Topic 43A – Oral medieval literature: the arthurian legend.

Topic 43A – Oral medieval literature: the arthurian legend.







1 LIFE I will tell only the facts relevant for his work

Born in 1340-43, in the reign of Edward the III, when the 100 years war begins, probably in London. Important middle class family in constant touch with aristocracy. Only son of John Chaucer, rich wine merchant. Access to education (latin, french, important for later learning). He would have learned latin with the aid of a Cato (anthology of proverbs and adagies) this book is often refered to in The Canterbury Tales. Much of his studies would have been followed in French during his youth, French was being remplaced in England by English, but still used.

When he is 17, he is sent to serve the Countess of Ulster, so he comes in close association with the ruling nobility of the kingdom. He wins the favour of the countess, and is appreciated in that circle. He belongs to that small circle who can enjoy the pleasures of life. This is reflected in his works: love for life, joyfulness, easiness.

He is sent to fight in Artois and Picardy, where he is taken prisoner. The king makes him free the following year. He comes back to london where he enters the king´s service as a yeoman and squire (40 of them), under the patronage of John of Gaunt.

During the war of the hundred years he fights in Artois and Picardy, where he is taken prisoner. Edward III makes him free the following year.

He comes back to London where he enters the king´s service as a yeoman and squire, under the patronage of John of Gaunt. As a squire, he takes part in diplomatic missions. France, low countries, Italy (source of influences). One of his duties, is to entertain the court with tales, songs, discussions, etc. Important: his tales are designed more to be listened than read:

Vocabulary and syntax: colloquial

Clear transitions from one point to another

Explaining what shouldn´t be understood.

He is a prodigious reader in Latin, French, Italian (education). He is an expert in alchemy (canon´s yeoman tale), astronomy, physics (house of fame, eagle…)

So we can situate the tales in their original context of situation.: he wrote for a relatively small group of people of the most important and cultured people in the land, and for being listened.

During his life, very important historical facts happen in England, but he is not an espectator of his historical time, and he doesn´t reflect them in his works. Maybe because he was always lucky, and the changes didn´t affect him very much. When John of Gaunt is substituted as the king´s man of confidence by the Duke of Gloucester, he is apparted from the work, but he has money and time to make the most of his leisure and sets off to write the Catnerbutry tales. When John of Gaunt comes back, he is restored to his position. So he talked about people, love, eternal matters, but not history. He also lived the years of the Black Death, but he doesn´t mention it in his work. Another important historical fact was the bloody reign of Richard II, and the arriving to the throne of the Lancaster family, Henry the IV, son of J of Gaunt. In Chaucer´s times, chivalry was at its zenith (order of the garter founded in 1349), the feudal system was beginning to crumble and the mercantile class (to which Chaucer belonged) was beginning to flesh its muscle.

He spent his last years in a house in Westminster. He is buried in Westminster Abbey in 1400.


Knowledge of latin authors, Ovid, Seneca, Cicero.

English romances

French and Italian literature


Chaucer had a library formed by 60 volumes. Today they are not many, but in his times, books were very scarce and expensive, before the invention of printing. Few households possessed more than one. And many Cambrige and Oxford schollars had less than 60.


During the war of the hundred years he fights in Artois and Picardy, where he is taken prisoner. Edward III makes him free the following year.

He becomes highly interested in French poetry. He learns to adapt octosyllabic couplet. He uses it in his poetry, although is less stable (6,8) and deliberately rougher than that of the french masters.

In the 14TH, alliterative revival (Scandinavian). Chaucer discarded the Anglo Saxon alliterative system as “rum ram ruf”. He prefered to adapt french verse as far as English allowed.The french line, in part because of its use by chaucer, will dominate in following centuries.

He also adopted French themes (amour courteois).


He negociates a trade agreement with Genova and to perform a secret mission in Florence.

He discovers the wonders of renaissance (Dante Petrarch Bocaccio), maybe unique in that time in ·England.

He introduces the rhymed (iambic) pentameter (it would become the norm of English versification since then) He consideres it an ideal vehicle for conveying the rythms of ordinary talk.

5 feet, each with 1 light and 1 stressed syllable.

Knight´s tale:

´Once on /a ´time, /as ´oldhistories /´tell us,

FOTOCOPIA iambic: non stressed / stressed


English: hybrid of many differents dialects. Not set norm.

East midland dialect from London. Prestige. It would become standard English, not just because of Chaucer.

Changes that affect reading today:

Much more phonetic: knight /knaiçt/

Ejemplo? Vowels: continental value

More even acentuation 2 stresses

P´ardon´er (like in “here”)


Date and sources.

He begins to write them in + 1368. By then, he had already writen Life of Sta. Cecilia (nun´s) and Parlamon and Arcite (knight´s).

Collection of stories linked by ficticious pilgrimage as framing device.

John Gower Confession amantis

Giovanni Secambi Novelle

Bocaccio Decameron

But unique for : variety of story tellers, vividness with which tellers are described, dramatic relationships between tales and tellers.

Not all tales original, legends, popular folklore, etc.


Portrait of 14th century life. Not concrete facts, but stereotypes of people, although living people. Attitude always contemplative. He is never teh lover, he doesn´t express his feelings, but he is above people, sympathetic and fatherly.

Relish and gusto he describes ordinary things of life. (enjoy life)

Satire: mere touch, but not intention of reformation.

Poetry almost prose, no metaphores, hyperboles.

Different methods:

Serious portraits, without irony in them.

Physical and moral descriptions.


Example: marriage debate sparked off by the Wife of Bath feminist monologue. Chaucer is the 1st writter to treat marriage (as distinct from love) seriously and at length in poetry.


The original plan was to recreate a pilgrimage from a suburb in London to the famous saint of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and back again. Each teller would tell 2 stories going and 2 returning, wining a free dinner the best of them.

Marks of unfinished state

The cook´s and the squirrel´s tales remain fragments.

The Sea Captain´s tale, for instance, was meant for the Wife of Bath.

The sergeant at law anounces that he will speak in prose, but he uses rhyme-royal.

Not thematic organization. Varied as tellers.

Knight: romantic allegory

Miller, friar. Fabliau

Wife of Bath: supernatural story.

Pardoner: sermon

2nd nun: saint´s legend


Threefold structure of medieval society:

Knighthood: knight, squire

Clergy: parson, clerk

Ploughmen: yeoman, ploughman.