The Age of Chaucer and the Contemporary England

The fourteenth century is a period of great political, social, religious and literary activity. Politically it was a period of the Hundred Years’ War which strengthened the feeling of national consciousness and patriotism both in England and France, people began to realize that they were Englishmen of Frenchmen and the idea of a Holy Empire vaporized from their thoughts. The victory at the battle of Crecy (1346) and of Portiers (1356) made Englishmen fervent patriots. As these crucial battles were largely won by the English yeomen, middle class sprang up to ascendancy. They gradually grabbed power from the hand of the nobility. Power, like a slippery cell , slipped from the hand of the nobility.

The English Parliament, democratic to the very core, came into prominence. The position of the King was not better than a doll or a puppet. He was reduced to a doleful condition. He was like a bird whose wings were clipped off. He was not the ruler but he was ruled by his subjects. He did not dictate but he was dictated by the Parliament. No new taxes were levied and imposed without the consent of the Parliament, no new policy could be formulated without the acquiescence of the Parliament. The Parliament was all in all. Jusserand says, “From the end of the 14th century an English man could already say, as he does today”, “My business is not the business of the state, but the business of the state is my business.”

The Age of Chaucerwitnessed a rapid growth in trade and commerce. The English people shed off their insularity and became travelers returning with wider interests and a larger horizon England became commercially important. Small traders and handicraft grew into power and began to behave like alderman’ and well to-do Citizens. In the Prologue Chaucer says about the Members of a guild:
Wel seemed ech of hem a fav burgeys
To sjtten in a yeldehalle on a dyas
Everich, for the wisdom that he can,
Was shaply for to been an alderman.

Women were thought inferior to men. Women of lower strata of society were hard worked and doomed to a life of unrelieved drudgery. Most of them were illiterate. The ladies of higher society displayed an excess of delicacy and decorum. The court ladies showed’ false pity and sentimentality. Women of the upper strata enjoyed pelf and power only by marriage. The only alternative to marriage was nunnery. To the churchmen women were the source of all evil; to the courtly poets and romantic squires, they were adorable creatures. Chaucer’s Squire belongs to th second category
And born him wel as of so litel space
In hope t0 stonden in his lady grace.

 Child marriage was in vogue among the rich and wealthy persons. Richard II himself married the child daughter of the King of France. Dowry was in practice and girls were sometimes sold.

In the domain of religion, England broke her relations with the Papacy. As the seat of Papacy was removed from Rome to Avignon and the Pope supported the French ‘loyalty to the Pope came into conflict with hatred of France, and the new sentiment of national patriotism proved the stronger Other incidents also hastened the irritation of the English. The Papacy had become a stronghold of profligacy, vices and corruption. As the foreigners, French and Italian, deputed by the Pope to the richest clerical post in England spent their income abroad, the national pride was stimulated. When a French Pope, as the last court of appeal in matters of the canons of law, poked his nose in judgments of English courts, it fanned the flame of national hatred and animosity. This anti-papal agitation, though pure political in character, could not fail to shake also the religious authority of the church. In 1378 Europe saw two rival Popes, each casting slur upon the other, England supported Urban VI, the Pope of Rome; while France consented to Clement VII of Avignon.

The direct result of this schism was a crushing blow upon the sanctity of the Papal authority. It weakened the Papacy. Corruption in the church took the place of indiscipline. The greater prelates heaped up wealth; and lived in godless and worldly way, the rank and file of the clergy was ignorant and careless, the mendicant friars were notorious for their greed and profligacy. “In this spiritual desert it was natural that there should appear prophets, whether we call them fanatics or reformers: and to some e*tent at least they were supported by a general discontent.’

Wycliffe “the morning star of the Reformation” launched Lollard’s movement to eradicate evils from the church. Poets like Chaucer, Langland and Grower presented nuked deplorable condition of the Papacy and its members. “Chaucer’s Prologue shows a world on which avarice and deceit are all but universal”. Chaucer’s Monk is s worldly person who had deserted his ecclesiastical services. Chaucer’s Friar is “a wonton and merry fellow.”
He knew the taverns wet in eve,y town
And everich hostiler and tapestere.

As for the literary activities, the Age of Chaucer witnessed the rise of the English language. The English language was standardized and the East Middland dialect became the language of London and the Universities. The other dialects Southern, Northumbrian and Kentish- rapidly melted away from literature. It was the work of Chaucer who made the dialect of London the standard for future writers and the parent of current modern English. The Canterbury Tales is a landmark in the history of English as well as in the English Language.

The era witnessed the foundation of an English prose style. “Earlier specimens been experimental or purely imitative, now, in the works of Mandeville and Mallory, we have prose that is both original and individual. The English tongue is now ripe for a prose style”.

The age of anonymity, when authors did not give out their names, passed away and the authors of the age of Chaucer were in favour of revealing their identity. The greater numbers of books of this period can definitely be ascribed.

In spite of a throng of lesser writers, the Age saw five outstanding and prominent literaryy figures. Theme is the anonymous author of Sir Gowayne and the Pearl. There Langland, Gower, Wycliffe and above all Chaucer. Wycliffe, the translator of the Bible, was s versatile and vigorous prose writer. Prose writers, like Wycliffe, Mandeville add Mallory developed a prose style. In the department of poetry Chaucer, Langland and Gower, rendered incalculable and meritorious service. The main literary forms developed in poetry were the rise of allegory, the development of the ballad, descriptive and narrative poems and the metrical romances. New metres like Rhyme Royal, ottava rima and Heroic Couplet came in fashion.

The Age of Chaucer is a period of great activity in all walks of life. The age resembles not a stagnant pool but a flowing river. This Age with its vexed and troubled problems approximates the Modern Age. Kittredge calls the period “a singularly modern time” R.K. Root in his book The Poetry of Chaucer has beautifully summed up the chief traits of the Age in the following words:

“But in the world of fourteenth century England was sadly Out of joint, it was far from being stagnant. In its intellectual ferment the age had much the same- character as the age of great Elizabeth. There was the same glow of patriotism and national consciousness consequent upon a series of brilliant victories against a foreign foe: there was-the same spirit of revolt against a foreign church, and, though the forms of medievalism still survived, there was at work the same leaven of new ideas and of new conception of life, reinforced by a new interest in the works of classical antiquity, coming over seas from Italy: literature and art was breaking away from the conventional and under the influence of new models, was drinking against at the fountain head of nature. For such periods of restlessness and change have often given birth to great creative literature.” 

Ardhendu De

Ref: The poetry of Chaucer; a guide to its study and appreciation by Root, Robert K. (Robert Kilburn), 1877-1950


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