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Chaucer’s ”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.

Clues to the Middle Ages

15th-century image of Chaucer
ellesmere

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 is 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.

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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 of 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 late medieval time 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.

The religious pilgrims belong to different monastic orders, and embody diverse viewpoints. The Monk bores everyone with a moralizing tragedy. The Friar, on the other hand, delights everyone by telling a tale against a greedy Summoner associated with the Church’s law courts.There are also two nuns – they’re breaking the rules of their Order by traveling instead of staying put.

A priest tells a tale about an overconfident rooster, which seems to indicate that he genuinely values the simple life.The stories told by the religious members of the party express both faith and doubt.

Daily Life

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells us not only about social change and religious diversity in his society, but also about everyday life. Reading them helps us learn a lot about eating, drinking, and, of course, traveling in late medieval England.The jolly Cook with his large ladle gets along with everyone; he would have seen all sorts of people on a daily basis, creating and heating up food in his cook-shop.Then there’s Harry Bailey, the Host of the inn where all the pilgrims meet.

As befits the owner of a medieval bar-restaurant, he’s very good at breaking up verbal and even physical arguments. Unsurprisingly, the diverse pilgrims don’t always get along, but they continue to travel together anyway.

Lesson Conclusion

Geoffrey Chaucer, in crafting The Canterbury Tales, chose to represent a wide cross-section of late medieval English society.

The pilgrims on the road to Canterbury come from widely different backgrounds. Written in the late fourteenth century, after the Black Death, the work represents the resulting social classes, religious diversity, and everyday life.Some of the pilgrims have prejudices against each other based on their status, or their professions. They disagree about matters of religion, sex, and good manners. They tell widely differing stories:

  • the Knight recounts a historical romance, showing his education and old-fashioned nature.
  • the Monk tells a staid religious drama
  • the Friar tells a tale about a greedy Summoner
  • the Physician is characterized as greedy as well as learned
  • the Cook tells a naughty story about a Miller, who gets a comeuppance after overcharging for services

All of these tales, Chaucer suggests, were important to the story of the England in which they were told.

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