Chaucer’s Political Self-Preservation

Chaucer’s short poem “Lak of Stedfastnesse” relates the political upheaval occurring throughout the late fourteenth century to Chaucer’s perception of a lost sense of morality, virtue, and steadfastness within Medieval English society.  However, Chaucer’s accusations and attempts to strengthen moral adherence are actually pleas for the general public to obey established hierarchical and class rules.  In fact, Chaucer only uses moral terms to draw in the medieval reader.  In a time where the church and the laity’s ideas dominate public thought, Chaucer needs the church’s power to support his own political goals.  Therefore, what appears to be an appeal to the general public’s moral behavior is actually an address to their political opinions.  By manipulating society’s desire to remain in accord with Christian law, Chaucer strives to reinstate “virtues.”   In truth, civil unrest during this time period concerns our poet, and he desires the public to once again comply with feudalism and class rank.  By reinstating political obedience, he hopes to further cement his political power under King Richard. Chaucer’s poem is not simply a lecture aimed to advise the king and the people on ideological ideals and moral behavior.  “Lak of Stedfastnesse” is a poem that clearly marks Chaucer’s biased beliefs by placing social and political responsibility to conform not only in the hands of King Richard, but in the whole of English society.

In order to understand the meaning behind “Lak of Steadfastnesse”, one must understand the time in which Chaucer writes.  Chaucer writes in a period filled with acts of political and social discord.  His poem is a product of “the larger environment of precursor texts, traditions, and political actions within which Chaucer composed [it] (and within which, presumably, Richard II and others read it)”(Strohm 129).  Although scholars often question to whom Chaucer attempts to address and his underlying motives, the environment in which Chaucer writes cannot be refuted.  Scholars believe Chaucer produced this poem in the midst of a time frame plagued with political turmoil, 1386 – 1389.  Two large political uprisings, the Peasant’s Revolt and the Lord’s Appellant, flank this time period.  Both the Peasant’s Revolt and the Lord’s Appellant challenge the authority of King Richard and undermine his power.

Symbolizes taxing the larger public: “Soaring costs: high taxation was one complaint levelled against Richard – the fine but expensive hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall dates from his reign” (Saul).

The Peasant’s Revolt is the result of culminating tensions between the laymen and nobility in the late fourteenth century from which stems Chaucer’s disapproval of society’s “immoral” behavior.  According to Jones, this growing bitterness between the classes results from what the general public deemed as “social injustices” that had grown more apparent in later years.  The revolt consists of “ordinary people protesting against an ill-managed, expensive war and the corruption of the superrich who were seen to grow fat while the rest of the population were taxed through the nose” (Jones).  The nobility judges the laymen as overpaid and wages needed to undergo and immediate reduction.  Chaucer references the noblemen’s attempt to solidify their rank by oppressing those deemed inferior: “For among us now a man is holde unable,/ But if he can by som collusioun/ Don his neighbour wrong or oppressioun”(Chaucer 10-13).  In order to balance out these “inflated” wages, the nobility forces the commoners to pay unfair taxes.  In response, the laymen begin to organize revolt groups.  These rebel groups aim to eventually depose the king citing “consciousness of and resentment towards the interfering presence of government in everyday life; the fear of homegrown subversive elements in society, organised in secret cells and mobilised through local communities” (Jones).  The treat of usurpation drives Chaucer to voice his disapproving opinion of the growing rebellious factions . Although these rebel groups do not succeed in their ultimate goal to overthrow the throne, they manage to create a disturbance that will continue to disrupt the rule of governing powers. The disruptions created by rebel groups cause even greater tensions that lead England into its next political dispute.

Depiction of the Peasant’s Revolt

Even when the Peasant’s Revolt subsides, the tensions building up to the Lord’s Appellant continue to fuel Chaucer’s political fire.  The Lord’s Appellant addresses five counselors who presumably “alleged that they had accroached royal power and used their influence over the king to persuade him to adhere to their unwise counsel and to procure favours for themselves” (Tuck).  Eventually, in 1397, tensions among aristocracy grow to a point where the Lords depose King Richard from the throne for several days.  Being that Chaucer is a poet often inspired by real social and political controversies, few scholars question that these rebellions are the subject of Chaucer’s forewarning tone.

Depiction of the Lords Appellant

Chaucer’s strong admonishing tone forces the reader to reflect inwardly in this ballade.  With an apparent politically-centered argument, some scholars believe the obvious point of address is the present governing power, King Richard II.  However, after further researching King Richard II and Chaucer’s courtly relationship and Chaucer’s overall positive opinions of King Richard’s reign, the general public is a more fitting point of address.  One can trace Chaucer’s motives behind this short poem to a means of self-preservation.  The Lords challenge Richard’s authority and with this, threaten Chaucer’s inherited power from the king: “Richard was an appropriate addressee of a poem about the responsibility of the prince to preserve order in the countryside, and Chaucer, first as petitioner and then as grateful client, had good reason to write such a poem” (Strohm 140).  Thus, Chaucer does not intend to scold King Richard or instruct the king on how to better rule the English kingdom by “Suffre[ing] nothing that may be reprevable in [his] estat done in [his] regioun” (Chaucer 24-25).  Rather, Chaucer attempts to advise King Richard.  He persuades him to act as a moral ruler that exemplifies the virtues of the old English world: “0 prince, desire to be honourable,/ Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun” (Chaucer 22-23).   In a way, the reader may view the poem as Chaucer’s attempt to counter the changing political tide in England.

As mentioned previously, although Chaucer believes the king’s rule may greatly affect the overall actions of the people, he knows that one can achieve more effective change by addressing the virtue of the greater public.  Therefore, the first three stanzas focus solely on the behavior of English society “because there were a number of occasions when a generalized complaint about the badness of the times of the sort set out in the first three stanzas of the poem” (Scattergood 472).  Instead of directly referencing the public’s political actions, Chaucer chooses to verbally correct society’s recent moral decisions. His challenging verbose language sets the serious tone and focuses the reader to listen.  In the beginning of the poem, one may even read Chaucer’s tone as accusatory: “And now it is so fals and deceivable/ That word and deed, as in conclusioun,/ Ben nothing lyk, for turned up-so-doun/ Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,/ That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse” (Chaucer 3-7).  By addressing the audience in this severe way, he grabs the reader’s attention.

In accordance with Chaucer’s views of morality, image of true virtue lies in the nobility.

Chaucer’s language leads the reader to reflect upon their actions and whether their morality coincides with the status quo political virtues of the period.  His vocabulary addresses serious moral sins by calling attention “to a number of elusive concepts and quasi-legal terms such as ‘obligation,’ ‘dissensioun,’ and ‘extorcioun’”(Purdon 145).  In the Medieval age, one would most often read these terms in reference to Christian virtue.  By using ethical terms to scold the public, Chaucer manipulates the fears of the orthodox laymen.  With a rising number of persecutions based upon heretical crimes and growing number of resulting fatalities, the people desired to obey the church if only to save themselves.  However, Chaucer’s accusations are not related to moral behavior. Chaucer’s goal appears to be purely secular, alluding only to earthly matters for “this world to be so variable” (Chaucer 8).  Therefore, Chaucer wants the reader to reflect more upon their actions in relation to Earthly jurisdiction than upon the jurisdiction of their God.  Chaucer strives for this earthly reflection, for the audience finds in the last stanza that the true goal of the poem is obedience to monarchical rule.

With Chaucer’s noble power rooted in the pre-existing monarchical system, his resistance to social and political shift is not surprising. For example, he even refers to this instability in the poem as “’lak of stedfastnesse.”  He attaches a negative connotation to change, stating “The world hath mad a permutacioun/ Fro right to wrong, fro trouthe to fikelnesse,/ That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse” (Chaucer 19-21).   Chaucer begs King Richard to reinstate his power as a monarchical authority.   His political beliefs do not diverge far from what the lords outline in ‘A Petition to Commons’ written in Cambridge on September 1388.  In order to restore stability, the king would need to lead by example, establishing monarchical rule as the one true power and disbanding any rogue groups attempting to band together against the established rule.  However, Chaucer’s petition to the king was not in order to control the king, but a means to reach the greater public and control the moral behavior of society.  In order for Chaucer to reach the entirety of his intended audience, he needed to petition the highest power.  According to many noble thinkers of the time, including Chaucer, “the king could take to punish those who encroached royal power” (Scattergood 473).  Chaucer desires traditional rule almost certainty because “stedfastnesse” is the only way he can guarantee his position of power among the nobility.  He had risen to authority due to the alliance he kept with King Richard.  Therefore, the longer the king’s power remained in question, the more Chaucer was likely to return to his humble beginnings.

Chaucer read to King Richard II and his court, symbolizing their close relationship.

Chaucer supports independent and free thinking in the art and literary realm but does not allow for a crossover of this same freedom into political debate or governmental movements.  Chaucer is well aware that revolutions not only lead the lower classes to greater influence in society, but can also demote those in high-powered positions to that of lower rank.  Although Chaucer promotes topics of great ethical value in his poem “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” one may question his motives.  Chaucer supports his royal friend, King Richard II, and himself at the expense of the lower classes.  Chaucer’s attempts remain in a position of authority would also assure the continued oppression of the commoner.  This poem contradicts many of Chaucer’s political strives throughout his literary works such as The Canterbury Tales.  In other works, Chaucer challenges hierarchical order and allows “inferior” classes to have a voice.  However when others begin to lay challenge to King Richard and Chaucer’s authority, his revolutionary ideas begin to falter.  Chaucer’s efforts for the audience’s inner reflection were not to aid the society’s well being or ensure a return to moral values.  On the contrary, he intends society to hold steadfast to the lower class oppression that had been established after years of English hierarchical rule.  In essence, “Lak of Stedfastnesse” is a product of Chaucer’s desperation and self preservation rather than the bettering of English society as a whole.

 

 

Works Cited

French, Robert Dudley. A Chaucer Handbook. New York: Crofts, 1941. Print.

“Chaucer Reading His Poems to the Court of Richard II of England Giclee Print at AllPosters.com.” allposters.com. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

Purdon, Liam O. “Chaucer’s Lak of Stedfastnesse: A Revalorization of the Word.” Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1989. 144–152. Print.

Hart, Brad. “Corazon’s Corner: Occupy Wall Street and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.” Corazon’s Corner 23 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

Forgeng, Jeffrey L., and ebrary, Inc. Daily Life in Chaucer’s England. 2nd ed. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2009. Web. 6 Sept. 2012. The Greenwood Press “Daily Life Through History” Series.

Woods, William. England in the Age of Chaucer. New York: Stein and Day, 1976. Print.

“Lords Appellant Before King Richard II.” Corbis Images. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

Saul, Nigel. “Richard II.” History Today. Sept. 1999. Print.

Scattergood, John. “Social and Political Issues in Chaucer: An Approach to Lak of Stedfastnesse.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism 21.4 (1987): 469–475. Print.

Norton-Smith, J. “Textual Tradition, Monarchy, and Chaucer’s Lak of Stedfastnes.” Reading Medieval Studies 8 (1982): 3–10. Print.

Cross, J. E. “The Old Swedish Trohetsvisan and Chaucer’s Lak of Stedfastnesse – A Stud in a Medieval Genre.” Saga-Book 16 (1965): 283–314. Print.

Jones, Dan. “THE PEASANTS’ REVOLT.” History Today. June 2009. Print.

Strohm, Paul. “The Textual Environment of Chaucer’s Lak of Stedfastnesse.” The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays on Chaucer and Medieval Culture in Honor of Donald R. Howard. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992. 129–148. Print.

“The Virtues of Fighting – The Cardinal Virtues.” Hans Talhoffer. Web. 27 Sept. 2012.

 

 

 

Posted in Historical and Literary Analysis