English Literature for Boys and Girls
by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Chapter 22: Chaucer--Bread And Milk For Children
TO-DAY, as we walk about the streets and watch the people hurry to and fro, we cannot tell from the dress they wear to what class they belong. We cannot tell among the men who pass us, all clad alike in dull, sad-colored clothes, who is a knight and who is a merchant, who is a shoemaker and who is a baker. If we see them in their shops we can still tell, perhaps, for we know that a butcher always wears a blue apron, and a baker a white hat. These are but the remains of a time long ago when every one dressed according to his calling, whether at work or not. It was easy then to tell by the cut and texture of his clothes to what rank in life a man belonged, for each dressed accordingly, and only the great might wear silk and velvet and golden ornaments.
And in the time of which we have been reading, in the England where Edward III and Richard II ruled, where Langland sadly dreamed and Wyclif boldly wrote and preached, there lived a man who has left for us a clear and truthful picture of those times. He has left a picture so vivid that as we read his words the people of England of the fourteenth century still seem to us to live. This man was Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was a poet, and is generally looked upon as the first great English poet. Like Caedmon he is called the "Father of English Poetry," and each has a right to the name. For if Caedmon was the first great poet of the English people in their new home of England, the language he used was Anglo-Saxon. The language which Chaucer used was English, though still not quite the English which we use to-day.
But although Chaucer was a great poet, we know very little about his life. What we do know has nothing to do with his poems or of how he wrote them. For in those days, and for long after, a writer was not expected to live by his writing; but in return for giving to the world beautiful thoughts, beautiful songs, the King or some great noble would reward him by giving him a post at court. About this public life of Chaucer we have a few facts. But it is difficult at times to fit the man of camp, and court, and counting-house to the poet and story-teller who possessed a wealth of words and a knowledge of how to use them greater than any Englishman who had lived before him. And it is rather through his works than through the scanty facts of his life that we learn to know the real man, full of shrewd knowledge of the world, of humor, kindliness, and cheerful courage.
Chaucer was a man of the middle class. His father, John Chaucer, was a London wine merchant. The family very likely came at first from France, and the name may mean shoemaker, from an old Norman word chaucier or chaussier, a shoemaker. And although the French word for shoemaker is different now, there is still a slang word chausseur, meaning a cobbler.
We know nothing at all of Chaucer as a boy, nothing of where he went to school, nor do we know if he ever went to college. The first thing we hear of him is that he was a page in the house of the Princess Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, who was the third son of Edward III. So, although Chaucer belonged to the middle class, he must have had some powerful friend able to get him a place in a great household.
In those days a boy became a page in a great household very much as he might now become an office-boy in a large merchant's office. A page had many duties. He had to wait at table, hold candles, go messages, and do many other little household services. Such a post seems strange to us now, yet it was perhaps quite as interesting as sitting all day long on an office stool. In time of war it was certainly more exciting, for a page had often to follow his master to the battlefield. And as a war with France was begun in 1359, Geoffrey went across the Channel with his prince.
Of what befell Chaucer in France we know nothing, except that he was taken prisoner, and that the King, Edward III, himself gave
16 pounds towards his ransom. That sounds a small sum, but it meant as much as 240 pounds would now. So it would seem that, boy though he was, Geoffrey Chaucer had already become important. Perhaps he was already known as a poet and a good story-teller whom the King was loath to lose. But again for seven years after this we hear nothing more about him. And when next we do hear of him, he is valet de chambre in the household of Edward III. Then a few years later he married one of Queen Philippa's maids-in-waiting.
Of Chaucer's life with his wife and family again we know nothing except that he had at least one son, named Lewis. We know this because he wrote a book, called A Treatise on the Astrolabe, for this little son. An astrolabe was an instrument used in astronomy to find out the distance of stars from the earth, the position of the sun and moon, the length of days, and many other things about the heavens and their bodies.
Chaucer calls his book A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Bread and Milk for Children. "Little Lewis, my son," he says in the beginning, "I have perceived well by certain evidences thine ability to learn science touching numbers and proportions; and as well consider I thy busy prayer in special to learn the treatise of the astrolabe." But although there were many books written on the subject, some were unknown in England, and some were not to be trusted. "And some of them be too hard to thy tender age of ten years. This treatise then will I show thee under few light rules and naked words in English; for Latin canst thou yet but small, my little son. . . .
"Now will I pray meekly every discreet person that readeth or heareth this little treatise, to have my rude inditing for excused, and my superfluity of words, for two causes. The first cause is for that curious inditing and hard sentence is full heavy at one and the same time for a child to learn. And the second cause is this, that soothly me seemeth better to write unto a child twice a good sentence than he forget it once. And Lewis, if so be I shew you in my easy English as true conclusions as be shewn in Latin, grant me the more thank, and pray God save the King, who is lord of this English."
So we see from this that more than five hundred years ago a kindly father saw the need of making simple books on difficult subjects for children. You may never want to read this book itself, indeed few people read it now, but I think that we should all be sorry to lose the preface, although it has in it some long words which perhaps a boy of ten in our day would still find "full heavy."
It is interesting, too, to notice in this preface that here Chaucer calls his King "Lord of this English." We now often speak of the "King's English," so once again we see how an everyday phrase links us with the past.