The Canterbury Tales – Historical Context

In The Canterbury Tales, especially so The General Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer never ceases to amaze with his endless variety, his humour, his deft use of the couplet, his richly creative picture of fourteenth century England and his in-depth understanding of human nature..

We all know that the literature of a period reflects that particular age and if the work under consideration is a satire, as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is, it becomes all the more necessary for us to find out more about the Age which is being thus exposed and satirized.

Historical Context

The Middle Ages and ‘Change’

The one word that describes the Middle Ages is ‘change’. It was a change from the old to the new, from medieval to modern, from feudalism to capitalism, from town to city, from a king by Divine right to a king who proves himself most able. There were many developments taking place; aristocracy was on the decline, the increase in trade had given rise to capitalism, which made for greater social mobility of the classes. Serfdom was being abolished. The spread of schooling had increased the number of literate people, and men now being able to read the Bible on their own, had begun to question the Church. In fact it was an age of rapid transitions, of achievements as well as disasters.

The Political Front

On the, political front, England’s victories began at Crecy, when the English routed the French in the Year 1346. This was followed immediately by the crushing defeat of the Scotch at Neville’s Cross and the tempo was kept up when after another ten years, on Sept. 19, 1356, the Black Prince won another brilliant, victory over the French near Poitiers.

These were the years of amazing good fortune for England. It reigned supreme on land as well as sea and the proud Englishman was exposed to the new feelings of nationalism and patriotism. But it was too good to last and too difficult to maintain. The downfall began in the year 1367 when England went to war with Spain. Though the Black Prince won the battle at Najera, yet the victory was fruitless and the war with Spain dragged on for many years incurring heavy losses. By the year 1385, there was such a reversal in the military situation that the threat of the French invasion made the Englishman tremble with fear.

The Setbacks

While on the one hand the picture of ‘Merry England’ is associated with Medieval England, with happiness and prosperity all around, on the other hand it was one of the most strife-torn times in the history of the country. Not only were there political setbacks, there were ravages of Nature too in the form of disease and pestilence and the most dreaded of them all the Plague or the Black Death as it is commonly referred to, struck England in the year 1348. Beginning in Dorchester it spread rapidly from one town to another, claiming innumerable lives as it went. As though the loss of lives in the first visitation of this appalling calamity was not enough, it returned to strike three times in the course of the century and swept with it nearly half the population of England.

The Labour Class

At first prices fell sharply because people had forgotten to set much store by material goods. But gradually, the pendulum swung to the other extreme and money once again recovered the purchasing power it had in the former years. The rising prices made the gulf between the rich and the poor, even more wide and the worst sufferers were the laborers whose wages, had not been increased at all and were now not enough even to help them survive. After the year of the Black Death, the labour class began demanding higher wages, and since there was shortage of hands due to the heavy loss of life in the plague, these labourers got what they demanded. It was with a mind to curb the unreasonable demands of these labourers, that in the year 1349, the king issued a proclamation, forbidding the payment of a higher wages than had been given before. The next Parliament passed the famous Statute of Labourers. Though this statute attempted to fix the wages of the labourers as well as the prices of essential commodities, yet the cunning tradesmen thwarted the latter aim. The labourers sought for ways and means to improve their lot. They disregarded their allegiance to their lord or manor and moved from place to place in search of better wages. Thieving and robbing were on the increase. Discontent grew and spread fast culminating in the famous uprising of 1381, also known as the Peasant’s Revolt.

Trade unionism and the labour movements of the later years were foreshadowed in this uprising. For three days England had a bitter taste of the fury of the discontented masses. Many people were massacred. The poor peasants, being denied even the minimum sustenance, attacked the house of the rich in a fit of rage. John of Gaunt’s palace was raised to the ground. The king made a show of promise of granting them pardon but once the rebels had returned back home he revoked his orders and there followed widespread execution of the rebels all over England. Chaucer’s Ploughman in The General Prologue is indeed an ideal and not factual portrait of a member of the labouring class.

The Rising Middle Class

While we see such abject poverty on the one hand, on the other there was a sudden influx of wealth due to growing trade and commerce and also due to the plundering brought from the various wars that England won. People apart from the aristocracy or landed gentry, were now becoming rich. The feudal set-up was breaking up thus leading to fluidity in classes and a greater social mobility. Now it was not necessary that a serf would remain a serf. Trade had brought with it the promise of wealth and the corresponding rise in capitalism gave rise to new standards of living. Chaucer, too, in The General Prologue has included various people to represent these rising merchant classes – there is the Shipman, the Five Guildsmen, the Wife of Bath, the Manciple, and the Merchant and so on. But one interesting fact about these people is that they seem to be indulging in a lot of extravagances. As far as the Five Guildsmen are concerned, Chaucer is careful to point out that they are dressed above their station having even their knives tipped with silver thus drawing our attention to a very interesting development of the times. Extravagance in the area of dress and of food had grown to disgusting limits. In fact the literature of the times is full of humorous and satirical descriptions of the clothes people wore and the food they ate. To control this situation the Parliament had issued an ordinance regulating the kind of clothing for all ranks in society and also for regulating the diets of certain classes in society. Of course one need not add that the system did not work and so we find Chaucer’s Guildsmen flourishing their silver tipped knives quite brazenly.

The Ecclesiasts and the Church

Society in Chaucer’s times was becoming increasingly materialistic and people did not fail to use dishonest means. The Reeve and Manciple are just two of the many examples from Chaucer’s gallery who can illustrate this point. But dishonesty and corruption at the level of the Church had become so rampant that frequently the satirist aimed to bark at this institution of fourteenth century England. Even Chaucer is most critical of the ecclesiastical characters among his pilgrims, and not without reasons. The churchmen who preached a spirit of sacrifice had become greedy and self-seeking. Those who were to be the epitome of discipline, sharing and teaching others to have respect for authority were now themselves showing a complete disregard and contempt of authority. The begging Friars were able to extort money even from the needy; the wicked pardoner cheated the people by selling fraudulent relics (just as Chaucer’s Pardoner does). The Monks were harsh landlords and the parish priests were shirkers of duty. Chaucer’s poor Parson is an idealized portrait just as the Ploughman was earlier.

Spread of Literacy

Apart from the rise in commerce there was a rapid growth in another direction as well. Literacy was on the rise with a rapid spread of schooling, and it was no longer the privilege of the clerics or clergy only. In the latter half of the fourteenth century, literate laymen were abundant in number. But the shortage of books was keenly felt since printing was not possible. The printing press, which was in a sense, the greatest invention of the age, was still many years away. For the time being, books were circulated in manuscript form and copies were made by hand. It was a tedious and laborious process where scribes were especially employed for the purpose. Often they made mistakes and if a copy was made from a copy, these mistakes were carried further. At times a mistake even if noticed, was not corrected because it would mean spoiling the looks of a whole page. Thus an untidy manuscript was far more reliable than one which was absolutely clean and beautiful. This process of copying books by hand thus led to variations in each copy, and today, if we try to reconstruct say Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it would mean taking about eighty manuscripts into account. We can understand therefore, why books were such priceless possessions in Chaucer’s England and were even bequeathed in wills. While on the subject of Education it is worth mentioning, the two very important contributions that fourteenth century England made in this direction. The new college system was introduced for the first time in England and the Inns of Court for the study of law were opened where Chaucer is supposed to have studied for a few years.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer puts before us a picture of a society in which medieval ideals were breaking down and as Dudley French writes these ideals “had become so old fashioned that only a few quixotic persons any longer allowed them to interfere with their materialistic purposes.” Excitement and apprehension about the coming age, and nostalgia for the passing values are both mingled in The Canterbury Tales to make it a true picture of fourteenth century England.

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