English 12 CP
April 13, 2000
Geoffrey Chaucer: The Beginning of English Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer’s world was the Europe of the fourteenth century. It was not rich or poor, happy or sad. Rather, it was the intermingling of these, a mixture of splendor and
poverty , displaying both worldly desire and spiritual purity. Chaucer’s literary works broke away from conformity and set the stage for the beginning of English literature. His travels through it, mostly on the King’s business, or civil service, shaped his writing, offering the readers of today
a brief glimpse into the world in which he lived.
Chaucer lived from approximately 1340 to 1400. The world in which he lived was not one of peace or stability. Born the son of a London vintner, he remained a Londoner for most of the rest of his life, leaving the city only on the King’s business.1
The city of London was thus Chaucer’s environment for most of his life. Aside from brief visits into other countries or areas of England, he remained in the city, and it’s affects on his
writing was immense.
London of that time was not the London of today. It was a walled city, guarded against invasion, but long enough time had passed since such a threat had approached that the defenses had loosened. Houses perched upon the walls, and Chaucer in fact, lived for a time in a house built over Aldgate, (one of the gates of the city).2
London was a city less than three-quarters of a square mile in size: It ran east and west along the Thames less than one and a half miles, and extended northwards less than half a mile. Over 20,000 people were packed into this small area; the diversity of the inhabitants was overwhelming. Londoners ranged from wealthy to impoverished, from small to large, from shoemaker to blacksmith to minstrel to priest. The city was thus fairly close. Stone building mingled with tile, wood, and thatch. While the major streets were fairly wide, small shops and stands often spread out into the road, effectively narrowing it by up to half its width. London Bridge, the only bridge in the city, was home to a multitude of homes and shops, perched on top of the span to conserve space.
Waste was disposed of simply. It was emptied out the windows into the alley or street and slaughtering was done in he streets as well, with scraps being tossed underfoot. Hogs were often
used to keep the streets clean, but were assisted by wild dogs and scavenger birds. Open sewers ran through the streets and into the Thames.
Most of the rest of Chaucer’s life was open at the courts of the king of England. Here a startling change was apparent. The filth of the streets disappeared, to be replaced by the splendor
so often associated with royalty.
The royal court of England was home to many in Chaucer’s time. Courtiers, pages, knights, nobles, princes, and of course the King and Queen. Chaucer rose through the ranks of the king’s men, experiencing all aspects of court life. He was a page, squire, court-bard, counselor and finally courtier to various monarchs.
Many kings rose and fell in his lifetime. Chaucer began his life in the king’s service in the reign of Edward III, and performed his service a long while. He was important enough to Edward that he was personally ransomed after being captured by the French in the war between Edward and Charles, an honor usually reserved for nobles. By 1378 Edward III had died, and Chaucer was the man of Richard II. The country was caught up in a political battle between the nobles of Gloucesterand Lancaster. The actions of these two nobles sent Chaucer rolling, his world constantly changing about him.
The only stable item in Chaucer’s world was religion. The institution of religion, the church, was quite prominent and visible. Cathedrals dotted the cities of the world, and even the smallest town had a church.
The glory of the Church may even have outshined that of the royal court. Cathedrals were brilliant with magnificent carvings, statues of precious metals murals, holy artifacts, and many other gleaming treasures. Even the