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" (Jesus), 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:


3)  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 pretentions 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

3)  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 populaltion 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 Richart 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 Appelant."  When Richard formally took the throne at 18, he moved against the Lords Appelant 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 abnd Burgundian courts.  Social roles throughout the kingdom became destabliized 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].

4)  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?



Manuscripts of Chaucer's poems typically are not heavily punctuated, usually just line breaks for verse, a "/" or virgule for partial stops (between a comma and a semi-colon), and a full stop at sentence ends.   The Norton editors made a very interesting decision to place a semi-colon between "world" and "leve" in line 23.  The Riverside Chaucer (1985), the current standard scholarly reference edition, places a semi-colon after "wrechednesse" (l. 22) and no punctuation in line 23 until the full stop after "thral" (slave).  Try writing out the two versions in your own hand, even translating them into Modern English.  Which makes more sense?  How would you argue for one version rather than the other? 

    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.


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