Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
The characteristics of the fourteenth century
Its great events and characters
State of society in England when Chaucer arose
His early life
His intimacy with John of Gaunt, the great Duke of Lancaster
His prosperity
His poetry
The Canterbury Tales
Their fidelity to Nature and to English life
Connection of his poetry with the formation of the English Language
The Pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s views of women and of love
His description of popular sports and amusements
The preponderance of country life in the fourteenth century
Chaucer’s description of popular superstitions
Of ecclesiastical abuses
His emancipation from the ideas of the Middle Ages
Peculiarities of his poetry
Chaucer’s private life
The respect in which he was held
Influence of his poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century

A.D. 1340-1400.

The age which produced Chaucer was a transition period from the Middle Ages to modern times, midway between Dante and Michael Angelo. Chaucer was the contemporary of Wyclif, with whom the Middle Ages may appropriately be said to close, or modern history to begin.

The fourteenth century is interesting for the awakening, especially in Italy, of literature and art; for the wars between the French and English, and the English and the Scots; for the rivalry between the Italian republics; for the efforts of Rienzi to establish popular freedom at Rome; for the insurrection of the Flemish weavers, under the Van Arteveldes, against their feudal oppressors; for the terrible “Jacquerie” in Paris; for the insurrection of Wat Tyler in England; for the Swiss confederation; for a schism in the Church when the popes retired to Avignon; for the aggrandizement of the Visconti at Milan and the Medici at Florence; for incipient religious reforms under Wyclif in England and John Huss in Bohemia; for the foundation of new colleges at Oxford and Cambridge; for the establishment of guilds in London; for the exploration of distant countries; for the dreadful pestilence which swept over Europe, known in England as the Black Death; for the development of modern languages by the poets; and for the rise of the English House of Commons as a great constitutional power.

In most of these movements we see especially a simultaneous rising among the people, in the more civilized countries of Europe, to obtain charters of freedom and municipal and political privileges, extorted from monarchs in their necessities. The fourteenth century was marked by protests and warfare equally against feudal institutions and royal tyranny. The way was prepared by the wars of kings, which crippled their resources, as the Crusades had done a century before. The supreme miseries of the people led them to political revolts and insurrections,–blind but fierce movements, not inspired by ideas of liberty, but by a sense of oppression and degradation. Accompanying these popular insurrections were religious protests against the corrupt institutions of the Church.

In the midst of these popular agitations, aggressive and needless wars, public miseries and calamities, baronial aggrandizement, religious inquiries, parliamentary encroachment, and reviving taste for literature and art, Chaucer arose.

His remarkable career extended over the last half of the fourteenth century, when public events were of considerable historical importance. It was then that parliamentary history became interesting. Until then the barons, clergy, knights of the shire, and burgesses of the town, summoned to assist the royal councils, deliberated in separate chambers or halls; but in the reign of Edward III. the representatives of the knights of the shires and the burgesses united their interests and formed a body strong enough to check royal encroachments, and became known henceforth as the House of Commons. In thirty years this body had wrested from the Crown the power of arbitrary taxation, had forced upon it new ministers, and had established the principle that the redress of grievances preceded grants of supply. Edward III. was compelled to grant twenty parliamentary confirmations of Magna Charta. At the close of his reign, it was conceded that taxes could be raised only by consent of the Commons; and they had sufficient power, also, to prevent the collection of the tax which the Pope had levied on the country since the time of John, called Peter’s Pence. The latter part of the fourteenth century must not be regarded as an era of the triumph of popular rights, but as the period when these rights began to be asserted. Long and dreary was the march of the people to complete political enfranchisement from the rebellion under Wat Tyler to the passage of the Reform Bill in our times. But the Commons made a memorable stand against Edward III. when he was the most powerful sovereign of western Europe, one which would have been impossible had not this able and ambitious sovereign been embroiled in desperate war both with the Scotch and French.

With the assertion of political rights we notice the beginning of commercial enterprise and manufacturing industry. A colony of Flemish weavers was established in England by the enlightened king, although wool continued to be exported. It was not until the time of Elizabeth that the raw material was consumed at home.

Still, the condition of the common people was dreary enough at this time, when compared with what it is in our age. They perhaps were better fed on the necessities of life than they are now. All meats were comparatively cheaper; but they had no luxuries, not even wheaten bread. Their houses were small and dingy, and a single chamber sufficed for a whole family, both male and female. Neither glass windows nor chimneys were then in use, nor knives nor forks, nor tea nor coffee; not even potatoes, still less tropical fruits. The people had neither bed-clothes, nor carpets, nor glass nor crockery ware, nor cotton dresses, nor books, nor schools. They were robbed by feudal masters, and cheated and imposed upon by friars and pedlers; but a grim cheerfulness shone above their discomforts and miseries, and crime was uncommon and severely punished. They amused themselves with rough sports, and cherished religious sentiments. They were brave and patriotic.

It was to describe the habits and customs of these people, as well as those of the classes above them, to give dignity to consecrated sentiments and to shape the English language, that Chaucer was raised up.

He was born, it is generally supposed, in the year 1340; but nothing is definitely known of him till 1357, when Edward III. had been reigning about thirty years. It is surmised that his father was a respectable citizen of London; that he was educated at Cambridge and Oxford; that he went to Paris to complete his education in the most famous university in the world; that he then extensively travelled in France, Holland, and Flanders, after which he became a student of law in the Inner Temple. Even then he was known as a poet, and his learning and accomplishments attracted the attention of Edward III., who was a patron of genius, and who gave him a house in Woodstock, near the royal palace. At this time Chaucer was a handsome, witty, modest, dignified man of letters, in easy circumstances, moving in the higher ranks of society, and already known for his “Troilus and Cresseide,” which was then doubtless the best poem in the language.

It was then that the intimacy began between him and John of Gaunt, a youth of eighteen, then Earl of Richmond, fourth son of Edward III., afterwards known as the great Duke of Lancaster,–the most powerful nobleman that ever lived in England, also the richest, possessing large estates in eighteen counties, as well as six earldoms. This friendship between the poet and the first prince of the blood, after the Prince of Wales, seems to have arisen from the admiration of John of Gaunt for the genius and accomplishments of Chaucer, who was about ten years the elder. It was not until the prince became the Duke of Lancaster that he was the friend and protector of Wyclif,–and from different reasons, seeing that the Oxford scholar and theologian could be of use to him in his warfare against the clergy, who were hostile to his ambitious designs. Chaucer he loved as a bright and witty companion; Wyclif he honored as the most learned churchman of the age.

Geoffrey Chaucer Portrait

Geoffrey Chaucer Portrait

The next authentic event in Chaucer’s life occurred in 1359, when he accompanied the king to France in that fruitless expedition which was soon followed by the peace of Brétigny. In this unfortunate campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner, but was ransomed by his sovereign for £16,–about equal to £300 in these times. He had probably before this been installed at court as a gentleman of the bedchamber, on a stipend which would now be equal to £250 a year. He seems to have been a favorite with the court, after he had written his first great poem. It is singular that in a rude and ignorant age poets should have received much greater honor than in our enlightened times. Gower was patronized by the Duke of Gloucester, as Chaucer was by the Duke of Lancaster, and Petrarch and Boccaccio were in Italy by princes and nobles. Even learning was held in more reverence in the fourteenth century than it is in the nineteenth. The scholastic doctor was one of the great dignitaries of the age, as well as of the schools, and ranked with bishops and abbots. Wyclif at one time was the most influential man in the English Church, sitting in Parliament, and sent by the king on important diplomatic missions. So Chaucer, with less claim, received valuable offices and land-grants, which made him a wealthy man; and he was also sent on important missions in the company of nobles. He lived at the court. His son Thomas married one of the richest heiresses in the kingdom, and became speaker of the House of Commons; while his daughter Alice married the Duke of Suffolk, whose grandson was declared by Richard III. to be his heir, and came near becoming King of England. Chaucer’s wife’s sister married the Duke of Lancaster himself; so he was allied with the royal family, if not by blood, at least by ambitious marriage connections.

I know of no poet in the history of England who occupied so high a social position as did Chaucer, or who received so many honors. The poet of the people was the companion of kings and princes. At one time he had a reverse of fortune, when his friend and patron, the Duke of Lancaster, was in disgrace and in voluntary banishment during the minority of Richard II., against whom he had intrigued, and who afterwards was dethroned by Henry IV., a son of the Duke of Lancaster. While the Duke of Gloucester was in power, Chaucer was deprived of his offices and revenues for two or three years, and was even imprisoned in the Tower; but when Lancaster returned from the Continent, his offices and revenues were restored. His latter days were luxurious and honored. At fifty-one he gave up his public duties as a collector of customs, chiefly on wool, and retired to Woodstock and spent the remainder of his fortunate life in dignified leisure and literary labors. In addition to his revenues, the Duke of Lancaster, who was virtually the ruler of the land during the reign of Richard II., gave him the castle of Donnington, with its park and gardens; so that he became a man of territorial influence. At the age of fifty-eight he removed to London, and took a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, where the chapel of Henry VII. now stands. He died the following year, and was buried in the Abbey church,–that sepulchre of princes and bishops and abbots. His body was deposited in the place now known as the Poets’ Corner, and a fitting monument to his genius was erected over his remains, as the first great poet that had appeared in England, probably only surpassed in genius by Shakspeare, until the language assumed its present form. He was regarded as a moral phenomenon, whom kings and princes delighted to honor. As Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of Francis I., so Chaucer rested in his grave near the bodies of those sovereigns and princes with whom he lived in intimacy and friendship. It was the rarity of his gifts, his great attainments, elegant manners, and refined tastes which made him the companion of the great, since at that time only princes and nobles and ecclesiastical dignitaries could appreciate his genius or enjoy his writings.

Although Chaucer had written several poems which were admired in his day, and made translations from the French, among which was the “Roman de la Rose,” the most popular poem of the Middle Ages,–a poem which represented the difficulties attendant on the passion of love, under the emblem of a rose which had to be plucked amid thorns,–yet his best works were written in the leisure of declining years.

The occupation of the poet during the last twelve years of his life was in writing his “Canterbury Tales,” on which his fame chiefly rests; written not for money, but because he was impelled to write it, as all true poets write and all great artists paint,–ex animo,–because they cannot help writing and painting, as the solace and enjoyment of life. For his day these tales were a great work of art, evidently written with great care. They are also stamped with the inspiration of genius, although the stories themselves were copied in the main from the French and Italian, even as the French and Italians copied from Oriental writers, whose works were translated into the languages of Europe; so that the romances of the Middle Ages were originally produced in India, Persia, and Arabia. Absolute creation is very rare. Even Shakspeare, the most original of poets, was indebted to French and Italian writers for the plots of many of his best dramas. Who can tell the remote sources of human invention; who knows the then popular songs which Homer probably incorporated in his epics; who can trace the fountains of those streams which have fertilized the literary world?–and hence, how shallow the criticism which would detract from literary genius because it is indebted, more or less, to the men who have lived ages ago. It is the way of putting things which constitutes the merit of men of genius. What has Voltaire or Hume or Froude told the world, essentially, that it did not know before? Read, for instance, half-a-dozen historians on Joan of Arc: they all relate substantially the same facts. Genius and originality are seen in the reflections and deductions and grand sentiments prompted by the narrative. Let half-a-dozen distinguished and learned theologians write sermons on Abraham or Moses or David: they will all be different, yet the main facts will be common to all.

The Canterbury Pilgrimage From the frieze by R.W.W. Sewell

The Canterbury Pilgrimage From the frieze by R.W.W. Sewell

The “Canterbury Tales” are great creations, from the humor, the wit, the naturalness, the vividness of description, and the beauty of the sentiments displayed in them, although sullied by occasional vulgarities and impurities, which, however, in all their coarseness do not corrupt the mind. Byron complained of their coarseness, but Byron’s poetry is far more demoralizing. The age was coarse, not the mind of the author. And after five hundred years, with all the obscurity of language and obsolete modes of spelling, they still give pleasure to the true lovers of poetry when they have once mastered the language, which is not, after all, very difficult. It is true that most people prefer to read the great masters of poetry in later times; but the “Canterbury Tales” are interesting and instructive to those who study the history of language and literature. They are links in the civilization of England. They paint the age more vividly and accurately than any known history. The men and women of the fourteenth century, of all ranks, stand out to us in fresh and living colors. We see them in their dress, their feasts, their dwellings, their language, their habits, and their manners. Amid all the changes in human thought and in social institutions the characters appeal to our common humanity, essentially the same under all human conditions. The men and women of the fourteenth century love and hate, eat and drink, laugh and talk, as they do in the nineteenth. They delight, as we do, in the varieties of dress, of parade, and luxurious feasts. Although the form of these has changed, they are alive to the same sentiments which move us. They like fun and jokes and amusement as much as we. They abhor the same class of defects which disgust us,–hypocrisies, shams, lies. The inner circle of their friendship is the same as ours to-day, based on sincerity and admiration. There is the same infinite variety in character, and yet the same uniformity. The human heart beats to the same sentiments that it does under all civilizations and conditions of life. No people can live without friendship and sympathy and love; and these are ultimate sentiments of the soul, which are as eternal as the ideas of Plato. Why do the Psalms of David, written for an Oriental people four thousand years ago, excite the same emotions in the minds of the people of England or France or America that they did among the Jews? It is because they appeal to our common humanity, which never changes,–the same to-day as it was in the beginning, and will be to the end. It is only form and fashion which change; men remain the same. The men and women of the Bible talked nearly the same as we do, and seem to have had as great light on the primal principles of wisdom and truth and virtue. Who can improve on the sagacity and worldly wisdom of the Proverbs of Solomon? They have a perennial freshness, and appeal to universal experience. It is this fidelity to nature which is one of the great charms of Shakspeare. We quote his brief sayings as expressive of what we feel and know of the certitudes of our moral and intellectual life. They will last forever, under every variety of government, of social institutions, of races, and of languages. And they will last because these every-day sentiments are put in such pithy, compressed, unique, and novel form, like the Proverbs of Solomon or the sayings of Epictetus. All nations and ages alike recognize the moral wisdom in the sayings of those immortal sages whose writings have delighted and enlightened the world, because they appeal to consciousness or experience.

Now it must be confessed that the poetry of Chaucer does not abound in the moral wisdom and spiritual insight and profound reflections on the great mysteries of human life which stand out so conspicuously in the writings of Dante, Shakspeare, Milton, Goethe, and other first-class poets. He does not describe the inner life, but the outward habits and condition of the people of his times. He is not serious enough, nor learned enough, to enter upon the discussion of those high themes which agitated the schools and universities, as Dante did one hundred years before. He tells us how monks and friars lived, not how they dreamed and speculated. Nor are his sarcasms scorching and bitter, but rather humorous and laughable. He shows himself to be a genial and loving companion, not an austere teacher of disagreeable truths. He is not solemn and intense, like Dante; he does not give wings to his fancy, like Spenser; he has not the divine insight of Shakspeare; he is not learned, like Milton; he is not sarcastic, like Pope; he does not rouse the passions, like Byron; he is not meditative, like Wordsworth,–but he paints nature with great accuracy and delicacy, as also the men and women of his age, as they appeared in their outward life. He describes the passion of love with great tenderness and simplicity. In all his poems, love is his greatest theme,–which he bases, not on physical charms, but the moral beauty of the soul. In his earlier life he does not seem to have done full justice to women, whom he ridicules, but does not despise; in whom he indeed sees the graces of chivalry, but not the intellectual attraction of cultivated life. But later in life, when his experiences are broader and more profound, he makes amends for his former mistakes. In his “Legend of Good Women,” which he wrote at the command of Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II., he eulogizes the sex and paints the most exalted sentiments of the heart. He not only had great vividness in the description of his characters, but doubtless great dramatic talent, which his age did not call out. His descriptions of nature are very fresh and beautiful, indicating a great love of nature,–flowers, trees, birds, lawns, gardens, waterfalls, falcons, dogs, horses, with whom he almost talked. He had a great sense of the ridiculous; hence his humor and fun and droll descriptions, which will ever interest because they are so fresh and vivid. And as a poet he continually improved as he advanced in life. His last works are his best, showing the care and labor he bestowed, as well as his fidelity to nature. I am amazed, considering his time, that he was so great an artist without having a knowledge of the principles of art as taught by the great masters of composition.

But, as has been already said, his distinguishing excellence is vivid and natural description of the life and habits, not the opinions, of the people of the fourteenth century, described without exaggeration or effort for effect. He paints his age as Molière paints the times of Louis XIV., and Homer the heroic periods of Grecian history. This fidelity to nature and inexhaustible humor and living freshness and perpetual variety are the eternal charms of the “Canterbury Tales.” They bring before the eye the varied professions and trades and habits and customs of the fourteenth century. We see how our ancestors dressed and talked and ate; what pleasures delighted them, what animosities moved them, what sentiments elevated them, and what follies made them ridiculous. The same naturalness and humor which marked “Don Quixote” and the “Decameron” also are seen in the “Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer freed himself from all the affectations and extravagances and artificiality which characterized the poetry of the Middle Ages. With him began a new style in writing. He and Wyclif are the creators of English literature. They did not create a language, but they formed and polished it.

The various persons who figure in the “Canterbury Tales” are too well known for me to enlarge upon. Who can add anything to the Prologue in which Chaucer himself describes the varied characters and habits and appearance of the pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury? There are thirty of these pilgrims, including the poet himself, embracing nearly all the professions and trades then known, except the higher dignitaries of Church and State, who are not supposed to mix freely in ordinary intercourse, and whom it would be unwise to paint in their marked peculiarities. The most prominent person, as to social standing, is probably the knight. He is not a nobleman, but he has fought in many battles, and has travelled extensively. His cassock is soiled, and his horse is strong but not gay,–a very respectable man, courteous and gallant, a soldier corresponding to a modern colonel or captain. His son, the esquire, is a youth of twenty, with curled locks and embroidered dress, shining in various colors like the flowers of May, gay as a bird, active as a deer, and gentle as a maiden. The yeoman who attends them both is clad in green like a forester, with arrows and feathers, bearing the heavy sword and buckler of his master. The prioress is another respectable person, coy and simple, with dainty fingers, small mouth, and clean attire,–a refined sort of a woman for that age, ornamented with corals and brooch, so stately as to be held in reverence, yet so sentimental as to weep for a mouse caught in a trap: all characteristic of a respectable, kind-hearted lady who has lived in seclusion. A monk, of course, in the fourteenth century was everywhere to be seen; and a monk we have among the pilgrims, riding a “dainty” horse, accompanied with greyhounds, loving fur trimmings on his Benedictine habit and a fat swan to roast. The friar, too, we see,–a mendicant, yet merry and full of dalliances, beloved by the common women, to whom he gave easy absolution; a jolly vagabond, who knew all the taverns, and who carried on his portly person pins and songs and relics to sell or to give away. And there was the merchant, with forked beard and Flemish beaver hat and neatly clasped boots, bragging of his gains and selling French crowns, but on the whole a worthy man. The Oxford clerk or scholar is one of the company, silent and sententious, as lean as the horse on which he rode, with thread-bare coat, and books of Aristotle and his philosophy which he valued more than gold, of which indeed he could boast but little,–a man anxious to learn, and still more to teach. The sergeant of the law is another prominent figure, wary and wise, discreet and dignified, bustling and busy, yet not so busy as he seemed to be, wearing a coat of divers colors, and riding very badly. A franklin, or country gentleman, mixes with the company, with a white beard and red complexion; one of Epicurus’s own sons, who held that ale and wheaten bread and fish and dainty flesh, partridge fat, were pure felicity; evidently a man given to hospitality,–

“His table dormant in his hall alway
Stood ready covered all the longe day.”

He was a sheriff, also, to enforce the law, and to be present at all the county sessions. The doctor, of course, could not be left out of the company,–a man who knew the cause of every malady, versed in magic as well as physic, and grounded also in astronomy; who held that gold is the best of cordials, and knew how to keep what he gained; not luxurious in his diet, but careful what he ate and drank. The village miller is not forgotten in this motley crowd,–rough, brutal, drunken, big and brawn, with a red beard and a wart on his nose, and a mouth as wide as a furnace, a reveller and a jangler, accustomed to take toll thrice, and given to all the sins that then abounded. He is the most repulsive figure in the crowd, both vulgar and wicked. In contrast with him is the reve, or steward, of a lordly house,–a slender, choleric man, feared by servants and gamekeepers, yet in favor with his lord, since he always had money to lend, although it belonged to his master; an adroit agent and manager, who so complicated his accounts that no auditor could unravel them or any person bring him in arrears. He rode a fine dappled-gray stallion, wore a long blue overcoat, and carried a rusty sword,–evidently a proud and prosperous man. With a monk and friar, the picture would be incomplete without a pardoner, or seller of indulgences, with yellow hair and smooth face, loaded with a pillow-case of relics and pieces of the true cross, of which there were probably cartloads in every country in Europe, and of which the popes had an inexhaustible supply. This sleek and gentle pedler of indulgences rode side by side with a repulsive officer of the Church, with a fiery red face, of whom children were afraid, fond of garlic and onions and strong wine, and speaking only Latin law-terms when he was drunk, but withal a good fellow, abating his lewdness and drunkenness. In contrast with the pardoner and “sompnour” we see the poor parson, full of goodness, charity, and love,–a true shepherd and no mercenary, who waited upon no pomp and sought no worldly gains, happy only in the virtues which he both taught and lived. Some think that Chaucer had in view the learned Wyclif when he described the most interesting character of the whole group. With him was a ploughman, his brother, as good and pious as he, living in peace with all the world, paying tithes cheerfully, laborious and conscientious, the forerunner of the Puritan yeoman.

Of this motley company of pilgrims, I have already spoken of the prioress,–a woman of high position. In contrast with her is the wife of Bath, who has travelled extensively, even to Jerusalem and Rome; charitable, kind-hearted, jolly, and talkative, but bold and masculine and coarse, with a red face and red stockings, and a hat as big as a shield, and sharp spurs on her feet, indicating that she sat on her ambler like a man.

There are other characters which I cannot stop to mention,–the sailor, browned by the seas and sun, and full of stolen Bordeaux wine; the haberdasher; the carpenter; the weaver; the dyer; the tapestry-worker; the cook, to boil the chickens and the marrow-bones, and bake the pies and tarts,–mostly people from the middle and lower ranks of society, whose clothes are gaudy, manners rough, and language coarse. But all classes and trades and professions seem to be represented, except nobles, bishops, and abbots,–dignitaries whom, perhaps, Chaucer is reluctant to describe and caricature.

To beguile the time on the journey to Canterbury, all these various pilgrims are required to tell some story peculiar to their separate walks of life; and it is these stories which afford the best description we have of the manners and customs of the fourteenth century, as well as of its leading sentiments and ideas.

The knight was required to tell his story first, and it naturally was one of love and adventure. Although the scene of it was laid in ancient Greece, it delineates the institution of chivalry and the manners and sentiments it produced. No writer of that age, except perhaps Froissart, paints the connection of chivalry with the graces of the soul and the moral beauty which poetry associates with the female sex as Chaucer does. The aristocratic woman of chivalry, while delighting in martial sports, and hence masculine and haughty, is also condescending, tender, and gracious. The heroic and dignified self-respect with which chivalry invested woman exalted the passion of love. Allied with reverence for woman was loyalty to the prince. The rough warrior again becomes a gentleman, and has access to the best society. Whatever may have been the degrees of rank, the haughtiest nobleman associated with the penniless knight, if only he were a gentleman and well born, on terms of social equality, since chivalry, while it created distinctions, also levelled those which wealth and power naturally created among the higher class. Yet chivalry did not exalt woman outside of noble ranks. The plebeian woman neither has the graces of the high-born lady, nor does she excite that reverence for the sex which marked her condition in the feudal castle. “Tournaments and courts of love were not framed for village churls, but for high-born dames and mighty earls.”

Chaucer in his description of women in ordinary life does not seem to have a very high regard for them. They are weak or coarse or sensual, though attentive to their domestic duties, and generally virtuous. An exception is made of Virginia, in the doctor’s tale, who is represented as beautiful and modest, radiant in simplicity, discreet and true. But the wife of Bath is disgusting from her coarse talk and coarser manners. Her tale is to show what a woman likes best, which, according to her, is to bear rule over her husband and household. The prioress is conventional and weak, aping courtly manners. The wife of the host of the Tabard inn is a vixen and shrew, who calls her husband a milksop, and is so formidable with both her tongue and her hands that he is glad to make his escape from her whenever he can. The pretty wife of the carpenter, gentle and slender, with her white apron and open dress, is anything but intellectual,–a mere sensual beauty. Most of these women are innocent of toothbrushes, and give and receive thrashings, and sing songs without a fastidious taste, and beat their servants and nag their husbands. But they are good cooks, and understand the arts of brewing and baking and roasting and preserving and pickling, as well as of spinning and knitting and embroidering. They are supreme in their households; they keep the keys and lock up the wine. They are gossiping, and love to receive their female visitors. They do not do much shopping, for shops were very primitive, with but few things to sell. Their knowledge is very limited, and confined to domestic matters. They are on the whole modest, but are the victims of friars and pedlers. They have more liberty than we should naturally suppose, but have not yet learned to discriminate between duties and rights. There are few disputed questions between them and their husbands, but the duty of obedience seems to have been recognized. But if oppressed, they always are free with their tongues; they give good advice, and do not spare reproaches in language which in our times we should not call particularly choice. They are all fond of dress, and wear gay colors, without much regard to artistic effect.

In regard to the sports and amusements of the people, we learn much from Chaucer. In one sense the England of his day was merry; that is, the people were noisy and rough in their enjoyments. There was frequent ringing of the bells; there were the horn of the huntsman and the excitements of the chase; there was boisterous mirth in the village ale-house; there were frequent holidays, and dances around May-poles covered with ribbons and flowers and flags; there were wandering minstrels and jesters and jugglers, and cock-fightings and foot-ball and games at archery; there were wrestling matches and morris-dancing and bear-baiting. But the exhilaration of the people was abnormal, like the merriment of negroes on a Southern plantation,–a sort of rebound from misery and burdens, which found a vent in noise and practical jokes when the ordinary restraint was removed. The uproarious joy was a sort of defiance of the semi-slavery to which workmen were doomed; for when they could be impressed by the king’s architect and paid whatever he chose to give them, there could not have been much real contentment, which is generally placid and calm. There is one thing in which all classes delighted in the fourteenth century, and that was a garden, in which flowers bloomed,–things of beauty which were as highly valued as the useful. Moreover, there was a zest in rural sports now seldom seen, especially among the upper classes who could afford to hunt and fish. There was no excitement more delightful to gentlemen and ladies than that of hawking, and it infinitely surpassed in interest any rural sport whatever in our day, under any circumstances. Hawks trained to do the work of fowling-pieces were therefore greater pets than any dogs that now are the company of sportsmen. A lady without a falcon on her wrist, when mounted on her richly caparisoned steed for a morning’s sport, was very rare indeed.

An instructive feature of the “Canterbury Tales” is the view which Chaucer gives us of the food and houses and dresses of the people. “In the Nonne’s Prestes’ Tale we see the cottage and manner of life of a poor widow.” She has three daughters, three pigs, three oxen, and a sheep. Her house had only two rooms,–an eating-room, which also served for a kitchen and sitting-room, and a bower or bedchamber,–both without a chimney, with holes pierced to let in the light. The table was a board put upon trestles, to be removed when the meal of black bread and milk, and perchance an egg with bacon, was over. The three slept without sheets or blankets on a rude bed, covered only with their ordinary day-clothes. Their kitchen utensils were a brass pot or two for boiling, a few wooden platters, an iron candlestick, and a knife or two; while the furniture was composed of two or three chairs and stools, with a frame in the wall, with shelves, for clothes and utensils. The manciple and the cook of the company seem to indicate that living among the well-to-do classes was a very generous and a very serious part of life, on which a high estimate was placed, since food in any variety, though plentiful at times, was not always to be had, and therefore precarious. “Guests at table were paired, and ate, every pair, out of the same plate or off the same trencher.” But the bill of fare at a franklin’s feast would be deemed anything but poor, even in our times,–“bacon and pea-soup, oysters, fish, stewed beef, chickens, capons, roast goose, pig, veal, lamb, kid, pigeon, with custard, apples and pears, cheese and spiced cakes.” All these with abundance of wine and ale.

The “Canterbury Tales” remind us of the vast preponderance of the country over town and city life. Chaucer, like Shakspeare, revels in the simple glories of nature, which he describes like a man feeling it to be a joy to be near to “Mother Earth,” with her rich bounties. The birds that usher in the day, the flowers which beautify the lawn, the green hills and vales, with ever-changing hues like the clouds and the skies, yet fruitful in wheat and grass; the domestic animals, so mute and patient, the bracing air of approaching winter, the genial breezes of the spring,–of all these does the poet sing with charming simplicity and grace, yea, in melodious numbers; for nothing is more marvellous than the music and rhythm of his lines, although they are not enriched with learned allusions or much moral wisdom, and do not march in the stately and majestic measure of Shakspeare or of Milton.

But the most interesting and instructive of the “Canterbury Tales” are those which relate to the religious life, the morals, the superstitions, and ecclesiastical abuses of the times. In these we see the need of the reformation of which Wyclif was the morning light. In these we see the hypocrisies and sensualities of both monks and friars, relieved somewhat by the virtues of the simple parish priest or poor parson, in contrast with the wealth and luxury of the regular clergy, as monks were called, in their princely monasteries, where the lordly abbot vied with both baron and bishop in the magnificence of his ordinary life. We see before us the Mediaeval clergy in all their privileges, and yet in all their ignorance and superstition, shielded from the punishment of crime and the operation of all ordinary laws (a sturdy defiance of the temporal powers), the agents and ministers of a foreign power, armed with the terrors of hell and the grave. Besides the prioress and the nuns’ priest, we see in living light the habits and pretensions of the lazy monk, the venal friar and pardoner, and the noisy summoner for ecclesiastical offences: hunters and gluttons are they, with greyhounds and furs, greasy and fat, and full of dalliances; at home in taverns, unprincipled but agreeable vagabonds, who cheat and rob the people, and make a mockery of what is most sacred on the earth. These privileged mendicants, with their relics and indulgences, their arts and their lies, and the scandals they create, are treated by Chaucer with blended humor and severity, showing a mind as enlightened as that of the great scholar at Oxford, who heads the movement against Rome and the abuses at which she connived if she did not encourage. And there is something intensely English in his disgust and scorn,–brave for his day, yet shielded by the great duke who was at once his protector and friend, as he was of Wyclif himself,–in his severer denunciation, and advocacy of doctrines which neither Chaucer nor the Duke of Lancaster understood, and which, if they had, they would not have sympathized with nor encouraged. In these attacks on ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical abuses, Chaucer should be studied with Wyclif and the early reformers, although he would not have gone so far as they, and led, unlike them, a worldly life. Thus by these poems he has rendered a service to his country, outside his literary legacy, which has always been held in value. The father of English poetry belonged to the school of progress and of inquiry, like his great contemporaries on the Continent. But while he paints the manners, customs, and characters of the fourteenth century, he does not throw light on the great ideas which agitated or enslaved the age. He is too real and practical for that. He describes the outward, not the inner life. He was not serious enough–I doubt if he was learned enough–to enter into the disquisitions of schoolmen, or the mazes of the scholastic philosophy, or the meditations of almost inspired sages. It is not the joys of heaven or the terrors of hell on which he discourses, but of men and women as they lived around him, in their daily habits and occupations. We must go to Wyclif if we would know the theological or philosophical doctrines which interested the learned. Chaucer only tells how monks and friars lived, not how they speculated or preached. We see enough, however, to feel that he was emancipated from the ideas of the Middle Ages, and had cast off their gloom, their superstition, and their despair. The only things he liked of those dreary times were their courts of love and their chivalric glories.

I do not propose to analyze the poetry of Chaucer, or enter upon a critical inquiry as to his relative merits in comparison with the other great poets. It is sufficient for me to know that critics place him very high as an original poet, although it is admitted that he drew much of his material from French and Italian authors. He was, for his day, a great linguist. He had travelled extensively, and could speak Latin, French, and Italian with fluency. He knew Petrarch and other eminent Italians. One is amazed that in such an age he could have written so well, for he had no great models to help him in his own language. If occasionally indecent, he is not corrupting. He never deliberately disseminates moral poison; and when he speaks of love, he treats almost solely of the simple and genuine emotions of the heart.

The best criticism that I have read of Chaucer’s poetry is that of Adolphus William Ward; although as a biography it is not so full or so interesting as that of Godwin or even Morley. In no life that I have read are the mental characteristics of our poet so ably drawn,–“his practical good sense,” his love of books, his still deeper love of nature, his naïveté, the readiness of his description, the brightness of his imagery, the easy flow of his diction, the vividness with which he describes character; his inventiveness, his readiness of illustration, his musical rhythm, his gaiety and cheerfulness, his vivacity and joyousness, his pathos and tenderness, his keen sense of the ridiculous and power of satire, without being bitter, so that his wit and fun are harmless, and perpetually pleasing.

He doubtless had great dramatic talent, but he did not live in a dramatic age. His especial excellence, never surpassed, was his power of observing and drawing character, united with boundless humor and cheerful fun. And his descriptions of nature are as true and unstinted as his descriptions of men and women, so that he is as fresh as the month of May. In his poetry is life; and hence his immortal fame. He is not so great as Spenser or Shakspeare or Milton; but he has the same vitality as they, and is as wonderful as they considering his age and opportunities,–a poet who constantly improved as he advanced in life, and whose greatest work was written in his old age.

Unfortunately, we know but little of Chaucer’s habits and experiences, his trials and disappointments, his friendships or his hatreds. What we do know of him raises our esteem. Though convivial, he was temperate; though genial, he was a silent observer, quiet in his manners, modest in his intercourse with the world, walking with downcast eye, but letting nothing escape his notice. He believed in friendship, and kept his friends to the end, and was stained neither by envy nor by pride,–as frank as he was affectionate, as gentle as he was witty. Living with princes and nobles, he never descended to gross adulation, and never wrote a line of approval of the usurpation of Henry IV., although his bread depended on Henry’s favor, and he was also the son of the king’s earliest and best friend. He was not a religious man, nor was he an immoral man, judged by the standard of his age. He probably was worldly, as he lived in courts. We do not see in him the stern virtues of Dante or Milton; nothing of that moral earnestness which marked the only other great man with whom he was contemporary,–he who is called the “morning star” of the Reformation. But then we know nothing about him which calls out severe reprobation. He was patriotic, and had the confidence of his sovereign, else he would not have been employed on important missions. And the sweetness of his character may be inferred from his long and tender friendship with Gower, whom some in that age considered the greater poet. He was probably luxurious in his habits, but intemperate use of wine he detested and avoided. He was portly in his person, but refinement marked his features. He was a gentleman, according to the severest code of chivalric excellence; always a favorite with ladies, and equally admired by the knights and barons of a brilliant court. No poet was ever more honored in his life or lamented in his death, as his beautiful monument in Westminster Abbey would seem to attest. That monument is the earliest that was erected to the memory of a poet in that Pantheon of English men of rank and genius; and it will probably be as long preserved as any of those sculptured urns and animated busts which seek to keep alive the memory of the illustrious dead,–of those who, though dead, yet speak to all future generations.


Chaucer’s own works, especially the Canterbury Tales; publications of the Chaucer Society; Pauli’s History of England; ordinary Histories of England which relate to the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II., especially Green’s History of the English People; Life of Chaucer, by William Godwin (4 volumes, London, 1804); Tyrwhitt’s edition of Canterbury Tales; Speglet’s edition of Chaucer; Warton’s History of English Poetry; St. Palaye’s History of Chivalry; Chaucer’s England, by Matthew Browne (London, 1869); Sir Harris Nicholas’s Life of Chaucer; The Riches of Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke; Morley’s Life of Chaucer. The latest work is a Life and Criticism of Chaucer, by Adolphus William Ward. There is also a Guide to Chaucer, by H.G. Fleary. See also Skeat’s collected edition of Chaucer’s Works, brought out under the auspices of the Early English Text Society.

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