Conditions During the Age of Chaucer
The age of Chaucer witnessed many changes in many fields. It was an age in which the old order was yielding place to the new. and the Reformation and Renaissance influences were playing havoc with medieval beliefs and habits of mind. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the reign of Edward Ill, lived through that of Richard II, and died in the year after Henry IV ascended the throne. His life thus covers a period of glaring social contrasts and rapid political change. There were three medieval institutions — Feudalism, the Church and Chivalry — and all these three institutions decayed and disintegrated during the period.
Discontent Among the People
It was an age of discontent and unrest. The Hundred Years War, no doubt, made England a united nation and a colonial power, but it also imposed unheard hardships upon the people.
The prolonged conflict resulted in increased burdens for the people and the peasantry groaned under the heels of crushing taxation. The matters were made worse by the Great Plague known as the Black Death, which swept over England when Chaucer was only nine years old.
It decimated the population of England. Labour was scarce, there was no demand for good grains, and so the price of agricultural products fell rapidly. “The price of labor rose, the price of bread fell.” Efforts were made to control wages by legislation. Wage-earners tried to evade legislation by migrating to distant comers of the country. The result was instability, indiscipline, and lawlessness.
The discontent of the people was universal. While the people were starving and wallowing in deplorable misery, the king and his courtiers were leading a life of gaiety and luxury. The extravagance and corruption of the king and his court were fully exploited by Watt Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, under whose leadership the people rose in open revolt against the king and his tyranny. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 burst like a volcano and shook the very foundations of English society.
Corruption in the Church
Corruption was also rampant in the church. The dissatisfaction of the people with this state of affairs was intense and there were a number of spirited souls who could not but raise their voices against this sorry state of affairs. John Wycliffe and others freely denounced the growing corruption in the church, and through their teachings sought to revive the real Christianity. Thus the ideas of the Reformation were already becoming a force in the age of Chaucer.
The age of Chaucer was an age of transition in which medieval habits of mind were giving place to the modem spirit. The medieval mind blindly accepts the existing customs and beliefs. A very different spirit was rising in the age of Chaucer. People were asserting their right of free thought and independent judgment.
In other words, the democratic spirit was growing. The Peasants’ Revolt did much to weaken the feudal system and to give self-confidence to the people. Agriculture no longer remained profitable, and this marks the beginning of the end of the Feudal system.
In the Middle ages, the castles or manor houses of powerful and rich barons and lords were the centers of life. The barons received land from the king in exchange for military service. They provided him with a fixed number of soldiers whenever asked to do so. The barons, in their own turn, kept a part of the land for themselves.
The rest of the land they let out to tenants in exchange for specified service. One of the services they were required to render was the cultivation of the farm of their lord. When necessary, they were also required to render military service.
Rise of the Modern Spirit
After the Black Death, farming no longer remained a profitable occupation since farm production became cheap. Labour, on the other hand, was scarce and its price soared high. The result was that the peasants or serfs refused to cultivate the farms of their respective barons.
They demanded money wages. Sometimes exorbitant wages were asked for. If the barons refused to pay such higher wages, often the tenants deserted their farms and migrated to those remote parts of the country where they hoped for better payment. Many of them took to lawless activity.
The barons appealed to the king for help. The Parliament was made to pass certain labor laws that fixed the maximum wage which a farmer could lawfully demand. This wage-freeze further increased the discontent of the peasants. Certain agitators or adventures posed as the leaders of the people and went about preaching social equality, from one part of the country to another.
The result was that the dissatisfied peasants from every comer of the country rose in arms against the king and nobility and marched towards London, They captured the capital and meted out death and destruction on every side. However, the revolt was suppressed by the bravery and fearlessness, as well as treachery, of the boy King, Richard II.
All the demands of the peasants were first granted and the peasants were persuaded to disperse. But the king did not keep his promise and a reign of terror was let loose. The leaders of the revolt were hanged, and the peasantry was crushed with an iron hand. The retainers of barons spread terror in the countryside.
Peasants’ Revolt and its Impact
However, the Peasants’ revolt succeeded, to a very great extent, in its purpose. The barons had learned a lesson. Money wages gradually became the order of the day. The farmers no longer remained slaves, tied to their barons and to their strips. They became freemen working for wages mutually agreed upon. This resulted in the gradual weakening and disintegration of the feudal system. The authority of the king was weakened while that of the Parliament grew apace.
Other factors also weakened the Feudal system. A new and prosperous merchant class was coming into prominence as a result of foreign trade and power was passing into its hands from the hands of the Feudal Lords. Corruption did much to weaken and hold of the church, which as an ally of the king and barons. The transition from the medieval to the modem was accelerated by the spirit of new leaming. This was the spirit of the Italian Renaissance which was to reach its full flowering in England, only during the Age of Queen Elizabeth.
Decay of Medieval Chivalry
The age of Chaucer also saw the decay of the ideal of chivalry. Medieval chivalry was a literary and poetic ideal. It implied women worship or excessive devotion paid to women. The lover was the servant of his mistress. It implied the devotion of a true lover to his lady. This ideal also implied love of honor, both personal and religious, as well as one’s own country. Inspired by this ideal, a true Knight would lay down even his life.
Chaucer’s Knight has fought many battles in remote far off countries for the sake of his country and religion. His son, the young Squire, represents the degeneration of the medieval ideal of chivalry. He dresses well and sings and dances well. In this way, he hopes to win the favor of his lady. But he does not go to any wars for the sake of his religion and country.
However, many women may be glorified in poetry, but their position in real life was inferior. Child-marriage was the order of the day, and marriage was a matter of contract between the parents of the bride and the groom. Love had nothing to do with marriage. Girls who refused to obey the wishes of their parents were severely beaten until they obeyed. Jokes at the expense of women are frequent in the literature of the period.
The age of Chaucer is thus an age of intense social, political, religious and literary activity. It is the meeting ground of the Medieval and the Modem, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Old and the New, and the Religious and the Secular.
Geoffrey Chaucer — the Father of English poetry and who is so much the greatest figure in the English literature of the fourteenth century that he has thrown all his contemporaries completely into the shade, was born about 1340 in London. His father did a flourishing business as a merchant vintner.
No information is available about his childhood. But it is evident from the wide and varied scholarship which characterizes his writings that he must have enjoyed the advantages of liberal education. At seventeen he received a court appointment as page to the wife of the Duke of Clarence, Edward Ill’s third son. In 1359 he was with the English army in France, where he was taken prisoner, but he was soon ransomed and returned to England.
Sometime after this, he married and became valet of the king’s chamber. From that time onward he was for many years closely connected with the court. He was often entrusted with diplomatic missions on the continent, two of them being to Italy. He was thus brought into direct touch with Italian culture in the days of the early Renaissance and may even have met Petrarch and Boccaccio, to the former of whom he makes pointed reference in the prologue to the ‘Clerkes Tale’.
During these years he received many marks of royal favor, and for a time, sat in Parliament as knight of the shire of Kent. But after the overthrow of the Lancastrian party and the banishment of his special patron, John of Gaunt, he fell on evil days and with approaching age felt the actual pinch of poverty.
Fortunately, on the accession of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, things mended with him, and the grant of a royal pension at once placed him beyond want and anxiety. At Christmas, 1399, he took a long lease of a house at Westminster, which suggests that he still looked forward to many years of life. But he died before the next year was out, and was buried in that part of Westminster Abbey which afterward came to be known as the Poets’ Corner.
In studying Chaucer’s work it is important to remember that his education as a poet was two-fold. Part of it came from literature, but part of it came from life. He was a thorough student, and in one of his autobiographical passages (in The House of Fame), he tells us how after a long day over his accounts. he would go home at night and there pore over his beloved volumes till he was completely dazed. But he was not a mere bookman, nor was he in the least a visionary.
Like Shakespeare and Milton, he was, on the contrary, a man of the world and of affairs. He had traveled much; he had seen life; his business at home and abroad brought him into intimate relations with people of all sorts; and with his quick insight into the character and his keen eye for everything dramatic and picturesque and humorous, he was precisely the king of poet to profit by such varied experiences. There is much that is purely bookish in his writings; but in the best of them, we are always aware that he is not merely drawing upon what he has read, but that his genius is being fed by his wide and deep knowledge of life itself.
It is usual and convenient to divide Chaucer’s literary career into three periods, which are called his French, his Italian and his English period, respectively. His genius was nourished, to begin with, on the French poetry and romance which formed the favorite reading of the court and cultivated society during the time of his youth. Naturally, he followed the fashion, and his early work was done on French models.
Thus, besides translating portions at least of the then-popular Roman de la Rose, he wrote, among other quite imitative things, an allegory on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s wife, which he called ‘The Boke of the Duchesse’ (1369), and which is wholly in the manner of the reigning French school.
Then, almost certainly as a direct result of his visits to Italy French influences disappear, and Italian influences take their place. In this second period (1370-84), Chaucer is the disciple of the great Italian masters, for ‘The House of Fame’ clearly owes much to Dante while ‘Troylus and Criseyde’, by far his longest single poem, is based upon, and in part translated from, Boccaccio’s ‘Filostrato’. To the close of this period, the unfinished ‘Legende of Good Women’ may also be referred.
Finally, he ceases to be Italian as he had ceased to be French and becomes English. This does not mean that he no longer draws freely upon French and Italian material. He continues to do this to the end. It simply means that, instead of being merely imitative, he becomes independent, relying upon himself entirely even for the use to which he puts his borrowed themes. To this last period belong, together with sundry minor poems, the ‘Canterbury Tales’, in which we have Chaucer’s most famous and most characteristic work.
The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer is the mouthpiece of his age. He discards the convention of dream and fantasy and realistically, without any exaggeration, mirrors the social, economic and religious conditions of his age. Unlike other contemporary poets, he expresses his age not in fragments but as a whole. His chronicle of his age is complete, comprehensive and all-inclusive. He is as much a social chronicle of the England of his age as Froissart is that of France.
The Canterbury Tales are a collection of stories fitted into a general framework which serves to hold them together. Some of them were certainly written earlier, and before the framework had been thought of, but we put the ‘Tales’ as a whole into Chaucer’s third period, because it was then that most of them were composed, and that the complete design shaped itself in the poet’s mind. That design explains the title.
A number of pilgrims on the eve of their departure meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, where, as it chances, Chaucer himself is also staying; and as he too is bent on the same errand, he is easily persuaded to join the party. Pilgrimages were very popular in the fourteenth century; they were often undertaken, as here, in companies, partly for the sake of society by the way, and partly because of the dangers of the roads; and, it must be admitted, their prevailing spirit was anything but severely devotional.
Sometimes the pilgrims went, as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath had already done, as far afield as Rome and Jerusalem; but one of the favorite expeditions nearer home was to the shrine of the murdered St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury; and thither these particular pilgrims are bound.
The jolly host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, gives them hearty welcome and a supper Of his best — good victual and strong drink to match; and, after they are satisfied, he makes this proposal: that to beguile the tedium of the journey each member of the party shall tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back; that he himself shall be the judge; and that the one who tells the best tale shall be treated by all the rest to supper on their return to the Tabard Inn. The suggestion is applauded, and these Canterbury Tales are the result.
All this is explained in the Prologue, after which Chaucer proceeds to introduce his fellow-pilgrims. Though limited to what we may broadly call the middle classes, the company is still very comprehensive. The military profession is represented by a knight, a squire, and a yeoman; the ecclesiastical, by a prioress, a nun (her secretary), a monk, a friar, a summer (a summoner of those charged under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical counts), a pardoner (or seller of pardons,) a poor person, and a Clerk of Oxford, who is a student of divinity.
Then we have a lawyer and a physician, and running down the social scale, a number of miscellaneous characters whom one cannot well classify a franklin (freeholder of land), a merchant, a shipman (sailor), a miller, a cook, a manciple (caterer for colleges), a reeve (land steward), a haberdasher, a carpenter, a weaver, a dyer, a tapycer (tapestry maker), a plowman (the poor parson’s brother), and a well-to-do west country cloth maker names Alison, who, however, is better known as the Wife of Bath.
In his descriptions of the most prominent of these people Chaucer’s powers are shown at their very highest, and this Prologue is a masterpiece of insight, the sureness of touch, fine discrimination, and subtle humor.
All the characters are individualized, yet their thoroughly typical quality gives unique value to Chaucer’s picture of men and manners in England of his time.
As according to program each of the pilgrims Was to have told four stories, the poet’s plan was a very large one. He lived to complete a small portion only, for the work, as we have it, is merely a fragment of twenty-four tales. Yet even as it stands its interest is wonderfully varied, for Chaucer is guided by a sense of dramatic propriety, and so the tales differ in character as widely as do those by whom they are told. Thus, to take extreme examples, we have the chivalrous epic of the Knight and the Clerk’s beautiful account of the patient Griselda’s wifely devotion balanced in strange contrast by the coarse farcical stories of the Miller and Reeve.
It should be noted that in no case are the tales original in theme. Chaucer takes his raw material from many different sources, and the range of his reading and a quick eye for anything and everything which would serve his purpose wherever he found it, are shown by the fact that he lays all sorts of literature, learned and popular, Latin, French, and Italian, under contribution. But whatever he borrows he makes entirely his own, and he remains one of the most delightful of our storytellers in verse.
His finest work as a narrative poet is the ‘Knight’s Tale’, which in accordance with the law of dramatic propriety is heroic in subject, chivalrous in sentiment, and romantic in tone. Based on the ‘Teesside’ of Boccaccio, it tells of two young cousins of royal blood, named Palamon and Arcite, who, when Duke Theseus makes war against their city of Thebes, are taken captive by him, and imprisoned in a tower of his palace. From their window one May morning, they chance to see Emily the beautiful sister of the Duke’s wife, walking in the garden beneath; whereupon their life-long friendship is shattered in an instant and they become rivals in love. Arcite is presently ransomed, but unable to endure banishment from Emily returns to Athens in disguise and finds a menial place in the Duke’s service. Then, after several years Palamon makes his escape.
The cousins meet in a duel, but are surprised and interrupted by the Duke and his train as they ride out to hunt. Theseus dooms them both dead on the spot, but relenting on the petition of the ladies spares their lives on condition that each shall collect a hundred knights, and that the case shall be decided in a great tournament, the hand of Emily being the victor’s prize. In this tournament, Arcite falls, and the story ends with the nuptials of Palamon and Emily. Brilliant in itself, this fine tale is also intensely interesting as the embodiment of that romantic spirit which, as we have seen, prevailed in the court circles of Chaucer’s youth.
Nominally it is a tale of the heroic age of Greece, but as yet no notion existed of what we call historic truth, and everything in its characters, sentiments, the setting is mediaevalised. It is in fact an idealized picture of the fast vanishing middle ages and is steeped in the atmosphere of chivalry. Its account of the tournament, its presentation of the principles of knightly ethics, and the vividness with which it portrays the chivalrous conception of love, are among the features of it which we should especially note in studying it from the historical point of view.
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