What was it like to live in 14th-century England?
Historian Picard (Victorian London, 2005, etc.) continues her series of books that provide insightful, detailed, and entertaining examinations of life in England, and London in particular. Her latest goes back to the 1300s, when the country experienced turbulent times: war, a pandemic, rebellion, and regime change. As her jumping-off point, Picard uses Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1340-1400) “motley bunch” of pilgrims from his Canterbury Tales. During the two days of their journey (they never arrive), they share stories and experiences. Picard’s critical and close reading of the Tales and extensive historical research provide her with a wealth of information about the personalities of each pilgrim and their everyday lives. She divides them into four groups: country, city, religious life, and the armed services. First up is the “eye-catching” Wife of Bath. Picard delves into her marriages (five), her other pilgrimages—did she “benefit spiritually” from them? “Chaucer leaves us in doubt”—and her appearance, which then leads to a discussion of the wool trade. This is how the book is organized, with one topic cascading into another. Another example is the author’s description of the Sergeant of the Law’s appearance, followed by a discussion of the courts at this time: how they functioned, civil and criminal cases, land law, the Magna Carta, and so on. Most of the material is lively and highly instructive, though not many readers will be rushing to reproduce the many recipes included in the “Cook” section. Picard claims that Chaucer’s portrait of the monk is the “most vivid of any of the pilgrims,” and she suggests that the Knight’s young, “fashionable” squire is a portrait of Chaucer’s own son. “It’s pleasant,” she writes, “to think of a loving fatherly eye contemplating Thomas.” The author also gleefully notes those pilgrims who suffer the caustic “Chaucerian sting.”
An ideal companion volume for readers of the Tales and a useful stand-alone history of the period.