Chaucer's Plague Tales
In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) is a patriarch of the traditional canon of English literature, but he's no boring dead guy. True, he was a career servant of the Crown who worked for three successive kings of England. But he left a massive footprint in the historical record unlike that of any other medieval writer. And his signature literary move was to disrupt and innovate convention, making him a poet-rebel underneath the cover of a government functionary.
As a poet, Chaucer exerted a level of independent authority that his social position belied, stretching and exercising the English language to the tune of nearly 2,000 neologisms (OED). He leaves us a laundry list of "firsts"— including iambic pentameter—that grafted onto English the verse forms popularized by French and Italian poets. Financially backed by the most powerful men of England, Chaucer was instrumental in introducing English-language poetry to a francophone court whose tastes tended elsewhere, extending the 14th century English "revival" into the highest levels of society. Chaucer's double life as Crown functionary and astonishingly original poet make him a figure for the ages, and we can appreciate his literary innovations as a product, at least in part, of his social position in service to the ultra rich.
Trust me about his original work: from his earliest long poem, The Book of the Duchess (1368) to The Canterbury Tales (1400), Chaucer establishes expected norms and hierarchies only to challenge and reconfigure them. Humor often ensues, and the results often pose the potential for harmony among otherwise disparate, seemingly dissonant elements (Strohm). His radical medieval impulse in this way imagines a happy resolution of "sondry" elements: cultural, linguistic, parliamentary, religious, gendered, and so on.
But let's also acknowledge Chaucer's conservative edges. Antisemitism, for one: Chaucer turned the story of Hugh of Lincoln into the Prioress's Marion Miracle tale, restructuring a popular blood-libel story as Christian devotion (see Heng). For two: in his poetry Chaucer paid very little open attention to social unrest such as the Uprising of 1381, or to the devastation wrought throughout his lifetime by bubonic plague.
Chaucer's lifetime, and his family's prosperity, overlaps with the initial cataclysmic arrival and cyclic recurrence of plague. While Chaucer was not born into the landed gentry, both of his parents inherited significant land after plague killed all of his London relatives in 1439, and their new wealth likely enabled Chaucer's career at court (Turner).
In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world (Black). And this devastation was only the first wave: over the next 300 years, plague would return every generation, cyclically wiping out 20 percent of the population wherever it hit. Against such a cataclysmic event, other horrors of a turbulent 14th century—protracted warfare, high taxes, religious foment, urban unrest—must have seemed benign.
Many have noted that Chaucer's vast corpus of poetry contains few explicit references to the warfare, sickness, and social and religious turbulence of his day. Of the roughly 100,000 lines of Chaucer's poetry, the Black Death figures minimally overall. Still, his two plague texts—The Book of the Duchess and, from The Canterbury Tales, "The Pardoner's Tale"—suggest that pestilence offered Chaucer occasion to reflect both philosophically and morally on death.
Bubonic plague was an indiscriminate killer. But mortality rates were highest among peasants (Turner). Then as now rich people enjoyed access to greater and safer space: they didn't live on top of each other, servants went out into the world to errand on their behalf, and they owned country retreats and the freedom of mobility to escape urban centers.
Geoffrey Chaucer Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1345-1400). English poet. Coloured full figure portrait. This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections.Catalogue entry. (CC0 / Wikimedia )
In 1368, when Chaucer was a young squire in the service of Edward III, two of the most powerful women in England died of plague: first Queen Philippa, then Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster. Chaucer and his wife received money to mourn, and Chaucer took on the role of court poet—from Jean Froissart, who had been in the service of Queen Philippa up until her death—to write a public elegy to Blanche in English. Offering English as a formal language of poetic memorial, Chaucer helped Anglicize a francophone English nobility. But in terms of a poem written to offer public consolation for a high-profile plague death, The Book of the Duchess offers moral and philosophical comfort to all who mourn Blanche of Lancaster's loss. By extension, the poem eases loss in general from the latest wave of bubonic plague.
In Fragment VI of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's Pardoner treats plague in a very different mode. He tells a well-known tale of evil men led to their deaths by greed and the lure of a pot of gold, but Chaucer gives it a new spin of contemporary realism by setting it explicitly during an outbreak of plague. A boy explains the tale's opening funeral procession:
Ther cam a privee thief men clepeth Deeth,
That in this contree al the peple sleeth,
And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo,
And wente his way withouten wordes mo.
He hath a thousand slain this pestilence. (VI.675-79)
[There came a stealthy thief men call Death,/ Who slays all the people in this country,/ And with his spear he struck [the dead man's] heart in two,/ And went his way without more words./ He has slain a thousand [during] this pestilence.] (Translations from the Harvard Chaucer Page.)
The boy adds a two-part warning "to be war of swich an adversarye" (to be wary of such an adversary) and "redy for to meet him evermore" (always ready to meet him) (VI. 682-83). A taverner backs up the boy's explanation:
The child saith sooth, for he hath slain this yeer, …
Bothe man and womman, child and hine and page. (VI.686-88)
[The child speaks the truth, for he [Death] has slain this year, / … Both man and woman, child and laborer and servant boy.]
At the tale's opening, in other words, the plague setting offers the terrifying indiscriminateness of this latest outbreak of pestilence. But Chaucer's Pardoner makes a stunning narrative turn, channeling the indiscriminate death of thousands into the familiar tale-type of evil men destroyed by greed. Plague here is motivated to destroy only those lost in immorality, and by tale's end the destructive force of pestilence has spared honest people like the boy and taverner, targeting only the three rioters (Beidler).
Whereas in The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer memorializes a noble death with a public poem against grief, in the Canterbury Tales he offers an explicit warning against forgetting the reality of plague—and this reality suggestively connects plague-death to evil and immorality (Bahr).
Both of Chaucer's plague tales reveal the underlying medieval conservatism of this great poetic innovator. His vast imagination does not universalize or harmonize difference when it comes to the reality of pestilence: he elegizes the Duchess of Lancaster, cut down by plague in her prime, with a public tribute of consolation. For the rest of us, he uses the Pardoner to warn against immorality, specifically against excessive enjoyment of life—"rioting" with food, drink, dice, or sex—encouraging a belief that the plague is God's just retribution for immoral behavior.
There is irony here, of course, in that the Pardoner is a singular figure of evil in The Canterbury Tales who openly trades in an economy of morality for his own profit. So we'd be wise to think twice about taking him too seriously. The overall disparity of Chaucer's treatment of the plague still merits attention: his deference to noble plague death, compared to a moral explanation for the masses. One final note: Chaucer has the Pardoner offer a fairly representative medieval explanation of the devastation wrought by recurring pandemic. Other contemporary explanations included blaming the Jews or "bad air".
There is much to learn from Chaucer's cautious treatment of the plague, and our current moment provides a solid excuse to return to these poems and look at them again for their different approaches to mourning and explaining the 14th century ravages of the Great Pestilence. With no hint of immorality, The Book of the Duchess memorializes noble death in general and, more indirectly, noble death by plague. As elegy and tribute, it offers consolation, and it avoids the trenchant critique of noble privilege that gives Boccaccio's Decameron its edge. In contrast, the morality of the plague setting of the Pardoner's Tale explicitly names the indiscriminate pestilence slaying 'men and women, children and laborers', and then sends the message that those who are wary and ready to meet the "stealthy thief called Death" will be spared.
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