Cultural Background of The Age of Chaucer

As it is well known, Chaucer divides society into the three conventional estates – the knight (nobility), the working man (the third estate) and the ecclesiastic (the church). The fact that he leaves out the two extremes of aristocracy and serfdom suggests a deliberate choice of a bourgeois perspective: he observes society mainly through the eyes of the rising middle classes. At the same time, his irony is also directed at them. This technique enables him to capture the old and the new in his time with rare subtlety. He begins in The Canterbury Tales fairly high in the ecclesiastical hierarchy with the Prioress and the Monk, then come the Friar and the Nun’s Priest or Chaplain, then the Parson and the Clerk, then the Summoner and the Pardoner.

Perhaps no other element in Chaucer’s world brings out the gap between the ideal and the actual as the code of chivalry and the conventions of courtly love. Harking back to pagan morality, chivalry anticipates the concept of the modem gentleman. The true and perfect knight was distinguished by fearless strength, charity and faith. Actually, the knights had been only mounted soldiers and not much more. In 1095, Pope Urban II in Rome exhorted the knights of the First Crusade on their way to the Holy Land to give up cruelty and greed in favor of Christian values of charity, sacrifice and faith. The Cross is joined with the Sword. With the reduction of war as the twelfth century advanced, leisure gave rise to war games like jousts and tournaments and the allied concept of courtly love. Although as a cultural ideal, courtly love had a refining and civilizing influence, it remained primarily a literary convention and hence will be dealt with later.

What was the actual state of affairs? From the earliest age of chivalry, chroniclers and observers have pointed out so many inconsistencies and corruptions that one is left to question the entire social code. Despite the values of moderation, magnanimity and protection of the weak, the chivalric ideal presupposed a society where serfs outnumbered freemen. The code did reach a high point in the first half of the thirteenth century. But even here the decay began soon enough, caused by the decline in crusading zeal and by the rising wealth of the merchant classes. Instead of fighting the infidel for the possession of the Holy Land, Christians either fought among themselves or led a life of pleasure. The rich citizens brought much material comfort but their wealth weakened the feudal aristocracy: they began to buy for themselves the ranks of knighthood. In fact, Edward I perhaps wanted to accelerate this process by compelling all freeholders possessing an estate of £20 a year to become knights. At the same time, honest commerce acquired a dignity in every field of life; although the knights were forbidden by civil law to become traders or merchants, they could hardly resist the forces of history. The Cistercians, possibly the richest religious body in England derived their wealth mainly from success in the wool trade. Of course, in the Hundred Years’ War, the knights made themselves suddenly rich by looting efficiently certainly, the custom of ransoming prisoners brought a commercial element into knightly life. The real trouble between Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Hotspur begins, we may briefly note, with the ransoming of prisoners.

Courtly love conventions are not a reliable guide to the actual conditions of love and marriage in Chaucer’s time. Marriages were negotiated with great haste on purely commercial motives; this was also the reason for the many child marriages. A woman could inherit property but in order to defend it she needed a husband. Divorce was easy, though only for rich people who were scheming for larger inheritance. The idealized woman of courtly love who was put on a pedestal to be worshipped by the knight contrasts violently with the widespread practice of beating wives, sisters and daughters.

Perhaps the idealization was the natural outcome of the unbearable harshness of actuality. There being little privacy in the medieval castle, and women being debarred from the masculine recreations of physical exercise, drinking and war, they were confined to intolerable boredom that often encouraged furtive debauchery. Since marriage was inimical to romantic love, illicit love was idealized in the courtly convention. The power of the code is evident in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Although Criseyde can marry as a young widow, her love with Troilus begins and ends in secret. Even when Troilus comes to know that Criseyde is to be handed over to the Greek camp in exchange for the Trojan prince Antenor, he does not make public their love. That would have at once made them man and wife.

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