Chaucer’s People by Liza Picard (Historical/Literary Nonfiction, American Edition 2019).
Liza Picard has written a series of books on various aspects of English history. For her latest, published in England in 2017, with its American edition now out, she uses Geoffrey Chaucer’s best known work as a springboard into an entertaining and informative account of what life was like for all sorts of people in that nation’s 14th Century.
Even if you haven’t read The Canterbury Tales, you’ve probably heard about the basics. A board cross-section of medieval society are traveling together as religious pilgrims. One after another, they relieve the boredom of the journey by telling stories. Along with Chaucer’s description of this varied lot, their stories form an epic-length narrative poem that reveals something of each character’s true self—-often in bitingly satirical fashion.
Now Picard takes Chaucer’s words and characters one by one to illustrate how all manner of medieval people acted and thought, what they wore and ate, and how they made their livings. In 23 chapters, the author comments with wit and insight both on how Chaucer pictured the people he knew and expand upon these short portraits to a broader overview of that time period.
How did the Great Plague (which Chaucer and his fictional characters lived through) change how society was organized? What were the rights and responsibilities of a Knight, his Squire, his Yeoman archer? And could one Knight, for instance, really have been in all the battles Chaucer attributes to him? How did the assorted Guilds control the businesses, the salaries of and even the prices their members charged for their specialties? How much could someone in various professions expect to earn, and what taxes would they have to pay? What caused the great peasant uprising of 1381, and why were foreign wool workers a particular target? How was education organized in the 14th Century? And indeed, just how corrupt were some (not all) of the time’s powerful Church’s actions and officials?
And what of various now-unfamiliar occupations that back then were known and instantly recognized by Chaucer’s contemporaries? What did a Reeve do? What was a Summoner’s duties? How about a Tapicer?
These are just a handful of questions Picard delves into as she considers the much-married Wife of Bath, the Ploughman and so many more.
If any of this sounds dry, be assured that’s simply not the case. Picard tells you about and explains the lives of the rich, the poor and the nascent middle class of that era in confident, highly readable, smart and knowing fashion.
This is a remarkable way at looking at a classic of Old English literature, and the world that produced it.