The Age of Chaucer
The Fourteenth Century
The fourteenth century was a time of much
political, religious, and industrial discontent in England. All this was
reflected in the literature of the time. The people of England became one
people, and the English tongue came into common use. In 1362 English was
made the language of the law courts, and in 1386 English displaced French
in the schools.
Sir John Mandeville (1300?-1371?) was an
English prose-writer of the fourteenth century. He has been called the
"Father of English Prose." He was a physician; but, in the year 1322, he
set out on a journey to the East. He was away from home for more than
thirty years. He probably wrote his travels first in Latin, next in
French, and then turned them into English. The book is a kind of
guide-book to the Holy Land; but the writer himself went much farther
east, and reached China, in fact.
Travels was much admired, read, and copied;
indeed, hundreds of manuscript copies of his book were made. There are
nineteen still in the British Museum.
John Wyclif (1327-1384) was the most
influential prose writer of the fourteenth century. His fame rests upon
his complete translation of the Bible. This work was finished in 1383,
just one year before his death. However, the translation was not done by
himself alone, but a number of men worked on it under his supervision.
Though often copied in manuscript, it was not printed for several
centuries. Wyclif's New Testament was printed in 1731, and the Old
Testament not until the year 1850. But the words and the style of his
translation, which was read and re-read by hundreds of thoughtful men,
were of real and permanent service in fixing the form of the English
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400) was the
"Father of English Poetry," and the greatest narrative poet of England. He
was the man who made a distinct advance in literature. With him the old
alliterative poetry died. In most of his poems he used the heroic couplet,
which is a verse having five accents with the lines rhyming in pairs; for
well nine¡ıand twen¡ıty in¡ıa com¡ıpany,
Owing to his handsome presence, his powers and
attainments, Chaucer early found favor at court. He traveled extensively
on the Continent, especially in France and Italy, and had much experience
as soldier, ambassador, and Member of Parliament.
Chaucer's greatest work is the Canterbury
Tales. The finest part of the Canterbury Tales is the
Prologue; the noblest story is probably the Knight's Tale.
Chaucer expresses, in the truest and liveliest
way, the true and lively things which are set before him. He first gave to
English poetry that force, vigor, life, and color which raise it above the
level of mere rimed prose. All the best poems and histories in Latin,
French, and Italian were well known to Chaucer.
The lesser poets of this period were William
Langland (1332?-1400), who used the alliterative form, and whose
principal work was Piers Plowman; John
Gower (1325?-1408), author of a poem
entitled Lover's Confession, and John Barbour (1320-1396), a
Scottish poet, whose best remembered work is entitled The Bruce.