The Age of Chaucer
France now boasted of Froissart, Chaucer’s contemporary, while Italy prouded itself with Boccaccio.
Chaucer also had his own contemporaries in England – but they still used Latin as their medium. The reason was because, English was still a disinherited tongue, used mainly for translations, and the first of our great translators was Sir John Trevisa, a contemporary of Wyclif at Oxford. He translated Higden’s Polychronicon into English. But soon, the situation changed. After the Black Death, English was used as a medium of instruction in schools. A statute of 1362 ordered legal proceedings to be conducted in English on the grounds that French was no longer sufficiently understood.
Chaucer was widely known amongst the literati of the day. His English contemporaries were:
William Langland, etc.
|Piers the Plowman|
John Gower: Chaucer seems to have been particularly close to ‘Moral’ Gower, as he dubs him in Troilus and Criseyde, giving him power of attorney when he left for Italy in 1378. In the first version of his Confessio Amantis, Gower makes a flattering reference to Chaucer as composing ‘ditees and songes glad’ in the flower of his youth. John Gower wrote his best-known work Confessio Amantis (A Lover’s Confession) in English, was written at the King's command. Gower’s ‘confession’ uses the concept with a degree of irony. He uses stories to recount the seven deadly sins of love (Amans), deriving considerable inspiration from the Latin poet Ovid, in a mock-religious dream vision. At the end, when the speaker has confessed all his sins, he announces that he will renounce love – but only because he is old, and nature has overtaken his capacity to love. A farewell to love rather than a vow of chastity is the ironic outcome.
‘Gower and Hoccleve were seemingly their equals in popularity in the fifteenth century’.
Thomas Hoccleve: His principal works are The Regement of Princes, written for the edification of Henry V, consisting of a string of sermons; La Male Regie, partly autobiographical, The Complaint of Our Lady; and Occleve's Complaint.
As the fourteenth century wears on we notice the greater use of prose. The writings of four men in particular - Mandeville, Trevisa, Wyclif and Nicholas of Hereford are of importance to us.
|The Adventures of John Mandeville|
John Mandeville compiled and published a French book of travels between 1357 and 1371. This French work was very popular, and it was translated into several languages, including English.
Everyone knows about the incredible things he pretends to have seen: the gigantic race with one eye in the middle of the forehead, people with no heads but with eyes in their shoulders, others with great ears hanging to their knees, snails so great that many persons may lodge in their shells, and scores of other marvels. Setting out to write merely a guide-book for those who might be making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he gives the usual account of routes, and towns, and places of interest at the more important points. But when thispart of his plan is finished he continues with his travels in Egypt, Asia Minor, Persia, India, Cathay or China, and many other places. He professes to have been born at St. Albans, to have left England in 1322, and, after spending years on his vast journey, to have arrived at Liége, where he was persuaded to write down his experiences.
As Legouis & Cazamian comment, “he was able to pass them off as more genuine than the matter of Marco Polo”, because of the credulity of the age. This literature, with its imaginary English hero, based on a hoax, was to root itself deeply in England.
Trevisa, Wyclif and Nicholas of Hereford were contemporaries at Queen’s College.
John Trevisa was born in Cornwall. He entered Oxford in 1362, and later became a fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford from 1372-76 at the same time as John Wyclif and Nicholas of Hereford. Apart from his having translated the Bible, his most important works are his translations of Higden’s Polychronicon.
Nicholas of Hereford was a Fellow of The Queen's College, Oxford. He collaborated in producing the English-language version of the Bible known as Wycliffe's Bible. He is believed to have been entrusted with the translation of the Old Testament, the major part of which was completed by 1382.
John Wyclif was an Oxford professor. He developed a number of doctrines. To him, the Bible is the supreme authority, and the clergy should hold no property. Wyclif’s ideas, were adopted by his followers - the Lollards – which became a mass movement that spread rapidly after his death. In his own lifetime, he was strongly supported by his colleagues at Oxford and by powerful laymen, such as John of Gaunt. In 1382, John Wyclif translated the Vulgate edition of The Bible, published in Latin, into Middle English but caused controversy because many people believed that English was not a language worthy of conveying the profound moral sentiments of the Bible. Yet, translation was strongly stimulated by Wyclif. To the second of the Wyclifian versions is sometimes given the name of John Purvey, the Lollard leader who succeeded Wyclif.
William Langland - The dream-vision - a form which was to become one of the most frequent in mediaeval literature, is popular in Authors like Chaucer and Langland in which the narrator describes another world – usually a heavenly paradise – which is compared with the earthly human world.
If satire is the mocking observation of human behaviour, Langland can, with Chaucer, be considered a worthy forerunner of what was to become a notable tradition. The major work of William Langland, Piers Plowman, has been described as a ‘satire’. The dreams tell of how England might be reformed, and of truth in justice and behaviour. A credo or ‘Do Well’ leads to a disillusioned view of human nature, in which the church, which should exemplify salvation, is shown as corrupt. As in The Canterbury Tales, the friar is seen as weak and corrupt, and Piers is seen, in his own dream, as the honest man.
Chaucer’s Imitators and Disciples in England (English Chaucerians)
Chaucer’s Imitators and Disciples in Scotland (Scottish Chaucerians)
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
A Literary History of England. II Edition. Edited by Albert C. Baugh. Volume I
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