The age of Chaucer: the period of Ruin and Reconstruction.
The salient features of the age of Chaucer or the late 14th century.
Social, Religious, Economic and Political background of the age of Chaucer.
Answer: The fourteenth century brightly opened for industrial England but the glory was overtaken by plague, the Black Death (1348-49), as a result most of the laborers escaped death, left the country. The prestige of the Church was, in truth, beginning to decline, and, then came the birth of parliament. The literary moment of the age clearly reflected by five famous poets, in which, Langland, voicing the social discontent, preaching the equality of men and the dignity of labor; Wyclif, giving the Gospel to the people in their own tongue; Gower criticizing the vigorous life and plainly afraid of its consequences; Mandeville romancing about the wonders to be seen abroad; and Chaucer, sharing in all the stirring life of the times, and reflecting it in literature as no other but Shakespeare had ever done.
There is little to record about the prose which includes Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe; Wyclif’s Bible, but Mandeville’s Travels and Travellers keeps its place as the first English prose classic. The greatest gift of the age was “the heroic couplet Chaucer introduced into English verse, the rhyme royal he invented”, and its example is The Canterbury Tales which shows, Chaucer’s Age is still characteristically medieval, marked the persistence of chivalry. In this Age, for the first time, the major poets wrote poetry in the native language, and make it a rival to the dominant French; as a result, literature came to be written which was read alike by all the classes of the literate. Chaucer write:
Through me men gon into that blysful place
Of hertes hele and dedly woundes cure;
Through me men gon unto the welle of grace
“With Chaucer was born our real poetry” (Arnold) who has “a fondness for long speeches and pedantic digression…long explanation when none were necessary” (Albert). Chaucer was much occupied by divers official duties which all helped to increase his knowledge of humanity and of affairs, and gave him that intimate, sympathetic acquaintance with men and women which was the raw stuff of his final accomplishment—The Canterbury Tales, an immense work of one hundred and twenty-eight tales, which covers the whole life of England, through 32 characters. The Canterbury Tales (c.1387-1400) is a cycle of linked tales told by a group of pilgrims who meet in a London tavern before their pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales had been essentially romantic, and so had never attempted to the study of men and women as they are so that the reader recognizes them, not as ideal heroes, but as his own neighbors. The work ends with a kindly farewell form the poet to his reader, and so “here taketh the makere of this book his leve” In The Canterbury Tales it appears that he did not have a very high opinion of woman, but we find a remark respectable to women when he says about the Squire, Knight’s son:
“and born him well, as of so litel space;
in hope to standen in his lady grace.”
The critics have found the seed of the novel in The Canterbury Tales which is famous for the ten syllable rhyming couplets, which makes him, as Ward points out, “the first painter of character” that is why “Chaucer is to be regarded as English first story-teller as well as first modern poet,” cries W.J. Long. The Canterbury Tales had been essentially romantic, and so had never attempted to the study of men and women as they are so that the reader recognizes them, not as ideal heroes, but as his own neighbors. The work ends with a kindly farewell form the poet to his reader, and so
“here taketh the makere of this book his leve.”
The most important thing that Chaucer did for English poetry was to bring a healthy realism to it. He brought poetry closer to nature, and or reality. He began as his contemporaries did, with dream visions and allegorical works. But gradually he reached the conclusion that nothing could be as nature herself. He comes to look upon the world of man. He set about reproducing it in his work. He became a painter of life in words. Chaucer’s broad and humane vision of life helped him in his portraiture of life. Sympathizing with the follies of men and women of average standards, he never riles and rants in his writings. He lets his character’s speak for themselves. He is the pioneer of that set of people who look upon the world with indulgent, tolerant and amused eyes.
Chaucer is by universal consent the first great English humorist. His is a healthy humour like that of Shakespeare and Fielding that depends for its effect on strong commonsense. Chaucer had a sound mind and was capable of playing with humanity. He had so much sorrow in his life that could get down in his heart and weaken his intelligence or dim is sight. Chaucer had a free and open mind. He was not afraid, on occasion, of questioning even the ways of God to men. In The Knights’s Tale, he shows his poignant awareness of the baffling problem of pain and evil in the world. Chaucer found English a dry, uncouth brick but left it marble—beautiful and full of liquid luster. He found it a dialect and made it a Standard English of his own day. In his works, he appears as a great picture painter, as an observer whose aim was to see and not to reform, and as a representative of his century.
He was a great reformer and observer of men and had an extraordinary insight into human nature. “Chaucer sees things”, writes Legouis, “as they are, and paints them as he sees them.” He saw all sorts of men—rogues, hypocrites and posers—and had a soft corner in his heart for all of them. All of Chaucer’s characters are true to life and cause willing suspension of disbelief. Chaucer considered the first poet of English literature. In his poetry we find the great qualities of simplicity, clarity, melody and harmony which arouse fellow feeling and brotherly affection in the heart of the reader. Chaucer’s characters are a description of eternal principles” says Blake. They are not for one age but for all ages.
The world which Chaucer had created in the geography of imagination is as fresh as ever or even fresher than the world in which we live. There is no doubt about Chaucer’s help to dramatist. Shakespeare is borrowing of a plot for one of his complicated plays, Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida. Chaucer’s The Prologue may be described as “a novel of miniature”. It has an unrivalled richness and variety in the characterization, an abundant fund of humour, and a full representation of real life. He had the sweetness of Goldsmith, the compassionate realism and humour of Fielding, and the high chivalrous tone of Scott. Thus we follow the point of Chesterton, that “There was ever a man who was more of a Maker than Chaucer.” Shakespeare and Milton were the greatest sons of their country; but Chaucer was the father of his country.
The period of ruin and reconstruction:
With the Norman conquest of England in 1066, began a new era in English history. The Normans represented the civilization of France which was the literary centre of all Europe. They brought them law, culture, and the strong impulse to share in the great world’s work which attracted the Anglo Saxon. They turned naturally to the cultured and progressive Norman’s for their literary models. The Normandy imported into England a French literary ideal which seemed to crush the native tongue which was spoken by the down-trodden and the vanquished race. But so tenaciously the common people clung to their own speech that in the end their native tongues absorbed almost the whole body of French words and became ultimately the language of the whole of England. This new language was quite different from the language used in Anglo-Saxon poetry; it was colored by the French ideals.
No knowledge of Anglo-Saxon poetry is needed in order to read Chaucer. But it is impossible to understand Chaucer’s work without knowing something of the French poetry which preceded it. The most important contribution of the Normans conquest can be traced in the aristocratic note in Middle English poetry. The old Anglo- Saxon democratic spirit ended with and there began a literature of high society from Chaucer.
The historical background (1350-1450):
The age of Chaucer includes the greater part of the reign of Edward III and the long French wars associated with his name; the accession of his grandson Richard II and the revolution of 1399, the deposition of Richard and the foundation of the Lancastrian dynasty. From the literary point of view of greater importance are the social and intellectual movements of the period; the terrible plague called the Black Death, brining poverty, unrest and revolt among the peasants, and the growth of the spirit of inquiry, which was strongly critical and found expression in the teachings of Wycliff and the Lollards, and in the stern denunciations of Langland.
Chaucer lived and wrote in a world where the half shadows of the middle Ages were only beginning to scatter before the clear dawn light of modern culture. He, first of all men in England , reacted to the stimulation and emancipating movement called the renaissance, as it stirred in the souls of men beyond the Alps and his artistic consciousness escaped from the rigid bonds, the cramping conventionalities, the narrow inhibitions of the Middle Ages. From them he emerged into the world of living actualities that he exhibits in his powerful later word. In this sense, he was far beyond his age.
Literary Features of the Age:
The standardizing of English: With Chaucer, the egglish language has shaken down to a kind of average – to the standard of the East Midland speech, the language of the capital city and of the universities –French and English have amalgamated to form the standard English tongue, which attains to its first full expression in the works of Chaucer.
A Modern Note: The real modern note begins to be apparent at this period. There is a shaper spirit of criticism, a more searching interest in man’s affairs and a less childlike faith in, and a less complacent acceptance of the established order. The vogue of the romance, though it has by no means gone, is passing and in Chaucer it is derided. The freshness of the romantic ideal is being superseded by the more acute spirit of the drama which even at this early time is faintly foreshadowed. Chaucer is regarded as the first English short story teller and the first English modern poet. He attempted the mew realistic task of portraying men and women as they were and described them so that the readers could recognize them as their own acquaintances. His characters have, for this reason, become a permanent treasure of English literature. Chaucer is the first great English writer to bring the atmosphere of romantic interest about the man and woman and the daily work of one’s own world which is the aim of nearly all modern literature, another more modern feature is that the age of anonymity is passing away with Chaucer.
Prose: The age of Chaucer begins the foundation of an English prose style. Earlier specimens of prose were mainly experimental or purely imitative. But in the prose works of Malory and Mandeville, we get both original and individual prose. The English tongue is now ripe for a prose style. The language is setting to a standard; Latin and French are losing grip as popular prose mediums and the growing desire for an English bible exercises as steady pressure in favor of a Standard English prose.
Scottish Literature: For the first time in English literature, in the person of Barbour (1316-1395) Scotland supplies a writer worthy of note. This is only the beginning, for the tradition is handed on to the powerful groups of poets of the succeeding period.
Chaucer’s England was predominantly medieval in spirit. And the most outstanding feature of the Middle Ages was chivalry. Chaucer’s Knight is a true representative of the spirit of medieval chivalry which was a blend of love, religion, and bravery. He has been a champion of not fewer than fifteen battles in the defense of Christianity. Even the tale that he tells is, like him, imbued with the spirit of medieval chivalry-though nominally it has the ancient Greece for its setting and has for its two important characters the two Greek heroes who’are said-to have flourished in an unspecified ” period of history. Chaucer almost completely medievalizes this story to enable us to have a taste of the chivalry of his age.
We must, however, point out here that the spirit of true chivalry was breathing its last in the age of Chaucer. The Knight, in fact, is a representative of an order which was losing its ground. The true representative of the new order is his young son, the Squire, who has as much taste for revelry as for chivalry. He is “a lover and a lusty bachelor.” He is singing and fluting all the day and love-struck as he is, he sleeps “no more than a nightingale.” However, we justly wonder if he could have proved himself another Arcite or another Palamon. At any rate, he truly represents the marked change in the world of chivalry which was fast coming over the age of Chaucer.
A Cross-section of Society:
The Canterbury Tales gives us a fairly authentic and equally extensive picture of the socio-political conditions prevailing in England in the age of Chaucer. Each of the thirty pilgrims hails from a different walk of life, and among themselves they build up an epitome of their age. Each of them is a representative of a section of society as well as an individual. Even though the chief events of the age are not dealt with exhaustively by Chaucer, the thirty pilgrims provide us with the taste of life in the England of Chaucer. Chaucer was not a reformer but a delineator of reality. Legouis remarks “What he has given is a direct transcription of daily life, taken in the very act,” as it were, and in its most familiar aspects. Chaucer’s work is the most precious document for whoever wishes to evoke a picture of life as it then was….”
Trade, Commerce, and Craft:
For the first time in history the trading and artisan sections of society were coming to their own in the age of Chaucer. With the fast expansion in trade and commerce merchants had become prosperous and so had the craftsmen whose goods they traded in. We are told by Chaucer that the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Tapicer were well clothed and equipped. Their weapons were not cheaply trimmed with brass, but all with silver. They were so respectable-looking that
Well seined each of them a fair burgeus
To sitten in a yeldhalle, on a days.
They were no longer despised by the nobility. The Merchant is a typical representative of his class, and the forefather of Sir Andrew Freeport, the merchant who is a member of the Spectator Club as delineated by Addison and Steele in the eighteenth century. His character-sketch as done by Chaucer exudes prosperity. He is always talking about the increase in his income and knows well how to make money in the market place. The countrymen and merchants have always made the two most common objects of humour and satire. But Chaucer lets the Merchant go without much of satire, perhaps in recognition of the importance that his class had gained in his age.
Chaucer’s portrait of the Doctor of Physic is fairly representative of the theory and practice of medicine in his age. The knowledge of astronomy (rather astrology) was a must for a physician as all the physical ailments were supposed to be the consequences of the peculiar configurations of stars and planets. That is why the Doctor, too, was, “grounded in astronomy.” However, ”his study was but little on the Bible” perhaps because he had not much time to spare from his professional studies. He had amassed a fortune in the year of the great plague and was keen to keep it with him:
He fcepte that he wan in pestilence.
For gold in phisik is a cordial,
Therefore he lovede gold in special.
Gold in the form of a colloidal solution was administered as a tonic fay physicians. However, Chaucer has a sly dig at the Doctor in his reference to his gold-loving nature.
Through the ecclesiastical characters in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer constructs a representative picture of the condition of the Church and her ministers in his age. The Church had then become a hotbed of profligacy, corruption, and rank materialism. The Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Prioress are all corrupt, pleasure-loving, and materialistic in outlook. They forget their primary duty of guiding and edifying the masses and shepherding them to the Promised Land. The Monk is a fat. sporting fellow averse to study and penance. The Friar is a jolly beggar who employs his tongue to carve out his living. The Prioress bothers more about modish etiquette than austerity. The Pardoner is a despicable parasite trading in letters of pardon with the sinners who could ensure a seat in heaven by paying hard cash. The Summoner is, likewise, a depraved fellow. These characters fully signify the decadence that had crept into the Church. The only exception is the “Poor Parson’ apparently a follower of Wyclif who revolted against the corruption of the Church.
The New Learning:
Though Chaucer’s age was essentially medieval, yet some sort of a minor Renaissance was evident. The French and Italian contemporary writers influenced considerably the course of English literature and thought. Petrarch arid Boccaccio, the two Italian writers, in particular, exerted this influence. The seeds of humanistic culture of the ancient Greeks, too, can be identified in this age. The “Clerk of Oxenford” represents the “new” intellectual culture which had percolated .into fourteenth-century England long before the Renaissance. He is an austere scholar who prefers twenty books of Aristotle’s philosophy on his bed’s head to gay clothes and musical instruments.