The Age of Chaucer
Introduction to the Age of Chaucer
It is somewhat difficult to understand the literary works of an author without familiarity with the age of the author he lived in. Every single literary work is a portrayal of the age of the author. Not a single person can live without being influenced by the ups and downs of the age. Every author spends a great chunk of his time in the lap of the age he existed in. That is why; literature, in every form, reveals the true spirit of the age of the author. W.H Hudson comments in this regard:
“Every man belongs to his race and age, no matter how marked his personality; the spirit of his race and age finds expression through him.”
To understand the true essence of the works of Chaucer, it is mandatory to study the age he existed in.
The period of Chaucer is additionally marked as the Middle Ages. It was a time of extraordinary change, transformation as well as changeover from Medievalism to Renaissance, from ignorance to know-how and from ingenuousness to maturity, especially in the field of English literature. Salient features of the Age of Chaucer are as under:
Age of Chaucer- A Shift from Medievalism to Modernism
The Age of Chaucer was an age of medievalism. All of the attributes that we associate with medievalism are certainly found in the age of Geoffrey Chaucer. That is the reason; Chaucer is better-known as a genuine medieval writer. He took his first breath, spent his childhood years and passed away in the Medieval Ages. The Middle Ages are believed to have kicked off with the downfall of Roman Empire and spanned over a period from 5th to 15th century, when Renaissance manifested itself as a robust artistic , social and literary movement, as early as, in France and soon after in Europe.
In spite of the facts that he was a medieval writer, his age was an age of bedlam, restlessness and a shift from antiquity to modernism in every single aspect. Chaucer’s poetic style reveals that he doesn’t adhere to the beaten path; rather he makes experiments and presents something different to his readers. For that reason; his poetry doesn’t fit into any specific poetic genre of that time. He is completely different from the contemporary writers in dealing with poetry. Robert Dudely French says in this regard:
“It was an age of restlessness, amid the ferment of new life, that Chaucer lived and wrote. Old things and new appear side by side upon his pages, and in his poetry we can study the essential spirit, both of the age that was passing, and of the age that was to come.”
The Hundred Year’s War in the Age of Chaucer
The Hundred Year’s War is a prominent event of Chaucer’s age. In the course of the period from 1337 to 1453, England and France were at loggerheads with each other in connection with the issue of succession to the throne of the France. Both the countries witnessed defeats and victories all the way through time. Though England was comparatively dominant over the French, yet they could not win the war in the long run. Approximately 3 .5 million people died during the Hundred Year’s War.
This long-lasting war exerted many impacts on England. For the first time, the English people got united during the Hundred Year’s War and they felt a sort of nationalism. This war not only brought an end to social blockers between the wealthy and poor people but additionally united them against any foreign aggression. It was a great change in the mental makeup of the English people.
The Black Death in the Age of Chaucer
The age of Chaucer was an age of squalor, poverty and pestilence. Nobody took care for hygiene and sanitization in their locality. The majority of educated people were also victim of this bad habit. They considered soap with suspicion and the medical physicians frequently forbade the people to take bath as it was considered harmful for health. That is why; epidemics broke out frequently in England. One of such epidemics was called The Black Death, which broke out in 1348. It is estimated that, approximately, one million people died due to this epidemic.
The Peasant's Revolt
The Peasant’s Revolt in the Age of Chaucer
The Peasant’s Revolt is yet another important event of the age of Chaucer. It was a direct result of the The Black Death. The Black Death brought about acute shortage of workers in England. There was no one to work for the rich and elite class. The working strata of society rose in rebellion and demanded high wages for their work. They staged a number of demonstrations under the aegis of John Ball, but in vain. Neither the government, nor the employers gave consent to their demands. Thus, their struggle for the rights of employees and labourers ended up in vain. It was a good example of modernism in the age of Chaucer like the one we have in this industrial age. Chaucer in his Nun’s Priest’s Tale, has alluded to this event:
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box.
(The Nun’s Priest’s Tale-628-631)
The Church in the Age of Chaucer
The church had a very bad reputation in the age of Chaucer. It had turned into a hothouse of corruption, materialism and extravagance. The church was not delivering its best. That is why; John Gower has drawn a realistic picture of the Church in his age. He says in Confessio Amnatis:
Lo, thus tobroke is Cristes folde,
Wherof the flock withoute guide
Devoured is on every side,
In lacke of hem that ben unware
Schepherdes, whiche her wit beware
Upon the world in other halve.
(Confessio Amantis: 390-395)
Chaucer has also alluded to the corruption of the Church in his Prologue to Canterbury Tales. He says:
If gold rust, what then will iron do?
For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a common man should rust.
The Prologue to Canterbury Tales reveals the true state of affairs of the Church in the age of Chaucer. It is a picture-perfect picture of the age of the Chaucer, particularly, of the Church. During the age of Chaucer, religious people didn’t pay due heed to worship, religious rituals and spiritual purgation. They had gone astray from the prescribed ways of God. That is why; they intended to mix up with the general public with the intention to hoard up some bucks. Prioress is the nun, who loves to imitate the royal ways of living instead of adopting simple and austere ways of life. Friar is the most important character, who unveils the true to life situation of the religious people in the age of Chaucer. Chaucer has regarded him as the nastiest character in the Prologue to Canterbury Tales. He loves to hear confessions only from those people who are wealthy and who can provide him with a few bucks. He doesn’t prefer to pay a visit to the houses of poor and sick people as they are not able to give him any cash. Similarly, Pardoner is another character, who grants fake pardons to the sinners and sets aside the money for his own use.
Was the Age of Chaucer a transition from Middle Ages to Modernism?
Chivalry in the Age of Chaucer
Though, the age of Chaucer was coming out from the antiquity of the middle ages, yet it was in its strong grips. Thus, chivalry was still in vogue in the age of Chaucer. Compton Rickket says in this regard:
“"Chaucer's England is '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 so far from exhibiting any signs of decay, reached perhaps its fullest development at this time. More than two centuries were to elapse before it was finally killed-by the satirical pen of Cervantes."
Chaucer’s Prologue to Canterbury Tales shows us how chivalry was popular in the age of Chaucer. Look at the following lines taken from Prologue to Canterbury Tales, which reveal essential characteristics of a knight in the age of Chaucer:
A KNIGHT there was, and what a gentleman,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his sovereign's war,
And therein had he ridden, no man more,
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness.
At Alexandria, in the winning battle he was there;
Often put in the place of honour, a chair.
Above all nations' knights in Prussia.
In Latvia raided he, and Russia.
I hope the above mentioned discussion will give you some sort of insight into main events of the age of Chaucer.
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© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq