London and England in Chaucer's Day (ca. 1340-1400)
These four short Web notes and their linked files are not intended to replace a careful reading of Larry Benson's "Introduction" (xv-xix). Especially pay close attention to his summary of the evidence from the "Chaucer Life Records," all of the amazingly small amount of evidence which has survived about Chaucer's existence apart from the literature he produced. Because what Derrida has called "the author function" was performed much differently in medieval England than it is today by modern novelists, poets, and bloggers, you need to have some cultural awareness of our poet and his world before you can interpret a complex hybrid text like the Canterbury Tales. This page tries to get you to imagine the geography, sounds, and clothing of Chaucer's London, the city which produced the Tales. CT mingles high and low culture, sometimes bringing it directly into collision, and it does not flinch from showing both the most beautiful and the ugliest aspects of medieval English life.
The Geography of London's Wards and Neighborhoods: the "Agas Map" (click on the link to go to the map)
At some time between 1570 and 1605, based on evidence found in the "Agas Map" that corresponds to other historical evidence, someone produced this six-foot by two and a half foot engraved illustration of London's streets. One "Ralph Agas" once was thought to be its creator, but now we do not know for certain who made it, though it continues to be known as the "Agas Map." Though it was made up to two centuries after Chaucer's death, the map's geography had not radically been altered in the portion of the City within the old walls, which would not change much until the Great Fire of 1666 during Charles II's Restoration. Chaucer is generally believed to have grown up on Thames Street in the Vintry Ward, a cluster of wine merchants' shops and warehouses bounded at the south end by the Thames River, just upstream of London Bridge. Click on the link above and choose the map section "C5" to start becoming acquainted with the streets and buildings Chaucer knew in his childhood. Once you have found Thames Street and Vintry Ward on the lower right, look to the upper left of the map section and locate St. Paul's Cathedral and St. Paul's School, where Chaucer probably was first educated. Try tracing the schoolboy's path from home to school and back again--what would he have passed on his way?
Churches and guild halls are among the most common identifiable structures. Both were centers of social organization. Membership in a church parish and membership in a guild defined identity for free non-noble citizens of London as much as family titles, ancestry, and land ownership defined the identities of the nobles, and church titles, membership or rule of abbeys or nunneries or monasteries or cathedrals would have identified clergy. All three estates, the nobles, the clergy and the freemen/peasantry, also would have servants in their households, people who specialized in performing the daily tasks that kept homes and businesses fed, clothed, lit at night and bathed n the day, in touch with other domestic and commercial units by written and spoken messages. Social historians sometimes call a social unit like this a "domus," using the Latin term that record keepers inherited from the extended family units of the Roman Empire. Above all of them, by Chaucer's day, was an increasingly powerful set of royal households, each of whose tax collectors, scribes, sheriffs, judges, and courtiers formed a sort of super-domus. Within those households, networks of birth relations and courtly service form inhabitants' "resumes" or social identities. Chaucer's first recorded social affinity was his employment, probably as a page or court servant in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel, third son of Edward III and second in line to the throne after the Black Prince. Within a few years he was a member of the king's household. Finally, he joined the domus of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, richest man in England, regent of England during the boyhood of Richard II, and brother in law of Chaucer by marriage to Katherine Swynford (nee Paon, sister of Phillipa Paon, GC's wife).
The Sound of Pre-Modern London, a Largely Illiterate City: Orlando Gibbon, "Cries of London"; Andrew White Tuer, Old London Street Cries; and, The Cries of To-Day: with Heaps of Quaint Cuts Including Hand-Coloured Frontispiece (London: 1885); Canterbury Tales "Miller's Prologue," read by Allan Baragona (VMI). The Gibbon link will take you to a YouTube recording, and the Tuer link will take you to an online text--just browse the text to get an idea of the kinds of cries Chaucer might have heard in the streets and the commercial commodities peddlars were bringing (Amazon.com-like) to the doors of London consumers. Allan Baragona's performance of the "Miller's Prologue" gives you a good sense of the "street Middle English" of the frame narrative, spoken in the voices of Chaucer-the-Pilgrim, the Host who tries to restart the tale-telling game after "Knight's Tale," the [drunken!] Miller who interrupts the Host, and the angry Reeve who interrupts the Miller
Before widespread literacy, commerce in the City depended on visual images to identify shops by what they sold, and on street cries that identified what strolling peddlers had for sale. The street cries were traditional, handed down from medieval times to the Renaissance. By the time Orlando Gibbon composed the montage known popularly as "Cries of London," the old traditions probably were beginning to die out, but street cries for news-boys and certain other specialties persisted in England and America until the twentieth century. Tuer's text records many more of the street vendors' cries that had survived to the C19. Read Tuer or listen to the YouTube recording of Gibbon linked above and think about Chaucer, a literate boy (probably polyglot, French, English, Latin, and Italian, at least), walking to school through a sound-scape of such cries, punctuated with Middle English conversation like that recorded in the CT frame narrative in which the pilgrims negotiate, joke, and quarrel on their way to Canterbury.
The Music of Pre-Modern London, a Polyphonic City: Profane Peasant/Bourgeois Music--Carmina Burana [MS dated C13 "In taberna quando sumus" (When we're [drinking] in the tavern) ; Secular Courtly Music--Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), "Quant en moy" ("When Love first came to me sweetly"); Sacred Music--Tournai Cathedral [Belgium] Mass, "Gloria" (MS dated to 1349). Each link goes to a different YouTube recording, some of which may play through to additional recordings which you need not listen to unless you want to. Again, you just want to have a feel for the range of music that might have seemed good to low-status ("working class") characters like the Miller and Summoner and Pardoner, secular aristocrats and high status commoners like the Knight and Squire and Franklin, and clergy like the Prioress, Second Nun, Nun's Priest and Parson.
Because medieval London society was divided into three "estates," the peasants/bourgeois, nobility, and clergy, each had its own music, clothing, narrative and poetic traditions, and customs. The law even worked differently for each estate--there were two separate court systems, one secular and one clerical, which tried the violations of secular law for the first two estates and violations of Church law for the third, and for nobles and peasants who were caught breaking the Lord's law rather than the lord's law. The music presents vividly the contrast between the three estates' mentalities. It must be confessed that the drinking song from Carmina Burana was copied by monks, but the sentiments are entirely, very secular. Guillaume de Machaut would never let himself be caught singing such outrageous praise of drinking, gambling, and roistering about. Keep this in mind when the CT General Prologue tells you that the Miller played the bagpipes and insisted on leading the pilgrimage out of London toward Canterbury. Also keep it in mind when Chaucer the Pilgrim apologizes for telling you what the Miller and Reeve "told him" (GP 3167-86).
The Clothing of Pre-Modern London, a European City: Men's gowns and hosiery, women's gowns and necklines, in Paris and London, "Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands" (Morgan Library [NYC] Exhibit); Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, WebMuseum, Nicholas Pioch The link will take you to a menu of images taken from a manuscript containing twelve full-page illuminations of the duke's estate's inhabitants, from peasants to the duke's family and household.) Also see the print resource, Laura Hodges, Chaucer and Costume: the Secular Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales (N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000) [826.2 C49HcaShod].
Because cloth and leather rarely survives more than a few hundred years in the English climate, our best evidence for how people dressed come from literary descriptions like the "General Prologue," household account books, and manuscript illuminations. Chaucer's first "life record" idenifies him as belonging to the court of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, who gives him a paltock (short cloak), red and black hose, and shoes, to dress himself for court celebrations of Christmas. As this combination suggests, courtly dress emphasized male legs with tight long stockings, a practice that would have encouraged free movement in dancing, and which would have made men's legs an object of erotic attention (see the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" on her noticing her clerk, Jankyn's shapely calves as he carries her fourth husband's casket to the burial service). Women wore long gowns, often topped with exotic head-dresses that sometimes trailed filmy veils that revealed more than they concealed. Modern viewers might be shocked at amount of neck and breast revealed by courtly women's low decolletege or scoop necklines. Bourgeois or town-dwellers, especially guildsmen and their families, imitated noble styles often enough that "Sumptuary Laws" were passed in 1337. 1363, and later years to prohibit estate-confusing variances in clothing, but the laws' frequent re-establishment (like the laws attempting to fix peasant wages after the plague) seem a sign of their ineffectuality. Almost all illustrations of peasants and nobles show them with head coverings, either elaborate hats for nobles or hoods for peasants. Absence of head covering would mean that one could not remove it in a common gesture of deference and respect ("doffing one's cap or hood"). The lowest status peasants had no social need of hoods or other head-covering, and probably could not afford them. When a non-clergy pilgrim like the Miller (MPro. ll. 3120-27) or the Pardoner refuses to wear his hood, that suggests some kind of rebellion against the social order (GP: ll. 680-3). Friars and monks, as men sworn to serve God in poverty, chastity, and obedience, usually went not only hatless but also with shaved heads (tonsures) to emphasize their disdain for worldly rank and custom, though they might wear hooded robes during the winter to protect them when traveling. When the General Prologue's Monk is described as having a golden "love knot" to fasten the chin-ribbons of his hood, to keep it from blowing off as he rode his enormous hunter with its mane decorated with silver bells, the conflict between his vows and his dress screams psychological and spiritual disorder.