Geoffrey Chaucer: Historical Background

Geoffrey Chaucer: In this article, we have the lesson to know about the Political, Social, Economical, and Religious conditions during the age of Chaucer. BA English Students Semester Il of BBMKU and VBU University must note these points for the exam preparations.

Age of Chaucer Historical Background

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought the use of French words, literary conventions, and artistic tastes. The 14th century was a time of much political, religious, and industrial discontent in England. All this was reflected in the literature of the time. The people of England became one people, and the English tongue came into common use. In 1362 English was made the language of the law courts, and in 1386 English displaced French in the schools.

14h centurey historical background
14th Century Historical Background for BA English Semester II BBMKU and VBU University.

It is important to understand the works of Chaucer in the context of the transition in European society from declining feudalism to an emerging money economy which was without a doubt characterized by the rise of the middle class. Many changes took place in the historical, political, religious, and literary background of the Age of Chaucer. 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 catalog suggests that many books must be read before we can enter into the spirit of 14th century England.

The age of Chaucer was an age of warfare. While war raged abroad, there was no end to labor troubles at home, strikes, “lockouts,” assaults on imported workmen (the Flemish weavers brought in by Edward III), and no end to 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. From the literary point of view, of greater importance are the social and the intellectual movements of the period; the terrible plague called Black Death, bringing poverty, unrest, and revolt among the peasants, and the growth of the spirit of inquiry, which was immensely critical of the ways of the church.

The social and cultural background of the age is perhaps most apparent in the greatest work of Chaucer, ‘The Canterbury tales.’ The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer’s time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the King’s Court and Christian in their actions. Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized in order to strengthen their fighting ability.

Though the aim of chivalry was noble action, often its conflicting values degenerated into violence. Church leaders often tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight’s Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death in order to win her. Chivalry was in Chaucer’s day on the decline, and it is possible that The Knight’s Tale was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed. Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Years’ War under Edward III, who heavily emphasized chivalry during his reign. Two tales, The Tale of Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee are told by Chaucer himself, who is traveling with the pilgrims in his own story.

Both tales seem to focus on the ill effects of chivalry- the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence. The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes. For example, in the division of the three estates; the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being “those who pray” (the clergy), “those who fight” (the nobility), and “those who work” (the commoners and peasantry). Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some “quit” (reply to or retaliate against) other tales. The convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper-class rules.

The condition of women and marriage cannot be reliably assessed by the concept of courtly love. Marriage was mostly an economical negotiation, which gave way to the practice of child marriage. Women were allowed to inherit property but to defend it they needed a husband. Divorce was easy but mostly in the upper class of society. The domestic violence of beating wives, sisters, and daughters was common and appears to be in shocking contrast to the image of women portrayed in courtly love.

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