In this lesson, we’ll learn about Chaucer’s life and experiences that prepared him to write ”The Canterbury Tales.” We’ll also explore how he blends social realism and estates satire together to create a vivid portrait of life in medieval England.
The Canterbury Tales
If a filmmaker were to adapt Chaucer’s historical epic for the screen, it might look something like this:FADE IN: We open on a candle-lit, boisterous tavern. There are all sorts of different kinds of people who represent all different walks of life in medieval England. These people are preparing for a pilgrimage to Canterbury.Here we find Chaucer, our mastermind narrator, sitting at a crowded table. He is different than any narrator the 1300s have seen.
He questions things, pokes fun at politics, and challenges the church. But not in a straightforward way. Instead, he relies on the stories of the people to share his insights into medieval English life.
The people go around and make their introductions, while the innkeeper pours them drinks. The innkeeper then suggests to them, ”why don’t you each tell stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on your way back. Then, on your return we will announce a winner, and I will give him or her a meal – on the house!”And Chaucer responds omnisciently, ”That sounds like a great idea!”And so The Canterbury Tales begin, following the pilgrims on their journey, as they share their stories.
And like many proposed film adaptations that never came to fruition, Chaucer left his planned 120 tales unfinished by the time he died in the year 1400, though he did leave behind 24 fascinating tales. Chaucer’s voice as narrator is easier to pin down than his role as author. However, understanding this work of literature in the context of his real life sheds light on what he might have wanted to say with his unfinished collection.
Chaucer, the Narrator
With what little we know about Chaucer’s life, it is hard to know exactly what moral or intellectual message he intended to convey. For one thing, the project went unfinished. On top of that, his many characters serve to balance each other’s perspectives so that no clear argument comes across one way or the other.For both these reasons, it’s fair to say that rather than providing a clear purpose for why they were written, Chaucer’s tales are important for us today because they offer a window into Medieval English society.
When Chaucer sat down to write out the tales in the 1380s, he had already encountered a broad swath of medieval society. Born in London around 1343, he gained experience in all sorts of settings: from his upbringing in a family of wine merchants to his first job working as a page in a noble household. He fought in the Hundred Years’ War, was held captive and ransomed by the King, and served as a squire for a time in the royal court.
He later became a diplomat and traveled widely through France, Spain, and Italy, learning about literature and politics along the way.In the 1380s Chaucer moved to the county of Kent on the southern coast of England, home to the town of Canterbury and its famous Cathedral, and began work on his Tales. There he attained the role of Knight of the Shire for the Kent Parliament. During his time living in Kent, Chaucer would have come across the many travelers who made their annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket.
What is a Pilgrimage?
The pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury was a spiritual journey of self-reflection, usually initiated in the spring, that offered the unique framework for bringing together representatives from all corners of society and the opportunity to show how The Canterbury Tales characters’ perspectives clashed and how they mingled in conversation. Additionally, the pilgrimage encouraged the characters to self-reflect. According to literary critic Winthrop Wetherbee, ”Many of the tales are essays in self-definition, attempts to establish values and goals that lead to startling revelations. … their membership in the pilgrim company gives them a voice they could acquire in no other way.”
Basically, the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales provide insights into Chaucer as a forward-thinking author.
Unlike other two-dimensional characters, like those in fairy tales, Chaucer tells his story with three-dimensional characters called social portraits. His insight into social realism, a literary style that aims to depict the intricate human world as it is, makes The Canterbury Tales a literary classic. It also makes this work of literature a vivid historical document that informs our modern understanding of life in the Middle Ages.
Chaucer, the Satirist
Literary and Medieval scholars also categorize The Canterbury Tales as a satire.
Chaucer uses a mode of literature called estates satire, a genre where characters represent different aspects of society, showing both the good and the bad. Medieval Scholar Lesley Coote of the University of Hull defines these various sectors of society as follows: aristocrats, laborers, clergy and government clerks, townspeople, and women.Other critics argue that The Canterbury Tales offer a critique of medieval politics, religion, and society. In Chaucer’s stories about nuns, priests, and pastors, he opens up the space to insert criticism of the church’s hypocritical practices regarding marriage, love, and devotion. The pilgrimage to Canterbury shows how people from all walks of life kept faith and the Church in a central place in their lives. But at the time of Chaucer’s writing, the Church was beginning to lose its foothold in medieval society.
Chaucer demonstrates this in his depiction of the Pardoner who doesn’t practice what he preaches and the corruption evident in the tale of the Friar. Through his writing, Chaucer demonstrates that, by the late 14th century, the Church was in a state of disrepair.
Let’s review. Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfinished The Canterbury Tales follows a group of pilgrims on their journey from the Tabard Inn to Canterbury. This frame provides the opportunity for Chaucer, our narrator, to depict conversations between people from all walks of Medieval English life.
The tales could be described both as social realism and as estates satire. At the same time that Chaucer takes care to honestly show the perspective of each of his characters, he also aims to critique the hypocrisy of the church and the social problems posed by Medieval politics and social custom.