Age of Chaucer

Age of Chaucer – Background

Age of Chaucer


In the history of English literature, the later half of the 14th century is generally regarded as the Age of Chaucer on account of Chaucer’s significant contribution to the language and literature of the time. Precisely, the period ranges from 1340/50 to 1400. It was a period of unprecedented activity and turmoil, a period of transition—a meeting ground of two divergent periods—the old and the new, the Medieval and Renaissance. According to William J Long, the period is historically remarkable for the decline of feudalism, growth of the English national spirit, growing significance of the House of Commons and the growing power of the labouring class, who were for formerly Serfs i.e. bounded labours. It was an age of great political, social, religious, and literary activity. The important events of the age that shaped its temperament are as follows:

1. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of armed conflicts between the kingdoms of England and France. This dynastic struggle originated from the claim to the French throne by King Edward III of England, following the death of the French King, Philip IV and his sons. Edward, being related to Phillip IV, asserted the claim to the throne as the dead French King had no direct male heir alive. However, the French nobility rejected his claim who preferred Phillip IV’s nephew Philip of Valois, who ascended the throne in 1328. Edward reluctantly recognised Philip as the King of France in 1331, in exchange for continued dominance over Gascony. Thus, he abandoned his rightful claim to the throne upon Philip’s promise to cooperate. But, soon Edward realised that Philip did not fulfil his pledges, cheated him and even supported Scotland against England. After 10 years of the conflict between Philip and Edward, Edward finally attacked French Kingdom.

This war is often divided into three phases separated by truces (ceasefires):

1. Edwardian Era (1337-1360) – two significant victories:
a) Battle of Crecy (1346)
b) Battle of Poitiers (1356)

2. Caroline Era (1369-1389) – named after Charles V of France, who resumed the war after the treaty of 1360. He wanted to regain everything that France had lost and his attempts were successful.

3. Lancastrian Era (1415-1453) – this phase started with the plans of Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King, to access the English throne.

Outcome of the War

It is believed that the last major battle was won by France, however, both France and England emerged as major nation states.

Influence of the War on England

Both, the French and English people, developed the sense of national consciousness and patriotism. They recognised themselves not as members of the Holy Empire, rather as English and French nations. The two important victories of the English in the Battle of Crecy (1346) and Battle of Poitiers (1358), infused in them a great sense of nationalism. This nationalistic feeling motivated them to promote their own language and culture and abandon those of the French. In 1362, English was made the official language of the law courts. However, to support the constant war, heavy taxes is were imposed on common people due to which social unrest emerged in England. As a consequence, the nationalistic zeal could not be maintained for a sustained period.

2. Black Death (1348-50)

As Simpson and David puts it, war and disease had been prevalent throughout the middle ages but never more devastatingly than during the 14th century. The first and the most virulent epidemic of the bubonic plague, the ‘Black Death’ hit Europe in 1348, wiping out a quarter to a third of the population. In England the plague killed 30% – 40% of entire population. Boccaccio vividly describes the ravages of the plague in his ‘Decameron’:

So many copses would arrive in front of a church every day and at every hour that the amount of holy ground for burials was certainly insufficient for the ancient custom of giving each body its individual place; when all the graves were full, huge trenches were dug in all the cemeteries of the churches and into them the new arrivals were dumped by the hundreds; and they were packed in there in dirt, one on the top of another like a ship’s cargo, until the trench was filled.”

Effect of the Black Death

The Black Death changed the entire social scenario. With the loss of human population, labour too, became scarce. The plague delivered a death below to the already declining medieval system of Feudalism. The surviving patients and labourers started demanding increased wages. The peasants, thus, benefited through increased employment options and higher wages. There was an increase in social mobility. Peasants moved to work on locations where they could get high wages. Though, some town markets disappeared, the rural area underwent an economic boom.

The Black Death also paved the way for the decline of medieval Church. The death of nearly 40% of the priests in England left a gap which was hastily filled with underqualified and poorly trained candidates. This led to the rise in people’s discontent with the church and thus accelerated the descend of Church power and control which culminated in the English Renaissance.

3. The Peasant Revolt (1381)

With the scarcity of labour caused by the Black Death and sudden expansion in the possibilities for social mobility, the popular discontent peaked. In 1381, attempts to enforce wage controls and to collect oppressive new taxes provoked a rural uprising, generally known as the Peasant Revolt.

The revolt out broke in the village of Essex, when the locals reacted to the poll tax collector and threw him out. This resistance to tax collectors spread to neighbouring villages. In Kent, and few other counties, armed band of villagers and townsmen started attacking manors (official buildings) and religious houses. The movement of the insurgents was quickly suppressed, but they had already entered London through two city gates facilitated by the sympathizers. They burnt down the palace of the hated Duke of Lancaster and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer of England who had taken refuge in the Tower of London. The popular resentment befall on the church, because it was among the most oppressive landowners. The wealth, worldliness and material lust of many of the higher clergy also infuriated them.

The Peasant Revolt grew under the leadership of John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. As the rebels marched to London, Richard II agreed to meet the rebels. The rebels demanded an end of manorial courts, freedom from serfdom, free contract, free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion and no upper limits on wages. The king accepted their demands. Unfortunately, these concessions sparked further outbreaks of violence. Another meeting held between the two parties during which Tylor was killed after an argument broke out. This resulted in the conclusion of the revolt of London. Though the revolt failed to fetch any direct or immediate success for the rebel lower classes, but it exerted a lasting influence on their temper, fostering in them a spirit of independence and a new kind of confidence which transformed them into a major force in the life of the nation. John Bal’s famous lines, When Adam delved and Eve span; Who was then a gentleman.” Became an inspiring force for the rebels, demanding for a kind of socialism. The revolt set an end to the Medieval system of feudalism.

4. The Lollard Movement

Lollardy, aka Lollardism or the Lollard Movement was a proto-protestant Christian religious movement, initially led by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian, during the mid-14th century, culminating in the 16th century English Reformation. This is the reason Wycliffe is also known as the “morning star of reformation.”

Corruption and degeneration of the church was at its peak in the age of Chaucer. The church became a breeding ground for immorality, and materialism. W.H. Hudson describes the situation in the following words:
Of spiritual zeal and energy very little was now left in the country. The greater prelates heaped up wealth, and lived in a godless and worldly way; the rank and file of the clergy were ignorant and careless; the mendicant friars were notorious for their greed and profligacy.”

The troubles of the common people, alongside the corruption and materialism of the Church officials, infuriated them. Their dissatisfaction climaxed in the form of a movement against the Roman Catholic church led by John Wycliffe. They demanded for a reform in the religion, stressing on the theological doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” (by scripture alone) that holds the Bible as the sole infallible source of authority for Christianity.

5. Decline of Medieval Chivalry

Medieval chivalry refers to the code of ethics adhered to by Knight’s during the middle Ages. It was associated with the Christian institution of “Knighthood”. Duty and honour were among the most valued and admired personality traits of chivalry. Knights and gentlemen were expected to show courage and be ready to help the weak and serve the country and religion. The term “chivalry” later came to be used in its general sense of “courtesy”. In the age of Chaucer, we find a decline of Medieval Chivalry. Chaucer’s “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” gives a picture of the fading chivalry in his time, through the characters of the Knight and his son, the young squire. The old Knight was a brave warrior who fought fifteen mortal battles for religion. He was a symbol of old world of knighthood that was passing away. The young Squire represented a new kind of chivalry, the more luxurious and less idealistic temper of the age. He was fashionable, fun-loving who took delight in singing and playing flute.

6. The Condition of Women

Though women were praised, and glorified in poetry, in real life, their situation was much poor. Child marriages were common and love had nothing to do with marriage. Marriage was a kind of contract between the parents of the bride and groom. Girls were not educated and could gain security in life only through marriage. The other option being taking refuge in church becoming a nun. Travelyan describes the situation of girls in the following words:
Girls who refused to obey the wishes of their parents were severely beaten till they obeyed.”

7. Economic Background of the Age of Chaucer

Despite of these calamities and upheavals, the Age of Chaucer witnessed a rapid growth of international trade. There was a rise of merchant class and formation of trade guilds. Geoffrey Chaucer’s portrait of the “merchant” in his “The Canterbury Tales “ provides a hind of the budding of capitalism based on credit and interest. Cities like London ran their own affairs under politically powerful mayor’s and magistrates.

The economy of Medieval England was overwhelmingly agricultural. The methods of production did not undergo much evolution. However, during the 14th century, the towns became commercial centres. By the end of the middle ages, trade guilds become extremely powerful, influencing the economy as well as politics of England.

Wool industry became important, which gradually moved into the rural areas in search of raw material for processing. Instead of exporting wool to Flanders, the English started producing cloth themselves on a large scale. The King also became involved in the country’s economy as much of his revenues came from the profitable export of English wool to the Continent. King’s constant need of money to finance his wars made him to negotiate for revenues with the commons in the English parliament, thus making the parliament a major political force during the age of Chaucer. There emerged the need of people with good administrative skills. However, these administrators were taken not from the Church, as in the past, rather from amongst the educated commoners and Chaucer was one of them.

The age of Chaucer abounds with the events and incidents that curbed the flourishing of the old systems of tyranny and exploitation while giving way to the emergence of democratic, socialist and secular ideas. The adoption of the East Midland or the London dialect as a standard for writing streamlined the growth of English language and literature.
In a nutshell, as Edward Albert puts it:

From the literary point of view, of greater important are the social and intellectual movements of the period; the terrible plague called the Black Death, bringing poverty, unrest and revolt among the peasants and the growth of the spirit of enquiry, which was strongly critical of the ways of the church, and found expression in the teachings of the Wycliffe and Lollards, and in the stern denunciations of Langland.”


If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.




©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari []


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can change the language to 'Hindi' by clicking on the 'British Flag' icon at the bottom-right corner of the page.

error: Content is protected !!