Chaucer’s Tale; 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm. Viking Press, 2014.

It must be difficult to find a topic about Geoffrey Chaucer that hasn’t been exhausted. Paul Strohm has picked a pivotal year in Chaucer’s life. In 1386 Chaucer lost his appointment as Controller of Customs of the wool trade. He was also more-or-less booted out of his lodgings of many years above Aldgate, London.

Chaucer is often called the father of English literature. He wrote in the vernacular (Middle English), French and Latin being the two dominant literary languages of the English realm at this time. Much is known about his official life, less about his literary life.

Strohm describes literary works of the fourteenth century as aural (heard) rather than read. The printing press would not be introduced into England until 1476; and even then paper was always in short supply. Parchment, made from animal skins, was expensive, and difficult to conserve. Each parchment copy would have been ordered individually, rather like the books-on-demand arrangement in our century that for a time seemed a solution to keeping books in print.

These readings given to his London audience were interactive, perhaps like that of present-day performance artists. A literary work would be introduced with a prologue, like the introductory remarks that precede a poetry recital by a member of the Creative Writing Program, UF.

Strohm describes in much detail Chaucer’s lodgings above Aldgate, The gate has disappeared, but one can imagine what these “digs” were like from the nearby surviving structures. They consisted of two rooms in a turret, “Spartan” and cramped certainly, though well situated in terms of Chaucer’s place of work, the wool wharf and warehouse, on the Thames.  Apparently the rent was affordable.

Chaucer’s neighborhood would have been a noisy and smelly place with considerable wheeled traffic during the day. The Gate was closed at sunset whereupon the street-life changed to “pub crawlers” and all of the nuisances associated with their inebriation. Chaucer was apparently a good Catholic; Would he have enjoyed the ‘holy racket’ of church bells summoning worshipers to the various masses performed in both Holy Trinity Priory, nearby, and St. Botolph’s without Aldgate?.

Revenue from the export of English wool to the Flanders and Italian textile industry was important to the royal revenues. Richard II and Edward III were fighting the Hundred Year’s War in France, suppressing the Scots, and defending the crown against domestic opposition to its prodigality.

That revenue stream from wool exports was being much diverted into a number of pockets, legitimate in some cases, but part of what historians dismissively call “corruption.” Chaucer had opportunities to enrich himself and definitely important patrons of his were profiting from that corruption. Nicholas Brembre, four-time mayor of London and a patron of Chaucer’s, cornered the wool market for a time. Eventually he slipped on that slippery slope of “corruption” and was hanged in 1388 for ‘treason,’ which generally meant that he either threatened the powers-that-be, or stole from them, or both.

Strohm calls Chaucer “complicitous,”   a “fellow traveler,” or as we would say these days, keep himself “under the radar.” But Strohm contends that Chaucer was probably not on the take. At least judging from his fortune, or lack thereof, as of 1386 his years in the royal service had not made him a rich man.  Not a social reformer, he may, nevertheless, have provided some constraint against the less scrupulous. By 1386 his writing career was flourishing, though also not a source of income.

That year Geoffrey Chaucer retired (was retired) and got elected as a Member of Parliament from the county of Kent (His wife had property there.) Hence he continued in the King’s service but with the title of “esquire” and below the status of “knight.” That lowly ranking suggests to Paul Strohm that Chaucer’s career as a parliamentarian was not that glorious either.

This was a pivotal time for the evolution of the English Parliament, with the burgesses joining the knights for purposes of deliberating on the business of the Crown. These “commoners” gradually separated themselves from the great magnates of the realm and thus the “house of commoners” and “house of lords.” Chaucer returned to court service and London briefly in the 1790s, but then settled into completing his great masterpiece.

That never happened, and most of the assembling of the various tales and their prologues only came about after his death in 1400. The Canterbury Tales, as it has come down to us, was largely the work of a professional scrivener, Adam Pinkhurst. Geoffrey Chaucer probably never quite understood how- or even desired – to become a writer-celebrity. In northern Italy Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and others were fashioning that persona, not yet possible in Chaucer’s England.

The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades

The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades by Paul M. Cobb. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Paul Cobb’s account of the clash between Moslems and Franks in the medieval world argues that there is an alternative way of looking at the crusaders. Rather than Christian holy warriors, Moslem sources portray these Franks as fanatical, unkempt, intolerant, and untutored. They are barbarians who are disrupting life on the fringes of the more civilized Moslem lands.

The Franks were intent on liberating the cities and lands in Palestine associated with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time they were also extending Christendom into the Baltic region and the British Isles and aiding Christian forces in Iberia (Arabic, Al-Andalus). The Normans, a branch of the Germanic Franks, invaded Moslem Sicily, and, for a brief period, they were a threat to North Africa. Cobb, however, denies that this was a clash of civilizations, à la Samuel Huntington.  Christians and Moslems, he points out, also joined with each other to fight mutual opponents, Moslem and/or Christian.

Neither the Islamic states nor the Franks had a navy. But the Italian cities, particularly Venice and Genoa, did and had long functioned as middlemen in the Mediterranean trade in luxury goods from Asia. While the first wave of Frankish crusader-warriors reached Palestine on foot, later armies were transported and their military operations provisioned primarily by Genoese shipping. This dependence upon Italian shipping allowed the Italians to influence which cities would become crusading targets.

One of Cobb’s themes is that it was the persistence of Moslem anarchy that allowed Frankish opportunity. This instability was partly the result of growing differences between Shi’i and Sunni. It was also the consequence of the rise and decline of Islamic warriors and unsettled rules for succession. Some historians have argued that the Frankish challenge resulted in the establishment of a more permanent state system in the Near East and North Africa. Cobb is uncertain about which is cause and which effect.

Cobb doesn’t insist on assigning numbers to the several periods of Frankish activity in the Near East. The Moslems looked upon the armed warfare in Syria and Palestine to “protect” Christian pilgrimage as the latest episode of a much longer history of the Frankish assault on Islam. Sacred to three religions (Judaism included), Jerusalem and other sites in Palestine should be open, Moslems contended, to all pilgrims. Besides pilgrimage was a profitable business.

While there are similarities, Cobb does not equate jihad with the Christian crusading effort. Jihad is an inner struggle of the faithful to acquire holiness that involved different obligations in different situations. In Dar-al-Islam (abode of Islam) the Moslem faith was recognized as the dominant religious practice; other religions were tolerated. Within the Dar al-Harb, (abode of war). the faithful jihadi was obliged to purify the land, offering to the non-Moslem the option of conversion. Should that be rejected, the Moslem warrior was obliged to rid the land of the heathen.

Short of armed conflict, Islamic law also allowed for the possibility of negotiation. Christian and Jewish communities, with the payment of special taxes, could live peacefully under the reign of an emir and supply him with administrators. Though literate and skilled, they did not pose a threat to the emir as did Moslems recruited from within the power structure.

Constantinople was the center of Greek Christianity as Rome was Latin Christianity. In 1095 Pope Urban II issued a call for western lords to provide armed assistance to the Greek Christians. Constantinople was threatened by the Seljuks, a Turkish tribe that had established a vast empire centered on Persia and extending into Anatolia and Palestine. The response was overwhelming. The “people’s crusade,” led by Frankish lords, began its trek to the Holy Land.

Those lords who volunteered and their retainers were promised indulgences, which, with the blessing of the Church, reduced the length of punishment for one’s sins. The Papacy had no army nor sufficient resources to finance the armed pilgrims; the lords who volunteered were ‘self-financed.’ Their wealth in the eleventh century was still primarily landed wealth. They could raise the cash necessary for their armed pilgrimage by borrowing from wealthy monasteries and churches, mortgaging their lands as collateral. Urban II urged religious establishments to make loans at favorable terms to those volunteering.

Cobb argues that the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean was dramatically altered by the expansion of the Ottomans (Osmani Turks) in the early fourteenth century. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it their capital. From there they dominated much of the Balkans, Egypt, and the Near East. The rise of the Ottoman Empire gradually reduced the anarchy within Islam, and thus the opportunity for the expansion of Western Christendom into the Eastern Mediterranean, according to Cobb.

Paul Cobb’s The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades  was required reading for a class on the Holy Wars taught by Professor Nina Caputo, UF, a specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.



God’s War; A New History of the Crusades

God’s War; A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Harvard University Press, 2009 paper.

We usually think of the crusades as a series of religious conflicts between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Stretching from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, they involved thousands of armed warriors trekking to Palestine to liberate holy sites and their reliquaries from Moslem dominion. Christopher Tyerman’s history of the crusaders and their motives provides a more complicated narrative.

He explains, for example, the importance of trade relationships between the primitive Western Europe economies and that of Constantinople and its Syrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian provinces. Trade between the two regions produced considerable wealth but was largely in Italian hands – Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.

The crusades were also entangled with the evolving character of the Papacy. It desired to dominate Christendom and the sacred Holy Land but had no army to field or sufficient wealth to finance those ambitions.

Each crusade followed a pattern. First the papacy would issue a document that offered forgiveness – an indulgence – to those who took part in a crusade against, at different times, Moslems, pagans, and heretics. The papal bulls would be proclaimed by a cleric of some renown, who would undertake a preaching tour to arouse interest and participation in the crusade. These tours usually focused on one or more regions of France, Flanders, or the Holy Roman Empire.

The next step was to raise the necessary finances to support these thousands of armed cavalry and foot soldiers. Most of the knights and their retinues were generally self-financed. The nobility – magnates, counts, and marquis – mortgaged their land, borrowing from wealthy monasteries and other religious establishments. This often proved disastrous to their patrimonies when the loans could not be repaid.

Once the finances were in hand, the recruitment began. One positive outcome of this recruitment, it is often claimed, was the draining off of the armed and querulous nobility. Tyerman points out, however, that they were the managers of the Frankish agricultural economy and husbands and fathers. Their death in route or during warfare left holes in the family and social fabric.

Initially the crusaders went by land to Palestine, through southern Germany, Hungary and what is now Bulgaria. Others through Italy. The armies of the second and subsequent crusades were, however, were mostly transported by ships, supplied by the Venetians. This reduced travel time but involved a substantial fee for these ships and crewmen, and hence more expenses.

The conquest of territories along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and in Anatolia as a result of the first crusade led to states ruled by western magnates and new urban populations, called Outremer (overseas). The settlers were from the Greek-speaking world, also Armenians and Jews from the eastern Mediterranean, and a few Germans and Franks from Western Europe. The peasantry remained mostly Moslem. Some historians can see here the precursors of later European colonial states.

These settlers made a living off of the pilgrimage business. It supported several prosperous cities along the Palestinian and Syrian coast. Perhaps the two most important, captured by the crusaders after long sieges, were Antioch, besieged 1097 -1098, and Acre, 1189 -1190.

Jerusalem was one of the three major Christian pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe. It would remain so under both Moslem and Christian rule.

Tyerman narrates the little discussed treaty relationship between Roman Christendom and Constantinople, the center of Greek Christianity. The first crusade was in part at least a response to Constantinople’s request for military assistance from its ally against the Moslem Seljuk Turks who had occupied Anatolia and threatened the Holy Land.

It was, however, difficult to keep the crusaders focused. Constantinople and other Greek Christian cities were tempting with their strove of relics. The Christian city of Zara (Zadar in Croatia) was taken and sacked in 1205. The Venetians had provided ship transport, and in lieu of payment, the crusaders agreed to capture the rebellious city for the Venetians.

Pope Innocent III later excommunicated the Venetians and crusaders involved.  But excommunication seems not to have been too troublesome; later that year the crusaders captured and sacked Constantinople, the Pope’s ally.

Christopher Tyerman agrees that the crusaders were motivated by the wealth that could be acquired in rampages through ancient lands. Add to that a set of intolerances and prejudices. But he also acknowledges their religious idealism, even if blinkered.

Much of the book’s 900-some pages is assigned reading for a course that I am auditing and enjoying this semester on holy wars taught by Professor Nina Caputo, history, UF.