We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Feature essay

Chaucer and the growth of vernacular literature, c.1350–c.1500

  Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400) manuscript painting [after original, c.1412] Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400) manuscript painting [after original, c.1412]

Looking back in admiration

One of Geoffrey Chaucer's early fifteenth-century followers, Thomas Hoccleve, lamented the death in 1400 of his ‘master’:
Alas! my worthy mayster honorable,
Thys landes verray tresouur and rychesse,
Deth, by thy deth, hath harme irriparable
Unto us don.
Death, he says, has despoiled this land of one who excelled in ‘the swetnesse / Of rethorik’ and in ‘philosophy’, and who followed in the steps of Virgil ‘in poesie’. Chaucer, he says, would have taught him, but ‘I was dul, and lerned lyte [little] or naght’. Hyperbole in panegyric and in the modest assertions of a disciple's inferiority come easily to a medieval poet, but the vehemence of Hoccleve's words (‘O maister, maister, God thy soule reste!’) strongly suggests an affectionate relationship. Later in this poem, The Regiment of Princes, he says that although Chaucer is dead his appearance is still vivid in his mind (he was writing eleven or twelve years after the event), and he has instructed a ‘likeness’ of him to be made (a fine example of which survives in Harley MS 4866 in the British Library).

The combination of admiration and affection was often to be found in later readers of Chaucer. A series of writers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, less close in time to Chaucer than Hoccleve, praise him in similar terms, often remarking on his eloquence and the way he has ‘illumined’ the English language. The repetition of his name in such passages, often linked with those of two other poets, John Gower and John Lydgate, might almost suggest the growth of a ‘canon’ of English poetry, or at least of one kind of English poetry. The introduction of printing in England in 1476 confirmed his reputation. William Caxton printed two editions of The Canterbury Tales (1477, 1483) and a great deal of his other poetry. Other editions followed Caxton's, and in 1532 appeared the first single-volume collection of ‘Chaucer's works’; many others followed in the succeeding centuries. Chaucer was fortunate in having his work available in printed form to readers throughout the whole subsequent history of English.

Chaucer's achievement

It was a fortunate fate but one that was deserved, for Chaucer's literary achievement was a truly remarkable one. His early followers were right to single out for praise his skill in the art of rhetoric—an art not then restricted to figures of speech or simple ‘decoration’, but comprising the whole art of speaking and writing well. The flexible poetic style that he developed demonstrated a mastery of the English language both learned and colloquial, whether he is addressing the muse Polyhymnia (in Anelida and Arcite) in appropriately solemn and melodious tones:
thou Polymya
On Parnaso that …
Singest with vois memorial in the shade
Under the laurer which that may not fade
or imagining a familiar conversation when in The Reeve's Tale two Cambridge students greet a miller:
‘Al hayl, Symond, y-fayth!
Hou fares thy faire doghter and thy wyf?’
‘Aleyn, welcome …
And John also, how now, what do ye heer?’
There are sudden changes of register, dramatic dialogues, even dramatic encounters where no words at all are used, as when the young May in a garden, in the presence of her old husband (who is now blind), communicates by gesture with her lover Damyan, who is lurking nearby in the bush:
coughen she bigan
And with hir fynger signes made she
That Damyan sholde clymbe upon a tree.
There is a characteristic delight in the diversity and the ‘thisness’ of people and things. The quality of vividness in Chaucer's writing was noticed early—an anonymous late fifteenth-century poet remarks in a ‘book of curtesye’ that his
langage was so fayr and pertynente
It semeth unto mannys heerynge
Not only the worde
bot verily the thynge.
Even in a time which excelled in the art of narrative, Chaucer was an outstanding storyteller—in his dream vision poems, in Troilus and Criseyde, his long tale of love, and in the anthology of vastly different stories, long and short, comic and serious, which make up the comédie humaine of The Canterbury Tales. His attitudes very often combine detachment and irony with an intense sympathy and compassion. Chaucer could write broadly comic scenes but he also produced some of the best scenes of pathos in English. His ironies are usually subtle and flickering, but he can write sharp satire against wicked or foolish clerics—and others. He likes to control the rhythm and the flow of a narrative carefully, experimenting with digressions and delays which may in fact increase the dramatic effect.
  Thomas Hoccleve (c.1367–1426) workshop of Hermann Scheerre, c.1412 [kneeling, right] Thomas Hoccleve (c.1367–1426) workshop of Hermann Scheerre, c.1412 [kneeling, right]

Two aspects are especially prominent: a markedly dramatic quality and a constant interest in ideas. The first is particularly evident in Troilus and Criseyde, where there is a high proportion of direct speech and dialogue, but it is clear also in the individual scenes and the whole structure of The Canterbury Tales. It is not at all surprising that some of the stories which make up the latter were subsequently turned whole or in part into stage drama. Even before Hoccleve, his ill-fated friend Thomas Usk, executed in 1388 on a charge of treason, had called Chaucer ‘the noble philosophical poete in Englisshe’. Chaucer had a deep interest in science, especially astronomy. He translated the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, and Boethian themes recur throughout his work. He uses the favourite medieval genre of the dream vision, in which a dreamer finds illumination through symbolic or allegorical scenes, through meetings with or sightings of figures of authority—Nature, Fortune, Fame—and through dialogues and arguments. In his treatment of ideas Chaucer combines seriousness and humour: strange things happen to the apparently naïve and bewildered dreamer—in The House of Fame he is carried aloft by a talkative eagle, while in The Parliament of Fowls he is pushed through a gate by Scipio Africanus. He prefers to end not with a neat didactic conclusion, but rather with a question or a teasing remark. This fascination with ideas, and how they may be explored through images, dialogues, and scenes, also occurs in his other poems, and finds expression in a series of favourite themes: fortune, free will, and predestination; gentilesse or true nobility; and in his most central topic, the nature and paradoxes of love (concerning the mysteries of which he repeatedly professes to know little or nothing). As a writer he learnt from his English predecessors and contemporaries in the art of narrative and lyric, but his great achievement was to assimilate a range of literature in Latin, French, and (uniquely in the England of his day) Italian—he was inspired by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch.

Chaucer's contemporaries

The acknowledgement of Chaucer's eminence has sometimes led to a number of misconceptions and oversimplifications—in particular a tendency to see him as an isolated figure, or to underestimate or ignore the achievements of his contemporaries and later followers. He is not ‘the father of English literature’: there were plenty of poets writing in the English vernacular before Chaucer. Many of them remain nameless, and so find it hard to qualify for an entry in the Oxford DNB—unless they have a kind of nom de guerre like the Gawain Poet. Even when we know the name of a medieval writer, we sometimes know little else. The biographical details that we have usually come from records of a writer's official duties (and are recorded because he had some official status, not because he was a writer), or from involvement in legal proceedings, or from hints dropped here and there in his own work; thus Lydgate
  John Lydgate (c.1370–1449/50?) manuscript illumination [kneeling left, with Henry V] John Lydgate (c.1370–1449/50?) manuscript illumination [kneeling left, with Henry V]
says that he was born in Lidgate in Suffolk, adding rather nicely ‘wher Bachus licour doth ful scarsly flete [flow]’ (though nowadays his birthplace can pride itself on having a pub listed in the Which? pub guide).

The tendency to underestimate other contemporary writers has led many modern ‘general readers’ to forget the achievement of Chaucer's older contemporary William Langland, undoubtedly a great poet. Langland's visionary, much revised, difficult, and highly original poem in alliterative metre, The Vision of Piers Plowman, shows a powerful poetic imagination, a constantly enquiring and critical mind, and an exceptional command of language. It can rise to sublime moments—as in his lines on the death of Christ:
Consummatum est’, quod Crist, and comsede [began] for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison [prisoner] that deieth [dies];
The lord of lif and of light tho [then] leide hise eighen [eyes] togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
John Gower is probably a lesser figure, but one who should certainly not be forgotten. He wrote with fluency and distinction in three languages: he composed, in French, lyrics and the Mirour de l'omme, a long didactic and satirical poem; in Latin another powerful satirical poem, Vox clamantis; and Confessio amantis in English. This last is a long encyclopaedic and instructive work concerning love. Amans, the lover, makes his confession to Genius, the priest of Venus, with wit and considerable ingenuity relating the doctrine of love to the seven deadly sins, which are illustrated by a series of short tales. Written in clear and deceptively simple style, these are little masterpieces of the narrative art. William Shakespeare brought ‘ancient Gower’ back from the ashes to introduce Pericles, a play based on his story of Apollonius of Tyre, but in the following centuries Gower's reputation declined sharply, and quite unjustly. More sympathetic study in our own day has restored his reputation.

That there was a flowering of literature in English in the second half of the fourteenth century is clear. It is not clear, however, that it can be ascribed to any single cause. The variety of the writing is itself a problem. Besides rhyming poetry of different kinds it includes alliterative poetry of various types in the work of Langland and the Gawain Poet,
 Gawain Poet (fl. c.1375–1400) manuscript painting [as the father in Pearl] Gawain Poet (fl. c.1375–1400) manuscript painting [as the father in Pearl]
whose four remarkable poems—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness—are not only brilliant exercises in different genres but show a thoughtful and moral author who wrote with elegance and wit. Chaucer was certainly one of the ornaments of this brilliant flowering, and some would like him to be a ‘cause’—but Langland had already succeeded in writing impressive poetry in English before Chaucer. It has been suggested that Chaucer deliberately sought to ennoble the language of English poetry after the French pattern and introduce it to the court. There may be some truth in this, but there are also some problems. Chaucer's ‘French’ poems are in fact imaginatively transformed into something that differs considerably from their originals. There was courtly poetry on the edges of the court written by Chaucer's friends Sir John Clanvow, author of a verse dream vision, The Book of Cupid (which is indebted to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls), and Henry Scogan, whose Moral Balade was perhaps read to the four sons of Henry IV (it quotes Chaucer's balade of gentilesse). But not all of the poetry was connected with the court—Piers Plowman for instance, or the works of the Gawain Poet, whose ‘cultural milieu must have included the Cheshire gentry in the reign of Richard II’ (Oxford DNB). Furthermore, we should not overlook the lyrics and romances, some of great distinction, and a rich tradition of prose, for instance in the works of devotional writers like Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich, and the translator John Trevisa.

Imitators and successors

The fifteenth century was treated even more unfairly by early critics and historians. It was long condemned as an age of decline and dullness, partly because of an uncritical attachment to a seductive pattern of cultural history which sees a periodic rise and fall in literary excellence and achievement (a pattern which may sometimes be right, but is not universally so), and partly because of the undoubted fact that the fifteenth century did not produce an English poet of Chaucer's greatness. But it is far from clear that the fifteenth century was an age of decline in English writing. In prose Sir Thomas Malory towers above his predecessors, and in general fifteenth-century prose matches the variety and distinction of that of the fourteenth. The drama can be excellent, and likewise the lyric. Even the poets obviously influenced by Chaucer, when read without prejudice, can be entertaining: the author of The Assembly of Ladies (almost certainly a woman) catches a Chaucerian tone when in her dream she and her companions are summoned by Perseverance to a council held by Loyalty who will hear their grievances, but no men are to come. ‘Nat one?’ says the dreamer, ‘ey, benedicite! / What have they done?’ (but Perseverance will not say).

The best of Chaucer's followers can be seen to engage with him in one way or another, but also to find their own voices and styles. Hoccleve, entertainingly and movingly confessional, can write with pungency and wit. Now rightly admired, he was formerly dismissed as boring and garrulous. Perhaps Lydgate will never quite regain his early high status, but his grave seriousness, the thoughtfulness with which he engages with Chaucer, and his eloquent scenes of pathos have found modern admirers. John Skelton, who lived into the early sixteenth century, a flamboyant and by no means subservient follower, has Chaucer's instinctive command of all levels of speech. In Scotland, which produced a wonderful poetic tradition in the late middle ages, King James I in The Kingis Quair, a work of the early fifteenth century, wrote a fine lyrical dream vision, a romantic autobiography which is also a poem that in a very Chaucerian style raises and discusses general ideas concerning love and fortune.
 James I (1394–1437) coin James I (1394–1437) coin
And at the end of that century Robert Henryson wrote a collection of fables which show a Chaucerian blend of irony and humanity, and in The Testament of Cresseid imagined the end of Chaucer's heroine in a powerful and disturbing tragedy.

These talented followers of Chaucer have had chequered critical fortunes, but their master's achievement has become part of a continuing literary tradition and also of English culture. We take leave of him with the Renaissance poet who was probably his greatest disciple, Edmund Spenser, excited by the wonders of The Squire's Tale, and deeply influenced by some of Chaucer's dominant ideas. He opens a canto of The Faerie Queene (book 6, canto 3) with a Chaucerian ‘sentence’:
True is, that whilome that good poet sayd,
The gentle minde by gentle deeds is knowne.
In the person of Colin in The Shepheardes Calendar (published about the end of 1579) he makes an eloquent lament for the poet, which at least in sentiment recalls that of Hoccleve:
The God of shepheards Tityrus is dead
Who taught me homely, as I can, to make.

Douglas Gray


workshop of H. Scheere, manuscript illumination, c.1412, , BL, Arundel MS 38, fol. 37r; Thomas Hoccleve [see illus.] · coin, National Museums of Scotland; James I [see illus.] · manuscript illumination, Bodl. Oxf., MS Digby 232, fol. 1; John Lydgate [see illus.] · manuscript painting, BL, T. Hoccleve, De regimine principum, MS Harley 4866, fol. 88; Geoffrey Chaucer [see illus.] · manuscript painting, BL, Cotton MS Nero A.x, fol. 37; Gawain Poet [see illus.]