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CHAUCER—BREAD AND MILK FOR CHILDREN
 TO-DAY, as we walk about the streets and watch the people hurry
to and fro, we cannot tell from the dress they wear to what class
they belong. We cannot tell among the men who pass us, all clad
alike in dull, sad-colored clothes, who is a knight and who is a
merchant, who is a shoemaker and who is a baker. If we see them
in their shops we can still tell, perhaps, for we know that a
butcher always wears a blue apron, and a baker a white hat.
These are but the remains of a time long ago when every one
dressed according to his calling, whether at work or not. It was
easy then to tell by the cut and texture of his clothes to what
rank in life a man belonged, for each dressed accordingly, and
only the great might wear silk and velvet and golden ornaments.
And in the time of which we have been reading, in the England
where Edward III and Richard II ruled, where Langland sadly
dreamed and Wyclif boldly wrote and preached, there lived a man
who has left for us a clear and truthful picture of those times.
He has left a picture so vivid that as we read his words the
people of England of the fourteenth century still seem to us to
live. This man was Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was a poet, and is
generally looked upon as the first great English poet. Like
Caedmon he is called the "Father of English Poetry," and each has
a right to the name. For if Caedmon was the first great poet of
the English people in their new
 home of England, the language he
used was Anglo-Saxon. The language which Chaucer used was
English, though still not quite the English which we use to-day.
But although Chaucer was a great poet, we know very little about
his life. What we do know has nothing to do with his poems or of
how he wrote them. For in those days, and for long after, a
writer was not expected to live by his writing; but in return for
giving to the world beautiful thoughts, beautiful songs, the King
or some great noble would reward him by giving him a post at
court. About this public life of Chaucer we have a few facts.
But it is difficult at times to fit the man of camp, and court,
and counting-house to the poet and story-teller who possessed a
wealth of words and a knowledge of how to use them greater than
any Englishman who had lived before him. And it is rather
through his works than through the scanty facts of his life that
we learn to know the real man, full of shrewd knowledge of the
world, of humor, kindliness, and cheerful courage.
Chaucer was a man of the middle class. His father, John Chaucer,
was a London wine merchant. The family very likely came at first
from France, and the name may mean shoemaker, from an old Norman
word chaucier or chaussier, a shoemaker. And although the French
word for shoemaker is different now, there is still a slang word
chausseur, meaning a cobbler.
We know nothing at all of Chaucer as a boy, nothing of where he
went to school, nor do we know if he ever went to college. The
first thing we hear of him is that he was a page in the house of
the Princess Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, who was the
third son of Edward III. So, although Chaucer belonged to the
middle class, he must have had some powerful friend able to get
him a place in a great household.
In those days a boy became a page in a great household
 very much
as he might now become an office-boy in a large merchant's
office. A page had many duties. He had to wait at table, hold
candles, go messages, and do many other little household
services. Such a post seems strange to us now, yet it was
perhaps quite as interesting as sitting all day long on an office
stool. In time of war it was certainly more exciting, for a page
had often to follow his master to the battlefield. And as a war
with France was begun in 1359, Geoffrey went across the Channel
with his prince.
Of what befell Chaucer in France we know nothing, except that he
was taken prisoner, and that the King, Edward III, himself gave
16 pounds towards his ransom. That sounds a small sum, but it meant
as much as 240 pounds would now. So it would seem that, boy though
he was, Geoffrey Chaucer had already become important. Perhaps he
was already known as a poet and a good story-teller whom the King
was loath to lose. But again for seven years after this we hear
nothing more about him. And when next we do hear of him, he is
valet de chambre in the household of Edward III. Then a few
years later he married one of Queen Philippa's maids-in-waiting.
Of Chaucer's life with his wife and family again we know nothing
except that he had at least one son, named Lewis. We know this
because he wrote a book, called A Treatise on the Astrolabe, for
this little son. An astrolabe was an instrument used in
astronomy to find out the distance of stars from the earth, the
position of the sun and moon, the length of days, and many other
things about the heavens and their bodies.
Chaucer calls his book A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Bread and
Milk for Children. "Little Lewis, my son," he says in the
beginning, "I have perceived well by certain evidences thine
ability to learn science touching numbers and proportions; and as
well consider I thy busy prayer
 in special to learn the treatise
of the astrolabe." But although there were many books written on
the subject, some were unknown in England, and some were not to
be trusted. "And some of them be too hard to thy tender age of
ten years. This treatise then will I show thee under few light
rules and naked words in English; for Latin canst thou yet but
small, my little son. . . .
"Now will I pray meekly every discreet person that readeth or
heareth this little treatise, to have my rude inditing for
excused, and my superfluity of words, for two causes. The first
cause is for that curious inditing and hard sentence is full
heavy at one and the same time for a child to learn. And the
second cause is this, that soothly me seemeth better to write
unto a child twice a good sentence than he forget it once. And
Lewis, if so be I shew you in my easy English as true conclusions
as be shewn in Latin, grant me the more thank, and pray God save
the King, who is lord of this English."
So we see from this that more than five hundred years ago a
kindly father saw the need of making simple books on difficult
subjects for children. You may never want to read this book
itself, indeed few people read it now, but I think that we should
all be sorry to lose the preface, although it has in it some long
words which perhaps a boy of ten in our day would still find
It is interesting, too, to notice in this preface that here
Chaucer calls his King "Lord of this English." We now often
speak of the "King's English," so once again we see how an
everyday phrase links us with the past.