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MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD: THE AGE OF
Historical Events of Chaucer's Time.—In 1327, thirteen years before the date which scholars have set as the probable year of Chaucer's birth, Edward III came to the throne of England. He reigned for fifty years, and the first part of his reign was one of prosperity at home and victory abroad. Up to this time England had been an agricultural country. Now, taking example from Flanders, the birthplace of Edward's queen, Philippa, Englishmen began to grow wool on a large scale. Flemish weavers were imported to teach them to manufacture this wool into finished products. The wool industry became one of the chief sources of English wealth; and to symbolize this fact, a crimson cushion stuffed with sheep shearings, the Woolsack, was used henceforth as the seat of the lord chancellor in the upper house of Parliament. Early in Edward's reign the French, jealous of England's growing trade, attacked her merchant ships. In retaliation Edward boldly laid claim to the throne of France, to which he had a shadowy title. Gathering together his mounted knights and stout yeomen, armed with pike and long-bow, he invaded France, and in 1346 won the great victory of Crecy. Ten years later his heroic son, the Black Prince, won the still more splendid victory of Poictiers, defeating a French force five times as great as his own, and bringing John, the French king, captive to London. The struggle with France went on for a long time under succeeding kings; so long, indeed, that it is known in history as the Hundred Years' War. Its effect was immensely to strengthen the unity of England. It was the Saxon yeomen with their long1bows who won England's victories at Crecy and Poic- tiers, and afterwards at Agincourt under Henry V. The last remnants of hatred and suspicion between Norman and Saxon faded away in a common national pride and patriotism.
Edward Ill's successor, Richard II, came to the throne in 1377. He was so weak a ruler that he won the nickname of Richard the Redeless. The royal power during a large portion of his reign of twenty-two years was in the hands of his uncle, John of Gaunt, brother of the Black Prince, and the patron of Chaucer. In 1399, a year before Chaucer's death, the sceptre was wrested from Richard's feeble hands by Henry of Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt, who ascended the throne as Henry IV. As will be seen, almost all these political events had an effect in determining the career of the poet whose writings remain as the chief glory of this epoch of English history.
Society in Chaucer's Time.—The society of the period, the brighter and happier aspects of which Chaucer so brilliantly portrayed, was full of sharp contrasts. Riches and poverty, splendor and squalor, unbounded license and the most crushing servitude, existed side by side. No bounds were set to the luxury which court and nobles displayed in dress, food, hunting equipage and furnishings of war. Rich merchants vied with the aristocratic classes in the splendor of their way of living; and the great guilds, or brotherhoods of trade and handicraft, banqueted in halls which a king might have envied. On the other hand, a large proportion of the population were villeins or serfs, bound to the soil, doomed to pitiless labor and harsh exaction. Nor was the contrast merely one of classes. Lords and ladies, dressed in rare silks and cloth of gold, and loaded with precious gems, ate from golden dishes with their fingers, forks being unknown; and threw fragments of the feast to the dogs who quarrelled and fought among the soiled rushes of the floor. At a time when Edward III was founding Winchester College, the first great English public school, and when Oxford was awakening to a new enthusiasm for learning, many nobles could not read. Printing was unknown; books had to be copied by hand, and were very cumbersome and expensive. Chivalry had reached its highest point of outward splendor; its tournaments and other ceremonies were miracles of great display: but as a vital creed it was fast losing its hold upon men. Side by side with the corrupt clergy, who in their great abbeys and monasteries lived a life of sensual ease, we find an organization of" poor priests" going up and down the country with bare feet, staff, and russet gown, preaching the pure word of God in all meekness and self-sacrifice.
The London of Chaucer's day was in some respects a stately city. On the north ran a strong feudal wall with tower- guarded gates; on the south flowed the broad river, crowded with shipping, and spanned by a great bridge on which houses and shops clustered thick; the gloomy massive Tower rose at one end of the city, the beautiful abbey of Westminster and the Parliament Hall at the other, and the Gothic spires of old St. Paul's crowned the hill between; noblemen's palaces, guild-halls, monasteries and churches, of rich and picturesque design, gave splendor to the narrow, tortuous, and ill- kept streets. Throughout the country the gloomy Norman castles, with their moats and thick1walled donjon1keeps, had given way to castles which, though still fortified, were more friendly and habitable. The cultivated parts of the island were dotted with manor houses where hearty freeholders, like the franklin of the Canterbury Tales, ruled their broad acres and dispensed a bounteous hospitality. Travel was very unsafe, for men in "buckram and Kendal green," the successors of Robin Hood and his merry men, lay in wait for booty, and levied tribute upon merchant, nobleman, and churchman alike. England's navy had already come into being, and her growing sea-trade, with which piracy and smuggling were not seldom combined, filled her seaports with a motley crowd of foreign types. Internal commerce was carried on largely by means of fairs, where chapmen brought their wares and mountebanks their tricks, as to that fair which Bunyan described, three centuries later, in his Pilgrim's Progress. News was spread chiefly by wandering pedlers, or by pilgrims journeying to or from some holy shrine. The sports of the nobility and clergy were hunting, hawking, and jousting at tournaments; the poorer classes amused themselves with wrestling, single-stick, archery, and in many cruder ways, such as baiting bulls and bears with savage dogs. All classes alike looked on with awed interest at the miracle-plays, biblical dramas presented by apprentices of the trade guilds, with a movable wagon for stage and the open street for theatre.
Such was the picturesque and varied society which Chaucer, the great realist and observer, brings before us. A part of the rich heritage he has left us he received from loving acquaintance with nature; a part came to him through books, of which he was a devoted student; but the greater part came from the human life about him. He was at once a dreamer, a student, and a man of affairs; and it was in this last capacity that he got his largest training,—from war, the court, travel, business, and politics.
II. GEOFFREY CHAUCER (134O-I4OO)
Chaucer's Youth.—Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1340, of a family of London merchants. His father, a member of the Corporation of Vintners, had been purveyor to King Edward III. When Chaucer was a boy of six the nation was stirred by the news of Crecy; and as a lad of sixteen he may have witnessed, after Poictiers, the triumphal entry of the Black Prince into London, bringing with him as a captive the French king. The connection of Chaucer's father with the court, as purveyor of wines to the royal table, may have been the circumstance which made it possible for Chaucer, when about seventeen, to become a page in the household of the king's daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Clarence. Two years later he went with the king's army to France. Here he saw unrolled the brilliant pageant of mediaeval war, at a time when chivalry and knighthood, though they had lost something of their inner meaning, still gave occasion for rich display. He beheld the unsuccessful siege of the city of Rheims, was captured by the French, and held as a prisoner of war until ransomed by his royal master.
Chaucer's French Period.—On his return to England Chaucer was made a Squire of the King's Bedchamber, and proba1 bly spent the next ten years at Edward's court, then the most brilliant in Europe. The court of Edward was still practically a French court; and Chaucer, although he seems to have decided very early to use his native tongue, necessarily turned to France for his literary models. The first period of his poetic life was spent in learning all that the French trouveres and ballad-writers had to teach him concerning his chosen art. The most famous work which the school of French trouveres had produced was the Roman de la Rose, an elaborate allegory of love, the rose, growing in a mystic garden, warded by symbolic figures from the lover's approach. The Roman de la Rose was Chaucer's first training school, and he took his training with characteristic thoroughness by translating the poem into English verse. Less than two thousand lines of this translation have survived; indeed, the whole may never have been completed. But the Roman de la Rose left a profound impression upon Chaucer's work, and for years he thought and wrote in the atmosphere which it created for him. During these years of French influence he wrote, for the knights and ladies of King Edward's court, those "ballades, roundels, virelays," by which his fellow-poet Gower says "the land fulfilled was over-all." The most important work which remains to us from his pure French period, however, is the Book oj the Duchesse, also known as "The Death of Blaunche the Duchesse," written in 1369, to solace the bereavement of her husband, John of Gaunt, the king's third son.
Chaucer's Middle Life: Italian Period.—In 1370, Chaucer was sent to the Continent on royal business. This was the first of many official missions which he executed for the king during the next ten years, in various parts of Europe, especially in Italy, where he went twice as the king's emissary. The opportunity afforded by these journeys for converse with many types of men, and observation of widely varying manners, was of the utmost importance in his poetic education.
On Chaucer's return to England after his first Italian mission, in 1372, his services were rewarded by the gift of the important post of controller of the customs on wool, skins, and tanned hides at the port of London; to which was added the