Generation 470, 1380-1400. Endings and beginnings

This generation saw the publication of two influential books, one in northern Europe and one in southern Europe.

At the start of this generation, the northern European view of human society was that we were divided into three groups: those who pray (the priests, friars, monks and all of the church hierarchy), those who work (the peasants, servants, merchants and craftspeople) and those who fight (the nobility with its knightly codes of honour). Those who work supported the other two groups by providing food and taxes to enable them to do their job of either protecting them from worldly dangers (the nobility) or spiritual ones (the church).

For various reasons this edifice was starting to fall apart. But before we explore some of those reasons, I want to look at a book that was written during this generation, which gives a sense of the people of that time.

‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer starts with a group of pilgrims gathered in a pub in Southwark, south London, about to set off for Canterbury Cathedral. Pilgrimages were the package holidays of the day. The routes were protected enough for ordinary people to travel them in relative safety. (One of the female characters in the Canterbury Tales has visited Jerusalem three times.) To amuse themselves on the way, they tell each other stories.
canterbury tales
Here is a painting of the pilgrims on their journey.

Although they were told with an irreverent English humour that would be recognisable today, the characters show startling levels of ignorance and prejudice. Today’s tabloid newspapers don’t get anywhere near. The death count would match that of a Hollywood action movie, and the characters display about the same lack of emotional involvement with the carnage. The adults have an emotional age of early adolescence, and respond to perceived injury in a way that we would expect to see in a kindergarten, but not outside.

For example, several stories contain young men who fall in love, usually at first sight. When their advances are rejected they immediately plan violent revenge. One man rejected by a lady murders her mistress, hoping to frame her for the crime. Another whose advances are slighted sticks a hot poker up the naked bottom presented to him in the dark from an upstairs window. Such violent reactions are not the subject of any modern stories that I know of.

The prejudice shown may have modern equivalents, however. The Prioress relays prejudices about the jews, that they kill christian children. This was a widespread rumour at the time, without any basis in fact. The jews, perceived to be wealthy and not fitting into any of the three groups described at the beginning, were an easy target. They had been expelled from England a century previously, so the imagination could run wild. Maybe there are equally baseless modern prejudices perpetuated by the rumour mill of the media.

There is little sense of individuality. People are described by their role (the Pardoner, the Summoner, the Wife of Bath …) and rarely by their names. Perhaps it is indeed true that a sense of individuality appeared a hundred years later.

The first story, the Knight’s Tale, demonstrates the emotional immaturity and absence of empathy. Two young men imprisoned in a castle see the sister of the queen from their cell, as she walks in the garden. They both fall in love with her. The rest of the story follows the consequences of this. One of them is freed and banished (presenting what was clearly a valid dilemma for the knight: which situation is worse, to be free but unable to see the object of your love, or to be imprisoned and able to see her every day?). In the end a lavish tournament is organised so that they can fight it out. The lady in question is an object for them. Never in the story do they even talk with her. It reads like a description of intense adolescent longing rather than a story of two men in their twenties.

Compare this with Shakespeare’s description of falling in love, two hundred years later. Romeo and Juliet are both under twenty years of age, but the love they feel is mutual, reciprocated.

Was the behaviour described in the Canterbury Tales typical of the time? Almost certainly, if stories of events from the period are anything to go by. (One story told by a chronicler is of a military commander, about to embark for France, who billets his troops in a convent while they wait for a fair wind. They rape the nuns and when they set sail take them along. When a storm blows up they throw the remaining nuns overboard). It also makes me wonder why people were like this. Was it lack of education? Does emotional maturity have to be taught?

The Great Pestilence (as it was known at the time) or Black Death as it is known now, returned during this generation. Death was a part of most people’s experience much more than today. Did the pervasive suffering atrophy any sense of empathy?

The church may have offered consolation, but some of those who prayed lived a lavish lifestyle. To finance it, the promise of salvation was up for sale to those who could afford it. The Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales made his living by selling relics and offering indulgences (advance forgiveness of sins) to anyone who could pay. In each generation, it seems, there was a protest movement against the corruption of the church, to be resisted as heresy by the authorities. In this generation it was the Lollards in England, inspired by the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe. His objections were echoed and continued in the following generation by Jan Hus in Prague, and by Martin Luther over a century later.

In addition there was continual, intermittent war between the noble classes, of which the two other groups were the main casualties. To finance these wars and to maintain their extraordinary lifestyle (sumptuous costumes, elaborate food and festivities, not to mention tournaments with tents like castles), taxes were levied on those who work. Not surprisingly, there were complaints and objections to these taxes, especially as the nobles did not seem to be fulfilling their function of protecting everyone else. Not only that, those who work had shown themselves to be more effective fighters in battle. Their longbows were more successful weapons than all of the knights’ paraphernalia. The gloss of the noble knight was wearing thin, but no alternative presented itself.

In 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt broke out all over the south of England. The protestors gathered in Canterbury and marched the opposite route to that of Chaucer’s pilgrims, up to London. There, after promises of concessions from the king, the revolt was violently put down and the concessions revoked.
Peasants revolt
Here is a painting of the revolt once it reached London.
This painting shows the king twice, in blue: addressing the protestors and also witnessing the death of their leader, Wat Tyler.

In the same period there were revolts by the working and merchant classes in Florence, Ghent, Rouen and Paris. These rebellions all had some common features.

First, there was a touching faith in the integrity of the monarch. In Ghent, when it came to a battle, the instruction went out not to attack the king. It does not seem to have dawned on the protesters that the king would identify more with the nobility, who were the main focus of their complaint, than with them.

Second, the protesters could not unite amongst themselves. The merchants had little in common with the farm labourers in the country, and the artisans felt exploited by the merchants as much as by the nobles.

Third, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that they could simply refuse to pay the taxes. No government can impose a universally unpopular tax.

But then, as the Canterbury Tales demonstrates, none of the people involved were very clever.

The book published in southern Europe, on the other hand, was very clever indeed. ‘The Light of the Lord’ was written by Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, originally from Barcelona. Following a line of enquiry that goes back to Aristotle, he asked such questions as whether there was such a thing as infinity (he decided there was). He asked questions about the purpose of existence, the purpose of the Creation, whether God exists, and responded to them all by the power of reasoning. His work inspired Spinoza among others, and is considered to lay the foundations for the scientific revolution in northern Europe two centuries later.


One thought on “Generation 470, 1380-1400. Endings and beginnings

  1. I feel I have been harsh in my critique of Chaucer’s world.

    Chaucer described the ordinary people of his world, not the kings, queens and nobility. And he did it in a way that is still a good read, over six centuries later.

    On reflection, I can’t believe that we humans have changed so much in thirty generations or so. Which suggests that the people were the way they were because of lack of opportunity. The evidence suggests that there was indeed a hunger for learning. There were professional scribes in most major cities who copied books such as the Canterbury Tales, to satisfy the demand. Once the printing press was invented in the next century, the rate of publication went exponential.

    Not only that, the people living at this time had something that we have lost. They lived with an intensity that is hard to imagine in our world of multiple impressions and short attention spans. The most common penalty for a crime in England at this time was death by hanging. So when a young man allowed his adolescent urges to get the better of him and did something stupid, reckless or illegal, he risked losing his own life as a consequence.

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