If anyone knows how to breathe life into the past, to imbue the people, landscape, cities, trades and the nobility who rule over all of them with colour, drama and adventure, it’s Liza Picard. Her latest book, Chaucer’s People is no exception as she takes as her frame narrative the characters Geoffrey Chaucer introduces in his Canterbury Tales and frees them from the confines of his wondrous prose to teach us about the Middle Ages.
Rather than explicating the uncompleted poem with its pilgrims and the tales they tell to help the trip from Tabard Inn Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral pass more pleasantly, Picard examines not just the individuals as Chaucer describes them, but the trades and roles of each of the pilgrims, setting them in a broader social and historical context.
The book is divided into expansive parts, such as Country Life, City Life, The Armed Services etc. before chapters are given to the well-known pilgrims. Yet, this book isn’t about analysing the characters as Chaucer defines them or their tales reveal. Starting with Chaucer’s physical and sometimes psychological descriptions, she then delves into the characteristics of the pilgrims’ roles, trades or professions; how and where they fit into the broader medieval landscape and beyond. So, for example, she deals with the religious figures by outlining just how their various orders were established, when and where, the specific role say a friar, prioress, abbot or parson might play (eg she unpacks the Pardoner as someone who travelled to Rome to purchase indulgences for sins from the Pope then returned to England to sell them at an elevated cost (along with fake holy relics), thus profiting from people’s desire to seek penance for their spiritual offences. Picard makes it clear – as does Chaucer – that Pardoners and their motivation as well as public perception were becoming increasingly questioned). From lawyers, to merchants, clerks, yeomen, squires and, of course, the Wife of Bath, each is taken out of the tale and placed in history. For example, the Shipman, to which the final chapter is dedicated, is located within not just the actual maritime wars and adventures of the period, but within the broader discourse of travel writing which was growing in popularity at this time and of which medieval audiences would have been aware. Thus we’re given a potted history of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, their writings, their reception and the fantastical sites they claim to have seen and of which, according to Picard, any shipman worth his salt would have been aware.
Just like the Tales upon which this draws, this is a colourful, fascinating and ofttimes very funny book that casts an intellectual’s eye over medieval times in order to bring them into sharp focus. I found this book difficult to put down. If only all history was written in such a lively and irresistible fashion! For lovers of history and well written books, I can highly recommend a journey with Picard and her version of Chaucer’s pilgrims.