THIS book is instructive fun. Lisa Picard is a social historian, and she groups Chaucer’s characters accordingly under “Country Life”, “City Life”, “The Religious Life”, and “The Armed Services”, setting each of them in his or her professional or social context in the way that Chaucer himself knew it.
The Merchant, for example, belongs to the financial world, and he is a merchant in the wool trade; so we learn about both. It was a trade whose ways Chaucer knew only too well while he served as controller of hides, skins, and wools in the port of London.
“The Religious Life” offers six pilgrims. Setting the Monk in his place, the author explains about the monastic orders, and is frank about the fringe forms of behaviour open to a worldly man with his eye on an abbacy — and the main chance. The Prioress provides an opportunity to explain the daily lives of nuns; they were usually well-born women who, in their own way, could be as worldly as the Monk.
The Friar is another figure who pushes the boundaries of the rules of his chosen way of life. Here, the reader is offered a short, clear explanation of the main orders of friars and their work. Chaucer’s Friar was especially skilled at begging and at making himself useful to influential people who needed a helpful and obliging confessor.
The Pardoner presents a particular challenge in explaining the intricacies of the late-medieval system of indulgences and the place of relics. The author does not go very deep into the underlying theology, but neither does Chaucer in sketching his corrupt purveyor of hopes of speedier arrivals in heaven.
These are the naughty characters in this section. The last two characters are the Clerk of Oxenford and the Poor Parson. The Clerk is a true scholar, who is placed in the university world of the day as it looked and felt, but without going far into the academic combat of the time
The Parson is a conscientious parish clergyman, probably more so than many of his contemporaries. He is drawn by Chaucer as busy with all the proper tasks of spiritual “cure” or care of his flock, and once more the book provides a background to all that.
The writing is always lively, and there are excellent colour illustrations.
Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.
Chaucer’s People: Everyday lives in Medieval England
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50