18 Pages

The Laws of London

BUT the picturesque side of things was only the smaller half of Chaucer's life, as it is of ours. We must not be more royalist than the King, or claim more for Chaucer and his England than he himself would ever have dreamed of claiming. That which seems most beautiful and romantic to us was not necessarily so five hundred years ago. The literature of Chivalry, for instance, seems to have touched Chaucer comparatively little: he scarcely mentions it but in more or less open derision. Again, while Ruskin and William Morris seem at times almost tempted to wish themselves back to the 14th century for the sake of its Gothic architecture, Chaucer in his retrospective mood is not

ashamed to yearn for a Golden Age as yet uncorrupted by architects of any description whatever-

No doubt he would as little have chosen seriously to go back to hips and haws as Morris would seriously have wished to live in the Middle Ages. But his words may warn us against over-estimating the picturesque side of his age. The most important is commonly what goes on under the surface; and this was eminently true of Chaucer's native London. When we look closely into the social and political ideals of those motley figures which thronged the streets, we may see there our own modern liberties in the making, and note once more how slowly, yet how surely, the mills of God grind. It was once as hard for a community of a few thousand souls to govern itself as it is now for a nation; and parts of what seem to us the very foundations of civilized society were formerly as uncertain and tentative as Imperial Federation or the International Peace Congress.