Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England

by Liza Picard

In Chaucer’s People we learn a great deal about the people who lived in 14th century England. It is a very detailed book and often goes into levels of detail that just seemed superfluous such as reciting several recipes for different medicinal treatments without much comment on any of them. It might have been more interesting to share one recipe and then commented on any poisonous ingredients or things that might have made the treatment actually work. Instead there were several treatments with no commentary and I was left not knowing why the author thought they were important enough to include.

That said, there was actually a good bit of useful and really good information presented in this book, which was divided into sections on farmers, city dwellers, religious people, and the armed services, and then further divided into a chapter on each of the characters from Chaucer’s book. Some of these sections were significantly better than others and while I often found myself wanting to highlight everything, I equally often found myself just skimming thinking ‘ok what is the point of this?’

The chapter on the Wife of Bath was probably the most interesting, where Picard talks about marriage and the validity of it. It was very interesting to learn that weddings in the church were not common but rather one would simply say an oath in front of witnesses (even the witnesses were not required but in case a man tried to leave a woman later it would help in court to have witnesses). Afterwards, they may go to the church for a blessing, but this was also not a requirement. Since the middle ages were so much more religious than contemporary times, one might expect using a church and a priest for a wedding to be more common, but apparently one would be wrong.

In the chapter on the Wife of Bath, the author also took the time to describe pilgrimages. While part of the idea of one is that you would suffer a bit on the way to your destination, in many cases this was not done. Picard gives the example of a convoy that traveled with several mistresses and a barrel of good wine amongst other luxury items. There was also a “permanent fair” type atmosphere at many of the destinations where travelers could party and get drunk, purchase supplies for their return trip, and enjoy themselves before turning around.

While much of the rest of the book was not as interesting as the first chapter, it did maintain my interest well enough to read the entire thing. It did not, however, pique my interest enough to look any further into The Canterbury Tales.