Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer

By: Vanessa Uy

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London about 1340, the son of a well-to-do and well-connected wine merchant. In his youth, he served as a page to the countess of Ulster, and later as a valet in the royal household. In 1360, after his capture while fighting in the French wars, Edward III paid his ransom, and later Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, a maid of honor to the queen and sister-in-law to John of Gaunt, Chaucer’s patron.

Chaucer spent many years in royal employment, as a comptroller of customs for the port of London, as justice of the peace for Kent, as a Member of Parliament. His appointment took him on various missions to France and Italy, where he probably met Boccaccio and Petrarch and discovered the poetry of Dante—influences that are evident in his own writing.

Chaucer’s body of work is often divided into three periods. The French period (to 1372); consisting of such works as a translation of the “Roman de la Rose” and “The Book of the Duchess”. The Italian period (1372-1385), including “The House of Fame”, “The Parliament of Fowls” and “Troilus and Criseyde” and the English period (1385-1400), culminating in The Canterbury Tales. In 1400, he passed away, leaving 24 of the apparently 120 tales he had planned for his final masterpiece. The 24 he wrote were sufficient. Chaucer became the first of England’s great men to be buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Chaucer’s literary works are an example of a form of Middle English dialect then in use in Medieval London, which evolved into the Modern English of today. On the Canterbury Tales, his metrical versification of choice is the ”heroic couplet”, which is composed of pairs of successive lines, in iambic pentameter (regularly five feet, or ten syllables), that rhyme. Sometimes, Chaucer also uses “Rhyme Royal” as in Troilus and Criseyde, and Terza Rima which is rare in English prosody but is used in Part II of one of his minor poems, Complaint to His Lady.

The Canterbury Tales is probably the most famous of Chaucer’s works. It is a collection of tales set in verse form about various pilgrims on their way to pay homage to St. Thomas a Becket, a martyr murdered at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The pilgrims have various tales of their own which they told during their stay in a local inn. These tales could be described as the religious, moral, and philosophical views in Medieval England. Like the Pardoner’s Tale, which preaches that “the love of money is the root of all evil” or the Clerk’s Tale, which is about the virtue of patience taken to the extreme. The tales could also be viewed as a satire aiming to expose, and sometimes to correct (His Retraction), personal, social, or spiritual follies or vices.

The various pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales in order of importance to the society of Medieval England:
1. Knight 15.Tapestry Maker
2. Young Squire 16. Cook
3. Yeoman 17. Ship man
4. Prioress 18. Man of Physique (Medical Doctor)
5. Monk 19. Wife of Bath
6. Friar 20. Parson
7. Merchant 21. Plowman
8. Clerk of Oxford 22. Reeve
9. Sergeant-of-the-Law (Lawyer) 23. Miller
10. Franklin 24. Summoner
11. Haberdasher 25. Pardoner
12. Carpenter 26. Manciple
13. Weaver 27. Author
14. Dyer

Various characters of the “Tale” and their profile:
1. The Wife of Bath/Dame Alice – She’s very open about her private sex life. And she’s not ashamed to tell everyone about it during her drinking spree in the inn. Described as “gap-toothed”, which in Chaucer’s time would mean a woman of considerable sexual prowess. Too liberated for Medieval England and her “kiss and tell” attitude is anathema to my politically correct sewing circle.
2. The Pardoner – His “de rigueur” preaching about “The Love of Money is the Root of All Evil” borders on the point of obsession. Made a fortune by selling false religious relics. The only redeeming trait about him is his honesty about his wicked schemes or maybe this is just a way of rationalizing his guilty conscience. His present day counterparts include Vice President Dick Cheney and former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Is the Canterbury Tales a story on how Medieval England perpetuated a culture of inequality?
During Chaucer’s time, there are very rigid class barriers that cannot be transcended. Like the “Haberdasher” never ever contemplates on becoming a “Knight” someday.
Women were treated in an arcane system that is a cross between being a property and a holy cow. They are pampered by their spouses or suitors lavishly, but have little by the way of individual rights. Women back then can only develop their intellectual prowess if they’ll enter into a convent and become a nun.
People back then have a strong faith in God and they believe that He keeps their universe in perfect working order.
In my opinion, one cannot ignore the message the tale is trying to tell. It treats anything as trivial and irrelevant as the reader searches for the moral of the story. Someone well versed in English Literature studies might defend the work by stating this story’s raison d’être is prosody, literary structure etc. and tells me that this is not a philosophy class. In the end, I’d rather live in a future that has undeniable proof that we descended from animals than to live in a past that believes that we are the pinnacle of God’s creation but can do nothing else like the proverbial “Taliban Cardiologist”.

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