Demise: He is believed to have died of unknown causes on 25 October 1400, but there is no firm evidence for this date, as it comes from the engraving on his tomb, erected more than one hundred years after his death. There is some speculation—most recently in Terry Jones’ book Who Murdered Chaucer?:A Medieval Mystery –that he was murdered by enemies of Richard II or even on the orders of his successor Henry IV, but the case is entirely circumstantial. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in London, as was his right owing to his status as a tenant of the Abbey’s close. In 1556, his remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, making Chaucer the first writer interred in the area now known as Poets’ Corner.
Literary Career:Chaucer’s literary works fall conveniently into three periods named according to the different literary influences discernable in his work: the French period, from his beginnings to1370; the Italian period, from1370-1385; and the English period, from1385- His first major work, The Book of the Duchess, an elegy for Blanche of Lancaster (who died in 1369) was written in the French period. He wrote most of his lyrics and some allegorical romances during this period too. “All these early works follow models laid down by earlier contemporary writers. To some extent, the works of the Italian period are works inspired by the earlier writings of Italian authors or by the atmosphere of the fourteenthcentury Italian culture with which he became acquainted during his trips to Italy.”(Woods et al 105) Chaucer’s original ingenuity started emerging in the works of the Italian period.
Some of his works include:
- The Parliament of Fowls is a charming satire, on model of animal story, of parliament and of representation of people;
- The House of Fame, although incomplete, is a more trenchant satire upon gossips, reputations, and rewards for “merit”;
- The Legend of Good Women is a collection of short biographies in verse of famous heroines of antiquity, quite in the medieval tradition which saw in the lives of great men and women models for conduct or a terrible example to shun. The work was like a mirror of life held up for all in positions of responsibility to see;
- Troilus and Criseyde, a long narrative poem in the manner of medieval romance, on a story from the medieval Troy legend. Some scholars refer to it as the first psychological novel in English literature because of its insight into human motives and its masterly characterizations; the suave and worldly go-between Pandarus and the enigmatic Cressida are remarkable portraits for the medieval period when the analysis of a human soul for more than didactic purposes was virtually unknown. Troilus and Criseydeis historically interesting, also because it happens to be the finest of all the treatments of the Troy legend in Middle English literature.It is regarded as the finest work of Chaucer’s Italian period. His major works made up from a collection of stories may have been compiled over a long period.
- Others are:The Romaunt of the Rose,The Book of the Duchess, Aneilida and Arcite, Treatise on the Astrobleand many more. Chaucer is remembered most as the author of The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury. These tales are believed to have contributed immensely in the shaping of English literature.
Characterisation: The CanterburyTales contrasts with other literature of the period because of the naturalism of its narrative, the variety of stories the pilgrims tell and the varied characters who are engaged in the pilgrimage. Many of the stories narrated by the pilgrims seem to fit their individual characters and social standing, although some of the stories seem ill-fitting to their narrators. Some scholars attribute this to the incomplete state of the work.
Chaucer drew on real life for his cast of pilgrims: the innkeeper shares the name of a contemporary keeper of an inn in Southwalk. Scholars have suggested real-life identities for the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law and the Student. The many jobs that Chaucer held in medieval society—page, soldier, messenger, valet, bureaucrat, foreman and administrator—probably exposed him to many of the types of people he depicted in the Tales. He was able to shape their speech and satirize their manners.
The Canterbury Tales stands as the supreme monument to Chaucer. The array of characters in the prologue to this “varied collection of stories both popular and artistic would have been sufficient to assure the author a high place, and the sweep and versatility of the stories themselves are a further tribute to his genius”(Woods et al 104). Except for Piers Plowman, no other work of the Middle English period shows the same awareness of the social scene. However, The Canterbury Tales surpasses its rival in “poise, colour, ordered art and humour”(Skeat 54). It has universal appeal and transcends its age.
Contributions to Development of Prose Fiction: Chaucer is both a child of his age and the herald of the Renaissance English literature. Although his works are regarded as poetry by many, his treatment of issues of human concern, the chronological arrangement of incidents, effective and efficient deployment of characters, vivid and realistic presentation of incidents and events in his works, qualifies him to be classified as one of the originators of modern prose fiction. His knowledge is limited to his age, and devotion to the church, but “…his power to transcend his own era lies in his cool appraising humour, his facility of descriptive phrase, his vigorous narrative, his remarkable receptivity to the workings of human nature, and his consequent appeal to the humanity of the ages marks him out as the greatest”(Whiteman 8).
Language: Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary in Chaucer’s works is recognizable to the modern reader. Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time but Chaucer, with his ear for common speech, is the earliest manuscript source. Acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of the many English words first attested in Chaucer (Internet). These words are still in use and have influenced the diction of prose fiction over the years.
His Life: Not much is known about the life of Thomas Malory. He was involved in the distressing wars of the fifteenth- century England known as the Wars of the Roses. In 1445, he was a member of parliament and in 1451, he raided a monastery that occupied the land which was formerly in his possession but was taken from him by a prelate of an opposing group during the civil strife. He tried to recover a property that he presumed was rightfully his but was arrested, charged of crimes of extortion, robbery and rape and sent to prison. He spent the last twenty years of his life in prison after he had been convicted of these multiple crimes that may have been trumped up charges.
Contributions: His major contribution to the development of prose fiction is his compilation and arrangement of the various cycles of Authurian legend, “Knight, Prest, and Commoner” lumped together under the title of Morted’Arthur. The work was completed while the author was in prison. He made use of French versions of the Arthurian stories, condensed them, and rewrote them in a unified form by revolving them around the central figure of King Arthur himself (Woods et al. 105) It seemed as if he was aware of the extinction of knighthood and did his best to immortalize chivalry in story.
In this book, Morted’Arthur, he presented what is regarded as the best Arthurian legend that has been composed in English. His sources were, in the main, the extant medieval romances about Arthur and his group, particularly the huge French poems about Lancelot, the Grail and Tristram. However, he condensed, expanded or modified the original material to suit his purpose. The result is a tale that is told in a simple, almost informal style. His simplicity is artful as he presents pomp and ceremony of knightly career, all the splendor of the knight’s high quests, and all the pathos of their falls in vividly. The reader of the last book in the collection gets a feel of the disintegration and passing of the old order, the breaking of a great social system.
It is difficult to trace the origin of prose fiction but the works of some early writers influenced the genre the way it is conceived of in modern literature. These writers set out to write poetry which was the oldest form of literature but the style of presentation of their stories and the portrayal of characters made their works very close to prose fiction. This justifies the tracing of the origin of prose fiction to their writings. The works in reference are fictitious and are prosaic.
We have tried to discuss the contributions of some medieval writers to the evolution of prose fiction as a literary genre. Unlike Western drama whose origin is traced to the Dionysian festival in Greece, prose fiction cannot be said to be a product of a particular event or an invention of one person or country. However, we have tried to link prose fiction with the Medieval romance.