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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Age of Chaucer and the Revival of Learning (1350-1550)
by Long, William J.


  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 song:

    "'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.


Historical Outline

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.

Modern Problems

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. 2-5.]

Realistic Poetry

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, [1] and most entendeth aye
      To do the gentle dedes that he can,
      And take him for the grettest gentilman.


[Footnote [1]: Secretly and openly.]

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