Many experts consider the Age of Chaucer quite barren in regard to “great” literary production. With the exception of Chaucer, no one of note rises to the top. Most scholars blame the War of the Roses and the decline of the nobility for this condition. Even so, the age is not as null as it first seems to the student of literature. The “stories” that were captured are characteristic of the age and deserve our attention.
One of the more prominent characteristics of the age was social discontent. John Wycliffe was an advocate for the translating the Bible into the vernacular of the common people.His translation from the Vulgate to more informal speech knew completion in 1382. The book is now knows as Wycliffe’s Bible. Most scholars believe Wycliffe translated the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Wycliffe’s Bible)
William Langland’s Piers Plowman voiced the social discontent of the age and championed the rights of the laboring classes. From the perspective of medieval Catholicism, the poem takes up the narrator’s quest for the Christian spirit. The tale examines the lives of three characters: Dowel (Do-Well), Dobet (Do-Better), and Dobest (Do-Best).
John Gower (c. 1330-1408) was an English poet of courtly love who is remembered as the author of the Confessio Amantis, a collection of exemplary tales (from both classical and medieval sources) about courtly and Christian love. To judge by the language of this work, Gower was from Kent. (Writers from the Middle English Period)
Meanwhile, Sir John Mandeville (mid 14th century) The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was an immensely popular book of the 14th century which has survived in a couple of hundred manuscripts. The name ‘Sir John Mandeville’ was probably adopted by a doctor form Liège called Jehan de Bourgogne, who would have written in French. Hence the English version is a translation, though it is not known who prepared it. The travels described in the book are entirely fictitious though they may be based on genuine travel descriptions by other writers. (Writers from the Middle English Period)
During the period, we find the rise of the narrative as a popular literary form. For example, we are presented with Thomas Occleve’s (1368-1426) Regiment of Princes. This book was a work of advice to a prince. It dealt with politics and religion. “By 1410 he (Occleve) had married ‘only for love’ (Regiment…, 1.1561) and settled down to writing moral and religious poems. His best-known Regement of Princes or De Regimine Principum, written for Henry V of England shortly before his accession, is an elaborate homily on virtues and vices, adapted from Aegidius de Colonna’s work of the same name, from a supposititious epistle of Aristotle known as Secreta secretorum, and a work of Jacques de Cessoles (fl. 1300) translated later by Caxton as The Game and Playe of Chesse. The Regement survives in 43 manuscript copies. It comments much on Henry V’s lineage, to cement the House of Lancaster’s claim to England’s throne. Its incipit is a poem encompassing about a third of the whole, containing further reminiscences of London tavern life in the form of dialogue between the poet and an old man. He also remonstrated with Sir John Oldcastle, a leading Lollard, calling on him to “rise up, a manly knight, out of the slough of heresy.” (Thomas Hoccleve) Other works by Occleve are the Complaint, the Ars Sciendi Mori, and the poem to Sir John Oldcastle.
Stephen Hawes wrote in the Chaucerian tradition. “He (Hawes) was Groom of the Chamber to Henry VII, as early as 1502. According to Anthony Wood, he could repeat by heart the works of most of the English poets, especially the poems of John Lydgate, whom he called his master. He was still living in 1521, when it is stated in Henry VIII’s household accounts that £6, 13s. 4d. was paid to Mr Hawes for his play, and he died before 1530, when Thomas Field, in his Conversation between a Lover and a Jay, wrote “Yong Steven Hawse, whose soule God pardon, Treated of love so clerkly and well.” (Stephen Hawes) Hawes’ poetry was didactic, and he made frequent use of allegory. His Pastime of Pleasure was a love story who hero was Graund Armour. Other characters were Lady Grammar, Geometry, Astronomy, Rhetoric, etc.
His major work is The History of Graunde Amour and la Bel Pucel, conteining the knowledge of the Seven Sciences and the Course of Mans Life in this Worlde or The Passetyme of Pleasure, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1509, but finished three years earlier. It was also printed with slightly varying titles by the same printer in 1517, by J. Wayland in 1554, by Richard Tottel and by John Waley in 1555. Tottel’s edition was edited by T. Wright and reprinted by the Percy Society in 1845. (Stephen Hawes)
The Passetyme of Pleasure is a long allegorical poem in seven-lined stanzas of man’s life in this world. It is divided into sections after the manner of Le Morte d’Arthur and borrows the machinery of romance. Its main motive is the education of the knight, Graunde Amour, based, according to William John Courthope (History of English Poetry, vol. I. 382), on the Marriage of Mercury and Philology, by Martianus Capella, and the details of the description prove Hawes to have been acquainted with medieval systems of philosophy. At the suggestion of Fame, and accompanied by her two greyhounds, Grace and Governance, Graunde Amour starts out in quest of La Bel Pucel. He first visits the Tower of Doctrine or Science where he acquaints himself with the arts of grammar, logic, rhetoric and arithmetic. After a long disputation with the lady in the Tower of Music he returns to his studies, and after sojourns at the Tower of Geometry, the Tower of Doctrine, the Castle of Chivalry, etc., he arrives at the Castle of La Bel Pucel, where he is met by Peace, Mercy, Justice, Reason and Memory. His happy marriage does not end the story, which goes on to tell of the oncoming of Age, with the concomitant evils of Avarice and Cunning. The admonition of Death brings Contrition and Conscience, and it is only when Remembraunce has delivered an epitaph chiefly dealing with the Seven Deadly Sins, and Fame has enrolled Graunde Amours name with the knights of antiquity, that we are allowed to part with the hero. This long imaginative poem was widely read and esteemed, and certainly exercised an influence on the genius of Edmund Spenser. (Stephen Hawes)