Lecture 4: The Middle Ages
The England in which Chaucer lived was in transition between the Middle Ages and the modern world. During Chaucer's lifetime, there were two outbreaks of the Black Plague; the Peasants' Revolt occurred in 1381. Feudalism still existed, but it was becoming increasingly easy for peasants to run away from estates and find more lucrative jobs in the city, or, due to the labor shortage caused by the Plague, hire out as independent agricultural workers. The king still had immense power, but the rise of cities and large-scale manufacturing and trade created a wealthy and influential middle class of merchants and artisans who had a great deal of power in the governing of London.
Chaucer's father was a member of this class; he was a prosperous wine merchant, with connections at the Court. We don't know much about Chaucer's education, but he probably got most of his learning at the court of Prince Lionel, the third son of King Edward III, where he was a page during his teens. Somewhere along the line, he learned bookkeeping, civil law, philosophy, astronomy, French, Italian, and Latin.
In 1359, at the age of 16, he participated in Edward III's attack on France, and early in 1360, he was captured by the French and eventually ransomed for 16 pounds (about $5000 or more in today's currency). During the 1360s, Chaucer was appointed valet (an honorary position) to the King; he married; and his first poetry was published. He was beginning to be a trusted and ever-more-important member of the Court; he was sent on diplomatic missions several times. He became the Controller of Customs and Subsidies on Wool, Skin and Hides for the Port of London. This was a lucrative post, since the wool trade was London's most important industry at the time.
He held a series of public offices, was given various grants of money, wine, and homes, and had his share of public honors and recognition. He also had his share of scandal. We know very little of what went on in Chaucer's mind, however, since almost all we know of his life is pieced together from documents, records, and references to him in other people's writings. We know he was accused of rape; but we don't know if he was innocent or guilty, or even in what sense the word was being used (the word "raptus" in a legal document could have many meanings). We know his wife died in 1387, but we don't know how, and we don't know if their marriage was a happy one or not.
Chaucer was heavily influenced by French literature; we know that he was also strongly influenced by Italian literature. In 1372, a trip to Italy introduced him to Dante and Boccacchio, whose Decameron is an obvious influence on The Canterbury Tales. (The Decameron, for example, consists of 100 tales told by ten characters; The Canterbury Tales was intended to be 120 tales, told by 29 or 30 characters.) Chaucer was the first English poet to introduce Italian literature to England; he was also the first to use many of the metric and stanza forms would become common in English poetry. He was one of the first to deal extensively with contemporary life and to draw sharply individualized portraits or to analyze characters psychologically.
The Canterbury Tales were probably conceived when Chaucer lived in Greenwich, on the road the pilgrims regularly took to Canterbury. It is doubtful that Chaucer himself made a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but he may have travelled with groups of pilgrims (since the roads were unsafe, travel in groups was wise). In the opening of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer (as a character in his own tale, much as Dante was a character in The Divine Comedy) meets 29 or 30 people at the Tabard Inn (a real inn, at the time) and joins them to make a pilgrimage to the popular shrine of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. At the suggestion of the innkeeper--the Host, who has made himself the Master of Ceremonies--each pilgrim agrees to tell four stories: two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. The Host will decide which is the best tale; the other travellers will reward the winner with a banquet.
In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes each pilgrim, adding details and characterization as the tales progress. The pilgrims are individuals, but each is also representative of a professional or social group. We thus get a panorama of the whole range of the society and the age. There is a great deal of humor in the tales themselves and in the interactions between the characters. But there are also serious themes: the value of truth, dignity, and integrity; fate; and free will, among others.
Chaucer began working on The Canterbury Tales about a year before his wife's death, and he began working on the "marriage group" the year she died. The "marriage group" includes the prologues and tales of the Wife of Bath, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire, and the Franklin. Some critics have speculated that his wife's death may have had an impact on the content and tone of this group of tales; it probably did, but in what way, we can't know. Certainly, some of the issues that arise in this set of tales were those that a man in his position would probably have on his mind: whether to remarry or not, for example, and if so, on what terms. There is a cynicism about marriage, certainly, and its deceptions and indignities. But there are also passages of romantic yearning and joy. And throughout the tales runs the theme that things are not what they appear to be, and that our hopes and dreams are frail impossibilities against the backdrop of a harsh and unforgiving world.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" has never been traced to any one source, but it is of a fairly common type known as "Transformed Hag" or "Loathsome Lady" stories. In stories of this type, a beautiful young woman has been transformed into an ugly old hag, and can only be changed back by a display of love from a young and handsome man. Chaucer adapts the form to make it humorous, and to examine a number of social and religious issues. To audiences today, the Wife's story is simply funny, but in Chaucer's time, it bordered on the heretical: Biblical doctrine of the time clearly stated that a woman was to be subject to her husband.
When Chaucer died in 1400, The Canterbury Tales was unfinished, whether because he had abandoned the project, or because he didn't have time to finish it before his death, we don't know. Chaucer is buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey; he was the first poet to be so honored. (Some of the other poets and writers sharing the Corner with him are Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Masefield, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy.)
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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, by Donald R. Howard.
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, by Edwin J. Howard.