Perception of Contemporary Society Expressed in the Canterbury Tales
Born in the year 1340, Geoffrey Chaucer’s life took him through both the dredges and the peaks of medieval civilization. While serving in the retinue of Prince Lionel, Chaucer was captured by the French during the siege of Reims. Seven years after being ransomed for 16 pounds, he entered service as an esquire for Edward III. It was during this time that he started his career as a writer by translating parts of Romaunt of the Rose. For the next several years, he penned such classics as Saint Cecelia, Anelida and Arcite, and The House of Fame, despite working demanding jobs and being accused (and acquitted) of rape. However, it wasn’t until his wife’s death in 1387 that he began his most famous work of all, the Canterbury Tales (Librarius).
Although it was never completed, the Canterbury Tales are still widely viewed as one of the most in-depth descriptions of life in the Middle Ages in existence. Because its characters serve as a cross-section of the varying classes of people, each one told with a vibrant truthfulness that goes beyond the stereotypes associated with them, a person studying the journey of these pilgrims could well claim to know what medieval life was like. The fact that it deals with a pilgrimage of sorts at all is indicative of the changing times, because this was not long after the Black Death left its fatal mark on England. People were finally able to leave their sanctuaries and travel from place to place without fearing for their lives.
The key to Chaucher’s tale is that it is, in essence, a satire. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” Perhaps one of the earliest stories to use this tone, the Canterbury Tales takes on every type of character with some degree of satire, and while some are far more obvious than others, they all exhibit this touch of perverse truthfulness. In particular, Chaucer seems to have favored three themes above all in his satire: feminism, religion, and chivalry.
Chaucer first tackles the preconceptions of gender roles with “The Miller’s Tale”. A favorite amongst feminists, this story details the exploits of Alisoun and the men fighting for the right to have her. While a casual reading of this crass comedy recalls the modern-day “chick flick”, a deeper reading unearths subtleties that clearly speak to the newer conception of female equality.
Predominantly, the story offers an objectification of the character of Alisoun. Several times over the course of the story, the Miller uses animalistic terms: in line 125, for example, he writes, “Fair was this yonge wif, and therwithal / As any wesele hir body gent and small.” In comparing Alisoun to a weasel, the Miller sets her up to be the wily creature she eventually turns out to be. He continues to attribute animalistic behaviors to her throughout the story, saying that her singing reminds the men of a swallow, and that she moves like a colt (Handy Andy grabs her “queynte”). By placing these subtle hints throughout the story, Chaucer shows that the predominant male attitude toward women is simple objectification; indeed, as the men argue over Alisoun, they essentially place her on a pedestal, positioning her as a trophy to be won. To them, dominance over her symbolizes their own masculinity. The notion that Alisoun herself might want to have a say in the matter doesn’t occur to them – or to anyone in the Middle Ages, for that matter. Women during the era were basically viewed as cattle with a knack for housekeeping, leaving little room for feminist ideals. However, because of the manner in which Chaucer satirizes this subject and shows his distaste for the predominating chauvinistic culture, one can conclude that there was at least a small contingent pushing for women’s rights in its most primitive form (Robinson).
Yet another attack on the traditional view of women is found in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”. Perhaps the most blatantly satirical character aside from the churchmen, the Wife of Bath has few reservations about letting the male pilgrims know her opinion about a number of contentious issues. She contradicts just about every preconceived notion about women, and even manages to uphold her beliefs when questioned by the Pardoner and his cohorts. Despite the widespread belief that a widow should never remarry, the Wife of Bath has had five different rings around her fingers, and anxiously awaits a sixth. She defends her decision in lines 59-64:
What rekketh me though folk saye vilainye
Of shrewed Lamech and his bigamye?
I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also.
This, of course, does not sit well with the others, who prefer to see the fairer sex as livestock, and not as free-thinking entities capable of the same feats as men. The double standards enforced by the customs of the day, however, have no effect on the Wife. She talks openly about how she would rather enjoy sex than be a mere passive participant in the act – a desire that stood in complete opposition to the norms of the era.
Furthermore, the Wife states that she dominates her husbands in an effort to match their power. She describes her fifth husband, who read to her from a book that discussed “bad” wives. It is through the ensuing fight that the husband realizes that perhaps equality is not such a bad thing. In this manner, the Wife realizes the modern conception of a “perfect” relationship – two partners who respect and love each other, and share power equally. This point is illustrated in lines 1234-39, when the Knight atones for his sins against women:
This knight aviseth him and sore siketh;
But ate laste he said in this manere:
My lady and my love, and wif so dere,
I putte me in youre wise governaunce:
Cheseth yourself which may be most plisaunce
And most honor to you and me also.
In this manner, the Knight grants happiness to both. While it may be easy to write off the Knight as shallow and simplistic, it is important to note that a negative evaluation does not detract from its accuracy (Blake, Jonathan).
It is only in a larger context that one can comprehend just how bold the Wife’s statements truly are. The idea that a husband has authority over his wife and property while the Church lays claim to the marriage and spirit was formulated more than two centuries prior to Chaucer’s time, by John of Paris and Bracton. In England, the aristocratic and peasant classes both relied on arranged marriages. This is displayed in “The Knight’s Tale”, where despite all of the romancing involved, partners in marriage are chosen for political reasons. Later, in “The Second Nun’s Tale”, a new version of the ecclesiastic marriage model that resembles our modern idea for a pious wedding (virginal, consenting adults, and so forth) is presented. However, it is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that first presents the idea that a woman is of a separate class than a man, and that her only value is derived from sex and marriage. Again, this helps to illustrate the fact that such thinking had some sort of backing in Chaucer’s time. If it hadn’t, Chaucer would likely have been burned at the stake (Amsler, Mark 236-241).
A final example of gender-based stereotypes displayed in Chaucer’s epic can be found in “The Knight and his Squire”. The characters in this tale exemplify Chaucer’s depiction of courtly love in medieval times; he imagined courtly love as sensual, with an almost royal refinement. The Knight is the typical chivalric hero who cherished “Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.”. The Squire, on the other hand, takes a page or two from “The Romaunt of the Rose”. In both his deeds and his character, he perfectly adheres to the common conception of a knight. Likewise, the lady in “The Knight’s Tale” possesses all of the stereotypical characteristics found in poetic courtships. Essentially, Chaucer held a rather biased stance with regards to noble love, a sentiment that he exalted above all other forms of love. The fabliaux love shown by the Wife of Bath, though passionate, cannot be thought of as “true” love (Dodd, George William 68-73).
Throughout his life, Chaucer maintained his distrust of the Catholic Church. This animosity is reflected in his ecclesiastical characters. It doesn’t take much imagination to find the satire inherent in the characters of the Monk, the Pardoner, and the Summoner, all of whom represent the inherent evil present in the medieval church and in society itself. Granted, Chaucer’s bias against the Catholic Church may well have inspired him to infuse his spiritual characters with a darker spirit than they might have otherwise possessed, but then again, that is one of the elements that makes his satire so intriguing.
What, though, of the Prioress? Indeed, if there is any character worthy of showcasing all that is good in the world, it would be her. However, this is not meant to be. First of all, the description of the Prioress in the general prologue reveals a prim and proper nun who follows every conceivable rule of etiquette. She knows what she is expected to know, she behaves as she should…and with the exception of a brooch bearing the less-than-chaste anthem “Love Conquers All”, she appears to be the perfect lady. It isn’t until she opens her mouth and tells her tale that we see the deep-rooted scars of discrimination that have been implanted by her religious background.
In “The Prioress’s Tale”, the Prioress offers a story that is, unlike the other religious stories in the Canterbury Tales, from the hagiography. Because everything she knows comes from the Catholic Church, anti-Semitism abounds in a way that would be deemed downright wicked in today’s society. However, in an era when the Church had so much power, such story elements were accepted, and even welcomed. The tale examines the righteousness of Catholicism, using an innocent, nine-year-old virgin boy as the martyr. Of course, this “martyr” actually drowned in a cesspool, and was not ceremoniously murdered as many Catholic extremists might have preferred. Realistically, the only crime perpetrated by the Jewish community was covering up evidence that would have condemned them to death. According to Chaucer’s view of the Church, however, this was of little relevance. What mattered more was that the deceased child was imbued with a gift from God that let him sing a daily chorus of “O alma redemptoris” to let everybody know whose side Heaven was on. In a time when the Black Death was still relatively fresh in people’s minds, this reassurance was almost as good as the Second Coming itself. (Mellilo, Elizabeth G., Ph.D.)
In short, not even the Prioress is safe from the hidden sins of the prideful Church. Only the Parson, who is connected to the religion itself rather than to the Catholic Church, is deemed worthy of genuine praise – but this praise, in a tale where not even the Knight himself is left untarnished, is high praise indeed. It seems that Chaucer might be suggesting that Christianity would be better served by downplaying the existence of the governing church body. With the spirit of social reform hanging like dust in the air, it is feasible that he might have taken such a scandalous position.
Third, one must take a close look at the first character introduced in Chaucer’s epic: the Knight. Often considered Chaucer’s favorite character because of the praise bestowed upon him, it would be easy to pass him off as an idealized example of perfect chivalry. Again, however, the popular mindset of the time must be taken into consideration. Is the Knight indeed the renowned and revered character of true nobility that the text makes him out to be, or is he, (as the comedian Terry Jones suggests) a warmongering chauvinist?
Chaucer makes a point of lavishly praising this character, mentioning time and time again that he is “worthy”…but this in and of itself may in fact be the equivalent of a “poison pen” letter. The Knight dresses humbly, although he wears his battle wounds proudly – and again, the meaning of this description varies with the tone. What might be the cause for such ambiguity? The answer can be found in a close examination of the deceptively simple description of the “crusading” Knight. During the time of Chaucer’s writing, the Crusades were a hotly debated topic: after 100 years of bloodshed, people were asking themselves whether or not religious beliefs really were an acceptable justification for slaughter, because these deaths were in violation the Sixth Commandment. Despite the fact that several of Chaucer’s friends were crusaders, his disdain for the Church makes it plausible that he was created the Knight from a Wycliffite or Lollard (religious dissidents) perspective. If this is so, Chaucer was actually sneering at a boastful murderer when, in lines 61-63, he writes that, “At mortal batailes hadde he been fifteene / And foughten for oure faith at Tramissene / In listes thries, and ay slain his fo.”
Of course, Chaucer’s opinions concerning the Crusades can never be definitively determined, but the most important question of all is what the Knight’s status is in this epic. Did Chaucer side with his close friends and create the Knight as a sort of homage to them, or did he associate himself with the dissenting faction that was so vocal during his time? Typically, Chaucer chose to allow his audience to decide for itself what he intended to convey in these passages (Barr, Helen).
One final social comparison should be addressed before ending this discussion. In the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the various characters in order of their rank, starting with the noble Knight and ending with the Pardoner and his false relics. This was the politically correct manner of describing a cast of characters during Chaucer’s era, and it isn’t until the characters are picked apart that one of Chaucer’s most important secrets is unearthed: there are inherently good characters, and there are deceptively bad characters, but none of them are pigeonholed into a particular group. From the highest to the lowest, every social class has at least one character worthy of esteem. Thus, despite Chaucer’s aspirations toward royalty, he did not condemn the lesser people to a fate of pitiful wickedness, nor did he confuse power with goodness. It is this human element that drives Chaucer’s writings out of the page and into legend.
Amsler, Mark. “The Wife of Bath and Women’s Power.” 1987. Literary Criticism From 1400 to 1800, Vol.17. Ed. James E. Person, Jr. Gale Research Inc., 1992. 68-73
Barr, Helen. “Chaucer’s Knight: A Christian Killer?” 2001. <http://www.geocities.com/growonder/chaucerknight.html>
Blake, Jonathan. “Struggle for Female Equality in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”” 1994. <http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/jblake.htm>
“Chronology of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Life and Times.” Librarius. 1997. 6 Oct. 2003 <http://www.librarius.com/chauchro.htm>
Dodd, George W. “The Element of Love in Chaucer’s Works.” 1913. Literary Criticism From 1400 to 1800, Vol.17. Ed. James E. Person, Jr. Gale Research Inc., 1992. 68-73
Melillo, Elizabeth G., Ph.D. “Chaucer’s Prioress – from Gloriana’s Court.” 1996. 6 Oct. 2003 <http://www.gloriana.nu/prioress.html>
Robinson. “Sample A Paper: Undergraduate.” 2001. Jacksonville State University. 6 Oct. 2003 <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/treed/spring2001/robinson.htm>
“Satire.” AskOxford.com. 6 Oct. 2003. <http://askoxford.com>
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