Introduction to Chaucer: The Medieval Worldview




The divine hierarchy Divine Hierarchy†
The universe was created by God. Itís design and history was determined by divine plan, from the creation to the Last Judgment. Therefore, everything in it has a purpose and place. Nothing simply happens.  The cosmos was conceived as a giant ladder of ascending quality in which everything in the universe has its place; above is a realm of grace and spirit, below an earthly realm of base matter and just below that realm is Hell. From God and the angels, the great chain of being descends through the heavenly bodies to the earth. On earth, humans are at the apex, next the animals, below them plants, and then inanimate things. Each elementís appropriate place is peculiar to its specific nature. Godís revelation extends down to humanity through this hierarchical order. Heaven†
The geocentric universe Ptolemaic Universe  
Encyclopedia Britannica Multimedia
From Aristotle and Ptolemy, medieval thinkers inherited the theory of an earth-centered universe which they imbued with Christian symbolism. Seven spheres, each holding one of the planets, are enclosed by the firmament of stars; three heavenly spheres range above the firmament with the Empyrean, the realm of God and the heavenly angels, at the outermost. Humans are located at the center of everything, indicating Godís focus upon his most beloved creation. Although located near the bottom of the hierarchy, only humans, of all the creatures, can ascend to heaven. Aristotle made a sharp distinction between the world above and below the moon. In the ethereal region above, celestial laws hold, while below earthly bodies are subject to mutability, the force of time. All matter seeks its proper place in the divine hierarchy: heavy bodies fall; light bodies rise.



The Great Chain of Being

  Ptolomaic Cosmology/ Christian Theology/ Social Heirarchy

Cosmos      Nature Elements Humours  Body Political Family
God (pure Reason)  Fire choler (yellow bile) head† King Father
Angels   (Emotions, Reason) Air  optimism (blood)  heart Clergy Sons
Humans  (Appetite, Emotions, Reason) Water  calm (phlegm) heart† Nobles Mother
Animals  (Appetite, Emotions) Earth  melancholy (black bile) liver† Serfs Daughters
Plants  (pure Appetite)  Earth

About the time of Thomas Aquinas, the scholastics tried to reconcile ancient science with church belief by adding Angels to the divine hierarchy. That conveniently puts men in the middle of the universe. Everything is ordered according to this type of hierarchy.  The king is at the apex of the human order. Being centered! Heaven is up and hell is beneath the Earth. 

The most famous buildings of the Medieval era were cathedrals.


Chartres Cathedral (13th Century France)

  The church with its towers rest on the top of the gargoyles, demons being pushed back down; the top half of the building leaps towards the sky. The bottom half falls back. And humans are at the center.

Amiens Cathedral (finished 1220 AD)



the social hierarchy of feudalism: God arranged society in a hierarchical order:


            the king

            the clergy

            the nobility

            the serfs.


Every personís duties is defined by his or her divinely appointed place. These places are fixed. Society functions smoothly when each person accepts their status and performs their proper role. Inferiors obey superiors, and superiors lead society in accordance with divine teaching. Despite this hierarchy God has granted all the potential for grace.


Even so, this hierarchical system held in place a terribly unbalanced social order:

-         2.5% elite educated

-         97.5% poor, illiterate, chronically ill, bound to the land, 

      with a life expectancy of 29.6 years

Between the time of Copernicus (mid 16th c.)  and Galileo (early 17th c.), this whole grand scheme would fall to pieces. At the furthest shell of the cosmos is a shell of fixed stars. When Copernicus and Galileo started looking scientifically at the universe, the churchís ideology started to crack.

This destruction of the divine hierarchy and the churchís domination of European thought happened very slowly. But you can see the beginnings of the Renaissance in motion by the 12th century, and the rise of a new society had begun to take shape by the time that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales near the end of the 14th century. Weíll be studying the composition of this society in Chaucerís great poem. 


Geofferey Chaucer (1340-1400)
The Life of Chaucer: †
Chaucerís father was a wheeler and dealer of wine who earned a fortune despite being born in the peasant class. He was one of the people who typified the rise of the middle class during the late middle ages. He moved off the farm, into the city, and made an enormous amount of money in a short time. Their son became closely connected to the king and spent his whole life working at court. Yet Chaucerís grandfather had been a peasant. Chaucer served under three kings, and he managed to keep himself out of trouble even though his beliefs were often at odds with the king. The language he wrote in was one which every Englishman from peasant to king would have understood. He chose to write in Middle English because he knew that then his poem would reach every literate Englishman.

ďThe PrologueĒ to The Canterbury Tales:


Thirty pilgrims have gathered in the south London neighborhood of Southwark, Harry Baileyís ĎTaberd Inní. They are about to embark upon a journey from London to St. Thomas Becketís tomb at the cathedral in Canterbury, a hundred miles to the east, at the mouth of the Thames River. 

The Prologue gives you an excellent portrait of each pilgrim. They range across the social hierarchy from noble to clergy to commoner. To pass the time en route to Canterbury, Harry Bailey sets a contest for the various pilgrims: whoever tells the best story on the trip wins a free dinner when they return home. Chaucer wrote 24 tales. Tonight you will be starting to read the frame story: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

A frame story: a prologue: a kind of rosary: units divided off by a middle tale and an ending tale. Bocaccioís Decameron is good but it isnít Chaucer. He really changes voice. It is comparable to listening to standard English on the BBC and then cutting to a Cockney accent. He tells these individual tales in individual voices while concentrating on the larger tale which he is unfolding. This interplay between the characters between the stories is as important for the character development as the stories themselves.