English Men of Letters: Chaucer

The peculiar conditions of this essay must be left to explain themselves. It could not have been written at all without the aid of the Publications of the Chaucer Society, and more especially of the labours of the Society’s Director, Mr. Furnivall. To other recent writers on Chaucer– including Mr Fleay, from whom I never
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The peculiar conditions of this essay must be left to explain themselves. It could not have been written at all without the aid of the Publications of the Chaucer Society, and more especially of the labours of the Society’s Director, Mr. Furnivall. To other recent writers on Chaucer– including Mr Fleay, from whom I never differ but with hesitation–I have referred, in so far as it was in my power to do so. Perhaps I may take this opportunity of expressing a wish that Pauli’s “History of England,” a work beyond the compliment of an acknowledgement, were accessible to every English reader.











The biography of Geoffrey Chaucer is no longer a mixture of unsifted facts, and of more or less hazardous conjectures. Many and wide as are the gaps in our knowledge concerning the course of his outer life, and doubtful as many important passages of it remain–in vexatious contrast with the certainty of other relatively insignificant data–we have at least become aware of the foundations on which alone a trustworthy account of it can be built. These foundations consist partly of a meagre though gradually increasing array of external evidence, chiefly to be found in public documents,–in the Royal Wardrobe Book, the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, the Customs Rolls, and suchlike records–partly of the conclusions which may be drawn with confidence from the internal evidence of the poet’s own indisputably genuine works, together with a few references to him in the writings of his contemporaries or immediate successors. Which of his works are to be accepted as genuine, necessarily forms the subject of an antecedent enquiry, such as cannot with any degree of safety be conducted except on principles far from infallible with regard to all the instances to which they have been applied, but now accepted by the large majority of competent scholars. Thus, by a process which is in truth dulness and dryness itself except to patient endeavour stimulated by the enthusiasm of special literary research, a limited number of results has been safely established, and others have at all events been placed beyond reasonable doubt. Around a third series of conclusions or conjectures the tempest of controversy still rages; and even now it needs a wary step to pass without fruitless deviations through a maze of assumptions consecrated by their longevity, or commended to sympathy by the fervour of personal conviction.

A single instance must suffice to indicate both the difficulty and the significance of many of those questions of Chaucerian biography which, whether interesting or not in themselves, have to be determined before Chaucer’s life can be written. They are not “all and some” mere antiquarians’ puzzles, of interest only to those who have leisure and inclination for microscopic enquiries. So with the point immediately in view. It has been said with much force that Tyrwhitt, whose services to the study of Chaucer remain uneclipsed by those of any other scholar, would have composed a quite different biography of the poet, had he not been confounded by the formerly (and here and there still) accepted date of Chaucer’s birth, the year 1328. For the correctness of this date Tyrwhitt “supposed” the poet’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey to be the voucher; but the slab placed on a pillar near his grave (it is said at the desire of Caxton), appears to have merely borne a Latin inscription without any dates; and the marble monument erected in its stead “in the name of the Muses” by Nicolas Brigham in 1556, while giving October 25th, 1400, as the day of Chaucer’s death, makes no mention either of the date of his birth or of the number of years to which he attained, and, indeed, promises no more information than it gives. That Chaucer’s contemporary, the poet Gower, should have referred to him in the year 1392 as “now in his days old,” is at best a very vague sort of testimony, more especially as it is by mere conjecture that the year of Gower’s own birth is placed as far back as 1320. Still less weight can be attached to the circumstance that another poet, Occleve, who clearly regarded himself as the disciple of one by many years his senior, in accordance with the common phraseology of his (and, indeed, of other) times, spoke of the older writer as his “father” and “father reverent.” In a coloured portrait carefully painted from memory by Occleve on the margin of a manuscript, Chaucer is represented with grey hair and beard; but this could not of itself be taken to contradict the supposition that he died about the age of sixty. And Leland’s assertion that Chaucer attained to old age self- evidently rests on tradition only; for Leland was born more than a century after Chaucer died. Nothing occurring in any of Chaucer’s own works of undisputed genuineness throws any real light on the subject. His poem, the “House of Fame,” has been variously dated; but at any period of his manhood he might have said, as he says there, that he was “too old” to learn astronomy, and preferred to take his science on faith. In the curious lines called “L’Envoy de Chaucer a Scogan,” the poet, while blaming his friend for his want of perseverance in a love-suit, classes himself among “them that be hoar and round of shape,” and speaks of himself and his Muse as out of date and rusty. But there seems no sufficient reason for removing the date of the composition of these lines to an earlier year than 1393; and poets as well as other men since Chaucer have spoken of themselves as old and obsolete at fifty. A similar remark might be made concerning the reference to the poet’s old age “which dulleth him in his spirit,” in the “Complaint of Venus,” generally ascribed to the last decennium of Chaucer’s life. If we reject the evidence of a further passage, in the “Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” a poem of disputed genuineness, we accordingly arrive at the conclusion that there is no reason for demurring to the only direct external evidence in existence as to the date of Chaucer’s birth. At a famous trial of a cause of chivalry held at Westminster in 1386, Chaucer, who had gone through part of a campaign with one of the litigants, appeared as a witness; and on this occasion his age was, doubtless on his own deposition, recorded as that of a man “of forty years and upwards,” who had borne arms for twenty- seven years. A careful enquiry into the accuracy of the record as to the ages of the numerous other witnesses at the same trial has established it in an overwhelming majority of instances; and it is absurd gratuitously to charge Chaucer with having understated his age from motives of vanity. The conclusion, therefore, seems to remain unshaken, that he was born about the year 1340, or some time between that year and 1345.

Now, we possess a charming poem by Chaucer called the “Assembly of Fowls,” elaborately courtly in its conception, and in its execution giving proofs of Italian reading on the part of its author, as well as of a ripe humour such as is rarely an accompaniment of extreme youth. This poem has been thought by earlier commentators to allegorise an event known to have happened in 1358, by later critics another which occurred in 1364. Clearly, the assumption that the period from 1340 to 1345 includes the date of Chaucer’s birth, suffices of itself to stamp the one of these conjectures as untenable, and the other as improbable, and (when the style of the poem and treatment of its subject are taken into account) adds weight to the other reasons in favour of the date 1381 for the poem in question. Thus, backwards and forwards, the disputed points in Chaucer’s biography and the question of his works are affected by one another.


Chaucer’s life, then, spans rather more than the latter half of the fourteenth century, the last year of which was indisputably the year of his death. In other words, it covers rather more than the interval between the most glorious epoch of Edward III’s reign–for Crecy was fought in 1346–and the downfall, in 1399, of his unfortunate successor Richard II.

The England of this period was but a little land, if numbers be the test of greatness–but in Edward III’s time as in that of Henry V, who inherited so much of Edward’s policy and revived so much of his glory, there stirred in this little body a mighty heart. It is only of a small population that the author of the “Vision concerning Piers Plowman” could have gathered the representatives into a single field, or that Chaucer himself could have composed a family picture fairly comprehending, though not altogether exhausting, the chief national character-types. In the year of King Richard II’s accession (1377), according to a trustworthy calculation based upon the result of that year’s poll-tax, the total number of the inhabitants of England seems to have been two millions and a half. A quarter of a century earlier–in the days of Chaucer’s boyhood– their numbers had been perhaps twice as large. For not less than four great pestilences (in 1348-9, 1361-2, 1369, and 1375-6) had swept over the land, and at least one-half of its population, including two-thirds of the inhabitants of the capital, had been carried off by the ravages of the obstinate epidemic–“the foul death of England,” as it was called in a formula of execration in use among the people. In this year 1377, London, where Chaucer was doubtless born as well as bred, where the greater part of his life was spent, and where the memory of his name is one of those associations which seem familiarly to haunt the banks of the historic river from Thames Street to Westminster, apparently numbered not more than 35,000 souls. But if, from the nature of the case, no place was more exposed than London to the inroads of the Black Death, neither was any other so likely elastically to recover from them. For the reign of Edward III had witnessed a momentous advance in the prosperity of the capital,– an advance reflecting itself in the outward changes introduced during the same period into the architecture of the city. Its wealth had grown larger as its houses had grown higher; and mediaeval London, such as we are apt to picture it to ourselves, seems to have derived those leading features which it so long retained, from the days when Chaucer, with downcast but very observant eyes, passed along its streets between Billingsgate and Aldgate. Still, here as elsewhere in England the remembrance of the most awful physical visitations which have ever befallen the country must have long lingered; and, after all has been said, it is wonderful that the traces of them should be so exceedingly scanty in Chaucer’s pages. Twice only in his poems does he refer to the Plague:–once in an allegorical fiction which is of Italian if not of French origin, and where, therefore, no special reference to the ravages of the disease IN ENGLAND may be intended when Death is said to have “a thousand slain this pestilence,”–

he hath slain this year
Hence over a mile, within a great village Both men and women, child and hind and page.

The other allusion is a more than half humorous one. It occurs in the description of the “Doctor of Physic,” the grave graduate in purple surcoat and blue white-furred hood; nor, by the way, may this portrait itself be altogether without its use as throwing some light on the helplessness of fourteenth-century medical science. For though in all the world there was none like this doctor to SPEAK of physic and of surgery;– though he was a very perfect practitioner, and never at a loss for telling the cause of any malady and for supplying the patient with the appropriate drug, sent in by the doctor’s old and faithful friends the apothecaries;– though he was well versed in all the authorities from Aesculapius to the writer of the “Rosa Anglica” (who cures inflammation homeopathically by the use of red draperies);–though like a truly wise physician he began at home by caring anxiously for his own digestion and for his peace of mind (“his study was but little in the Bible”):–yet the basis of his scientific knowledge was “astronomy,” i.e. astrology, “the better part of medicine,” as Roger Bacon calls it; together with that “natural magic” by which, as Chaucer elsewhere tells us, the famous among the learned have known how to make men whole or sick. And there was one specific which, from a double point of view, Chaucer’s Doctor of Physic esteemed very highly, and was loth to part with on frivolous pretexts. He was but easy (i.e. slack) of “dispence”:–

He kepte that he won in pestilence.
For gold in physic is a cordial;
Therefore he loved gold in special.

Meanwhile the ruling classes seem to have been left untouched in heart by these successive ill-met and ill-guarded trials, which had first smitten the lower orders chiefly, then the higher with the lower (if the Plague of 1349 had swept off an archbishop, that of 1361 struck down among others Henry Duke of Lancaster, the father of Chaucer’s Duchess Blanche). Calamities such as these would assuredly have been treated as warnings sent from on high, both in earlier times, when a Church better braced for the due performance of its never-ending task, eagerly interpreted to awful ears the signs of the wrath of God, and by a later generation, leavened in spirit by the self-searching morality of Puritanism. But from the sorely- tried third quarter of the fourteenth century the solitary voice of Langland cries, as the voice of Conscience preaching with her cross, that “these pestilences” are the penalty of sin and of naught else. It is assuredly presumptuous for one generation, without the fullest proof, to accuse another of thoughtlessness or heartlessness; and though the classes for which Chaucer mainly wrote and with which he mainly felt, were in all probability as little inclined to improve the occasions of the Black Death as the middle classes of the present day would be to fall on their knees after a season of commercial ruin, yet signs are not wanting that in the later years of the fourteenth century words of admonition came to be not unfrequently spoken. The portents of the eventful year 1382 called forth moralisings in English verse, and the pestilence of 1391 a rhymed lamentation in Latin; and at different dates in King Richard’s reign the poet Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary and friend, inveighed both in Latin and in English, from his conservative point of view, against the corruption and sinfulness of society at large. But by this time the great peasant insurrection had added its warning, to which it was impossible to remain deaf.

A self-confident nation, however, is slow to betake itself to sackcloth and ashes. On the whole it is clear, that though the last years of Edward III were a season of failure and disappointment,–though from the period of the First Pestilence onwards the signs increase of the king’s unpopularity and of the people’s discontent,–yet the overburdened and enfeebled nation was brought almost as slowly as the King himself to renounce the proud position of a conquering power. In 1363 he had celebrated the completion of his fiftieth year; and three suppliant kings had at that time been gathered as satellites round the sun of his success. By 1371 he had lost all his allies, and nearly all the conquests gained by himself and the valiant Prince of Wales; and during the years remaining to him his subjects hated his rule and angrily assailed his favourites. From being a conquering power the English monarchy was fast sinking into an island which found it difficult to defend its own shores. There were times towards the close of Edward’s and early in his successor’s reign when matters would have gone hard with English traders, naturally desirous of having their money’s worth for their subsidy of tonnage and poundage, and anxious, like their type the “Merchant” in Chaucer, that “the sea were kept for anything” between Middelburgh and Harwich, had not some of them, such as the Londoner John Philpot, occasionally armed and manned a squadron of ships on their own account, in defiance of red tape and its censures. But in the days when Chaucer and the generation with which he grew up were young, the ardour of foreign conquest had not yet died out in the land, and clergy and laity cheerfully co-operated in bearing the burdens which military glory has at all times brought with it for a civilised people. The high spirit of the English nation, at a time when the decline in its fortunes was already near at hand (1366), is evident from the answer given to the application from Rome for the arrears of thirty-three years of the tribute promised by King John, or rather from what must unmistakeably have been the drift of that answer. Its terms are unknown, but the demand was never afterwards repeated.

The power of England in the period of an ascendancy to which she so tenaciously sought to cling, had not been based only upon the valour of her arms. Our country was already a rich one in comparison with most others in Europe. Other purposes besides that of providing good cheer for a robust generation were served by the wealth of her great landed proprietors, and of the “worthy vavasours” (smaller landowners) who, like Chaucer’s “Franklin”–a very Saint Julian or pattern of hospitality–knew not what it was to be “without baked meat in the house,” where their

tables dormant in the hall alway
Stood ready covered all the longe day.

From this source, and from the well-filled coffers of the traders came the laity’s share of the expenses of those foreign wars which did so much to consolidate national feeling in England. The foreign companies of merchants long contrived to retain the chief share of the banking business and export trade assigned to them by the short-sighted commercial policy of Edward III, and the weaving and fishing industries of Hanseatic and Flemish immigrants had established an almost unbearable competition in our own ports and towns. But the active import trade, which already connected England with both nearer and remoter parts of Christendom, must have been largely in native hands; and English chivalry, diplomacy, and literature followed in the lines of the trade-routes to the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Our mariners, like their type the “Shipman” in Chaucer (an anticipation of the “Venturer” of later days, with the pirate as yet, perhaps, more strongly marked in him than the patriot),–

knew well all the havens, as they were From Gothland, to the Cape of Finisterre, And every creek in Brittany and Spain.

Doubtless, as may be noticed in passing, much of the tendency on the part of our shipmen in this period to self-help in offence as well as in defence, was due to the fact that the mercantile navy was frequently employed in expeditions of war, vessels and men being at times seized or impressed for the purpose by order of the Crown. On one of these occasions the port of Dartmouth, whence Chaucer at a venture (“for aught I wot”) makes his “Shipman” hail, is found contributing a larger total of ships and men than any other port in England. For the rest, Flanders was certainly still far ahead of her future rival in wealth, and in mercantile and industrial activity; as a manufacturing country she had no equal, and in trade the rival she chiefly feared was still the German Hansa. Chaucer’s “Merchant” characteristically wears a “Flandrish beaver hat;” and it is no accident that the scene of the “Pardoner’s Tale,” which begins with a description of “superfluity abominable,” is laid in Flanders. In England, indeed the towns never came to domineer as they did in the Netherlands. Yet, since no trading country will long submit to be ruled by the landed interest only, so in proportion as the English towns, and London especially, grew richer, their voices were listened to in the settlement of the affairs of the nation. It might be very well for Chaucer to close the description of his “Merchant” with what looks very much like a fashionable writer’s half sneer:–

Forsooth, he was a worthy man withal; But, truly, I wot not how men him call.

Yet not only was high political and social rank reached by individual “merchant princes,” such as the wealthy William de la Pole, a descendant of whom is said (though on unsatisfactory evidence) to have been Chaucer’s grand-daughter, but the government of the country came to be very perceptibly influenced by the class from which they sprang. On the accession of Richard II, two London citizens were appointed controllers of the war-subsidies granted to the Crown; and in the Parliament of 1382 a committee of fourteen merchants refused to entertain the question of a merchants’ loan to the king. The importance and self-consciousness of the smaller tradesmen and handicraftsmen increased with that of the great merchants. When in 1393 King Richard II marked the termination of his quarrel with the City of London by a stately procession through “new Troy,” he was welcomed, according to the Friar who has commemorated the event in Latin verse, by the trades in an array resembling an angelic host; and among the crafts enumerated we recognise several of those represented in Chaucer’s company of pilgrims–by the “Carpenter,” the “Webbe” (Weaver), and the “Dyer,” all clothed

in one livery
Of a solemn and great fraternity.

The middle class, in short, was learning to hold up its head, collectively and individually. The historical original of Chaucer’s “Host”–the actual Master Harry Bailly, vintner and landlord of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, was likewise a member of Parliament, and very probably felt as sure of himself in real life as the mimic personage bearing his name does in its fictitious reproduction. And he and his fellows, the “poor and simple Commons”–for so humble was the style they were wont to assume in their addresses to the sovereign,–began to look upon themselves, and to be looked upon, as a power in the State. The London traders and handicraftsmen knew what it was to be well-to-do citizens, and if they had failed to understand it, home monition would have helped to make it clear to them:–

Well seemed each of them a fair burgess, For sitting in a guildhall on a dais.
And each one for the wisdom that he can Was shapely for to be an alderman.
They had enough of chattels and of rent, And very gladly would their wives assent; And, truly, else they had been much to blame. It is full fair to be yclept madame,
And fair to go to vigils all before, And have a mantle royally y-bore.

The English State had ceased to be the feudal monarchy –the ramification of contributory courts and camps–of the crude days of William the Conqueror and his successors. The Norman lords and their English dependants no longer formed two separate elements in the body politic. In the great French wars of Edward III, the English armies had no longer mainly consisted of the baronial levies. The nobles had indeed, as of old, ridden into battle at the head of their vassals and retainers; but the body of the force had been made up of Englishmen serving for pay, and armed with their national implement, the bow–such as Chaucer’s “Yeoman” carried with him on the ride to Canterbury:–

A sheaf of peacock arrows bright and keen Under his belt he bare full thriftily.
Well could he dress his tackle yeomanly: His arrows drooped not with feathers low, And in his hand he bare a mighty bow.

The use of the bow was specially favoured by both Edward III and his successor; and when early in the next century the chivalrous Scottish king, James I (of whom mention will be made among Chaucer’s poetic disciples) returned from his long English captivity to his native land, he had no more eager care than that his subjects should learn to emulate the English in the handling of their favourite weapon. Chaucer seems to be unable to picture an army without it, and we find him relating how, from ancient Troy,–

Hector and many a worthy wight out went With spear in hand, and with their big bows bent.

No wonder that when the battles were fought by the people itself, and when the cost of the wars was to so large an extent defrayed by its self- imposed contributions, the Scottish and French campaigns should have called forth that national enthusiasm which found an echo in the songs of Lawrence Minot, as hearty war-poetry as has been composed in any age of our literature. They were put forth in 1352, and considering the unusual popularity they are said to have enjoyed, it is not impossible that they may have reached Chaucer’s ears in his boyhood.

Before the final collapse of the great King’s fortunes, and his death in a dishonoured old age, the ambition of his heir, the proudest hope of both dynasty and nation, had overleapt itself, and the Black Prince had preceded his father to the tomb. The good ship England (so sang a contemporary poet) was left without rudder or helm; and in a kingdom full of faction and discontent the future of the Plantagenet throne depended on a child. While the young king’s ambitious uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Chaucer’s patron), was in nominal retirement, and his academical ally, Wyclif, was gaining popularity as the mouthpiece of the resistance to the papal demands, there were fermenting beneath the surface elements of popular agitation, which had been but little taken into account by the political factions of Edward the Third’s reign, and by that part of its society with which Chaucer was more especially connected. But the multitude, whose turn in truth comes but rarely in the history of a nation, must every now and then make itself heard, although poets may seem all but blind and deaf to the tempest as it rises, and bursts, and passes away. Many causes had concurred to excite the insurrection which temporarily destroyed the influence of John of Gaunt, and which for long cast a deep shade upon the effects of the teaching of Wyclif. The acquisition of a measure of rights and power by the middle classes had caused a general swaying upwards; and throughout the peoples of Europe floated those dreams and speculations concerning the equality and fraternity of all men, which needed but a stimulus and an opportunity to assume the practical shape of a revolution. The melancholy thought which pervades Langland’s “Vision” is still that of the helplessness of the poor; and the remedy to which he looks against the corruption of the governing classes is the advent of a superhuman king, whom he identifies with the ploughman himself, the representative of suffering humility. But about the same time as that of the composition of this poem–or not long afterwards–Wyclif had sent forth among the people his “simple priests,” who illustrated by contrast the conflict which his teaching exposed between the existing practice of the Church and the original documents of her faith. The connexion between Wyclif’s teaching and the peasants’ insurrection under Richard II is as undeniable as that between Luther’s doctrines and the great social uprising in Germany a century and a half afterwards. When, upon the declaration of the Papal Schism, Wyclif abandoned all hope of a reform of the Church from within, and, defying the injunctions of foe and friend alike, entered upon a course of theological opposition, the popular influence of his followers must have tended to spread a theory admitting of very easy application ad hominem–the theory, namely, that the tenure of all offices, whether spiritual or temporal, is justified only by the personal fitness of their occupants. With such levelling doctrine, the Socialism of popular preachers like John Balle might seem to coincide with sufficient closeness; and since worthiness was not to be found in the holders of either spiritual or temporal authority, of either ecclesiastical or lay wealth, the time had palpably come for the poor man to enjoy his own again. Then, the advent of a weak government, over which a powerful kinsman of the king and unconcealed adversary of the Church was really seeking to recover the control, and the imposition of a tax coming home to all men except actual beggars, and filling serfdom’s cup of bitterness to overflowing, supplied the opportunity, and the insurrection broke out. Its violence fell short of that of the French Jacquerie a quarter of a century earlier; but no doubt could exist as to its critical importance. As it happened, the revolt turned with special fury against the possessions of the Duke of Lancaster, whose sympathies with the cause of ecclesiastical reform it definitively extinguished.

After the suppression of this appalling movement by a party of Order comprehending in it all who had anything to lose, a period of reaction ensued. In the reign of Richard II, whichever faction might be in the ascendant, and whatever direction the king’s own sympathies may have originally taken, the last state of the peasantry was without doubt worse than the first. Wycliffism as an influence rapidly declined with the death of Wyclif himself, as it hardly could but decline, considering the absence from his teaching of any tangible system of church government; and Lollardry came to be the popular name, or nickname, for any and every form of dissent from the existing system. Finally, Henry of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s son, mounted the throne as a sort of saviour of society,–a favourite character for usurpers to pose in before the applauding assemblage of those who claim “a stake in the country.” Chaucer’s contemporary, Gower, whose wisdom was of the kind which goes with the times, who was in turn a flatterer of Richard and (by the simple expedient of a revised second edition of his magnum opus) a flatterer of Henry, offers better testimony than Chaucer to the conservatism of the upper classes of his age, and to the single-minded anxiety for the good times when

Justice of law is held;
The privilege of royalty
Is safe, and all the barony
Worshipped is in its estate.
The people stands in obeisance
Under the rule of governance.

Chaucer is less explicit, and may have been too little of a politician by nature to care for preserving an outward consistency in his incidental remarks concerning the lower classes. In his “Clerk’s Tale” he finds room for a very dubious commonplace about the “stormy people,” its levity, untruthfulness, indiscretion, fickleness, and garrulity, and the folly of putting any trust in it. In his “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” he further enlivens one of the liveliest descriptions of a hue-and-cry ever put upon paper by a direct reference to the Peasants’ Rebellion:–

So hideous was the noise, ah bencite! That of a truth Jack Straw, and his meinie Not made never shoutes half so shrill,
When that they any Fleming meant to kill.

Assuredly, again, there is an unmistakably conservative tone in the “Ballad” purporting to have been sent by him “to King Richard,” with its refrain as to all being “lost for want of steadfastness,” and its admonition to its sovereign to

…shew forth the sword of castigation.

On the other hand, it would be unjust to leave unnoticed the passage, at once powerful and touching, in the so-called “Parson’s Tale” (the sermon which closes the “Canterbury Tales” as Chaucer left them), in which certain lords are reproached for taking of their bondmen amercements, “which might more reasonably be called extortions than amercements,” while lords in general are commanded to be good to their thralls (serfs), because “those that they clept thralls, be God’s people; for humble folks be Christ’s friends; they be contubernially with the Lord.” The solitary type, however, of the labouring man proper which Chaucer, in manifest remembrance of Langland’s allegory, produces, is one which, beautiful and affecting as it is, has in it a flavour of the comfortable sentiment, that things are as they should be. This is–not of course the “Parson” himself, of which most significant character hereafter, but–the “Parson’s” brother, the “Ploughman”. He is a true labourer and a good, religious and charitable in his life,–and always ready to pay his tithes. In short, he is a true Christian, but at the same time the ideal rather than the prototype, if one may so say, of the conservative working man.

Such were some, though of course some only, of the general currents of English public life in the latter half–Chaucer’s half–of the fourteenth century. Its social features were naturally in accordance with the course of the national history. In the first place, the slow and painful process of amalgamation between the Normans and the English was still unfinished, though the reign of Edward III went far towards completing what had rapidly advanced since the reigns of John and Henry III. By the middle of the fourteenth century English had become, or was just becoming, the common tongue of the whole nation. Among the political poems and songs preserved from the days of Edward III and Richard II, not a single one composed on English soil is written in French. Parliament was opened by an English speech in the year 1363, and in the previous year the proceedings in the law courts were ordered to be conducted in the native tongue. Yet when Chaucer wrote his “Canterbury Tales,” it seems still to have continued the pedantic affectation of a profession for its members, like Chaucer’s “Man of Law,” to introduce French law-terms into common conversation; so that it is natural enough to find the “Summoner” following suit, and interlarding his “Tale” with the Latin scraps picked up by him from the decrees and pleadings of the ecclesiastical courts. Meanwhile, manifold difficulties had delayed or interfered with the fusion between the two races, before the victory of the English language showed this fusion to have been in substance accomplished. One of these difficulties, which has been sometimes regarded as fundamental, has doubtless been exaggerated by national feeling on either side; but that it existed is not to be denied. Already in those ages the national character and temperament of French and English differed largely from one another; though the reasons why they so differed, remain a matter of argument. In a dialogue, dated from the middle of the fourteenth century, the French interlocutor attributes this difference to the respective national beverages: “WE are nourished with the pure juice of the grape, while naught but the dregs is sold to the English, who will take anything for liquor that is liquid.” The case is put with scarcely greater politeness by a living French critic of high repute, according to whom the English, still weighted down by Teutonic phlegm, were drunken gluttons, agitated at intervals by poetic enthusiasm, while the Normans, on the other hand, lightened by their transplantation, and by the admixture of a variety of elements, already found the claims of esprit developing themselves within them. This is an explanation which explains nothing–least of all, the problem: why the lively strangers should have required the contact with insular phlegm in order to receive the creative impulse–why, in other words, Norman-French literature should have derived so enormous an advantage from the transplantation of Normans to English ground. But the evil days when the literary labours of Englishmen had been little better than bond-service to the tastes of their foreign masters had passed away, since the Norman barons had, from whatever motive, invited the commons of England to take a share with them in the national councils. After this, the question of the relations between the two languages, and the wider one of the relations between the two nationalities, could only be decided by the peaceable adjustment of the influences exercised by the one side upon the other. The Norman noble, his ideas, and the expression they found in forms of life and literature, had henceforth, so to speak, to stand on their merits; the days of their dominion as a matter of course had passed away.

Together with not a little of their political power, the Norman nobles of Chaucer’s time had lost something of the traditions of their order. Chivalry had not quite come to an end with the Crusades; but it was a difficult task to maintain all its laws, written and unwritten, in these degenerate days. No laurels were any longer to be gained in the Holy Land; and though the campaigns of the great German Order against the pagans of Prussia and Lithuania attracted the service of many an English knight–in the middle of the century, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, fought there, as his grandson, afterwards King Henry IV, did forty years later– yet the substitute was hardly adequate in kind. Of the great mediaeval companies of Knights, the most famous had, early in the century, perished under charges which were undoubtedly in the main foul fictions, but at the same time were only too much in accord with facts betokening an unmistakable decay of the true spirit of chivalry; before the century closed, lawyers were rolling parchments in the halls of the Templars by the Thames. Thus, though the age of chivalry had not yet ended, its supremacy was already on the wane, and its ideal was growing dim. In the history of English chivalry the reign of Edward III is memorable, not only for the foundation of our most illustrious order of knighthood, but likewise for many typical acts of knightly valour and courtesy, as well on the part of the King when in his better days, as on that of his heroic son. Yet it cannot be by accident that an undefinable air of the old- fashioned clings to that most delightful of all Chaucer’s character- sketches, the “Knight” of the “Canterbury Tales.” His warlike deeds at Alexandria, in Prussia, and elsewhere, may be illustrated from those of more than one actual knight of the times; and the whole description of him seems founded on one by a French poet of King John of Bohemia, who had at least the external features of a knight of the old school. The chivalry, however, which was in fashion as the century advanced, was one outwardly far removed from the sturdy simplicity of Chaucer’s “Knight,” and inwardly often rotten in more than one vital part. In show and splendour a higher point was probably reached in Edward III’s than in any preceding reign. The extravagance in dress which prevailed in this period is too well known a characteristic of it to need dwelling upon. Sumptuary laws in vain sought to restrain this foible; and it rose to such a pitch as even to oblige men, lest they should be precluded from indulging in gorgeous raiment, to abandon hospitality, a far more amiable species of excess. When the kinds of clothing respectively worn by the different classes served as distinctions of rank, the display of splendour in one class could hardly fail to provoke emulation in the others. The long-lived English love for “crying” colours shows itself amusingly enough in the early pictorial representations of several of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, though in floridity of apparel, as of speech, the youthful “Squire” bears away the bell:–

Embroidered was he, as it were a mead All full of freshest flowers, white and red.

But of the artificiality and extravagance of the costumes of these times we have direct contemporary evidence, and loud contemporary complaints. Now, it is the jagged cut of the garments, punched and shredded by the man-milliner; now, the wide and high collars and the long-pointed boots, which attract the indignation of the moralist; at one time he inveighs against the “horrible disordinate scantness” of the clothing worn by gallants, at another against the “outrageous array” in which ladies love to exhibit their charms. The knights’ horses are decked out with not less finery than are the knights themselves, with “curious harness, as in saddles and bridles, cruppers, and breast-plates, covered with precious clothing, and with bars and plates of gold and silver.” And though it is hazardous to stigmatize the fashions of any one period as specially grotesque, yet it is significant of this age to find the reigning court beauty appearing at a tournament robed as Queen of the Sun; while even a lady from a manufacturing district, the “Wife of Bath,” makes the most of her opportunities to be seen as well as to see. Her “kerchiefs” were “full fine” of texture, and weighed, one might be sworn, ten pound–

That on a Sunday were upon her head.
Her hosen too were of fine scarlet red, Full straight y-tied, and shoes full moist and new.

Upon an ambler easily she sat,
Y-wimpled well, and on her head a hat, As broad as is a buckler or a targe.

So, with a foot-mantle round her hips, and a pair of sharp spurs on her feet, she looked as defiant as any self-conscious Amazon of any period. It might perhaps be shown how in more important artistic efforts than fashions of dress this age displayed its aversion from simplicity and moderation. At all events, the love of the florid and overloaded declares itself in what we know concerning the social life of the nobility, as, for instance, we find that life reflected in the pages of Froissart, whose counts and lords seem neither to clothe themselves nor to feed themselves, nor to talk, pray, or swear like ordinary mortals. The “Vows of the Heron,” a poem of the earlier part of King Edward III’s reign, contains a choice collection of strenuous knightly oaths; and in a humbler way the rest of the population very naturally imitated the parlance of their rulers, and in the words of the “Parson’s Tale,” “dismembered Christ by soul, heart, bones, and body.”

But there is one very much more important feature to be noticed in the social life of the nobility, for whom Chaucer’s poetry must have largely replaced the French verse in which they had formerly delighted. The relation between knight and lady plays a great part in the history as well as in the literature of the later Plantagenet period; and incontestably its conceptions of this relation still retained much of the pure sentiment belonging to the best and most fervent times of Christian chivalry. The highest religious expression which has ever been given to man’s sense of woman’s mission, as his life’s comfort and crown, was still a universally dominant belief. To the Blessed Virgin, King Edward III dedicated his principal religious foundation; and Chaucer, to whatever extent his opinions or sentiments may have been in accordance with ideas of ecclesiastical reform, displays a pious devotion towards the foremost Saint of the Church. The lyric entitled the “Praise of Women,” in which she is enthusiastically recognized as the representative of the whole of her sex, is generally rejected as not Chaucer’s; but the elaborate “Orison to the Holy Virgin,” beginning

Mother of God, and Virgin undefiled,

seems to be correctly described as “Oratio Gallfridi Chaucer”; and in “Chaucers A. B. C., Called La Priere de Notre Dame,” a translation by him from a French original, we have a long address to the Blessed Virgin in twenty-three stanzas, each of which begins with one of the letters of the alphabet arranged in proper succession. Nor, apart from this religious sentiment, had men yet altogether lost sight of the ideal of true knightly love, destined though this ideal was to be obscured in the course of time, until at last the “Mort d’Arthure” was the favourite literary nourishment of the minions and mistresses of Edward IV’s degenerate days. In his “Book of the Duchess” Chaucer has left us a picture of true knightly love, together with one of true maiden purity. The lady celebrated in this poem was loth, merely for the sake of coquetting with their exploits, to send her knights upon errands of chivalry–

into Walachy,
To Prussia, and to Tartary,
To Alexandria or Turkey.

And doubtless there was many a gentle knight or squire to whom might have been applied the description given by the heroine of Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressid” of her lover, and of that which attracted her in him:–

For trust ye well that your estate royal, Nor vain delight, nor only worthiness
Of you in war or tourney martial,
Nor pomp, array, nobility, riches,
Of these none made me rue on your distress, BUT MORAL VIRTUE, GROUNDED UPON TRUTH,

And gentle heart, and manhood that ye had, And that ye had (as methought) in despite Everything that tended unto bad,
As rudeness, and as popular appetite, And that your reason bridled your delight, ‘Twas these did make ‘bove every creature, That I was yours, and shall while I may ‘dure.

And if true affection under the law still secured the sympathy of the better-balanced part of society, so the vice of those who made war upon female virtue, or the insolence of those who falsely boasted of their conquests, still incurred its resentment. Among the companies which in the “House of Fame” sought the favour of its mistress, Chaucer vigorously satirises the would-be-lady-killers, who were content with the REPUTATION of accomplished seducers; and in “Troilus and Cressid” a shrewd observer exclaims with the utmost vivacity against

Such sort of folk,–what shall I clepe them? what? That vaunt themselves of women, and by name, That yet to them ne’er promised this or that, Nor knew them more, in sooth, than mine old hat.

The same easy but sagacious philosopher (Pandarus) observes, that the harm which is in this world springs as often from folly as from malice. But a deeper feeling animates the lament of the “good Alceste,” in the Prologue to the “Legend of Good Women,” that among men the betrayal of women is now “held a game.” So indisputably it was already often esteemed, in too close an accordance with examples set in the highest places in the land. If we are to credit an old tradition, a poem in which Chaucer narrates the amours of Mars and Venus was written by him at the request of John of Gaunt, to celebrate the adultery of the duke’s sister-in-law with a nobleman, to whom the injured kinsman afterwards married one of his own daughters! But nowhere was the deterioration of sentiment on this head more strongly typified than in Edward III himself. The King, who (if the pleasing tale be true which gave rise to some beautiful scenes in an old English drama) had in his early days royally renounced an unlawful passion for the fair Countess of Salisbury, came to be accused of at once violating his conjugal duty and neglecting his military glory for the sake of strange women’s charms. The founder of the Order of the Garter–the device of which enjoined purity even of thought as a principle of conduct- -died in the hands of a rapacious courtesan. Thus, in England, as in France, the ascendancy is gained by ignobler views concerning the relation between the sexes,–a relation to which the whole system of chivalry owed a great part of its vitality, and on the view of which prevailing in the most influential class of any nation, the social health of that nation must inevitably in no small measure depend. Meanwhile, the artificialities by means of which in France, up to the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was sought to keep alive an organised system of sentimentality in the social dealings between gentlemen and ladies, likewise found admission in England, but only in a modified degree. Here the fashion in question asserted itself only, or chiefly, in our poetic literature, and in the adoption by it of such fancies as the praise and worship of the daisy, with which we meet in the Prologue to Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women,” and in the “Flower and the Leaf,” a most pleasing poem (suggested by a French model), which it is unfortunately no longer possible to number among his genuine works. The poem of the “Court of Love,” which was likewise long erroneously attributed to him, may be the original work of an English author; but in any case its main contents are a mere adaptation of a peculiar outgrowth on a foreign soil of conceptions common to chivalry in general.

Of another force, which in the Middle Ages shared with chivalry (though not with it alone) the empire over the minds of men, it would certainly be rash to assert that its day was passing away in the latter half of the fourteenth century. It has indeed been pointed out that the date at which Wyclif’s career as a reformer may be said to have begun almost coincides with that of the climax and first decline of feudal chivalry in England. But, without seeking to interpret coincidences, we know that, though the influence of the Christian Church and that of its Roman branch in particular, has asserted and reasserted itself in various ways and degrees in various ages, yet in England, as elsewhere, the epoch of its moral omnipotence had come to an end many generations before the disruption of its external framework. In the fourteenth century men had long ceased to look for the mediation of the Church between an overbearing Crown and a baronage and commonalty eager for the maintenance of their rights or for the assertion of their claims. On the other hand, the conflicts which still recurred between the temporal power and the Church had as little reference as ever to spiritual concerns. Undoubtedly, the authority of the Church over the minds of the people still depended in the main upon the spiritual influence she exercised over them; and the desire for a reformation of the Church, which was already making itself felt in a gradually widening sphere, was by the great majority of those who cherished it held perfectly compatible with a recognition of her authority. The world, it has been well said, needed an enquiry extending over three centuries, in order to learn to walk without the aid of the Church of Rome. Wyclif, who sought to emancipate the human conscience from reliance upon any earthly authority intermediate between the soul and its Maker, reckoned without his generation; and few, except those with whom audacity took the place of argument, followed him to the extreme results of his speculations. The Great Schism rather stayed than promoted the growth of an English feeling against Rome, since it was now no longer necessary to acknowledge a Pope who seemed the henchman of the arch-foe across the narrow seas.

But although the progress of English sentiment towards the desire for liberation from Rome was to be interrupted by a long and seemingly decisive reaction, yet in the fourteenth as in the sixteenth century the most active cause of the alienation of the people from the Church was the conduct of the representatives of the Church themselves. The Reformation has most appropriately retained in history a name at first unsuspiciously applied to the removal of abuses in the ecclesiastical administration and in the life of the clergy. What aid could be derived by those who really hungered for spiritual food, or what strength could accrue to the thoughtless faith of the light-hearted majority, from many of the most common varieties of the English ecclesiastic of the later Middle Ages? Apart from the Italian and other foreign holders of English benefices, who left their flocks to be tended by deputy, and to be shorn by an army of the most offensive kind of tax-gatherers, the native clergy included many species, but among them few which, to the popular eye, seemed to embody a high ideal of religious life. The times had by no means come to an end when many of the higher clergy sought to vie with the lay lords in warlike prowess. Perhaps the martial Bishop of Norwich, who, after persecuting the heretics at home, had commanded in army of crusaders in Flanders, levied on behalf of Pope Urban VI against the anti-Pope Clement VII and his adherents, was in the poet Gower’s mind when he complains that while

the law is ruled so,
That clerks unto the war intend,
I wot not how they should amend
The woeful world in other things,
And so make peace between the kings After the law of charity,
Which is the duty properly
Belonging unto the priesthood.

A more general complaint, however, was that directing itself against the extravagance and luxury of life in which the dignified clergy indulged. The cost of these unspiritual pleasures the great prelates had ample means for defraying in the revenues of their sees; while lesser dignitaries had to be active in levying their dues or the fines of their courts, lest everything should flow into the receptacles of their superiors. So in Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale” an unfriendly Regular says of an archdeacon,–

For small tithes and for small offering He made the people piteously to sing.
For ere the bishop caught them on his hook, They were down in the archdeacons book.

As a matter of course, the worthy who filled the office of “Summoner” to the court of the archdeacon in question, had a keen eye for the profitable improprieties subject to its penalties, and was aided in his efforts by the professional abettors of vice whom he kept “ready to his hand.” Nor is it strange that the undisguised worldliness of many members of the clerical profession should have reproduced itself in other lay subordinates, even in the parish clerks, at all times apt to copy their betters, though we would fain hope such was not the case with the parish clerk, in “the jolly Absalom” of the “Miller’s Tale.” The love of gold had corrupted the acknowledged chief guardians of incorruptible treasures, even though few may have avowed this love as openly as the “idle” “Canon,” whose “Yeoman” had so strange a tale to tell to the Canterbury pilgrims concerning his master’s absorbing devotion to the problem of the multiplication of gold. To what a point the popular discontent with the vices of the higher secular clergy had advanced in the last decennium of the century, may be seen from the poem called the “Complaint of the Ploughman”–a production pretending to be by the same hand which in the “Vision” had dwelt on the sufferings of the people and on the sinfulness of the ruling classes. Justly or unjustly, the indictment was brought against the priests of being the agents of every evil influence among the people, the soldiers of an army of which the true head was not God, but Belial.

In earlier days the Church had known how to compensate the people for the secular clergy’s neglect, or imperfect performance, of its duties. But in no respect had the ecclesiastical world more changed than in this. The older monastic Orders had long since lost themselves in unconcealed worldliness; how, for instance, had the Benedictines changed their character since the remote times when their Order had been the principal agent in revivifying the religion of the land! Now, they were taunted with their very name, as having been bestowed upon them “by antiphrasis,” i.e. by contraries. From many of their monasteries, and from the inmates who dwelt in these comfortable halls, had vanished even all pretence of disguise. Chaucer’s “Monk” paid no attention to the rule of St. Benedict, and of his disciple St. Maur,

Because that it was old and somewhat strait;

and preferred to fall in with the notions of later times. He was an “outrider, that loved venery,” and whom his tastes and capabilities would have well qualified for the dignified post of abbot. He had “full many a dainty horse” in his stable, and the swiftest of greyhounds to boot; and rode forth gaily, clad in superfine furs and a hood elegantly fastened with a gold pin, and tied into a love-knot at the “greater end,” while the bridle of his steed jingled as if its rider had been as good a knight as any of them–this last, by the way, a mark of ostentation against which Wyclif takes occasion specially to inveigh. This Monk (and Chaucer must say that he was wise in his generation) could not understand why he should study books and unhinge his mind by the effort; life was not worth having at the price; and no one knew better to what use to put the pleasing gift of existence. Hence mine host of the Tabard, a very competent critic, had reason for the opinion which he communicated to the Monk:–

It is a noble pasture where thou go’st; Thou art not like a penitent or ghost.

In the Orders of nuns, certain corresponding features were becoming usual. But little in the way of religious guidance could fall to the lot of a sisterhood presided over by such a “Prioress” as Chaucer’s Madame Eglantine, whose mind–possibly because her nunnery fulfilled the functions of a finishing school for young ladies–was mainly devoted to French and deportment, or by such a one as the historical Lady Juliana Berners, of a rather later date, whose leisure hours produced treatises on hunting and hawking, and who would probably have on behalf of her own sex echoed the “Monk’s” contempt for the prejudice against the participation of the Religious in field-sports:–

He gave not for that text a pulled hen That saith, that hunters be no holy men.

On the other hand, neither did the Mendicant Orders, instituted at a later date purposely to supply what the older Orders, as well as the secular clergy, seemed to have grown incapable of furnishing, any longer satisfy the reason of their being. In the fourteenth century the Dominicans or Black Friars, who at London dwelt in such magnificence that king and Parliament often preferred a sojourn with them to abiding at Westminster, had in general grown accustomed to concentrate their activity upon the spiritual direction of the higher classes. But though they counted among them Englishmen of eminence (one of these was Chaucer’s friend, “the philosophical Strode”), they in truth never played a more than secondary part in this country, to whose soil the delicate machinery of the Inquisition, of which they were by choice the managers, was never congenial. Of far greater importance for the population of England at large was the Order of the Franciscans or (as they were here wont to call themselves or to be called) Minorites or Grey Friars. To them the poor had habitually looked for domestic ministrations, and for the inspiring and consoling eloquence of the pulpit; and they had carried their labours into the midst of the suffering population, not afraid of association with that poverty which they were by their vow themselves bound to espouse, or of contact with the horrors of leprosy and the plague. Departing from the short-sighted policy of their illustrious founder, they had become a learned, as well as a ministering and preaching Order; and it was precisely from among them that, at Oxford and elsewhere, sprang a succession of learned monks, whose names are inseparably connected with some of the earliest English growths of philosophical speculation and scientific research. Nor is it possible to doubt that in the middle of the thirteenth century the monks of this Order at Oxford had exercised an appreciable influence upon the beginnings of a political struggle of unequalled importance for the progress of our constitutional life. But in the Franciscans also the fourteenth century witnessed a change, which may be described as a gradual loss of the qualities for which they had been honourably distinguished; and in England, as elsewhere, the spirit of the words which Dante puts into the mouth of St. Francis of Assisi was being verified by his degenerate Children:–

So soft is flesh of mortals, that on earth A good beginning doth no longer last
Than while an oak may bring its fruit to birth.

Outwardly, indeed, the Grey Friars might still often seem what their predecessors had been, and might thus retain a powerful influence over the unthinking crowd, and to sheer worldlings appear as heretofore to represent a troublesome memento of unexciting religious obligations; “Preach not,” says Chaucer’s “Host,”

“as friars do in Lent,
That they for our old sins may make us weep, Nor in such wise thy tale make us to sleep.”

But in general men were beginning to suspect the motives as well as to deride the practices of the Friars, to accuse them of lying against St. Francis, and to desiderate for them an actual abode of fire, resembling that of which in their favourite religious shows they were wont to present the mimic semblance to the multitude. It was they who became in England as elsewhere the purveyors of charms and the organisers of pious frauds, while the learning for which their Order had been famous was withering away into the yellow leaf of scholasticism. The Friar in general became the common butt of literary satire; and though the populace still remained true to its favourite guides, a reaction was taking place in favour of the secular as against the regular clergy in the sympathies of the higher classes, and in the spheres of society most open to intellectual influences. The monks and the London multitude were at one time united against John of Gaunt, but it was from the ranks of the secular clergy that Wyclif came forth to challenge the ascendancy of Franciscan scholasticism in his university. Meanwhile the poet who in the “Poor Parson of the Town” paints his ideal of a Christian minister–simple, poor, and devoted to his holy work,–has nothing but contempt for the friars at large, and for the whole machinery worked by them, half effete, and half spasmodic, and altogether sham. In King Arthur’s time, says that accurate and unprejudiced observer the “Wife of Bath,” the land was filled with fairies–NOW it is filled with friars as thick as motes in the beam of the sun. Among them there is the “Pardoner,” i.e. seller of pardons (indulgences)–with his “haughty” sermons, delivered “by rote” to congregation after congregation in the self-same words, and everywhere accompanied by the self-same tricks of anecdotes and jokes,–with his Papal credentials, and with the pardons he has brought from Rome “all hot,”–and with precious relics to rejoice the hearts of the faithful, and to fill his own pockets with the proceeds: to wit, a pillowcase covered with the veil of Our Lady, and a piece of the sail of the ship in which St. Peter went out fishing on the Lake of Gennesareth. This worthy, who lays bare his own motives with unparalleled cynical brutality, is manifestly drawn from the life;–or the portrait could not have been accepted which was presented alike by Chaucer, and by his contemporary Langland, and (a century and a half later) in the plagiarism of the orthodox Catholic John Heywood. There, again, is the “Limitour,” a friar licensed to beg, and to hear confession and grant absolution, within the LIMITS of a certain district. He is described by Chaucer with so much humour, that one can hardly suspect much exaggeration in the sketch. In him we have the truly popular ecclesiastic who springs from the people, lives among the people, and feels with the people. He is the true friend of the poor, and being such, has, as one might say, his finger in every pie: for “a fly and a friar will fall in every dish and every business.” His readily-proffered arbitration settles the differences of the humbler classes at the “love-days,” a favourite popular practice noted already in the “Vision” of Langland; nor is he a niggard of the mercies which he is privileged to dispense:–

Full sweetly did he hear confession,
And pleasant was his absolution.
He was an easy man to give penance, Whereso wist to have a good pittance;
For unto a poor Order for to give,
Is signe that a man is well y-shrive; For if he gave, he durste make a vaunt
He wiste that a man was repentant.
For many a man so hard is of his heart He can not weep although he sorely smart. Therefore instead of weeping and of prayers Men must give silver to the poore Freres.

Already in the French “Roman de la Rose” the rivalry between the Friars and the Parish Priests is the theme of much satire, evidently unfavourable to the former and favourable to the latter; but in England, where Langland likewise dwells upon the jealousy between them, it was specially accentuated by the assaults of Wyclif upon the Mendicant Orders. Wyclif’s Simple Priests, who at first ministered with the approval of the Bishops, differed from the Mendicants, first by not being beggars, and secondly by being poor. They might perhaps have themselves ultimately played the part of a new Order in England, had not Wyclif himself by rejecting the cardinal dogma of the Church severed these followers of his from its organism and brought about their suppression. The question as to Chaucer’s own attitude towards the Wycliffite movement will be more conveniently touched upon below; but the tone is unmistakable of the references or allusions to Lollardry which he occasionally introduces into the mouth of his “Host,” whose voice is that vox populi which the upper and middle classes so often arrogate to themselves. Whatever those classes might desire, it was not to have “cockle sown” by unauthorised intruders “in the corn” of their ordinary instruction. Thus there is a tone of genuine attachment to the “vested interest” principle, and of aversion from all such interlopers as lay preachers and the like, in the “Host’s” exclamation, uttered after the “Reeve,” has been (in his own style) “sermoning” on the topic of old age:–

What availeth all this wit?
What? should we speak all day of Holy Writ? The devil surely made a reeve to preach;

for which he is as well suited as a cobbler would be for turning mariner or physician!

Thus, then, in the England of Chaucer’s days we find the Church still in possession of vast temporal wealth and of great power and privileges,–as well as of means for enforcing unity of profession which the legislation of the Lancastrian dynasty, stimulated by the prevailing fears of heresy, was still further to increase. On the other hand, we find the influence of the clergy over the minds of the people diminished though not extinguished. This was, in the case of the higher secular clergy, partly attributable to their self-indulgence or neglect of their functions, partly to their having been largely superseded by the Regulars in the control of the religious life of the people. The Orders we find no longer at the height of their influence, but still powerful by their wealth, their numbers, their traditional hold upon the lower classes, and their determination to retain this hold even by habitually resorting to the most dubious of methods. Lastly, we find in the lower secular clergy, and doubtless may also assume it to have lingered among some of the regular, some of the salt left whose savour consists in a single-minded and humble resolution to maintain the highest standard of a religious life. But such “clerks” as these are at no times the most easily found, because it is not they who are always running it “unto London, unto St. Paul’s” on urgent private affairs. What wonder, that the real teaching of Wyclif, of which the full significance could hardly be understood, but by a select few, should have virtually fallen dead upon his generation, to which the various agitations and agitators, often mingling ideas of religious reform with social and political grievances, seemed to be identical in character and alike to require suppression! In truth, of course, these movements and their agents were often very different from one another in their ends, and were not to be suppressed by the same processes.

It should not be forgotten that in this century learning was, though only very gradually, ceasing to be a possession of the clergy alone. Much doubt remains as to the extent of education–if a little reading, and less writing deserve the name–among the higher classes in this period of our national life. A cheering sign appears in the circumstance that the legal deeds of this age begin to bear signatures, and a reference to John of Trevisa would bear out Hallam’s conjecture, that in the year 1400 “the average instruction of an English gentleman of the first class would comprehend common reading and writing, a considerable knowledge of French, and a slight tincture of Latin.” Certain it is that in this century the barren teaching of the Universities advanced but little towards the true end of all academical teaching–the encouragement and spread of the highest forms of national culture. To what use could a gentleman of Edward III’s or Richard II’s day have put the acquirements of a “Clerk of Oxenford” in Aristotelian logic, supplemented perhaps by a knowledge of Priscian, and the rhetorical works of Cicero? Chaucer’s scholar, however much his learned modesty of manner and sententious brevity of speech may commend him to our sympathy and taste, is a man wholly out of the world in which he lives, though a dependent on its charity even for the means with which to purchase more of his beloved books. Probably no trustworthier conclusions as to the literary learning and studies of those days are to be derived from any other source than from a comparison of the few catalogues of contemporary libraries remaining to us; and these help to show that the century was approaching its close before a few sparse rays of the first dawn of the Italian Renascence reached England. But this ray was communicated neither through the clergy nor through the Universities; and such influence as was exercised by it upon the national mind, was directly due to profane poets,–men of the world, who like Chaucer quoted authorities even more abundantly than they used them, and made some of their happiest discoveries after the fashion in which the “Oxford Clerk” came across Petrarch’s Latin version of the story of Patient Grissel: as it were by accident. There is only too ample a justification for leaving aside the records of the history of learning in England during the latter half of the fourteenth century in any sketch of the main influences which in that period determined or affected the national progress. It was not by his theological learning that Wyclif was brought into living contact with the current of popular thought and feeling. The Universities were thriving exceedingly on the scholastic glories of previous ages; but the ascendancy was passing away to which Oxford had attained over Paris– during the earlier middle ages, and again in the fifteenth century until the advent of the Renascence, the central university of Europe in the favourite study of scholastic philosophy and theology.

But we must turn from particular classes and ranks of men to the whole body of the population, exclusively of that great section of it which unhappily lay outside the observation of any but a very few writers– whether poets or historians. In the people at large we may, indeed, easily discern in this period the signs of an advance towards that self- government which is the true foundation of our national greatness. But on the other hand it is impossible not to observe how, while the moral ideas of the people wore still under the control of the Church, the State in its turn still ubiquitously interfered in the settlement of the conditions of social existence, fixing prices, controlling personal expenditure, regulating wages. Not until England had fully attained to the character of a commercial country, which it was coming gradually to assume, did its inhabitants begin to understand the value of that which has gradually come to distinguish ours among the nations of Europe, viz. the right of individual Englishmen, as well as of the English people, to manage their own affairs for themselves. This may help to explain what can hardly fail to strike a reader of Chaucer and of the few contemporary remains of our literature. About our national life in this period, both in its virtues and in its vices, there is something–it matters little whether we call it–childlike or childish; in its “apert” if not in its privy sides it lacks the seriousness belonging to men and to generations, who have learnt to control themselves, instead of relying on the control of others.

In illustration of this assertion, appeal might be made to several of the most salient features in the social life of the period. The extravagant expenditure in dress, fostered by a love of pageantry of various kinds encouraged by both chivalry and the Church, has been already referred to; it was by no means distinctive of any one class of the population. Among the friars who went about preaching homilies on the people’s favourite vices some humorous rogues may, like the “Pardoner” of the “Canterbury Tales,” have made a point of treating their own favourite vice as their one and unchangeable text:–

My theme is always one, and ever was: Radix malorum est cupiditas.

But others preferred to dwell on specifically lay sins; and these moralists occasionally attributed to the love of expenditure on dress the impoverishment of the kingdom, forgetting in their ignorance of political economy and defiance of common sense, that this result was really due to the endless foreign wars. Yet in contrast with the pomp and ceremony of life, upon which so great an amount of money and time and thought was wasted, are noticeable shortcomings by no means uncommon in the case of undeveloped civilisations (as for instance among the most typically childish or childlike nationalities of the Europe of our own day), viz. discomfort and uncleanliness of all sorts. To this may be added the excessive fondness for sports and pastimes of all kinds, in which nations are aptest to indulge before or after the era of their highest efforts,– the desire to make life one long holiday, dividing it between tournaments and the dalliance of courts of love, or between archery-meetings (skilfully substituted by royal command for less useful exercises), and the seductive company of “tumblers,” “fruiterers,” and “waferers.” Furthermore, one may notice in all classes a far from eradicated inclination to superstitions of every kind,–whether those encouraged or those discouraged by the Church
(For holy Church’s faith, in our belief, Suffereth no illusion us to grieve.
“The Franklin’s Tale.”),
–an inclination unfortunately fostered rather than checked by the uncertain gropings of contemporary science. Hence, the credulous acceptance of relics like those sold by the “Pardoner,” and of legends like those related to Chaucer’s Pilgrims by the “Prioress” (one of the numerous repetitions of a cruel calumny against the Jews), and by the “Second Nun” (the supra-sensual story of Saint Cecilia). Hence, on the other hand, the greedy hunger for the marvels of astrology and alchemy, notwithstanding the growing scepticism even of members of a class represented by Chaucer’s “Franklin” towards

such folly
As in our days is not held worth a fly,

and notwithstanding the exposure of fraud by repentant or sickened accomplices, such as the gold-making “Canon’s Yeoman.” Hence, again, the vitality of such quasi-scientific fancies as the magic mirror, of which miraculous instrument the “Squire’s” “half-told story” describes a specimen, referring to the incontestable authority of Aristotle and others, who write “in their lives” concerning quaint mirrors and perspective glasses, as is well known to those who have “heard the books” of these sages. Hence, finally, the corresponding tendency to eschew the consideration of serious religious questions, and to leave them to clerks, as if they were crabbed problems of theology. For in truth, while the most fertile and fertilising ideas of the Middle Ages had exhausted, or were rapidly coming to exhaust, their influence upon the people, the forms of the doctrines of the Church–even of the most stimulative as well as of the most solemn among them,–had grown hard and stiff. To those who received if not to those who taught these doctrines they seemed alike lifeless, unless translated into the terms of the merest earthly transactions or the language of purely human relations. And thus, paradoxical as it might seem, cool-headed and conscientious rulers of the Church thought themselves on occasion called upon to restrain rather than to stimulate the religious ardour of the multitude–fed as the flame was by very various materials. Perhaps no more characteristic narrative has come down to us from the age of the Poet of the “Canterbury Tales,” than the story of Bishop (afterwards Archbishop) Sudbury and the Canterbury Pilgrims. In the year 1370 the land was agitated through its length and breadth, on the occasion of the fourth jubilee of the national saint, Thomas the Martyr. The pilgrims were streaming in numbers along the familiar Kentish road, when, on the very vigil of the feast, one of their companies was accidentally met by the Bishop of London. They demanded his blessing; but to their astonishment and indignation he seized the occasion to read a lesson to the crowd on the uselessness to unrepentant sinners of the plenary indulgences, for the sake of which they were wending their way to the Martyr’s shrine. The rage of the multitude found a mouthpiece in a soldier, who loudly upbraided the Bishop for stirring up the people against St. Thomas, and warned him that a shameful death would befall him in consequence. The multitude shouted Amen–and one is left to wonder whether any of the pious pilgrims who resented Bishop Sudbury’s manly truthfulness, swelled the mob which eleven years later butchered “the plunderer” as it called him, “of the Commons.” It is such glimpses as this which show us how important the Church had become towards the people. Worse was to ensue before the better came; in the meantime, the nation was in that stage of its existence when the innocence of the child was fast losing itself, without the self-control of the man having yet taken its place.

But the heart of England was sound the while. The national spirit of enterprise was not dead in any class, from knight to shipman; and faithfulness and chastity in woman were still esteemed the highest though not the universal virtues of her sex. The value of such evidence as the mind of a great poet speaking in his works furnishes for a knowledge of the times to which he belongs is inestimable. For it shows us what has survived, as well as what was doomed to decay, in the life of the nation with which that mind was in sensitive sympathy. And it therefore seemed not inappropriate to approach, in the first instance, from this point of view the subject of this biographical essay,–Chaucer, “the poet of the dawn.” For in him there are many things significant of the age of transition in which he lived; in him the mixture of Frenchman and Englishman is still in a sense incomplete, as that of their language is in the diction of his poems. His gaiety of heart is hardly English; nor is his willing (though, to be sure, not invariably unquestioning) acceptance of forms into the inner meaning of which he does not greatly vex his soul by entering; nor his airy way of ridiculing what he has no intention of helping to overthrow; nor his light unconcern in the question whether he is, or is not, an immoral writer. Or, at least, in all of these things he has no share in qualities and tendencies, which influences and conflicts unknown to and unforeseen by him may be safely said to have ultimately made characteristic of Englishmen. But he IS English in his freedom and frankness of spirit; in his manliness of mind; in his preference for the good in things as they are to the good in things as they might be; in his loyalty, his piety, his truthfulness. Of the great movement which was to mould the national character for at least a long series of generations he displays no serious foreknowledge; and of the elements already preparing to affect the course of that movement he shows a very incomplete consciousness. But of the health and strength which, after struggles many and various, made that movement possible and made it victorious, he, more than any one of his contemporaries, is the living type and the speaking witness. Thus, like the times to which he belongs, he stands half in and half out of the Middle Ages, half in and half out of a phase of our national life, which we can never hope to understand more than partially and imperfectly. And it is this, taken together with the fact that he is the first English poet to read whom is to enjoy him, and that he garnished not only our language but our literature with blossoms still adorning them in vernal freshness,–which makes Chaucer’s figure so unique a one in the gallery of our great English writers, and gives to his works an interest so inexhaustible for the historical as well as for the literary student.


Something has been already said as to the conflict of opinion concerning the period of Geoffrey Chaucer’s birth, the precise date of which is very unlikely ever to be ascertained. A better fortune has attended the anxious enquiries which in his case, as in those of other great men have been directed to the very secondary question of ancestry and descent,–a question to which, in the abstract at all events, no man ever attached less importance than he. Although the name “Chaucer” is (according to Thynne), to be found on the lists of Battle Abbey, this no more proves that the poet himself came of “high parage,” than the reverse is to be concluded from the nature of his coat-of-arms, which Speght thought must have been taken out of the 27th and 28th Propositions of the First Book of Euclid. Many a warrior of the Norman Conquest was known to his comrades only by the name of the trade which he had plied in some French or Flemish town, before he attached himself a volunteer to Duke William’s holy and lucrative expedition; and it is doubtful whether even in the fourteenth century the name “Le Chaucer” is, wherever it occurs in London, used as a surname, or whether in some instances it is not merely a designation of the owner’s trade. Thus we should not be justified in assuming a French origin for the family from which Richard le Chaucer, whom we know to have been the poet’s grandfather, was descended. Whether or not he was at any time a shoemaker (chaucier, maker of chausses), and accordingly belonged to a gentle craft otherwise not unassociated with the history of poetry, Richard was a citizen of London, and vintner, like his son John after him. John Chaucer, whose wife’s Christian name may be with tolerable safety set down as Agnes, owned a house in Thames Street, London, not far from the arch on which modern pilgrims pass by rail to Canterbury or beyond, and in the neighbourhood of the great bridge, which in Chaucer’s own day, emptied its travellers on their errands, sacred or profane, into the great Southern road, the Via Appia of England. The house afterwards descended to John’s son, Geoffrey, who released his right to it by deed in the year 1380. Chaucer’s father was probably a man of some substance, the most usual personal recommendation to great people in one of his class. For he was at least temporarily connected with the Court, inasmuch as he attended King Edward III and Queen Philippa on the memorable journey to Flanders and Germany, in the course of which the English monarch was proclaimed Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire on the left bank of the Rhine. John Chaucer died in 1366, and in course of time his widow married another citizen and vintner. Thomas Heyroun, John Chaucer’s brother of the half- blood, was likewise a member of the same trade; so that the young Geoffrey was certainly not brought up in an atmosphere of abstinence. The “Host” of the “Canterbury Tales,” though he takes his name from an actual personage, may therefore have in him touches of a family portrait; but Chaucer himself nowhere displays any traces of a hereditary devotion to Bacchus, and makes so experienced a practitioner as the “Pardoner” the mouthpiece of as witty an invective against drunkenness as has been uttered by any assailant of our existing licensing laws. Chaucer’s own practice as well as his opinion on this head is sufficiently expressed in the characteristic words he puts into the mouth of Cressid:–

In every thing, I wot, there lies measure: For though a man forbid all drunkenness, He biddeth not that every creature
Be drinkless altogether, as I guess.

Of Geoffrey Chaucer we know nothing whatever from the day of his birth (whenever it befell) to the year 1357. His earlier biographers, who supposed him to have been born in 1328, had accordingly a fair field open for conjecture and speculation. Here it must suffice to risk the asseveration, that he cannot have accompanied his father to Cologne in 1338, and on that occasion have been first “taken notice of” by king and queen, if he was not born till two or more years afterwards. If, on the other hand, he was born in 1328, both events MAY have taken place. On neither supposition is there any reason for believing that he studied at one–or at both–of our English Universities. The poem cannot be accepted as Chaucerian, the author of which (very possibly by a mere dramatic assumption) declares:–

Philogenet I call’d am far and near,
Of Cambridge clerk;

nor can any weight be attached to the circumstance that the “Clerk,” who is one of the most delightful figures among the Canterbury Pilgrims, is an Oxonian. The enticing enquiry as to so WHICH of the sister Universities may claim Chaucer as her own must, therefore, be allowed to drop, together with the subsidiary question, whether stronger evidence of local colouring is furnished by the “Miller’s” picture of the life of a poor scholar in lodgings at Oxford, or by the “Reeve’s” rival narrative of the results of a Trumpington walk taken by two undergraduates of the “Soler Hall” at Cambridge. Equally baseless is the supposition of one of Chaucer’s earliest biographers, that he completed his academical studies at Paris– and equally futile the concomitant fiction that in France “he acquired much applause by his literary exercises.” Finally, we have the tradition that he was a member of the Inner Temple–which is a conclusion deduced from a piece of genial scandal as to a record having been seen in that Inn of a fine imposed upon him for beating a friar in Fleet-street. This story was early placed by Thynne on the horns of a sufficiently decisive dilemma: in the days of Chaucer’s youth, lawyers had not yet been admitted into the Temple; and in the days of his maturity he is not very likely to have been found engaged in battery in a London thoroughfare.

We now desert the region of groundless conjecture, in order with the year 1357 to arrive at a firm though not very broad footing of facts. In this year, “Geoffrey Chaucer” (whom it would be too great an effort of scepticism to suppose to have been merely a namesake of the poet) is mentioned in the Household Book of Elizabeth Countess of Ulster, wife of Prince Lionel (third son of King Edward III, and afterwards Duke of Clarence), as a recipient of certain articles of apparel. Two similar notices of his name occur up to the year 1359. He is hence concluded to have belonged to Prince Lionel’s establishment as squire or page to the Lady Elizabeth; and it was probably in the Prince’s retinue that he took part in the expedition of King Edward III into France, which began at the close of the year 1359 with the ineffectual siege of Rheims, and in the next year, after a futile attempt upon Paris, ended with the compromise of the Peace of Bretigny. In the course of this campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner; but he was released without much loss of time, as appears by a document bearing date March 1st, 1360, in which the king contributes the sum of 16 pounds for Chaucer’s ransom. We may therefore conclude that he missed the march upon Paris, and the sufferings undergone by the English army on their road thence to Chartres–the most exciting experiences of an inglorious campaign; and that he was actually set free by the Peace. When, in the year 1367, we next meet with his name in authentic records, his earliest known patron, the Lady Elizabeth, is dead; and he has passed out of the service of Prince Lionel into that of King Edward himself, as Valet of whose Chamber or household he receives a yearly salary for life of twenty marks, for his former and future services. Very possibly he had quitted Prince Lionel’s service when in 1361 that Prince had by reason of his marriage with the heiress of Ulster been appointed to the Irish government by his father, who was supposed at one time to have destined him for the Scottish throne.

Concerning the doings of Chaucer in the interval between his liberation from his French captivity and the first notice of him as Valet of the King’s Chamber we know nothing at all. During these years, however, no less important a personal event than his marriage was by earlier biographers supposed to have occurred. On the other hand, according to the view which commends itself to several eminent living commentators of the poet, it was not courtship and marriage, but a hopeless and unrequited passion, which absorbed these years of his life. Certain stanzas in which, as they think, he gave utterance to this passion are by them ascribed to one of these years; so that if their view were correct, the poem in question would have to be regarded as the earliest of his extant productions. The problem which we have indicated must detain us for a moment.

It is attested by documentary evidence, that in the year 1374, Chaucer had a wife by name Philippa, who had been in the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and of his Duchess (doubtless his second wife, Constance), as well as in that of his mother the good Queen Philippa, and who, on several occasions afterwards, besides special new year’s gifts of silver-gilt cups from the Duke, received her annual pension of ten marks through her husband. It is likewise proved that, in 1366, a pension of ten marks was granted to _a_ Philippa Chaucer, one of the ladies of the Queen’s Chamber. Obviously, it is a highly probable assumption that these two Philippa Chaucers were one and the same person; but in the absence of any direct proof it is impossible to affirm as certain, or to deny as demonstrably untrue, that the Philippa Chaucer of 1366 owed her surname to marriage. Yet the view was long held, and is still maintained by writers of knowledge and insight, that the Phillipa of 1366 was at that date Chaucer’s wife. In or before that year he married, it was said, Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Paon de Roet of Hainault, Guienne King of Arms, who came to England in Queen Philippa’s retinue in 1328. This tradition derived special significance from the fact that another daughter of Sir Paon, Katharine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, was successively governess, mistress, and (third) wife to the Duke of Lancaster, to whose service both Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer were at one time attached. It was apparently founded on the circumstance that Thomas Chaucer, the supposed son of the poet, quartered the Roet arms with his own. But unfortunately there is no evidence to show that Thomas Chaucer was a son of Geoffrey; and the superstructure must needs vanish with its basis. It being then no longer indispensable to assume Chaucer to have been a married man in 1366, the Philippa Chaucer of that year MAY have been only a namesake, and possibly a relative, of Geoffrey; for there were other Chaucers in London besides him and his father (who died this year), and one Chaucer at least has been found who was well-to-do enough to have a Damsel of the Queen’s Chamber for his daughter in these certainly not very exclusive times.

There is accordingly no PROOF that Chaucer was a married man before 1374, when he is known to have received a pension for his own and his wife’s services. But with this negative result we are asked not to be poor- spirited enough to rest content. At the opening of his “Book of the Duchess,” a poem certainly written towards the end of the year 1369, Chaucer makes use of certain expressions, both very pathetic and very definite. The most obvious interpretation of the lines in question seems to be that they contain the confession of a hopeless passion, which has lasted for eight years–a confession which certainly seems to come more appropriately and more naturally from an unmarried than from a married man. “For eight years,” he says, or seems to say, “I have loved, and loved in vain–and yet my cure is never the nearer. There is but one physician that can heal me–but all that is ended and done with. Let us pass on into fresh fields; what cannot be obtained must needs be left.” It seems impossible to interpret this passage (too long to cite in extenso) as a complaint of married life. Many other poets have indeed complained of their married lives, and Chaucer (if the view to be advanced below be correct) as emphatically as any. But though such occasional exclamations of impatience or regret–more especially when in a comic vein–may receive pardon, or even provoke amusement, yet a serious and sustained poetic version of Sterne’s “sum multum fatigatus de uxore mea” would be unbearable in any writer of self-respect, and wholly out of character in Chaucer. Even Byron only indited elegies about his married life after his wife HAD LEFT HIM.

Now, among Chaucer’s minor poems is preserved one called the “Complaint of the Death of Pity,” which purports to set forth “how pity is dead and buried in a gentle heart,” and, after testifying to a hopeless passion, ends with the following declaration, addressed to Pity, as in a “bill” or letter:–

This is to say: I will be yours for ever, Though ye me slay by Cruelty, your foe;
Yet shall my spirit nevermore dissever From your service, for any pain or woe,
Pity, whom I have sought so long ago! Thus for your death I may well weep and plain, With heart all sore, and full of busy pain.

If this poem be autobiographical, it would indisputably correspond well enough to a period in Chaucer’s life, and to a mood of mind preceding those to which the introduction to the “Book of the Duchess” belongs. If it be not autobiographical–and in truth there is nothing to prove it such, so that an attempt has been actually made to suggest its having been intended to apply to the experiences of another man–then the “Complaint of Pity” has no special value for students of Chaucer, since its poetic beauty, as there can be no harm in observing, is not in itself very great.

To come to an end of this topic, there seems no possibility of escaping from one of the following alternatives. EITHER the Philippa Chaucer of 1366 was Geoffrey Chaucer’s wife, whether or not she was Philippa Roet before marriage, and the lament of 1369 had reference to another lady–an assumption to be regretted in the case of a married man, but not out of the range of possibility. OR–and this seems on the whole the most probable view–the Philippa Chaucer of 1366 was a namesake whom Geoffrey married some time after 1369, possibly, (of course only POSSIBLY,) the very lady whom he had loved hopelessly for eight years, and persuaded himself that he had at last relinquished–and who had then relented after all. This last conjecture it is certainly difficult to reconcile with the conclusion at which we arrive on other grounds, that Chaucer’s married life was not one of preponderating bliss. That he and his wife were COUSINS is a pleasing thought, but one which is not made more pleasing by the seeming fact that, if they were so related, marriage in their case failed to draw close that hearts’ bond which such kinship at times half unconsciously knits.

Married or still a bachelor, Chaucer may fairly be supposed, during part of the years previous to that in which we find him securely established in the king’s service, to have enjoyed a measure of independence and leisure open to few men in his rank of life, when once the golden days of youth and early manhood have passed away. Such years are in many men’s lives marked by the projection, or even by the partial accomplishment, of literary undertakings on a large scale, and more especially of such as partake of an imitative character. When a juvenile and facile writer’s taste is still unsettled, and his own style is as yet unformed, he eagerly tries his hand at the reproduction of the work of others; translates the “Iliad” or “Faust,” or suits himself with unsuspecting promptitude to the production of masques, or pastorals, or life dramas–or whatever may be the prevailing fashion in poetry–after the manner of the favourite literary models of the day. A priori, therefore, everything is in favour of the belief hitherto universally entertained, that among Chaucer’s earliest poetical productions was the extant English translation of the French “Roman de la Rose.” That he made SOME translation of this poem is a fact resting on his own statement in a passage indisputably written by him (in the “Prologue” to the “Legend of Good Women”); nor is the value of this statement reduced by the negative circumstance, that in the extraordinary tag (if it may be called by so irreverent a name) to the extant “Canterbury Tales,” the “Romaunt of the Rose” is passed over in silence, or at least not nominally mentioned, among the objectionable works which the poet is there made to retract. And there seems at least no necessity for giving in to the conclusion that Chaucer’s translation has been lost, and was not that which has been hitherto accepted as his. For this conclusion is based upon the use of a formal test, which in truth need not be regarded as of itself absolutely decisive in any case, but which in this particular instance need not be held applicable at all. A particular rule against rhyming with one another particular sounds, which in his later poems Chaucer seems invariably to have followed, need not have been observed by him in what was actually, or all but, his earliest. The unfinished state of the extant translation accords with the supposition that Chaucer broke it off on adopting (possibly after conference with Gower, who likewise observes the rule) a more logical practice as to the point in question. Moreover, no English translation of this poem besides Chaucer’s is ever known to have existed.

Whither should the youthful poet, when in search of materials on which to exercise a ready but as yet untrained hand, have so naturally turned as to French poetry, and in its domain whither so eagerly as to its universally acknowledged master-piece? French verse was the delight of the Court, into the service of which he was about this time preparing permanently to enter, and with which he had been more or less connected from his boyhood. In French Chaucer’s contemporary Gower composed not only his first longer work, but not less than fifty ballads or sonnets, and in French (as well as in English) Chaucer himself may have possibly in his youth set his own ‘prentice hand to the turning of “ballades, rondels, virelayes.” The time had not yet arrived, though it was not far distant, when his English verse was to attest his admiration of Machault, whose fame Froissart and Froissart’s imitations had brought across from the French Court to the English; and when Gransson, who served King Richard II as a squire, was extolled by his English adapter as the “flower of them that write in France.” But as yet Chaucer’s own tastes, his French blood, if he had any in his veins, and the familiarity with the French tongue which he had already had opportunities of acquiring, were more likely to commend to him productions of broader literary merits and a wider popularity. From these points of view, in the days of Chaucer’s youth, there was no rival to the “Roman de la Rose,” one of those rare works on which the literary history of whole generations and centuries may be said to hinge. The Middle Ages, in which from various causes the literary intercommunication between the nations of Europe was in some respects far livelier than it has been in later times, witnessed the appearance of several such works–diverse in kind but similar to one another in the universality of their popularity: “The Consolation of Philosophy,” the “Divine Comedy,” the “Imitation of Christ,” the “Roman de la Rose,” the “Ship of Fools.” The favour enjoyed by the “Roman de la Rose,” was in some ways the most extraordinary of all. In France, this work remained the dominant work of poetic literature, and “the source whence every rhymer drew for his needs” down to the period of the classical revival led by Ronsard (when it was edited by Clement Marot, Spenser’s early model). In England, it exercised an influence only inferior to that which belonged to it at home upon both the matter and the form of poetry down to the renascence begun by Surrey and Wyatt. This extraordinary literary influence admits of a double explanation. But just as the authorship of the poem was very unequally divided between two personages, wholly divergent in their purposes as writers, so the POPULARITY of the poem is probably in the main to be attributed to the second and later of the pair.

To the trouvere Guillaume de Lorris (who took his name from a small town in the valley of the Loire) was due the original conception of the “Roman de la Rose,” for which it is needless to suspect any extraneous source. To novelty of subject he added great ingenuity of treatment. Instead of narrative of warlike adventures he offered to his readers a psychological romance, in which a combination of symbolisations and personified abstractions supplied the characters of the moral conflict represented. Bestiaries and Lapidaries had familiarised men’s minds with the art of finding a symbolical significance in particular animals and stones; and the language of poets was becoming a language of flowers. On the other hand, the personification of abstract qualities was a usage largely affected by the Latin writers of the earlier Middle Ages, and formed a favourite device of the monastic beginnings of the Christian drama. For both these literary fashions, which mildly exercised the ingenuity while deeply gratifying the tastes of mediaeval readers, room was easily found by Guillaume de Lorris within a framework in itself both appropriate and graceful. He told (as reproduced by his English translator) how in a dream he seemed to himself to wake up on a May morning. Sauntering forth, he came to a garden surrounded by a wall, on which were depicted many unkindly figures, such as Hate and Villainy, and Avarice and Old Age, and another thing

That seemed like a hypocrite,
And it was cleped pope holy.

Within, all seemed so delicious that, feeling ready to give an hundred pound for the chance of entering, he smote at a small wicket and was admitted by a courteous maiden named Idleness. On the sward in the garden were dancing its owner, Sir Mirth, and a company of friends; and by the side of Gladness the dreamer saw the God of Love and his attendant, a bachelor named Sweet-looking, who bore two bows, each with five arrows. Of these bows the one was straight and fair, and the other crooked and unsightly, and each of the arrows bore the name of some quality or emotion by which love is advanced or hindered. And as the dreamer was gazing into the spring of Narcissus (the imagination), he beheld a rose-tree “charged full of roses,” and, becoming enamoured of one of them, eagerly advanced to pluck the object of his passion. In the midst of this attempt he was struck by arrow upon arrow, shot “wonder smart” by Love from the strong bow. The arrow called Company completes the victory; the dreaming poet becomes the Lover (“L’Amant”), and swears allegiance to the God of Love, who proceeds to instruct him in his laws; and the real action (if it is to be called such) of the poem begins. This consists in the Lover’s desire to possess himself of the Rosebud, the opposition offered to him by powers both good and evil, and by Reason in particular, and the support which he receives from more or less discursive friends. Clearly, the conduct of such a scheme as this admits of being varied in many ways and protracted to any length; but its first conception is easy and natural, and when it was novel to boot, was neither commonplace nor ill-chosen.

After writing about one-fifth of the 22,000 verses of which the original French poem consists, Guillaume de Lorris, who had executed his part of the task in full sympathy with the spirit of the chivalry of his times, died, and left the work to be continued by another trouvere, Jean de Meung (so-called from the town, near Lorris, in which he lived). “Hobbling John” took up the thread of his predecessor’s poem in the spirit of a wit and an encyclopaedist. Indeed, the latter appellation suits him in both its special and its general sense. Beginning with a long dialogue between Reason and the Lover, he was equally anxious to display his freedom of criticism and his universality of knowledge, both scientific and anecdotical. His vein was pre-eminently satirical and abundantly allusive; and among the chief objects of his satire are the two favourite themes of medieval satire in general, religious hypocrisy (personified in “Faux-Semblant,” who has been described as one of the ancestors of “Tartuffe”), and the foibles of women. To the gross salt of Jean de Meung, even more than to the courtly perfume of Guillaume de Lorris, may be ascribed the long-lived popularity of the “Roman de la Rose”; and thus a work, of which already the theme and first conception imply a great step forwards from the previous range of mediaeval poetry, became a favourite with all classes by reason of the piquancy of its flavour, and the quotable applicability of many of its passages. Out of a chivalrous allegory Jean de Meung had made a popular satire; and though in its completed form it could look for no welcome in many a court or castle,– though Petrarch despised it, and Gerson in the name of the Church recorded a protest against it,–and though a bevy of offended ladies had well-nigh taken the law into their own hands against its author,–yet it commanded a vast public of admirers. And against such a popularity even an offended clergy, though aided by the sneers of the fastidious and the vehemence of the fair, is wont to contend in vain.

Chaucer’s translation of this poem is thought to have been the cause which called forth from Eustace Deschamps, Machault’s pupil and nephew, the complimentary ballade in the refrain of which the Englishman is saluted as

Grant translateur, noble Gelfroi Chaucier.

But whether or not such was the case, his version of the “Roman de la Rose” seems, on the whole, to be a translation properly so called– although, considering the great number of MSS. existing of the French original, it would probably be no easy task to verify the assertion that in one or the other of these are to be found the few passages thought to have been interpolated by Chaucer. On the other hand, his omissions are extensive; indeed, the whole of his translation amounts to little more than one-third of the French original. It is all the more noteworthy that Chaucer reproduces only about one-half of the part contributed by Jean de Meung, and again condenses this half to one-third of its length. In general, he has preserved the French names of localities, and even occasionally helps himself to a rhyme by retaining a French word. Occasionally he shows a certain timidity as a translator, speaking of “the tree which in France men call a pine,” and pointing out, so that there may be no mistake, that mermaidens are called it “sereyns” (sirenes) in France. On the other hand, his natural vivacity now and then suggests to him a turn of phrase or an illustration of his own. As a loyal English courtier he cannot compare a fair bachelor to any one so aptly as to “the lord’s son of Windsor;” and as writing not far from the time when the Statute of Kilkenny was passed, he cannot lose the opportunity of inventing an Irish parentage for Wicked-Tongue:

So full of cursed rage
It well agreed with his lineage;
For him an Irishwoman bare.

The debt which Chaucer in his later works owed to the “Roman of the Rose” was considerable, and by no means confined to the favourite May-morning exordium and the recurring machinery of a vision–to the origin of which latter (the dream of Scipio related by Cicero and expounded in the widely- read Commentary of Macrobius) the opening lines of the “Romaunt” point. He owes to the French poem both the germs of felicitous phrases, such as the famous designation of Nature as “the Vicar of the almighty Lord,” and perhaps touches used by him in passages like that in which he afterwards, with further aid from other sources, drew the character of a true gentleman. But the main service which the work of this translation rendered to him was the opportunity which it offered of practising and perfecting a ready and happy choice of words,–a service in which, perhaps, lies the chief use of all translation, considered as an exercise of style. How far he had already advanced in this respect, and how lightly our language was already moulding itself in his hands, may be seen from several passages in the poem; for instance, from that about the middle, where the old and new theme of self-contradictoriness of love is treated in endless variations. In short, Chaucer executed his task with facility, and frequently with grace, though for one reason or another he grew tired of it before he had carried it out with completeness. Yet the translation (and this may have been among the causes why he seems to have wearied of it) has notwithstanding a certain air of schoolwork; and though Chaucer’s next poem, to which incontestable evidence assigns the date of the year 1369, is still very far from being wholly original, yet the step is great from the “Romaunt of the Rose” to the “Book of the Duchess.”

Among the passages of the French “Roman de la Rose” omitted in Chaucer’s translation are some containing critical reflexions on the character of kings and constituted authorities–a species of observations which kings and constituted authorities have never been notorious for loving. This circumstance, together with the reference to Windsor quoted above, suggests the probability that Chaucer’s connexion with the Court had not been interrupted, or had been renewed, or was on the eve of renewing itself, at the time when he wrote this translation. In becoming a courtier, he was certainly placed within the reach of social opportunities such as in his day he could nowhere else have enjoyed. In England as well as in Italy during the fourteenth and the two following centuries; as the frequent recurrence of the notion attests, the “good” courtier seemed the perfection of the idea of gentleman. At the same time exaggerated conceptions of the courtly breeding of Chaucer’s and Froissart’s age may very easily be formed; and it is almost amusing to contrast with Chaucer’s generally liberal notions of manners, severe views of etiquette like that introduced by him at the close of the “Man of Law’s Tale,” where he stigmatizes as a solecism the statement of the author from whom he copied his narrative, that King Aella sent his little boy to invite the emperor to dinner. “It is best to deem he went himself.”

The position which in June, 1367, we find Chaucer holding at Court is that of “Valettus” to the King, or, as a later document of May, 1368, has it, of “Valettus Camerae Regis”–Valet or Yeoman of the King’s Chamber. Posts of this kind, which involved the ordinary functions of personal attendance–the making of beds, the holding of torches, the laying of tables, the going on messages, etc.–were usually bestowed upon young men of good family. In due course of time a royal valet usually rose to the higher post of royal squire–either “of the household” generally, or of a more special kind. Chaucer appears in 1368 as an “esquire of less degree,” his name standing seventeenth in a list of seven-and-thirty. After the year 1373 he is never mentioned by the lower, but several times by Latin equivalents of the higher, title. Frequent entries occur of the pension or salary of twenty marks granted to him for life; and, as will be seen, he soon began to be employed on missions abroad. He had thus become a regular member of the royal establishment, within the sphere of which we must suppose the associations of the next years of his life to have been confined. They belonged to a period of peculiar significance both for the English people and for the Plantagenet dynasty, whose glittering exploits reflected so much transitory glory on the national arms. At home, these years were the brief interval between two of the chief visitations of the Black Death (1361 and 1369), and a few years earlier the poet of the “Vision” had given voice to the sufferings of the poor. It was not, however, the mothers of the people crying for their children whom the courtly singer remembered in his elegy written in the year 1369; the woe to which he gave a poetic expression was that of a princely widower temporarily inconsolable for the loss of his first wife. In 1367 the Black Prince was conquering Castile (to be lost again before the year was out) for that interesting protege of the Plantagenets and representative of legitimate right, Don Pedro the Cruel, whose daughter the inconsolable widower was to espouse in 1372, and whose “tragic” downfall Chaucer afterwards duly lamented in his “Monk’s Tale”:–

O noble, O worthy Pedro, glory of Spain, Whom fortune held so high in majesty!

As yet the star of the valiant Prince of Wales had not been quenched in the sickness which was the harbinger of death; and his younger brother, John of Gaunt, though already known for his bravery in the field (he commanded the reinforcements sent to Spain in 1367), had scarcely begun to play the prominent part in politics which he was afterwards to fill. But his day was at hand, and the anti-clerical tenour of the legislation and of the administrative changes of these years was in entire harmony with the policy of which he was to constitute himself the representative. 1365 is the year of the Statute of Provisors, and 1371 that of the dismissal of William of Wykeham.

John of Gaunt was born in 1340, and was, therefore, probably of much the same age as Chaucer, and like him now in the prime of life. Nothing could accordingly be more natural than that a more or less intimate relation should have formed itself between them. This relation, there is reason to believe, afterwards ripened on Chaucer’s part into one of distinct political partisanship, of which there could as yet (for the reason given above) hardly be a question. There was, however, so far as we know, nothing in Chaucer’s tastes and tendencies to render it antecedently unlikely that he should have been ready to follow the fortunes of a prince who entered the political arena as an adversary of clerical predominance. Had Chaucer been a friend of it in principle, he would hardly have devoted his first efforts as a writer to the translation of the “Roman de la Rose.” In so far, therefore, and in truth it is not very far, as John of Gaunt may be afterwards said to have been a Wycliffite, the same description might probably be applied to Chaucer. With such sentiments a personal orthodoxy was fully reconcileable in both patron and follower; and the so-called “Chaucer’s A. B. C.,” a version of a prayer to the Virgin in a French poetical “Pilgrimage,” might with equal probability have been put together by him either early or late in the course of his life. There was, however, a tradition, repeated by Speght, that this piece was composed “at the request of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, as a prayer for her private use, being a woman in her religion very devout.” If so, it must have been written before the Duchess’s death, which occurred in 1369; and we may imagine it, if we please, with its twenty- three initial letters blazoned in red and blue and gold on a flyleaf inserted in the Book of the pious Duchess,–herself, in the fervent language of the poem, an illuminated calendar, as being lighted in this world with the Virgin’s holy name.

In the autumn of 1369, then, the Duchess Blanche died an early death; and it is pleasing to know that John of Gaunt, to whom his marriage with her had brought wealth and a dukedom, ordered services, in pious remembrance of her, to be held at her grave. The elaborate elegy which–very possibly at the widowed Duke’s request–was composed by Chaucer, leaves no doubt as to the identity of the lady whose loss it deplores:–

–Goode faire “White” she hight;
Thus was my lady named right;
For she was both fair and bright.

But, in accordance with the taste of his age, which shunned such sheer straightforwardness in poetry, the “Book of the Duchess” contains no further transparent reference to the actual circumstances of the wedded life which had come to so premature an end–for John of Gaunt had married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359;–and an elaborate framework is constructed round the essential theme of the poem. Already, however, the instinct of Chaucer’s own poetic genius had taught him the value of personal directness; and, artificially as the course of the poem is arranged, it begins in the most artless and effective fashion with an account given by the poet of his own sleeplessness and its cause already referred to–an opening so felicitous that it was afterwards imitated by Froissart. And so, Chaucer continues, as he could not sleep, to drive the night away he sat upright in his bed reading a “romance,” which he thought better entertainment than chess or draughts. The book which he read was the “Metamorphoses” of Ovid; and in it he chanced on the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone–the lovers whom, on their premature death, the compassion of Juno changed into the seabirds that bring good luck to mariners. Of this story (whether Chaucer derived it direct from Ovid, or from Machault’s French version is disputed), the earlier part serves as the introduction to the poem. The story breaks off–with the dramatic abruptness in which Chaucer is a master, and which so often distinguishes his versions from their originals–at the death of Alcyone, caused by her grief at the tidings brought by Morpheus of her husband’s death. Thus subtly the god of sleep and the death of a loving wife mingle their images in the poet’s mind; and with these upon him he falls asleep “right upon his book.”

What more natural, after this, than the dream which came to him? It was May, and he lay in his bed at morning-time, having been awakened out of his slumbers by the “small fowls,” who were carolling forth their notes– “some high, some low, and all of one accord.” The birds singing their matins around the poet, and the sun shining brightly through his windows stained with many a figure of poetic legend, and upon the walls painted in fine colours “both text and gloss, and all the Romaunt of the Rose”–is not this a picture of Chaucer by his own hand, on which, one may love to dwell? And just as the poem has begun with a touch of nature, and at the beginning of its main action has returned to nature, so through the whole of its course it maintains the same tone. The sleeper awakened–still of course in his dream–hears the sound of the horn, and the noise of huntsmen preparing for the chase. He rises, saddles his horse, and follows to the forest, where the Emperor Octavian (a favourite character of Carolingian legend, and pleasantly revived under this aspect by the modern romanticist, Ludwig Tieck–in Chaucer’s poem probably a flattering allegory for the King) is holding his hunt. The deer having been started, the poet is watching the course of the hunt, when he is approached by a dog, which leads him to a solitary spot in a thicket among mighty trees; and here of a sudden he comes upon a man in black, sitting silently by the side of a huge oak. How simple and how charming is the device of the faithful dog acting as a guide into the mournful solitude of the faithful man! For the knight whom the poet finds thus silent and alone, is rehearsing to himself a lay, “a manner song,” in these words:–

I have of sorrow so great wone,
That joye get I never none,
Now that I see my lady bright,
Which I have loved with all my might, Is from me dead, and is agone.
Alas! Death, what aileth thee
That thou should’st not have taken me, When that thou took’st my lady sweet?
That was so fair, so fresh, so free, So goode, that men may well see
Of all goodness she had no meet.

Seeing the knight overcome by his grief, and on the point of fainting, the poet accosts him, and courteously demands his pardon for the intrusion. Thereupon the disconsolate mourner, touched by this token of sympathy, breaks out into the tale of his sorrow which forms the real subject of the poem. It is a lament for the loss of a wife who was hard to gain (the historical basis of this is unknown, but great heiresses are usually hard to gain for cadets even of royal houses), and whom, alas! her husband was to lose so soon after he had gained her. Nothing could be simpler, and nothing could be more delightful than the Black Knight’s description of his lost lady as she was at the time when he wooed and almost despaired of winning her. Many of the touches in this description–and among them some of the very happiest–are, it is true, borrowed from the courtly Machault; but nowhere has Chaucer been happier, both in his appropriations and in the way in which he has really converted them into beauties of his own, than in this, perhaps the most lifelike picture of maidenhood in the whole range of our literature. Or is not the following the portrait of an English girl, all life and all innocence–a type not belonging, like its opposite, to any “period” in particular–?

I saw her dance so comelily,
Carol and sing so sweetely,
And laugh, and play so womanly,
And looke so debonairly,
So goodly speak and so friendly,
That, certes, I trow that nevermore Was seen so blissful a treasure.
For every hair upon her head,
Sooth to say, it was not red,
Nor yellow neither, nor brown it was, Methought most like gold it was.
And ah! what eyes my lady had,
Debonair, goode, glad and sad,
Simple, of good size, not too wide. Thereto her look was not aside.
Nor overthwart;

but so well set that, whoever beheld her was drawn and taken up by it,