The Former Age

Historical and Literary Analysis: The Former Age

BY: James Zachary Davis

The first printed version of Chaucer’s ‘The former age’, edited by Richard Morris, London, 1866. Morris used MS Hh.4.12 as his copy text, taking the title ‘Ætas prima’ (‘The first age’) from the colophon there. XXIX.10.28.

Chaucer’s short poem, The Former Age, contrasts the past, golden “Eden-like” age of mankind, with that of the dissolute present age. Chaucer describes the present age as being dominated by, “..nis but covetyse, doublenesse, and tresoun, and envye, poyson, manslawhtre, and mordre in sondry wyse”(lines 61-63). Chaucer’s adaptation of verse formerly used, but with the addition of a few choice lines, reveals the intent of the poem to be relevant and related to the readers and occurrences of his day. Chaucer’s terminology in The Former Age helps to relate his true aspirations for the modern adaptation: to convey how conduct of the time has contributed to the “fall” mankind exhibits through its actions, as well as, the transition into a sort of degenerative period. Concurrently, Chaucer displays a tone that seems to convey his admonishment for the proceedings that have led to this period, and the continued prevalence of like trappings. The rationale behind these choices could be attributed to a number of reasons, but most likely stem from a pure disapproval of the hostilities and corruption, of and between, the people of the time.

The meaning behind The Former Age is dependent upon comprehension of the context in which it is written. The period, in which The Former Age was written, was a time of intense evolution, friction, and expansion. “The social, political, and economic conditions of Chaucer’s medieval England included intense power struggles, conflicts, and rebellions that shook the very foundation of the English social structure.” [1] Though a definite date cannot be attributed to the poem [2], common knowledge of the period, as well as, indicators in Chaucer’s diction, indicate that the period in which it was written is most likely sometime in the late 1380s [3]. During this period, commerce flourished, and political revolution and class dissent were major phenomenon. Terry Jones indicates in Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery, that the environment that Chaucer lived in during this supposed time would have been, “…a turbulent world filled with danger, paranoia, uncertainty, and alarm.” (Jones, 145) This understanding assists with the recognition of the types of allusions Chaucer makes use of; those that relate the current actions of the time to the increasingly degenerative period.  As L.O. Purdon concludes in his paper “Chaucer’s Use of Woad In The Former Age,” “When Chaucer says at the beginning of the third stanza that ‘No Madyr weld or wod no litestere /ne knewh;’” (17-18), he is not just indicating a time when the art of textile dyeing was unknown, but rather a time when commercial and industrial abuse did not exist” (Purdon 219).

Morality is a major theme that Chaucer employs in The Former Age. We see the corruption of the present age in the closing

Dyeing wool cloth, from “Des Proprietez des Choses” by Bartholomaeus Anglicus British Library Royal MS 15.E.iii, folio 269.

lines, “For in oure dayes nis but covetyse, Doublenesse, and tresoun, and envye, Poyson, manslawhtre, and mordre in sondry wyse” (61-63). Trade, was an area of growth during Chaucer’s time, and also of corruption. Trade during the late 1300s centered on dyes and wool [4][5][6], both of which, are referenced in The Former Age (lines 17 and 18 respectively). The inclusion of dye in the poem, differentiates from the principle sources of the respective lines, and insinuates significance with regards to its association with the times [6]. Chaucer knew, through first hand experience, the corruption and abusive business practices of the time [6], with respect to both wool and dye trade. He served as both, “…Controller of Customs in the port of London, and later, in 1382, as controller of the Petty Customs” (Purdon, 218). In these two positions, he saw first hand just how, “…risky, profitable, and even dangerous late medieval English trade…”(Purdon, 218) was, with respect to the trade of woad, a staple of the dyeing industry at the time. Chaucer also had experience with commerce regarding wool, and, “…was appointed to work among such merchants as a customs officer; (and) he remained in charge of the export tax on wool until 1385. For much of this period (1374-85) he had daily dealings with merchants transporting wool from London to Flanders and Florence (where it would be worked into high-grade fabric)” (Wallace, 218-19). The close proximity of Chaucer to the everyday practices, that had been so degraded by immorality, must have worn on the conscious of the writer, and thus provided fuel for the admonishing stance he took when describing such practices within The Former Age.

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1931 and the Lords Appellant were two major elements in the political happenings during the time that The Former Age was written. In both instances, the proceedings surrounding both the revolt and the appeal, targeted what was perceived to be an abuse of power by King Richard II. [7] In each of these examples we see items that Chaucer references, either directly or indirectly, in The Former Age, that relate to his rebuking of the characteristics or manners attributed to the people of the time. Surely, these two occurrences, helped shape the opinion Chaucer had regarding people’s actions during the period, due the nature of their materialization. A closer examination of the two occurrences, yields a vivid representation of the true proceedings of the political atmosphere, and provides great insight into current events pertinent to Chaucer’s adaptation of The Former Age.

Poet Philippe de Mezieres presenting his book to Richard II. British Library.

Actions in The Peasant’s Revolt of 1931, provide a manifestation of many of the items Chaucer indemnifies in The Former Age. Terry Jones describes the revolt in his text as, “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 also speaks of the violence that ensued as a result of the rebellion, “The king and the lords pursued the rebels and ‘had some of them dragged behind horses, some put to the sword, some hanged on gallows, and some dismembered; and thus did they slaughter them in their thousands” (Jones, 75). As is seen in lines 5 and 19,  “They ne were nat forpampred with outrage…” and “No flesh ne wiste offence of egge or spere”, excess and violence were two topics Chaucer addresses with a negative connotation.

Modern Interpretation of Richard II’s actions regarding the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

The Lords Appellant, just as The Peasant’s Revolt, yields illustration of the types of actions that have separated and

Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, before Richard II, demanding the removal of the traitors who were about him. Westminster, 1387. Illustration by James E. Doyle. 1864. Color lithograph. Located in a private collection.

contributed to the distance from “the former age.” Jones provides an excellent illustration of the events of the coup, “In 1387, Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick led an armed insurrection against the king and defeated the royal army at Radcot Bridge….They then arrived at London ‘in a splendid and amazing array, drawn up in three shining battalions, the day bright with the blaze of their arms’ and demanded the keys to the city. Once in power they decimated Richard’s affinity….(they) were either dragged off for torture and execution or condemned…It was a brutal and bloody blow to the king and the court party which involved the ‘ruthless and wholesale elimination of Richard’s household” (Jones, 89). In this passage, many of the negative attributes that Chaucer rebukes, in relation to the “present age”, can be perceived. Violence, manslaughter, murder, allusions to war, mentions of armor and weapons, and the concepts of excess, power, and treason, evident in the description Jones provides, are truly pertinent themes expressed in The Former Age. Chaucer’s disagreement with the actions displayed in The Lords Appellant could also stem from the fact that, “he had barely survived the rebellion of the great magnates…” (Jones, 6).

Distance from the “former age” seems almost inestimable. The fond times that Chaucer seems to reminisce about have vanished, and it is apparent that many of the things that had made the former age so appealing are no longer within reach. Chaucer, in all reality, is not necessarily longing for a gross return to the ways of the “former age”, but rather, is more likely yearning for the conduct of the time to, in some way, return to a state more similar to that of the conduct exhibited during the “former age.” It could be said that Chaucer’s assumed tone is somewhat gloomy, but I feel it takes on more of an admonishing, stern nature. I see Chaucer using The Former Age as a notice to the people of the time. A chance for these people to evaluate themselves, realize faults, and possibly shift the direction of societal morality back towards that of the “former age.”

Both the tone that Chaucer takes, and the restructuring of past works into a contemporary, relatable version, show that the state of affairs in the present age in which Chaucer was writing, in some way prompted him to make an appeal for a positive shift of exhibited morality in his present society. The careful word choice that Chaucer exhibits, serves as indication of intended modern interpretation. Diction, also serves as a means for connection between The Former Age and its readers. The ability to relate to the words and the meaning behind them, furthers Chaucer’s admonishing tone, and certainly helps the intended message make more of a personal connection with the readers.

The setting and background, regarding the times in which The Former Age was written, reveal the moral degradation exhibited in its people. The times were somber, the actions corrupt, the morals skewed, and the future bleak. The political upheaval of the time threatened order, the classes clashed, and the system of feudalism was challenged. Chaucer, in the middle of all this, challenged his people to change, plead for a shift away from the corruption and towards the wholesome values of the “former age.” It is clear that Chaucer experienced, first hand, the degradation of societal actions. The structuring of this poem serves as a contrasting account between the two ages, and an appeal for change. The use of modern diction and relatable items shows the intention of associability and connectivity of themes to its intended reader. The negative characteristics, displayed within The Former Age, have attributed to the “fall” or regression of societal virtues, and have almost reached a point of complete antithetical societal setting, in regards to the “former age.”

Death of Wat Tyler (detail). Jean Froissart, Chronicles fol. 159v. Flandres, Bruges 15th Century. Bibliothèque National de France.


Citations and Bibliography


1. Wolfe, William “The Peasant’s Revolt and Its Impact on Chaucer’s Poetry”

2. Galloway, Andrew “Chaucer’s Former Age and the Fourteenth-Century Anthropology of Craft: The Social Logic of a Premodernist Lyric”

3. Bilderbeck, J.B., “Selections from Chaucer’s Minor Poems”  (page 118)

4. Lawson, Rich “The Wool Trade”

5. Roberts and Holman “Medieval Dress for the Beginner: The Late Middle Ages”

6. Purdon, L.O.”The Use of Woad in The Former Age”

7.Bremner, Ian “The Reign of Richard II, 1377 to 1399″


1. Skeat, Walter W. “The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous manuscripts by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols.”

2. Steel, Karl “A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: Chaucer’s The Former Age”

3. Boethius, “The Consolation of Philosophy”

4. Jefferson, Bernard “Chaucer and The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius”

5. “Isatis Tinctoria”

6. Steel, Karl “Nothing But Flowers: On Chaucer’s ‘Former Age’”

7. Brewer, D.S. “Class Distinction in Chaucer”

Image Sources (in order of appearance)








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