CHAUCER – POLITICS AND THE POET

1 May

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     TROILUS AND CRESSIDA AND THE POLITICAL UPHEAVAL OF 14TH CENTURY ENGLAND.

or in other words…  “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?”

 

 

  Ostensibly a love poem that depicts love both found and lost, Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida” contains a deeper undercurrent of complexity than is at first obvious. The encirclement of the Trojans by the Greeks and the shifting politics within the besieged city itself were reminiscent of the political maneuverings which at the time of writing were redolent of England. Political upheaval, regime change, power struggle, and both internal and foreign conflict would have been as apparent to Chaucer’s readers as they were to the poem’s characters themselves. Chaucer captures the political mood of the 14th century in his poetry and manages to incorporate the essence of those struggling for and those trying to maintain power. Included in his narrative are the machinations of the crown and government as well as the religious, social, and gender politics of the period. This contemporary narrative set in a prehistoric pagan period emulates in many aspects the medieval climate of the 1380’s.

               “Troilus and Cressida” is a macrocosm of British upheaval and unrest, the political climate of the day undoubtedly very much in the mind of the author whilst penning his poetry. An astute political awareness would have been vital in order to assuage criticism and at the same time promote his writing and entertain his readership. During his life time Chaucer was the subject of three different monarchs, a protagonist in war, an envoy, a civil servant and both a relation and benefactor of the monarchy. It was within his own interest to ensure that any political commentary in his writing favored those who favored him. Although the medieval spotlight is often focused on the alternative view, his characters tend to err on the side of righteousness or suffer the consequences. Chaucer was well-aware, that not only was he a writer, but also a courtier soliciting the favor of his King. To the readers of the period Chaucer’s inclusions would no doubt have been recognizable, the quotidian drama of political intrigue and social controls adding an element of familiarity.

               Chaucer astutely introduced the politics of the late 14th century into “Troilus and Cressida” in order to flesh his characters and color his writings, giving it an appeal that would foment both recognition and notoriety. The poem includes allusions to social, religious, and gender politics. By incorporating the events of the period and utilizing those ideals recognized as the social standard, he embellishes his characters with both vice and virtue whilst carefully crafting a 14th century story in a pagan setting. By analyzing the events of the period and comparing these to the narrative of the poem it’s possible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

               Troy is an embattled city, a nation state besieged by the Greeks. Whilst the Trojans languish behind high walls the enemy is encamped in the surrounding countryside. Conflict is a daily occurrence and the balance of power hangs precariously. One wrong move and the city will be besieged – its inhabitants murdered, its wealth plundered and its buildings destroyed. Although a story of antiquity, the plight of the Trojans is not dissimilar to medieval England. “The besieged monarchy of Richard II staggering under debt of war created from successive unsuccessful forays with France, forced the country into austerity and the English to relinquish their conquests on the continent.” (Dobson 124.) In order to recoup the losses created by perpetual war the young King – under the guidance of his uncle John of Gaunt – is craftily advised to illicit a pole tax from the people; a tax that demanded that every person in England pay an equal portion whether rich or poor. This meant that both the wealthy and the impoverished had to pay a fee to the crown. A system detested by the poor but lauded by the landed, as with tax evasion and the misappropriation of funds the wealthy paid nothing and consequently profited off the backs of the serfs who had little choice but to pay. Given that it was the poor who were doing the fighting and dying, the titled and positioned saw no reason why they shouldn’t also pay for the experience. For the first time in English History (1381) the people revolted, organized themselves into peasant armies and marched on London. A beggar’s army led by such inspirational figures as Watt Tyler and John Ball, ordinary men who dared to confront and bear arms against the representative of God on earth. In their attempts to pacify the so-called rebels the King met with them in the city, and after calculated deception and the murder of their leaders a militia loyal to the crown dispersed the rebels and the rebellion was quashed. Despite the outcome, the poll tax was abolished and the wars of expansion on the continent curtailed. One of the demands made by the mob, the practice and policy of serfdom, declined, and workers wages, also unfairly restricted by the crown, began once again to rise. At the same time the power of Parliament was in the ascension and political debate began to challenge the divine right of monarchy.

               Chaucer uses the idea of political rebellion to great effect within his poetry in several different instances. When we first encounter Cressida she’s the abandoned daughter of the considered traitor Calkas. Her father has foreseen the downfall of Troy and after weighing his options defects to the Greeks. This treachery is common knowledge among the Trojans who seek revenge upon his daughter Cressida, the sins of the father to be visited upon the daughter in appropriation for his treason and deceit. It’s whispered among the common people of Troy that upon sight Cressida will be burnt alive and killed as recompense for the danger in which her father has placed them.

“That Calkas fled was an allied./…And seyden al his kin at-ones ben worthi for to Brennen, fel and bones.” (1-87-91)

               Here we see a mirroring of the English peasants standing up against the King all be it reverse imagery. This may be precautionary on the part of Chaucer, who rather than displaying those who line their pockets as miscreants and thieves, instead are represented as charitable and benevolent. The revengeful Trojan public eager for the blood of Cressida is representative of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. It’s the ordinary citizens who would kill and depose the affluent, an allusion perhaps to King Richard and his meeting with Watt Tyler at Mile-End in London? There the King under the protection of the militia tricked Tyler, had him murdered, dispersed the mob, and enacted a state of exception, or rather they instituted martial law. The state of exception installed in England after the rebellion is representative of the besieged city of Troy, Cressida taking the place of the embattled King Richard. This shows Richard and Cressida in a favorable light as they are both portrayed as just, honest, and without sin, therefore worthy of saving.

               Royal politics are also portrayed in the poem. King Richard II was a very young King, not having achieved his majority at his coronation and therefore, as was the custom, appointed a Regent in the form of his uncle John of Gaunt. Cressida is saved by the grace of Prince Hector the son of King Priam, not by the King himself.

“On knees she fil biforn Ector adown…/ His mercy bad, hirselven excusyinge.” (1-110-112)

“Now was this Ector pitous of nature…/ And seyde”Lat youre fadres treson gon forth with meschaunce, and ye yourself in joie.” (1-112-116)

 

               An allusion to the power-struggle in England at that time, where John of Gaunt, a patron and a relation to Chaucer, was responsible for the political decisions of State and the Privy Purse. Priam, the King of Troy is replaced by his son Hector the great Trojan hero. Chaucer craftily embodies the King and his Gaunt in the characters of Priam and Hector ensuring that both are adequately accounted for and that both receive equal dedication.

               Shortly after the rebellion Parliament addressed the issues that had given rise to public instability and dealt with them accordingly. Known as the “Wonderful Parliament” they achieved greater power if not a parity with monarchy by pressing for royal reform. They asserted their position by prosecuting those who’d willfully stolen from the state and accused several of the King’s closest confidants of treason, removing them from the King’s inner circle, and in some instances executing them. “John of Gaunt was initially charged but later reprieved thanks to the influence of Richard himself.”(Collins 67) “The Wonderful Parliament” features in Chaucer’s writing and can be discerned in the figure of Pandarus, the advisor to Troilus, and also in the contrite Trojan council who later decrees that Cressida be given up to the Greeks as ransom for Antenor.

“Priam, the kyng, ful soone in general let her upon his palement to holde.”

The embassadours ben answere for final th’ exchaaunge of prisoners…/and forth in they procede( 4-144-47) 

               Pandarus, the uncle of Cressida, sees an opportunity to manipulate a love affair between Troilus and his niece. Promising the love-sick Prince that he can obtain his love for him, Pandarus demands that his actions aren’t forgotten and that ultimately he’ll be rewarded for his arbitration.

“And whan that Pandare herde hire name nevene…/Lord he was glad”(1-876-78)

               It’s possible here to see allusions to the poor advice of “…King Richard’s inner circle of advisors, the advice of John of Gaunt, and also to the power of the “Wonderful Parliament” itself.”(Goodman p.56) A royal figure is being controlled and manipulated in each instance. It only remains for the reader to decide, which is which? Chaucer is very ambiguous in his casting and tends to use the ideas of the day rather than point fingers at definite personalities. The notion that the machinations of ancient Troy are on a par with those of modern England are extremely tantalizing.

               The “Wonderful Parliament” features for a second time in the poem when Troilus begs the Trojan council for the release of Cressida. Having lost prestige in battle, similar to the taint of scandal on King Richard, the council refuses his request and Cressida is handed over. Despite the fact that she initially had the patronage of Hector – John of Gaunt – she’s now nothing more than chattel and no longer worthy of consideration. The strength of Parliament at that particular period was clearly greater than that of the throne and although Chaucer may be playing both ends against the middle he’s careful not to point the finger adroitly, once again employing the politics of the day to enliven his story.

               Religious politics play a significant role in 14th century England and Chaucer is wise to ensure that his characters that resemble medieval Christians do in fact engender the psyche and religious morals of pagan Troy. As always Chaucer offers his epithet that his knowledge is based on the books of his predecessors and therefore cannot be faulted for any mistakes or misunderstandings invoking the one to true God to bless his enterprise. Although a tale of polytheism and righteous pagan attitudes there is an obvious sense of modernity within his verse.

“But ye lovers that bathen in gladnesse if any drope of pyte in yow be remember yow on passed hevynesse” (1-22-23) 

               Allusions to Boccaccio and his “Filostrato”, the original manuscript from which Chaucer drew some of his ideas, are not surprisingly amalgamated into the poetry given that Chaucer was translating the work at the time of writing. The principal point of the “Filostrato” is that earthly delights are nothing when compared with heavenly, and therefore one can better work towards the afterlife than pursue vanity and earthly desires in order to be assured of God’s grace. Troilus is therefore viewed in medieval terms but excused for his prehistoric manners. In the sense of universal power and the politics of a divine maneuvering supreme being, just as the King of England is all powerful, God observes everything and everyone. The idea of omnipotence poses the paradox of divine intervention and free will. If Boccaccio is to be understood then free will takes second place, and therefore those pursuing terrestrial pleasures are doomed to failure, hence Chaucer’s characters are doomed from the very outset. Much as the wheel-of-fortune turns, so does the unfolding of the divine plan therefore, as the characters climb we know that they will eventually be crushed under the same wheel that bought them to the pinnacle of happiness. Thus Hector will fail in his promise to keep Cressida safe. Boccaccio’s ideas of simple and conditional necessity ensure that no matter the decisions taken the outcome is already known, and free will, although allowing for perceived choice, is in fact already ordained. If God doesn’t create all, but knows all, then the outcome of any action is predetermined. One can only hope for the intervention of God and therefore prayer is never a wasted exercise, as Chaucer well-knows when dedicating his poems and hoping for heavenly intervention. Divine political hierarchy is therefore sacrosanct and the machinations of men are nothing but mere vanity.

               At the end of the poem the power of the medieval church is once again intoned in the fate of Troilus after his death. Unlike Cressida, Troilus has proven loyal and chaste and so Chaucer uses consideration in his placement in the afterlife. Rather than receiving entrance to a Christian heaven with God in his Imperium he is instead sent to the “eighth sphere” where with the stars he is fixed in the firmament for eternity.

“His lighte goost ful blissfully is went up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere in convers leyting everich element.” (5-1808-10) 

               By reminding his readership that only Christians may enter the Kingdom of Heaven Chaucer fulfills his politically correct duty. Once again acquiescing to political pressure he ends his book with a prayer to the true God, despite having earlier prayed to pagan gods and invoked both furies and muses to help him with his text to admonish his characters. Bowing to tradition he asks for the protection of the Trinity to ensure not only the success of his “little book,” but to appease the religious authorities, and finally prays to be worthy of Christ’s mercy.

“Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve that regnet ay in threand two and oon…/defende, and to thy mercy everichon.” (5-1864-1867) 

               Fourteenth-century gender politics are not least among Chaucer’s allusions and he uses these constantly to demonstrate the hierarchy that exists between the would-be lovers, those who put them together, and those who hope to profit by their union. The troubadour tradition of courtly love, or fin-amors, reverses the power positions within the relationship of Troilus and Cressida. Troilus is a son of Priam, the King of Troy, and therefore high on the social ladder. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and a woman to boot, and so lower than he. The desire which he feels for her and the “hereos” he suffers because of his lust reverse their positions. The medieval document “Roman de la Rose,” of which Chaucer would’ve been aware, lays out the chivalric code for lovers, where the Knight must pay homage to his love, perform the actions of a Knight in both word and deed and endure any “love-service” his lady demands. In order to attract Cressida Troilus discards his petulant ways and undertakes to be the best man he can possibly be in the hopes that his chivalric deeds will be noticed. Despite their class differences, it’s the son of a King who is supplicant to the daughter of a perceived criminal. Bounded by chivalric politics Troilus unwittingly straps himself onto the wheel-of-fortune and prepares for a rough ride.

“For he bicome the frendlieste wight, the gentilest, and ek the mooste fre, the thriftiest and oon the beste knyght.” (1-179-181) 

               By incorporating the quotidian climate of 14th century England into his poetry Chaucer created verse that was current, topical, and amusing. The poem is embellished by its duality, the double lives of Troilus and Cressida as both ancient pagans and alternatively pseudo medieval-Christians making his characters more accessible to his contemporary audience. Constrained by royal patronage and dependent on their benefaction, Chaucer walked a fine line when attempting to equate his modernity with the ancient world. An adherence to medieval politics was necessary and so the allusions to social, religious, and gender issues had to be tempered with accepted doctrine and political savvy. Despite the difference of centuries it is possible to view medieval Britain through the eyes of Chaucer, and equate his thinking to the events that shaped his world. By analyzing and comparing the events of the period to the narrative in the poem it’s feasible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

 

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2 Responses to “CHAUCER – POLITICS AND THE POET”

  1. Jennifer Fawcett June 21, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    Very well done–a good essay that conveys both the reality and lack thereof in Chaucer’s writing.

    A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century — Barbara Tuchman. Interesting research and lends some understanding to a deadly and confusing period of history.

    • Colin James I-10 Blog June 22, 2014 at 9:30 am #

      Jennifer.
      Thanks for checking in, your coments are always appreciated. I will check into the Distant Mirror as that does seem interesting. What the heck, it isn’t as though I have anything else to read !! Take care.

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