Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)
Chapter 8. Bloody Revolt
There is a curious double perspective in Chaucer’s life which amounts almost to an optical illusion. We see him most clearly in minute particulars, in the context of very small events, but he withdraws himself from the larger picture. About the great events of the realm, he writes nothing. It is perhaps the natural result of his own self-effacement and canny neutrality.
Thus he appears in the public records, in February 1381, as the surety or “mainprise” for a wealthy London merchant; John Hende was a draper who had seized some land in Essex, apparently unlawfully, but Chaucer was willing to guarantee his future good conduct. Among the other “mainpernors,” interestingly enough, was a man to whom Chaucer later dedicated Troilus and Criseyde. Ralph Strode was a philosopher and poet who, in this period, lived above Aldersgate in precisely the same circumstances as Chaucer above Aldgate. He was a lawyer and sergeant-at-law, like John Gower, and can be intimately identified with that urban circle of cultured lawyers and merchants of which Chaucer was a part. They were rich and successful citizens, and men of letters, whose professional careers were expressions of their general civility, and they must have comprised the most discriminating part of Chaucer’s own audience.
So the name of Chaucer is associated with a small legal affair in the early months of 1381. Nothing is known, however, about his conduct that year in the largest and most important civic insurrection in English history. On 13 June 1381, the disaffected peasants and disappointed rebels of the kingdom poured beneath Chaucer’s lodgings in Aldgate and began the systematic sack of London; in later years it became known as “the Peasants’ Revolt,” although many thousands of estranged Londoners joined the general riot. The proximate cause of their anger lay in the imposition of a “poll tax,” of three groats, on every individual, rich or poor. But there was also discontent at the attempt to fix the wage levels of a labouring population which had been much reduced by the “death” of 1349; the working people were more mobile, and less loyal, than ever before. The revolt was in that sense a symptom of the final disruption of the feudal system of manorial authority. It represented a break with the past, and was perhaps inevitably accompanied by violence and murder.
Geoffrey Chaucer, as collector of customs, was exactly the kind of person the rebels were hunting down. They murdered the tax collectors and the most prominent servants of the young king. The palace of Chaucer’s protector, John of Gaunt, was burned to the ground. Yet Chaucer escaped. If he did not go into hiding, he must have been in his lodgings above Aldgate. There is no evidence that he joined the fifteen-year-old king, Richard II, and his councillors who had retreated to safety in the Tower of London. He must, in the common phrase, have laid low and waited for the storm to pass. Lying low was, perhaps, one of his favourite positions. From that vantage he could have seen the rebel encampment at Mile End, from the window of his chamber, as well as the strongholds of the city erupting in flame.
The “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381. The priest John Ball, on horseback, addresses the Kentish rebels. John Ball and Wat Tyler (left) are identified by their names on their coats
The dramatic intervention of the king by riding to a meeting of the rebels in Smithfield, and the sudden killing in that place of the rebellion’s leader, Wat Tyler, at the hands of the lord mayor, brought the rebellion to an unanticipated and in certain respects inconclusive end. The king, and his councillors, survived what had been the greatest threat to their authority since the reign of King John. Yet
On the right, the fifteen-year-old king, Richard II, addresses the peasants. On the left, Lord Mayor Walworth cuts off Wat Tyler’s head
Chaucer, to all intents and purposes, never mentions the matter. There is only one stray allusion, in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” to “Jakke Straw and his meynee”—Jack Straw was another of the rebels’ leaders—who
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille.
There is stray, and probably formulaic, description of the “cherles rebellyng” in The Canterbury Tales. But that is all. It is as if it had never happened. Of course it may be an aesthetic matter. If there were no literary models or examples to hand, he may not have been able to employ this new material in a convincing way. His imagination demanded bright originals; otherwise, it became cold and inactive. It is not the first time it has been suggested that, in some sense, Chaucer had a passive or inert imagination that had to be quickened into life by some other literary vision. His general attitude to life may have been an unassuming or even blank one; it is very hard to see him holding any firm opinions, or engaging in moral judgement. His life would be shaped by the ordinances of others or the prescriptions of duty. His art would be formed in the reaction to, or absorption of, other pre-eminent influences.
From other allusions in his poetry, however, it is clear that Chaucer had no very high opinion of the London crowd. He considered it to be fickle and dangerous or, as he put it in “The Clerk’s Tale”:
O stormy peple! Unsad and evere untrewe!
Ay undiscreet and chaungynge as a vane!
Delitynge evere in rumbul that is newe,
For lyk the moone ay wexe ye and wane!
All the evidence suggests that he was firmly in the camp of the civic and royal authorities. And why should he not be? He was becoming an affluent, as well as an eminent, citizen. On 19 June, just six days after the incursion of the rebels, he sold the deeds of the family house in Thames Street to its leaseholder. It is likely that the recent death of his mother allowed him to “quitclaim” the property, but he was no doubt happy to do so in the shadow of contemporaneous events. The rebels had conceived a particular hatred for those foreign merchants in the city who were favoured by the crown and by the tax collectors. On the day after their incursion into London they besieged thirty-five Flemings who were taking refuge in the church of St. Martin in the Vintry, and removed them by force; it will be remembered that this was the church beside Chaucer’s family home, in which the poet himself had possibly been baptised. The merchants and their families were then beheaded in the street, and their bodies left to rot. It was said that Wat Tyler himself was searching for one particular Flemish merchant, Sir Richard Lyons, who was the close friend and quondam employer of Chaucer himself. It is a particularly strident example of the violence of medieval life, a violence which in every sense reached Chaucer’s own doorstep. Yet in his own reference to the murdered Flemings, already quoted, he seems extraordinarily detached from the events in question.
The profit he made on the sale of the family house was added to further gains. Only three weeks before he had been granted a gift of some sixteen pounds by his grateful employers; he was assigned moneys due to the exchequer from various crown debtors, a measure which can only have been authorised by the king or the king’s councillors. He had also just received some twenty-two pounds in payment for his earlier journeys to France, and in the previous year he had been awarded the balance of his costs for the journey to Milan.
It is perhaps peculiar, then, that he should receive an “advance” on his annuity of 6s 8d just two months after selling the family house, together with another advance in November of the same year. It is not at all clear why he needed these small extra sums. Lovers of domestic drama might suggest that it had something to do with the claims of Cecily Champain upon him.