[PDF Notes] What are the Characteristics of Chaucer’s Age ?

This was the age, when the seeds of modern age were being entrapped. Unrest and transition were the common features of this age. Geographical discoveries and the revolt against medieval traditions led towards the process of transition which dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century. In the religious world there was a serious outburst of unorthodoxy.

Wycliffe and his followers were making an organized attack upon the Church. In town and country alike, doctrines were being preached which a future age was to familiarize under the name of Protestantism.

The Church was not the only medieval institution attacked. The working classes were stirring and had begun to display a spirit of independence hitherto unknown. A period of economic discontent was followed by an open revolt a – revolt which marked the downfall of the manorial system.

But there were constructive as well as destructive forces at work. Political and military events were contributing to the growth of a National consciousness, the former in a negative manner by minimizing the extent of Papal influence, the latter, more positively, by stimulating the pride of the English people.

Characteristics of Chaucer’s Age

John Wycliffe: An Evidence of Chaucer’s Age:

Among the great contemporaries of Chaucer, few deserve more attention than John Wycliffe, for he was one of the first Englishmen to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church; and in so doing he anticipated Martin Luther by nearly one hundred and fifty years. Like his famous successor, he came to the conclusion that clerical pretensions had raised a barrier between man and God; and both by pen and in pulpit he endeavored to break it down. Free access to the Bible was what the spiritual life required.

1. Question Mark on Church Supremacy:

The prestige of the Church was, in truth, beginning to decline. Politically, intellectually, and spiritually its influence had diminished. Until the reign of John it was the clergy more than any other class who ensured good

Government For they had held the balance between the despotic inclinations of the King on the one hand and the anarchical tendencies of the nobility on the other. But for reasons which we need not here discuss, this patriotic policy had been hindered during the thirteenth century. Then came the birth of Parliament, and the people began to fight their own political battles.

2. Environment Oriented Towards Economy:

The fourteenth century opened brightly for Industrial England. There had been no repetition of the anarchy of Stephen’s reign when so barren was the land that – to use the words of a contemporary writer- “you might as well have tilled the sea”. The material prosperity of the working classes had steadily increased. Both with regard to food and clothing, the English laborer was better off than his fellows on the Continent. He had, moreover, another and important reason for self-congratulation which requires a word or so of explanation. For one cannot follow the trend of economic events during this period without referring, however briefly, to the curious medieval system of land tenure.

3. Progressive Spirit:

Final illustration of the progressive spirit animating society at his time may be found in the growth of national sentiment. What were the conditions which favored that development? It will perhaps be remembered that in dealing with the psychology of the Teutonic people, a prominent trait was found to be their power of adaptation. Since this pliability enabled them to readily absorb the characteristics of races wholly alien to themselves, it is not surprising that this fusion was still more rapid when different branches of the parent stock encountered one another.

4. The Hundred Years’ War:

The Accession of Edward III marked the beginning of that struggle with France always known as “The Hundred Years’ War”- a title which explains it. To narrate the causes which occasioned this mighty conflict would be unnecessary; for we are only concerned with historical events in so far as they have some direct bearing on the literature of the period. What does call for notice is the brilliant start which England made.

In the very year in which Chaucer was born occurred the great sea fight off Slays. This battle has a twofold interest. It is the first of an almost unbroken series of victories which lasted nearly twenty years and included the familiar name of Crecy and Poitiers; further it is one of the earliest of those naval successes which in the years to come Blake and Nelson were to make so typically English. But in the importance of its results, Slays cannot, of course, compare with Crecy- the battle which Froissart has described in such vivid and picturesque language.

5. Degradation of Pope’s Status:

In the fourteenth century, the Papacy met with a series of misfortunes, of which the English kings were not slow to avail themselves. The temporal over lordship of the Pope was definitely repudiated.

Nor was this all. He lost also the important advantage of being able to fill the bishoprics with his own nominees. By these and other measures the Parliaments of Edward III and his successors began that process of separation from Rome which the work of Henry VIII completed. Such then, briefly, are the main political

and social tendencies of the time in which Chaucer and Langland lived and wrote-a transitional age, with the old feudalism slowly losing its pristine vigor and utility, with a great Church rich in its traditions of intellectual and moral guidance, exhibiting signs of decadence and enfeeblement; yet with no clear ideals as yet, or only dimly lined ideals, as to what form of social reconstruction was to take their place.

Geoffrey Chaucer:

The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but most scholars fix it for 1340. Geoffrey’s early life was spent in London during his most plastic years, and the impressions of the city and its teeming life were likely to make an ineffaceable impress upon his imagination. Chaucer symbolizes, as no other writer does, the middle ages. He stands in much the same relation to the life of his time as Pope does to the earlier phases of the eighteenth century, and Tennyson to the Victorian era; and its place in English literature is ever more important than theirs, for he is the first great in English; the first to make English composite language a thing compact and vital.

Background and the First Phase of Chaucer:

The name ‘Chaucer’, itself, it has been shown stands for chafe aired (i.e. a “chafe wax”), and suggest a foreign lineage. It is probable that his grandfather was one Robert le Chaucer, collector of wine dues in the Port of London. On his death the widow remarried Richard le Chaucer.

His stepson John was a vintner like his stepfather, acting also as King’s Butler to Edward ill, whenever that monarch crossed the water. John Chaucer married Agnes, niece of Hugo de Compton; and it is probable that Geoffrey Chaucer was their son. In 1357 Chaucer was appointed to the household of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, and wife of Lionel, third son of Edward III, and from items of her expenditure that have survived, we gather that she provided the youth with red black breeches, and shoes.

Two years later he was captured by the French, while on a military expedition to France, and the King paid a ransom for his release. He became subsequently a personal attendant of the King – a “beloved valet,” as he was called, or as we should say today, a gentleman in waiting.

From this position he ascended to that of esquire, where he was concerned with helping to entertain the court and any strangers that might come along. In this way his social qualities were sharpened, a characteristic that left ample impression on his later poetry.

On Diplomatic Mission:

From 1370 to 1378 he went on diplomatic mission abroad-during the later part of the time to Italy. These journeys, especially the Italian ones, affected in marked fashion his literary work. During this period he obtained from the corporation of London a life lease of the Gatehouse at Algae, where he lived for a number of years. Later he became comptroller of customs in port of London.

End of the Journey:

We pass now to the last period of Chaucer’s life. His fortunes at this time declined. He lost Court favor in 1386 and became relatively poor. For the next few years he was however more free to turn to literary work. A slight improvement in his position occurred in 1389 when he was made clerk of the Works: looking after the repairs and alterations at the palace of Westminster, the Tower, and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. In 1391, however, he was superseded in these activities, and lived on pensions for the remaining years of his life. A literary hint sent to Henry IV, entitled

Complement to his Purse, had facilitated matters in this directions. His great work The Canterbury Tales was written almost entirely during the later years of this period, when he made splendid use of his knowledge of men and affairs. He died in 1400 and was buried in St. Benet’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. During the last few months of his life he had taken a house in the garden of St. Mary’s, Westminster. In 1868, a stained glass window, symbolizing his life and work, was erected by Dean Stanley, over against his grave.

Literary Works:

(1) A prayer to the virgin, A. B.C. which is declared by many to be his first extant poem.

(2) He made a translation of famous ‘Roman de la Raze’.

(3) Before 1369 he had struck out a line of graceful and tender sentiment in the Complaint to Pate.

(4) It was followed by the Book of the Duchesse in 1369 – the Duchesse being the wife of Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt. On returning to England from Italy he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, 1380-3, founded on the Filtrate of Boccaccio.

(5) He wrote also the story of Griselda (The Clerk’s Tale). The story of the patient Griselda had fascinated Petrarch, and became immeasurably popular. Indeed it had been seized upon by the ballad writers, in the same way as Guy of Warwick; and the unhappy fortunes of this peasant girl excited the widest interest. Like King Competes, Walter, Marquis de Laune weds a peasant girl whom he had met while on a hunting expedition. The marriage turns out unhappy, the Marquis treats her with brutality; and ultimately, shorn of her rich clothes, she is sent back to her father.

(6) The Legend of Good Women deals with the poet as wishing to make reparation for past errors. He regrets having translated the Romance of the Rose he upbraids himself for the stigma he has cast on women in his picture of Cressida. So here he vows he will treat of true and good women.

His choice of good women is not free from critical exception, as he elects to lead off with Cleopatra, who despite her charms and brilliance can scarcely pose as “a model of all the virtues!” Yet perhaps he realizes this. Anyhow, he adds this whimsical comment: “Now, ere I find a man so true and stable, and will for love his Death so freely take, I pray God let our heads never ache.”

(7) Some of his works are in English such as The Canterbury Tales, The Miller, The Reeve, The Cook, The Wife of Bath, The Merchant, The Friar, The Nun Priest, and The Pardoner. The Prologue is supposed to have been written in 1388.

English Literature and Chaucer:

According to Emerson “A great poet, who appears in illiterate times, absorbs into his sphere all the lights which is anywhere radiating. Every intellectual jewel, every flower of sentiment, it is his fine office to bring to his people, and he comes to the value his memory equally with his invention.

He is therefore little solicitous whence have been derived; whether through translation, whether through tradition, whether by travel in distant countries, whether by inspiration; from whatever sources, they are equally welcome to his uncritical audience. But Chaucer is a huge borrower… He steals by this apology- that what he takes has no worth where he finds it and the greatest where he leaves it.

It has come to be practically a sort of rule in literature, that a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled therefore to steal from the writings of others at discretion. Thought is the property of him who can entertain it, and of him who can adequately place it. A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”

This Emerson’s appeal is a sound criticism. The supreme question after all is, not where does the tap-root of genius draw its nourishment, but what is the culminating expression of that nourishment?

What blossom is forthcoming? Genius has an alchemy of its own that can transmute the base metals; it may steal on occasion, into pure gold. Such was the way of that other splendid borrower, Shakespeare; and Chaucer is less unblushing in his literary thefts than him.

The Canterbury Tales:

The Canterbury Tales place us in the heart of London.

There is a disquisition on table manners in the Prologue. Each guest brought his own knife, but, for common use there were no forks. At the beginning and end of dinner every one washed his hands obviously desirable proceeding. On to the rush-strewn floor the guests flung the bones and scraps of meat.

The difficulties presented by gravy were met by the meat- which was served by a carver at a side table – being laid upon thick slices of bread which absorbed the gravy. Every guest had a napkin, and the proper use of the napkin was an elaborate ritual in itself.

The picture of the average merchant has a familiar ring about it:

“A Merchant was there with a forked bred, in mutely, and hype on horse he sat;

The beaver hat still survives in the “topper,” and the business instincts of the gentleman express themselves with no radical difference today.

Chaucer accepts the current class divisions between “gentles” and “churls.” Neither he nor Langland ignore distinctions of rank; and although rich and poor, cultured and rude jostle one another in the procession, yet he is well aware that some of the Tales might displease the “gentles” among his readers as they offended the “gentles” in the poem. Yet he adds with the tolerance of the artist: “… I must rehearse

The Doctor of Physic:

In Chaucer’s Doctor of Physic, we have an excellent picture of the medieval medicine man, with his herbal remedies and his knowledge of astronomy or what we should call astrology. In common with the physicians of the day, Chaucer indicates that his medical studies had drawn him away from his profession: “His studied was but lintel on the Bible.” Chaucer gives a sly dig at him for his fee-loving propensities:

“For gold in physic is a cordial, Therefore he loved gold in special.” The supposed medicinal value of the metal, so common not only in the Middle Ages by a century or so later, is here touched upon.

Such was the London in which Chaucer was brought up.

The Form of the Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer was a representative poet. His realism is seen in “The Canterbury Tales” which is represented as a mirror to the life of the age. In the field of literature, Chaucer worked as a social chronicler.

Of this work, about 17,000 lines are in verse, with two stories – The Tale of Milieus and The Parson’s Tale-in prose. The verse consists of rhymed couplets. It forms a compromise between the old and new prosody. He does not care for alliteration or dogged rhyme, and chooses the form of “heroic” verse with rhymed couplets and five accented syllables.

Knight’s Tale:

In the Knights ‘Tale, we have much more than a typical romance; we have a presentment with rare artistic skill of the finer elements in medieval romance, avoiding, as the author of Gawain does, many of the vain repetitions and dull meanderings found in so many of them, and the whole clarified and sharpened by that sure sense of character, of which Chaucer alone of his Age possessed the secret.

We have in Sir Thomas the baser and more foolish kind of romances, burlesqued; the course, the pungent humor of the Fabliau; and the wrangle with the Summoned jostle with tales of pathos, such as the Clerk’s.

Tragedies and Comedies:

There are tragedies as well as comedies in the tales: some are grave and subdued, others ablaze with color and merriment; but the thread of honest and kindly laughter runs through them all, serious and gay alike.

There is nothing of the dreamer about Chaucer-nothing of the stern moralist and social reformer. Like Shakespeare, he makes it his business, in The Canterbury Tales, to paint life as he sees it, and leaves other to draw the moral.

John Gower:

John Gower was a person of shrewd business instincts with a large amount of landed property in East Anglia. Some authorities have inclined to prove him as a lawyer, but M.G.C. Macaulay, his most exhaustive biographer, suggests that he made his money as a merchant; judging by the way in which he speaks of “City”, and the number of merchants with whom he was in personal communication.

However that may be, it is clear that about middle life he is concerned entirely with the management of his estates and the writing of books. His sympathies were aristocratic and conservative, and the Peasants’ Revolt horrified him exceedingly, not, merely as an upholder of law and order, but as a landlord with vested interests.

(1) Gower’s Literary Works:

His chief works were Speculum Hominids, written in French; the Vex Clam antis, written in Latin; and the Confession Mantis, written in English. The first is a poem of some 30,000 lines, somewhat in the nature of a Morality. The Vices and Virtues are classified, and a picture of society is drawn. For its improvement Gower looks to the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Historically, the work is of small value, but, as in Langland and Chaucer, there are interesting sidelights on city life.

(2) His another work the Vex Clam antis written in Latin was occasioned by the Rising of 1381. It consists of seven books; the first book describing the wilderness in which this medieval Baptist cries.

In later books he pictures the common people as having lost their reason and being transformed into wild beasts. Poor Tyler is suggested as an elephantine boar, later on as a jay who has learnt to speak (Watt = a jay in A. S.) Throughout the poem, politics and theology are intermingled, the later books dealing with man’s responsibility towards man.

The author divides people into three classes; clerk, soldier, and ploughman; he criticizes the clergy as freely as Langland does- a significant testimony to the corruption of the Medieval Church. And the satirical touch that wealth and wisdom for them are not synonymous, is worthy of Carlyle.

(3) The Confession Mantis written in English was completed about 1390, and was written in the days when he believed in Richard. Later on, he substitutes the name a Henry IV for Richard II.

“This book upon amendment sends unto mine own lord Which of Lancaster is Henry named?”

It is clear, from the drift of the poem, that the writer is opposed to social reform. He uses a number of stories with the definite intention of telling the people what are the rudiments of good morality. In telling the stories he is clear and straightforward, more so than Chaucer, whose delight in humanity causes him to dally with certain sides of his subject. Gower points the moral “to adorn a tale”; and if the result is less satisfying, less rich in dramatic material, than with the author of The Canterbury Tales, yet the poem has merit all its own like the merit of Pope’s didactic verse.

(4) His last writing, his Trait, deals with love and marriage, and consists of a number of ballads exhibiting many of the qualities shown in his earlier work, with greater power of technique though perhaps less imagination in treatment. It was written about 1397, possibly on the occasion of his second marriage, and is addressed to married people.

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