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The Canterbury Tales: Medieval Society & Culture

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  • 0:04 The Middle Ages
  • 0:54 Social Classes
  • 2:26 Religion
  • 3:18 Daily Life
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' is one of the defining works of late medieval literature, as well as of the English canon. In it, Chaucer uses language and characterization to develop a group portrait of his society.

The Middle Ages

Despite covering nearly a thousand years of history, the Middle Ages are often reduced to a political insult or a video game backdrop. Studying the literature of the Middle Ages is a great way of breaking down stereotypes, whether negative or positive, about what 'medieval' really means.

In fourteenth-century England, Geoffrey Chaucer was a minor civil servant who wrote literary romances on the side. He's chiefly remembered today as being one of the major authors of English-language literature.

The Canterbury Tales is the best-known of Chaucer's works. Its vivid portrayal of a diverse group of travelers reveals much about the composition and values of society in late medieval England. It shows us shifting dynamics of social power, an economy in flux, and diverse expressions of faith and doubt within late medieval Christianity.

Social Classes

A look at the characters in The Canterbury Tales can tell us a lot about the social classes of the time. The established aristocracy is represented by the gentle Knight and his Squire. The wealthy Merchant and the London guildsmen represent the increasingly prosperous and confident middle classes who thrived in late medieval Europe's cities. The professional classes also flourish, although they were sometimes regarded with suspicion. The Physician, for instance, is characterized as greedy as well as learned.

The linked stories of The Canterbury Tales are written in styles that correspond to their tellers' personalities. The Knight, for instance, tells a historical romance, written in elegant rhymed couplets. Both the genre and the style reflect the fact that he is well-educated and a little old-fashioned. While the knightly classes were still important in Chaucer's England, their hold on wealth and influence was less exclusive than in previous generations.

In Chaucer's England, artisans such as the weaver, carpenter, tailor, and others mentioned in the General Prologue, enjoyed growing prosperity. This prosperity could be a source of resentment, as illustrated by the fact that no one likes the Miller very much.

In the lean years following the mid-century epidemic called the Black Death, there was a shortage of workers to farm the land and harvest and process crops. Consequently, people like the Miller could, and often did, overcharge for their services. All of Chaucer's pilgrims are delighted when the Cook tells a story in which one such greedy Miller gets his comeuppance.

Religion

Popular stereotypes of the medieval Church as monolithic are far from the truth. The religious climate of the Late Middle Ages was both ''unsettled and diverse,'' in the words of scholar Helen Barr. The multiple ecclesiastical and religious members of Chaucer's group of pilgrims illustrate this fact.

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