The sharp fall in population caused by the waves of plague which followed the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 led to one of the most dramatic periods of economic and social change in English history. By 1377, the population was around only a half of its pre-plague level but for those who survived there were new opportunities.
With a great deal of land now available, peasants could obtain larger holdings and rent them on more favourable terms. Likewise, those who worked for wages could take advantage of the labour shortage to obtain higher wages enjoy more varied diets – with more meat and dairy – and buy a wider range of manufactured goods.
The second half of the 14th century was thus a period of rising living standards, social mobility and increasing class conflict as the lower orders now sought to obtain improved terms from their landlords and employers.
The dramatic social changes of these years drew several responses from contemporary poets. In the medieval period, imaginative literature was often seen as having an ethical function by teaching virtue, which was defined as fulfilling the expected tasks of their social order. Modern literary critics often see imaginative literature challenging dominant ideologies or providing a sanctioned space for the expression of social dissidence. By contrast, the work of poets in the post-plague era often sought to buttress the social hierarchy against the threats with which it was now confronted.
Langland and Gower against the peasants
Such sentiments are to be found in William Langland’s allegorical poem, Piers Plowman (B-version written c. 1380). Here, the poet expresses his sympathy for those who were genuinely poor or hard-working but echoes post-plague labour legislation and attacked those who, he believed, preferred to beg rather than work.
There had been frequent complaints in parliament about labourers who preferred handouts to work or who took advantage of the labour shortage to demand higher wages. In response, a series of laws were introduced to reduce labour mobility and freeze wages at their pre-plague levels. Langland also calls upon the knightly class to defend the community from those “wasters” who refused to work and criticised the labourers who impatiently demanded higher wages and refused to obey the new legislation.
Contemporary moralists complained about those who rose above their allotted station in life and so in 1363 a law was passed that specified the food and dress that were appropriate for each social class. In line with such attitudes, Langland railed against the presumption of labourers who disdained day-old vegetables, bacon and cheap ale and instead demanded fresh meat, fish and fine ale.
Similar views are expressed in John Gower’s poem Vox Clamantis (the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness) where the peasants are attacked for being idle and utterly wicked. The common people had fallen into an evil disposition in which they ignored the labour laws and were only willing to work if they received the highest pay.
When the lower orders refused to know their place, as in the Great Revolt of 1381 (also known as the Peasants’ Revolt), they were denounced by contemporary chroniclers as wicked, treacherous, and diabolical. In line with such criticism, Gower’s poem includes an allegorical account of the rising that portrays the rebels as farmyard animals rising up against their masters. They subsequently turn into monsters that attack humanity and becoming followers of Satan in their attachment to wrongdoing and slaughter.
Chaucer’s difficult voice
However, if Langland and Gower were openly hostile to the aspirations of the peasants and the labourers, Geoffrey Chaucer has proved more difficult to read. For many critics, Chaucer is a writer who prefers to present his readers with questions rather than providing them with stock answers. To them, his use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives pose a challenge to the accepted contemporary beliefs and exposes the kind of ideology found in the works of a Gower as partial and inadequate.
Yet for other critics, Chaucer is much more conservative or even, as the medieval scholar Alcuin Blamires puts it, reactionary in his outlook. After all, among the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, those who are presented as admirable are the ones who dutifully perform the traditional functions of their social estate. For example, the Parson is a good shepherd to his flock, the Knight is a chivalrous crusader, and the Plowman works hard and faithfully pays his tithes. It is those who fail in their duties or seek to rise above their station whom Chaucer satirises – as when the Monk prefers hunting to a life of study and prayer or when the Wife of Bath seeks female supremacy in marriage.
Certainly, the Parson offers us a socially conservative message when, at the end of the Canterbury Tales, he preaches that as part of the divinely arranged cosmic order, God has ordained that some people should be of higher social rank and others should be lower. People should, therefore, render honour and obedience not only to God but also to their spiritual fathers and their secular superiors. Nobody should lament their misfortunes or envy the prosperity of others but rather should endure adversity in patience in the hope of obtaining joy and ease in the next life.
Given that medieval literary theory regards the ending of a text as being particularly important in conveying its meaning, we may perhaps regard Chaucer’s views as being in line with his Parson. If so, then Chaucer’s response to the social change of his day may have been rather closer to the views of Gower and Langland than many of his modern readers would like to admit.
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The French true crime writer Stéphane Bourgoin’s trained at the FBI’s profiling school in Virginia and had interviewed 77 murderers, including Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. He had advised the FBI and Scotland Yard on difficult cases and his own wife had been murdered by a serial killer. He even had a short stint as a professional footballer for the Parisian team Red Star. His life seemed as interesting as one of his 40 books. Except none of it was true.
Following an investigation by the anonymous collective 4ème Oeil (Fourth Eye) Corporation in February on YouTube, Bourgoin was forced to admit he had fabricated much of his life story and CV.
This is not the first time a French author has fabricated a wild and interesting life. Some have done it to make a book more attractive to readers and awards committees. Others have done it to distance themselves from lowly roots and a back catalogue of pulpy fiction.
Embroidering the truth
Bourgoin has since admitted that the fictitious wife was based on a woman he met “five or six times” and “liked”. He did briefly meet Charles Manson, but only walked past him and never got to speak to his. And, instead of 77 murderers, he had only spoken to around 30.
In a series of interviews with French newspapers, Bourgoin now says he should have let his real knowledge stand for itself – that his books were good enough to sell without such a fantastical back story.
Writers have long used false histories and fabricated public personas to their own ends, especially if that’s what it takes to get a publishing deal or public recognition.
One of the most notorious incidences involves the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which is awarded to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Previous winners include Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir.
It can only be won once. But the prolific writer Romain Gary managed to win it twice through a feat of deception, first in 1956 for Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven), and then as the supposedly Algerian writer Émile Ajar in 1975 for Gros-Câlin.
His deception was only confirmed posthumously in the publication of a confession Vie et mort d’Émile Ajar (The Life and Death of Émile Ajar). Throughout his lifetime, Gary wrote under several names, including Fosco Sinibali, Shatan Bogat and Roman Kacew (his birth name).
Even one of France’s most revered writers, Honoré de Balzac, was not immune to a certain propensity for exaggerating the truth when crafting his public and private image.
Balzac is perhaps best known as one of the founders of literary realism. However, he started his career churning out potboilers under pseudonyms (one of which was Lord R’Hoone, an anagram of Honoré, and Horace de Saint-Aubin).
Later, to disassociate himself from these early publications, he had his assistant write a preface to his novel La Dernière Fée (The Last Fairy, 1823) in which Horace de Saint-Aubin meets the new, successful Balzac and, upon reading a few pages of the latter’s writing, is so depressed that he sets his own novels on fire.
To complete the transformation, he added an aristocratic-sounding particle to become “de” to Balzac. The surname itself was a creation, changed by his father from the more common-sounding Balssa in an attempt to move the family on from its peasant roots, and hinting at an illusory connection with the illustrious Balzac d’Entragues family.
It also so happens that it was a French writer, Serge Doubrovsky, who in the 1970s coined the term “autofiction” (fiction of the self) to describe his 1977 novel Fils (Son). The protagonist of Fils shares the author’s name and certain key characteristics, yet exists in an essentially fictional space. Doubrovsky described autofiction as “fiction, made up of events and facts that are strictly real”.
The term creates a problem from the not-so-straightforward relationship between autobiography and truth. In the words of the academic Alex Hughes, autofiction allows the author to transmit biographical facts “in a narrative format whose novelistic tenor permits him not to assume responsibility” for the truthfulness of his statements. Were he claiming to write within this genre, Bourgoin might have a leg to stand on. As things are, his books are on the wrong shelf.
What is perhaps most interesting about Bourgoin’s story is the keenness with which his fabrications were seized on. His exaggerations enhanced his credibility and opened doors for him. It’s as if Bourgoin sensed that by exaggerating certain specific details, and thereby producing a particular kind of narrative, he was giving the public what he knew they really wanted to hear all along.
As the critic Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in 1986, one problem with autobiography is that we all have been so exposed to the narrative conventions of fiction that we will almost inevitably reproduce them in the life story we write – even though this is likely to lead to misrepresenting the historical reality.
In writing himself into his books as the bereaved hero, Bourgoin was tapping into powerful patterns of storytelling that his readers were already attuned to. In The Science of Storytelling, the writer Will Storr suggests that the brain is primed to react with interest to stories of “moral outrage”, which Storr calls “the ancient lifeblood of storytelling”. When we see heroes squaring up to face baddies, our tribal instinct for justice kicks in and we root for Bourgoin’s fictitious alter-ego.
With Bourgoin’s confession, his narrative now unfolds anew. “When you’ve broken a character you can begin to build their story,” writes Storr. We want to see the bad guys punished, or at least remorseful. Bourgoin, and the organisation that exposed his fabricated claims, have unwittingly provided just that to our story-hungry brains. We readers have been had. And, to borrow Storr’s expression, “we’re fucking outraged.”