(3) Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - 1400)
Medieval Society Stratification
- medieval society was made up of three estates:
> the nobility, a small hereditary aristocracy, whose mission on earth was to rule over and defend the body politic
> the church, whose duty was to look after the spiritual welfare of that body
> the commoners, a large mass, who was supposed to do the work that provided for its physical needs
- in Chaucer's time a growing and prosperous middle class was beginning to play an increasingly important role, blurring the traditional class boundaries
Chaucer's Social Background
- born into the middle class, as a son of a prosperous wine merchant, but became associated with the upper class
- as a youth served as a page, a personal attendant, in aristocratic households, eventually became an esquire (the nearest equivalent of a gentleman and the highest position a person not born into aristocracy could then achieve)
- captured by the French and ransomed during the Hundred Years War
- took a series of administrative posts: a diplomat, a controller of customs, a clerk of the king's works responsible for the maintenance of royal residences, parks and other holdings
- acquainted with the ruling nobility, including John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and his father King Edward
> towards the end of his life addressed a comic "Complaint to His Purse" to John Gaunt's son, King Henry IV, as a reminder that the treasury owed him his annuity
- at the intersection of the social worlds of the middle class and the upper class, he was able to view with both sympathy and humour the behaviours, beliefs and pretensions of the diverse people comprising the levels of society
- started writing poems in French, the fashionable language of the English aristocracy and the language of literature
- wrote lyrics and verse narratives about courtly love, often presented in the form a dream
< drew on The Romance of the Rose, a 13th century long dream allegory in which the dreamer suffers many trials for the love of a symbolic rosebud
- throughout his life wrote and translated moral and religious works from French, Italian and Latin
> Consolation of Philosophy: a prose translation from a Latin work by the 6th century Roman statesman Boethius written while he was in prison awaiting execution for crimes he never committed
- provides inspiration and comfort through its lesson that worldly fortune is deceitful and through the platonic doctrine that the body itself is only a prison house for the soul aspiring to eternal things
- one of his diplomatic missions brought him into direct contact with the Italian Renaissance, acquainted himself with the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio
> inspired him to write The House of Fame, a dream vision of the poet's journey in the talons of a gigantic eagle to the palace of the goddess Fame, at many points an affectionate parody of Dante's journey in the Divine Comedy
> The Parliament of Fowls, a dream vision in which all the birds meet on St Valentine's Day to choose their mates, a humorous depiction of the ways different classes in human society think and talk about love
> though not acknowledged, Boccaccio served as a basis for "The Knight's Tale" and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385), his longest complete poem telling the story of how the Trojan Prince Troilus loved and finally lost Criseyde to the Greek warrior Diomede
The Canterbury Tales (written 1386 - 1400)
- originally conceived as a series of 120 tales x but: completed 22 tales, began 2 others
- the total number of pilgrims is 30 plus the inn keeper and the organizer of the contest, Harry Bailey, each of the pilgrims should have told two stories on their way to Canterbury and two more on their way back
- Chaucer includes himself as one of the characters, an innocent, naive and gullible pilgrim, whose story is the most boring, is the only to be interrupted but also the only to tell two stories
- the title: the Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite pilgrimage site, the site of murder of archbishop Thomas Becket, a famous English saint and martyr (murdered 1170) who was believed to have healing powers
- uses a fictitious pilgrimage as the framing device for a number of stories
- collections of tales linked in such a way were common in the later Middle Ages (e.g. Boccaccio's Decameron with 10 narrators telling 10 tales within 10 days)
x unlike in Boccaccio, who uses upper-class characters fleeing from black plague, Chaucer presents middle-class characters with a wide spectrum of occupations
- the variety of tellers is matched by the diversity of their tales: the stories contrast in genre, style, tone and values
- some of the stories are linked by the interchanges among the pilgrims who react to the tale and sometimes quarrel, several narrators' stories also respond to topics taken up by previous tellers
Means of Satire:
- Chaucer's character types continue the tradition discernible throughout medieval literature, esp. in estates satire
- like estates satire exposes typical examples of corruption at all levels of society: e.g. the flattering Friar: practices the typical little vanities and larger vices for which such ecclesiastics are conventionally attacked
x unlike estates satire avoids moral judgement, seems even to express admiration of the characters' skills
- most harshly presents the clerical characters, like his contemporary John Wycliffe (1320s - 1384) criticizes the Roman Catholic church, especially the selling of pardons and other practices
- uses carefully selected details to give an integrated sketch of the person being described
- the accumulation of detail (facial features, clothes, favourite foods and drink of the characters etc.) is expressive of the characters' social rank x but: also of their moral and spiritual condition
=> collectively, the characters represent the condition of late-medieval society
- romance, on courtly love of upper-class characters: the story of unrequited love in "The Knight's Tale"
- fabliaux, in contrast to romance concerned with lower-class characters and cuckoldry: "The Miller's Tale"
- fable, with animals representing vices and virtues of human beings: "The Nun Priest's Tale"
- fairy tale, featuring fairies or other supernatural beings: "The Woman of Bath's Tale"
- sermon, a religious genre: "The Pardoner's Tale"
- follows the theory of the four humours:
> sanguine: hot and moist; characterized by blood and the element of air; associated with the spring (e.g. the 'pleasantly plump' Franklin)
> choleric: hot and dry; characterized by yellow bile and fire; associated with the summer
> melancholic: cold and dry; characterized by black bile and earth; associated with the autumn
> phlegmatic: cold and moist; characterized by phlegm and water; associated with the winter
- complies to the idea that the physiognomy of a person reflects this person's character and that deformities of body are a punishment for one's sins
> gap between teeth, curly hair: suggest sensuousness and lustiness
> red hair: suggest its bearer is not to be trusted
> grey eyes: represent the medieval ideal of female beauty
PředmětBritská literatura 3.
SemestrZimní semestr 2008/09.
StatusPovinná přednáška pro III. blok.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.