Chapter XXIII. CHAUCER—"THE CANTERBURY TALES"
CHAUCER rose in the King's service. He became an esquire, and was sent on business for the King to France and to Italy. To Italy he went at least twice, and it is well to remember this, as it had an effect on his most famous poems. He must have done his business well, for we find him receiving now a pension for life worth about 200 pounds in our money, now a grant of a daily pitcher of wine besides a salary of "71/2d. a day and two robes yearly."
Chaucer's wife, too, had a pension, so the poet was well off. He had powerful friends also, among them John of Gaunt. And when the Duke's wife died Chaucer wrote a lament which is called the Dethe of Blaunche the Duchess, or sometimes the Book of the Duchess. This is one of the earliest known poems of Chaucer, and although it is not so good as some which are later, there are many beautiful lines in it.
The poet led a busy life. He was a good business man, and soon we find him in the civil service, as we would call it now. He was made Comptroller of Customs, and in this post he had to work hard, for one of the conditions was that he must write out the accounts with his own hand, and always be in the office himself. If we may take some lines he wrote to be about himself, he was so busy all day long that he had not time to hear what was happening abroad, or even what was happening among his friends and neighbors.
"Not only from far countree,
That there no tidings cometh to thee;
Not of thy very neighbours,
That dwellen almost at thy doors,
Thou hearest neither that nor this."
Yet after his hard office work was done he loved nothing better than to go back to his books, for he goes on to say:
"For when thy labour done all is
And hast y-made thy reckonings,
Instead of rest and newë things
Thou goest home to thy house anon,
And all so dumb as any stone,
Thou sittest at another book,
Till fully dazéd is thy look,
And livest thus as a hermite
Although thine abstinence is light."
But if Chaucer loved books he loved people too, and we may believe that he readily made friends, for there was a kingly humor about him that must have drawn people to him. And that he knew men and their ways we learn from his poetry, for it is full of knowledge of men and women.
For many years Chaucer was well off and comfortable. But he did not always remain so. There came a time when his friend and patron, John of Gaunt, fell from power, and Chaucer lost his appointments. Soon after that his wife died, and with her life her pension ceased. So for a year or two the poet knew something of poverty—poverty at least compared to what he had been used to. But if he lost his money he did not lose his sunny temper, and in all his writings we find little that is bitter.
After a time John of Gaunt returned to power, and again Chaucer had a post given to him, and so until he died he suffered ups and downs. Born when Edward III was in his highest glory, Chaucer lived to see him hated by his people. He lived through the reign of Edward's grandson, Richard II, and knew him from the time when as a gallant yellow-haired boy he had faced Wat Tyler and his rioters, till as a worn and broken prisoner he yielded the crown to Henry of Lancaster, the son of John of Gaunt. But before the broken King died in his darksome prison Chaucer lay taking his last rest in St. Benet's Chapel in Westminster. He was the first great poet to be laid there, but since then there have gathered round him so many bearing the greatest names in English literature that we call it now the "Poet's Corner."
But although Chaucer lived in stirring times, although he was a soldier and a courtier, he does not, in the book by which we know him best, write of battles and of pomp, of kings and of princes. In this book we find plain, everyday people, people of the great middle class of merchants and tradesmen and others of like calling, to which Chaucer himself belonged. It was a class which year by year had been growing more and more strong in England, and which year by year had been making its strength more and more felt. But it was a class which no one had thought of writing about in plain fashion. And it is in the Canterbury Tales that we have, for the first time in the English language, pictures of real men, and what is more wonderful, of real women. They are not giants or dwarfs, they are not fairy princes or knights in shining armor. They do no wondrous deeds of strength or skill. They are not queens of marvelous beauty or enchanted princesses. They are simply plain, middle-class English people, and yet they are very interesting.
In Chaucer's time, books, although still copied by hand, had become more plentiful than ever before. And as more and more people learned to read, the singing time began to draw to a close. Stories were now not all written in rhyme, and poetry was not all written to be sung. Yet the listening time was not quite over, for these were still the days of talk and story-telling. Life went at leisure pace. There was no hurry, there was no machinery. All sewing was done by hand, so when the ladies of a great household gathered to their handiwork, it was no unusual thing for one among them to lighten the long hours with tales read or told. Houses were badly lighted, and there was little to do indoors in the long winter evenings, so the men gathered together and listened while one among them told of love and battle. Indeed, through all the life of the Middle Ages there was room for story-telling.
So now, although Chaucer meant his tales to be read, he made believe that they were told by a company of people on a journey from London to Canterbury. He thus made a framework for them of the life he knew, and gave a reason for them all being told in one book.
But a reason had to be given for the journey, for in those days people did not travel about from place to place for the mere pleasure of seeing another town, as we do now. Few people thought of going for a change of air, nobody perhaps ever thought about going to the seaside for the summer. In short, people always had a special object in taking a journey.
One reason for this was that traveling was slow and often dangerous. The roads were bad, and people nearly all traveled on horseback and in company, for robbers lurked by the way ready to attack and kill, for the sake of their money, any who rode alone and unprotected. So when a man had to travel he tried to arrange to go in company with others.
In olden days the most usual reason for a journey, next to business, was a pilgrimage. Sometimes this was simply an act of religion or devotion. Clad in a simple gown, and perhaps with bare feet, the pilgrim set out. Carrying a staff in his hand, and begging for food and shelter by the road, he took his way to the shrine of some saint. There he knelt and prayed and felt himself blessed in the deed. Sometimes it was an act of penance for some great sin done; sometimes of thanksgiving for some great good received, some great danger passed.
But as time went on these pilgrimages lost their old meaning. People no longer trudged along barefoot, wearing a pilgrim's garb. They began to look upon a pilgrimage more as a summer outing, and dressed in their best they rode comfortably on horseback. And it is a company of pilgrims such as this that Chaucer paints for us. He describes himself as being of the company, and it is quite likely that Chaucer really did at one time go upon this pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, for it was a very favorite one. Not only was the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury very beautiful in those days, but it was also within easy distance of London. Neither costing much nor lasting long, it was a journey which well-to-do merchantmen and others like them could well afford.
Chaucer tells us that it was when the first sunshiny days of April came that people began to think of such pilgrimages:—
"When that April with his showers sweet,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,"
when the soft wind "with his sweet breath inspired hath in every holt and heath the tender crops"; when the little birds make new songs, then "longen folk to go on pilgrimages, and palmers for to seeken strange lands, and especially from every shire's end of England, to Canterbury they wend."
So one day in April a company of pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn on the south side of the Thames, not far from London Bridge. A tabard, or coat without sleeves, was the sign of the inn; hence its name. In those days such a coat would often be worn by workmen for ease in working, but it has come down to us only as the gayly colored coat worn by heralds.
At the Tabard Inn twenty-nine "of sundry folk," besides Chaucer himself, were gathered. They were all strangers to each other, but they were all bound on the same errand. Every one was willing to be friendly with his neighbor, and Chaucer in his cheery way had soon made friends with them all.
"And shortly when the sun was to rest,
So had I spoke with them every one."
And having made their acquaintance, Chaucer begins to describe them all so that we may know them too. He describes them so well that he makes them all living to us. Some we grow to love; some we smile upon and have a kindly feeling for, for although they are not fine folk, they are so very human we cannot help but like them; and some we do not like at all, for they are rude and rough, as the poet meant them to be.