The Middle Ages

Talking Pearls and Geoffrey Chaucer

Inevitably, some of the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry survived into the Middle Ages. Poems such as "The Owl and the Nightingale" (circa 1200) retain the familiar alliterative style and a tendency to anthropomorphize and therefore have animals and inanimate objects speaking as if human. Similarly, heroic journey stories did not die with Beowulf by any means and ‘romances’ such as King Horn (c. 1225) were common in the 13th century. The next century brought a number of Christian moral poems (Piers Plowman (c. 1367-70) and the Gawain poet’s dream vision poem about a lost daughter and the New Jerusalem which is referred to as "Pearl" (c.1400)). It was Chaucer, though, above Langland, Gower or Malory who is considered foremost in 14th century literature. His Troilus and Criseyde, tells a tragic love story set in the time of the siege at Troy and is still much revered for its majesty and impeccable construction in rhyme-royal verse. More famous, though, and more varied are The Canterbury Tales which surely need little introduction. This cornucopia of stories - derivative of Boccaccio’s Decameron both for certain plots and in being a varied selection of tales spoken by different characters – has remarkable scope. A group of pilgrims from the lowliest (a miller) to the noblest (a knight) tell each other a series of variously polite, lewd, scandalous and satirical stories in a selection of different verse forms. Chaucer was a respected member of society but could rarely resist a jibe at the expense of the corrupt (the Summoner), the absurd (the Monk) or the vain (the Prioress). Meanwhile he allows himself a wry smile when depicting unconventional social dissidents like the Wife of Bath. Chaucer’s sense of humour sets him apart from the more tiresomely heroic and religious writers of the Middle Ages.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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