Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. This chapter sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and concludes with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The chapter argues that the 'Nun's Priest's Tale' can be seen as a satire of rhetorically inflated and over-serious accounts of the human condition.
Geoffrey Chaucer's lifetime, from his birth early in the 1340s to his death in 1400, encompasses one of the most dramatic periods of English history. The search for a historical Chaucer has led critics to look for the 'real-life models' of the pilgrims described by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. The pilgrims and the characters are best seen as active reinterpretations of reality in terms of the literary conventions, scientific doctrines and stock social satires of the day. Chaucer's works do not offer direct evidence about late fourteenth-century society. Chaucer's accounts of the pilgrims are often couched in terms of the stock 'scientific' stereotypes of his day and thus describe individuals in terms of the attributes thought appropriate to their age, astrological character and physiological make-up. Such 'scientific' stereotypes, Chaucer draws upon traditions of character-description which are more specifically literary in origin.
This book on Geoffrey Chaucer explores the relationship between Chaucer's poetry and the change and conflict characteristic of his day and the sorts of literary and non-literary conventions that were at his disposal for making sense of the society around him. Critics who consider the social meaning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales fall into two main schools: those who present his social thought as an expression of the dominant spirit or ideology of his day and those who see Chaucer as possessing a more heterodox voice. Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For D. W. Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for E. Talbot Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. The book sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The book also outlines some of the major medieval discourses about sexual difference which inform Chaucer's depiction of women, in particular, the tendency of medieval writers to polarise their views of women, condemning them to the pit or elevating them to the pedestal.
In a period of French cultural dominance, it was in French handbooks of knighthood and in romances in French that the ideals of medieval European chivalry found their most powerful expression. As the companions and partners with the chivalrous knighthood in the chivalrous business of war, the culture and values of chivalry rubbed off naturally on the newcomers to recognised gentility, and was absorbed by them as theirs as well as the knights'. The military experience of the fourteenth century had cemented a mental equation of chivalry and gentillesse, which now included the esquires, and had anchored it firmly in the mind-set both of the gentry themselves and of their superior patrons. Acculturation must be the keynote in any assessment of the place of chivalry in the culture of the gentry in the late Middle Ages.
It would seem that on virtually every aspect of Geoffrey Chaucer's work, his readers are currently assailed by a host of mutually exclusive interpretations and critical approaches. On the one hand, Chaucer is an Augustinian allegorist; on the other, he is sceptical about exegesis as a mode of interpretation and satirises the excesses of moral allegorising. On the one hand, he is a misogynist; on the other, he a defender of women. This book emphasises the ways in which seeing Chaucer in the context of the political issues, social values, generic conventions and literary theory of his own day can help us to understand the meaning of his work. It concludes that what a contextual approach to Chaucer's work reveals, above all else, is that literary texts are nowhere more historical in their nature than when they seek to pass themselves off as timeless and dehistoricised.
The study of the medieval English peasantry began, in the nineteenth century, as an adjunct to the study of other themes. Thus, the history of the manor, of rent, of the early origins of the community, all included inevitable reference to the peasantry. Historians have addressed rural society and the peasantry in particular through sources generated at the level of the manor and the estate. It is also noteworthy that there has been an important shift in emphasis in terms of sources, and especially a heightened focus upon manorial court rolls as the principal object of study for comprehending peasant society and economy in medieval England. Historians of the medieval English peasantry have, with their predominant focus upon matters economic and structural, abandoned most opportunities for close engagement with literary and artistic sources potentially relevant to the study of medieval peasants.
This chapter aims to survey and assess the studies on what might be called literary or reading networks. It focuses on a highly literate group of book owners and writers connected with the household of Sir John Fastolf at Caister Castle, Norfolk. The richness of the information on the Fastolf household and East Anglian culture is well known and may lead to doubts that such an approach to literary and regional networks can be adopted for other lesser known groups and areas. When Raymond Williams stated that 'culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language', he probably did not have 'gentry' and 'networks' in his mind as the other two. The chapter highlights the problematic nature of those three words, separately and in combination.
After c.1970 few medieval economic and social historians approaching the topic of the medieval peasantry could do so without including some discussion of the demography of their object of investigation. The introduction of subtle and involved demographic technique into the research of medievalists was dependent upon the development of the subject of demography and of an overlap between historians and demographers. J.C. Russell, one of the most important exponents of historical demography in the middle decades of the twentieth century, had begun to consider the sources and approaches to the population history of the middle ages in the 1920s and 1930s while teaching relevant university courses in New Mexico. Russell's own discussion of medieval demography, while certainly not confined to the sources of the social elites in this period, offers little comment on the rural population per se or the demography of the medieval English peasantry in particular.
This chapter examines the earliest attempts, in terms of a modern historiography dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, to discuss the medieval English peasantry. It begins with one of the most resilient of the themes in the historiography of the medieval English peasantry: lordship. The chapter explores the following main themes from this early period: economy, population and demography, and the village community. One of the more vibrant themes in later nineteenth-century historiography of the medieval peasantry was the nature and development of the village community. Political theorists and historians in the middle decades of the nineteenth century sought to identify long-term continuums and the interconnectedness of village communities over time. Studies of the village community by H. S. Maine, F. Seebohm and G. L. Gomme identified the organisation of the farming landscape as a major factor in the regulation and nature of the village community.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book begins by exploring the origins of, and influences on, the culture of the late medieval gentry, thus contributing to the debate on defining the membership of this group. It considers the gentry's emergence as a group distinct from the nobility and looks at the various available routes to gentility. Through surveys of the gentry's military background, administrative and political roles, social behaviour, and education, the book provides an overview of how the group's culture evolved, and how it was disseminated. It offers a broad view of late medieval gentry culture, which explores, reassesses and indeed sometimes even challenges the idea that members of the gentry cultivated their own distinctive cultural identity.