The Canterbury Tales Themes

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

''The Canterbury Tales'' by Geoffrey Chaucer is a fifteenth-century English poem that follows twenty-nine pilgrims to Canterbury. Themes such as class, lies, and religion are popular in the poem.

Background

Class, lies, and religion are prominent themes in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a fifteenth-century English poem considered one of the most important books in English literature. The poem follows a narrator and a group of pilgrims who tell stories on their journey to Canterbury, where they plan to pay their respects to St. Thomas Becket. In this lesson, we will discuss some themes to gain a better understanding of the book.

Class

Chaucer writes heavily about class in The Canterbury Tales. Most often, class is explored by contrasting characters who try to appear of a better class than they really are with characters who embrace their social class. For example, Chaucer paints the Prioress (a nun) as a woman who attempts to keep up the appearance of a well-to-do woman; however, because she is a member of the church, her social class is lower than she'd like others to see her in. For example, the narrator says,

'…peyned hire to countrefete chere

Of court, and to ben estatlich of manere,

And to ben holden digne of reverence.'

This quote on the Prioress comes from the General Prologue as the narrator first describes the Prioress's countenance. Here, the narrator points out that she makes a point to show excellent manners to appear of a different rank than her actual profession. To highlight issues with social class and ranking, Chaucer contrasts the Prioress's behavior and appearance with that of the Parson, a clergyman who dresses and behaves according to his profession and class.

The narrator describes the Parson in the following quote:

'But rather wolde (the Parson) yeven, out of doute,

Unto his povre parisshens aboute

Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce.'

Unlike the Prioress who tries to appear wealthy and refined despite her duty as a nun, the Parson fulfills his duty as a member of the clergy by living a simple life with the goal of helping others.

Lies

Lies and deception are prominent themes in the poem. Many characters present a façade that doesn't speak to the truth of their position. The revelation of these characters' true identities is done through the perspective of the narrator. Not only do many of the characters lie about their position in society, but they use deception to make a living.

First, the Merchant, much like the Prioress we met before, hides his true status from the others by pretending to be a financially stable person, but as the narrator reveals, the Merchant is in debt. For example, in the General Prologue, the narrator says,

'This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette:

Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette.'

The Merchant wants everyone to think that he is well-off by wearing a fancy coat and a 'Flemish beaver hat', but according to the narrator, the Merchant is poor and has to continue borrowing from others in order to maintain his way of life.

While the Prioress and the Merchant are lying to appear of a higher social ranking, some characters in Canterbury Tales go beyond superficial deceit. For example, the Miller and the Pardoner commit crimes to make a living. The Miller sells his flour at three times the cost of the market rate and he cuts the flour with filler, so his customers aren't getting a genuine product.

Likewise, the Pardoner sells fake relics to folks he comes across. He tells his clients that the relics are genuine and that they possess religious powers. For example, he claims to have stones touched by Jesus Christ, but really, 'he hadde pigges bones.'

The Pardoner is committing punishable offenses, both socially and morally in order to make money off people in religious strife. The entire group of pilgrims recognize the misdeeds of the unethical Pardoner. In the General Prologue, the narrator points out,

'And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes.'

The narrator is saying that the Pardoner makes the people and the parson his puppets by flattering them. You could say that he pulls the wool over his victims' eyes.

Religion

Religion is at the center of The Canterbury Tales, as the journey the pilgrims take is to visit a religious landmark. For example, in the General Prologue, the narrator says of the journey,

'And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

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