Cultural and Intellectual Background to Chaucers Era

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Chaucer’s incredible career reflects the changing social and economic structures of England in the late 1300s. Before the 1300s, as I discussed, there were basically two classes. There was the Nobility, the wealthiest one or two percent of England, and there were the Serfs, everyone else. As centuries passed, families began to pass on skills at trades and crafts they would pass on. By the time of the 12th into the 13th century, the products that peasants or serfs were able to make became a commodity for exchange. Instead of importing goods, or having certain products costume made expensively, aristocrats and nobility began to buy from and realize the benefit of trading with domestic and local merchants. Instead of enslaving the masses to maintain agriculture, those with money began to cultivate certain populations for the products and services they could offer. Particularly as trade between nations began to grow, London evolved into a bustling port. This collapse in the two class society created a more mobile middle class that broke from agricultural serfdom, and began to find economic autonomy servicing the rich and, as time goes on, each other. By the time of Shakespeare, the popularity of theater was the result of a rapidly grown middle class that has some disposable income and a desire for leisure earned after a work week. Chaucer grew up and lived during this expansion of a merchant class. Because his father served an important recreational function for the wealthy — wine distribution — he had connections through clients that allowed Chaucer entrance into a noble and aristocratic world. As he worked his way up the ladder in the aristocratic and royal world of London (much like a young person working his way up the corporate ladder), Chaucer had access to and enjoyed many of the privileges of nobility. Importantly, he was not aristocracy, nobility or royalty. Chaucer had exposure to a vast variety of humanity and experience, which is reflected in his writing,...
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