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HISTORY OF ENGLISH
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LITERATURE
AGE OF CHAUCER , HIS
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CONTRIBUTIONS AND HIS
CONTEMPORARIES
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7/7/2017

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Anam Tariq MA546260

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THE AGE OF CHAUCER:

Every man is a child of his age. He is influenced by it though, if he is a great man, he may
influence it also. A great writer like Shakespeare or Chaucer is generally said to be "not of an
age, but of all ages." But, in spite of his universal appeal, the fact remains that even he could
not have escaped "the spirit of the age in which he lived and moved and had his being.
Though Chaucer transcends the limits of his generation and creates something which is of
interest to the future generation too, yet he represents much of what his age stands for.
And therein lies his greatness.

Chaucer's age-like most historical ages-was an age of transition. This transition implies a
shift from the medieval to the modern times, the emergence of the English nation from the
"dark ages" to the age of enlightenment. Though some elements associated with modernity
were coming into prominence,-yet mostly and essentially the age was medieval-unscientific,
superstitious, chivalrous, religious-minded, and "backward" in most respects. The
fourteenth century, as J. M. Manly puts it in The Cambridge History of English
Literature, was "a dark epoch fn the history of England". However, the silver lining of
modernity did"succeed in piercing, here and there, the thick darkness of ignorance
and superstition. In fact, the age of Chaucer was not stagnant: it was inching its way steadily
and surely to the dawn of the Renaissance and the Reformation, which were yet a couple of
centuries ahead. Robert Dudely French observes: "It was an age of restlessness, amid the
ferment"of new life, that Chaucer lived and wrote.

Compton-Rickett observes:"Chaucer's England is 'Still characteristically medieval, and


nowhere is the conservative feeling more strongly marked than in the persistence of
chivalry. This strange amalgam of love, war, and religion so far from exhibiting any signs of
decay, reached perhaps its fullest development at this time. More than two centuries were
to elapse before it was finally killed-by the satirical pen of Cervantes." The Knight in
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is typical of his kind. Even the tale he narrates concerns the
adventures of two true knights-Arcite and Palamon.

In the age of Chaucer most people were victims of poverty, squalor, and pestilence. Even
well-educated nobles eyed soap with suspicion, and learned physicians often forbade
bathing as harmful for health! That is why England was often visited by epidemics, especially
plague. The severest attack of this dread epidemic came in 1348. It was called "the Black
Death" because black, knotty boils appeared on the bodies of the hopeless victims. It is
estimated that about a million human beings were swept away by this epidemic. That
roughly makes one-third of the total population of England at that time.One immediate
consequence of this pestilence was the acute shortage of working hands. The socio-
economic system of England lay hopelessly paralysed. Labourers and villains who happened
to survive started demanding much higher wages. But neither their employers nor the king
nor Parliament was ready to meet these demands. A number of severe regulations were
passed asking workers to work at the old rates of payment.The "Peasants' Revolt" is,
according to Compton-Rickett, "a dim foreshadowing of those industrial troubles that lay in
the distant future." Chaucer in his Nun's Priest's Tale refers in the following lines to Jack
Straw who with Wat Tylar raised the banner of revolt:
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meyne
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille,
When that they wolden any Flemyng kille
As thilke day was mad upon the fox.

In the age of Chaucer, the Church became a hotbed of profligacy, corruption, and
materialism. The overlord of the Church, namely, the Pope of Rome, himself had ambitions
and aptitudes otherthan spiritual. W. H. Hudson maintains in this connection: "Of spiritual
zeal and energy very little was now left in the country. The greater prelates heaped up
wealth, and lived in a godless and worldly way; the rank and file of the clergy were ignorant
and careless; the mendicant friars were notorious for their greed and profligacy."

Another contemporary has to say this about the priests "Our priests are now become blind,
dark and beclouded. There is neither shaven crown on their head, nor modesty in their
words, nor temperance in their food, nor even chastity in their deeds." If this was the
condition of the ecclesiasts, we can easily imagine that of the laity. Well does Chaucer say in
the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: "If gold rust, what shall iron do?"

This widespread and deep-rooted corruption had already begun to provoke the attention of
some reformists the most prominent of whom was John Wyclif (13207-84) who has been
called "the morning star of the Reformation." He started what is called the Lollards's
Movement. His aim was to eradicate the evil and corruption which had become a part and
parcel of the Church. He sent his "poor priests" to all parts of the country for spreading his
message of simplicity, purity, and austerity. His self-appointed task was to take Christianity
back to its original purity and spirituality. He exhorted people not to have anything to do
with the corrupt ministers of the Pope and to have faith only in the Word of God as
enshrined in the Bible, To make the teaching of the Bible accessible to the common masses
he with the help of some of his disciples translated the Bible from Latin into the native
tongue. He also wrote a number of tracts embodying his teaching. His translation of the
Bible was, in the words of W. H. Hudson, "the first translation of the scriptures into any
modern vernacular tongue." That Chaucer was sympathetic to the Lollards' Movement is
evident from the element of idealization which characterizes his portrait of the "Poor
Parson" in the Prologue to The CanterburyTales.
The age of Chaucer stands between the medieval and the modern life. There was in this age
some sort of a minor Renaissance. The dawn of the real Renaissance in England was yet
about two centuries ahead, yet in the age of Chaucer there are signs of growing influence of
the ancients on native literature. Chaucer1 own poetry was influenced by the Italian writer
Boccaccio (1313-75) and to a lesser extent, Petrarch (1304-74). The frameworks of
Boccaccio's Decameron and of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are almost similar. However,
it is somewhat doubtful if Chaucer had read the Italian writer. It was through the work of
the two above-named Italian writers that humanism made its way into-English intellectual
culture. Well does Compton-Rickett observe: "Chaucer's world is medieval; but beneath his
medievalism the leaven of the Renaissance is already at work."

Whether or not Chaucer was as unobtrusive a man as he presents himself in The Canterbury
Tales, it is true that as an artist he followed the principle of least interference with his
material. The degree of his self-effacement is really surprising. He does not project the tint
of his likes and dislikes, fads and fetishes, views and prejudices on what he paints. He is no
moralist either. "Like Shakespeare", says Compton-Rickett, "he makes it his business, in The
Canterbury Tales, to paint life as he sees it, and leaves others to draw the moral." Thus, to
conclude, "Chaucer sees what is and paints it as he sees it." And what is more, "he effaces
himself in order to look at it better."The contribution of Chaucer towards the
standardization and popularization of the English language cannot be over-estimated. As
regards his contribution to English poetry, he has well been characterised as the father of
English poetry. No doubt there were other poets contemporaneous with him Langland,
Gower, and a few more, but Chaucer is as head and shoulders among them as Shakespeare
is among the Elizabethan dramatists. He stands like a majestic oak in a shrubbery.
CHAUCER CONTRIBUTION TO ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE:

That Chaucer was a pioneer in many respects should be readily granted. "With him is born
our real poetry," says Matthew Arnojd. He has been acclaimed as the first realist, the first
humorist, the first narrative artist the first great character-painter, and the first great
metrical artist in English literature. Further, he has been credited not only with the
"fatherhood" of English poetry but has also been hailed as the father of English drama
before the drama was born , and the father of English novel before the novel was born. And,
what is more, his importance is not due to precedence alone, but due to excellence. He is
not only the first English poet, but a great poet in his own right. Justly has he been called
"the fountain-source of the vast stream of English literature."

When Chaucer started his literary career, the English speech, and still less, the English of
writing was confusingly fluid and unsettled. The English language was divided into a number
of dialects which were employed in different partsof the country. But we may justly say that
Chaucer found the English language brick and left it marble. Chaucer employed in his work
the East midland dialect, and by casting the enormous weight of his genius balance decided
once for all which dialect was going to be the standard literary language of the whole of the
country for all times to come. All the great writers of England succeeding Chaucer are, in the
words of John Speirs, "masters of the language of which Chaucer is, before them, the great
master."

In those times Latin and French were more fashionable than the poor "vernacular" English.
Latin was considered "the universal language" and was patronised at the expense of English
by the Church as well as the learned. Before Wyclif translated it into the "vulgar
tongue", the Bible was read in its Latin version called the Vulgate. French was the language
of the court and was used for keeping the accounts of the royal household till as late as
1365. Perplexed by the variety of languages offering themselves for use, Chaucer's friend
and contemporary Gower could not decide which one of them to adopt. He wrote
his Mirour del'Omme in French, Vox Clamantis in Latin, and Confessio Amantis in English,
perhaps because he was not quite sure which of the three languages was going to survive.
But Chaucer chose English which was a despised language, and as the legendary king did to
the beggar maid, raised her from the dust, draped her in royal robes, and conducted her
coronation. That queen is ruling even now.

Chaucer's contribution to English versification is no less striking than to the English


language. He sounded the death-knell of the old Saxon alliterative measure and firmly
established the modern one. Even in the fourteenth century the old alliterative measure had
been employed by such a considerable poet as Langland for his Piers khe Plowman, and the
writer of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight.
But Chaucer , categorically disowned any regularity in the number of syllables in each
line. One line may have as few as six syllables and another as many as fourteen and the use
of alliteration as the chief ornamental device and as the lone structural principle. All the
alliterative syllables are stressed.
Even the absence 01 end-rimes including frequent repetition to express vehemence and
intensity of emotion.

After Chaucer, no important poet ever thought of reverting to the old measure. Thus,
Chaucer may be designated "the father of modern English versification." Chaucer employs
three principal metres in his works. In The Canterbury Tales he mostly uses lines of ten
syllables each (with generally five accents); and the lines run into couplets; that is, each
couple of lines has its end-syllables rhyming with each other. For example:
His eyes twinkled in his heed aright
As doon the sterres in the frosty night.
In Troilus and Cryseyde he -uses the seven-line stanza of decasyllabic lines with five accents
each having the rhyme-scheme a b abb c c. This measure was borrowed by him from the
French and is called the rhyme-royal or Chaucerian stanza. The decasyllabic couplet known
as the heroic couplet, was to be chiselled and invigorated to perfection three centuries later
by Dryden and Pope. Apart from those three principal measures Chaucer also employed for
the first time a number of other stanzaic forms in his shorter poems.

Not only this, Chaucer seems to be the first Englishman who realised and brought out the
latent music of his language. "To read Chaucer's verse," observes a critic, "is like listening to
a clear stream, in a meadow full of sunshine, rippling over its bed of pebbles." The following
is the tribute of a worthy successor of his:
The morning star of song, who made
His music heard below,
Don Chaucer, the first -warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts thatfiU",
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still
He made English a pliant and vigorous medium of poetic utterance. His astonishingly easy
mastery of the language is indeed remarkable. With one step the writings of Chaucer carry
us into a new era in which the language appears endowed with ease, dignity, and
copiousness of expression and clothed in the hues of the imagination.

Chaucer was a pioneer not only in the linguistic and prosodic fields, but was one in the
strictly poetic field also. Not only the form of poetry, but its content, too, is highly indebted
to him. Not only did he give English poetry a new dress, but a new body and a new soul. The
finest product of this realisation was The Canterbury Tales. This poem, as it were, holds a
mirror to the life of Chaucer's age and shows its manners and morals completely, "not in
fragments." Chaucer replaces effectively the shadowy delineations of the old romantic and
allegorical school with the vivid and pulsating pictures of contemporary life.

And Chaucer does not forget the universal beneath the particular, the dateless beneath the
dated. The portraits of the pilgrims in the Prologue to The Canterbury Talesconstitute not
only an epitome of the society of fourteenth-century England, but the epitome of human
nature in all climes and all ages. Grierson and Smith observe about Chaucer's pilgrims: "They
are all with us today, though some of them have changed their names. The knight now
commands a line regiment, the squire is in the guards, the shipman was a rum-runner while
prohibition lasted and is active now in the black market, the friar is a jolly sporting publican,
the pardoner vends quack medicines or holds seances, and the prioress is the headmistress
of a fashionable girls' school. Some of them have reappeared in a later literature. The poor
parson was reincarnated in the Vicar of Wakefield, the knight in Colonel Newcome and the
Monk nrArchdeacon Grantly."

Chaucer's tone as a poet is wonderfully instinct with geniality, tolerance, humour, and
freshness which are absent from that of his contemporaries and predecessors who are too
dreamy or too serious to be interesting. In spite of his awareness of the corruption and
unrest in the society of his age Chaucer is never upset or upsetting. He experiences what the
French cally'oz'e de vivre, and communicates it to his is iders. No one can read Chaucer
without feeling that it is good to be alive in this world however imperfect may it be in
numerous respects. He is a chronic optimist. He is never harsh, rancorous, bitter, or
indignant, and never falls out with his fellow men for their failings. Aldous Huxley observes:
"Where Langland cries aloud in anger threatening the world with hell fire, Chaucer looks on
and smiles." The great English humorists like Shakespeare and Fielding share with Chaucer
the same broad human sympathy which he first introduced into literature and which has
bestowed upon his Canterbury Tales that character of perennial,-vernal freshness which
appears so abundantly on its every page,

The novel is one of the latest courses in the banquet of English literature. But in his
narrative skill, his gift of vivid characterization, his aptitude for plot-construction, and his
inventive skill Chaucer appears as a worthy precursor of the race of novelists who
come centuries afterwards. If Chaucer is the father of English poetry he is certainly, to use
G. K. Chesterton's phrase, "the grandTafher of&ie English novel." HisTales are replete with
intense human interest, and though he borrows his materials from numerous sundry
sources, his narrative skill is all his own. That could not have been borrowed. His narration is
lively and direct, if we make exception for the numerous digressions and philosophical and
pseudo-philosophical animadversions having little to do with the tales proper, introduced
after the contemporary fashion. It is difficult to find him flagging or growing dull and
monotonous. It is perhaps only Burns who in Tom O' Shanter excels Chaucer in the telling of
"merry tales.'"
Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales has been rightly called "the prologue to modern
fiction." It has characters if not plot, and vivid characterization is one of the primary jobs of
a novelist. As regards Chaucer's Troilus and Cryseyde, it has been well called "a novel in
verse." And it has all the salient features of a novel. It has plot, character, unravelling action,
conflict, rising action, and denouement-every thing. Though the background of the action is
the legendary Trojan war, and though some elements have been borrowed from the Italian
writer Boccaccio, yet it is all very modern and close to life. It is not devoid even of
psychological interest which is a major characteristic of the modern novel. "Its heroine," as a
critic observes, "is the subtlest piece of psychological analysis in medieval fiction: and the
shrewd and practical Pandarus is a character whose presence of itself brings the story down
from the heights of romance to the plains of real life." S. D. Neill opines that "had Chaucer
written in prose, it is possible that his Troilusand Cryseyde and not
Richardson's Pamela would have been celebrated as the first English novel."

Chaucer wrote at a time when, like the novel, secular drama had not been born, and yet his
works have some dramatic elements which are altogether missing in the poetry before him.
His mode of characterization in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is, no doubt, static or
descriptive, but in the tales proper it is dynamic or dramatic. There the characters reveal
themselves, without the intervention of the. author, through what they say and what they
do. Even the tales they narrate, in most cases, are in keeping with their respective
characters, avocations, temperaments, etc. In this way Chaucer is clearly ahead of his
"model" Boccaccjo, But in The Canterbury Tales where they-serve as a dramatic device of
characterization: and in thedrama, pace Aristotle, character is all-important. Chaucer is
abundantly showing here the essential gift of a dramatist. A critic goes so far as to assert
that Chaucer is "a dramatist in all but the fact", and again : "If the drama had been known in
Chaucer's time as a branch of living literature, he might have attained as high an excellence
in comedy as any English or Continental writer."

A. W. Pollard facetiously observes that Chaucer was a compound of "thirty per cent of
Goldsmith, fifty of Fielding, and twenty of Walter Scott." This means, in other words, that as
a story-teller Chaucer had some of the sweetness of Goldsmith, the genial ironic attitude
and realism of Fielding, and the high chivalrous tone of Sir Walter Scott. But, after al 1 is said
and done. Chaucer is Chaucer himself and himself alone.
CHAUCER AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES

As Caroline Spurgeon mentioned, today we prize Chaucer above all because he is a great
artist, we delight in his simplicity, his freshness, his humanity, his humour, but it is possible
that these may not be the only or even the principal reasons why he is liked three hundred
years hence. If, as would seem to be the case, the common consciousness of a people
becomes enriched with time and experience, enabling them to see ever more and more in
the work of a great poet, the lovers of Chaucer three centuries hence will be capable of
seeing more in him and will be able to come actually nearer to him than can those who love
him today.1
John Gower called Chaucer in his Confessio Amantis, his disciple and his poet:

And gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,


As mi disciple and mi poete:
For in the floures of his youthe
In sondri wise, as he wel couthe,
Of Ditees and of Songes glade,
The whiche he for mi sake made,
The land fulfild is oueral.2

Although Chaucer was the most dominating literary figure in the Middle English literature
and his great works constitute the bulk of its glory, the literary history of his age contains
some other significant literary works. Those works, of course, are not comparable with
Chaucers masterpieces, yet they are found to have shared in the contribution to the
enlargement of English literature and the preparation for the Renaissance. It is therefore,
remarkable to take note of different literary men and works in the world of Chaucer, which
are not Chaucerian in origin, but bear in greater or lesser degrees his majestic influence and
signify the aftermath of Chaucer.Among the contemporaries of Chaucer the pride of place is
given to William Langland , In the sphere of poetry these poets left behind a rich harvest of
literature and their contribution to English poetry is quite substantial.

The name of William Langland has a celebrity in the English language for his singular work
The Book of Piers the Plowman. In the English literature of the 14th century, Langlands
Piers the Plowman stands out as the most renowned work, save Chaucers The Canterbury
Tales. Where as the latter is a social chronicle with engaging tales, Piers Plowman is an
impressive allegory, more deeply concerned with religious, ethical, social and economic
problems of the time.Piers Plowman is certainly a quite novel and radical work for its age.
Although ethical in sentiment and didactic in tone, it comprises a fine synthesis of sociology,
satire and allegory. Artistic merits it may not have, but it has the provocative probe into the
serious depth of the social and moral life of the age. In fact, it includes all the various
elements that touch and toss humanity and remains a fine mirror of the variety and
complexity of medieval life.

Piers the Plowman is a mighty achievement of Langland and ranks very high as a social and
moral study, its significance lies in its threefold manifestation. First, it is a graphic picture of
contemporary life and manners. Second, it is a penetrative satire on social and ecclesiastical
follies and vices. Third it is a powerful allegory of human life and morality. The poem
describes a series of remarkable visions that pass before the dreamer and in their general
draft we are reminded of the great allegory of Bunyan. In the ecclesiastical matter, Langland
is no less radical. He is thoroughly opposed to the display of riches and splendor in the
church. He advocates a life of penance and simplicity, restraint and sincerity and in this
respect, he seems to be the coming voice of Puritanism.

Langlands place in the allegorical literature of England is certainly very high. His art to
alternate Christian tenderness and bitter satire, social realism and religious piety, allegory
and sociology is well borne out here. Moreover his power to create realistic scenes and
truth with an equal ease, the comic as well the holy is distinctly confirmed here.

John Gower, medievalEnglish poet in the tradition of courtly love and moral allegory, whose
reputation once matched that of his contemporary and friend Geoffrey Chaucer, and who
strongly influenced the writing of other poets of his day. After the 16th century his
popularity waned, and interest in him did not revive until the middle of the 20th century.

Gowers three major works are in French, English, and Latin, and he also wrote a series of
French balades intended for the English court. The Speculum meditantis, or Mirour de
lomme, in French, is composed of 12-line stanzas and opens impressively with a description
of the devils marriage to the seven daughters of sin; continuing with the marriage of reason
and the seven virtues, it ends with a searing examination of the sins of English society just
before the Peasants Revolt of 1381: the denunciatory tone is relieved at the very end by a
long hymn to the Virgin.Gowers major Latin poem, the Vox clamantis, owes much to Ovid;
it is essentially a homily, being in part a criticism of the three estates of society, in part a
mirror for a prince, in elegiac form.

The poets political doctrines are traditional, but he uses the Latin language with fluency and
elegance.
Gowers English poems include In Praise of Peace, in which he pleads urgently with the king
to avoid the horrors of war, but his greatest English work is the Confessio
amantis, essentially a collection of exemplary tales of love, whereby Venus priest, Genius,
instructs the poet, Amans, in the art of both courtly and Christian love. The stories are
chiefly adapted from classical and medieval sources and are told with a tenderness and the
restrained narrative art that constitute Gowers main appeal today.

One of the few surviving likeness of John Gower comes to us from a manuscript containing
several of his works and written around the year 1400, before the poets death (Glasgow
Univ. Lib., MS Hunter 59 [T.2.17] folio 6v). Here Gower appears as an archer about to shoot
the world, an image clearly inspired by some lines from his Vox Clamantis: I throw my darts
and shoot my arrows at the world. But where there is a righteous man, no arrow strikes. But
I wound those who live wickedly. Therefore let him who recognizes himself there look to
himself. Gower is in many ways an enigma, and thus an ideal historical figure to conjure
with in fiction.

One of the greatest privileges of a people is to have the Word of God in their vernacular or
spoken language. During the Middle Ages, however, the official Bible of the Western
Church, including the Church of England, was the Latin Vulgate. This was the translation that
had been produced by Jerome in the latter part of the fourth century.

Apart from the clergy, few people knew Latin and, therefore, the majority could not
understand the Vulgate. In addition, the services of the Church were conducted in Latin. As
a result, the people were dependent on their religious leaders for spiritual knowledge and
instruction. Although selected portions of the Scriptures had been translated into English
during the previous centuries, no complete English translation of the Bible was available
until the fourteenth century.

The person responsible for the first translation of the entire Bible into the English language
was John Wyclif. While many of the details of Wyclif's life remain unknown, evidence
indicates that he was born around 1330 in West Riding. He attended Oxford University
where it quickly became apparent that he possessed exceptional ability. He received a
Bachelor and Master's degree and took orders as a clergyman of the Church of England.
Later he studied for his Doctorate of Theology and, upon successfully completing the
requirements, he was appointed Professor of Theology and Philosophy at his alma mater.
Many considered Wyclif to be the most prominent theologian in England and, indeed, in all
of Europe.

The days in which Wyclif taught at Oxford were difficult for a number of reasons. England
and France were engaged in a conflict that became known as "the Hundred Years War"
because it lasted nearly a century.
it was also a period of doctrinal change in the church. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215
the doctrine of Transubstantiation had been declared an official doctrine. This doctrine
taught that the elements of the Lord's Supper, the bread and the wine, were changed into
the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by an ordained priest. This pronouncement
was the climax of a prolonged theological controversy that had raged for two hundred
years. Many, including John Wyclif, rejected this teaching, declaring it to be an innovation
and not found in the Word of God.

In addition, Wyclif was disturbed by the feudal organization of the Church. The Church was
the largest landowner in England and was extraordinarily wealthy. Many of the upper clergy
were more interested in acquiring lands and wealth than they were in meeting the spiritual
needs of the people. Wyclif's convictions on the wealth of the Church led him to formulate a
doctrine he termed as the "Dominion of Grace.

Because of his teachings on the Dominion of Grace and the nature of the Church, Wyclif
became embroiled in conflict with many of the English Clergy. In 1378 the Pope ordered him
to come to Rome to defend his teachings, but the Great Schism precluded him from leaving
England. On another occasion the Queen Mother protected him from the accusations of the
Clergy.He was called John Wyclf the "Morning Star of the Reformation." The morning star
is the first light that dispels the gloom of darkness. There is no doubt that Wyclif lived in a
time of moral and spiritual darkness. However, through his study of the Word of God, he
became convinced of the need for a thorough doctrinal and moral reform of the Church.

Chaucers contemporaries regarded him as an accomplished poet and hailed him as


master, a term which Lydgate, for instance, was never tired of employing. But Lydgate, had
no monopoly on the word, as Henry Scogan, Thomas Hoccleve, James I of Scotland, John
Metham of Norwich, George Ashby, Stephen Hawes, and others so refer to him.3John
Lydgate in his The Flower of Courtesy, spoke about Chaucers place in literature in the
following eulogistic terms:

Ever as I cam surprise in myn hert


Alway with fear betwixt drede and shame,
Lest out of lose, any word asterte
In this metre, to make it seme lame;
Chaucer is deed that had such a name
Of fayre making that was without wene
Fayrest in our tongue, as the Laurer grene