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Chaucer’s Troubled Age

Chaucer’s Troubled Age

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June 12, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Geoffrey Chaucer lived during a very tumultuous time in England. Chaucer’s patron was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a prince and statesman. Gaunt was the third son of Edward III, which enabled his rise to fame and fortune. Additionally, when Richard II, Gaunt’s nephew, assumed the throne at the age of ten, Gaunt handled most of the affairs of state until Richard II was prepared for the state’s business. Richard II, however, did not respect Gaunt or treat him well in the long run. In fact, as Richard assumed power, he grew to despise and resent his uncle. Richard II extracted great sums of money from Gaunt and the rest of the nobles, even seizing Gaunt’s whole estate after he had died. Richard also chose favorites and doted on a small group of people who had little reason to be considered royal, and were ill-informed for conducting state business. As Gaunt grew increasingly tired and pained by his nephew’s actions, Chaucer was also affected. He also depended upon Gaunt’s income and therefore grew tired of Richard’s actions.

Gaunt and Chaucer were not the only ones to notice Richard’s lavish behavior. Many of the nobles became increasingly frustrated with him as well. Chaucer’s poem “Lak of Stedfastnesse” comments on the depraved state of England at this time. Though the poem’s exact date is unknown, it has been situated in the 1390s. (While some Chaucer scholars have paired it with poems by Boethius, Dr. Haldeen Braddy* explains that it was more likely influenced by Deschamps. If this is true, then the earliest it could have been written is about 1393.) What is important is that the poem discusses Chaucer’s frustration with the state of his country. He pleaded with Richard II to change his behavior. It cannot be ignored that Chaucer probably had his own concerns in mind too. Being Gaunt’s patron, Chaucer was losing money by default. In this poem, Chaucer appeals to King Richard II to focus on important affairs of state and diminish his excessive behavior.

We have little knowledge of the reception of or audience for this poem. We do know, of course, that John of Gaunt died and his lands were taken by Richard II without any acknowledgment for Gaunt’s family. As a result, Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt) rose against Richard II and removed him from the throne. Richard died later during the same year. Shakespeare’s history plays provide interesting dramatic elements to this chaotic scene, but Chaucer’s appeal to Richard II adds insight of a different sort. His poem largely expresses what it feels like when the world flips upside down.

The poem also supports a myth that still exists today, the romanticized idea that the past was somehow superior to the present. Chaucer’s poem begins with the line: “Sometyme the world was so stedfast and stable,/ That mannes word was obligacioun,/ And now it is so fals and deceivable….” In other words, we can trust the past and not the present. I am curious about the way that this statement is simultaneously true and false. By that, I mean that parts of the past were worthwhile, and other pieces were not. As a whole, however, change happens as a result of ongoing imperfections inherent in society. I think Chaucer himself was aware that the romanticized idea of perfection was true and false also, so why did he write the poem at all?

In fact, the abundance of literature which discusses moments of instability, however, makes me think that the world has never been steadfast and stable. Rather, it’s inherently unstable, though we seek stability. The idea that stability existed sometime in our distant past seems to present itself again and again as a form of human longing. The thought of any form of stability gives us hope for a brighter future. When framed as an attribute of the past, though, it can diminish hope as it keeps us rooted to false narratives. It seems that humans like to believe in the myth of stability. The question, then, is why do we tell ourselves this myth? If stability has yet to be achieved (if achievable at all), why does it persist from age to age?

If stability is indeed a myth, then it would signify something about human nature. How can we reframe the question? And how can humans peacefully inhabit a world of inherent instability? These are questions that Chaucer poses to Richard II in the Lenvoy at the end of “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” which reads:

O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun.
Suffre nothing that may be reprevable
To thyn estat don in thy regioun.
Shew forth thy swerd of castigacioun,
Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse,
And wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.**

Find the full poem “Lak of Stedfastnesse” here along with other medieval poems which express similar complaints.

*Braddy, Haldeen. “The Date of Chaucer’s ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 36, no. 4, 1937, pp. 481–490. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27704307. Accessed 11 June 2020.

**O’Donoghue, Bernard. Reading Chaucer’s Poems: A Guided Selection. London, Faber & Faber, 1988. p 139.

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