The period of geoffrey chaucer

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London between 1340 and 1345 and died in 1400.

It was during the last ten years of his life that Chaucer worked on

his masterpiece that touched all phases of English life: The

Canterbury Tales, that describes nearly every type of person that

could be found in mediaeval England in different social classes, trades and profession.

Chaucer’s works are commonly divided into three periods:

  1. the French period: French culture was very important in England at the time;

  2. the Italian period: Chaucer following the examples of Boccaccio and Dante.

  3. the English period: he wrote The Canterbury Tales which was probably begun in 1387.

During the period of Chaucer there were two important wars: the Hundred Years’ War and the War of the Roses, the latter was a dispute between rival families.

The longest and most significant of these began in 1337 when Edward III claimed the French crown with the justifications that his mother was the sister of the French king. The war was to continue on and off for well over a century and became known as The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).The real reason for this war was to divert the attention of the French away from neighbouring Flanders which they were threatening to invade, and which was England’s principal market in the export of wool.

Yet no sooner had the Hundred Years’ War (1455-1485) come to a close than a blood feud broke out between the two rival houses of Lancaster and York. This feud degenerated into a civil war between the two rival families which was to go on for 30 years. Because the emblem of both families was a rose, red for Lancaster and white for York, it became known as the War of the Roses.

All of this fighting and feuding was supported by an ideology in which war was exalted as a noble occupation. The idea of chivalry was introduced around the middle of the 14th century. This was a set of values – loyalty, bravery, honesty and glory- by which knights were supposed to live and, more often han not, die. It was an extremely important element of the courtly romances, centred around the figure of King Arthur, which appeared throughout Europe in this period.

Another important event during the life of Chaucer was the “ Black Death”, an epidemic of bubonic plague which spread rapidly through Europe in 1348.

The plague was caused by infected rats which travelled on the ships that were trading with Europe and its rapid spread was assisted by the appalling sanitation and living conditions which existed in the flourishing towns.

The Black Death is reported to have killed about a third of Britain’s population.

In the late medieval period there was a rise in the merchants and a change in the perception of the figure of the merchant. In early medieval Europe the profession of the merchant was despised. With the economic revolution of the 12th and the 13th centuries and the rise of towns the profession of the merchant developed and he became a valued and esteemed member of the new society. There was also a new value at that time, time is money, due to the explosion of trades and commerce.

Around the time of the 14th century, the growth of towns brought with it an explosion of new occupations: artisans and tradesmen of various types, from smiths and shoemakers to carpenters, butchers and bakers, etc.

These skilled artisans organised themselves into guilds, laying the foundations of an urban bourgeoisie.

So the idea of labour in the service of God or a lord was gradually being replaced by that of working for money.

From a linguistic point of view it was a period of contamination and bilingualism. At the beginning of the 13th century the fortune of the French language came to a halt. With the growth of hostility between French and English and the Hundred Years’ War, French became the language of the enemy and English regained its importance, although by now it was a completely different language in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Linguists usually see this period as the passage from Old English to what is called Middle English ( 1150-1500). Concerning grammar, one of the main changes to occur in Middle English was the disappearance of the grammatical gender of nouns. But the main influence of French over Middle English is to be found in vocabulary, in the fields of law, fashion, food, etc.

In the literary field we have two typical profession of the time: minstrel and troubadours.

The troubadours from the end of the 11th century to the end of the 13th exercised the art of the poet-composer. A good deal of our knowledge of the troubadour life comes from Dante (1265-1321), who live around the time when the troubadours were active and whose poetical technique shows their influence. The love of Dante for Beatrice , for example, perfectly represents the courtly ideal of love of the troubadours. Some of the poems of Chaucer show the influence of troubadour verse on English poetry.

The Canterbury Tales would be one of the first works to be printed by William Caxton’s revolutionary printing press, whose introduction of the press in England effectively signalled the end of the oral storytelling culture Chaucer celebrates.

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