The period between 1343 and 1450 is known as the Age of Chaucer. It marked the first significant literary age in English literature. It heralded a new era of learning. Chaucer’s age also witnessed many social, political, and religious challenges.
- There was a strong dislike for the Papal or Church’s interference, which had previously been the citadel of moral authority, social prestige but now suffered from corruption, turpitude and superstitions.
- There were strong nationalistic passions due to the 100 Years’ War between England and France.
- There was also the charged atmosphere due to the Peasant upheavals in England.
- The middle class also emerged as a strong social stratum.
All of this represented a transition from a feudal social setup toward a free society where men and women could exercise their individual whims and fancies without fear of reprimand.
There is a transition from the age of Medievalism to the age of Modernism. Geoffrey Chaucer was the night star of the former and the morning sun of the latter.
Another significant event of the age was the Black Death or plague that affected a third of the country’s population. This affected various social dynamics like limiting labour and employable bodies.
Here are the main characteristics of the period
The age saw the emergence of the standard English language. This was the single biggest development of the age as English had previously been heavily curbed by the influence of French and Latin.
The East Midland dialect became the accepted form of standardized English. The language saw great achievement and expression in the masterpieces of Chaucer.
French and Latin saw a waning influence on the language of the day. Chaucer’s use of language to describe the man and his place is embellished with beauty, simplicity and humour.
The common examples from the daily life account details of blooming gardens in spring to unique human characteristics. The language glorified themes of beauty, vitality and the secular sentiment.
Curiosity and Criticism:
The age is known for its scathing criticism of the established order and religion. Church’s control over temporal affairs of common men was challenged during this period.
There is a renewed interest in the common man’s affairs. There is a theme of derision of romance, especially by Chaucer. The drama takes the prominent stage. The dominance of historical fables and romance of Medieval age was eschewed for more humanistic themes.
It was a period of great social and intellectual movements as well as poverty, unrest, and revolt. It had the plague called the Black Death as well as the growth of the scientific temper and inquiry.
The English prose had its beginning in this age. Due to the ripening of the language, the prose could now be experimented with. The Biblical translation of John Wycliffe is an example of it.
The prose writing is both original and individual. There are experimental works like that of Thomas Mallory (King Arthur) and also a desire to shed the grip of Latin as seen in demand for an English Bible.
The formation of allegory was refined in this period. There was a return of alliteration which had been replaced with rhymes in the middle ages.
The prominent prose writers of Chaucer’s age were Chaucer, John of Trevisa and John Wycliffe. There is also a great influence of Scottish works like Barbour.
The Age of Chaucer saw the birth of English Poetry. In Chaucer’s age, poetry continued to flourish and assumed an unparalleled position. The most noted poets of this age were Chaucer, John Gower and William Langland.
Spencer became the father of poetic diction as there was no poetic diction before this age. The poetry saw the amalgamation of religion, humanism and secular passions.
There were new forms of poetry like narrative and descriptive poetry that were enhanced during this time period.
Chaucer himself was known for his trenchant observations. He was sociable and loved mingling with people from diverse backgrounds as evidenced in his work; ‘The Canterbury Tales’.
In it, he has been able to pen minute peculiarities and complexities of human nature. Chaucer uses seven lined stanza ABABBCC, known as the Chaucerian rhyme meter.
There is liberal use of humour. There is an insistence on human sentiment like in ‘The Legend of Good Women’.
Normally the Chaucerian poems are divided into three stages- Italian (The Parliament of Fowls etc), French (The Romaunt etc.), and English (The Parson’s Tale etc.). However, there is also some criticism for the inordinate length of some speeches and preachy discourse on ethics etc.
Age of Germination
Even though there were no novels or drama in his age, Chaucer’s work did plant the seeds for its development in the succeeding Elizabethan age. If ‘The Canterbury Tales’ had been in prose and divided into scenes and acts, it would have been the language’s first drama.