Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
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Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.
In today's lesson, we'll be studying one of the most renowned pieces of English literature, The Canterbury Tales. In this collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer, we meet a colorful group of 29 travelers making a religious pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Along their journey, their host engages them in a storytelling contest with a free meal as the prize. However, we soon find the Canterbury Tales are more about the storytellers themselves than they are about the tales they weave.
Before we get to Chaucer's eclectic group of characters, let's look at the times in which he wrote. The Canterbury Tales were written in the late 14th century, a time in which people began to question the medieval ideas of Church power and Church purity as well as the societal roles of old class systems. These ideas were being traded in for the Renaissance, a word that literally means rebirth. The Renaissance was a period of cultural revolution in terms of art, religion, and politics. During this era, people began throwing off the old ideas of power and authority in exchange for the personal freedoms found in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. This revolution of sorts began in Italy. However, well-traveled men like England's Geoffrey Chaucer soon carried it over the Alps and into the realms of Northern Europe.
The Canterbury Tales is an excellent example of cultural diffusion, or the spreading out of ideas from one central point (Italy) to another (England). Making the tales even more significant, Chaucer chose to write them in the vernacular, which is just a fancy word for the everyday language spoken by the people. The choice to write in common English rather than French or Latin made Chaucer's work accessible to all classes of people.
Now, onto the characters and their meanings: in his tales, Chaucer pokes fun at several of his characters in order to criticize medieval culture. Today, we will discuss his criticisms in three areas: first, the area of social rank; second, the position of women; and third, the corruption of the Church. Let's begin our discussion of these three areas by taking a look at the Knight and his squire, two characters in Chaucer's tales that represent the social rank of the upper class.
The Knight is the first character asked by the host to tell his story. This placement makes perfect sense, since knighthood was highly esteemed in medieval culture. After the Knight tells his tale of a courtly love triangle, the host invites the Monk to go next. This also makes sense, since a monk was also a highly respected member of medieval society. However, before the Monk can even begin, the drunken Miller, a complete commoner, interrupts and tells the group he has a tale of love that will top that of the Knight. At first glance this may look like nothing more than a drunk guy cutting in line; however, this move reflects the author's criticism of medieval social rank. Not only does he let the Miller follow the Knight, he allows him to actually challenge the Knight to a storytelling duel. In medieval society, it was unacceptable for a commoner to even approach a knight, let alone challenge one. However, Chaucer throws these social norms out the window, allowing the Miller to continue his drunken tale.
Chaucer further chips away at this social rank through the introduction of the Squire, a young man training to be a knight. Like a knight, we would expect him to be masculine and heroic. Instead, he is described as one who loves singing, dancing, and poetry. In fact, Chaucer uses meadows and fresh flowers to describe the Squire. Listen to this excerpt and ask yourself, 'Does this sound like someone I'd want protecting my castle?' Here's a paraphrase of the description of the Squire:
All dressed up was he as if he were sweet.
All full of fresh-cut flowers white and red.
Singing he was, or playing a flute all through the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May...
Once again, Chaucer is poking fun at the upper class, showing how the knighthood is doomed to extinction since even the Squire, or the newer generation, has rejected its norms.
The second area Chaucer takes to task is the position of women in medieval society. We see this in his racy depiction of the Wife of Bath. This worldly woman is a self-proclaimed expert on marriage. Having been married five times, she reminds her traveling companions that the great fathers of the faith - Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon - also had multiple marriage partners. To her, the fact that they were all men makes little difference. If they can do it, why can't she? She also challenges the idea that female virginity should be so chivalrously protected, making the outrageous statement that someone has to create all those virgins. This woman, way ahead of her times, openly admits to using her sexual powers to control five husbands, even saying her favorites were the ones who were rich, old, and submissive! Take a listen to this modern paraphrase of how Chaucer let the Wife of Bath describe herself:
Of tribulations in marriage,
I'm an expert among my age-
This is to say, I myself have always been the whip.
Yes, you heard that correctly - she calls herself the whip, proclaiming her place as master of her household, especially the bedroom. With this bold move, Chaucer turned the idea of female submissiveness on its head, weaving a tale of female dominance, a concept unheard of in those days.
Although Chaucer's criticism of social rank and position were intense, his harshest words were aimed at the Church. This criticism is openly displayed in the Nun, the Friar, and the Pardoner.
The first clergy member we see is the Prioress, or a head nun. She is described as pleasant, friendly, and well-mannered. However, she is overly concerned with her own appearance and is preoccupied with the romance of courtly love. Chaucer describes her by writing (and again, this is a paraphrase):
Her cloak, I noticed had a graceful charm,
She wore a coral trinket on her arm,
A set of beads, the gaudiest trinket green
Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen
On which there first was an engraved A
And lower 'Amor vincit omnia.'
The author notes how, despite her grace, the Nun's garb is showy and ostentatious, much like the Church of her day. To make matters worse, the brooch she wears is engraved with the Latin phrase 'Love Conquers All.' This is highly inappropriate, as nuns strictly adhere to the code of celibacy. Again, the author pointed out the hypocrisy of the Church through this lovesick nun and continued this theme in the character of the Friar.
Chaucer described the Friar as a festive, merry man who drinks to excess and uses the money he collects for his own enjoyment. Although he tries to look the part of poverty, he is actually money-hungry and selfish. Adding to the irony, he despises the poor he is supposed to be collecting for. The Friar also has a real taste for wealthy women and uses his collected money to shower them with gifts. As Chaucer writes,
Full well and loved and very familiar was he... with the worthy, wealthy women of the town.
In other words, our Friar knew his way around the wealthy ladies! Not exactly what you would expect from a celibate priest, but it's an excellent metaphor for the corruption within the Church.
The final and most despicable character introduced is the Pardoner. Dressed to the hilt in elaborate clothes and sporting a huge cross around his neck, Chaucer describes him by writing, 'I judge he was a gelding or a mare!' In other words, he's either an emasculated man or a female.
Chaucer enjoyed poking fun at the Pardoner's appearance, but when it came to his character, Chaucer didn't hold back when rebuking his corrupt Church practices. The Pardoner is a man who takes advantage of those he is supposed to help. He promises freedom from hell through the sale of pardons from sin. Little do his customers know he is peddling nothing more than old bits of wood and animal bones. He is a greedy liar concerned with himself and his pocketbook. He is also a man who will weave any tale in order to get people to pay up. Again, in Chaucer's paraphrased words, he writes:
By this means have I won a very good deal, year by year
Since I was a pardoner.
I stand like a clerk in my pulpit,
And when the commoners have sat down,
I preach as you have heard before,
And tell a hundred false tales more.
Or, in other words, 'I've done it a hundred times before. I stand up, tell lies, and people pay me to forgive their sins. It's a great gig.' This not-so-flattering depiction of the Pardoner shows the author's blatant disgust and criticism for the corrupt practices of the Church, especially the sale of indulgences, or payments for the debt of sins. Chaucer shows how the Church of his day had become increasingly entangled in worldly desires, putting their own selfish wants ahead of the true mission of the Church.
To conclude our lesson, The Canterbury Tales were written in the late 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer. Through this work, Chaucer wove Renaissance ideals into English literature. Writing in the vernacular of the day, the author introduced 29 religious pilgrims who pass the time away by weaving tales to entertain one another.
In these various tales, Chaucer pokes fun at several of his characters in order to criticize medieval culture, especially in the areas of social rank, the position of women, and Church corruption. Through his work, he not only gave us a masterpiece of English literature but also an excellent criticism of the times in which he wrote and lived.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons