On the eve of publication day, looking for some distraction, I’ve been scanning through the earliest visual depictions of Geoffrey Chaucer, trying to refine a physical description of the poet. We have little direct evidence concerning Chaucer’s appearance, of course, aside from his self-deprecating words in the prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas (put in the mouth of the Host):
He in the waast is shape as wel as I;
This were a popet in an arm t’enbrace
For any womman, smal and fair of face.
He semeth elvish by his contenaunce,
For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce.
The portrait from the Ellesmere manuscript (ca. 1410) shows a silver-haired fellow, pale of cheek and trim of beard, with a round face and a wryly angled brow over eyes tinged a dark brown. The portrait from Harley 4866, a manuscript possibly compiled under the supervision of Thomas Hoccleve, who may have known Chaucer personally, shows an older poet with a forked white beard, his eyes downcast and a bit tired (possibly from having to read all the Hoccleve on the page before him).
While it’s hard to say what Chaucer really looked like, then, we do know what he wore on his head: a do-rag. While Wikipedia erroneously claims that the “earliest uses of do-rags in history are [sic] found in 19th century Ethiopia,” the evidence of Chaucerian adoption seems unambiguous (to me, at least), and it explains a lot about Chaucer’s hip-hop sensibility and the more general urban aesthetic guiding his poetical invention. The guy lived over a London gate, after all, absorbing the urban vibe and the clamor populi for years on end. That Chaucer was still rocking a do-rag into his elde says a lot about the man’s sense of personal style and the brash, youthful irony of the Retractions, likely written late in his life.
Anyway–just some random Chaucerian thoughts and observations to share on the eve of The Great Unboxing of A Burnable Book.