Home  »  English Prose  »  Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)

Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)

[The year of Chaucer’s birth is unknown: it may be reckoned as not later than 1340. He was born in London, the son of a wine merchant; and by the circumstances of his birth and fortune found himself admitted to a knowledge of different ranks of society and different occupations: he was early a courtier, he saw something of war and was prisoner for a short time in France; later, he had considerable experience of affairs, both of routine work in a government office, and of more exciting diplomatic commissions. His prosperity was not uniform, and he was not rich when he died in 1400. To his immediate and vivid knowledge of various aspects of mankind, he added a great amount of learning. Chaucer’s prose works are four in number:—(1) a translation of Boetius, de Consolatione Philosophiæ, referred to in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, and the poem to Adam the Scribe: (2, 3) two of the Canterbury Tales; Melibeus, told by Chaucer himself, from Jean de Meun’s abridged French version of the Liber Consolationis et Consilii of Albertano of Brescia (1246); and the Parson’s Tale, mainly from the Somme le Roi of Frere Lorens (1279): (4) the Treatise on the Astrolabe, written in 1391 for the author’s son Lewis.

“Boece” has been edited by Dr. R. Morris, and the Astrolabe by Professor Skeat, for the Early English Text Society. The Chaucer Society has printed the Liber Consolationis, edited by Dr. Sundby; l’Histoire de Mélibée et de Prudence, as incorporated in le Ménagier de Paris, was published in 1846.]

THE VALUE of Chaucer’s prose lies chiefly in the fact that it was written by Chaucer. Of the four prose treatises belonging to him, there is none that is not translation, close or loose. In his poetry also Chaucer is a “great translator,” but there the proportions of original and translated work are different, and there the translated, or derivative, work has an interest and originality of style that is wholly wanting to the prose. The prose works, however, are not to be neglected.

Chaucer has two different manners of working: in some of his writings and from some points of view he is an original inventor; more frequently he appears as an agent for imported knowledge, for commonplaces both in abstract ideas, in imagination, and in style. From the first he is superior in poetic style to the two preceding centuries of English versifiers, who had depended upon French authors for their stories, or their metres, or both. If he does not at first go much beyond the Romaunt of the Rose, or the school of Machault and Deschamps, at any rate he is the equal of his masters in their own province; the first English rhymer who can speak the courtly language and escape from rusticity, the first who has a right to criticise the older imperfect styles

  • “Of Horn Child and of Ypotis,
  • Of Bevis and Sir Guy.”
  • And while he learned from France the fine art of poetic language, he learned also from Boccaccio, what no French author could have taught him, the art of construction in story-telling, the epic unities, the grouping and co-ordination of scenes and incidents. In his prose there is nothing corresponding to these magnificent poetical acquisitions. The authors from whom he translates or adapts have nothing very novel or original in their matter, and Chaucer’s prose style is in no way an innovation on the good, ordinary, common form of medieval prose.

    What is most surprising about the matter of the four prose treatises is that so much of it should be so dull, particularly in the two that belong to the Canterbury Tales. The Parson’s Tale and the Tale of Melibeus are taken from books that have not the distinction of the Consolation of Philosophy, nor the immediate practical utility of the Treatise on the Astrolabe. The Parson’s Tale is a good version of the common doctrine of medieval preachers at their best; the Tale of Melibeus is perhaps the worst example that could be found of all the intellectual and literary vices of the Middle Ages—bathos, forced allegory, spiritless and interminable moralising. Contented acquiescence in this exhausted air is not what one would expect from Chaucer, and sometimes one is tempted to think that the Tale of Melibeus is a mischievous companion of the Rime of Sir Thopas, and meant to parody a worse kind of “drasty speech.” But that suggestion is desperate, and there is nothing for it but to believe that Chaucer found some interest in the debate of Melibeus and his wife Prudence.

    Chaucer’s whole literary career shows him emerging from the average opinion and manner of his contemporaries, and coming out from the medieval crowd to stand apart by himself, individual and free. At first he is like every one else; his voice is not his own, but the voice of the century, of the average mind. Even after he had come to his own, and found his true genius, he kept a retreat open into the comfortable world of easy thinking. Those two Canterbury Tales are the proof of it, and not the only proof: the retention, for instance, of his “Life of St. Cecilia,” as the Second Nun’s tale, shows how far he was from any intolerance towards his earlier and less exacting habits of thought and imagination.

    In a number of medieval authors, and in Chaucer more than any, there is a union of poetical or original talent with an interest in the diffusion of useful knowledge. The minds of these authors are represented or symbolised in numbers of composite medieval manuscript books, where there is a medley of poetry and sermons, romance, receipts, prescriptions, and popular history or science—a tale of Troy or Brittany crammed in along with an Algorismus or a Lucidarium. Chaucer, if he was the most original author, was also the most typical average man of his time. His collection would have been incomplete without Boetius and the Astrolabe, without Melibeus and the Parson’s Tale.

    His choice in three of these four cases is beyond all criticism, if it was his purpose to help in that work of teaching which had engaged the clergy from the first, and had competed with the attraction of poets and minstrels at the courts of Charles the Great and Alfred. By his translation of Boetius Chaucer claims recognition as the successor of Alfred. Although the Consolation of Philosophy has lost its vogue, it still keeps its place of honour, and still justifies, by its clear statement of all the ancient great ideas, the esteem in which it was held for a thousand years. It was the one book of all others which, by its simplicity, kept something of the older Greek influences alive, the serenity of the earlier philosophers, in times that were encumbered and distressed with the accumulation of philosophical subtilties. To go to Boetius was to rise above scholasticism, to obtain a wider prospect; and Chaucer did not err in going where Dante had gone before him.

    The Treatise on the Astrolabe justifies itself; it was written for Chaucer’s son, and it deals with matter that was universally interesting. Moreover, it deals with that one part of science in which the popular culture of Chaucer’s time was far ahead of the present. Most people nowadays are satisfied with the dogma that the earth goes round the sun; they accept this on trust, and know nothing more about the sun or stars; they are ignorant of the facts that go to make the puzzling astronomical passages in the Canterbury Tales or the Divine Comedy.

    The Parson’s Tale is a good sermon compiled from different sources, notably from the Somme des Vices et des Vertus of Friar Laurence, the Dominican (1279), an admirably written essay on Holy Living, to which some reparation was due from England. It had been translated about fifty years earlier into a thing called the Ayenbite of Inwit by an honest monk of Canterbury, whose method of translation (viz. to turn each French word discretely into English without regard to context, common sense, grammar or orthodoxy) remained unparalleled, till in the latter days came Pedro Carolino and the Portuguese Dialogue Book. Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale is a different rendering of Friar Laurence, and of the gentle, urbane eloquence of medieval clerical French prose at its best. This French book has a likeness, in its refinement, and its freedom from vulgar emphasis and vulgar condescension, to the prose of Ælfric. There is not much difference, one finds, in the matter of prose literature, for all the 300 years that had gone by.

    The Tale of Melibeus makes one doubt whether the change between the tenth century and the fourteenth was not for the worse. There are curious inanities in old, popular, edifying books, like the Dialogues of Gregory. But the Tale of Melibeus is beyond rivalry for its enjoyment of the rankest commonplaces. There is glow and unction about its mediocrity; the intolerable arguments of Dame Prudence are a masterpiece, as though written in an orgy and enthusiasm of flatness and insipidity. Why it was selected by Chaucer for translation is mysterious enough. Yet the monstrous virtue of Dame Prudence has affinities with some of the untruths in the Canterbury Tales—with Griselda, with the point of honour in the Franklin’s Tale; after all, it is only an exaggeration of what is well known in all medieval literature: it is not a new element. It is hard to forgive, especially when one thinks that it was to this the innocent Sir Thopas was sacrificed. In one sense, however, the Tale of Melibeus displays the foundation of all Chaucer’s works. The peculiarity of Chaucer is that with all his progress in his art he kept close to the general sense of his age, and had always, in some corner of his being, the average mind of the fourteenth century. To that part of him belong all his prose works. The Tale of Melibeus is representative of the ideas and tastes of millions of good souls. Being representative, it could not be alien from Chaucer.