Geoffrey Chaucer (Circa 1340 – 1400) #

Chaucer, one of England’s first writers, did more than anyone to prepare a place for the English language in the world’s literary canons. Though more fluent in French, Chaucer chose to write in Middle English, the bastard language of Germanic origins, but the vernacular of England.

His writings raised the level of the Germanic over the Norman French establishing the canon of English after Beowulf. Chaucer is considered the most learned English writer before Milton and a brilliant writer of tales - as long as someone had told them before. He breathed new life into old tales. His satire is subtle, but ribald and scathing.

Though born to merchant class parents, his early life was spent studying Law until the Black death closed the Schools. He became a page boy in the court of the third son of Edward III. Later he became a personal attendant of the King as his “beloved valet”, before being promoted to the position of esquire where his duties included entertaining the court. At the age of thirty he was sent overseas on diplomatic missions for the next 8 years, spending time in Southern France and Italy. When he came back to London, King Richard II granted him a life time lease of the Gatehouse at Aldgate and he became a wealthy man, renown for his urbanity and affability.

He became a patron of John of Gaunt, a connoisseur of the arts, encouraging his early writing.

When John died, his son Bolingbroke in France, Richard confiscated his whole estate, ending Chaucer’s career and seriously upsetting the political order.

Henry IV usurped the throne of Richard II, who died in prison. Henry was a cruel tyrant who fought with the Celts of Wales, the Irish, his own noble families of northern England as well as the French.

John Wycliffe’s Lollards were also violently suppressed and driven underground by burnings at the stakes. (see below)

Canterbury Tales, was a product of later years, using his vast experience of all aspects of life during his time. Most of the realistic characters drawn on the pilgrimage can be identified as people he had met in his lifetime.

Much of the material is indebted to the Italian poets, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Perhaps he was writing his memoirs.

Chaucer, remarked with amusing diffidence,

“that other poets have already reaped before me and carried away the grain. And I come after, gleaning here and there, and am very glad if I can find an ear of any goodly word, which they have left behind.”

He, like any good apprentice, learned his craft by first imitating the acknowledged masters and then evolving his own technique from theirs. He attained mastery of his craft early in his career, having learned the art of infusing fresh spontaneity into whatever he borrowed.

Chaucer is credited with the artistry of creating realistic and appropriate characters that spring to life with an immediacy in his depiction.

There is no indication he took sides in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, following from the Black Deaths of 1349 - 1351. His writings do contain brief lyrics lamenting, in guarded tones, the disorderliness of his age.

“Now may men weep and cry. For in our days there is nothing but greed, duplicity, treason, envy, poison, manslaughter, and murder of many kinds.”

Like Aristotle’s philosophy of Katharsis, Chaucer evinces empathy or evokes pathos with:

“Pity runneth soon in the gentle heart” in four occasions.

You could make a good case arguing that the Canterbury Tales is a thinly veiled, satirical attack on the representative institutions; feudal, ecclesiastic, and the emerging middle class, merchants and professionals, The hierarchical Church of his time sustains his most acerbic satire. There are subtle indications, that he depicts all society in an inverted order, the worst are on top, while the best are at the bottom of the pyramid.

There are eighty four different manuscripts of C.T. His works were the first to be put into print by William Caxton, who hailed him as

“the worshipful father and first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English, who ought eternally to be remembered”. Charles Dunn, A Chaucer Reader, U. of Toronto.

The Canterbury Tales #

His most famous work consists of a lengthy General Prologue which introduces the other 29 Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of the martyr Thomas a’ Becket. His plan to have each of the pilgrims tell two tales was never completed, yet we have one of the most vivid gallery portraits of a cross section of his society presented by a variety of tales with sharp interchanges of dialogue between the characters in between.

Scholars contend that the pilgrims are real caricatures of people Chaucer had met through his long career. As such they give a vital insight into an embryonic period of time when Europe was emerging from the dark ages to a more enlightened and civilised society.

This portrait gallery is renown for its wit and use of Chaucerian irony; praising a character with superlatives, only to undercut them with subtle wit. Most of them condemn themselves by revelations through their actions, dialogue or their tale.

Few characters survive Chaucer’s sarcasm unscathed – the lowly Parson -

“erste he wroughte and thanne he taughte”.

In the Prologue, Chaucer quotes Plato as saying:

“The wordes mote be cosyn to the deds”.

All of the other Pilgrims prove somehow to fall short of their projected image. He depicts society inverted; the top echelons are the most corrupted, while the lower orders embody integrity and dignity.

We must remember that character creation is a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author. Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically. The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys. Sometimes main characters are picaresque – likeable but harmless rogues, larrikins or scoundrels –“loveable rogues”.

Martin Amis points out that over two millennia humans first told stories of Gods, then Kings, then Epic Heroes, then ordinary people , then anti-heroes, then villains, then demons and finally themselves.

Plato and Aristotle felt that laughter was a powerful weapon that could threaten authority and undermine the state.

Freud, sees it as: “In the little insurrection of the wisecrack we can reap the pleasures of rebellion while simultaneously disavowing them them as just a joke”.

The Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin claimed the Carnivals of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance were a subversive force, turning power and authority on its head and inverting the priorities of power. Humour stems from a desire to be free of oppression. It deflates the pompous and pretentious, restoring the human dignity of ordinary people.

Much of Chaucer’s action takes place on the road to Canterbury and in the inns on their way. The tales are part of a contrived competition to see who can tell the most entertaining story. They frequently reveal the true nature of the pilgrim in stark contrast with their projected image. You could assume that Chaucer is writing his memoirs and perhaps “paying back” some of his detractors during his public career. We do know that he was fined for having beat a Friar.

The tales vary greatly in their style and content with the Knight’s romantic Chivalric tale, the Wife of Bath’s ribald tale, the Miller’s robust one to the more sedate Parson’s tale and the Pardoner’s hypocritical one. Each gives us an indepth candid view of life in the 15^(th) Century England.

You can view a comparison between the Pardoners Tale and Sam Raimi’s film A Simple Plan:

Lollards #

A society based on Christian love, an old dream of a British radicalism disseminated from Oxford in the fourteenth century, centered in the work of John Wycliffe, a professor and writer known throughout Europe as one of the great philosophic minds of his time. Wycliffe was indignant at the treatment of the poor—he wrote, for example, that

lords many times do wrongs to poor men by extortion & unreasonable [fees] and unreasonable taxes, & take poor men’s goods…& despise them & menace them & sometime beat them when they ask their pay. & thus lords devour poor men’s goods in gluttony & waste and pride, & they perish for mischief, & hunger & thirst & cold, & their children also…[they] withhold from poor men their hire, for which they have spended their flesh & their blood. & so in a manner they eat & drink poor men’s flesh & blood & are mankillers…and more to the same effect.

Since he was at the same time an eminent scholar, Wycliffe helped to give British religious dissent a distinctive intellectualism that bypassed barriers of class. He accomplished this, notably, by making the first translation of the entire Bible into English and by writing religious/political tracts in English, like the one just quoted, some of which circulated for more than a century, though possession of them was deeply incriminating. Oxford students and others took pages of Scripture out among the poor so that they could hear them read in their own language.

Wycliffe challenged the need for Priestly intercession and the exclusive power of the Pope to pardon or excommunicate individuals. This was a direct threat to Papal power which depended on simony, indulgences and the selling of relics.

In one of his tracts speaking of the pope and his collectors:

They draw out of our land poor men’s livelihood and man thousand marks, by the year of the king’s money for sacraments and spiritual things, that is cursed heresy of simony and maketh all Christendom huge hill of gold.

Papal thunders were hurled against him with three Bulls dispatched to England, all commanding immediate and decisive measures to silence this teacher of heresy.

Despite fierce opposition, Wycliffe lived to place into the hands of Englishmen, the Bible, the most powerful weapon to enlighten, liberate and evangelise the people. At this time there was a moment of early literary brilliance, in the English writing of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland, and others. These poets, and Wycliffe as well, enjoyed the protection of important figures, notably John of Gaunt, possibly Richard II and certainly his wife, Anne of Bohemia.

The movement associated with Wycliffe, called Lollardy, was violently suppressed and driven underground by Henry IV. Many Lollards were burned, but their movement remained active and influential, finally merging with the Reformation and Puritanism. Wycliffe died in his own bed.