CHAUCER, Geoffrey (c.1343-1400), of London and ?of Greenwich, Kent.
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Family and Education
b.c.1343, s. of John Chaucer (c.1312-1366), citizen and vintner of London by Agnes, da. of John Copton and cousin and h. of Nicholas Copton (d.1349) of London. m. bef. Sept. 1366, Philippa (d.1387), da. and coh. of Sir Paon de Roet of Hainault, Guienne King-of-arms, ?2s. inc. Thomas*, ?1da.
Emissary to Genoa 1 Dec. 1372-23 May 1373.
Controller, customs and subsidies, London 8 June 1374-4 Dec. 1386, petty custom 8 June 1374-1 Apr. 1375, 20 Apr. 1382-14 Dec. 1386.
J.p. Kent 12 Oct. 1385-July 1389.
Commr. of inquiry, Kent May 1387 (abduction of a ward); sewers, Thames estuary between Greenwich and Woolwich Mar. 1390.
Clerk of the King’s works, Westminster, the Tower and elsewhere 12 July 1389-17 June 1391, St. George’s chapel, Windsor 12 July 1390-1.
Forester of North Petherton, Som. c.1390-c.1391, Mar.-Sept. 1399.
The life of medieval England’s greatest poet is well documented in many of its details,1 and numerous scholars have mined his works for gems thought to be autobiographical. Here, it is not necessary to offer much more than a factual outline of his career as revealed by the surviving records, together with some speculation as to the reasons behind his election as knight of the shire for Kent to the Wonderful Parliament of 1386.
Chaucer was born, most likely some time in the early 1340s, into a family of quite well-to-do vintners living and trading in the City of London, whither they had come from Ipswich within the two previous generations. The family home is supposed to have been the house on Thames Street, in the parish of St. Martin, Vintry, belonging to John Chaucer, which his son Geoffrey was finally to relinquish in 1381 (although he apparently had not lived there since his father’s death in 1366). Besides that dwelling, John owned at one time or another various properties in and about the City (some inherited from his own and his wife’s kinsfolk in the plague year of 1349), including land in Stepney and in the parish of St. Mary Matfelon without Aldgate. Early on in Geoffrey’s life it was decided that instead of carrying on the family business he should enter service in a noble household, and by May 1357 he had been placed in that of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster, whom he then served for at least two years. After Elizabeth’s husband — Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel — came of age in the autumn of 1359 and their households merged, Chaucer was perhaps considered as attendant on the prince, and it was probably in Lionel’s company that he took part in the King’s expedition to France during that winter. ‘First armed’ on this campaign, according to his own account he took part in a skirmish at Réthel near Rheims, but was then ignominiously taken captive by the French; on 1 Mar. 1360 the King’s wardrobe made a payment of £16 towards his ransom. He remained in Lionel’s service for some while longer (that October he carried letters home to England from the prince, who was then on a mission to Calais for the completion of the treaty of peace between England and France), and he may have accompanied him and his countess to Ireland in 1361 after Lionel’s appointment as viceroy there. No definite conclusions can be drawn as to when Chaucer transferred from the Ulster household to that of the King himself, and there is a possibility that the move was not a direct one; he may have spent a period of time during the 1360s in Aquitaine, attached to the entourage of the King’s eldest son, the Black Prince. Certainly, on 24 Feb. 1366 he and three companions were issued by Charles II of Navarre with a safe conduct lasting for three months, permitting them to cross his territory. It may be presumed that Chaucer was then acting as envoy for Prince Edward, or else was intending to take part in the military conflicts for possession of the Castilian throne.
As often happened with members of one or other of the royal households, Chaucer found a wife at Court. Philippa Roet, whom he married before the autumn of 1366, was the daughter of the herald, Sir Paon de Roet, a Hainaulter who had accompanied his countrywoman, Queen Philippa, when she had come to England to be married to Edward III, and had since risen to be Guienne King-at-arms. When Sir Paon had gone abroad again to serve the queen’s sister, the Empress Margaret, he had left his two daughters at the English court, the one, Philippa, to attend on the queen in her chamber, the other, Katherine, wife of Sir Hugh Swynford, to enter the household of the queen’s third surviving son, John, duke of Lancaster. As a reward for her services, after her marriage to Chaucer Philippa received an annuity of ten marks charged on the Exchequer. To this income was added, in June 1367, the sum of 20 marks a year granted to Chaucer himself as a yeoman in the King’s household. He was given livery at the Wardrobe at Christmas 1368 and Whitsun 1369 (on which latter occasion he was listed among the ‘esquiers de meindre degree’), and both he and his wife were issued with mourning attire to wear at Queen Philippa’s funeral a few months later. He was to remain an esquire of the King’s household for the rest of the reign, being for some of the time (1371-3) assigned to the chamber. The people whom Chaucer encountered in the royal households and the preoccupations of his fellow courtiers offered inspiration for his earliest poems, while it was those who moved in courtly circles who formed his principal audience. His first major work, The Book of the Duchess, was inspired by the death in 13682 of Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, and was a tribute alike to the chivalrous love of John of Gaunt for his lady and the poet’s own affection for her. It is not necessary to assume that he wrote it with the intention of presenting it to Lancaster in order to win his patronage (although this may have been an outcome). After Queen Philippa’s death, Chaucer’s wife joined her sister in the duke’s household, there to remain for the rest of her life, among her duties being the supervision of Gaunt’s children (soon to include, besides his legitimate offspring by the duchess Blanche, the three sons and a daughter who, born to Philippa’s sister while she was the duke’s mistress, assumed the name of Beaufort). It is quite likely that the royal letters of protection Chaucer received with effect from June to September 1370 were issued to enable him to accompany John of Gaunt’s entourage to Aquitaine. Before August 1372 his wife was granted an annuity of £10 for attending on Lancaster’s new duchess, Constance of Castile; and in June 1374 Chaucer himself received a retainder of the same amount, expressly granted in consideration not only of his own services to Duke John, but of Philippa’s devotion to the duke’s late mother and to his present consort. Many years later the poet, in deference to the duchess Constance, was to speak in The Monk’s Tale of the ‘pitous deeth’ of her father Peter I, the ‘glorie of Spayne’. That Chaucer’s wife was highly regarded within the ducal household is quite clear, for she was to be admitted to the confraternity of Lincoln cathedral in February 1386 in the illustrious company of Lancaster’s sons, Henry, earl of Derby, and John Beaufort (her own nephew), along with Sir Thomas Swynford (another nephew) and Robert Ferrers (husband-to-be of her niece, Joan Beaufort). Then, too, the duke made a munificent gift of £51 8s.2d. for various expenses and donations at the time one Elizabeth Chaucer (thought to be Philippa’s daughter) took her vows in Barking abbey. (Indeed, Lancaster was so generous in this respect as to have caused speculation that Elizabeth was his own child.) Thomas Chaucer, Philippa’s son, benefited greatly from being reared alongside his privileged Beaufort cousins.
Geoffrey himself seems not to have spent much time with Lancaster’s entourage, nor to have been favoured by him to any marked degree, doubtless because his first duty was to attend on the duke’s royal father. A customary service performed by esquires in the Household was to act as royal envoys overseas: thus, for example, in July 1368 Chaucer had received a licence to cross the Channel at Dover. The purpose of this journey is not stated, but it is possible that he visited Prince Lionel (since 1362 duke of Clarence), then in Lombardy. However, he is not actually recorded as travelling to Italy until the winter of 1372-3, after being appointed to treat with the authorities at Genoa regarding the assignment of a special sea port in England for the use of Genoese merchants, a matter arising from the commercial treaty recently signed between the two states. Chaucer extended his journey to Florence, on ‘secret business’ for Edward III (most likely for negotiations with the Bardi and other Florentine banking houses for further loans). Interesting speculations arise as to what literary associations Chaucer may have made on this visit, such as the possibility that he met Petrarch or Boccaccio. There can, be no doubt of the influence of Italian literature on his own work, both in its metrical development and in a marked change in his choice and treatment of subject matter. Petrarch’s version of the story of Griselda was to be put to use in The Clerk’s Tale, while Boccaccio’s writings formed the bases most notably for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale; indeed, in his very design for The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer was possibly influenced by the plan of Boccaccio’s Decamerone. During his visit to Florence, too, Chaucer’s interest in Dante’s works, in particular the Divina Commedia, was undoubtedly stimulated.
The spring of 1374 saw the start of a new phase of Chaucer’s career. Still a ‘King’s esquire’ (as such he received in April a grant for life of a pitcher of wine every day), he was even so from then on less frequently at Court, owing to his appointment as controller of wool customs in the port of London. Probably in anticipation of this appointment (made in June) he had in the previous month taken on a lease from the civic authorities of a dwelling above the gate of Aldgate, to hold for life. (In the event, the lease was to be surrendered shortly before he was dismissed from the controllership.) Chaucer was to hold that office for 12 1/2 years, a considerably longer period than was usual for customs officials in London. A well-known passage from The House of Fame is considered to be an autobiographical allusion to the way his days were spent during this period:
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon
And, also domb as any stoon
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fuly daswed ys thy look
And lyvest thus as an heremyte
Although thyn abstynence ys lyte.3
Evidently, the post was by no means a sinecure, and although Chaucer was four times granted special licences to appoint deputies to carry out his duties, in each case it was only so that he might be freed for royal employment elsewhere. Towards the end of 1375 Chaucer benefited from Edward III’s patronage with the grant of two wardships: that of Edmund Staplegate, son of an important merchant of Canterbury, who was to claim the privilege of acting as butler at the coronation of Richard II by virtue of his tenancy of the manor of Bilsington (Kent), on the ground that he had purchased from Chaucer his marriage and the custody of his lands for £104; and that of William Soles, from which he may well have profited in a similar way. Another useful windfall came in July 1376 with an award of the sum of £71 4s.6d. accrued from the sale of certain wools forfeited to the Crown for evasion of customs duties. But Chaucer’s office, annuities and wardships were nothing out of the ordinary for one of Edward III’s esquires to receive as perquisites; indeed, other of his fellows were more highly favoured by the King.
In December 1376 Chaucer accompanied Sir John Burley to an unknown destination on the King’s ‘secret business’, for which he was paid wages of ten marks, and in February following he crossed to Flanders with Sir Thomas Percy, travelling on from there to Paris and Montreuil before returning home in April, when he received at the Exchequer £20 for ‘divers voyages’. A second journey to France, lasting from April to June, apparently to take part in negotiations for peace between the two countries and perhaps also to discuss the marriage of the King’s grandson and heir, Richard of Bordeaux, to a French princess, meant that he was absent from Court when Edward III died. Under Edward’s successor, Chaucer continued to be styled ‘King’s esquire’, but there is no evidence that he ever received livery as a regular member of Richard’s household. Both his 20 marks’ annuity and his wife’s ten marks’ annuity, granted them by Edward, were confirmed by the new King in March 1378, and, in the following month, Chaucer’s daily pitcher of wine was commuted into a money payment equivalent to his fee of retainder. From that May to September he was absent on another journey to Italy as a royal envoy to Bernarbo Visconti, lord of Milan, and the latter’s son-in-law, the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood. (In The Monk’s Tale he was to describe Visconti as ‘God of delit and scourge of Lumbardye’.) While he was overseas on this occasion John Gower, another poet with Kentish connexions, acted as one of his attorneys. Gower was to be immortalized in his friend’s Troilus and Criseyde which contains the dedication:
O moral Gower, this book I directe
To the and to the, philosophical Strode,
To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to correcte
Of youre benignites and zeles goode.
And Gower was to compliment Chaucer in an early version of his Confessio Amantis, although there is evidence that the two grew critical of each other’s work in later life.
Earlier in 1378 Chaucer had stood surety at the Exchequer for Sir William Beauchamp (afterwards Lord Abergavenny), and in May 1380 the latter, following his promotion as chamberlain of the Household, headed the list of witnesses to an unusual document whereby the poet secured a release from Cecily Champaigne of all legal actions concerning her ‘raptus’. (The Champaigne affair has excited considerable debate as to whether this was a case of criminal rape or seduction, or merely involved the abduction of a young person, possibly in order to make an advantageous marriage.) Chaucer was well supported on that occasion; for, besides Beauchamp, two other knights of the King’s chamber, Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville, attested the deed. Evidently, prominent figures at Richard II’s court not only knew Chaucer, but admired his poetry. Clanvowe’s own poem The Boke of Cupide was modelled on Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, and began with a quotation from The Knight’s Tale, while Sir Lewis Clifford KG conveyed to Chaucer verses by the Frenchman, Eustache Deschamps, praising the English poet’s skill as a translator (presumably in reference to his version of Le Roman de la Rose).4 Furthermore, it was to Clifford’s son-in-law, Sir Philip de la Vache*, that Chaucer addressed his short poem Truth. But the poet cannot exactly be described as one of the circle of these knights; the evidence does not show him so intimately and continuously connected with them as they were with one another.
Chaucer’s whereabouts at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in June 1381, when the Essex rebels entered the City of London through Aldgate, beneath his own dwelling-place, are not known. The ensuing riots and murders found no mention in his poetry save in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, in a comic climax to the account of the pursuit of the fox who has seized the cock:
So hydous was the noyse, a, benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Strawe and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Felmyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.5
In February 1385 Chaucer petitioned for a royal licence to execute his office of controller of customs by deputy on a permanent basis, and the fact that this was granted by warrant of the King’s chamberlain, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, suggests that it was approved by Richard II personally. Chaucer’s appointment eight months later as a j.p. in Kent has prompted speculation that he was engaged in royal employment in the county during the summer, perhaps working at one of the King’s manor-houses such as Eltham or Rotherhithe.6 J.p.s usually lived in the shire where they officiated, and, more important, residence was undoubtedly an understood qualification for election as a Member of Parliament, which, for Chaucer, was to follow just a year later. Yet no trace has been found in the records of any property in Kent which Chaucer actually occupied. The indications of his whereabouts associate him steadily with Greenwich — ‘therne many a shrew is in’ as he quipped in the prologue to The Reeve’s Tale — and that he did indeed live in the county during his time on the bench is implied in the legal proceedings of a suit for debt brought against him in 1388, when the action was continued in Kent after a sheriff of London returned that Chaucer possessed nothing in his bailiwick by which he might be attached. Chaucer’s ties with Richard II’s court remained strong: after the death of the King’s mother, Princess Joan, in August 1385, he was among those specially issued with mourning robes at the Wardrobe. And it must be assumed that his association with many of the King’s intimates was an important factor in his only election to Parliament in the autumn of 1386. As a j.p. of a year’s standing, he was probably known to many of the electors, but he seems not to have been conversant with the gentry of the shire, and should perhaps be regarded as an outsider to the community. Records of Chaucer’s personal activities at Westminster substantiate his presence there while the Parliament was in session: he gave evidence in the Scrope-Grosvenor trial in the refectory of Westminster abbey on 15 Oct.; five days later he received instalments of his annuities at the Exchequer; and on 13 Nov. he was present in the great hall in the court of common pleas to stand surety for Simon Manning of East Greenwich (thought to have been his brother-in-law). On 28 Nov., the day of Parliament’s dissolution, he was paid his reward as controller of the wool customs, but a week later, after more than 12 years’ service, he surrendered his office. The exact reason for his retirement is a matter for speculation. Early in the session the Commons had presented a petition requesting that all the controllers in the ports of the realm who held their posts for life should have their appointments annulled, because they were oppressing the people with their extortions. The King replied that the persons involved would be examined by his Council and those found guilty of reprehensible behaviour would be removed. There is, however, no evidence that any such investigation was conducted; nor that Chaucer was dismissed as a consequence. But no doubt political factors played their part. In the course of the Parliament the government had been taken over by a commission headed by the duke of Gloucester; it inevitably followed that the King’s men would lose their posts in favour of the commission’s nominees. It may be pertinent to note that, under Chaucer’s controllership, payments to Gloucester of £500 a year assigned on the London customs had fallen considerably into arrear, whereas in the two years following his dismissal the duke’s annuity was paid in full.
While Chaucer was never ‘ful ofte tyme’ knight of the shire, as his son Thomas was later to be, his situation and career were such that he was always in a good position to have cognizance of parliamentary affairs. Thus, in The Parlement of Foules, which was in all probability composed before 1386 (perhaps in 1382-3), the debates among the birds do not, as in French poems of the same genre, reflect the discussions of a council maintained to advise a King or nobleman, but are more analogous to the proceedings of an English Parliament. However, Chaucer apparently made no attempt to mirror exactly the form of a parliamentary debate, nor to turn the work into a political satire by making the birds represent particular persons of note or political factions. Nature’s opening speech corresponds to the address given by the chancellor at the opening of Parliament to explain the reasons why the Lords and Commons had been assembled, and certain of the phrases used have a parliamentary flavour, but at most Chaucer does no more than make a witty reference to the institution. It has been argued that the poet’s experience in the Parliament of 1386 had literary repercussions in his Troilus and Criseyde, which was completed at the latest early in the following year. At the beginning of the fourth ‘book’ of the poem, a Parliament is held at Troy to determine whether a Greek plan for exchanging prisoners would be acceptable, and, here diverging noticeably from his sources, Chaucer shifts responsibility for the decision to exchange Criseyde on to the shoulders of those assembled. It is the Parliament’s decision, not that of the King or the princes of Troy, which causes the subsequent political catastrophe as well as Troilus’s personal tragedy. That the decision was made not by the whim of a mob, which the King might later ignore, but by an effective political body, is clear from what Troilus says himself: even if he asked the King his father to allow Criseyde to stay so that he could marry her, it would be to no avail,
For syn my fader, in so heigh a place
As parlement, hath hire eschaunge enseled,
He nyl for me his lettre be repeled.
Trojan policy was decided by common assent, after ‘every lord and burgeys’ had had their say, therefore
... it moste ben and sholde
For substaunce of the parlement it wolde.7
In a lighter vein we may recall Chaucer’s franklin of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, perhaps modelled on one of the Members of the Commons whose acquaintance he made in 1386 (though clearly not based on his own companion from Kent, the obscure William Bettenham). This hospitable Epicurean, whose principal concern was to enjoy the dishes on his table, nevertheless performed, with panache, the administrative tasks incumbent on one of his class:
An housholdere, and that a greet, was he;
Seint Julian he was in his contree ...
At sessiouns ther was he lord and sire
Ful ofte tyme he was knyght of the shire ...
A Shirreve hadde he been and a contour
Was nowher swich a worthy vavasour.8
In July 1387 Chaucer took out royal letters of protection as about to proceed across the Channel in the company of Sir William Beauchamp, then acting as captain of Calais. It may have been his association with Beauchamp, the brother of Thomas, earl of Warwick, who as one of the Lords Appellant took control over the government in the following year, which enabled Chaucer to emerge apparently unscathed from the attack made on members of Richard II’s household in the Merciless Parliament. Nevertheless, on 1 May 1388, while that Parliament was in session, he gave up his two royal annuities, amounting to 40 marks, so that one John Scalby might have them. The transfer (perhaps a bargain to raise capital) was made at a time when the King’s gifts of annuities were being questioned in Parliament; and it had been enacted that all annuities containing the clause ‘vel quousque ... ordinandum’ should be automatically made void if the beneficiaries had received subsequent grants from him (as applied in Chaucer’s case). However, it was not long before compensation was forthcoming: in July 1389, two months after Richard II asserted his independence and the Appellants withdrew from the administration, Chaucer was made clerk of the works at the palace of Westminster, the Tower of London and a number of royal residences elsewhere, a responsibility for which he was to receive a daily wage of 2s.(that is £36 10s. annually); and, a year later, he was appointed to supervise repairs to the King’s chapel of St. George at Windsor castle as well. No doubt his experience as controller of the customs helped to fit him for an office in which accounting played so important a part, and also gave him intimate knowledge of the works to be undertaken at the Tower and wool wharf. The clerkship usually fell to the kind of clerics who were higher civil servants; Chaucer and his immediate predecessor were the only two laymen to hold the position in the 14th century. In September 1390, during his term of office, he was assaulted and robbed at ‘le Foule Ok’ in Deptford, thereby losing his horse, personal property and more than £20 of the King’s money. He may well have been taking the money from Westminster to Eltham for repairs to the royal residence there, and in this context we may recall the instructions given by Alceste to the poet in one of the versions of the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women:
And whan this book ys maad, give it the quene,
On my byhalf, at Eltham or at Sheene.9
Chaucer probably owed his sinecure appointment as forester of North Petherton, made about this time, to the King’s kinsman, Sir Peter Courtenay†, then in occupation of the bailiwick of the forests in Somerset by royal grant, for Courtenay as constable of Windsor castle would inevitably have had dealings with him when organizing repairs to the chapel. Chaucer left office as clerk of the works in 1391. In February 1394 he was rewarded for his good service with an annuity of £20 charged on the Exchequer (a pension which, however, did not equal the annuities he had relinquished six years earlier); and that he remained in Richard II’s employment, though now in an undefined way, is clear from the unusual wording of royal letters of protection granted him in May 1398. These, lasting for as long as two years, noted that he was ordered, upon ‘urgent and arduous affairs of the King’, to visit divers parts of the realm. In October the same year he was granted for life a tun of wine to be taken yearly from the royal prisage in the port of London. It was in the course of the 1390s, the last decade of his life, that Chaucer was also working on his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, a miscellany of romances, bawdy stories, saints’ lives and serious tracts in prose, all bound together and brought ingeniously into relation with one another. This, however, he never finished.
Chaucer had retained contacts with the house of Lancaster even after his wife’s death in 1387. He had continued to receive his Lancastrian annuity, his son Thomas was John of Gaunt’s retainer, and his sister-in-law Katherine rose to be duchess of Lancaster in 1396. That year’s financial accounts of the duke’s son and heir, Henry, earl of Derby, mention a purchase of fur for a scarlet gown for Chaucer, and they also contain a reference to the latter having acted as agent for the earl in London, for the transfer of the sum of £10. These associations bore fruit after Richard II’s deposition. On his coronation day, 13 Oct. 1399, Henry granted Chaucer, as ‘King’s esquire’, an annuity of 40 marks as reward for his good service, at the same time confirming the £20 annual pension previously granted him by Richard. The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse, a witty petition for preferment, dates from this period. In it the poet echoes the official proclamation made at Henry’s accession by addressing him as
... Conquerour of Brutes Albyon
Which that by lyne and free eleccion
Been verray Kyng.
Evidently, the new King was willing to be gracious at small cost to the famous elderly poet, who was brother-in-law to his stepmother.
A few weeks afterwards, in December 1399, Chaucer took out a lease for 53 years on a house in the garden of the lady chapel of Westminster abbey, and it was probably there that he died, tradition has it on 25 Oct. 1400. He was interred in the abbey, which had but recently become a burial place for courtiers and royal officials at the instance of Richard II. The graves of Richard’s friends had been made, close to those of members of the royal house, in the chapels surrounding the high altar; and the poet’s was at the entrance to that dedicated to St. Benedict. Chaucer’s will, if he ever made one, has not survived, but the final passage of The Parson’s Tale, in which he asked his readers to pray for his soul, is in the form of a last confession. In it, he retracted his secular works, including ‘the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne’, preferring to fasten his mind on ‘the translation of Boes [Boethius] of Consolation and other bokes of legendes of Seintes, and of omelies and moralite and devotion’.
Long before his death Chaucer had been recognized by his contemporaries as a poet without peer in this country. Only a few years afterwards, Thomas Hoccleve was to eulogize him as the ‘flour of eloquence ... this landes verray tresor and richesse’, and ‘the firste fyndere of our faire langage’, going so far in his admiration as to have Chaucer’s portrait painted on the manuscripts of his own Regement of Princes, so that the outward appearance of the master should not be lost to posterity. Chaucer himself was careless of reputation, or at least modest to a fault: as he said of himself in The House of Fame,
Sufficeth me, as I were ded,
That no wight have my name in honde.
I wot myself best how y stonde.10
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. Chaucer Life Recs. ed. Crow and Olson, from which all the information in this biography is taken, unless indicated otherwise below.