Chaucer as the Chronicler of the society of his time.
“His work reflects his century not in fragment but completely” Discuss.
Discuss Chaucerian literature as a picture of contemporary society.
Show Chaucer as a representative poet of the Age.
“The Prologue: A microcosm of 14th century English society” Discuss.
Write a note on Chaucer’s Realism.
Answer: Chaucer represents as no other writer does, in The Middle Ages. He stands in much the same relation to the life or his time as Alexander Pope does to the earlier phases of the 18th century and Tennyson to the Victorian era. And Chaucer’s place in English literature is even more important than theirs for he is the first great English writer, the first man to use “naked words” in English, tlie first to make our composite language a thing compact and vital.
Chaucer lived in an age which was epoch-making in social, religious and political and economic fields. The victories of the English Army in the continent made Calais an English colony and the nation prosperous. The disaster which came after the victories helped in ripening the English mind. Under these circumstances, Chaucer is the perfect exponent of his age. He has painted with great fidelity, the body and soul of the society of his time. His poetry reflects the 14th century not in fragments but as a complete whole. He is the most comprehensive soul, and he takes a full view of the wide and variegated life of his times.
Chaucer represents his own Age and holds the mirror to the life of his time. He is as truly the social chronicler of England in the late 14th century as Froissart is the political and military chronicler of France during the same period. Other poets of his Age direct their gaze and attention to only certain limited aspects of the times, for example the unknown author of Pearl shows us the mysticism of refined minds; Wyclif, the surging wave of religious reformation, Gower, the fear produced in the wealthier class by the peasant rising, Barbour, the break between the literature of Scotland and of England and patriotic Scottish poetry, and England, the corruption in the church and the religious order. Each of these authors throws light only one aspect of 14th century life. It is Chaucer’s greatness that he directs his comprehensive gaze not on one aspect only of his time, but on all its aspects. In fact, he is the wide and capacious soul and he takes a fuller view of his times more than anyone else could have taken in those days. Chaucer gives us a direct transcription of reality and a true picture of daily life as it was actually lived in its most familiar aspects.
Chaucer symbolizes the Middle Ages, and his world is medieval. But beneath the medievalism the influence of the Renaissance is already at work. And the poet stands at the dividing of ways, linking himself with the old world of medievalism that was passing away and heralding the birth of the new age that was peeping at the horizon. And that is why Chaucer is a medieval poet, not simply a modern one, and he represents fully the medieval spirit that was dominant in the literature of his time. He belonged to the medieval world, in action and spirit, and knew medieval life in its various aspects. His multiplicity of occupations enabled him to grasp the numerous experience connected with medieval life and activities. His literal’)’ art is found to transmit much his experience and knowledge of medieval life and literature.
Medieval Chivalry of the age
Chaucer’s poetry reflects the chivalric spirit of the medieval times. The Age of Chaucer marked the highest development of medieval civilization in England. In fact it was the midsummer of English chivalry. Although several changes in the life and thought of the people were taking place in some respects Chaucer’s England was still characteristically medieval and nowhere is the conservative feeling more strongly marked than in the persistence of chivalry. This “strange amalgam of love, war and religion i.e. chivalry, so far from exhibiting any signs of decay” reached perhaps its fullest development at this time.
In fact, Chaucer did believe in medieval chivalry which stood for love, heroism and religion. The Canterbury Tales andTroilus and Criseyde, his notable works are examples of medieval chivalry. Both these works present the stories of a chivalrous and adventurous life and the tenderness of a warm and devoted love. Here they seem to bear the tradition of medieval romances, although they are made of a better literary stuff.
The 14th century was in the fascinating hold of chivalry and knighthood. In the Prologue to the Canterbury TalesChaucer reflects the fading chivalry of the. the Middle Ages represented in the person of the Knight and the chivalry of his own times reflected in his son, a young squire. The old knight is a brave warrior, and like many chivalrous knights Of the Middle Ages has signalized his chivalric career by fighting in seven mortal battles all for the defense of religion The Knight’s Tale is full of medieval chivalry, though it deals with the exploits of Greek heroes in their proper setting. The knight is not only the first in the social order but also the first in the medieval hierarchy. It is true that the knighthood was losing its importance under the new trends of the age, and the new class was represented by his son the squire, who was a modern young man, full of zest for life. He shows the change that was coming in the later half of the 14th century.
Artistic and Realistic Presentation of the society or Realism
Chaucer is essentially a realist. He was the first poet who revealed the truth about life as he saw it. Before him, the writers were dreaming dreams and weaving allegories. But Chaucer, in the last stage of his literary career, kept away such artifices. He did not record the superficial view of the life of his own day. His acquaintance with life was wide and comprehensive. Because of the catholic mind, he painted life as he saw it; and he saw it with so observant an eye, that his epoch has become one of the vivid epochs of history, comparable even to the age of Cicero and the age of Shakespeare.
In fact Chaucer’s realism primarily comes out in the setting of The Canterbury Tales. The pilgrimage to the holy shrine by a group of pilgrims belonging to all classes of society except the aristocracy and the riff-raff provides Chaucer a fitting opportunity to present realistically a picture of the real world of 14th century life. The different pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales represent different professions. For example, the Doctor, the Sergeant of Law, the Oxford Clerk and Friar embody certain treats which characterize their respective professions. The war like element is represented by the knight, the squire and the young man. The Ploughmen, the Miller, the Reeve, and the Franklin typify agriculture. The Wife of Bath, the Weaver, the Dyer embody industry and trade, The Merchant and the Shipman personate commerce.
Chaucer as a realist presents us in The Canterbury Tales the pulsating life of the common people. His pilgrims like their actual counterparts in 14th century England, seldom care for, to refer to political events of their day. They are blissfully ignorant about these events. Chaucer’s pilgrims talk of “their purse, their love affairs or their private feuds.” Their vision is confined to the occurrences within their parish. This is the typical vision of the common people, which is realistically presented by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.
The extraordinary fidelity of his portraits, and careful minuteness with which he lays on tint to heighten their effect, is the main characteristic of Chaucer’s realism. He presents the variegated life of his Age faithfully and realistically.
Chaucer: Social Historian and Realist
In his tales, Chaucer realistically presented the political conditions of his times. He referred to the Peasants’ Revolt where hands of peasants armed with weapons turned out from villages, blundering, looting, burning, and killing the aristocracy of the age – in the Clerks Tale and in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Chaucer represents some of the new trends which were becoming evident in his own age. In this period the common people were gaining prominence and affluence. Extravagance in food and dress became more and more prominent. The craftsmen and manufactures began to flourish in this age. The 14th century in England witnessed the rise of the rich and prosperous merchants and tradesmen. They carried splendid business with European countries and were laying the foundations of England’s industrial prosperity. Small traders and handicrafts men grew into power and began to behave like aldermen and well to do citizens. The importance and self-consciousness of the smaller tradesman and handicrafts men increased with that of the merchants. The middle class people began to come into prominence and contested seats for Parliament. Chaucer makes reference to the rise of trader’s and merchants during his times and his Merchants is the type of the merchants that were gradually coming into prominence. The Merchants, signifies the changed conditions of Chaucerian society.
New Attitude to Religion
During the Age of Chaucer, there was a serious outburst of unorthodoxy. Wyclif and his followers were making all organized attack upon the church. Chaucer also refers to the religious conditions of his times by creating the religious condition of his times by creating the ecclesiastical characters in The Prologue. He does not strike pointedly at corruption among the clergyman of the times, but he certainly presents realistically the fatty degeneration that had set in religious life of the times. Chaucer does not attack like Wyclif, but certainly he cannot tolerate the growing corruption, laxity of discipline and love of luxury prevailing among the clergy.
Chaucer’s attitude to the Church as seen in The Prologue is one o of tolerance and good humour in contrast to the bitter cynicism and indignation shown in the writings f his contemporaries like Gower and Langland. There is little of this in Chaucer. On the other hand, he seems to be quite at ease in the co any belonging to the church. He frankly recognizes the abuses of the church and denounces them in an implicit manner. But he nowhere shows any zeal for reformation. His picture is free from the coloring of any Personal prejudices. If he had painted the picture of vice and depravity, he has also drawn the portrait of the poor parson who possesses true Christian virtues. The poor parson’s portrait is one of the most highly idealized of the company at the Tabard, and Chaucer has invested him with many of the characteristics of the Wycliffites.
Conditions of Woman
Chaucer throws light on the condition of women of his time in The Prologue as well as in The Canterbury Tales. There was a striking contrast in the attitude to women of the Church on the one hand and of the courtly poets on the other. To the former, woman was the source of all evil. It was she who, in the person of Eve had brought sin and death into the world. Thus she was a temptation and snare, therefore to be rigorously avoided by all who would lead virtuous life. On the other hand, exalted woman to the position of a goddess—a prize to be won by the knight who served her with devotion and loyalty. In The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Chaucer also tells that there are two kinds of women in the world in all ages. He tells this by depicting two women – the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. The Prioress is the embodiment of sweetness, beauty, grace and sweet manners. On the other hand, the Wife of Bath is a combination of ugly features and shrewish qualities. One we may call a goddess, and the other, a necessary evil. Both of them are present in all ages. Sometimes the Prioress predominates and sometimes the Wife of Bath.
Chaucer like Shakespeare works on a wide canvas and draws various types of women from immature girls to mature matrons, from faithless butterflies to devoted wives. He also portrays timid ladies and ideal wives. Chaucer’s female characters are types as well as individuals. Every woman represents a particular class or category. At the same time, she has some individual traits also.
Rise of the Lower Classes
Chaucer represents faithfully the lower classes who were then rising and they began to create the noise in the social life of the age. In The Clerk’s Tale Chaucer refers to the “Stormy people”, their levity unfaithfulness, untruthfulness, indiscretion, and garrulity. The laborers clamored for their rights and defined the authority of the landlord. But there were in the midst of this upsurge among the servants and labors, a class of conservative workmen who were still devoted to their old ways of living, and paying respect to the authority. Chaucer’s Ploughman faithfully represents the class of conservative laborers who were devoted to their masters and were faithfully performing the normal course of activities.
As a story-teller in verse, Chaucer is not only a master of narration but also a grand observer of life and society around him. As he narrates his tale in simple and melodious verses, and creates his characters in a diverting manner, he presents, toc, the life of his time and scrutinizes its specific features with lively and realistic touches. In fact in The Canterbury Tales, which is the crowning glory of Chaucer’s literary achievement, is found fully exhibited his power to represent the 14th century English society in its different aspects, ecclesiastical a secular, with a rare artistry. ThePrologue to the Canterbury Tales is found to testify to his close association with the English life of his time. Truly speaking, it remains a great social document of 14th century English life in verse. In The Prolouge Chaucer represents adequately different strata of the English community under the feudal hierarchy. He presents the different characters to represent different classes of the medieval English society. His triumph lies in his power of observation and analysis that make his characters typical of the age or society that represent. Here Chaucer stands without any parallel among his predecessors and contemporaries.
In conclusion, we can say that, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales alone bears out Chaucer’s power to observe and examine, in a vivid and lively mean, the English society of the 14th century. Above all, colors, variety, interest and charms, given out by Chaucer through his portraits of pilgrims and other characters, make the whole social picture of his age clear, emphatic and engaging. Chaucer appears to be a spectator of life not a dry moralist: like Langland. He loved life, viewed it as it was, revolving, revealing and renovating and accepted with a spectator’s disinterestedness, the changes that were taking place in the world around him. He was definitely conscious of the necessity of such changes and felt, perhaps that the old order and practices, however good and useful they might be, need be changed, lest they should grow corrupt and infirm and clog the very flow and vigor of life.