Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Prologue as a Picture of Fourteenth Century England

Apart from its great poetical and literary merits, The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales forms a wonderful commentary upon English life in the Middle Ages. Dryden has beautifully remarked that Chaucer must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature because he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the very manners and humours of the whole English nation in his age.
Not a single character has escaped him. Leguois says, " truly the social chronicler of England at the end of fourteenth century. What he has given is a direct transcription of daily life, taken in the very act, and in its most familiar aspects." The same critic adds : "Chaucer's work is the most precious document for whoever wishes to evoke a picture of life as it then was." The fact is that Chaucer had intimate knowledge of the crosscurrents of English society of his time. His keen observation, vast study, extensive travel and variegated experience in the service of the state had familiarised him with the entire pageant of social life of those days. And perhaps it was with the intention of describing his boundless knowledge of men and manners that he conceived the plan of the Canterbury Tales which encompass every aspect of life in the fourteenth century England.
The group of pilgrims described in the Prologue is itself an unequalled picture of the Society of Chaucer's time. Here are some thirty persons belonging to the most different classes. There is a Knight lately come from the foreign wars, a man who has fought in Prussia and in Turkey, jousted in Tramisene, and been present at the storming of Alexandria. He is a high-minded gentle-mannered, knightly adventurer, type of the courteous, war-loving chivalry which was passing rapidly away. With him is his son, a young Squire, curly haired and gay, his short, white-sleeved gown embroidered like a mead with red-and-white flowers. He is an epitome of the gifts and graces of brilliant youth. Their servant is a Yeoman, in coat and hoof of a green, a sheaf of peacock-arrows under his belt, a mighty bow in his hand, and a silver image of Saint Christopher upon his breast. He is the type of that sturdy English yeomanry which with its gray goose shafts humbled the pride of France at Crecy and Agincourt.
There is a whole group of ecclesiastical figures, representing in their numbers and variety the diverse activities of the medieval church. Most of them are satirical portraits, in their worldliness and materialism only too faithfully represenative of the ecclesiastical absuses against which Wycliffe struggled. First of all there is a Monk, who cares only for hunting and good cheer. His bald head shines like glass, his bright eyes roll in his head. He rides a sleek brown palfrey, and has "many a dainty horse" in his stables. His sleeves are trimmed with fine fur at the wrists ; his hood is fastened under his chin with a gold love-not. As a companion figure to the hunting Monk, Chaucer gives us "Madame Eglantyne," the Prioress. She is a teacher of young ladies, speaks French "after the school of Stratford-atte-bowe." is exquisite in her table-manners, counterfeiting as well as she can the stately behaviour of court.
Other ecclesiastics are there, hangers-on and caterpillars of the church. The Friar, intimate with hospitable franklins, innkeepers, and worthy women, despises beggars and lazars. The Summoner is a repulsive person with "fire-red cherubim face". The Pardoner "come from Rome all note" has a bag full of pardons which he sells as relics of the holy saints to gullible people. Chaucer's treatment of these evil churchmen is highly good-natured and tolerant. He never takes the tone of moral indignation against them. But he does better, he sets beside them, as the type of true shepherds of the church, a "poor Parson," such as, partly under Wycliff's influence, had spread over England, beginning that great movement for the purification of the church which was to result, more than a century later, in the Reformation. Chaucer paints the character of the Parson, poor in this world's goods, but "rich of holy thought and work," with loving and reverent touch. The Parson's brother travels with him—a Plowman, a "true swinker and a good", who helps his poor neighbours without hire and loves them as himself. He reminds us of Piers the Plowman, in the wonderful Vision which is the antitype of Chaucer's work.
A crowd of other figures fill the canvas. There is a shipman from the west-country, a representative of those adventurous seamen, half merchant-sailors, half smugglers and pirates, who had already made England's name a terror on the seas and paved the way for her future naval and commercial supremacy. There is a poor Clerk of Oxford, riding a horse as lean as a rake, and dressed in threadbare cloak, who spends all that he can beg or borrow upon his studies. He represents that passion for learning which was already astir everywhere in Europe, and which was awaiting only the magic touch of the new-found classical literature to blossom out into genuine thought and imagination. There is a Merchant, in a Flemish beaver hat, on a high horse, concealing, with the grave importance of his air, the fact that he is in debt. There is a group of guild-members, in the livery of their guild, all worthy to be aldermen ; together with the merchant, they represent the mercantile and manufacturing activity which was lifting England rapidly to the rank of a great commercial power. There is the Wife of Bath, almost a modern feminist figure, conceived with masterly humour and realism, a permanent human type. She has had "husbands five at church-door, "and though" somdel deaf," hopes to live to wed several others. She rides on an ambler, with spurs and scarlet hose on her feet, and on her head a hat as broad as a buckler.
These and a dozen other characters are all painted in vivid colours and with a psychological truth which remind us of the portraits of the Flemish painter, Van Eyck, Chaucer's contemporary.
Taken as a whole the dramatis personae of the Prologue represent the entire range of English society in the fourteenth century, with the exception of the highest aristocracy and the lowest order of villeins or serfs.
Apart from the men and their manners, the Prologue also sheds light on contemporary clothing, food and occupations. Almost every character man or woman is in a typical dress and other personal array. Several of the pilgrims are conspicuously armed, others carry small items of equipment, like a silken purse or a pouch or a pair of sharp spurs or a musical instrument. Chaucer uses the details of clothing and other outfit not only to describe the pilgrim's appearance but also to throw further light on his or her character. Thus the Wife of Bath, with her ambition to be the first wif in her parish, becomes even more amusingly provincial when we read of her heavy Sunday-best coverchiefs which were at least twenty years out of fashion by the time Chaucer was writing. The brooch of the Prioress bearing the motto Amor Vincit Omnia indicates that this nun has a character vacillating between secular and divine love.
Chaucer's descriptions of the pilgrims and their food varies a great deal. We only hear that the Knight on his campaigns had often "the bord bigonne," that the Squire "carf before his fader" at the table, and that the Prioress had elegant table manners, never slobbered, and liked to feed her little dogs on bread and milk. The Monk loved hunting and presumably ate venison and game. His special dish was a roast fat swan, a delicacy usually eaten only by kings, abbots, and such folk. We are not told that the Friar had any specially favourite dish, but instead of consorting with the poor, like St. Francis, he loved taverns and tapsters, and all "sellers of vitaille." The Summoner loved garlic, onions, leeks, and strong bood-red wine. This exuberant taste no doubt accounted for his bad, incurable complexion. The Clerk of Oxford quite frankly preferred books to food, and economised in order to add to his library. But the Franklin was a real epicure. His bread and ale were always first class, and his house was never without baked meats, both fish and flesh. It snowed meat and drink in his house, and he had all seasonable dainties provided, partridges, bream, pike, with suitable sauces. He kept practically open house, and was severe with his cook if the flavouring of his dishes was not absolutely to his taste.
The Cook who accompanied the party was the sort of man employed by a City company or at an Inn of Court or by an innkeeper. He was an expert, and could boil chickens and marrow bones, and cook well-flavoured tarts. He appreciated London ale, and could roast, seethe, boil, and fry and was a successful maker of meat-pies and blanc-mange.
The list of the Cook's capabilities gives us a good idea of the scope of entertainment possible for people of comfortable means, and a good deal of this variety could be obtained at biggish inns on well-known highways and in large towns.
Of contemporary crafts, trades and professions, being so variously represented, we gain much valuable knowledge from the Prologue. As it has been already pointed out, only the royal court and the higher nobility are not represented as they would not join a common pilgrimage then.
A critic has remarked that sometimes the picturesque similes which Chaucer uses to elaborate a point reveal glimpses of fourteenth-century life. They also show how much closer town and country were at that time. There are word-pictures involving, for example animals and flowers, or tools and instruments used on the land, all of which would be perfectly familiar even to the most courtly members of Chaucer's audience in the heart of London. Moreover, details of country pursuits like forestry or farming show that Chaucer himself was as much at home in the country as among the trades and professions of the town.
It needs be underlined here that Chaucer has made a direct transcription from common life ; and, since ordinary things and ordinary people are the most representative, he has provided an invaluable document for those who wish to call up the social life of the time. But Chaucer does not attempt to chronicle contemporary events, nor concern himself with politics or public questions. He lived, it is true, in stirring time ; he had fought under Edward III in the wars with France ; he had seen England devastated by the Black Death ; he had seen the Peasants' Revolt. It was a time of unrest both at home and abroad. The English Court was split into factions "by the struggles between the great nobles who surrounded the King. The Church was being fiercely attacked by Wycliffe and his followers for her abuses misrule. The contemporary poems of Lang-land and of Gower are full of political satire upon the social evils of their times. But Chaucer, like his pilgrims, is more interested in his own concerns and in his neighbours than in the King and his favourites, in wars, or in civil and religious questions. His characters, like the majority of people in all time, are wrapped up in their own affairs, and untroubled by the storms around them, except insofar as their private interests are touched. Nevertheless, they are distinctive of their time and country. The Yeoman with his great bow and well-trimmed arrows calls up the English archers who Played so redoubtable a part at Crecy and at Poictiers. The Knight, his masters, stands for the finest chivalry of the Crusades. Above all the clergy are characteristic of their time. Here, Chaucer painted from the life, are the actual men whose vices and corruption Wycliffe and his followers denounced so vehemently.
Finally, it must be borne in mind that as a painter of his society Chaucer acts more as a poet and artist than as a chronicler. His treatment of English men and manners of the fourteenth Century is not as a social reformer but as a tolerant humanist and his attitude of toleration carries more conviction than the denunciation of a moralist.

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