Introduction to Chaucer: The
|The 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
|The geocentric universe:
|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
||choler (yellow bile)
|| (Emotions, Reason)
|| optimism (blood)
|| (Appetite, Emotions, Reason)
|| calm (phlegm)
|| (Appetite, Emotions)
|| melancholy (black bile)
|| (pure Appetite)
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.
most famous buildings of the Medieval era were cathedrals.
(13th Century France)
church with its towers rest on the top of the gargoyles, demons
being pushed back down;
top half of the building leaps towards the sky. The bottom half
falls back. And humans are at the center.
Cathedral (finished 1220 AD)
social hierarchy of feudalism:
God arranged society in a hierarchical order:
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.
so, this hierarchical system held in place a terribly unbalanced
2.5% elite educated
97.5% poor, illiterate, chronically ill, bound to the
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
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.
||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
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