The Middle Ages were a time of political turmoil, unstable economies, and significant social changes. Even though they were a turbulent period, it was during the Middle Ages that important artistic and literary figures, including the eminent Geoffrey Chaucer, emerged. Before going in depth about some of the social and cultural changes that took place in the Middle Ages, however, one must understand the effect of an extremely pertinent aspect of those times, religion:
Religion played a significant role in the lives of those who lived through the Middle Ages. For many, Christianity and the church were central aspects of their lives. It was common for many social and charitable events to be held at church. Pilgrimages were also quite popular, as they allowed for individuals to express their deeply rooted devotion to God. Moreover, people in medieval times accepted their social roles and thought they could not work their way up the social ladder because they believed it was God’s will for them to only execute their given roles; this mindset can give one an idea of the strong influence religion had in people’s lives.
The Middle Ages Through Mappaemundi
One can see the great impact religion had by also examining some of the world maps created in the medieval period, known as mappaemundi. Many mappaemundi and other types of maps are oriented in such a fashion that East is located at the top of the map, instead of North.
In the Hereford Mappaemundi, Jerusalem is positioned in the center of the world and Great Britain is located at the northwestern border of the map; East is at the top of the map. During the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was considered to be the world’s holiest city; because of its status, the city was believed to be in the center of the world.
In another map created during the Middle Ages, called the Gough Map, which is not a mappaemundi but a map of Great Britain, one can more clearly see how East is at the top, as the change in the island’s orientation is quite obvious.
Maps such as the Gough Map and the Hereford Mappaemundi are so fascinating because they are not just maps, but they are representations of a world to which we do not necessarily have access. They tell the stories of how people saw themselves in the Middle Ages. These types of maps should not be judged solely on their geographic accuracy; the symbolism that they possess should not be overlooked. In the book Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Professor David Woodward, who taught geography at the University of Wisconsin, says, “the primary function of these maps was to provide illustrated histories or moralized, didactic displays in a geographical setting.” Through intricate drawings, these maps tell a story about what people in the Middle Ages believed.
After presenting some fundamental information about the Middle Ages and religion, one may begin to explore some of the cultural and social aspects of those times. This brief exploration will be done by analyzing part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery, written by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor, and Terry Dolan. The aforementioned books give the reader a taste of the medieval life and allow for one to gain a better understanding of that particular, historical world.
Geoffrey Chaucer, is considered to be the father of English literature. According to a biographic entry posted by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), “Chaucer was the first great poet writing in English.” He had held several diplomatic positions and had been sent by Edward III on various “diplomatic missions in France, Genoa, and Florence. His travels exposed him to the work of authors such as Dante, Boccaccio and Froissart.”
Because of his diplomatic positions, one should keep in mind that Chaucer probably had a clear and accurate idea of the political situation in England. Chaucer’s awareness of the events taking place around him becomes quite apparent when one reads his works and one pays attention to the characters and the situations they face.
For example, in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes about 29 pilgrims and their journey to Canterbury. The pilgrims engage in a story-telling competition in which each has to tell two stories on their way to Canterbury and two more on their way back. It is through these pilgrims and their tales that Chaucer allows the reader to catch snippets of the medieval life.
The General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales
In the prologue of his book, Chaucer manages to introduce the pilgrims in a somewhat objective manner. The narrator attempts to present their lives and stories as they are, and not skew their persona based on his own judgment, he says, “Thogh that I pleynly speke in this matere, / To telle yow hir wordes and his chere; Ne thogh I speke hir wordes properly. For this ye knowen al-so wel as I.” It is interesting to see how Chaucer tries to maintain an objective representation of the world in the Middle Ages without letting his own bias cloud the reality of the events taking place during his time.
There are a few things to note about the pilgrimage that Chaucer describes. The pilgrims have come together by chance and their pilgrimage begins just outside of London. During the Middle Ages, London was a center of trade and urban life, even though it was a much smaller city than it is today; it was a dense city and represented the seat of government and learning.
The pilgrims are headed to Canterbury and one may ask, at this point, what is the significance of Canterbury? According to an article by Tim Lambert, a Lancaster University graduate who focuses on researching topics in the field of history, during the Middle Ages, Canterbury was known to help and serve poor pilgrims. In fact, Canterbury had a history of serving as a type of safe haven for pilgrims. Pilgrims also traveled to Canterbury to visit Archbishop Thomas Becket’s shrine. According to a biography by the BBC, Becket was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral; consequently, he was canonized and declared a saint.
One can further explore the meaning behind Chaucer’s work by taking a look at his life and life in the Middle Ages, in general. In Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery, it is speculated that Chaucer was murdered, as his name seems to have suddenly vanished from history records in approximately 1400. In an effort to investigate what may have been Chaucer’s murder, the authors present the social, political, and cultural circumstances Chaucer found himself in during the Middle Ages.
Because of the constant changes and political turmoil during the Middle Ages, it may have been possible that Chaucer was murdered, considering he had served in some diplomatic posts. In the first chapter of Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery, one is introduced to some of the political tension Chaucer witnessed involving Richard II and some of the barons.
According to Terry Jones, Richard was striving to create a peaceful country. Many members of nobility were strongly against his peace policy, since war could bring them wealth or property.  Also, many did not agree with Richard’s peace policy because they had grown accustomed to war during the reigns of both Richard’s father and Richard’s grandfather. Eventually, because of the rather strong animosity between Richard and some of the barons, a plan was set in motion to remove him from the throne.
Aside from the political commotion, Jones also writes about the court culture during Richard’s rule. Richard’s court was more concerned with the latest international fashion trends and supported the arts; when Richard came into power, “Suddenly war games were out and literature, music, painting, jewel-work and all the other arts were in.” It was quite a favorable time for Chaucer and other artists and writers.
Food for Thought
It is through Chaucer and Jones’s works that one is introduced to several themes pertaining to the Middle Ages:
- Differing views supporting war or peace
- Intellectual freedom v. control
- Secular v. religious culture
- Changing gender roles
- Changing ideal models of kingship
One is left to wonder the roles these themes played during medieval times and what kind of social impact they had. It is also interesting to further dissect Chaucer’s work and see how he intertwines these themes in his story. It is important to think about these themes to gain a better understanding of medieval England and the Middle Ages, in general. The journey one has undertaken to learn about Chaucer and his time has simply begun at this point, and there certainly is more to come.
 Woodward, David. “Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75, no.4 (December, 1985). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2563109 (accessed August 25, 2012).
 British Broadcasting Company. “Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400).” British Broadcasting Company. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/chaucer_geoffrey.shtml (accessed August 25, 2012).
 British Broadcasting Company, “Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400),” British Broadcasting Company, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/chaucer_geoffrey.shtml (accessed August 25, 2012).
 Lambert, Tim. “A Brief History of Canterbury, Kent, England.” A World History Encyclopedia. http://www.localhistories.org/canterbury.html (accessed August 25, 2012).
 British Broadcasting Company. “Thomas Becket (c.1120-1170).” British Broadcasting Company. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/becket_thomas.shtml (accessed August 25, 2012).