Chaucer as the Chronicler of the 14th Century England

In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has given a picture of the fourteenth century social and religious conditions. The Prologue, is in fact, a cross-section of English life in the fourteenth century. Chaucer was a true literary artist who realised that the calling of the poet is to faithfully reflect the age in his works, In this aspect, he can be compared to Pope in the eighteenth century and Tennyson in the Victorian age. Pope’s Essay on Man. Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, are all expressions of the literary tendencies, fashions and manners of his age. Likewise, “for nearly half a century Tennyson was not only a man and a poet, he was a voice, the voice of a whole people, expressing in exquisite melody, their doubts and their faith, their griefs and their triumphs”. His Locksley Hall, Princess, The Palace of Art, Maud, Idylls of the King and In Memoriam, all bear witness to the above observation of W. J. Long.

Like Pope and Tennyson. Chaucer too is the voice of his age. He represents the age not in fragments, but as a whole. In this respect. He differs from his such contemporaries as Wycliffe. Gower and Langland. Wycliffe concentrated on religious reformation. Gower expressed the fear of the wealthier classes on account of the Peasants’ Revolt and Langland highlighted the rampant corruption in the Church. But it was reserved for Chaucer to take within the range of his brush the whole of the English society. In his works, he “showed the world as it did exist-the England of his days-a world of reality, a world various and beautiful hitherto kept away from literature.”

Chaucer gives us a microcosm of English society in the Prologue. All classes of people are here represented except the highest and the lowest. The fourteenth century English society could be broadly divided into three groups. First, there were people representing agricultural. Feudal and chivalric class. Second, those associated with the church and religion. And third were those who represented various trades and professions and who were the symbols of the growing urbanisation in the medieval England.

The chivalric spirit of the age of Chaucer is represented by the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman. The knight represents the fading chivalry of the Middle Ages. He has fought in as many as fifteen mortal battles. He is a symbol of all knightly virtues. The Squire is the representative of the newly emerging chivalrous spirit. Being a young man, he cherishes youthful feelings, consequently, he cannot only joust but also compose songs and dance. The Yeoman is a sincere servant of the Knight. The Franklin and the Reeve are the representatives of the age-old feudalism. The Franklin holds land for his lord, but more probably in his own right. The Reeve acts as a manager of an estate and makes full use of his power for his own profit. The Ploughman is the lowest in the feudal hierarchy. He is a sincere labourer of the fields.

Eight of Chaucer’s pilgrims represent the ecclesiastical class. They are the Prioress, her Chaplain, the Monk, the Friar, the Clerk, the Parson, the Summoner and the Pardoner. With the exception of the Clerk of Oxford and the Parson, all the ecclesiastical characters represent the decaying religious conditions of the fourteenth century England. The Monk does not bother fa; his calling. He is more worldly than religious. The Prioress is an affected person who cares more about fine manners than about austerity. Her chaplain is a lusty fellow. The Friar is acquainted more with rich people than with the poor and the sick. The Summoner argues that so long as a person has money, he need not fear the curse of the Archdeacon. The Clerk of Oxford, is a sincere seeker of knowledge. He loves books more than worldly things. The parson is a true well-wisher of his parishioners.

The trade and other professions are represented by the Doctor, the Sergeant of Law, the Manciple, the Miller, the Merchant, the Haberdasher, the weaver, the carpenter, the Dyer (the four taken collectively), and of course the Wife of Bath who also represents a class of women. All these characters represent their respective professions popular in Chaucer’s time. The marine trade, however, is represented by the Shipman.

Besides the people belonging to the venous classes of society, Chaucer has referred to various contemporary incidents and social conditions. The most important event was the Black Death which struck England four times. One-half of the population including two-thirds of the London people had been killed. Chaucer throws some light on the inadequacy of the medical science which depended more on astronomy than on medical diagnosis. The Doctor, though a perfect practitioner. is most careful about money which he collected during pestilence. The evils present in the church have been sufficiently referred to by Chaucer. The Monk cares more about pleasures than about a life of austerity. Likewise, the Friar, the Pardoner and the Summoner. all are most corrupt and impious persons.

Extravagance in dress was highly prevalent in Chaucer’s England. The love of display is shown in several characters. The knight’s horses are decked out with more finery than is the knight himself, with “curious harness, as in saddles and bridles. cruppers and breastplates. covered with precious clothing, and with bars and plates of gold and silver.” The Squire is ’embrouded’ and his garments are al ful of fresshe floures whyte and reede’. The Monk wears a coat. the sleeves of which are bordered with fur of the finest quality. The Wife of Bath wants to be seen by all. Her kerchiefs are ‘ful fine’ of texture and weigh ‘ten pounds. Ail the characters are shown to wear clothes according to their rank. position and profession.

Then there are also references to food habits of the people. The Monk loves a roast swan The franklin keeps his table always ready with partridges and fish. The cook loves London ale. He can cook chickens with the marrow bones. The Summoner loves garlic and onions. The pilgrims have a special love of wealth and gold. This shows the growing commercialism and materialistic greed of the people. particularly the religious class.

Thus, it may safely be said about the Prologue that it is a cross-section of the fourteenth century England. There is much of medieval atmosphere and colour in it. It may be read as a word picture of medieval society. But the Prologue should be read with a different angle too. Chaucer is a poet of profound insight and far-reaching vision. He is also the morning star of Renaissance in England. He discerned the break- up of medieval society with keen observation. The Prologue has its supreme interest today because it is the picture of the vanishing age for which a class of readers might have a nostalgic yearning and also because it reveals the coming age. The widespread corruption of the medieval church has its own significance apart from the rottenness of the church itself. It signifies a revolt against the spirit of the Middle Ages. Chaucer has tolerant spirit and extraordinary faith in humanity, and so he can portray the realities of the age with an unperturbed spirit. The Monk makes his earthly life his chief Objective. The Friar discards the vow of poverty, the Franklin identifies happiness with the pursuit of sensual pleasure. All this is Significant. The spirit of other worldliness which characterized and distinguished the Middle Ages had lost its attraction in Chaucer’s age. This is the new spirit reflected in the Prologue. It marks the advent of the modern age.



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