The poetry of Chaucer and his contemporaries is best understood in the context of the transition in European society from declining feudalism to an emerging money economy characterized by the rise of the middle classes. Although the English people still largely lived in small, self-sufficient villages, the very fact that Chaucer was an urban poet already suggests a change. Here we need to remember that unlike France, England had broken out of the feudal system rather early.
We could begin by taking a preliminary look at the growing importance and wealth of towns because of trade and commerce. Because of the lucrative wool trade, agricultural land was being converted at many places into pasture for rearing sheep. This required fewer farm-hands, giving rise to a gradual exodus of labor from country to town, from farming to the craft-gilds. Of course, such processes of social transformation do not take place abruptly: in the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas More continues to attack the ‘enclosure’ system, that is, the conversion of arable land into pasture. But at least three historical events can be identified which accelerated change: the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt.
In a sense the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (beginning in 1337) is rooted in the feudal structure of European society. The modern nation-state comes into being in the transition from medieval to Renaissance Europe. Before that, through matrimonial alliances Kings were feudal lords of laid and property in foreign countries and often laid claim to their thrones. The basic cause of dispute between England and France was thus the English possessions on French soil. War with France and Scotland brought honor to the English monarchy but drained the resources of the Crown, making the barons more powerful. In the changing situation, the barons often included the magnates and comparatively recent merchant princes. After the deposition and murder of the weak and willful king, Edward II, Edward III decided to recover prestige through foreign campaigns, and for some time, succeeded in catching the popular imagination. Flanders, the biggest customer for English wool, appealed for aid to Edward in their conflict with the King of France. Edward’s alliances against France in the Netherlands and the Rhineland (Germany) were matched by the counter-alliances of Philip VI, the French monarch. The immediate pretext of the protracted Hundred Years’ War was Edward’s claim to the. French throne through his mother, Isabella, challenging that of Philip VI. It is ironic that the same Philip had been crowned in 1327 and Edward had done homage to him for Gascony in 1329.
A series of victories bolstered English pride in the mid-fourteenth century. The victory at Crecy (1346), where English yeomen archers and Welsh knifemen routed French chivalry was immediately followed by the Crushing defeat of the Scots at Neville’s Cross. Military glory and patriotic fanaticism that accompanied these successes reached a peak in the triumph of the Black Prince, son of Edward, over the French near Poitiers (1356), where the French king was taken prisoner. The peace of Bretagne in 1360 made Edward ruler of one-third of France, but the financial burden of the war began to tell on England. The intervention in Spain proved to be unwise, since despite the Black Prince’s last victory against Spain at Najera (13671, the war dragged on, and reverses mounted upon reverses until finally England was left with only a foothold around Calais and a weakened navy.
Ultimately what the Hundred Years’ War did was to change the old code of chivalry: Shakespeare brings this out ironically in his history plays (the second tetralogy from Richard II to Henry V). Edward I and Edward III in a sense created the modern infantry. The yeoman archer, the development of a local militia at home and something akin to modern conscription gave the English soldiers a definite edge over the French, The situation on the battlefield contributed to the emergence of democratic forces in England. The sense of a people’s will, representing the rise of the English people with all their proud defiance, presents a sharp contrast to the French peasants’ situation, and adds new life to the poetry of Chaucer. More immediately, the looting and pillage of France by English soldiers, that Chaucer must have witnessed in his French campaigns, may well have resulted in his sympathy for the helpless.
The war, which had brought prosperity to various classes in England because of the rich booty and high wages for soldiers, suffered a severe check from the Black Death (1348-49), a deadly form of the highly infectious bubonic plague carried across Europe by black rats. Because of insanitary conditions, it affected towns more than villages, and the poor died everywhere like flies. Probably one-third of England’s population perished in the plague. Abating towards the end of 1349, the epidemic revived in 1361, 1362 and 1369, continuing to break out sporadically until the late seventeenth century, when medical science improved and the black rat was driven out by the brown rat, which did not carry the disease.
The high mortality at once increased the demand for labor on the farm and weakened the obligations of feudal tenure. This situation found a parallel among the clergy. Many livings (ecclesiastical posts) fell vacant, and the clergy often supported the laborers’ demand for higher wages. It is thus not surprising that Chaucer’s Franklin was a freeholder and that even his Plowman had acquired a new freedom enabling him to offer his services to others. The devastation, however, failed to dampen the martial ardor of the king and his barons. Even as the Black Death was raging, Edward III developed his Order of the Garter which became the model for all later chivalric orders.
It was thus a time of political unrest and uncertainty: we must not forget that two kings, Edward III and Richard II, were deposed and murdered in the fourteenth century. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 has to be seen in this background. But first let us have some idea of the condition of the poor in England. In 1381, more than half the people did not possess the privileges that had been guaranteed to every ‘freeman’ by the Magna Carta (1215) in the reign of King John. The serf and the villein had the status of livestock in the master’s household, although the above-mentioned factors had started to push them out of bondage to the comparative freedom of crafts in towns. In theory the-laborers had an elected representative, the Reeve, supposedly to counterbalance the Steward or Bailiff. But as the wealth of the towns often drew away an absentee landlord, the Reeve as substitute became a feared enemy of the people, as in the portraits of Chaucer and Langland. The poor had to pay fines for marriage or sending a son to school, and the inhuman heriot or mortuary tax exacted at death-bed was responsible for much resentment.
The immediate provocation for the revolt was the Poll Tax or head tax. The financial burden of the wars forced the government to ask Parliament to allow heavy taxes. But since such taxes usually affected the propertied classes which dominated Parliament, in 1380, taxes were levied on even the poorest. The sudden outbreak of rebellion under the leadership of Wat Tyler resulted in the peasants, accustomed to levies for French campaigns, attacking London, destroying property and putting the Archbishop of Canterbury lo death. The uprising collapsed equally suddenly, partly because of the shrewdness and courage of King Richard II, who promptly went back on his promises as soon as the rebels had dispersed. Although the movement failed, it was for the first time that the poor peasant had fought for his basic right of freedom; there was very little looting in the Revolt. Despite a brief reference to it in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer concerns himself with the sufferings of individual poor men and not the poor in bulk. For the portrayal of the rural proletariat as opposed to the prosperous farmer class which also grew at that time, we have to go to Langland.
What was the situation in the towns? Apart from London, all English towns were smaller than those of industrialized Flanders and northern Italy. A medium-sized English town would have only 3,000 or 4,000 inhabitants, and town and country flowed into one another. They were fortified by walls since there were no policemen in the modern sense. Their social and economic life was dominated by the merchants and the gilds. The merchant gilds were the most powerful and important; the craft gilds took second place. Parish gilds were also organized for charitable work. Often engaged in rivalry and competition-in the thirteen-eighties there was virtually a war between the older food-trade gilds and the newer cloth gilds-the gilds were easily identified by their distinctive liveries. They also competed with each other to put up on Feast days the colorful pageantry of Miracles and Moralities, drama based on the Bible and saints’ lives.
While working at the Custom-House and living over the Aldgate Tower, Chaucer came to know and love this colorful London life. He would have noticed churches as well as taverns around him: we may note in passing that the pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral (in The Canterbury Tales) begins at the Tabard Inn. London was a busy town of about 40,000 people with a certain openness about its markets and shops. Apart from churches and splendid houses of noblemen, the ordinary citizens’ and artisans’ dwellings had an equally arresting variety. Most of them were of timber and plaster with only side-gables of masonry to prevent the spreading of fires. The ground floor was generally open to the street and outside stairs seem to have been common: There was little comfort or privacy, and instead of glass, the windows had wooden shutters. Since such shutters and weak walls made eavesdropping and housebreaking easy, and streets were unlit, wanderers at night were severely punished. Furniture was kept at the barest minimum. There was generally only one bedroom; for most of the household, the house meant simply the hall. But the common life of the hall was declining among the upper classes with increasing wealth and material comfort. The energy and excitement of London was primarily outdoors, in the street, which was the scene of royal processions and tournaments, the Mayor’s annual ride as well as crime and riot.