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The Former Age

Fourteenth century Middle English
Geoffrey Chaucer

Also found in:
MS Cambridge University Library Ii.3.21, and numerous printed editions

A late-fourteenth century short poem

The Former Age is one of Chaucer’s short poems, betraying an admiration for an antique, pre-Christian age. It is a retelling and elaboration of a passage found in the Romans de la rose, with influence also from Ovid and Boethius. The Romans de la rose, or Romance of the Rose, is an Old French romance that dates to the thirteenth century which Chaucer is known to have translated into Middle English, although the only surviving version of such a translation, one which includes his work but also that of other authors, skips over the section containing this passage.

Chaucer’s vignette paints a picture of a time long ago that was more honest than the one he lived in, reflecting, perhaps, a wider dissatisfaction with his own period and almost certainly resonating with Hannah’s own instincts. The Former Age is found in two other manuscripts, lying in Cambridge University Library.

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The Former Age by Geoffrey Chaucer

A blisful lyf a paisible and a swete · Ledden the peples in the former age · They helde hem payed of fruites. that they ete · – The people of long ago led a sweet and blissful life, content with the fruits that the trees and bushes provided for them, for they were not yet spoiled by excess. The grindstone did not exist; they lived on berries, fruits and suchlike, and drank cold water from the clear spring. No ground was wounded by the plough; the little wheat that grew, unsown by mans’ hand, was kneaded and made into a small amount of bread. There were no furrows in the land that a man could see. No fire was struck from any flint, the grapevine lay unpruned and unmanaged, and no spices were ground in any mortar to mix with wine or to make fine sauces with. No red, yellow or blue dyes were known to any dyer, for wool remained its natural colour, and no animal was ever hurt by a sharp point or a blade.

There was no coinage, no ships carried merchants far abroad in search of outlandish goods and there were no trumpets to stir a man to battle. There were no castles and no towers. What need was there to go to war? It was pointless; there was no wealth to be gained from it.

It was a cursed time indeed when men first engaged in the sweaty business of grubbing up the metal that lay in darkness underground and scouring the riverbeds for gemstones. Alas! Then arose the scourge of greed and theft, the cause of all our sorrow. Tyrants don’t go into battle over a bush or a wilderness! They don’t go to where the living is so scarce and thin that the people live on porridge and apples. They go to where there is plenty and avoid the places where only poverty dwells, as Diogenes pointed out, and then they spare no effort and shrink from no sin as they position their army in siege around that rich city!

There were once no palace chambers and no halls, for men lived in caves or slept softly and sweetly on grass or leaves out in the woods, without walls and in perfect tranquillity. No eiderdowns and no white sheets were given to them, but they slept in safety nonetheless, for their hearts were with one another. There was no greed and no envy. Chain mail and plate armour was unknown, unforged; these gentle people, devoid of all dishonesty and vice, had no reason to dream up conflict and dissent but preferred to cherish one another instead. There was no pride, no envy, no greed for riches, no privilege, no lordship and no taxation by tyrants. The only empress overseeing them was humility and peace, administered with good faith. Jupiter, the father of vain and licentious diversions, had not yet come into this world. Nimrod, in eagerness to lord it over men, had not yet made his high towers.

Alas! Alas! Now may men weep and cry! For in our time there is nothing but greed and envy, falsehood, deception and treason, poison, manslaughter and a hundred ways to kill a man.

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