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Geoffrey Chaucer and Medieval London



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On an unknown day in 1343, Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the heart of medieval London. At the time, London was the largest city in England. His writings, especially the Canterbury Tales of his later years, have brought his city to life.

• Overview of Olde London Town

By modern standards, even a major city such as medieval London was still very small. The entire city could be walked across in just 20 minutes. Most of the city lay within the old city wall, which had been built by the Romans.

The first stone bridge had been built across the Thames River late in the 12th century, along with London's first stone houses. Some houses were built right on the bridge itself. Most houses were still timber-framed, with walls made of wattle and daub. Even St. Paul's Cathedral, the tallest building in London, still had a wooden steeple.

London's population had outgrown its water supply at the beginning of the 13th century. Prior to that time, water came from the Thames River and from many springs and wells throughout the city. London's springs were said to have sweet and wholesome water. In 1236, the first of several conduit systems connected natural springs with a system of cisterns, resulting in the first piped water system in London since the Romans left.

Piping the supply of water also increased its convenient availability for commercial and industrial users, which encouraged industrial growth. Many Londoners made illegal connections from this system into their own houses. By Chaucer's time, brewers, cooks, and fishmongers had to pay for the water they used. Proper use of conduit water was enforced by the keeper of each conduit.

The location of London on the Thames River meant that trade was the lifeblood of London. The main shopping streets sloped upwards from the Thames, with shops on either side and market stalls down the middle. Many of those streets, such as Threadneedle Street and Fish Street Hill, were named for the trades which could be found there. Staples, cloth, construction materials, and a rising demand for luxury goods filled the London dockside warehouses.

Before the Black Death struck medieval London in 1349, its population had reached 80,000 people, with rapid growth as people came to London to seek work and a better life. After the Black Death had swept through London, its surviving population was just 40,000 people. Some people had fled to the countryside. Most had died.

• Language

The Canterbury Tales are among the first major English works to be written in English, instead of Church Latin or the Norman French of William the Conqueror and the Plantagenets. Use of English in this way by Chaucer, the English courtier, marked a sea change in power among the 3 Estates of the Realm: those who pray (clergy), those who fight (nobility), and those who work (commoners). This new trend led directly to the great Elizabethan Age of English writing, with famous authors such as Spencer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

The medieval church still used Latin on an everyday basis, but this use was common to every country in which it was dominant. The church also ran the schools, at a time when most children received at least some education. This is why Latin became the lingua franca of academic scholars during the Renaissance and for centuries later.

French was still the official language of the royal court, but it was being supplanted by English. This happened partly as a result of the Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford. In the Magna Carta of 1215, the English barons had gained power at the expense of the king. In the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, the gentry and merchant class started to gain power at the expense of the barons.

Chaucer's English was the language of commoners and everyday use in medieval London. The City of London elected its first mayor from among its most prominent commoner citizens in 1189, although only freemen who had established themselves in a recognized business or craft were allowed to vote. By Chaucer's time, the merchant class was effectively running London.

• Effects of the Black Death

The Black Death was terrifying to all who had known it. The role of pilgrimages rose correspondingly, especially to Canterbury, where the martyred Saint Thomas Becket was associated with divine healing.

However, the role and abuses of the established church also began to be questioned. Both the Pardoner and the Summoner of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are corrupt and greedy characters. The Friar's Tale deals with a summoner who is working for the devil, and friars themselves are among the targets of the Wife of Bath's tale. The characters representing monastic orders get off more lightly, although both the Prioress and the Monk fail to live up to their monastic ideals. Only the Second Nun and the Parson lead by example, and neither of them rank highly in their social order.

So many people had died as a result of the plague that there was a labor shortage. This increased the power of the artisan classes to bargain for better wages and working conditions.

Chaucer was among those who benefited from the sudden accumulation of wealth from relatives who had died. Both of Chaucer's parents had been reasonably well-to-do by medieval standards even before the plague hit, but afterwards they were wealthy enough that Chaucer, their only son, did not have to follow in his father's footsteps as a wine merchant. Instead, he was educated as a page to the Countess of Ulster. This upper class education enabled Chaucer to become a courtier.

• Government and Social Class

The English Parliament in Chaucer's London was a force to reckon with. The change had started during the reign of Edward I. By 1341, 2 years before Chaucer's birth, Parliament had divided into 2 houses. The Upper Chamber consisted of clergy and hereditary nobility, who were also known as the Lords Spiritual and Temporal. The Lower Chamber consisted of knights and burgesses, and was known as the Commons. To enact any legislation or levy any tax, both chambers and the king had to agree on it. This arrangement gave knights and merchants a degree of power they had never held before.

Chaucer shows this shift of power through the interaction of his characters. The 29 pilgrims who gather at the Tabard Inn to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral are "sundry folk" ranging from the noble Knight to the earthy Miller. All of them are typical inhabitants of medieval London.

There are no outright beggars or thieves in Chaucer's tale, although the Pardoner is mocked by another pilgrim, based on a recent scandal which involved fraud in the sale of indulgences. Chaucer also does not include any representatives of the poorest serf class, who were tied to the land and could not go on pilgrimage. However, he does mention the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in the Nun's Priest's Tale, which would mark the beginning of the end of serfdom in England.

The Knight is the highest ranking person among the pilgrims, so he tells the first tale. However, the Monk, who would be the next highest ranking person, does not tell the next tale. Instead, discussion of the Knight's tale is interrupted by the Miller, who then goes second. There is very little deference among the pilgrims at all, although some of the pilgrims feel that there should be more.

• The Role of Women

The women of Chaucer's London had strictly defined social roles. For the lower classes, women are always wenches, while for the higher classes, all women are ladies on pedestals. However, chivalry was on its way out, and any woman of medieval London who was not of high social class or a member of a religious order had to work for her livelihood. The Knight tells a tragic tale of chivalry, which Chaucer may have intended to be ironic to the reader. The character Chaucer's own stories among the Canterbury Tales illustrate the problems of chivalry.

In the Canterbury Tales, women are represented by 3 female narrators: the Prioress, the Second Nun, and the repeatedly widowed Wife of Bath. These are the only respectable social classes in which the women of medieval London have any personal freedom at all.

The Prioress represents nearly the only way in which women could gain power in medieval London, as the head of a convent. The Second Nun is an idealized image of women as obedient and pure examples to others. This should have left the Wife of Bath as a representation of married commoner women, in the same way as most of the women characters in the stories.

Instead, the Wife of Bath turns the conventions of marriage upside down. She subverts male authority and wears the pants in her own marriages. She says directly that personal freedom is a matter of money. However, she still abides by public convention, and is careful to preserve the public honor of her husbands.

More about this author: Michael Totten

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