A Middle Ages Meaning of Time

Geoffrey Chaucer was not shy towards inspecting the meaning of time

Time is a manmade, yet natural concept that those in the Middle Ages had a strong perception of.

The works of Geoffrey Chaucer undertake a wide variety of themes, and it can be argued that time, and the meaning of time, is one of those primary themes. Time is a general, manmade concept with significant importance in human lives, and Chaucer’s works analyze the meaning of this system which we call time.

Chaucer ensures that his works reflect the medieval views and perceptions of time, as they were written during that period, and reflects the relationship between time and poetry. Chaucer analyzes the meaning of time through different lenses, with the main ones being the concepts of old age, seasonal time, and religious judgement.

Before Chaucer’s use of time and their significance in his works can be analyzed, a common yet complex question must be considered, and that is the definition of time itself. Time in the literal sense is a manmade concept, a means of measuring periods of events. However, it is important to distinguish time itself from the concept of measurement, as time itself has always existed before humans, but time in relation to the units of measurement is manmade.

This topic has been the subject of wide analysis in philosophy over multiple millennia, and the general consensus is that, according to Arnold A. Smith II, professor at Youngstown State University and Philosophy Now author:

…the subject matter of time, particular things engaged in their particular motions, existed prior to man — but the concept of time could not since no humans existed to conceptualize it.

Thus, it has been concluded that the existence of time was apparent prior to man, but the concept of time was invented by man, and did not exist prior. There are numerous works by Chaucer which deal with the presence of time and its meaning, but there are two that stand out in regards to this theme. The first of these is The Reeve’s Tale, and its depiction of time in relation to old age, and reference to seasonal time.

While it is true that the meaning of old age in The Reeve’s Tale was discussed in a previous article of mine, which you should definitely check out, the significance of old age in regards to the Reeve himself was the primary focus, and for this article, the primary focus will be not in regards to the Reeve, but in regards to Chaucer’s more wide meaning of time. The second work of Chaucer whose depiction of time stands out is the General Prologue, with its theme of time in relation to religious judgement and the day of doom.

The Reeve’s Tale is significant in that its primary theme is old age in relation to time, making it one of the few works of Chaucer whose main theme is, in fact, related to time. The Reeve is the main character, and makes his old age apparent directly to the reader, stating in lines 3867–3869 of The Canterbury Tales:

But ik am oold; me list not pley for age…This white top writeth myne olde yeris.

In this specific moment, the Reeve’s old age, and his white hair, is made known to the reader. The fact that the Reeve’s hair is white signifies his old age, of course, but further reiterates Chaucer’s depiction of time as the whitening of the hair can be compared to putrefaction, the natural process of decay in any instance.

The fact that the Reeve’s hair has whitened signifies his putrefaction and decay, which has come with old age. This process occurs towards the end of any organism’s life and is indicative of Chaucer’s representation of time, as the Reeve’s hair has putrefied due to his old age, further indicating that Chaucer is depicting old age as a representation of the end of time.

The Middle Ages is commonly portrayed as a knights-clashing era, but its focus on philosophical topics such as time were also apparent.

At this point it becomes clear that Chaucer uses the Reeve’s old age as a catalyst for the meaning of time, using it as a representation of time and its meaning. To Chaucer, old age is indicative of the end of time, as old age is the last stage of a human life or the life of any organism. All stages of life proceed old age, and there is no stage of life following old age, as death follows.

On a life scale, old age is at the end, with no other stage of life following it, and for time, it is the same concept, with nothing following the end of time. Through analysis of the Reeve’s old age in The Reeve’s Tale, it becomes increasingly clear that Chaucer uses the Reeve’s old age, and the general concept of old age, as a representation of time, but specifically, the end of time.

The Reeve’s Tale also contains yet another representation of time, which is through seasonal time and the seasons. During the Middle Ages and Medieval period, old age was often compared to a year, with the seasons being representative of the stages of age. According to Simona Cohen, author of Transformations of Time and Temporality in Medieval and Renaissance Art:

Medieval commentators time was synonymous with days, seasons or years, that is to say, with temporal units as they were conceived by man.

Essentially, spring, which occurs towards the beginning of the year, represented a “rebirth” from the cold winter, and new life. Summer and autumn would be indicative of the middle life stages, and winter would be representative of old age, with the end of the year serving as death. Chaucer makes this comparison directly through the Reeve’s dialogue, specifically when the Reeve states in line 3868:

Gras tyme is doon; my fodder is now forage.

In this instance, the Reeve states that he has transformed from fresh grass to dry fodder, which is indicative of his aging process, but relates to the comparison of time to seasons as the Reeve has transformed from fresh spring grass to dry, worn-out hay which is indicative of the cold winter period, which itself is indicative of old age.

Through the Reeve’s line about the grass and fodder, Chaucer is portraying yet another representation of time, which is the comparison of time to seasons. It is worth pointing out that the medieval concept of seasons in relation to time consists of “temporal units as they were conceived by man”, as Cohen puts it, which relates to the concept of time discussed earlier, which regards that time always existed but the concept of units is manmade. Thus, according to Cohen, Chaucer is making note of this through the comparison of time to the seasons.

The relation of the seasons to age was a common perception. Winter represented old age, the end of time.

There is a third representation of time in Chaucer’s works, and that is time in relation to religion, specifically judgement day and the day of doom. This representation is featured in the General Prologue, which focuses heavily on religious corruption. Chaucer relays the theme of time through his representation of religious corruption — that is, the corruption of the Church which was a major issue during that period. The corruption is relayed through the Monk, when the narrator says of him in lines 175–181:

This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace, / And heeld after the newe world the space. / He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, / That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men, / Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees, / Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees — / This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.

Essentially, the Monk was corrupt, not following his customs and was heedless of rules, like a fish out of water. This is significant as it relates to the corruption of the Church, which was a very important issue of the time, as the Church was plagued with corruption, often preaching against sinful desires such as greed.

However, churches were often decorated with lavish ornaments costing vast amounts of wealth, which was ironic as the church advocated against greed, instilling fear in others that they will be judged by God and sent to Hell for their greed, yet here they were, greedily using their wealth for decoration purposes. This relates to Chaucer’s concepts of time as the Church told that people will be judged on judgement day, the day of doom, which will occur at the very end of time. In relation to the individual it will occur at the very end of their life, at the end of their time, when they surpass old age and reach death, again referencing the delineation of time through old age.

It becomes clear through analysis of the Monk and his corruption, which is representative of the early Catholic Church and its corruption, that the advocation for the rejection of greed and other similar sins — which is littered with irony as the Church itself was greedy and corrupt — is yet another reference to the overall theme of time in Chaucer’s works.

With the end of life comes the end of time for that person.

Since the Church preached that everyone would be judged at the end of time based on their actions, and that greed, corruption and other similar sins would negatively impact this judgement, Chaucer is exposing the irony in the Church’s actions through the theme of time in relation to judgement day. Through this, as well as the portrayal of time through old age and seasons, Chaucer establishes a link between time and poetry as he is using the poetry to display his own definitions of time.

Chaucer views the meaning of time as a component of the more mental aspects of humanity, rather than physical. Of course, he portrays time in a physical sense, such as the aging of the Reeve via his white hair, relating it to the physical process of putrefaction, but he also views it as a more mental sense, with regards to the concept of faith and judgement day, which are, of course, spiritual — and thus mental — features, not physical.

It is without a doubt that Chaucer’s works consist of a multitude of themes, but it is also without a doubt that time is one of the primary themes of his works. Specifically, Chaucer displays his meanings of time through his representations of time in relation to old age, seasons, and aspects of faith, such as judgement day, as displayed through his secondary theme of corruption in the Church.

Chaucer elegantly reflects the Medieval views and concepts of time in his works, and relates time to his poetic works. Through analysis of the theme of time present in his works, one gains a better understanding of Chaucer and his views, and the general views, on the meaning of time.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.



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Chris K

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me here and on Twitter for more articles!