Throughout the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and the early Renaissance, we can trace, in the rise and fall of national literatures, the successions of war and peace which made the development of Europe so difficult and so uneven. Besides wars and crusades, there were other convulsions quite as grievous: for instance, the Black Death, which killed hundreds of people. The Danish conquest, first, and then the Norman conquest had virtually taken Britain out of the current of European literature while French, and Provenal, and Italian literature were building up.
Now, in the fourteenth century, French literature almost died away because France was caught in the Hundred Year War. Italian literature had begun its mighty ascent, and continued with Petrarch and Boccaccio . Provenal culture was almost totally destroyed in the crusade preached against the Albigensian heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. Although England too had its plages and troubles in this same century, it developed a character which it has never yet lost, and which was best exemplified, for this time, in Geoffrey Chaucer, the Father of English Poetry.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)
The greatest poet of the Middle English period was the son of a wealthy wine-merchant of powerful connections. As a boy he was a page to the Countess of Ulster, and later was employed as a valet in the Royal household. In 1359, serving with the English army in France, he was taken prisoner and King Edward III subscribed 16 upon the payment of his ransom. Thereafter he spent many years in the service of his king. In 1372-3 he was sent to Genoa on a commercial mission; in 1374 he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs for the Port of London; in 1385 he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Kent; and in 1386 he was elected Member of Parliament. His last years were spent at Greenwich, where he died in 1400. He was the first poet to be buried in what is now known as Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer’s public career must have greatly enriched his observation and his stock of ideas. In Italy, he found himself in the midst of the flourishing Renaissance. Thus, he developed into a pre-Renaissance writer addressing a medieval English audience.
His works are conventionally divided into three chronological groups; his French period (to 1372), his Italian period (1372-1385) and his English period (1385-1400). In his French period, he wrote The Book of the Duchess and translated a large fragment of Le Roman de la Rose,by Guillaumi de Lorris and Jean de Meung. In his Italian period, when Chaucer exhibits the influence of the great Italian writers, namely Boccaccio, he wrote The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. The Canterbury Tales and a few shorter poems comprise Chaucer’s English period.
He was a man of wide learning and wrote with ease on religion, philosophy, ethics, science, rethoric. Master of verse as Chaucer was, he introduced into English poetry many verse forms: the heroic couplet, the rhyme royal, the terza rima, and the octosyllabic verse.
Troilus and Criseyde (1372-1387)
The poem deals with the love of Troilus, a knight among the Trojan warriors defending Troy, for the beautiful young widow Criseyde, the daughter of the priest Calchas. Troilus enlists the aid of her sly uncle, Pandarus, as a result of whose machinations she gives herself to Troilus. They both swear vows of eternal love. Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks, arranges for the exchange of the captive Trojan, Atenor, for his daughter. Criseyde promises to come back to Troilus in ten days but she forgets her vow, does not return, and gives herself to the Greek Diomede when the latter sues for her love. In every battle thereafter Troilus learns that his beloved has betrayed him, he seeks vengeance on Diomede, but in vain, and never meets her again.
Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde has often been called the first great poem in English Literature. His main immediate source is Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (which was itself modelled on an Italian plagiarist’s rewriting of a French poet’s adaptation of a late Greek romance). Throughout, Chaucer is guided by the system of courtly love. The complex characters of Criseyde and Pandarus indicate the writer’s insight into human motives. The rhyme royal stanzas are of much beauty and the pathos of the story is touched upon with deep feeling:
If there’s no love, O God! What am I feeling?
If there is love, who then, and what,is he?
If love be good, whence comes this sorrow stealing?
If evil, what a wonder it is to me
When every torment and adversity
That comes of him is savoury, to my thinking!
The more I thirst, the more I would be drinking.
Characterization in Boccaccio and in Chaucer
In Boccaccio’s work, the emotions of Criseyde are consistently simple and sensual, in Chaucer’s, quite complex and less sensual. Pandarus is a young gallant, cousin to Criseyde and companion to Troilus in Il Filostrato. However, in Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus is an old uncle, the wise, morally-blunt commentator on life. Last but not least, in Boccaccio, emphasis is placed upon passion, in Chaucer, upon character. Chaucer reveals a greater charity towards the character of Criseyde; he ennobles and sentimentalizes the character of Troilus. Some point out that the Englishman has made Criseyde the central figure; but she is the “artistic centre” of the story while Troilus is its nucleating figure.
The Tenor of Medieval Life
There are some characteristics of life in Medieval times which are clearly present in Troilus and Criseyde. For instance, to the people living in Europe six hundred years ago, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appears strikingly in the next stanza:
How ruefully she stood and stared at Troy,
Saw the tall towers and the lofty hall,
‘Alas’ she said, the happiness and joy,
That once I had beyond that very wall,
But now is turned to bitterness and gall!
Troilus! What are you doing now? she cried,
Lord! Do you still give thought to your Criseyde?
Besides , it was not merely the great facts of birth, marriage and death which were raised to the rank of misteries, incidents of less importance, like a journey, a task, a visit were equally attended by a thousand formalities. In the poem we are told how King Srpedoun entertains his guests:
And all that could be offered on a table
And that was dainty, though it cost the earth,
He gave them day by day; there was no dearth,
So people said, the greatest and the least;
The like was never seen at any feast.
And never was a company so fair
To look on as the ladies dancing there.
Every order and estate, every rank and profession, was distinguished by its costume. As to the knights, they never moved around without a glorious display of arms and leveries, exciting fear and envy. Let’s see how Criseyde and Troilus are described in their clothes:
Dressed in her widow’s weeds of silken brown,
And then to see him in his fighting dress,
His helmet, which was hewn in twenty places,
Hung by a tissue down behind his back;
His shield was battered in by swords and maces,
With arrows lodged in it in many a crack
That had pierced horn and rind and sinewy pack;
It was usual that the lover wore something that belonged to his lady. The next lines exemplify so:
That had been his, she gave to Diomede
And, to console his passion, they believe
She made him wear a pennon of her sleeve
(V,149,5-7) Courtly Love
There are two different theories as regards the origin of courtly love. One of them states that it originated in the Arabian Empire in the second century, when a sort of love called Baghdadi love was practised among the Arabs. In fact, we can find similar motifs in both Provenal courtly poetry and Islamic courtly poetry, especially the exaltation of sexual love and the suffering for the beloved. Here, it must be pointed out that literature, which copies life, is one of the most important sources from which historians obtain information about those times.
Back to courtly poetry, there are those who say that there is not hard evidence to state that courtly love derives from Baghdadi love. They say so because, while in European literature the beloved woman was also the lady whom her lover served, in Western literature, she was also the slave whom her master owned. The other theory, which is the most believable, says that courtly love initiated in southern France. The Hungarian art critic, Arnold Hauser explains in The Social History of Art that it proceeds from the small courts and the people who are by the princes and overlords, not from the royal courts. This modest background gives the chivalrous culture a less solemn character than that of the royal courts.