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The Historical Setting of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess

The Historical Setting of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess

By D.W. Robertson

Medieval Studies in Honor of Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr., edited John Mahoney and John Esten Keller (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965)

Introduction: Criticism of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the first major work of a young man who was to become England’s most famous poet, has sometimes neglected not only the immediate historical setting of the poem and the most probable circumstances of its first publication, but also the mores of its audience. At the beginning of the year 1369 the most notable poet attached to the English court was Jean Froissart, who wrote under the patronage of Queen Philippa. Both Edward III and his Queen spoke French (rather than English) as their natural language, and the Queen in particular was quite evidently an admirer of literary fashions as they had developed in the French language. In this year, which marked a turning point in the fortunes of English chivalry, King Edward’s court was still the most brilliant in Europe. The glory of English victories earlier in the century and the prestige of the Order of the Garter were still intact. Chaucer himself went off campaigning in France.

Queen Philippa died of the plague on August 14, the Vigil of the Assumption. Chaucer, who had returned to England, was, on September 1, granted funds for mourning for himself and his wife. On September 12, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, also died of the plague. Her husband, John of Gaunt, was campaigning in Picardy, whence he did not return until November 3. England thus lost two of its noblest ladies within a few weeks. The effect of these losses in a society bound together by close personal relationships must have been profound. Froissart spoke of the Queen as “the most courteous, noble, and liberal queen that ever reigned in her time,” and of Blanche he wrote,

Aussi sa fille de Lancastre —
Haro! mettés moi une emplastre
Sus le coer, car, quant m’en souvient,
Certes souspirer me couvient,
Tant sui plains de melancolie.
Elle morut jone et jolie,
Environ de vingt et deux ans;
Gaie, lie, friche, esbatans,
Douce, simple, d’umble samblance;
La bonne dame ot à nom Blanche.
(241-250)

The Duke of Lancaster instituted a memorial service to be held for Blanche each year on September 12 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a ceremonial which he continued to support for the remainder of his life. He arranged for an elaborate alabaster tomb to be erected by Henry Yevele, who was to become England’s most distinguished mason. An altar was erected near the tomb, and two chantry priests were engaged to sing masses there throughout the year. In accordance with the explicit provision of his will, John was buried by the side of Blanche.

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