English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History - Designed as a Manual of Instruction
by Henry Coppee
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And whoso shall wish this book After other time to write, Him bid I that he it write right, So as this book him teacheth.

The critics have observed that, whereas the language of Layamon shows that it was written in the southwest of England, that of Orm manifests an eastern or northeastern origin. To the historical student, Orm discloses the religious condition and needs of the people, and the teachings of the Church. His poem is also manifestly a landmark in the history of the English language.

ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER.—Among the rhyming chroniclers of this period, Robert, a monk of Gloucester Abbey, is noted for his reproduction of the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, already presented by Wace in French, and by Layamon in Saxon-English. But he is chiefly valuable in that he carries the chronicle forward to the end of the reign of Henry III. Written in West-country English, it not only contains a strong infusion of French, but distinctly states the prevailing influence of that language in his own day:

Vor bote a man couthe French, me tolth of him well lute Ac lowe men holdeth to Englyss, and to her kunde speche zute.

For unless a man know French, one talketh of him little; But low men hold to English, and to their natural speech yet.

The chronicle of Robert is written in Alexandrines, and, except for the French words incongruously interspersed, is almost as "barbarous" Saxon as the Brut of Layamon.

LANGLAND—PIERS PLOWMAN.—The greatest of the immediate heralds of Chaucer, whether we regard it as a work of literary art, or as an historic reflector of the age, is "The Vision of Piers Plowman," by Robert Langland, which appeared between 1360 and 1370. It stands between the Semi-Saxon and the old English, in point of language, retaining the alliterative feature of the former; and, as a teacher of history, it displays very clearly the newly awakened spirit of religious inquiry, and the desire for religious reform among the English people: it certainly was among the means which aided in establishing a freedom of religious thought in England, while as yet the continent was bound in the fetters of a rigorous and oppressive authority.

Peter, the ploughboy, intended as a representative of the common people, drops asleep on Malvern Hills, between Wales and England, and sees in his dream an array of virtues and vices pass before him—such as Mercy, Truth, Religion, Covetousness, Avarice, etc. The allegory is not unlike that of Bunyan. By using these as the personages, in the manner of the early dramas called the Moralities, he is enabled to attack and severely scourge the evil lives and practices of the clergy, and the abuses which had sprung up in the Church, and to foretell the punishment, which afterward fell upon the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII., one hundred and fifty years later:

And then shall the Abbot of Abingdon, and all his issue forever, Have a knock of a king, and incurable the wound.

His attack is not against the Church itself, but against the clergy. It is to be remarked, in studying history through the medium of literature, that the works of a certain period, themselves the result of history, often illustrate the coming age, by being prophetic, or rather, as antecedents by suggesting consequents. Thus, this Vision of Piers Plowman indicates the existence of a popular spirit which had been slowly but steadily increasing—which sympathized with Henry II. and the priest-trammelling "Constitutions of Clarendon," even while it was ready to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, the illustrious victim of the quarrel between Henry and his clergy. And it points with no uncertain finger to a future of greater light and popular development, for this bold spirit of reform was strongly allied to political rights. The clergy claimed both spiritualities and temporalities from the Pope, and, being governed by ecclesiastical laws, were not like other English subjects amenable to the civil code. The king's power was thus endangered; a proud and encroaching spirit was fostered, and the clergy became dissolute in their lives. In the words of Piers Plowman:

I found these freres, For profit of hem selve; All the four orders, Closed the gospel, Preaching the people As hem good liked.

And again:

Ac now is Religion And a loud buyer, A rider, a roamer about, A pricker on a palfrey, A leader of love days From manor to manor.

PIERS PLOWMAN'S CREED.—The name of Piers Plowman and the conceit of his Vision became at once very popular. He stood as a representative of the peasant class rising in importance and in assertion of religious rights.

An unknown follower of Wiclif wrote a poem called "Piers Plowman's Creed," which conveys religious truth in a formula of belief. The language and the alliterative feature are similar to those of the Vision; and the invective is against the clergy, and especially against the monks and friars.

FROISSART.—Sire Jean Froissart was born about 1337. He is placed here for the observance of chronological order: he was not an English writer, but must receive special mention because his "Chronicles," although written in French, treat of the English wars in France, and present splendid pictures of English chivalry and heroism. He lived, too, for some time in England, where he figured at court as the secretary of Philippa, queen of Edward III. Although not always to be relied on as an historian, his work is unique and charming, and is very truthful in its delineation of the men and manners of that age: it was written for courtly characters, and not for the common people. The title of his work may be translated "Chronicles of France, England, Scotland, Spain, Brittany, Gascony, Flanders, and surrounding places."

SIR JOHN MANDEVIL, (1300-1371.)—We also place in this general catalogue a work which has, ever since its appearance, been considered one of the curiosities of English literature. It is a narrative of the travels of Mandevil in the East. He was born in 1300; became a doctor of medicine, and journeyed in those regions of the earth for thirty-four years. A portion of the time he was in service with a Mohammedan army; at other times he lived in Egypt, and in China, and, returning to England an old man, he brought such a budget of wonders—true and false—stories of immense birds like the roc, which figure in Arabian mythology and romance, and which could carry elephants through the air—of men with tails, which were probably orang-outangs or gorillas.

Some of his tales, which were then entirely discredited, have been ascertained by modern travellers to be true. His work was written by him first in Latin, and then in French—Latin for the savans, and French for the court—and afterward, such was the power and demand of the new English tongue, that he presented his marvels to the world in an English version. This was first printed by Wynken de Worde, in 1499.

Other Writers of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Who Preceded Chaucer.

Robert Manning, a canon of Bourne—called also Robert de Brunne: Translated a portion of Wace's Brut, and also a chronicle of Piers de Langtoft bringing the history down to the death of Edward I. (1307.) He is also supposed to be the author of a translation of the "Manuel des Peches," (Handling of Sins,) the original of which is ascribed to Bishop Grostete of Lincoln.

The Ancren Riwle, or Anchoresses' Rule, about 1200, by an unknown writer, sets forth the duties of a monastic life for three ladies (anchoresses) and their household in Dorsetshire.

Roger Bacon, (1214-1292,) a friar of Ilchester: He extended the area of knowledge by his scientific experiments, but wrote his Opus Magus, or greater work, in comparison with the Opus Minus, and numerous other treatises in Latin. If he was not a writer in English, his name should be mentioned as a great genius, whose scientific knowledge was far in advance of his age, and who had prophetic glimpses of the future conquests of science.

Robert Grostete, Bishop of Lincoln, died 1253, was probably the author of the Manuel des Peches, and also wrote a treatise on the sphere.

Sir Michael Scott: He lived in the latter half of the thirteenth century; was a student of the "occult sciences," and also skilled in theology and medicine. He is referred to by Walter Scott as the "wondrous wizard, Michael Scott."

Thomas of Ercildoun—called the Rhymer—supposed by Sir Walter Scott, but erroneously, as is now believed, to be the author of "Sir Tristram."

The King of Tars is the work of an unknown author of this period.

In thus disposing of the authors before Chaucer, no attempt has been made at a nice subdivision and classification of the character of the works, or the nature of the periods, further than to trace the onward movement of the language, in its embryo state, in its birth, and in its rude but healthy infancy.



A New Era—Chaucer. Italian Influence. Chaucer as a Founder. Earlier Poems. The Canterbury Tales. Characters. Satire. Presentations of Woman. The Plan Proposed.


And now it is evident, from what has been said, that we stand upon the eve of a great movement in history and literature. Up to this time everything had been more or less tentative, experimental, and disconnected, all tending indeed, but with little unity of action, toward an established order. It began to be acknowledged that though the clergy might write in Latin, and Frenchmen in French, the English should "show their fantasyes in such words as we learneden of our dame's tonge," and it was equally evident that that English must be cultivated and formed into a fitting vehicle for vigorous English thought. To do this, a master mind was required, and such a master mind appeared in the person of Chaucer. It is particularly fortunate for our historic theory that his works, constituting the origin of our homogeneous English literature, furnish forth its best and most striking demonstration.

CHAUCER'S BIRTH.—Geoffrey Chaucer was born at London about the year 1328: as to the exact date, we waive all the discussion in which his biographers have engaged, and consider this fixed as the most probable time. His parentage is unknown, although Leland, the English antiquarian, declares him to have come of a noble family, and Pitts says he was the son of a knight. He died in the year 1400, and thus was an active and observant contemporary of events in the most remarkable century which had thus far rolled over Europe—the age of Edward III. and the Black Prince, of Crecy and Poitiers, of English bills and bows, stronger than French lances; the age of Wiclif, of reformation in religion, government, language, and social order. Whatever his family antecedents, he was a courtier, and a successful one; his wife was Philippa, a sister of Lady Katherine Swinford, first the mistress and then the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

ITALIAN INFLUENCE.—From a literary point of view, the period of his birth was remarkable for the strong influence of Italian letters, which first having made its entrance into France, now, in natural course of progress, found its way into England. Dante had produced,

... in the darkness prest, From his own soul by worldly weights, ...

the greatest poem then known to modern Europe, and the most imaginative ever written. Thus the Italian sky was blazing with splendor, while the West was still in the morning twilight. The Divina Commedia was written half a century before the Canterbury Tales.

Boccaccio was then writing his Filostrato, which was to be Chaucer's model in the Troilus and Creseide, and his Decameron, which suggested the plan of the Canterbury Tales. His Teseide is also said to be the original of the Knight's Tale. Petrarch, "the worthy clerke" from whom Chaucer is said to have learned a story or two in Italy for his great work, was born in 1304, and was also a star of the first magnitude in that Italian galaxy.

Indeed, it is here worthy of a passing remark, that from that early time to a later period, many of the great products of English poetry have been watered by silver rills of imaginative genius from a remote Italian source. Chaucer's indebtedness has just been noticed. Spenser borrowed his versification and not a little of his poetic handling in the Faery Queen from Ariosto. Milton owes to Dante some of his conceptions of heaven and hell in his Paradise Lost, while his Lycidas, Arcades, Allegro and Penseroso, may be called Italian poems done into English.

In the time of Chaucer, this Italian influence marks the extended relations of English letters; and, serving to remove the trammels of the French, it gave to the now vigorous and growing English that opportunity of development for which it had so long waited. Out of the serfdom and obscurity to which it had been condemned by the Normans, it had sprung forth in reality, as in name, the English language. Books, few at the best, long used in Latin or French, were now demanded by English mind, and being produced in answer to the demand.

THE FOUNDER OF THE LITERATURE.—But there was still wanted a man who could use the elements and influences of the time—a great poet—a maker—a creator of literature. The language needed a forming, controlling, fixing hand. The English mind needed a leader and master, English imagination a guide, English literature a father.

The person who answered to this call, and who was equal to all these demands, was Chaucer. But he was something more. He claimed only to be a poet, while he was to figure in after times as historian, philosopher, and artist.

The scope of this work does not permit an examination of Chaucer's writings in detail, but the position we have taken will be best illustrated by his greatest work, the Canterbury Tales. Of the others, a few preliminary words only need be said. Like most writers in an early literary period, Chaucer began with translations, which were extended into paraphrases or versions, and thus his "'prentice hand" gained the practice and skill with which to attempt original poems.

MINOR POEMS.—His earliest attempt, doubtless, was the Romaunt of the Rose, an allegorical poem in French, by William de Lorris, continued, after his death in 1260, by Jean de Meun, who figured as a poet in the court of Charles le Bel, of France. This poem, esteemed by the French as the finest of their old romances, was rendered by Chaucer, with considerable alterations and improvements, into octosyllabic verse. The Romaunt portrays the trials which a lover meets and the obstacles he overcomes in pursuit of his mistress, under the allegory of a rose in an inaccessible garden. It has been variously construed—by theologians as the yearning of man for the celestial city; by chemists as the search for the philosopher's stone; by jurists as that for equity, and by medical men as the attempt to produce a panacea for all human ailments.

Next in order was his Troilus and Creseide, a mediaeval tale, already attempted by Boccaccio in his Filostrate, but borrowed by Chaucer, according to his own account, from Lollius, a mysterious name without an owner. The story is similar to that dramatized by Shakspeare in his tragedy of the same title. This is in decasyllabic verse, arranged in stanzas of seven lines each.

The House of Fame, another of his principal poems, is a curious description—probably his first original effort—of the Temple of Fame, an immense cage, sixty miles long, and its inhabitants the great writers of classic times, and is chiefly valuable as showing the estimation in which the classic writers were held in that day. This is also in octosyllabic verses, and is further remarkable for the opulence of its imagery and its variety of description. The poet is carried in the claws of a great eagle into this house, and sees its distinguished occupants standing upon columns of different kinds of metal, according to their merits. The poem ends with the third book, very abruptly, as Chaucer awakes from his vision.

"The Legend of Good Women" is a record of the loves and misfortunes of celebrated women, and is supposed to have been written to make amends for the author's other unjust portraitures of female character.

THE CANTERBURY TALES.—In order to give system to our historic inquiries, we shall now present an outline of the Canterbury Tales, in order that we may show—

I. The indications of a general desire in that period for a reformation in religion.

II. The social condition of the English people.

III. The important changes in government.

IV. The condition and progress of the English language.

The Canterbury Tales were begun in 1386, when Chaucer was fifty-eight years old, and in a period of comparative quiet, after the minority of Richard II. was over, and before his troubles had begun. They form a beautiful gallery of cabinet pictures of English society in all its grades, except the very highest and the lowest; and, in this respect, they supplement in exact lineaments and the freshest coloring those compendiums of English history which only present to us, on the one hand, the persons and deeds of kings and their nobles, and, on the other, the general laws which so long oppressed the lower orders of the people, and the action of which is illustrated by disorders among them. But in Chaucer we find the true philosophy of English society, the principle of the guilds, or fraternities, to which his pilgrims belong—the character and avocation of the knight, squire, yeoman, franklin, bailiff, sompnour, reeve, etc., names, many of them, now obsolete. Who can find these in our compendiums? they must be dug—and dry work it is—out of profounder histories, or found, with greater pleasure, in poems like that of Chaucer.

CHARACTERS.—Let us consider, then, a few of his principal characters which most truly represent the age and nation.

The Tabard inn at Southwark, then a suburb of "London borough without the walls," was a great rendezvous for pilgrims who were journeying to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury—that Saxon archbishop who had been murdered by the minions of Henry II. Southwark was on the high street, the old Roman highway from London to the southeast. A gathering of pilgrims here is no uncommon occurrence; and thus numbers and variety make a combination of penitence and pleasure. The host of the Tabard—doubtless a true portraiture of the landlord of that day—counts noses, that he may distribute the pewter plates. A substantial supper smokes upon the old-fashioned Saxon-English board—so substantial that the pilgrims are evidently about to lay in a good stock, in anticipation of poor fare, the fatigue of travel, and perhaps a fast or two not set down in the calendar. As soon as they attack the viands, ale and strong wines, hippocras, pigment, and claret, are served in bright pewter and wood. There were Saxon drinks for the commoner pilgrims; the claret was for the knight. Every one drinks at his will, and the miller, as we shall see, takes a little more than his head can decently carry.

First in the place of honor is the knight, accompanied by his son, the young squire, and his trusty yeoman. Then, in order of social rank, a prioress, a nun and three priests, a friar, a merchant, a poor scholar or clerk of Oxford, a sergeant of the law, a frankelein, a haberdasher, a weaver, a tapster, a dyer, a cook, a shipman, a doctor of physic, a wife of Bath, a poor parson, a ploughman, a miller, a manciple or college steward, a reeve or bailiff, a sompnour or summoner to the ecclesiastical courts, a pardoner or seller of papal indulgences (one hundred and fifty years before Luther)—an essentially English company of many social grades, bound to the most popular shrine, that of a Saxon archbishop, himself the son of a London citizen, murdered two hundred years before with the connivance of an English king. No one can read this list without thinking that if Chaucer be true and accurate in his descriptions of these persons, and make them talk as they did talk, his delineations are of inestimable value historically. He has been faithfully true. Like all great masters of the epic art, he doubtless drew them from the life; each, given in the outlines of the prologue, is a speaking portrait: even the horses they ride are as true to nature as those in the pictures of Rosa Bonheur.

And besides these historic delineations which mark the age and country, notwithstanding the loss of local and personal satire with which, to the reader of his day, the poem must have sparkled, and which time has destroyed for us, the features of our common humanity are so well portrayed, that to the latest generations will be there displayed the "forth-showing instances" of the Idola Tribus of Bacon, the besetting sins, frailties, and oddities of the human race.

SATIRE.—His touches of satire and irony are as light as the hits of an accomplished master of the small-sword; mere hits, but significant of deep thrusts, at the scandals, abuses, and oppressions of the age. Like Dickens, he employed his fiction in the way of reform, and helped to effect it.

Let us illustrate. While sitting at the table, Chaucer makes his sketches for the Prologue. A few of these will serve here as specimens of his powers. Take the Doctour of Physike who

Knew the cause of every maladie, Were it of cold or hote or wet or drie;

who also knew

... the old Esculapius, And Dioscorides and eke Rufus, Old Hippocras, Rasis, and Avicen,

and many other classic authorities in medicine.

Of his diete mesurable was he, And it was of no superfluite;

nor was it a gross slander to say of the many,

His studie was but litel on the Bible.

It was a suggestive satire which led him to hint that he was

... but esy of dispense; He kepte that he wan in pestilence; For gold in physike is a cordial; Therefore he loved gold in special.

Chaucer deals tenderly with the lawyers; yet, granting his sergeant of the law discretion and wisdom, a knowledge of cases even "from the time of King Will," and fees and perquisites quite proportional, he adds,

Nowher so besy a man as he ther n' as, And yet he seemed besier than he was.

HIS PRESENTATIONS OF WOMAN.—Woman seems to find hard judgment in this work. Madame Eglantine, the prioress, with her nasal chanting, her English-French, "of Stratford-atte-Bow," her legion of smalle houndes, and her affected manner, is not a flattering type of woman's character, and yet no doubt she is a faithful portrait of many a prioress of that day.

And the wife of Bath is still more repulsive. She tells us, in the prologue to her story, that she has buried five husbands, and, buxom still, is looking for the sixth. She is a jolly compagnon de voyage, had been thrice to Jerusalem, and is now seeking assoil for some little sins at Canterbury. And the host's wife, as he describes her, is not by any means a pleasant helpmeet for an honest man. The host is out of her hearing, or he would not be so ready to tell her character:

I have a wif, tho' that she poore be; But of her tongue a blabbing shrew is she, And yet she hath a heap of vices mo.

She is always getting into trouble with the neighbors; and when he will not fight in her quarrel, she cries,

... False coward, wreak thy wif; By corpus domini, I will have thy knife, And thou shalt have my distaff and go spin.

The best names she has for him are milksop, coward, and ape; and so we say, with him,

Come, let us pass away from this mattere.

THE PLAN PROPOSED.—With these suggestions of the nature of the company assembled "for to don their pilgrimage," we come to the framework of the story. While sitting at the table, the host proposes

That each of you, to shorten with your way, In this viage shall tellen tales twey.

Each pilgrim should tell two stories; one on the way to Canterbury, and one returning. As, including Chaucer and the host, there are thirty-one in the company, this would make sixty-two stories. The one who told the best story should have, on the return of the company to the Tabard inn, a supper at the expense of the rest.

The host's idea was unanimously accepted; and in the morning, as they ride forth, they begin to put it into execution. Although lots are drawn for the order in which the stories shall be told, it is easily arranged by the courteous host, who recognizes the difference in station among the pilgrims, that the knight shall inaugurate the scheme, which he does by telling that beautiful story of Palamon and Arcite, the plot of which is taken from Le Teseide of Boccacio. It is received with cheers by the company, and with great delight by the host, who cries out,

So mote I gon—this goth aright, Unbockled is the mail.

The next in order is called for, but the miller, who has replenished his midnight potations in the morning, and is now rolling upon his horse, swears that "he can a noble tale," and, not heeding the rebuke of the host,

Thou art a fool, thy wit is overcome,

he shouts out a vulgar story, in all respects in direct contrast to that of the knight. As a literary device, this rude introduction of the miller breaks the stiffness and monotony of a succession in the order of rank; and, as a feature of the history, it seems to tell us something of democratic progress. The miller's story ridicules a carpenter, and the reeve, who is a carpenter, immediately repays him by telling a tale in which he puts a miller in a ludicrous position.

With such a start, the pilgrims proceed to tell their tales; but not all. There is neither record of their reaching Canterbury, nor returning. Nor is the completion of the number at all essential: for all practical purposes, we have all that can be asked; and had the work been completed, it would have added little to the historical stores which it now indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously, offers. The number of the tales (including two in prose) is twenty-four, and great additional value is given to them by the short prologue introducing each of them.



Historical Facts. Reform in Religion. The Clergy, Regular and Secular. The Friar and the Sompnour. The Pardonere. The Poure Persone. John Wiclif. The Translation of the Bible. The Ashes of Wiclif.


Leaving the pilgrims' cavalcade for a more philosophical consideration of the historical teachings of the subject, it may be clearly shown that the work of Chaucer informs us of a wholesome reform in religion, or, in the words of George Ellis,[16] "he was not only respected as the father of English poetry, but revered as a champion of the Reformation."

Let us recur briefly to the history. With William the Conqueror a great change had been introduced into England: under him and his immediate successors—his son William Rufus, his nephew Henry I., the usurper Stephen, and Henry II.,—the efforts of the "English kings of Norman race" were directed to the establishment of their power on a strong foundation; but they began, little by little, to see that the only foundation was that of the unconquerable English people; so that popular rights soon began to be considered, and the accession of Henry II., the first of the Plantagenets, was specially grateful to the English, because he was the first since the Conquest to represent the Saxon line, being the grandson of Henry I., and son of Matilda, niece of Edgar Atheling. In the mean time, as has been seen, the English language had been formed, the chief element of which was Saxon. This was a strong instrument of political rights, for community of language tended to an amalgamation of the Norman and Saxon peoples. With regard to the Church in England, the insulation from Rome had impaired the influence of the Papacy. The misdeeds and arrogance of the clergy had arrayed both people and monarch against their claims, as several of the satirical poems already mentioned have shown. As a privileged class, who used their immunities to do evil and corrupt the realm, the clergy became odious to the nobles, whose power they shared and sometimes impaired, and to the people, who could now read their faults and despise their comminations, and who were unwilling to pay hard-earned wages to support them in idleness and vice. It was not the doctrine, but the practice which they condemned. With the accession of the house of Plantagenet, the people were made to feel that the Norman monarchy was a curse, without alloy. Richard I. was a knight-errant and a crusader, who cared little for the realm; John was an adulterer, traitor, and coward, who roused the people's anger by first quarrelling with the Pope, and then basely giving him the kingdom to receive it again as a papal fief. The nation, headed by the warlike barons, had forced the great charter of popular rights from John, and had caused it to be confirmed and supplemented during the long reign of his son, the weak Henry III.

Edward I. was engaged in cruel wars, both in Wales and Scotland, which wasted the people's money without any corresponding advantage.

Edward II. was deposed and murdered by his queen and her paramour Mortimer; and, however great their crime, he was certainly unworthy and unable to control a fierce and turbulent people, already clamorous for their rights. These well-known facts are here stated to show the unsettled condition of things during the period when the English were being formed into a nation, the language established, and the earliest literary efforts made. Materials for a better organization were at hand in great abundance; only proper master-builders were needed. We have seen that everything now betokened the coming of a new era, in State, Church, and literature.

The monarch who came to the throne in 1327, one year before the birth of Chaucer, was worthy to be the usher of this new era to England: a man of might, of judgment, and of forecast; the first truly English monarch in sympathy and purpose who had occupied the throne since the Conquest: liberal beyond all former precedent in religion, he sheltered Wiclif in his bold invectives, and paved the way for the later encroachments upon the papal supremacy. With the aid of his accomplished son, Edward the Black Prince, he rendered England illustrious by his foreign wars, and removed what remained of the animosity between Saxon and Norman.

REFORM IN RELIGION.—We are so accustomed to refer the Reformation to the time of Luther in Germany, as the grand religious turning-point in modern history, that we are apt to underrate, if not to forget, the religious movement in this most important era of English history. Chaucer and Wiclif wrote nearly half a century before John Huss was burned by Sigismond: it was a century after that that Luther burned the Pope's decretals at Wittenberg, and still later that Henry VIII. threw off the papal dominion in England. But great crises in a nation's history never arrive without premonition;—there are no moral earthquakes without premonitory throes, and sometimes these are more decisive and destructive than that which gives electric publicity. Such distinct signs appeared in the age of Chaucer, and the later history of the Church in England cannot be distinctly understood without a careful study of this period.

It is well known that Chaucer was an adherent of John of Gaunt; that he and his great protector—perhaps with no very pious intents—favored the doctrines of Wiclif; that in the politico-religious disturbances in 1382, incident to the minority of Richard II., he was obliged to flee the country. But if we wish to find the most striking religious history of the age, we must seek it in the portraitures of religious characters and events in his Canterbury Tales. In order to a proper intelligence of these, let us look for a moment at the ecclesiastical condition of England at that time. Connected with much in doctrine and ritual worthy to be retained, and, indeed, still retained in the articles and liturgy of the Anglican Church, there was much, the growth of ignorance and neglect, to be reformed. The Church of England had never had a real affinity with Rome. The gorgeous and sensual ceremonies which, in the indolent airs of the Mediterranean, were imposing and attractive, palled upon the taste of the more phlegmatic Englishmen. Institutions organized at Rome did not flourish in that higher latitude, and abuses were currently discussed even before any plan was considered for reforming them.

THE CLERGY.—The great monastic orders of St. Benedict, scattered throughout Europe, were, in the early and turbulent days, a most important aid and protection to Christianity. But by degrees, and as they were no longer needed, they had become corrupt, because they had become idle. The Cluniacs and Cistercians, branches of the Benedictines, are represented in Chaucer's poem by the monk and prioress, as types of bodies which needed reform.

The Grandmontines, a smaller branch, were widely known for their foppery: the young monks painted their cheeks, and washed and covered their beards at night. The cloisters became luxurious, and sheltered, and, what is worse, sanctioned lewdness and debauchery.

There was a great difference indeed between the regular clergy, or those belonging to orders and monasteries, and the secular clergy or parish priests, who were far better; and there was a jealous feud between them. There was a lamentable ignorance of the Scripture among the clergy, and gross darkness over the people. The paraphrases of Caedmon, the translations of Bede and Alfred, the rare manuscripts of the Latin Bible, were all that cast a faint ray upon this gloom. The people could not read Latin, even if they had books; and the Saxon versions were almost in a foreign language. Thus, distrusting their religious teachers, thoughtful men began to long for an English version of that Holy Book which contains all the words of eternal life. And thus, while the people were becoming more clamorous for instruction, and while Wiclif was meditating the great boon of a translated Bible, which, like a noonday sun, should irradiate the dark places and disclose the loathsome groups and filthy manifestations of cell and cloister, Chaucer was administering the wholesome medicine of satire and contempt. He displays the typical monk given up to every luxury, the costly black dress with fine fur edgings, the love-knot which fastens his hood, and his preference for pricking and hunting the hare, over poring into a stupid book in a cloister.

THE FRIAR AND THE SOMPNOUR.—His satire extends also to the friar, who has not even that semblance of virtue which is the tribute of the hypocrite to our holy faith. He is not even the demure rascal conceived by Thomson in his Castle of Indolence:

... the first amid the fry,

* * * * *

A little round, fat, oily man of God, Who had a roguish twinkle in his eye, When a tight maiden chanced to trippen by,

* * * * *

Which when observed, he shrunk into his mew, And straight would recollect his piety anew.

But Chaucer's friar is a wanton and merry scoundrel, taking every license, kissing the wives and talking love-talk to the girls in his wanderings, as he begs for his Church and his order. His hood is stuffed with trinkets to give them; he is worthily known as the best beggar of his house; his eyes alight with wine, he strikes his little harp, trolls out funny songs and love-ditties. Anon, his frolic over, he preaches to the collected crowd violent denunciations of the parish priest, within the very limits of his parish. The very principles upon which these mendicant orders were established seem to be elements of evil. That they might be better than the monks, they had no cloisters and magnificent gardens, with little to do but enjoy them. Like our Lord, they were generally without a place to lay their heads; they had neither purse nor scrip. But instead of sanctifying, the itinerary was their great temptation and final ruin. Nothing can be conceived better calculated to harden the heart and to destroy the fierce sensibilities of our nature than to be a beggar and a wanderer. So that in our retrospective glance, we may pity while we condemn "the friar of orders gray." With a delicate irony in Chaucer's picture, is combined somewhat of a liking for this "worthy limitour."[17]

In the same category of contempt for the existing ecclesiastical system, Chaucer places the sompnour, or summoner to the Church courts. Of his fire-red face, scattered beard, and the bilious knobs on his cheeks, "children were sore afraid." The friar, in his tale, represents him as in league with the devil, who carries him away. He is a drinker of strong wines, a conniver at evil for bribes: for a good sum he would teach "a felon"

... not to have none awe In swiche a case of the archdeacon's curse.

To him the Church system was nothing unless he could make profit of it.

THE PARDONERE.—Nor is his picture of the pardoner, or vender of indulgences, more flattering. He sells—to the great contempt of the poet—a piece of the Virgin's veil, a bit of the sail of St. Peter's boat, holy pigges' bones, and with these relics he made more money in each parish in one day than the parson himself in two months.

Thus taking advantage of his plot to ridicule these characters, and to make them satirize each other—as in the rival stories of the sompnour and friar—he turns with pleasure from these betrayers of religion, to show us that there was a leaven of pure piety and devotion left.

THE POOR PARSON.—With what eager interest does he portray the lovely character of the poor parson, the true shepherd of his little flock, in the midst of false friars and luxurious monks!—poor himself, but

Riche was he of holy thought and work,

* * * * *

That Cristes gospel truely wolde preche, His parishers devoutly wolde teche.

* * * * *

Wide was his parish and houses fer asonder, But he left nought for ne rain no thonder, In sickness and in mischief to visite The ferrest in his parish, moche and lite. Upon his fete, and in his hand a staf, This noble example to his shepe he yaf, That first he wrought and afterward he taught.

Chaucer's description of the poor parson, which loses much by being curtailed, has proved to be a model for all poets who have drawn the likeness of an earnest pastor from that day to ours, among whom are Herbert, Cowper, Goldsmith, and Wordsworth; but no imitation has equalled this beautiful model. When urged by the host,

Tell us a fable anon, for cocke's bones,

he quotes St. Paul to Timothy as rebuking those who tell fables; and, disclaiming all power in poetry, preaches them such a stirring discourse upon penance, contrition, confession, and the seven deadly sins, with their remedies, as must have fallen like a thunderbolt upon this careless, motly crew; and has the additional value of giving us Chaucer's epitome of sound doctrine in that bigoted and ignorant age: and, eminently sound and holy as it is, it rebukes the lewdness of the other stories, and, in point of morality, neutralizes if it does not justify the lewd teachings of the work, or in other words, the immorality of the age. This is the parson's own view: his story is the last which is told, and he tells us, in the prologue to his sermon:

To knitte up all this feste, and make an ende; And Jesu for his grace wit me sende To showen you the way in this viage Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrimage, That hight Jerusalem celestial.

In an addendum to this discourse, which brings the Canterbury Tales to an abrupt close, and which, if genuine, as the best critics think it, was added some time after, Chaucer takes shame to himself for his lewd stories, repudiates all his "translations and enditinges of worldly vanitees," and only finds pleasure in his translations of Boethius, his homilies and legends of the saints; and, with words of penitence, he hopes that he shall be saved "atte the laste day of dome."

JOHN WICLIF.[18]—The subject of this early reformation so clearly set forth in the stories of Chaucer, cannot be fully illustrated without a special notice of Chaucer's great contemporary and co-worker, John Wiclif.

What Chaucer hints, or places in the mouths of his characters, with apparently no very serious intent, Wiclif, himself a secular priest, proclaimed boldly and as of prime importance, first from his professor's chair at Oxford, and then from his forced retirement at Lutterworth, where he may well have been the model of Chaucer's poor parson.

Wiclif was born in 1324, four years before Chaucer. The same abuses which called forth the satires of Langland and Chaucer upon monk and friar, and which, if unchecked, promised universal corruption, aroused the martyr-zeal of Wiclif; and similar reproofs are to be found in his work entitled "Objections to Friars," and in numerous treatises from his pen against many of the doctrines and practices of the Church.

Noted for his learning and boldness, he was sent by Edward III. one of an embassy to Bruges, to negotiate with the Pope's envoys concerning benefices held in England by foreigners. There he met John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. This prince, whose immediate descendants were to play so prominent a part in later history, was the fourth son of Edward III. By the death of the Black Prince, in 1376, and of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, in 1368, he became the oldest remaining child of the king, and the father of the man who usurped the throne of England and reigned as Henry IV. The influence of Lancaster was equal to his station, and he extended his protection to Wiclif. This, combined with the support of Lord Percy, the Marshal of England, saved the reformer from the stake when he was tried before the Bishop, of London on a charge of heresy, in 1377. He was again brought before a synod of the clergy at Lambeth, in 1378, but such was the favor of the populace in his behalf, and such, too, the weakness of the papal party, on account of a schism which had resulted in the election of two popes, that, although his opinions were declared heretical, he was not proceeded against.

After this, although almost sick to death, he rose from what his enemies had hoped would be his death-bed, to "again declare the evil deeds of the friars." In 1381, he lectured openly at Oxford against the doctrine of transubstantiation; and for this, after a presentment by the Church—and a partial recantation, or explaining away—even the liberal king thought proper to command that he should retire from the university. Thus, during his latter years, he lived in retirement at his little parish of Lutterworth, escaping the dangers of the troublous time, and dying—struck with paralysis at his chancel—in 1384, sixteen years before Chaucer.

TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE.—The labors of Wiclif which produced the most important results, were not his violent lectures as a reformer, but the translation of the Bible into English, the very language of the common people, greatly to the wrath of the hierarchy and its political upholders. This, too, is his chief glory: as a reformer he went too fast and too far; he struck fiercely at the root of authority, imperilling what was good, in his attack upon what was evil. In pulling up the tares he endangered the wheat, and from him, as a progenitor, came the Lollards, a fanatical, violent, and revolutionary sect.

But his English Bible, the parent of the later versions, cannot be too highly valued. For the first time, English readers could search the whole Scriptures, and judge for themselves of doctrine and authority: there they could learn how far the traditions and commandments of men had encrusted and corrupted the pure word of truth. Thus the greatest impulsion was given to a reformation in doctrine; and thus, too, the exclusiveness and arrogance of the clergy received the first of many sledge-hammer blows which were to result in their confusion and discomfiture.

"If," says Froude,[19] "the Black Prince had lived, or if Richard II. had inherited the temper of the Plantagenets, the ecclesiastical system would have been spared the misfortune of a longer reprieve."

THE ASHES OF WICLIF.—The vengeance which Wiclif escaped during his life was wreaked upon his bones. In 1428, the Council of Constance ordered that if his bones could be distinguished from those of other, faithful people, they should "be taken out of the ground and thrown far off from Christian burial." On this errand the Bishop of Lincoln came with his officials to Lutterworth, and, finding them, burned them, and threw the ashes into the little stream called the Swift. Fuller, in his Church History, adds: "Thus this brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean; and thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over;" or, in the more carefully selected words of an English laureate of modern days,[20]

... this deed accurst, An emblem yields to friends and enemies, How the bold teacher's doctrine, sanctified By truth, shall spread, throughout the world dispersed.



Social Life. Government. Chaucer's English. His Death. Historical Facts. John Gower. Chaucer and Gower. Gower's Language. Other Writers.


A few words must suffice to suggest to the student what may be learned, as to the condition of society in England, from the Canterbury Tales.

All the portraits are representatives of classes. But an inquiry into the social life of the period will be more systematic, if we look first at the nature and condition of chivalry, as it still existed, although on the eve of departure, in England. This is found in the portraits of certain of Chaucer's pilgrims—the knight, the squire, and the yeoman; and in the special prologues to the various tales. The knight, as the representative of European chivalry, comes to us in name at least from the German forests with the irrepressible Teutons. Chivalry in its rude form, however, was destined to pass through a refining and modifying process, and to obtain its name in France. Its Norman characteristic is found in the young ecuyer or squire, of Chaucer, who aspires to equal his father in station and renown; while the English type of the man-at-arms (l'homme d'armes) is found in their attendant yeoman, the tiers etat of English chivalry, whose bills and bows served Edward III. at Cressy and Poictiers, and, a little later, made Henry V. of England king of France in prospect, at Agincourt. Chivalry, in its palmy days, was an institution of great merit and power; but its humanizing purpose now accomplished, it was beginning to decline.

What a speaking picture has Chaucer drawn of the knight, brave as a lion, prudent in counsel, but gentle as a woman. His deeds of valor had been achieved, not at Cressy and Calais, but—what both chieftain and poet esteemed far nobler warfare—in battle with the infidel, at Algeciras, in Poland, in Prussia, and Russia. Thrice had he fought with sharp lances in the lists, and thrice had he slain his foe; yet he was

Of his port as meke as is a mayde; He never yet no vilainie ne sayde In all his life unto ne manere wight, He was a very parfit gentil knight.

The entire paradox of chivalry is here presented by the poet. For, though Chaucer's knight, just returned from the wars, is going to show his devotion to God and the saints by his pilgrimage to the hallowed shrine at Canterbury, when he is called upon for his story, his fancy flies to the old romantic mythology. Mars is his god of war, and Venus his mother of loves, and, by an anachronism quite common in that day, Palamon and Arcite are mediaeval knights trained in the school of chivalry, and aflame, in knightly style, with the light of love and ladies' eyes. These incongruities marked the age.

Such was the flickering brightness of chivalry in Chaucer's time, even then growing dimmer and more fitful, and soon to "pale its ineffectual fire" in the light of a growing civilization. Its better principles, which were those of truth, virtue, and holiness, were to remain; but its forms, ceremonies, and magnificence were to disappear.

It is significant of social progress, and of the levelling influence of Christianity, that common people should do their pilgrimage with community of interest as well as danger, and in easy, tale-telling conference with those of higher station. The franklin, with white beard and red face, has been lord of the sessions and knight of the shire. The merchant, with forked beard and Flaundrish beaver hat, discourses learnedly of taxes and ship-money, and was doubtless drawn from an existing original, the type of a class. Several of the personages belong to the guilds which were so famous in London, and

Were alle yclothed in o livere Of a solempne and grete fraternite.

GOVERNMENT.—Closely connected with this social progress, was the progress in constitutional government, the fruit of the charters of John and Henry III. After the assassination of Edward II. by his queen and her paramour, there opened upon England a new historic era, when the bold and energetic Edward III. ascended the throne—an era reflected in the poem of Chaucer. The king, with Wiclif's aid, checked the encroachments of the Church. He increased the representation of the people in parliament, and—perhaps the greatest reform of all—he divided that body into two houses, the peers and the commons, giving great consequence to the latter in the conduct of the government, and introducing that striking feature of English legislation, that no ministry can withstand an opposition majority in the lower house; and another quite as important, that no tax should be imposed without its consent. The philosophy of these great facts is to be found in the democratic spirit so manifest among the pilgrims; a spirit tempered with loyalty, but ready, where their liberties were encroached upon, to act with legislative vigor, as well as individual boldness.

Not so directly, but still forcibly, does Chaucer present the results of Edward's wars in France, in the status of the knight, squire, and yeoman, and of the English sailor, and in the changes introduced into the language and customs of the English thereby.

CHAUCER'S ENGLISH.—But we are to observe, finally, that Chaucer is the type of progress in the language, giving it himself the momentum which carried it forward with only technical modifications to the days of Spenser and the Virgin Queen. The House of Fame and other minor poems are written in the octosyllabic verse of the Trouveres, but the Canterbury Tales give us the first vigorous English handling of the decasyllabic couplet, or iambic pentameter, which was to become so polished an instrument afterward in the hands of Dryden and Pope. The English of all the poems is simple and vernacular.

It is known that Dante had at first intended to compose the Divina Commedia in Latin. "But when," he said to the sympathizing Frate Ilario, "I recalled the condition of the present age, and knew that those generous men for whom, in better days, these things were written, had abandoned (ahi dolore) the liberal arts into vulgar hands, I threw aside the delicate lyre which armed my flank, and attuned another more befitting the ears of moderns." It seems strange that he should have thus regretted what to us seems a noble and original opportunity of double creation—poem and language. What Dante thus bewailed was his real warrant for immortality. Had he written his great work in Latin, it would have been consigned, with the Italian latinity of the middle ages, to oblivion; while his Tuscan still delights the ear of princes and lazzaroni. Professorships of the Divina Commedia are instituted in Italian universities, and men are considered accomplished when they know it by heart.

What Dante had done, not without murmuring, Chaucer did more cheerfully in England. Claimed by both universities as a collegian, perhaps without truth, he certainly was an educated man, and must have been sorely tempted by Latin hexameters; but he knew his mission, and felt his power. With a master hand he moulded the language. He is reproached for having introduced "a wagon-load of foreign words," i.e. Norman words, which, although frowned upon by some critics, were greatly needed, were eagerly adopted, and constituted him the "well of English undefiled," as he was called by Spenser. It is no part of our plan to consider Chaucer's language or diction, a special study which the reader can pursue for himself. Occleve, in his work "De Regimine Principium" calls him "the honour of English tonge," "floure of eloquence," and "universal fadir in science," and, above all, "the firste findere of our faire language." To Lydgate he was the "Floure of Poetes throughout all Bretaine." Measured by our standard, he is not always musical, "and," in the language of Dryden, "many of his verses are lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one;" but he must be measured by the standards of his age, by the judgment of his contemporaries, and by a thorough intelligence of the language as he found it and as he left it. Edward III., a practical reformer in many things, gave additional importance to English, by restoring it in the courts of law, and administering justice to the people in their own tongue. When we read of the English kings of this early period, it is curious to reflect that these monarchs, up to the time of Edward I., spoke French as their vernacular tongue, while English had only been the mixed, corrupted language of the lower classes, which was now brought thus by king and poet into honorable consideration.

HIS DEATH.—Chaucer died on the 25th of October, 1400, in his little tenement in the garden of St. Mary's Chapel, Westminster, and left his works and his fame to an evil and unappreciative age. His monument was not erected until one hundred and fifty-six years afterward, by Nicholas Brigham. It stands in the "poets' corner" of Westminster Abbey, and has been the nucleus of that gathering-place of the sacred dust which once enclosed the great minds of England. The inscription, which justly styles him "Anglorum vates ter maximus," is not to be entirely depended upon as to the "annus Domini," or "tempora vitae," because of the turbulent and destructive reigns that had intervened—evil times for literary effort, and yet making material for literature and history, and producing that wonderful magician, the printing-press, and paper, by means of which the former things might be disseminated, and Chaucer brought nearer to us than to them.

HISTORICAL FACTS.—The year before Chaucer died, Richard II. was starved in his dungeon. Henry, the son of John of Gaunt, represented the usurpation of Lancaster, and the realm was convulsed with the revolts of rival aristocracy; and, although Prince Hal, or Henry V., warred with entire success in France, and got the throne of that kingdom away from Charles VI., (the Insane,) he died leaving to his infant son, Henry VI., an inheritance which could not be secured. The rival claimant of York, Edward IV., had a strong party in the kingdom: then came the wars of the Roses; the murders and treason of Richard III.; the sordid valor of Henry VII.; the conjugal affection of Henry VIII.; the great religious earthquake all over Europe, known as the Reformation; constituting all together an epoch too stirring and unsettled to permit literature to flourish; an epoch which gave birth to no great poet or mighty master, but which contained only the seeds of things which were to germinate and flourish in a kindlier age.

In closing this notice of Chaucer, it should be remarked that no English poet has been more successful in the varied delineation of character, or in fresh and charming pictures of Nature. Witty and humorous, sententious and didactic, solemn and pathetic, he not only pleases the fancy, but touches the heart.

JOHN GOWER.—Before entering upon the barren period from Chaucer to Spenser, however, there is one contemporary of Chaucer whom we must not omit to mention; for his works, although of little literary value, are historical signs of the times: this is John Gower, styled variously Sir John and Judge Gower, as he was very probably both a knight and a justice. He seems to owe most of his celebrity to his connection, however slight, with Chaucer; although there is no doubt of his having been held in good repute by the literary patrons and critics of his own age. His fame rests upon three works, or rather three parts of one scheme—Speculum Meditantis, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis. The first of these, the mirror of one who meditates, was in French verse, and was, in the main, a treatise upon virtue and repentance, with inculcations to conjugal fidelity much disregarded at that time. This work has been lost. The Vox Clamantis, or voice of one crying in the wilderness, is directly historical, being a chronicle, in Latin elegiacs, of the popular revolts of Wat Tyler in the time of Richard II., and a sermon on fatalism, which, while it calls for a reformation in the clergy, takes ground against Wiclif, his doctrines, and adherents. In the later books he discusses the military and the lawyers; and thus he is the voice of one crying, like the Baptist in the wilderness, against existing abuses and for the advent of a better order. The Confessio Amantis, now principally known because it contains a eulogium of Chaucer, which in his later editions he left out, is in English verse, and was composed at the instance of Richard II. The general argument of this Lover's Confession is a dialogue between the lover and a priest of Venus, who, in the guise of a confessor, applies the breviary of the Church to the confessions of love.[21] The poem is interspersed with introductory or recapitulatory Latin verses.

CHAUCER AND GOWER.—That there was for a time a mutual admiration between Chaucer and Gower, is shown by their allusion to each other. In the penultimate stanza of the Troilus and Creseide, Chaucer calls him "O Morall Gower," an epithet repeated by Dunbar, Hawes, and other writers; while in the Confessio Amantis, Gower speaks of Chaucer as his disciple and poet, and alludes to his poems with great praise. That they were at any time alienated from each other has been asserted, but the best commentators agree in thinking without sufficient grounds.

The historical teachings of Gower are easy to find. He states truths without parable. His moral satires are aimed at the Church corruptions of the day, and yet are conservative; and are taken, says Berthelet, in his dedication of the Confessio to Henry VIII., not only out of "poets, orators, historic writers, and philosophers, but out of the Holy Scripture"—the same Scripture so eloquently expounded by Chaucer, and translated by Wiclif. Again, Gower, with an eye to the present rather than to future fame, wrote in three languages—a tribute to the Church in his Latin, to the court in his French, and to the progressive spirit of the age in his English. The latter alone is now read, and is the basis of his fame. Besides three poems, he left, among his manuscripts, fifty French sonnets, (cinquantes balades,) which were afterward printed by his descendant, Lord Gower, Duke of Sutherland.

GOWER'S LANGUAGE.—Like Chaucer, Gower was a reformer in language, and was accused by the "severer etymologists of having corrupted the purity of the English by affecting to introduce so many foreign words and phrases;" but he has the tribute of Sir Philip Sidney (no mean praise) that Chaucer and himself were the leaders of a movement, which others have followed, "to beautifie our mother tongue," and thus the Confessio Amantis ranks as one of the formers of our language, in a day when it required much moral courage to break away from the trammels of Latin and French, and at the same time to compel them to surrender their choicest treasures to the English.

Gower was born in 1325 or 1326, and outlived Chaucer. It has been generally believed that Chaucer was his poetical pupil. The only evidence is found in the following vague expression of Gower in the Confessio Amantis:

And greet well Chaucer when ye meet As my disciple and my poete. For in the flower of his youth, In sondry wise as he well couth, Of ditties and of songes glade The which he for my sake made.

It may have been but a patronizing phrase, warranted by Gower's superior rank and station; for to the modern critic the one is the uprising sun, and the other the pale star scarcely discerned in the sky. Gower died in 1408, eight years after his more illustrious colleague.


John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, a Scottish poet, born about 1320: wrote a poem concerning the deeds of King Robert I. in achieving the independence of Scotland. It is called Broite or Brute, and in it, in imitation of the English, he traces the Scottish royal lineage to Brutus. Although by no means equal to Chaucer, he is far superior to any other English poet of the time, and his language is more intelligible at the present day than that of Chaucer or Gower. Sir Walter Scott has borrowed from Barbour's poem in his "Lord of the Isles."

Blind Harry—name unknown: wrote the adventures of Sir William Wallace, about 1460.

James I. of Scotland, assassinated at Perth, in 1437. He wrote "The Kings Quhair," (Quire or Book,) describing the progress of his attachment to the daughter of the Earl of Somerset, while a prisoner in England, during the reign of Henry IV.

Thomas Occleve, flourished about 1420. His principal work is in Latin; De Regimine Principum, (concerning the government of princes.)

John Lydgate, flourished about 1430: wrote Masks and Mummeries, and nine books of tragedies translated from Boccaccio.

Robert Henryson, flourished about 1430: Robin and Makyne, a pastoral; and a continuation of Chaucer's Troilus and Creseide, entitled "The Testament of Fair Creseide."

William Dunbar, died about 1520: the greatest of Scottish poets, called "The Chaucer of Scotland." He wrote "The Thistle and the Rose," "The Dance," and "The Golden Targe."



Greek Literature. Invention of Printing. Caxton. Contemporary History. Skelton. Wyatt. Surrey. Sir Thomas More. Utopia, and other Works. Other Writers.


Having thus mentioned the writers whom we regard as belonging to the period of Chaucer, although some of them, like Henryson and Dunbar, flourished at the close of the fifteenth century, we reach those of that literary epoch which may be regarded as the transition state between Chaucer and the age of Elizabeth: an epoch which, while it produced no great literary work, and is irradiated by no great name, was, however, a time of preparation for the splendid advent of Spenser and Shakspeare.

Incident to the dangers which had so long beset the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, which culminated in the fall of Constantinople—and to the gradual but steady progress of Western Europe in arts and letters, which made it a welcome refuge for the imperilled learning of the East—Greek letters came like a fertilizing flood across the Continent into England. The philosophy of Plato, the power of the Athenian drama, and the learning of the Stagyrite, were a new impulse to literature. Before the close of the fifteenth century, Greek was taught at Oxford, and men marvelled as they read that "musical and prolific language, that gives a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of philosophy," a knowledge of which had been before entirely lost in the West. Thus was perfected what is known as the revival of letters, when classical learning came to enrich and modify the national literatures, if it did temporarily retard the vernacular progress. The Humanists carried the day against the Obscurantists; and, as scholarship had before consisted in a thorough knowledge of Latin, it now also included a knowledge of Greek, which presented noble works of poetry, eloquence, and philosophy, and gave us a new idiom for the terminologies of science.

INVENTION OF PRINTING.—Nor was this all. This great wealth of learning would have still remained a dead letter to the multitude, and, in the main, a useless treasure even to scholars, had it not been for a simple yet marvellous invention of the same period. In Germany, some obscure mechanics, at Harlem, at Mayence, and at Strasbourg, were at work upon a machine which, if perfected, should at once extend letters a hundred-fold, and by that process revolutionize literature. The writers before, few as they were, had been almost as numerous as the readers; hereafter the readers were to increase in a geometrical proportion, and each great writer should address millions. Movable types, first of wood and then of metal, were made, the latter as early as 1441. Schoeffer, Guttenberg, and Faust brought them to such perfection that books were soon printed and issued in large numbers. But so slowly did the art travel, partly on account of want of communication, and partly because it was believed to partake of necromancy, and partly, too, from the phlegmatic character of the English people, that thirty years elapsed before it was brought into England. The art of printing came in response to the demand of an age of progress: it was needed before; it was called for by the increasing number of readers, and when it came it multiplied that number largely.

WILLIAM CAXTON.—That it did at last come to England was due to William Caxton, a native of Kent, and by vocation a mercer, who imported costly continental fabrics into England, and with them some of the new books now being printed in Holland. That he was a man of some eminence is shown by his having been engaged by Edward IV. on a mission to the Duke of Burgundy, with power to negotiate a treaty of commerce; that he was a person of skill and courtesy is evinced by his being retained in the service of Margaret, Duchess of York, when she married Charles, Duke of Burgundy. While in her train, he studied printing on the Continent, and is said to have printed some books there. At length, when he was more than sixty years old, he returned to England; and, in 1474, he printed what is supposed to be the first book printed in England, "The Game and Playe of the Chesse." Thus it was a century after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales that printing was introduced into England. Caxton died in 1491, but his workmen continued to print, and among them Wynken de Worde stands conspicuous. Among the earlier works printed by Caxton were the Canterbury Tales, the Book of Fame, and the Troilus and Creseide of Chaucer.

CONTEMPORARY HISTORY.—It will be remembered that this was the stormy period of the Wars of the Roses. The long and troubled reign of Henry VI. closed in sorrow in 1471. The titular crown of France had been easily taken from him by Charles VII. and Joan of Arc; and although Richard of York, the great-grandson of Edward III., had failed in his attempts upon the English throne, yet his son Edward, afterward the Fourth, was successful. Then came the patricide of Clarence, the accession and cruelties of Richard III., the battle of Bosworth, and, at length, the union of the two houses in the persons of Henry VII. (Henry Tudor of Lancaster) and Elizabeth of York. Thus the strife of the succession was settled, and the realm had rest to reorganize and start anew in its historic career.

The weakening of the aristocracy by war and by execution gave to the crown a power before unknown, and made it a fearful coigne of vantage for Henry VIII., whose accession was in 1509. People and parliament were alike subservient, and gave their consent to the unjust edicts and arbitrary cruelties of this terrible tyrant.

In his reign the old English quarrel between Church and State—which during the civil war had lain dormant—again rose, and was brought to a final issue. It is not unusual to hear that the English Reformation grew out of the ambition of a libidinous monarch. This is a coincidence rather than a cause. His lust and his marriages would have occurred had there been no question of Pope or Church; conversely, had there been a continent king upon the throne, the great political and religious events would have happened in almost the same order and manner. That "knock of a king" and "incurable wound" prophesied by Piers Plowman were to come. Henry only seized the opportunity afforded by his ungodly passions as the best pretext, where there were many, for setting the Pope at defiance; and the spirit of reformation so early displayed, and awhile dormant from circumstances, and now strengthened by the voice of Luther, burst forth in England. There was little demur to the suppression of the monasteries; the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket was desecrated amidst the insulting mummeries of the multitude; and if Henry still burned Lutherans—because he could not forget that he had in earlier days denounced Luther—if he still maintained the six bloody articles[22]—his reforming spirit is shown in the execution of Fisher and More, by the anathema which he drew upon himself from the Pope, and by Henry's retaliation upon the friends and kinsmen of Cardinal Pole, the papal legate.

Having thus briefly glanced at the history, we return to the literary products, all of which reflect more or less of the historic age, and by their paucity and poverty indicate the existence of the causes so unfavorable to literary effort. This statement will be partially understood when we mention, as the principal names of this period, Skelton, Wyatt, Surrey, and Sir Thomas More, men whose works are scarcely known to the ordinary reader, and which are yet the best of the time.

SKELTON.—John Skelton, poet, priest, and buffoon, was born about the year 1460, and educated at what he calls "Alma parens, O Cantabrigensis." Tutor to Prince Henry, afterward Henry VIII., he could boast, "The honour of England I lernyd to spelle." That he was highly esteemed in his day we gather from the eulogium of Erasmus, then for a short time professor of Greek at Oxford: "Unum Brittanicarum literarum lumen et decus." By another contemporary he is called the "inventive Skelton." As a priest he was not very holy; for, in a day when the marriage of the clergy was worse than their incontinence, he contracted a secret marriage. He enjoyed for a time the patronage of Wolsey, but afterward joined his enemies and attacked him violently. He was laureated: this does not mean, as at present, that he was poet laureate of England, but that he received a degree of which that was the title.

His works are direct delineations of the age. Among these are "monodies" upon Kynge Edwarde the forthe, and the Earle of Northumberlande. He corrects for Caxton "The boke of the Eneydos composed by Vyrgyle." He enters heartily into numerous literary quarrels; is a reformer to the extent of exposing ecclesiastical abuses in his Colin Clout; and scourges the friars and bishops alike; and in this work, and his "Why come ye not to Courte?" he makes a special target of Wolsey, and the pomp and luxury of his household. He calls him "Mad Amelek, like to Mamelek" (Mameluke), and speaks

Of his wretched original And his greasy genealogy. He came from the sank (blood) royal That was cast out of a butcher's stall.

This was the sorest point upon which he could touch the great cardinal and prime minister of Henry VIII.

Historically considered, one work of Skelton is especially valuable, for it places him among the first of English dramatists. The first effort of the modern drama was the miracle play; then came the morality; after that the interlude, which was soon merged into regular tragedy and comedy. Skelton's "Magnyfycence," which he calls "a goodly interlude and a merie," is, in reality, a morality play as well as an interlude, and marks the opening of the modern drama in England.

The peculiar verse of Skelton, styled skeltonical, is a sort of English anacreontic. One example has been given; take, as another, the following lampoon of Philip of Spain and the armada:

A skeltonicall salutation Or condigne gratulation And just vexation Of the Spanish nation, That in bravado Spent many a crusado In setting forth an armado England to invado.

Who but Philippus, That seeketh to nip us, To rob us and strip us, And then for to whip us, Would ever have meant Or had intent Or hither sent Such strips of charge, etc., etc.

It varies from five to six syllables, with several consecutive rhymes.

His "Merie Tales" are a series of short and generally broad stories, suited to the vulgar taste: no one can read them without being struck with the truly historic character of the subjects and the handling, and without moralizing upon the age which they describe. Skelton, a contemporary of the French Rabelais, seems to us a weak English portrait of that great author; like him a priest, a buffoon, a satirist, and a lampooner, but unlike him in that he has given us no English Gargantua and Pantagruel to illustrate his age.

WYATT.—The next writer who claims our attention is Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of Sir Henry Wyatt. He was born in 1503, and educated at Cambridge. Early a courtier, he was imperilled by his attachment to Anne Boleyn, conceded, if not quite Platonic, yet to have never led him to criminality. Several of his poems were inspired by her charms. The one best known begins—

What word is that that changeth not, Though it be turned and made in twain? It is mine ANNA, God it wot, etc.

That unfortunate queen—to possess whose charms Henry VIII. had repudiated Catherine of Arragon, and who was soon to be brought to the block after trial on the gravest charges—which we do not think substantiated—was, however, frivolous and imprudent, and liked such impassioned attentions—indeed, may be said to have suffered for them.

Wyatt was styled by Camden "splendide doctus," but his learning, however honorable to him, was not of much benefit to the world; for his works are few, and most of them amatory—"songs and sonnets"—full of love and lovers: as a makeweight, in foro conscientiae, he paraphrased the penitential Psalms. An excellent comment this on the age of Henry VIII., when the monarch possessed with lust attempted the reformation of the Church. That Wyatt looked with favor upon the Reformation is indicated by one of his remarks to the king: "Heavens! that a man cannot repent him of his sins without the Pope's leave!" Imprisoned several times during the reign of Henry, after that monarch's death he favored the accession of Lady Jane Grey, and, with other of her adherents, was executed for high treason on the 11th of April, 1554. We have spoken of the spirit of the age. Its criticism was no better than its literature; for Wyatt, whom few read but the literary historian, was then considered

A hand that taught what might be said in rhyme, That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit.

The glory of Chaucer's wit remains, while Wyatt is chiefly known because he was executed.

SURREY.—A twin star, but with a brighter lustre, was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a writer whose works are remarkable for purity of thought and refinement of language. Surrey was a gay and wild young fellow—distinguished in the tournament which celebrated Henry's marriage with Anne of Cleves; now in prison for eating meat in Lent, and breaking windows at night; again we find him the English marshal when Henry invaded France in 1544. He led a restless life, was imperious and hot-tempered to the king, and at length quartered the king's arms with his own, thus assuming royal rights and imperilling the king's dignity. On this charge, which was, however, only a pretext, he was arrested and executed for high treason in 1547, before he was thirty years old.

Surrey is the greatest poetical name of Henry the Eighth's reign, not so much for the substance of his poems as for their peculiar handling. He is claimed as the introducer of blank verse—the iambic pentameter without rhyme, occasionally broken for musical effect by a change in the place of the caesural pause. His translation of the Fourth Book of the AEneid, imitated perhaps from the Italian version of the Cardinal de Medici, is said to be the first specimen of blank verse in English. How slow its progress was is proved by Johnson's remarks upon the versification of Milton.[23] Thus in his blank verse Surrey was the forerunner of Milton, and in his rhymed pentameter couplet one of the heralds of Dryden and Pope.

SIR THOMAS MORE.—In a bird's-eye view of literature, the division into poetry and prose is really a distinction without a difference. They are the same body in different clothing, at labor and at festivity—in the working suit and in the court costume. With this remark we usher upon the literary scene Thomas More, in many respects one of the most remarkable men of his age—scholar, jurist, statesman, gentleman, and Christian; and, withal, a martyr to his principles of justice and faith. In a better age, he would have retained the highest honors: it is not to his discredit that in that reign he was brought to the block.

He was born in 1480. A very precocious youth, a distinguished career was predicted for him. He was greatly favored by Henry VIII., who constantly visited him at Chelsea, hanging upon his neck, and professing an intensity of friendship which, it is said, More always distrusted. He was the friend and companion of Erasmus during the residence of that distinguished man in England. More was gifted as an orator, and rose to the distinction of speaker of the House of Commons; was presented with the great seal upon the dismissal of Wolsey, and by his learning, his affability, and his kindness, became the most popular, as he seemed to be the most prosperous man in England. But, the test of Henry's friendship and of More's principles came when the king desired his concurrence in the divorce of Catherine of Arragon. He resigned the great seal rather than sign the marriage articles of Anne Boleyn, and would not take the oath as to the lawfulness of that marriage. Henry's kindness turned to fury, and More was a doomed man. A devout Romanist, he would not violate his conscience by submitting to the act of supremacy which made Henry the head of the Church, and so he was tried for high treason, and executed on the 6th of July, 1535. There are few scenes more pathetic than his last interview with his daughter Margaret, in the Tower, and no death more calmly and beautifully grand than his. He kissed the executioner and forgave him. "Thou art," said he, "to do me the greatest benefit that I can receive: pluck up thy spirit man, and be not afraid to do thine office."

UTOPIA.—His great work, and that which best illustrates the history of the age, is his Utopia, ([Greek: ou topos], not a place.) Upon an island discovered by a companion of Vespuccius, he established an imaginary commonwealth, in which everybody was good and everybody happy. Purely fanciful as is his Utopia, and impossible of realization as he knew it to be while men are what they are, and not what they ought to be, it is manifestly a satire on that age, for his republic shunned English errors, and practised social virtues which were not the rule in England.

Although More wrote against Luther, and opposed Henry's Church innovations, we are struck with his Utopian claim for great freedom of inquiry on all subjects, even religion; and the bold assertion that no man should be punished for his religion, because "a man cannot make himself believe anything he pleases," as Henry's six bloody articles so fearfully asserted he must. The Utopia was written in Latin, but soon translated into English. We use the adjective utopian as meaning wildly fanciful and impossible: its true meaning is of high excellence, to be striven for—in a word, human perfection.

OTHER WORKS.—More also wrote, in most excellent English prose, a history of the princes, Edward V. and his brother Richard of York, who were murdered in the Tower; and a history of their murderer and uncle, Richard III. This Richard—and we need not doubt his accuracy of statement, for he was born five years before Richard fell at Bosworth—is the short, deformed youth, with his left shoulder higher than the right; crafty, stony-hearted, and cruel, so strikingly presented by Shakspeare, who takes More as his authority. "Not letting (sparing) to kiss whom he thought to kill ... friend and foe was indifferent where his advantage grew; he spared no man's death whose life withstood his purpose. He slew, with his own hands, King Henry VI., being a prisoner in the Tower."

With the honorable name of More we leave this unproductive period, in which there was no great growth of any kind, but which was the planting-time, when seeds were sown that were soon to germinate and bloom and astonish the world. The times remind us of the dark saying in the Bible, "Out of the eater came forth meat; out of the strong came sweetness."

The art of printing had so increased the number of books, that public libraries began to be collected, and, what is better, to be used. The universities enlarged their borders, new colleges were added to Cambridge and Oxford; new foundations laid. The note of preparation betokened a great advent; the scene was fully prepared, and the actors would not be wanting.

Upon the death of Henry VIII., in 1547, Edward VI., his son by Jane Seymour, ascended the throne, and during his minority a protector was appointed in the person of his mother's brother, the Earl of Hertford, afterward Duke of Somerset. Edward was a sickly youth of ten years old, but his reign is noted for the progress of reform in the Church, and especially for the issue of the Book of Common Prayer, which must be considered of literary importance, as, although with decided modifications, and an interruption in its use during the brief reign of Mary, it has been the ritual of worship in the Anglican Church ever since. It superseded the Latin services—of which it was mainly a translation rearranged and modified—finally and completely, and containing, as it does, the whole body of doctrine, it was the first clear manifesto of the creeds and usages of that Church, and a strong bond of union among its members.


Thomas Tusser, 1527-1580: published, in 1557, "A Hundreth Good Points of Husbandrie," afterward enlarged and called, "Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, united to as many of Good Huswiferie;" especially valuable as a picture of rural life and labor in that age.

Alexander Barklay, died 1552: translated into English poetry the Ship of Fools, by Sebastian Brandt, of Basle.

Reginald Pecock, Bishop of St. Asaph and of Chichester: published, in 1449, "The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy." He attacked the Lollards, but was suspected of heresy himself, and deprived of his bishopric.

John Fisher, 1459-1535: was made Bishop of Rochester in 1504; opposed the Reformation, and refused to approve of Henry's divorce from Catherine of Arragon; was executed by the king. The Pope sent him a cardinal's hat while he was lying under sentence. Henry said he would not leave him a head to put it on. Wrote principally sermons and theological treatises.

Hugh Latimer, 1472-1555: was made Bishop of Worcester in 1535. An ardent supporter of the Reformation, who, by a rude, homely eloquence, influenced many people. He was burned at the stake at the age of eighty-three, in company with Ridley, Bishop of London, by Queen Mary. His memorable words to his fellow-martyr are: "We shall this day light a candle in England which, I trust, shall never be put out."

John Leland, or Laylonde, died 1552: an eminent antiquary, who, by order of Henry VIII., examined, con amore, the records of libraries, cathedrals, priories, abbeys, colleges, etc., and has left a vast amount of curious antiquarian learning behind him. He became insane by reason of the pressure of his labors.

George Cavendish, died 1557: wrote "The Negotiations of Woolsey, the Great Cardinal of England," etc., which was republished as the "Life and Death of Thomas Woolsey." From this, it is said, Shakspeare drew in writing his "Henry VIII."

Roger Ascham, 1515-1568: specially famous as the successful instructor of Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, whom he was able to imbue with a taste for classical learning. He wrote a treatise on the use of the bow, called Toxophilus, and The Schoolmaster, which contains many excellent and judicious suggestions, worthy to be carried out in modern education. It was highly praised by Dr. Johnson. It was written for the use of the children of Sackville, Lord Buckhurst.



The Great Change. Edward VI. and Mary. Sidney. The Arcadia. Defence of Poesy. Astrophel and Stella. Gabriel Harvey. Edmund Spenser—Shepherd's Calendar. His Great Work.


With what joy does the traveller in the desert, after a day of scorching glow and a night of breathless heat, descry the distant trees which mark the longed-for well-spring in the emerald oasis, which seems to beckon with its branching palms to the converging caravans, to come and slake their fever-thirst, and escape from the threatening sirocco!

The pilgrim arrives at the caravansery: not the long, low stone house, unfurnished and bare, which former experience had led him to expect; but a splendid palace. He dismounts; maidens purer and more beautiful than fabled houris, accompanied by slaves bearing rare dishes and goblets of crusted gold, offer him refreshments: perfumed baths, couches of down, soft and soothing music are about him in delicious combination. Surely he is dreaming; or if this be real, were not the burning sun and the sand of the desert, the panting camel and the dying horse of an hour ago but a dream?

Such is not an overwrought illustration of English literature in the long, barren reach from Chaucer to Spenser, as compared with the freshness, beauty, and grandeur of the geniuses which adorned Elizabeth's court, and tended to make her reign as illustrious in history as the age of Pericles, of Augustus, or of Louis XIV. Chief among these were Spenser and Shakspeare. As the latter has been truly characterized as not for an age, but for all time, the former may be more justly considered as the highest exponent and representative of that period. The Faerie Queene, considered only as a grand heroic poem, is unrivalled in its pictures of beautiful women, brave men, daring deeds, and Oriental splendor; but in its allegorical character, it is far more instructive, since it enumerates and illustrates the cardinal virtues which should make up the moral character of a gentleman: add to this, that it is teeming with history, and in its manifold completeness we have, if not an oasis in the desert, more truly the rich verge of the fertile country which bounds that desert, and which opens a more beautiful road to the literary traveller as he comes down the great highway: wearied and worn with the factions and barrenness of the fifteenth century, he fairly revels with delight in the fertility and variety of the Elizabethan age.

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