Chaucer: Representative Poet of Mediaeval Period

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      Chaucer reflects and symbolises his age as completely as Tennyson does the Victorian Age. There was nothing of the dreamer or reformist in him. He had an unbounded interest in the life of the men and women around him. He was essentially a man of the world and mixed with all classes of the society. He took it as his business in poetry to paint contemporary lite with intense realism and left others to draw the moral. The age lives in the pages of the Canterbury Tales. Knights, squires, merchants, sailors, scholars, doctors, monks, ploughmen, workers and even knaves jostle together in his pages and he drew them from life, his acute observation and vivid imagination and sly humour and kindliness illuminating the pictures. As we read the tales we seem to travel in imagination to that late mediaeval age and enjoy the company of this motley crowd. It is in this representative quality of Chaucer's poetry that one of its greatest attractions for the modern readers lies. His poetry is the epitome of all that is interesting in mediaeval life and its literature.

Chaucer's picture of contemporary life is minute, vivid and realistic.
Geoffrey Chaucer

      Chaucer's picture of contemporary life is minute, vivid and realistic. The food dress, language, religion, morals, mental characteristics all has got it due share of the poet's all-embracing attention and he leaves no aspect of life untouched. The pilgrims come from all ranks of life, from the highest knight to the commonest ploughman, royalty and nobility being accepted. They are bound together by the same religious ardour that makes them set out on their annual ritual of pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral which contain the tomb and the hallowed shrine of the murdered Thomas Becket. Behind their endless diversity there was this religious unity of this-motley group. Those were not the days of easy communication as now. Besides, the government of the country being ill-organised and inefficient, there were no security arrangements. The highways were infested with notorious robbers and rowdies and robberies were a regular feature. Hence this community pilgrimage of people of all sexes and ranks. It may be noted that the idea is nothing new to Chaucer.

      Boccaccio, the famous Italian poet whom Chaucer knew and met, had used this device in his Decameron. In his poem a society of young gentlemen and ladies, hardly distinct from one another, tell the tales to kill their time as they take shelter in a room while the plague rages in Florence. Chaucer took the bare hint from Boccaccio but made it his own. Boccaccio's example did not fulfil his aim of variety. His dramatic instinct led him to choose strongly individualised characters from the most diverse classes of the society. Hence his idea of the pilgrimage which would unite all this diverse society. Besides, he was then living at Greenwich, on the road of pilgrims hailing from every country of England. He had watched with interest the progress of this varied cavalcade and probably one day he joined this company, either from curiosity or devoutness. It was a sort of momentary fellowship that was established for the occasion. The pilgrims went on horseback, the only transport of the time. They met at the Tabard Inn on their outward journey. The host of the Tabard suggests that to relieve the tedium of the journey, each pilgrim is to tell two stories on the outward journey and two on the return. The poet himself is one of the pilgrims. This gives the poet an opportunity to describe the colours and costumes, habits and tendencies of the various classes.

      Interesting side-light is thus thrown on the contemporary life. The pilgrims drink ale and bite cakes. The food served at the Tabard gives us an idea of that of the middle class of the time. We bear of 'poudre marchant tart' (a kind of mediaeval urry power), galingale' (the root of sweet plants), 'mortrewes' (soup of fresh pork, chicken eggs, bread, pepper and ale). The people affected strongly seasoned soups. Each pilgrim carried his own knife (no forks are mentioned), napkin, etc. They washed before and after dinner. The Miller amused the company during the dinner by his jests and anecdotes. The inns were dingy and slimy, infested with fleas, bugs, vermonts, etc. The host of Tabard assured comfortable lodging to the guests, except that there is a good peck of rats and mice.

      Anglo-Saxon French and not the French of Paris was the language of the upper and cultured classes. Thus the Prioress spoke the French of Stratford-atte-Bowe (the birth place of Shakespeare), where she lived. Chaucer accepts the current class division between gentles and churl. He was careful that the Tales might not displease the gentles in the company. The medicine was the additional profession of the clergy, who cared more for the profession and little read the Bible. They charged and cared for fees only. Thus Chaucer's Doctor of Physic loved gold in especial. Medicines were mostly of herbs and gold, (the apothecary's work). A knowledge of astronomy was also demanded of a medical man. There is a merchant in the company, neat and gaudy in dress. He talked always about his reason for increasing his profit and wished that none should be in debt to him, The hypocrisy and greed of the class are humorously glanced at.

      The religious men and women loom large in the company. There are the Prioress, the Pardoner, the Clerk, the Nun-priestess, Monk, Parson, etc. They are always solemn and moralising. One interesting figure is the vivacious Wife of Bath, who had fixed her mind on a sixth husband, after the fifth had died. The life of the ploughmen and working classes was one of unspeakable poverty and suffering but their hearts are sound. They are honest, jovial and kind. Chaucer's picture of the Ploughman is illuminated by the poet's broad sympathy and charity. This is the picture of the mediaeval life that emerges from the pages of The Canterbury Tales, which is regarded as the poet's best achievement in poetry, a work which is still read with curiosity and interest because of the superb qualities of art that it illustrates.

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