Often people who read and understand great works of literature such as, Chaucer, are viewed as having an intellectual superiority to the ordinary person. The words in these works of art are difficult to read and the meaning can be almost impossible to decipher without translation. Because of this, these writings are often falsely associated with catering to kings, queens or intellectuals but that could not be further from the truth. Written in the style of Old English around 1343 through 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer did not intend for his audience to be nobility or scholars. “Canterbury Tales” was grounded in the reality of the time and written to appeal to the average person’s mentality. “Canterbury Tales” is a collection of twenty-four poems filled with humor, satire, romance and a wide mixture character personality. It is a story within a story that takes place on the road to Canterbury, where the narrator of the story meets a socially diverse group of pilgrims and decides to join them.
As the group sets off on their journey a storytelling challenge is suggested by the taverns Host. Each member will describe their two best tales on the way to the destination and again on the way back. The person with the “Tales of best sentence and moost solas- Shal have a soper at oure aller cost,” and will win the challenge (212, lines 800-801). What unfolds from the unique stories sets the scene for a tale filled with social diversity, power struggles between men and women, and professional rivalry. Of the twenty-nine pilgrims that partake in the storytelling invitation, the most socially diverse characters are brought to life by The Knight, The Wife of Bath, The Pardoner and The Miller.
“Canterbury Tales” begins with The General Prologue, Chaucer uses this opportunity to give a brief description of the pilgrims that are participating in the challenge, beginning with The Knight. “A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man, / That fro the time that he first bigan / To riden out, he loved chivalrye” (195, lines 43-45). The Knight is greatly admired by the narrator and is seen as the epitome of a medieval man during this time period. The significance of The Knight being the first character described in The General Prologue and the first in the procession directly relates to where the Knights ranks in social status. He was chivalric, has had great military success, and was a gentleman in nature. He was held in a high regard, compared to some of the other characters further along in the description.
“And everemore he haddle a soverein pris. / And though that he were worthy, he was wis, / And of his port as meeke as is maide” (195, lines 67-69). The Knight has been on numerous Crusades to spread Christianity across Europe. “At mortal batailes hadde he been fifteene, / And foughten for oure faith at Tramissene” (195, lines 61-62). He has not only shown what he can accomplish through his military success, but it also shows who he was as a person. The Knight eloquently describes his characters with beautiful details as they fulfill their destiny of courtly love, which reflects his chivalric character, as well as his social status. The Knight’s tale centers around the brave nature of knighthood but quickly turns to conflicted feelings between friendship, loyalty and uncertainty. He was a romantic at heart and he was looking for a way reach his destiny while maintaining his honor.
One of the next storytellers in “Canterbury Tales,” is The Wife of Bath, she is a diverse character who through multiple marriages has created her own place in society. She is described as an extravagant dresser, “Hir coverchiefs ful fine were ground- / I dorste swere thry weyeden ten pound” (204, lines 455-456). She is a professional seamstress and wife who enjoys the art of male manipulation. The control over her body has helps her establish her dominance over her male partners. The Wife of Bath was married five times and shows no shame in her accomplishments, though it was frowned upon to have so many husbands “Housdondes at chirche dore I have had five” (231, line 6). In addition to her beauty, The Wife of Bath’s manner of speaking shows her intelligence as well as her knowledge in both travel and men and how these aspects have contributed to her achievement of multiple husbands. Through her profession and marriages, she has climbed the social ranks.
Though not as highly respected as The Knight, The Wife of Bath social status can be described as middle class. She uses sex as her weapon of choice and her tale reflects her own personal beliefs that the man should be dominated by the women. The boastful approach The Wife of Bath has when telling her tales gives a feeling of confidence, but it feels like a cover similarly to how she covers herself in beautiful clothes. The purpose of her story is that she has been married so many times, yet she has not obtained what she desires the most “What thing is that women most desiren” (250, line 911). It is not money and societal status that she wishes to achieve but a man that truly wants to make her happy and will love her no matter how time has faded her beauty. Ironically, her story’s main character is a knight, that fails to live up to a chivalric code. Though it conveys an unconventional method to obtain love, the goal of her characters was to find happiness and what women desire most.
The next character on the journey to Canterbury is the Miller. Chaucer’s description of The Miller in The General Prologue is a stark difference to that of The Knight and The Wife of Bath. “The Millere was a stout carl for the nones. / Ful big he was of brawn and eek of bones / (206, lines 547-548). He was a big, brawny man, with a hairy wart on his nose. In his drunken state he insisted on telling the second story on the pilgrim’s journey, ruining the order the Host had originally arranged. “I can a noble tale for the nones, / With which I wol now quite the Knightes tale” (214, lines 18-20). This directly speaks to The Millers lower social status, he lacks the courtesy of The Knight and the intellectual air of The Wife of Bath. He does not follow the conventional rules of social order or in the storytelling challenge. He is crude, drunk and falling over as he begins.
Though he apologizes in the first part of the tale for the obecenity about to be told, “That I am dronke: I knowe it by my soun. / And therefore, if that I misspeke or saye” (215, lines 30-31), the Miller paints a beautiful picture of his characters. The Millers tale is also one of love quite like the pilgrims before, but it leans more to the social class of The Miller. He puts a satirically spin on his twisted love story and uses a different way to describe his characters than that of The Knight, further showing his lower status socially “As any wesele hir body gent and small. / A ceint she wered, barred al of silk” (217, lines 126-127). Though the Miller’s tale touches on love it also shows the purpose of his story, which is the fears that are often connected to love. Love is a great feeling, but it can harbor unwanted emotions such as jealously, rage and revenge.
The Pardoner’s is the next character in “Canterbury Tales,” and he has an interesting way to convey his message. Though his story does not mirror love to the exact definition, it still embraces what he foresees as love in his life. The Pardoner position in the pilgrim’s order is the end of the eclectic train. Chaucer describes The Pardoner in The General Prologue as a thin haired man, who is sexuality ambiguous and possibly a eunuch. “This Pardoner haddle heer as yellow as wex, / I trow he were a gelding or a mare” (210, lines 677, 694). The way he was described and his order in the procession shows his social status is extremely low compared to the other pilgrims.
The Pardoners profession is to grant parishioners the gift of forgiveness but not without a hefty price tag. He carries with him on his journey a bag of fake relics to further undermine the people with a false pretense of faith. “With that he saide was Oure Lady veil; / He saide he hadde a gobet of the sail” (210, lines 696-697). The Pardoner’s tale mirrors what he loves the most trickery and greed. Though he preaches continuously on the negative affects a life filled with greed, gluttony and gambling can have, he loves to convince people of his skills. He uses people’s fear of God for his financial gain. “Than that the person gat in months twaye; / And thus with feined flaterye and japes / He made the person the people his apes” (210, lines 706-708). The Pardoner’s purpose appears to become evident during The Pardoner’s Prologue where he relays his message of corruption and greed within the church, during a hypocritical monologue. While doing this he justifies his own love of greed by doing the very thing he preaches against.
Reading works of literature from great writers like, Chaucer, can be daunting and are associated with people of a higher intellectual mindset. The average person takes one look at the Old English script and assumes the confusing dialect will not be easily converted into layman’s terms. The characters in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” though, take the reader on a complex journey from one unique story interwoven inside numerous others, yet it is surprising geared towards the general population of the time. The vivid, and descriptive language that Chaucer uses appears to differ among the cast of pilgrims, from one intricate tale to the next. As the blend of personalities mingle with variating social backgrounds and sexual themes it helps to create a true masterpiece brought seamlessly together with a historical language. Though “Canterbury Tales” was never completed in its entirety the thought provoking content crosses the threshold of the unknown and leaves the reader pondering as to what will happen next.
In the end Chaucer Retraction states “Here taketh the maker of this book his leve,” where he asks for forgiveness from the reader for his words (287). I think this shows how Chaucer genuinely wrote a great piece of work that crosses the boundary of fiction into his own personal reality.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Canterbury Tales.’ Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Anthology: English Literature. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. p. 188-290. Print.
- www.sparknotes.com/lit/canterbury/. SparkNotes LLC. 2019. Accessed 20 February 2019.
- www.librarius.com/cantale/knighttrfs.htm/. Accessed 18 February 2019.