Geoffrey Chaucer, "Gentilesse" [also called in one MS "a Morale Balade of Chaucier"]   (before 1400)

Genre:   A "balade," a French lyric genre usually composed about a poet's beloved, either praising her beauty or complaining about her aloofness or cruelty.  Chaucer's balades are notable for the frequency with which they address philosophical and social issues, like "Truth," Lenvoy a Bukton," "Lak of Steadfastnesse," and "A Complaint to His Purse."  

Form: Stanzas of seven four-stress lines rhyming ababbcc, often ending with an "Envoy," or extra stanza which sends the poem as a more specialized message to some friend, lover, or court aquaintance.  The general message of the poem's other stanzas are thereby interpreted for the envoy's subject, and the envoy stands in a position of creative tension or even deconstructive opposition to the stanzas of the poem's main body. 

Characters:   The persona of Chaucer's courtly lyric (not to be confused with Chaucer, himself, though the difference may be slight), and the courtly audience who, if not for this poem's advice (the poem assumes), would be presuming themselves "gentil" because of their high birth, rather than because of their virtuous actions.  Also present is "The firste stok, fader of gentilesse" (God, Adam or Jesus--see n. 1 on RC 1085)), those who wear the "mytre" (bishops), "croune" (kings), and the "diademe" (the Holy Roman Emperor), and the "firste fader in magestee" (God).

Plot Summary: The persona argues that the status of "gentil" is inherently linked to the quality of "gentilesse," which cannot be inherited, but must be detected by a series of virtuous behaviors.  The persona also suggests that what may be inherited is "Vyce" (l. 15). 

Issues and general research sources:

1)  The three stanzas have an interesting rhetorical structure if you think about the poem as an attempt to challenge an existing social assumption and to replace it with another.  Every attempt to persuade has to balance the things the readers can be assumed to share with the author against the novel (or even repellant) idea the author wants to bring the readers to believe or support.  What clauses in the poem set up the mutual grounds of agreement between author and readers, and when/where does the author take the readers over the big hurdles to the new belief?  Can you see a pattern in the stanza structure that helps Chaucer prepare his readers to make those leaps?  Think about how rhyme and rhythm operate in a poem like this.

        Also, the phrase "mytre, croune, or diademe" (l. 7 etc.) has been traced to Boccacco's Il Filostrato, the source of the plot of Chaucer's Troilus (see n. 7 on RC 1085).   Apart from poetic economy and "homage" to a predecessor, why might Chaucer allude to a famous Italian poet in this English poem at precisely this point in each stanza?

2)  The "firste stok" of human ancestry is not uniformly identified by all readers (RC 1085 n. 1).  Some understand it to mean "God," some "Adam," and some "Jesus."  How does each of those readings affect the poem's metaphysical claims about the origins of humanity and of "gentilesse"?

3)  This poem, like many of the other short lyrics, violates a pattern we have seen in Chaucer's longer works.  Readers of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" since E.T. Donaldson have noticed the regularity with which Chaucer adopts the persona of a naive, dumpy, shy, even ignorant man who's getting nowhere with the ladies and resorts to books because they're all the consolation he can find in the world.   Donaldson pointed out that Chaucer's life records tell us he has been a customs inspector and a construction site superintendent for the king, jobs for which naivete and shyness, at least, would be absurd qualifications.  He also married Phillipa Paon, sister to Catherine Paon Swynford, first the governess of the duke of Lancaster's children and then his third wife, mother to the line which would be the House of Lancaster in the fifteenth-century's Wars of the Roses.  She had married the late Mr. Swynford before marrying John of Gaunt, the duke, but marrying Lancaster made her the wife of the wealthiest man in England and, next to Richard II, the most powerful.  So Chaucer was related by marriage to the duke and through him to future kings Henry IV, V, and VI (consult your Shakespeare history plays for their cultural significance in the next era).   Chaucer also was both a public envoy of the king and a secret agent in Europe on business we still do not know.  These were the kinds of people he is addressing in "Gentilesse," and who typically assumed that they were "gentil" as an automatic attribute of their family lineage (i.e., they were born of people who had been called "gentil."  Does this poem seem at all dangerously challenging to the social pretensions of the most powerful people in England, France, and Italy, upon whose largesse Chaucer depended for his living?  What does this tell you about GC's idea of the poet's role in English society, and what might it mean for readings of the Canterbury tales or the Troilus

4)  Why write a poem about an obscure cultural characteristic like "gentilesse"?  As in the case of "Truth" and "Lak of Stedfastnesse," if people are debating it, there are reasons why it has become an unstable concept.  Chaucer lived during a period of unstable social relations, caused in part by the bubonic plague, which killed perhaps 2/5 of the population of England beginning when he was a young man (1347-9).  The survivors inherited wealth from the victims, and sought to advance from commoners into the ranks of the "gentils."  Ordinary laborers could stand and bargain with wealthy "gentil" landowners over the price of their labor because there were too few workers to get the crops planted or harvested.  Also, the long "regency" of John of Gaunt, caused by the inheritance of the throne by an infant Richard II, produced a divided court as friends of the king and the great magnates who backed Lancaster squared off over how best to run the court and the nation.  At one point, the magnates mounted a political attack against Richard's popular but corrupt friends and appealed them of treason for badly advising the king etc.  Those young men were executed, and Richard never forgave the "Lords Appellant."  When Richard formally took the throne at 18, he moved against the Lords Appellant and had several of them executed.  Then he married Anne of Bohemia, whose European entourage brought to the court many customs and attitudes borrowed from the influential French and Burgundian courts.  Social roles throughout the kingdom became destabilized by these socio-economic and political forces, and the right to proclaim one's "gentil" status became increasingly a matter for public debate.  In 1417, seventeen years after Chaucer's death, Parliament enacted the Statute of Additions, which ruled that one's name was not legally complete on legal documents like summonses, wills, indictments, etc. unless any titles one assumed were also included, like "esquire," "yeoman," or (of course) "gentleman."

    For a recent exploration of the problem of instability in Middle English terms of value, especially the transformation of the ME word "trouthe" into "troth" [promise] and "truth" [historical fact], see Richard Firth Green's Literature and Law in Ricardian England: A Crisis of Truth (Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania P, 1999) [820.9 G7971c].

5)  The lyric poems often are used in evidence to attempt to date Chaucer's works, usually under the assumption that short lyrics were typical "schoolboy" products of a young courtier's training and that the "more mature" works like the long narrative poems (Troilus, "Knight's Tale") date from his middle years or from his old age.  How does our expectation of a poem, and of an author's intentions, change depending upon how old we believe the author may be when the poem was written?  What kinds of internal and external evidence are there for dating works of literature, and where might you find more about how to use that evidence?

6)  The ten manuscripts of this poem differ in the way they render line 20 (RC 1190 n. 20).  Why do you think that particular line came out garbled?  I suspect one clue might come from reading it aloud, and another might come from looking at its letter forms in manuscript in dim light.  The version we are reading is an "emendation" proposed by Robert Brittain in 1936.  Try out the other versions and see how they affect the meaning of that last stanza.  Do you agree with Brittain and the RC editors, or would you accept one of the MS readings as authoritative?

    Those are obscure but powerful questions addressed by the art of "textual editing," the ways a scholar turns a series of manuscript versions and printed editions of a work into a single, most accurate version for scholars.  An extremely thorough variety of textual editing produces what are called "variorum" editions, which preserve in parallel texts every variant spelling, missing or added piece of text, or variation in order of texts' parts, in all the surviving manuscripts or printed editions.  These are the tools of graduate students and professional scholars, but non-specialist readers can use them too if they know what they're looking for.  Contact me if you are interested in learning more about editing practices and the variorum editions of any of our authors.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here.

Some useful scholarly studies of Chaucer's short lyrics:

Boffey, Julia. "The Reputation and Circulation of Chaucer's Lyrics in the Fifteenth Century." Chaucer Review 28 (1993): 23-40.  Finds evidence for Chaucer's lyrics having influenced other writers and suggestions that the short poems were available in MSS which have not survived.

Hanna, Ralph, III. "Authorial Versions, Rolling Revision, Scribal Error? Or, the Truth about Truth." Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 1988 (10): 23-40.  Examines manuscripts of "Truth" for variation in words and lines, and considers the possibility Chaucer may have revised the poem in manuscript circulation.

Scattergood, John. "Social and Political Issues in Chaucer: An Approach to Lak of Steadfastnes." Chaucer Review, 1987 (21:4) 469-75.   Discusses relations between Ricardian lyric poems and political events, political allusions, and their reflection of social consciousness in this era.

Stephens, John. "The Uses of Personae and the Art of Obliqueness in Some Chaucer Lyrics, I, II, III." Chaucer Review. 1987 (21:3) 360-73; 1987 (21:4) 459-68; and 1987 (22:1) 41-52.   A three-part essay examining the ambiguity of the narrator's persona in lyrics.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.

Back to English 330, Syllabus View.