John Lord.

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sentiments prompted by the narrative. Let half-a-dozen distinguished and
learned theologians write sermons on Abraham or Moses or David: they
will all be different, yet the main facts will be common to all.

The "Canterbury Tales" are great creations, from the humor, the wit, the
naturalness, the vividness of description, and the beauty of the
sentiments displayed in them, although sullied by occasional vulgarities
and impurities, which, however, in all their coarseness do not corrupt
the mind. Byron complained of their coarseness, but Byron's poetry is
far more demoralizing. The age was coarse, not the mind of the author.
And after five hundred years, with all the obscurity of language and
obsolete modes of spelling, they still give pleasure to the true lovers
of poetry when they have once mastered the language, which is not, after
all, very difficult. It is true that most people prefer to read the
great masters of poetry in later times; but the "Canterbury Tales" are
interesting and instructive to those who study the history of language
and literature. They are links in the civilization of England. They
paint the age more vividly and accurately than any known history. The
men and women of the fourteenth century, of all ranks, stand out to us
in fresh and living colors. We see them in their dress, their feasts,
their dwellings, their language, their habits, and their manners. Amid
all the changes in human thought and in social institutions the
characters appeal to our common humanity, essentially the same under all
human conditions. The men and women of the fourteenth century love and
hate, eat and drink, laugh and talk, as they do in the nineteenth. They
delight, as we do, in the varieties of dress, of parade, and luxurious
feasts. Although the form of these has changed, they are alive to the
same sentiments which move us. They like fun and jokes and amusement as
much as we. They abhor the same class of defects which disgust
us, - hypocrisies, shams, lies. The inner circle of their friendship is
the same as ours to-day, based on sincerity and admiration. There is the
same infinite variety in character, and yet the same uniformity. The
human heart beats to the same sentiments that it does under all
civilizations and conditions of life. No people can live without
friendship and sympathy and love; and these are ultimate sentiments of
the soul, which are as eternal as the ideas of Plato. Why do the Psalms
of David, written for an Oriental people four thousand years ago,
excite the same emotions in the minds of the people of England or France
or America that they did among the Jews? It is because they appeal to
our common humanity, which never changes, - the same to-day as it was in
the beginning, and will be to the end. It is only form and fashion which
change; men remain the same. The men and women of the Bible talked
nearly the same as we do, and seem to have had as great light on the
primal principles of wisdom and truth and virtue. Who can improve on the
sagacity and worldly wisdom of the Proverbs of Solomon? They have a
perennial freshness, and appeal to universal experience. It is this
fidelity to nature which is one of the great charms of Shakspeare. We
quote his brief sayings as expressive of what we feel and know of the
certitudes of our moral and intellectual life. They will last forever,
under every variety of government, of social institutions, of races, and
of languages. And they will last because these every-day sentiments are
put in such pithy, compressed, unique, and novel form, like the Proverbs
of Solomon or the sayings of Epictetus. All nations and ages alike
recognize the moral wisdom in the sayings of those immortal sages whose
writings have delighted and enlightened the world, because they appeal
to consciousness or experience.

Now it must be confessed that the poetry of Chaucer does not abound in
the moral wisdom and spiritual insight and profound reflections on the
great mysteries of human life which stand out so conspicuously in the
writings of Dante, Shakspeare, Milton, Goethe, and other first-class
poets. He does not describe the inner life, but the outward habits and
condition of the people of his times. He is not serious enough, nor
learned enough, to enter upon the discussion of those high themes which
agitated the schools and universities, as Dante did one hundred years
before. He tells us how monks and friars lived, not how they dreamed and
speculated. Nor are his sarcasms scorching and bitter, but rather
humorous and laughable. He shows himself to be a genial and loving
companion, not an austere teacher of disagreeable truths. He is not
solemn and intense, like Dante; he does not give wings to his fancy,
like Spenser; he has not the divine insight of Shakspeare; he is not
learned, like Milton; he is not sarcastic, like Pope; he does not rouse
the passions, like Byron; he is not meditative, like Wordsworth, - but he
paints nature with great accuracy and delicacy, as also the men and
women of his age, as they appeared in their outward life. He describes
the passion of love with great tenderness and simplicity. In all his
poems, love is his greatest theme, - which he bases, not on physical
charms, but the moral beauty of the soul. In his earlier life he does
not seem to have done full justice to women, whom he ridicules, but
does not despise; in whom he indeed sees the graces of chivalry, but not
the intellectual attraction of cultivated life. But later in life, when
his experiences are broader and more profound, he makes amends for his
former mistakes. In his "Legend of Good Women," which he wrote at the
command of Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II., he eulogizes the sex
and paints the most exalted sentiments of the heart. He not only had
great vividness in the description of his characters, but doubtless
great dramatic talent, which his age did not call out. His descriptions
of nature are very fresh and beautiful, indicating a great love of
nature, - flowers, trees, birds, lawns, gardens, waterfalls, falcons,
dogs, horses, with whom he almost talked. He had a great sense of the
ridiculous; hence his humor and fun and droll descriptions, which will
ever interest because they are so fresh and vivid. And as a poet he
continually improved as he advanced in life. His last works are his
best, showing the care and labor he bestowed, as well as his fidelity to
nature. I am amazed, considering his time, that he was so great an
artist without having a knowledge of the principles of art as taught by
the great masters of composition.

But, as has been already said, his distinguishing excellence is vivid
and natural description of the life and habits, not the opinions, of the
people of the fourteenth century, described without exaggeration or
effort for effect. He paints his age as Molière paints the times of
Louis XIV., and Homer the heroic periods of Grecian history. This
fidelity to nature and inexhaustible humor and living freshness and
perpetual variety are the eternal charms of the "Canterbury Tales." They
bring before the eye the varied professions and trades and habits and
customs of the fourteenth century. We see how our ancestors dressed and
talked and ate; what pleasures delighted them, what animosities moved
them, what sentiments elevated them, and what follies made them
ridiculous. The same naturalness and humor which marked "Don Quixote"
and the "Decameron" also are seen in the "Canterbury Tales." Chaucer
freed himself from all the affectations and extravagances and
artificiality which characterized the poetry of the Middle Ages. With
him began a new style in writing. He and Wyclif are the creators of
English literature. They did not create a language, but they formed and
polished it.

The various persons who figure in the "Canterbury Tales" are too well
known for me to enlarge upon. Who can add anything to the Prologue in
which Chaucer himself describes the varied characters and habits and
appearance of the pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at
Canterbury? There are thirty of these pilgrims, including the poet
himself, embracing nearly all the professions and trades then known,
except the higher dignitaries of Church and State, who are not supposed
to mix freely in ordinary intercourse, and whom it would be unwise to
paint in their marked peculiarities. The most prominent person, as to
social standing, is probably the knight. He is not a nobleman, but he
has fought in many battles, and has travelled extensively. His cassock
is soiled, and his horse is strong but not gay, - a very respectable man,
courteous and gallant, a soldier corresponding to a modern colonel or
captain. His son, the esquire, is a youth of twenty, with curled locks
and embroidered dress, shining in various colors like the flowers of
May, gay as a bird, active as a deer, and gentle as a maiden. The yeoman
who attends them both is clad in green like a forester, with arrows and
feathers, bearing the heavy sword and buckler of his master. The
prioress is another respectable person, coy and simple, with dainty
fingers, small mouth, and clean attire, - a refined sort of a woman for
that age, ornamented with corals and brooch, so stately as to be held in
reverence, yet so sentimental as to weep for a mouse caught in a trap:
all characteristic of a respectable, kind-hearted lady who has lived in
seclusion. A monk, of course, in the fourteenth century was everywhere
to be seen; and a monk we have among the pilgrims, riding a "dainty"
horse, accompanied with greyhounds, loving fur trimmings on his
Benedictine habit and a fat swan to roast. The friar, too, we see, - a
mendicant, yet merry and full of dalliances, beloved by the common
women, to whom he gave easy absolution; a jolly vagabond, who knew all
the taverns, and who carried on his portly person pins and songs and
relics to sell or to give away. And there was the merchant, with forked
beard and Flemish beaver hat and neatly clasped boots, bragging of his
gains and selling French crowns, but on the whole a worthy man. The
Oxford clerk or scholar is one of the company, silent and sententious,
as lean as the horse on which he rode, with thread-bare coat, and books
of Aristotle and his philosophy which he valued more than gold, of which
indeed he could boast but little, - a man anxious to learn, and still
more to teach. The sergeant of the law is another prominent figure, wary
and wise, discreet and dignified, bustling and busy, yet not so busy as
he seemed to be, wearing a coat of divers colors, and riding very badly.
A franklin, or country gentleman, mixes with the company, with a white
beard and red complexion; one of Epicurus's own sons, who held that ale
and wheaten bread and fish and dainty flesh, partridge fat, were pure
felicity; evidently a man given to hospitality, -

"His table dormant in his hall alway
Stood ready covered all the longe day."

He was a sheriff, also, to enforce the law, and to be present at all the
county sessions. The doctor, of course, could not be left out of the
company, - a man who knew the cause of every malady, versed in magic as
well as physic, and grounded also in astronomy; who held that gold is
the best of cordials, and knew how to keep what he gained; not luxurious
in his diet, but careful what he ate and drank. The village miller is
not forgotten in this motley crowd, - rough, brutal, drunken, big and
brawn, with a red beard and a wart on his nose, and a mouth as wide as a
furnace, a reveller and a jangler, accustomed to take toll thrice, and
given to all the sins that then abounded. He is the most repulsive
figure in the crowd, both vulgar and wicked. In contrast with him is the
_reve_, or steward, of a lordly house, - a slender, choleric man, feared
by servants and gamekeepers, yet in favor with his lord, since he always
had money to lend, although it belonged to his master; an adroit agent
and manager, who so complicated his accounts that no auditor could
unravel them or any person bring him in arrears. He rode a fine
dappled-gray stallion, wore a long blue overcoat, and carried a rusty
sword, - evidently a proud and prosperous man. With a monk and friar, the
picture would be incomplete without a pardoner, or seller of
indulgences, with yellow hair and smooth face, loaded with a pillow-case
of relics and pieces of the true cross, of which there were probably
cartloads in every country in Europe, and of which the popes had an
inexhaustible supply. This sleek and gentle pedler of indulgences rode
side by side with a repulsive officer of the Church, with a fiery red
face, of whom children were afraid, fond of garlic and onions and strong
wine, and speaking only Latin law-terms when he was drunk, but withal a
good fellow, abating his lewdness and drunkenness. In contrast with the
pardoner and "sompnour" we see the poor parson, full of goodness,
charity, and love, - a true shepherd and no mercenary, who waited upon no
pomp and sought no worldly gains, happy only in the virtues which he
both taught and lived. Some think that Chaucer had in view the learned
Wyclif when he described the most interesting character of the whole
group. With him was a ploughman, his brother, as good and pious as he,
living in peace with all the world, paying tithes cheerfully, laborious
and conscientious, the forerunner of the Puritan yeoman.

Of this motley company of pilgrims, I have already spoken of the
prioress, - a woman of high position. In contrast with her is the wife of
Bath, who has travelled extensively, even to Jerusalem and Rome;
charitable, kind-hearted, jolly, and talkative, but bold and masculine
and coarse, with a red face and red stockings, and a hat as big as a
shield, and sharp spurs on her feet, indicating that she sat on her
ambler like a man.

There are other characters which I cannot stop to mention, - the sailor,
browned by the seas and sun, and full of stolen Bordeaux wine; the
haberdasher; the carpenter; the weaver; the dyer; the tapestry-worker;
the cook, to boil the chickens and the marrow-bones, and bake the pies
and tarts, - mostly people from the middle and lower ranks of society,
whose clothes are gaudy, manners rough, and language coarse. But all
classes and trades and professions seem to be represented, except
nobles, bishops, and abbots, - dignitaries whom, perhaps, Chaucer is
reluctant to describe and caricature.

To beguile the time on the journey to Canterbury, all these various
pilgrims are required to tell some story peculiar to their separate
walks of life; and it is these stories which afford the best description
we have of the manners and customs of the fourteenth century, as well as
of its leading sentiments and ideas.

The knight was required to tell his story first, and it naturally was
one of love and adventure. Although the scene of it was laid in ancient
Greece, it delineates the institution of chivalry and the manners and
sentiments it produced. No writer of that age, except perhaps Froissart,
paints the connection of chivalry with the graces of the soul and the
moral beauty which poetry associates with the female sex as Chaucer
does. The aristocratic woman of chivalry, while delighting in martial
sports, and hence masculine and haughty, is also condescending, tender,
and gracious. The heroic and dignified self-respect with which chivalry
invested woman exalted the passion of love. Allied with reverence for
woman was loyalty to the prince. The rough warrior again becomes a
gentleman, and has access to the best society. Whatever may have been
the degrees of rank, the haughtiest nobleman associated with the
penniless knight, if only he were a gentleman and well born, on terms of
social equality, since chivalry, while it created distinctions, also
levelled those which wealth and power naturally created among the higher
class. Yet chivalry did not exalt woman outside of noble ranks. The
plebeian woman neither has the graces of the high-born lady, nor does
she excite that reverence for the sex which marked her condition in the
feudal castle. "Tournaments and courts of love were not framed for
village churls, but for high-born dames and mighty earls."

Chaucer in his description of women in ordinary life does not seem to
have a very high regard for them. They are weak or coarse or sensual,
though attentive to their domestic duties, and generally virtuous. An
exception is made of Virginia, in the doctor's tale, who is represented
as beautiful and modest, radiant in simplicity, discreet and true. But
the wife of Bath is disgusting from her coarse talk and coarser manners.
Her tale is to show what a woman likes best, which, according to her, is
to bear rule over her husband and household. The prioress is
conventional and weak, aping courtly manners. The wife of the host of
the Tabard inn is a vixen and shrew, who calls her husband a milksop,
and is so formidable with both her tongue and her hands that he is glad
to make his escape from her whenever he can. The pretty wife of the
carpenter, gentle and slender, with her white apron and open dress, is
anything but intellectual, - a mere sensual beauty. Most of these women
are innocent of toothbrushes, and give and receive thrashings, and sing
songs without a fastidious taste, and beat their servants and nag their
husbands. But they are good cooks, and understand the arts of brewing
and baking and roasting and preserving and pickling, as well as of
spinning and knitting and embroidering. They are supreme in their
households; they keep the keys and lock up the wine. They are gossiping,
and love to receive their female visitors. They do not do much shopping,
for shops were very primitive, with but few things to sell. Their
knowledge is very limited, and confined to domestic matters. They are on
the whole modest, but are the victims of friars and pedlers. They have
more liberty than we should naturally suppose, but have not yet learned
to discriminate between duties and rights. There are few disputed
questions between them and their husbands, but the duty of obedience
seems to have been recognized. But if oppressed, they always are free
with their tongues; they give good advice, and do not spare reproaches
in language which in our times we should not call particularly choice.
They are all fond of dress, and wear gay colors, without much regard to
artistic effect.

In regard to the sports and amusements of the people, we learn much from
Chaucer. In one sense the England of his day was merry; that is, the
people were noisy and rough in their enjoyments. There was frequent
ringing of the bells; there were the horn of the huntsman and the
excitements of the chase; there was boisterous mirth in the village
ale-house; there were frequent holidays, and dances around May-poles
covered with ribbons and flowers and flags; there were wandering
minstrels and jesters and jugglers, and cock-fightings and foot-ball and
games at archery; there were wrestling matches and morris-dancing and
bear-baiting. But the exhilaration of the people was abnormal, like the
merriment of negroes on a Southern plantation, - a sort of rebound from
misery and burdens, which found a vent in noise and practical jokes when
the ordinary restraint was removed. The uproarious joy was a sort of
defiance of the semi-slavery to which workmen were doomed; for when
they could be impressed by the king's architect and paid whatever he
chose to give them, there could not have been much real contentment,
which is generally placid and calm. There is one thing in which all
classes delighted in the fourteenth century, and that was a garden, in
which flowers bloomed, - things of beauty which were as highly valued as
the useful. Moreover, there was a zest in rural sports now seldom seen,
especially among the upper classes who could afford to hunt and fish.
There was no excitement more delightful to gentlemen and ladies than
that of hawking, and it infinitely surpassed in interest any rural sport
whatever in our day, under any circumstances. Hawks trained to do the
work of fowling-pieces were therefore greater pets than any dogs that
now are the company of sportsmen. A lady without a falcon on her wrist,
when mounted on her richly caparisoned steed for a morning's sport, was
very rare indeed.

An instructive feature of the "Canterbury Tales" is the view which
Chaucer gives us of the food and houses and dresses of the people. "In
the Nonne's Prestes' Tale we see the cottage and manner of life of a
poor widow." She has three daughters, three pigs, three oxen, and a
sheep. Her house had only two rooms, - an eating-room, which also served
for a kitchen and sitting-room, and a bower or bedchamber, - both
without a chimney, with holes pierced to let in the light. The table
was a board put upon trestles, to be removed when the meal of black
bread and milk, and perchance an egg with bacon, was over. The three
slept without sheets or blankets on a rude bed, covered only with their
ordinary day-clothes. Their kitchen utensils were a brass pot or two for
boiling, a few wooden platters, an iron candlestick, and a knife or two;
while the furniture was composed of two or three chairs and stools, with
a frame in the wall, with shelves, for clothes and utensils. The
manciple and the cook of the company seem to indicate that living among
the well-to-do classes was a very generous and a very serious part of
life, on which a high estimate was placed, since food in any variety,
though plentiful at times, was not always to be had, and therefore
precarious. "Guests at table were paired, and ate, every pair, out of
the same plate or off the same trencher." But the bill of fare at a
franklin's feast would be deemed anything but poor, even in our
times, - "bacon and pea-soup, oysters, fish, stewed beef, chickens,
capons, roast goose, pig, veal, lamb, kid, pigeon, with custard, apples
and pears, cheese and spiced cakes." All these with abundance of
wine and ale.

The "Canterbury Tales" remind us of the vast preponderance of the
country over town and city life. Chaucer, like Shakspeare, revels in the
simple glories of nature, which he describes like a man feeling it to
be a joy to be near to "Mother Earth," with her rich bounties. The birds
that usher in the day, the flowers which beautify the lawn, the green
hills and vales, with ever-changing hues like the clouds and the skies,
yet fruitful in wheat and grass; the domestic animals, so mute and
patient, the bracing air of approaching winter, the genial breezes of
the spring, - of all these does the poet sing with charming simplicity
and grace, yea, in melodious numbers; for nothing is more marvellous
than the music and rhythm of his lines, although they are not enriched
with learned allusions or much moral wisdom, and do not march in the
stately and majestic measure of Shakspeare or of Milton.

But the most interesting and instructive of the "Canterbury Tales" are
those which relate to the religious life, the morals, the superstitions,
and ecclesiastical abuses of the times. In these we see the need of the
reformation of which Wyclif was the morning light. In these we see the
hypocrisies and sensualities of both monks and friars, relieved somewhat
by the virtues of the simple parish priest or poor parson, in contrast
with the wealth and luxury of the regular clergy, as monks were called,
in their princely monasteries, where the lordly abbot vied with both
baron and bishop in the magnificence of his ordinary life. We see before
us the Mediaeval clergy in all their privileges, and yet in all their
ignorance and superstition, shielded from the punishment of crime and
the operation of all ordinary laws (a sturdy defiance of the temporal
powers), the agents and ministers of a foreign power, armed with the
terrors of hell and the grave. Besides the prioress and the nuns'
priest, we see in living light the habits and pretensions of the lazy
monk, the venal friar and pardoner, and the noisy summoner for
ecclesiastical offences: hunters and gluttons are they, with greyhounds
and furs, greasy and fat, and full of dalliances; at home in taverns,
unprincipled but agreeable vagabonds, who cheat and rob the people, and
make a mockery of what is most sacred on the earth. These privileged
mendicants, with their relics and indulgences, their arts and their
lies, and the scandals they create, are treated by Chaucer with blended
humor and severity, showing a mind as enlightened as that of the great
scholar at Oxford, who heads the movement against Rome and the abuses at
which she connived if she did not encourage. And there is something
intensely English in his disgust and scorn, - brave for his day, yet

Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 06 Renaissance and Reformation → online text (page 4 of 24)