Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Connection to Geoffrey Chaucer and Medieval Science

One of my ancestors is Katherine de Roet (1349-1403) better known as Katherine Swynford since she married Hugh Swynford. Katherine was the mistress (later wife) of John of Gaunt (1340-1399) and they had several children. I descend from one of them, John Beaufort (1373-1410).1

Katherine's father was Paon de Roet better known as Sir Gilles. He comes from Hainault in Belgium and he served Philippa of Hainault who became the wife of King Edward III of England.

Katherine's sister, also called Philippa (1346-1387) [Philippa Roet] was a prominent member of Queen Philippa's court in England. At first, she was a child companion of the children of Elizabeth of Ulster and the Queen but later on she was a lady-in-waiting. Geoffrey Chaucer became a page in the household of Elizabeth of Ulster in 1357 when he was 14 and Phillipa was 11.

Queen Philippa encouraged them to marry in September 1366. Chaucer and Philippa Roet had two sons and two daughters. The youngest son, Lewis, was born in 1381 and attended Oxford beginning in 1391. Chaucer noticed that his son was interested in science and he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe to explain the workings of an astrolabe that he gave him when he was about 10 years old.

A Treatise on the Astrolabe
Geoffrey Chaucer

Lyte Lowys my sone, I aperceyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns; and as wel considre I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie. Than for as moche as a philosofre saith, "he wrappith him in his frend, that condescendith to the rightfulle praiers of his frend," therfore have I yeven the a suffisant Astrolabie as for oure orizonte, compowned after the latitude of Oxenforde; upon which, by mediacioun of this litel tretys, I purpose to teche the a certein nombre of conclusions aperteynyng to the same instrument.

[Little Lewis my son, I perceive well by certain evidences thine ability to learn sciences touching numbers and proportions; and as well consider I thy constant prayer in special to learn the treatise of the Astrolabe. Than for as much as a philosopher saith, "He wrappth him in his friend, that condescendth to the rightful prayers of his friend", therefore have I given thee a suffisant Astrolabe as for our horizons, compounded after the latitude of Oxford; upon which, by means of this little treatise, I purpose to teach thee a certain number of conclusions pertaining to the same instrument.


[Image credits: Wikipedia: Geoffrey Chaucer, Wikipedia: Chaucer Astrolobe]

1. Almost everyone who has European ancestors will eventually connect to European nobility so there are millions of people who descend from John of Gaunt [see Are You a Descendant of Charlemagne?]. If you know the names of all sixteen of your great-great-grandparents and their dates and places of birth, then chances are high that you can make the connection with only a little effort.

12 comments :

  1. I was thinking about Geoffrey Chaucer yesterday in connection with Pope Francis' announcement that he will grant indulgences to those who follow him on Twitter.

    In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is very critical of simony and the selling of indulgences. Is it possible that Chaucer was an atheist as well as a Medieval supporter of science?

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    1. I don't know if Chaucer was a nonbeliever but one of his daughters was a nun.

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    2. It is my information that the selling of indulgences was one of the objections raised by Martin Luther.

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    3. @slchonda9

      Think of it as a turf war, Luther and his German backers objected to the lack of control that they had over revenue collected by the Catholic church in Germany (not that Germany as a single nation existed at that time).

      In other areas, most notably antisemitism, Luther was in full accord with the Catholic church, for an entertaining read I suggest "On the Jews and Their Lies".

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  2. Oh this how you draw a connection.
    I am suspicious about these things. I know it was smaller circles back then and we are all now in such great numbers that we must bump into relationships with the famous back then BUT something still seems wrong.
    They always say everyone is related to the big wigs back then but records must be practically worthless.
    I don't see why the great masses today are not from the great masses back then with no famous names.

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  3. If you know the names of all sixteen of your great-great-grandparents and their dates and places of birth, then chances are high that you can make the connection with only a little effort.

    I'm not sure this is true. For example, there is an Outlaw genealogy with literally hundreds of Outlaw - first written in 1930 and revised in 1972 - but they have not been able to link the Outlaws definitively with any English nobility, and some of the links that are widely touted are actually pretty speculative. See, for example

    http://www.sallysfamilyplace.com/Rayner/outlaw-england.htm .

    In several years of doing genealogy for friends and relatives I only found a single line for one person that is pretty definitive linked before 1500. And I've spent hundreds of hours on it.

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    1. That's interesting. With respect to the outlaws, I'm surprised. Did the genealogists know the names of all sixteen great- great- grandparents?

      With respect to your friends and relatives, did you know the names of all sixteen? My experience with Eastern Europe (Poland and Russia) is that it's often hard to find great- grandparents, let alone grandparents. I've also found that it's very difficult to trace Jewish ancestors.

      I still think my rule-of-thumb is fairly accurate but I admit I was thinkig mostly of Christian Europeans.

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  4. My family has a saint. Alas, he was a b**tard.

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  5. Was that letter translated? It looks suspiciously modern except for the spelling, and Chaucer wrote middle english. Or perhaps the Canterbury Tales were written in an especially archaic form?

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    1. It's absolutely authentic and written in ordinary Late Middle English, like the Canterbury Tales. In prose, the syntax is usually more fixed than in poetry, and the vocabulary may be a little less antiquarian (or more technical, as in this case), but otherwise there's no significant difference between Chaucer's language as a poet and as the author of an astrolabe manual.

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  6. Queen Philippa encouraged them to marry in September 1366. Chaucer and Philippa Roet had two sons and two daughters. The youngest son, Lewis, was born in 1381 and attended Oxford beginning in 1391. Chaucer noticed that his son was interested in science

    What's your source for this? The identification of the boy is very uncertain, and many Chaucer speecialists today identify "little Lowys" as Chaucer's godson, one Louis Clifford.

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    1. My source was the Wikipedia article. I didn't investigate any further.

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