The Age of Chaucer
(1350 - 1533)
For out of oldė feldės, as men seith,
Cometh al this newė corn fro yeer te yere;
And out of oldė bokės, in good feith,
Cometh all this newė science that men lere.
Chaucer, "Parliament of Foules"
Specimens of the Language
Our first selection, from Piers Plowman
(cir. 1362), is the satire of Belling the Cat. The language is that
of the common people, and the verse is in the old Saxon manner, with accent
and alliteration. The scene is a council of rats and mice (common people)
called to consider how best to deal with the cat (court), and it satirizes
the popular agitators who declaim against the government. The speaker is a
rat, "a raton of renon, most renable of tonge":
"I have y-seen segges," quod he,
"in the cite of London
Beren beighes ful brighte
abouten here nekkes....
Were there a belle on here beighe,
certes, as me thynketh,
Men myghte wite where thei went,
and awei renne!
And right so," quod this raton,
"reson me sheweth
To bugge a belle of brasse
or of brighte sylver,
And knitten on a colere
for owre comune profit,
And hangen it upon the cattes hals;
than hear we mowen
Where he ritt or rest
or renneth to playe." ...
Alle this route of ratones
to this reson thei assented;
Ac tho the belle was y-bought
and on the beighe hanged,
Ther ne was ratoun in alle the route,
for alle the rewme of Fraunce,
That dorst have y-bounden the belle
aboute the cattis nekke.
"I have seen creatures" (dogs), quoth he,
"in the city of London
Bearing collars full bright
around their necks....
Were there a bell on those collars,
assuredly, in my opinion,
One might know where the dogs go,
and run away from them!
And right so," quoth this rat,
"reason suggests to me
To buy a bell of brass
or of bright silver,
And tie it on a collar
for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck;
in order that we may hear
Where he rides or rests
or runneth to play." ...
All this rout (crowd) of rats
to this reasoning assented;
But when the bell was bought
and hanged on the collar,
There was not a rat in the crowd
that, for all the realm of France
Would have dared to bind the bell
about the cat's neck.
The second selection is from Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" (cir.
1375). It was written "in the French manner" with rime and meter, for the
upper classes, and shows the difference between literary English and the
speech of the common people:
In th' olde dayės of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene with hir joly companye
Dauncėd ful ofte in many a grene mede;
This was the olde opinion, as I rede.
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;
But now kan no man see none elves mo.
The next two selections (written cir. 1450) show how rapidly the
language was approaching modern English. The prose, from Malory's Morte
d' Arthur, is the selection that Tennyson closely followed in his
"Passing of Arthur." The poetry, from the ballad of "Robin Hood and the
Monk," is probably a fifteenth-century version of a much older English
"'Therefore,' sayd Arthur unto Syr Bedwere, 'take thou Excalybur my
good swerde, and goo with it, to yonder water syde, and whan thou
comest there I charge the throwe my swerde in that water, and come
ageyn and telle me what thou there seest.'
"'My lord,' sayd Bedwere, 'your commaundement shal be doon, and
lyghtly brynge you worde ageyn.'
"So Syr Bedwere departed; and by the waye he behelde that noble
swerde, that the pomel and the hafte was al of precyous stones; and
thenne he sayd to hym self, 'Yf I throwe this ryche swerde in the
water, thereof shal never come good, but harme and losse.' And
thenne Syr Bedwere hydde Excalybur under a tree."
In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyr foreste
To here the foulys song:
To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hillės hee,
And shadow hem in the levės grene,
Under the grene-wode tre.
The history of England during this period is
largely a record of strife and confusion. The struggle of the House
of Commons against the despotism of kings; the Hundred Years War
with France, in which those whose fathers had been Celts, Danes,
Saxons, Normans, were now fighting shoulder to shoulder as
Englishmen all; the suffering of the common people, resulting in
the Peasant Rebellion; the barbarity of the nobles, who were
destroying one another in the Wars of the Roses; the beginning of
commerce and manufacturing, following the lead of Holland, and the
rise of a powerful middle class; the belated appearance of the
Renaissance, welcomed by a few scholars but unnoticed by the masses
of people, who remained in dense ignorance,--even such a brief
catalogue suggests that many books must be read before we can enter
into the spirit of fourteenth-century England. We shall note here
only two circumstances, which may help us to understand Chaucer and
the age in which he lived.
The first is that the age of Chaucer, if examined carefully, shows
many striking resemblances to our own. It was, for example, an age
of warfare; and, as in our own age of hideous inventions, military
methods were all upset by the discovery that the foot soldier with
his blunderbuss was more potent than the panoplied knight on
horseback. While war raged abroad, there was no end of labor
troubles at home, strikes, "lockouts," assaults on imported workmen
(the Flemish weavers brought in by Edward III), and no end of
experimental laws to remedy the evil. The Turk came into Europe,
introducing the Eastern and the Balkan questions, which have ever
since troubled us. Imperialism was rampant, in Edward's claim to
France, for example, or in John of Gaunt's attempt to annex
Castile. Even "feminism" was in the air, and its merits were
shrewdly debated by Chaucer's Wife of Bath and his Clerk of
Oxenford. A dozen other "modern" examples might be given, but the
sum of the matter is this: that there is hardly a social or
political or economic problem of the past fifty years that was not
violently agitated in the latter half of the fourteenth century.
[Footnote: See Kittredge, Chaucer and his Poetry (1915), pp.
A second interesting circumstance is that this medieval age
produced two poets, Langland and Chaucer, who were more realistic
even than present-day writers in their portrayal of life, and who
together gave us such a picture of English society as no other
poets have ever equaled. Langland wrote his Piers Plowman in
the familiar Anglo-Saxon style for the common people, and pictured
their life to the letter; while Chaucer wrote his Canterbury
Tales, a poem shaped after Italian and French models,
portraying the holiday side of the middle and upper classes.
Langland drew a terrible picture of a degraded land, desperately in
need of justice, of education, of reform in church and state;
Chaucer showed a gay company of pilgrims riding through a
prosperous country which he called his "Merrie England." Perhaps
the one thing in common with these two poets, the early types of
Puritan and Cavalier, was their attitude towards democracy.
Langland preached the gospel of labor, far more powerfully than
Carlyle ever preached it, and exalted honest work as the patent of
nobility. Chaucer, writing for the court, mingled his characters in
the most democratic kind of fellowship and, though a knight rode at
the head of his procession, put into the mouth of the Wife of Bath
his definition of a gentleman:
Loke who that is most vertuous alway,
Privee and apert,  and most entendeth aye
To do the gentle dedes that he can,
And take him for the grettest gentilman.
[Footnote : Secretly and openly.]