Food in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson discusses how Geoffrey Chaucer uses food in three particular ways throughout his famous 14th century poem, ''The Canterbury Tales,'' particularly how food helps characterize people based on medieval culture and beliefs about food and morality.

Food in The Canterbury Tales

Food plays a significant role in Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century poem, The Canterbury Tales. First of all, it is food that is the prize for winning the story-telling contest. Beyond that, as Chaucer characterizes each pilgrim in detail in the General Prologue, or the introductory poem, food plays a role in telling us how that character's eating habits reveal his or her values or personality. Finally, many of the tales themselves feature food in prominent ways.

Food as Prize

One of the most obvious ways that food plays a role in The Canterbury Tales is that the prize for the storytelling contest that Harry Bailly, the innkeeper at the Tabard Inn, instigates is a large meal. The pilgrim who tells the best story on the journey will get a feast upon his or her return to the inn, paid for by the other pilgrims. Unfortunately, because Chaucer did not finish the Tales, we do not get to see a final scene with the winner receiving the meal. Clearly, though, food is as motivating a prize as it is today, and maybe even more so, for some of the pilgrims do not have a lot of money and usually eat plain and simple food.

Food as Characterization

A character's eating habits can tell readers a lot about his or her level of wealth and even his or her values. People in medieval times would have had to be quite wealthy to enjoy luxuries such as an abundance of meats, dairy products, and alcohol like wine. Bread was a staple for most people, but wealthy people had soft, white bread, while poorer people ate coarser, brown breads. There are several characters whose eating habits are a significant part of their characterization in the ''General Prologue.''

When Chaucer describes the Franklin, he mentions that his house was well-stocked with fresh bread, meat, and wine: ''For he was Epicurus owne sone''--meaning that he enjoys the comforts of earthly pleasures, including an abundance of rich and high-quality food.

The Prioress has a different relationship with food. Chaucer writes, ''She let no morsel from hir lippes falle, / Ne wet her fingers in hir sauce deepe. / Well could she carry a morsel, and well keepe, /That no droppe ne fill upon hir breast.'' She is very conscientious about eating, very proper and clean, and never seems to enjoy her meals because that would be improper and not virtuous, which contrasts with the Franklin.

The Cook is another character that Chaucer unsurprisingly describes in relation to food. He prepares a rich and delicious meal for the pilgrims that includes chicken, spices, and wine, but is not the simple meal that devout Christian pilgrims should have eaten when preparing for their journey.

The pilgrims gather for a meal before their pilgrimage
The pilgrims gather for a meal before their pilgrimage

Finally, the Summoner is another character whose eating habits are supposed to reveal information about his character. Chaucer intends for the readers to be repulsed by him physically and morally. He has bad manners and is described as liking onion, garlic, and red wine: food and drinks that indicated a lack of morality during that time period. His ugly face is puffy, red, and covered in pimples, which were thought to be caused by eating those foods. People in the medieval era made a clear connection between the food people ate, their physical appearance, and their own morality and value systems.

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