Page images

Which that hyght the house of Fame,
And to do thee sport and game,” &c.-

B. II. v. 144, &c. It should seem, also, that our poet contrived to discharge the duties of his office faithfully, and with clean hands; and the honest pride with which he valued himself on his integrity never having been liable to any imputation, appears to be justified by the circumstance, that when, in the latter end of King Edward's reign, inquiries and prosecutions were instituted relative to great frauds and embezzlements in certain branches of the customs, the name of Chaucer never seems to have been so much as mentioned.

By means of his several appointments, &c. nevertheless, Chaucer became considerably enriched, and lived at one time, as he himself informs us, in great splendour; though we shall not very readily believe that he ever, as Speght has asserted, " had altogether an income of one thousand pounds per annum,

,”* a revenue which, considering the standard weight and

* A few facts and considerations will convince the reader of the enormity of this supposition.

In the first place it is to be remembered, sterling originally signified a pound weight of standard silver--that is to say, 11 oz. 2 dwt. of pure silver and 18 dwt. of alloy, coined into 20s.; though the same quantity of the same standard (being now coined into 60s. of which every 20s. is still called a pound), would now bear the denomination of £3. From this primitive signification of the nominal currency there had been little deviation in the time of Chaucer: for in the 20th E. III. the same pound weight, of the same standard, was coined only into 22s. 6d.; and in the 27th into 25s. Nor does any further alteration appear to have taken place till the reign of Henry V. when it was coined into 30s. Chaucer's £1,000 a-year would accordingly have been in actual amount £2,500 of the currency of the present day. But this is in reality a small part only of the consideration necessary to a true estimate of the practical value of such an income. To this we must add the recollection of the much smaller quantity, and consequently the much greater value, in practical application, of the precious metals then in circulation ; the different occasions, inducements, and even opportunities of expenditure in the mode of living then and now; the multiplied artificial wants in equipage, daily amusements, luxurious accommodations, &c. of which there were then neither the means nor the idea.

The bearing of the latter consideration upon the estimate of the operative value of £1,000 a-year, (or what we should now call £2,500), in the time of Chaucer, may in some degree be estimated by recollecting the importance attached to the one half, and even much less than one half of such a revenue, by Shakspeare and other dramatists in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in whose time the standard currency had become depreciated quite as low as its pre

the value of money in those days, must have been competent to the maintenance of an almost princely splendour. Even sup

sent appreciation: the pound weight of standard silver being in the 2d of her reign coined into 60s. and in the 43d of her reign into 628. Yet Shakspeare, (who in these and similar respects, it is notorious, always uses his familiar terms in the sense familiarly accepted by those he wrote for, and by whom of course he meant to be understood), makes the estate litigated before King John, (in his tragedy of that name), between Robert and Philip Falconbridge, “ a fair five hundred pound a-year :"-£500, of course, of the standard money of Queen Elizabeth. And this is the amount of the whole estate or fee of

" A soldier by the honour-giving hand

Of Cæur de Lion knighted in the field.” Now every historian and antiquary is well aware of the description of persons on whom this badge of military nobility was, in those times, exclusively conferred ; and what sort of practical revenue was necessary to support the feudal pomp and splendour of that distinctionthough our actors now-a-days seem to forget it, in the manner in which they dress the characters. And well might such importance, even in the days of Queen Elizabeth, be attached to such an income-even under the recollection that the £500 of her day would still be only £500 in our own.

For Hume informs us that 8d. (eight pence of our present money), then the price of a day's labour, would purchase a fat pig for the table; and we learn from Bishop Fleetwood's invaluable tract, Chronicon Preciosum, that in 1558 (the 1st of her reign) 2s. 10d. was the price of a good sheep; in 1562, a hogshead of claret wine £2 10s. and that during a considerable part of her reign, (though subject to considerable fluctuations), the average price of wheat was not much more than 8s. a quarter. Judge then what must have been the real operative value of Chaucer's revenue of £1,000, (that is to say, £2,500 of Queen Elizabeth's and of our money), in the estimation of a writer of her days.

We should be sorry to protract this note to such a length as might make a literary criticism appear like a disquisition; and yet a few facts relative to the identical age of Chaucer, which go home to the point of inquiry, and bring into immediate comparison the supposed income of our poet with the prices of articles and the salaries of the most important functionaries, in the same denomination and value of money, may at once be acceptable to the reader, and tolerably decisive of the degree of credit due to the passage under examination. In the Chronicon, already alluded to, we find, among others of a similar description, the following items relative to the price of various articles during the time in which Chaucer flourished.-In 1326, twelve hens 1s. 6d.; a cock and thirteen hens 7s.; eight porkers and a half 15s. In 1336, (a very abundant year), a quarter of wheat 2s.; a fat ox 6s. 8d.; a fat sheep 8d. In 1343, two oxen 16s. In 1344, one cow 5s.

posing that Speght had, like a political economist, calculated the important alteration that had taken place in the standard

In 1349, wheat again 2s. the quarter, and a fat ox 6s. 8d. In 1359, wheat rose to the enormous price of 26s. a quarter; but sunk again in 1361 to 2s. Two hens for ld. In 1363, a hog Is. 6d. In 1379, a gallon of white wine 6d.; a gallon of red wine 4d. In 1382, a tun of wine not more than £4. In 1387, wheat again 2s. the quarter; barley 1s.; pease the same. In 1390, a stone of wool 3s. The price of a good horse (probably the very best) during this interval, appears to have been about 40s.

Whoever glances an eye over these items, will perceive at once, that the nominal price of the articles specified must, upon an average, be multiplied forty fold in order to bring them to the standard of modern prices; and that consequently, (independently of those other cir cumstances connected with the new demands and necessities of expenditure to which we have alluded), the supposed £1,000 a-year ascribed to Chaucer would have been equal to £40,000 a-year in these days. Nor will the result be less exaggerated, if we proceed to estimate the comparative value of money, by recurring to the salaries at that time paid to some of the most important officers of the state.

The salaries of the judges, for example, are thus specified in the same Chronicon Preciosum. In 1364, the chief baron and other barons of the Exchequer, each £40. In 1367, a justice of the Common Pleas £40; a chief justice of the K.B. 100 marks (£66 13s. 4d.); a justice of K.B. £40. In 1339, a chief justice of the C. P. £40; a justice of the C.P. only 40 marks (£26. 13s. 4d.) Nor do we find any deviation, except the reduction of the salary of the C. J. of the K.B., in 1402, to the common level of the other judges of £40 a-year. So that the multiplication of the nominal sum by 40 would not in these respects bring matters to their present standard : for our judges, we suppose, would consider their learned labours very ill remunerated by £1,600 a-year. The wages of the lower classes, however, are not equally disproportionate. The common labourer got his ld. he does not get now his 3s. 4d. ; the reaper got his 2d. he does not now get 6s. 8d.; the mower his 5d. he does not now ask 16s. 8d.; a carpenter, mason, &c. his 3d. they do not now look for their 10s. a-day. Some of these items, particularly the wages of the handicraftsmen and the meadow-mower; but the skill of the former was perhaps comparatively scarce in those days, and there might be some particular reasons for the ample remuneration of the laborious exertion of the latter; but perhaps the bailiff in husbandry would not think himself overpaid at this time by £26 13s. 4d. (in lieu of the 13s. 4d. which he then received), together with clothing once a-year, and his board ; and so with the forty-fold computation of other annual servants.

At any rate, after all the facts that have been stated relative to the changes that have taken place in the denomination and value of money in the last 500 years, we may naturally be excused for withholding our belief in the statement of Chaucer's income of £1,000 a-year, till the documents and authorities are produced upon which that statement rests.

denomination, and estimated the actual quantum by the nominalcurrency of his own day, such an income, as would yet remain in the supposed possession of our poet, would, upon comparison with the known circumstances of society in those days, still appear, for a man in Chaucer's station of life, enormous.

But whatever was the actual or efficient income he enjoyed in the height of his prosperity, (and he himself has informed us that his fortune was such," that he from time to time in delicious houses was wont to enjoy blissful stoundes,” and to be “ bliss. ful in the joy that oft him mirthed,”—Test of Love,) certain it is, that he fell for awhile into a lamentable reverse ; and that the “ bliss of his joy that oft him mirthed was turned into gall.”-ib. For although in the year 1377, Rich. II. confirmed the several grants of his grandfather, with another annuity of twenty marks, in lieu of the pitcher of wine formerly granted to him, yet shortly after we find the affairs of our poet in such confusion, that he was obliged to have recourse in the 2d R. II. it is said) to the king's protection, to screen him from his creditors.

The causes of this reverse, if he really began to feel it so early as is pretended, are by no means consistently or authentically explained. An absurd conjecture has even been advanced, upon very hypothetical grounds, that in order to procure an ambitious and advantageous match for his eldest son, Thomas Chaucer, he transferred all his estate and property to that son, and consented himself to be reduced to want and beggary, and shelter himself by such means as the above from the rightful claims of his creditors : a strange imputation to be sanctioned by mere conjecture, both upon the father and the son; and to which no known circumstance in the life of Chaucer seems to give the slightest countenance.

On the other hand, Mr. Tyrwhitt (who by the way makes no mention of any protection in the 2d of R. II.) sanctions completely the opinion of Mr. Urrey, who ascribes all the calamities of Chaucer to his unfortunate engagements [5th and 6th R. II. &c.] with the party in the city of London, of which John of Northampton (a partizan of the Duke of Lancaster) was at the bead. Certain it is, that the riot which some how or other grew out of those transactions, being treated as a rebellion by the partizans of the court, Chaucer was involved in the proscription which ensued, and was obliged to flee for refuge into Hainault, and thence successively into France and Zealand; where being reduced, as it seems, to great distress, be ventured privily to return to England; but being discovered, was cast into prison. Here it was, as appears from internal evidence, that he composed his Testament of Love. It is written in a species of poetical prose; and in its machine and structure

scarcely less poetical than either The Romaunt of the Rose, or The Court of Love. It has many beautiful passages, and blends together with the still lively vigour of a creative imagination, the spirit at once of a self-sustaining, though not preaching or stoical philosophy, and the more soothing charm of pathos. Of the latter in particular there are, at the beginning, some beautiful touches relative to bis own misfortunes; and which put us in possession, as Mr. Tyrwhitt bas observed, of all that is now to be known of the history of the distresses of the author: of which, (relieved from some of the obscurity of its antiquated spelling), the following, on the “penance" he is enduring in his “ dark prison,” may be taken as a specimen.

“Well may Eve sain to me Adam, in sorrow fallen from wealth, • driven art thou out of Paradise, with sweat thy sustenånce to beswinke (to labour for].' Deep in this pining pit with woe I lie ystocked [confined], with chaines linked of care and of tene. It is so high from thence U lie, and the common earth, there ne is cable in no land maked that might stretch to me to draw me into bliss, ne stairs to step on is none, so that without recovery, endless, here to endure I wot well I [am] purveyed (provided). O where art thou now, friendship? that some time, with laughing cheer, madest both face and countenance to me wards ?—The soul in which the life of friendship was, is drawn out from his other spirits. Now then farewell friendship, and farewell fellows ! Methinketh ye

all have taken your


He invokes the consolation of the Lady of Love, “Remembrance of whom lyeth so under his breast, that other thought cometh not in his mind but gladness.” She appears to him in all her benignity; and, charmed with her condescension, he thus addresses her:

“ Now good lady (quoth I) that art so fair on to look, raining honey by thy words! bliss of Paradise are thy lookings, joy and comfort are thy movings ! + Is this worship to thee, or to thine excellence, for to come into so foul a place? Parde sometime though I was in prosperity, and with foreign goods involved, I had muchel to do to draw

Should we print this extract, and many others we could select, in metrical form, dividing the lines according to their natural cadence, the reader would perhaps be surprised at discovering how little this apparent prose of Chaucer differs in its rhythmical character from the lyrical structure of the choruses in Milton's Sampson Agonistes. And if we were to preserve the antient spelling, indicating thereby the pronunciation of the times, the resemblance would be still more apparent.

+ Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye,
In every gesture dignity and love.


« PreviousContinue »