The fourteenth-century means the age of Geoffrey Chaucer. This century is historically significant for witnessing several important events that Chaucer lived and wrote. The decline of feudalism took place at this time. And the growth of the English spirit started flourishing from this period due to vital wars with France. The said time is also historically crucial for observing the growing power of the labour classes. And this resulted in the prominence of the House of Commons.
The fourteenth century was rightly an age of restlessness. From this time, people started feeling the excitement of new life that Geoffrey Chaucer also inhabited and expressed in his writings. As a minute observer, he penned the old things and new appearances in his works side-by-side. Readers can even sense the spirit of two ages in his poetry, the age that was gradually passing and the one that was to come.
The development of artistry in Chaucer got a new turn when the author preferred to move steadily with the new form of expression. He moved away from the outdated convention and introduced a new spirit into English poetry by introducing a new and unique means of expression. In a word, he followed the steps trodden by those great Italian poets of his time who emerged as the pioneer of rebirth or rejuvenation, i.e., Renaissance.
As an artist, he remained impartial and independent till the end. On the one hand, as a priest and apostle of realism, he devised a plan to execute something like the revolution in English poetry. And on the other hand, he never tried to thrust those ideals forcefully into his life. In short, he never questioned the old orthodoxy tradition. His works emerged as the evidence of lost civilization and simultaneously an attestation to modern literature like the “great modern European literature.” Moreover, some of Chaucer’s contemporaries, no doubt, appeared as the preacher of the new world. But, their works unfold no evidence of transition of the spirit more vividly than the works of Chaucer.
In a word, the age of Geoffrey Chaucer became the epicentre of some key transition phases. And the first significant transition took place in the religious sphere. Yes, some essential changes happened in this domain.
Significant reforms in the arena of religion
Earlier, England had been loyal blindly to the Church. Also, the loyalty to the Pope had always remained unquestionable. But, disagreement surfaced in its allegiance to the Pope when the conflict emerged with “the hatred of France.” It gave birth to an all-new and comparatively stronger sentiment of national patriotism. And the rift of the west appeared as a hefty blow to the Papal authority. It led to a tremendous weakening of the said authority.
Most importantly, the, so far, excessive powerful Papal court had finally become the centre of vice and luxury. The corruption was so deep that it poisoned the whole body. Shockingly, the causes that immensely contributed to the growth of evils during the age of Chaucer included the corruption of the Church. Due to this revelation, the spiritual zeal lost its excellence to a great extent in the country.
However, as already discussed, Chaucer never showed any serious interest in these social reforms personally. But, his writings still bear the evidence that he was very much alive to the appalling state and circumstances that existed in the religious domain of his time.
The expansion of intellectual territory was another important transition that got shaped with some vital changes.
The expansion of intellectual territory
With the advent of the transition era, new reforms started taking place in every corner of society. It inspired humans to expand the border of learning. And from here, the journey of amplifying the territory of obtaining meaningful knowledge began. This new learning influenced the intellectual interests of that time by enlarging its domain. And this resulted in impacting contemporary literature directly.
Ecclesiastical or priestly ideas and the old medieval practices were the dominating elements in society during the age of Geoffrey Chaucer. However, their control began losing its grip by the influx of a fresh and a very different awakening spirit. The spirit first emerged in Italy due to the renewed study and analysis of the literature of different “classical antiquity” and the emergence of enthusiasm in the core of the moral ideas of Rome and Greece.
Thus the expansion of intellectual territory and human efforts for getting liberated from theological shackles gained a solid momentum. In short, the entire development defines the introduction and growth of a vast, complex and significant movement that culminated in the form of the Renaissance during the period of Chaucer.
The emergence of modernism in Medievalism unlocked the most major transition phase during the age of Chaucer.
Medievalism as if Modernism
It is hard to fix a specific date as the birth year of Geoffrey Chaucer. However, after extensive research, experts identify 1340 in England as the best possible birth period. Now the question is why this time frame is necessary while discussing the Age of Geoffrey Chaucer. The reason is an extensive portion of the fourteenth century covers Chaucer’s age. And the most important thing is the last sixty years of the fourteenth century was, in utter surprise, similar to the present day in England. Famous professor of English literature George Lyman Kittredge identified this period as “a singularly modern time.”
The reason behind this specifying is all problems that trouble the current world either came into existence or appeared troublesome in the sixty-year life of Chaucer. Again one of the leading causes behind the said modernism in Medievalism was “the movement of the Renaissance” that for the first time got a definite form. And from here, the modern era began its journey.
But, one crucial fact regarding it is that even though a modern world started appearing on the horizon of the old one, the medieval world still stood there on its own. This side-by-side existence of the old and the new was, to some extent, hostile to each other. But, at the same time, these two different societies often intermingled in an incongruous form. And, the “Medieval conceptions” kept up forming the crucial unconscious background of human thought as well as action and activity.
The dominant trait of the medieval mind was to emphasize spiritual life as the most valuable part of life. Yet, in reality, people of the Age of Geoffrey Chaucer enjoyed real life but with spiritual biases to colour their senses of values. The said attitude, along with other forms of life, survived together during Chaucer’s medievalism era. But at the same time, a new individualism emerged side by side as the precursor of the Renaissance. Also, its existence was evident and felt in those new thoughts and ideas that encouraged revolting against the all-powerful Papal authority. In addition, it gave birth to new conceptions that favoured the growth of Parliament. In short, it encouraged increasing the power of the commoner and unlocked new interest in Italian literature and art.
There is no denying that life during Chaucer’s age was genuinely colourful. It unfolded a blend of “intellectual ferment” and “medieval survivals.” This characteristic, for sure, provided a lot of food to the poet’s hungry mind and helped to invent and write down unique literary pieces.
But this colourful blending was not fully colourful at this time because of consecutive military conquest by England. The aim behind this usage of armed forces was to rule over France. Nonetheless, this process impacted a lot in both countries, which led to the appearance of nationalism.
Military conquest and the upsurge of nationalism
Geoffrey Chaucer’s period means the term which witnessed great literary, social, religious, and political activities. But that was not all. Something more happened behind the curtain. From 1340 to 1369, the world witnessed a series of continual military conquests by England against France and Scotland. The million-dollar question is why such military activities started taking place during this time.
The actual story began during the tenure of Henry II, the King of England (from 1154 to 1189). Due to his strong kingship and power, more than half of France came under his rule. But, the domination started fading during the tenure of King Edward III (from 1327 to 1377), although Aquitaine remained under his throne. By this time, national spirit started making a strong foothold in France, and the French King took the initiative to regain the lost territory. The Hundred-Year War also began during this period, i.e., 1337. The most important thing was it solidified the feelings of nationalism and patriotism in both nations.
The early period of this Hundred-Year War witnessed England as the ascendant power. And this victory enhanced the influence of the middle classes tremendously and simultaneously decreased the authority of feudalism. Even society could hear the sound of the death-knell of feudalism domination. Because of the diminishing impact of the feudal system, people of both countries, for the first time, felt a satisfying patriotic delight that they had never felt before.
With the rising patriotic feeling, poor and hardworking people found a way to vent their anger. In a word, an essential transition from the feudal system to the commoner’s power happened at this time in the shape of rebellion.
The long unfulfilled demands of the poor and working-class got a revolting shape first in 1381. Yes, a bloody peasant revolt took place this year. Two leaders, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, led this insurrection. In reality, it was a pure rebellion. Several years’ growing discontent nourished and fumed by the rise of a new consciousness among the labouring classes. For the first time in English history, the working class became aware of its power and used it to achieve the minimum basic needs.
But, the most significant socio-political event was the astonishing growth of the British Parliament.
The growth and modification of the British Parliament
The age of Geoffrey Chaucer was itself became a transition phase that embraced the most notable and crucial far-reaching events in English history. The impressive growth with significant modifications of the British Parliament was one such remarkable event. It was 1295 when Edward I had convened the “first real Parliament.” He had declared – “what touches the interest of all must be approved by all.”
With the progression of time, Parliament became more liberal. With the advent of Chaucer’s age, it gradually emerged as the representative of the commoner. Even not so important artisans and tradesmen got the opportunity to become Parliament members. Furthermore, without Parliament’s consent, it became impossible to impose new taxes. Also, consultation among the members emerged as a must duty behind taking any decision on all foreign policy-related subject matters. In addition, instead of King, Parliament got the right to hear and address the appeals of the ordinary people.
The emergence of several political movements, no doubt, made the platform for a new national spirit. And, the 14th century-England started emerging finally as a place for English with the birth of the much-discussed English language.
“England became of the English”
For the first time, many significant political incidents in England and abroad set the objectives to ensure that “England became of the English.” But the earlier period witnessed a phase of turmoil. From 1066 to 1300, the nation saw the foothold of Normans and the presence of Saxons. In short, a fusion of two races took place here. People observed the conquering Normans on the one hand and the conquered Saxons on the other hand.
With this, the inhabitants of the land also noticed the upsurge of the French language. But, simultaneously, the introductory phase of the official form of the English language also began taking shape but not at the cost of killing the French one. In truth, a union of two classic languages materialized to enrich and mould the ultimate medium of conversation of the English people.
The French language was the symbol of aristocracy and, in some places, the official medium in England. Therefore, the lower classes had always remained eager to learn this language. But, they never mastered it. And their efforts brought about a strange way of speaking that showed mixing of the French and the native tongue adopting all the essential grammars and vocabularies. They created the ultimate new language of England.
According to some experts, these people were the genuine founders of modern English. History disclosed that even the children of the nobles grabbed this tongue from servants, and it resulted in spreading the language speedily. An official rule or order in 1362 announced that the law courts’ office-holder and functionary language would be English from now on. And the following year, a Chancellor of the British Parliament, for the first time, opened the session with the English speech.
Moreover, the 14th-century beginning witnessed how a king had to take an oath in French if he was not adequately aware of Latin terms. However, the circumstances changed later, and in 1399 Henry of Lancaster became free to claim his crown in the English language.
With the surfacing of the English language and modifications in the British Parliament, reformists now felt it necessary to bring some essential changes in pilgrims and pilgrimage-related issues.
Reformists’ movements to bring modifications in pilgrims and pilgrimage related matters
As part of religious activity, pilgrims took holy or sacred journeys with pure sincerity and devoutness. They aimed to return with full faith in God after praying and completing those sacred journeys. In addition, as part of praying for God, people of every social dogma came and mingled in the pilgrimages. However, those gatherings didn’t only consist of the faithful pilgrims only. The presence of pleasure-loving people, beggars, ribald, and thieves could be easily visible in those holy places.
Moreover, a big chunk of the conversations there usually didn’t deal with religious subject matters. Various kinds of merrymaking became a regular feature of the pilgrimages. And all these things, for sure, did not go unnoticed, especially by the reformers and the satirists.
The reformists appeared with solid views to bring some initial changes to stop the laxity and idleness in the pilgrimages. They saw that a large number of professional palmers or pilgrims often thronged these holy places. Furthermore, they mastered the practice of wandering from one shrine to another, aiming to have a living on charity. Such an approach unquestionably led to one kind of hypocrisy and unlocked the chances of abuse. Many dishonest and unscrupulous persons didn’t even hesitate to sell “unauthorised pardons” by inventing fitting stories.
Their fraudulent activities helped them to exploit innocent people. For them, religious faith, simplicity, and superstition became effectual tools to illude the ignorants. These dishonest individuals adopted such guile activities to earn a good living without much effort. Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous English poem “The House of Fame” exposes the real face of those so-called pilgrims whose bags get filled only with lies.
The situation took an acutely disturbing shape, and the reformists drew solid movements to address the circumstances. Religious protests emerged fiercely. Eminent English reformer John Wycliffe took the baton to lead the reformist movement. He took the initiative to bring some immediate changes in society and Church.
With the help of “wandering preachers,” Wycliffe got the opportunity to relate with people as much as possible. The said preachers travelled nearly all villages and towns and urged people to support them in implementing significant changes in society and Church. Chaucer’s personal friend and English poet John Gower and author William Langland supported the movement with their literary skills. The criticisms through their words surfaced as the best records uncovering the corruption among many clerics during the age of Geoffrey Chaucer.
However, no immediate impact was visible in the process of cleansing the Church. Even the attempt could not make any impressive improvements to build a purer institution that can guide peoples’ religious and moral instincts to the right way. But, all efforts didn’t go in vain. The attempt laid the foundation stone of a mighty Reformation.
During this period of gradual ecclesiastical reformation, another significant modification took place. It was about the attitude to women. Chaucer’s writings make this fact very clear.
Changing attitude towards women
Earlier, the attitude of the Church towards women was highly negative. The religious institution had identified women as “the source of all evil.” Why? Because woman brought sin on this earth in the shape of Eve. And the consequence of sin appeared as death. In a word, women got no choice but to bear helplessly the negative identity as a temptation and trap. So people leading virtuous life needed to avoid women immediately.
But during the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, one colossal difference surfaced between the attitude of the Church and the courtly poets. These poets glorified women to a place of the goddess. They elevated women with high respect.
Chaucer’s writings display that the poet always kept women in high esteem. His poem “The Legend of Good Women” is proof of this truth.
So, one thing is crystal clear from the above discussion that the age of Geoffrey Chaucer was an age of transformation or change and unrest. It was the period of numerous incidents that included the gradual demise of the old feudalism. Furthermore, the urge to modify the role of the great Church gained momentum. There was a big hue and cry among the English people regarding the necessity of the end of bigotry and social stagnation. The intellectual class played a significant role in addressing these issues.
It is indeed true that Chaucer’s age will always remain as evidence of igniting the light of realism, patriotism, and nationalism with a more constructive and significant concept. During this era, the conception of new ideas and views came about. Literature and art became free by breaking the conventional shackles. The influence of a new and fresh spirit with a touch of enthusiasm to create something new and advanced was the core of the overall progression in literature. Nature, with all its surroundings, too appeared as the subject matter of the writings. In conclusion, the restlessness and craving for a change delivered great creativity in every corner of the civilization in England.