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THE FIRST ENGLISH PERIOD (1360 to 1525)
FROISSART, J. Chronicles of England, France, and Spain. Trans
lated by T. Johnes, 2 v. GREEN, J. R. History of the English People (Larger History), v. 1,
With the close of the Norman-French period the various race elements that go to the making of the English
nation were pretty thoroughly unified. The
Norman was no longer a foreigner, but an Englishman, though French was for some time used in the law courts as Latin was used in the lectures and disputations at the universities. The foundations of the English Constitution were laid. Wars with France intensified the feeling of English nationality. The institution of chivalry tended to refine manners and upheld a high ideal of courage and courtesy, and it attained a brilliant development in the court of Edward III. (1327–1377). In the last quarter of the fourteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great English poet, illustrated the opening of the “first English literary period " in a series of poems which express the life of his age with a vivacity and brilliancy unequaled till we reach the days of Shakespeare.
The century following Chaucer's death in 1400 is sometimes characterized (perhaps unjustly) as the “blank period.” Nevertheless, events of far-reaching influence took place before its close. In 1492 the discovery of the West Indies initiated the maritime expeditions which, by widening the boundaries of the known world and modifying men's conceptions of the relation of our globe to the universe, were one of the causes of the audacity of the imagination of the Elizabethan age. The art of printing was introduced into England in 1477. The use of gunpowder in wars dates from the fifteenth century, and this certainly had a great effect in breaking up the feudal constitution of society.
All these are what are commonly termed epoch-making events, and redeem the fifteenth century from the charge of barrenness. In the intellectual world we note that the first impulse from the Renaissance in Italy reached Chaucer through the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, that Wycklif's Bible and Tyndall's translations of the New Testament brought men into contact with the new conceptions of religion and duty which, though taking many different forms, were the underlying motives of the Reformation, and were, to say the least, a powerful intellectual ferment.
Greek was first taught in Oxford in 1491. The learned and witty Erasmus, the tone of whose criticism is quite modern, visited England in 1497. These dates, indeed, are in the last decade of the century, but Malory's “ Morte Darthur” was printed in 1485. This, at least in its effect on later poets and on the general mind of England, was an important book.
Only a very meager outline of Chaucer's life can be constructed, but he is not unique in this regard, for very
few biographical details can be gathered about any writer till we come to Milton in the seventeenth century. The Geoffrey
authorities for Chaucer's life are a few refer
ences in his own writings and those of his con1340(?)
temporaries or immediate successors, and many entries in the state papers of the period, showing that he was employed in various capacities by the government. Even the date of his birth is not known with certainty. The evidence is conflicting, even supposing that it all relates to the same individual, and neither Geoffrey nor Chaucer (shoemaker) were uncommon names.1 In 1556 a monument was raised to the memory of the poet in Westminster Abbey, giving the date of his death as 1400 and his age as seventy-two, which would put the year of his birth as far back as 1328. In a famous lawsuit in the tenth year of Richard II.'s reign, between the families of Scrope and Grosvenor, a witness was called, October 12, 1386, who is described as “ Geoffry Chaucer, Esquire, del age de xl ans et plus, armiez par xxvij ans. According to the inscription in the Abbey, Chaucer would have been fifty-seven at that date. The record of the lawsuit is, of course, entitled to great weight as a contemporary document, but, on the other hand, the age of a witness is not a matter on which it is necessary to be accurate. The dates on a tombstone or other mortuary monument are also regarded as trustworthy evidence if the inscription is made soon after death. In the present case the direct evidence stated above, and the indirect evidence, allusions in Chaucer's works and records of employment in diplomatic missions and political offices, are fairly reconciled by assuming the date of his birth as not later than 1340.
1 The name Chaucer may, however, be derived from Chauffe-cire, wax-melter,
It is evident from his works that he had been liberally educated, for his allusions to the literature of the day evince the familiarity begotten of early intimacy, and in his mature years he wrote a treatise explaining the use of the astrolabe (a crude astrological instrument) for his son Lewis. There is no evidence that he was ever a student at either of the universities. But in 1357 he is mentioned in connection with the household of Prince Lionel, second son of Edward III. Afterward he was attached to the household of John of Gaunt, the third son of the king and founder of the house of Lancaster. In those days of the highest development of chivalry young men were taken as “pages” into the establishments of great nobles, and trained not only in warlike exercises, but in accomplishments deemed fitting for future knights and gentlemen, and in some cases we can believe that literary culture, as well as chivalric courtesy, was imparted to them. When John of Gaunt was twenty-nine, his first wife, Blanche, daughter of the first Duke of Lancaster and mother of Henry of Hereford, afterward Henry IV., died, and in her memory Chaucer wrote the " Book of the Duchesse.” Probably through the influence of John of Gaunt, or of the Duke of Clarence, Chaucer received several government appointments and a pension. He was made one of the commissioners to arrange with the city of Genoa a treaty, fixing the privileges of the merchants of both countries, and in carrying out this duty he traveled to Italy. In 1374 he was made one of the Comptrollers of the Customs of Wool. In 1375 he received the custody of the lands of a minor ward of the crown, Edmond Staplegale of Kent. In 1377 he was associated with Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, in a secret mission to Holland. In June of that year Edward III. died