in Medieval Spain. Brill: Leiden. 2007.

Yeager, R.F. “Chaucer Translates the Matter of Spain.” In England and Iberia in the Middle Ages, 12th-15th Century: Cultural, Literary, and Political Exchanges. Edited by María Bullón-Fernandez. Palgrave Macmillan: New York (2007): 189-215.

In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame
Founder of Hikma Strategies


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sounds of Medieval London

If you and I were to go for a stroll through the streets of London—let’s say, one summer afternoon in 1392—what kinds of sounds would we hear?

City of London with Tower Bridge and Tower of London, Royal 16 F II, f. 73r; poems by Charles, due of Orléans, Bruges, third quarter of the 15th century, courtesy of the British Library

According to William Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, we might hear a cacophony of street cries including the shouts of cooks and tavern-keepers: “Hote pyes, hote! / Goode gees and grys! Ga we dyne, ga we!” (Prol. 228-35). (Incidentally, London’s street cries have been featured in musical compositions from Renaissance madrigals to twentieth-century composer Luciano Berio’s “Cries of London.”) But if we happened to be in London at just the right moment, we might hear something remarkable—the arresting sounds of a procession.

Religious procession at Saragossa, Royal 16 G VI, f. 32v, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Paris, after c. 1332 and before c. 1350, courtesy of the British Library

A procession–broadly defined as a group of individuals moving along a specific route to a certain destination–would capture our attention in numerous ways. As Kathleen Ashley has written, processions offered a “fusion of sensory experiences, or synaesthesia” (13). Indeed, they were both visually compelling, featuring canopies, torches, reliquaries, crosses, and flowers, and also aurally compelling, with singing voices, ringing bells, and the sounds of lutes, drums, and cymbals.

London would have seen many different kinds of processions—all of them with distinctive sounds. There would be royal processions creating an atmosphere of splendor and pomp.

Queen Isabel entering Paris; Harley 4379, f. 3r; Jean Froissart’s Chroniques; Bruges, between c. 1470 and 1472, courtesy of the British Library

Often (as in the image below) musicians would accompany these regal processions, and sometimes dancers would also perform.

King in a cart escorted by mounted musicians, Harley 4372, f. 79v, Valerius Maximus’s Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, trans. by Simon de Hesdin and Nicolas de Gonesse, Normandy, c. 1460-1487, courtesy of the British Library

Religious processions would also pass through the streets, celebrating various holy days (e.g., Christmas, Easter, and Corpus Christi). These often featured ringing bells and chanting voices, and such sounds were thought to ward off demons and elicit divine grace.

Corpus Christi Procession with a Bishop carrying the monstrance under a canopy, Harley 7026, f. 13r, Lectionary, England, c. 1400-1410, courtesy of the British Library

Of course there were funeral processions, where corpses were carried through the streets as mourners wailed and bells tolled–undoubtedly an almost constant sound during the time of the plague. As the popular medieval philosopher Boethius wrote, “The cause for weeping might be made sweeter through song” (8).

Funeral procession of Queen Jeanne, Royal 20 C VII, f. 200r, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Paris, last quarter of 14th century, courtesy of the British Library

Like Langland, Chaucer infuses his writing with the sounds he experienced in London, and in the Prioress’s Tale, he specifically incorporates the sounds of processions.

In the beginning of the story, the clergeon sings the antiphon Alma redemptoris mater as he walks to school and back home: “Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie” (553). It is a kind of solo procession.

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Later, we find a foreshadowing of the clergeon joining a heavenly procession of virgin martyrs where he will follow “The white Lamb celestial” and “synge a song al newe” (581, 584).

Towards the end, the clergeon’s body is carried through the streets to the abbey “with honour of greet processioun” (623). Miraculously, he continues to sing the Alma, serving as the musician at his own funeral.

It seems fitting that such a series of processions should take center stage in the Prioress’s Tale since the Prioress herself would have come from a nunnery where processions formed a significant part of life. In fact, we have medieval documents (e.g., the Barking Ordinal) that provide instructions for nunnery processions. As the image below suggests, these processions would have been aurally compelling. Notice the one nun pulling the bell rope and the others singing from books with musical notation.

Illustration of a Procession and (above) Mass in a Nunnery, Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v, “Traité de la Sainte Abbaye,” France, c. 1290, courtesy of the British Library

We can add a new dimension to our understanding of life in the Middle Ages by reconstructing some of the sounds of the streets of medieval London. Such sounds have not altogether died away. In closing, here is a performance from the 2015 Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia — a parade with roots reportedly dating back to the Early Modern period.

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Ingrid Pierce
PhD Candidate
Department of English
Purdue University


Ashley, Kathleen and Wim Hüsken. Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wadsworth Chaucer, formerly The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed.
Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Wadsworth, 1987.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-text. Edited by
Derek Pearsall. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Reynolds, Roger. “The Drama of Medieval Liturgical Processions.” Revue de Musicologie   86.1 (200): 127-42.

Yardley, Anne Bagnall. Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval
Nunneries. New York: Palgrave, 2006.