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The World of Chaucer homepage


Case 1:
Chaucer and his Works

Case 2:

Case 3:

Case 4: Medicine, Magic & Monks

Case 5:
Leisure, Law and Learning



Leisure, Law and Learning

Introduction to Leisure, Law and Learning | Descriptions of books with images

A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo …
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.

General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (l. 285-296)

Medieval life may have been relentless and brutal for the poor, but the wealthier classes enjoyed a wide range of pleasures and pastimes. As demonstrated in the evidence of this exhibition, reading was one pursuit that could be enjoyed either for leisure or edification. Actual book ownership was still relatively rare and confined to the elite, however, as hand written books were expensive and time consuming to produce. Chaucer’s poetry would have been enjoyed more frequently as oral entertainment at court rather than in private study. More active courtly pursuits included hunting and hawking. Forests of game were near every town and village, and knights prided themselves on their skills both in the chase and in butchering the dead animals. The meat was a welcome and necessary addition to the meagre winter diet. Embarking on a pilgrimage incorporated a similar blend of practicality and amusement. Although ostensibly a devotional exercise, it was also a popular way of taking a holiday for all classes. Groups of pilgrims were often accompanied by hired minstrels, so it is not hard to envisage The Canterbury Tales as actuality.

Schooling was not compulsory in the Fourteenth Century, but literacy and learning were on the increase. There was little formal education for women, but even remote villages might have a priest who could teach promising boys their letters. In urban areas there were schools attached to cathedrals and larger churches where choirboys were taught to learn to read and sing the service, like the son of the poor widow in the Prioress’s Tale. Education was remorselessly religious and moral: learning letters began with prayers and psalms, increasingly in English. A thorough grounding in Latin, however, was still the objective of grammar schools for the aspiring middle classes aiming to enter the professions of the Church, law or medicine. After school, the sons of the wealthy could either continue their education at University or go to one of the Inns of Court and Chancery. In being placed as a page in a great household, Chaucer followed another traditional route of advancement, that of ‘education by experience’.

A good education was crucial for a career in the law. The medieval legal system was complex and wide reaching; labyrinthine laws governed every facet of life, from the way markets and shops conducted their business, to regulations determining the food and clothing that each class was entitled to. Such excessive control inevitably resulted in unrest. The laws passed in an attempt to curb wage increases following the labour shortages brought about by plague were one of the major contributors of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The growth of the legal and administrative system is seen in the huge numbers of charters and other business documents that survive from the period. They are a fascinating source for reconstructing the minutiae of daily life, and their increasing numbers throughout the period reflect the development of a literate mentality.

The visions of St Benedict and St Paul of God (page 85)

Devotional and Philosophical Writings
London: c.1325-1335
MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)

This miscellany of 38 texts includes works by Seneca, St Augustine, Anselm and Aristotle. Lavishly produced, the manuscript is illustrated by thirteen historiated initials and three illuminated full-page pictures by the chief artist of the Taymouth Hours. The page displayed on the left is divided into three compartments and depicts the visions of St Benedict and St Paul of the Creator. At the top is portrayed the face of God, in the middle, Benedict and Paul (positioned between heaven and earth), and at the bottom, the original owner of the manuscript, Roger, and another figure, are shown praying on either side of a diagram of the twelve spheres. The image of the spheres represents the medieval view of the cosmological universe: the stationary earth is at centre – here depicted by the Fall of Man – surrounded by the three remaining elements (water, air and fire), the seven known planets (including the moon), and the stars.

This high quality manuscript could only have been commissioned by a person of some wealth. In fact, Roger of Waltham (d. 1336), was a canon of St Paul’s, London, and held the important administrative position of Keeper of the Wardrobe of Edward II for a year in the 1320s. Roger is named as the supplicant in several other illustrations in the book, and it may be assumed that he was closely involved in its production.

The Coronation of the Virgin (page 83)

Historiated initial 'P' (page 123)

Plato, Seneca and Aristotle (page 276)

Opening with marginal illustrations of hawks (folios 27v-28r)

Guillaume Tardif Fauconnerie and Venerie et la chasse
France: c.1494
MS Hunter 269 (U.5.9)

For the medieval aristocracy, hunting with hounds or hawks was a consuming passion. A large literature of detailed, formal handbooks describing the procedures and rituals of hunting existed from the Thirteenth Century onwards. This compilation on the arts of hawking and the chase is a late example, commissioned by Charles VIII of France in around 1494. As well as engendering practical treatises, the hunt also became a motif favoured in medieval literary works. Although there are descriptions of hunts in the Knight’s Tale and in his early work, The Book of the Duchess, these pursuits did not seem to interest Chaucer overly.

Beautifully written and magnificently illustrated throughout by lifelike pictures of birds and dogs, this manuscript demonstrates the perfection of book design achieved in France in the late Fifteenth Century. The pages to the left are from the falconry part of the work, displaying a section detailing the signs of health and sickness in birds of prey. Hawks were prone to endless ailments and much of the falconer’s skill lay in maintaining the condition of the birds. Descriptions of ailments and medications usually form substantial sections of the medieval treatises on the art.

Beginning of Falconry part (folio 6r)

Illustrated pages from Falconry part (folios 30v - 31r)

Beginning of tale 30, the three friars (folio 70r)

Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles
France: c.1475-1500
MS Hunter 252 (U.4.10)

Like The Canterbury Tales, this collection of one hundred burlesque and licentious tales is given coherence by its narrative framework. Modelled on Boccaccio's Decameron, in this case the stories are recounted by various members of the Burgundian court. The work was presented to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, at some time in the late 1460s; its authorship is unknown. This volume is the only surviving manuscript copy of the text.

Each of the tales is introduced by a lively miniature, illustrating scenes of domestic and intimate life in provincial medieval France. The story shown here is that of the three friars, in which three merchants and their wives set off on a pilgrimage. The couples agree to underline their devout purpose by sleeping apart in separate rooms on their journey. Inevitably, three lusty friars creep into the beds of the women under cover of darkness and cuckold the husbands. When the wives berate their husbands for not keeping their promise of continence, the husbands realize what has happened and, to prevent their wives embarrassment, pretend that it was them all along. For the rest of the journey, the couples sleep together. The three-part miniature here depicts the pilgrims arriving at the inn for the night, the friars (clearly tonsured) sneaking into the beds of the wives, and the husbands obliviously sleeping alone.

Tale 13: the eunuch clerk  (folio 27v)

Tale 82: the limit (folio 172v)

Tale 92: King Rex's prisoners (folio 186r)

Beginning of text with ‘ABC’ (folio 1r)

England: late Fourteenth Century
MS Hunter 472 (V.6.22)

This fourteenth-century prayer book, or primer, was probably written for a young person who had to learn to read from it. It opens with the Latin alphabet, Christianized with a cross at the beginning and ‘amen’ at the end. It is followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Creed (the essentials of belief). The linking of the ABC and prayer marks an elementary stage of teaching. It is estimated that by the end of the Fifteenth Century perhaps half the population could read English – although this literacy may only have extended as far as an ability to recognize words from the most familiar prayers and psalms. A marginal annotation from a sixteenth-century reader states that this manuscript is a good and profitable book ‘for a man that can not understond Latyn’.

Preceding the opening of the text, the flyleaves have been utilized by a fifteenth-century reader to copy out further prayers. Several contemporary notes are found in the calendar section of the manuscript: the earthquake of 1382 is noted at the entry for 21st May while the coronation of King Richard of 1377 is marked at July 15th. At the foot of the first page of text is the autograph of the seventeenth century poet, divine and Canon of Chichester, Samuel Woodford (1636-1700).

Calendar page for May (folio 10r)

Opening of prayers for matins (folio 14r)

Illuminated page from section concerning the ‘Soca extra Algate’ (folio 150r)

Aldgate Cartulary
London: 1425-1427
MS Hunter 215 (U.2.6)

A cartulary is a collection of those administrative documents that are loosely referred to as 'charters'. Those gathered here all relate to the business of the Augustinian priory of the Holy Trinity in Aldgate in London. Founded in 1108, this important monastic house had interests in some 87 London parishes, gaining much of its income from owning properties, selling land in which fixed annual rents were retained, and collecting quit rents. This volume, containing over a thousand documents, provides a detailed record of the social and economic life of medieval London, and of its topography and changing land use. Chaucer’s parents are amongst those listed as paying rent. Chaucer himself lived above the city gate of Aldgate during the 1370s. He paid no rent for his dwelling, which was obtained as result of his post as Controller of Customs.

Although primarily a pragmatic document, this manuscript is a professional and fairly sumptuous production; many of its pages are adorned by richly gilt and flourishing initials. An opening at the beginning of the section relating to the ‘Soca extra Algate’ is displayed here. As well being enhanced by painted initials and ornamental floral sprays, there is a tinted drawing of a mitred ecclesiastic: this is probably purely decorative and cannot be regarded as representing anybody.

For more information (with further images) about this book, see the August 2002 book of the month article featuring it.

Opening page (folio 1r)

Beginning of section concerning the ‘Soca extra Algate’ (folio 149r)

Continuation of section concerning the ‘Soca extra Algate’ (folio 149v)

Opening with illustrations of the Crucifixion and an enthroned king (folios 9v-10r)

Statutes of the realm
England: Fourteenth Century (first half)
MS Gen 336

This pocket copy of the laws of England was probably written for an itinerant lawyer. The collection is prefaced by two illuminated pages depicting a Crucifixion and an image of an enthroned king: the conjunction of Church and state. The text opens with Magna Carta, the great charter of 1215 in which King John – under considerable pressure from his barons - placed himself and England's future sovereigns and magistrates within the rule of law. The version here copies the third re-issue of the charter by Henry III, made in 1225.

The manuscript is written in a mixture of Latin and French and amongst the other statutes included is a copy of Henry II’s ‘Charter of the Forest’ granting earls and barons the privilege to hunt in the royal forests. The last statute entered (as an addition) dates from the early 1350s, some ten years before Edward III ordered that the use of French in the courts should be discontinued because people could not understand it. Parliament opened in English for the first time in 1363.

Page with decorated initial (folio 26r)

Opening with decorated page (folios 194v - 195r)