THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of tales written in verse and set in the late 1300s; begun around 1386, unfinished.
A group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral amuse one another with stories along the way.
Born in London, England, sometime between 1342 and 1345, Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of a successful wine merchant. As a result of his father’s affluence, Chaucer received a good education. In 1357 he became a page in the service of Elizabeth de Burgh, the wife of Prince Lionel, one of King Edward Ill’s sons. Chaucer later entered the king’s service, working for Queen Philippe in 1367. He traveled extensively outside of England, acquiring a broad knowledge of the world, which was uncommon for his time. His travels abroad were somewhat adventurous; at one point he was taken prisoner in a battle with the French at Reims, then ransomed by the king for sixteen pounds, a sum less than the ransom paid for a nobleman’s horse. Chaucer is generally considered the first great English poet, and he is among the first poets about whom we have any real biographical knowledge. At his death, Chaucer was the first artist to be buried in a place of honor at Westminster Abbey, one of England’s most revered religious sites, in a section that would become known as “Poet’s Corner.”
The pilgrimage and medieval religion
The pilgrimage, such as the one Chaucer presents in the Canterbury Tales, was a central institution of the medieval church, perhaps second only to the institution of the parish church in its importance to religion during the period. The official purpose of the pilgrimage was to bring the participants in close contact with important religious sites, including major cathedrals like Canterbury and the holy city of Jerusalem, and also to expose them to sacred objects such as the bones and relics of saints. In practice, a pilgrimage had much of the feel of a modern-day tour to some sacred location.
Some pilgrims made the journey for personal reasons, traveling to pray for ill relatives or to seek a miraculous cure for their own ailments. Other pilgrims undertook the pilgrimage to show devotion to their religion through the sacrifice of time and energy that the journey required. In addition to those who journeyed for personal reasons or to express their devotion to God, another segment of pilgrims took the journey simply for the sake of enjoyment and recreation. This agenda is evident in several of Chaucer’s pilgrims,
including the cook who becomes too drunk to mount his horse. The recreational aspect of the journey played a large part in the popularity of pilgrimages during the medieval period.
The importance of the church
The church was a central factor in medieval society. Throughout Europe, the Catholic Church owned huge tracts of land that made the institution incredibly powerful and wealthy. The church’s power as a political and economic force was as significant as its role in the moral and spiritual life of its followers. Such power led to inevitable abuses, as some religious officials exploited the common people, preying upon the fears and weaknesses of the faithful for their own gain.
Chaucer depicts examples of this exploitation in “The Summoner’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.” While Chaucer’s tales make fun of individuals who are involved in the church, they never satirize or criticize the church itself. Chaucer seems to have been a typical, faithful Christian who very much loved the church, yet felt frustrated at the individuals who used the church for their own personal benefit.
Feudalism and the late Middle Ages
The feudal system was the predominant economic and social system in England during Chaucer’s lifetime. Under this system, land was farmed by a class of peasants, or serfs, who did not own the farmland. Instead, the farms were owned by a separate class of people, known as nobles or landed gentry. The nobles reaped the profits of the peasants’ labor and, in return, gave the peasants a portion of the crops and protection from outlaws and hostile armies.
The peasant classes of this period seemed in some ways to accept their lot in life; the only uprising was the Peasant’s Revolt led by Wat Tyler. Wat Tyler was hanged for his role in leading the short-lived rebellion, which took place in southern England in 1381. Even in this instance, economic issues were a minor factor. The probable root of this small rebellion instead lay in the peasants’ frustration at the lack of protection from the government against endless raids by the French. Offering no support to southern England’s peasants, the king expected them to face the fury of the French onslaught alone.
Since the Peasant’s Revolt was the only significant revolt to occur during this period, it has been suggested that there was no widespread discontent among the peasant classes at the time. If a peasant was dissatisfied with his place in society, he apparently did not blame the general social structure but rather the vices of individuals, such as greed, hatred, and lack of compassion. This sentiment is reflected in several of the CanterburyTales, including “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which depicts characters committing the worst actions and crimes—greed, selfishness, and murder. The emphasis is on the individuals’ wrongful actions rather than on any shortcomings of the medieval social system.
Society and economy in change
The economic and social system of England was undergoing a change during Chaucer’s time, and a middle class largely made up of merchants gradually emerged from the previous feudal world. Chaucer himself was a prime example of one who took advantage of the new opportunities available to members of the middle class. His father was a vintner, an importer and distributor of wines, who earned a comfortable living for himself and his family. The elder Chaucer’s economic security allowed him to send his son to a good school, and this educational background gave the boy the opportunity to serve in a noble household. Young Chaucer later won a position at court, where he prospered. His able service led to various annuities and administrative governmental posts, which he received in payment for his services. Chaucer’s affiliation with the court was to last throughout his lifetime. Despite drastic political changes that occurred during this time, he was never out of political favor. He lived on patronage—an arrangement in which he was supported by noble sponsors—from 1357 until his death in 1400.
Literary ideals and courtly love
At the conclusion of “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the characters are punished for their vices. This perfect justice illustrates one of the most important aspects of storytelling in Chaucer’s age: namely, the ability of stories to create a world that operates neatly by punishing vice and rewarding virtue. Tales that portrayed such a perfect world soothed the masses, whose world of reality seldom exhibited such perfect justice. Chaucer appears to have been quite comfortable with this feature of story telling; several of his tales depict a perfectly balanced and just world in which virtuous characters overcome all opposition and are ultimately victorious.
Another important element in literature of the Middle Ages was the notion of chivalry, which included the concept of courtly love. Chivalry was the code of honor by which knights lived, pledging their allegiance to their lords and binding themselves to an elaborate system of rules and behavior. In “The Knight’s Tale,” two rivals, each backed by one hundred knights, fight a grand tourney for the right to woo a maiden. Such tournaments did in fact occur, but they were usually fought as practice for war, not over a love interest.
The concept of courtly love was a literary convention that allowed the characters of romances to pursue their amorous adventures without facing social and moral consequences. Courtly love stood in direct opposition to the church’s teachings and standards, yet placed as it was in the context of romantic adventure stories and poems, it did not challenge the church’s influence over medieval society.
Chaucer’s tales were written in Middle English, an earlier form of today’s English language. The Middle English of the tales may at first glance seem unreadable to the untrained eye. The language features variant, unfamiliar spellings and uses vocabulary words that have become obsolete since Chaucer’s day. But creative reading and a little practice allows the reader to eventually discern the word sin, for example, in Chaucer’s synne, and wild in wylde.
The dramatic situation in the Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales was Chaucer’s most popular work, although it was never finished. Even in its incomplete state, however, it reveals a level of ambition, organization, and artistic achievement unmatched in earlier English storytelling. Chaucer’s tales are told by a group of travellers as they journey on a religious pilgrimage to the cathedral at Canterbury. Covering fifty-five miles, the journey from London to Canterbury could last as long as four days. Chaucer’s convention of having the pilgrims entertain each other makes sense; the route to Canterbury was not especially scenic or interesting, so storytelling served as an obvious way to make the trip more interesting.
The prologue and the cast of characters
The pilgrims begin their journey at the Tabard Inn, an establishment owned by Harry Bailey, their host and the leader of the pilgrimage. They gather the night before the journey at the inn and leave on the morning of April 17, probably in the year 1387. References to the number of pilgrims on the journey—twenty-nine, plus Chaucer himself—and to the number of days the travelers take to reach their destination are confusing in places; in any case, it seems clear that Chaucer was not primarily interested in creating a “realistic” narrative with great attention to detail. Instead, he
wanted to provide an overall framework within which to place his characters and their stories.
Chaucer’s stated intention was to have each of the thirty pilgrims tell a total of four tales, two on the journey to Canterbury and two on the road back, for a total of 120 tales. This represented a huge undertaking on Chaucer’s part, an undertaking that was never finished. Only twenty-four tales were written. Chaucer also wrote the famous “General Prologue,” which introduces the entire work and each of the pilgrims, as well as a retraction. In this last piece, he revokes all his writings on worldly trifles. Chaucer resorted to the retraction after realizing he would not be able to complete the original plan.
It has been said that the Canterbury Tales contains representations of the entire social spectrum of Chaucer’s England. His characters include skilled tradesmen and craftsmen—the Miller, the Cook, and the Reeve; members of the middle and professional classes—the Shipman, the Wife of Bath, the Physician, the Manciple (a minor official), and the Merchant; figures of the upper classes and members of court—the Franklin, the Man of Law, the Knight, and the Squire; and individuals from the religious segment of society—the Parson, the Nuns, the Nun’s Priest, the Prioress (head of a household of nuns), the Clerk, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Friar, and the Monk. Taken as a whole, these characters represent a broad and largely inclusive cross section of Chaucer’s England. A summary of three of the characters and their tales follows.
The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
The miller was an important character in the medieval world. His job was to turn the farmer’s grain into flour by grinding it in his mill. The Miller of the Canterbury Tales is described in the General Prologue as a physically intimidating character: “The Millere was a stout carl for the nones / Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones [The Miller was a stout fellow indeed/Full strong he was of muscle, and also of bones]” (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, fragment 1, 545-46). The Miller’s moral character is also revealed in the general prologue when he is described as a teller of dirty stories, “moost of synne and harlotries [most of sin and deeds of harlotry]” (Canterbury Tales, fragment 1, line 561).
“The Miller’s Tale” is considered a bawdy tale, or fabliau, a short, comic story in verse that creates humor out of our sexual and physical nature. These tales emphasize jealousy, adultery, thievery, trickery, and the baser elements of human behavior. The liveliest of the Canterbury Tales, these bawdy stories delight readers largely because they make fun of human weaknesses in
PUTTING THE TALES IN ORDER
There are twenty-four tales in the work, plus the General Prologue and the Retraction. The proper order of the tales is a matter of debate. Scholars agree that Chaucer grouped the tales into ten fragments, as indicated below, but there is much discussion about how these fragments should be ordered.
|1||General Prologue, Knight’s Tale, Miller’s Tale, Reeve’s Tale, Cook’s Tale|
|2||Man of Law’s Tale|
|3||Friar’s Tale, Summoner’s Tale, Wife of Bath’s Tale|
|4||Clerk’s Tale, Merchant’s Tale|
|5||Squire’s Tale, Franklin’s Tale|
|6||Physician’s Tale, Pardoner’s Tale|
|7||Tale of Sir Thopas, Tale of Melibee, Monk’s Tale, Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Shipman’s Tale, Prioress’s Tale|
|8||Second Nun’s Tale, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale|
|10||Parson’s Tale, Retraction|
In addition to the “General Prologue,” each tale except for the Knight’s, Physician’s, and Shipman’s tales begins with its own prologue.
a way that is true to life. “The Miller’s Tale,” one of the best known fabliaux, is actually a story about how people shape their own lot in life.
The Miller has a motive for choosing the story he tells. He aims to tease and annoy the Reeve, another of the pilgrims, who follows this tale with one of his own, a retaliatory attack against the Miller. This interplay between tales occurs throughout the work and is used by Chaucer to convey the humanity of his characters while keeping the reader interested in the progress of the storytelling.
The subject of “The Miller’s Tale” is a young student’s seduction of a carpenter’s wife. The student is a lodger at the home of the older carpenter, whose wife is a younger woman. Such marriages were common in the Middle Ages. The Miller describes the carpenter’s jealous attitude toward his young wife:
Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,
For she was wylde and yong, and he was old
And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.
[Jealous he was, and held her closely caged
For she was wylde and young, and he was old
And demed hymself been li k a cokewold.]
(Canterbury Tales, fragment 1, 3224-26)
The student, Nicholas, is drawn to Alison, the carpenter’s wife. In a bold first encounter, he grabs her and demands her love. Alison protests, but not too much, and Nicholas convinces her that they can easily trick her husband. Following the student’s plan, the two would-be lovers go to great lengths to arrange their rendezvous. Their adventures during this plotting have become one of the most famous examples of storytelling in English literature. The lovers spend a passionate night in bed while the husband sleeps in a tub; Nicholas kisses Alison’s posterior instead of her lips; his own posterior receives a hot surprise; and the husband’s tub comically crashes from a height to the ground.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
In the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” specific information is given about the goodwife (female head of a household) from the city of Bath. The General Prologue reveals that she is a rich woman and a skillful weaver with a spirited personality; in the special prologue to her tale, she herself says that she has been married five times and that the deaths of her first three husbands provided her with a great deal of wealth. Scholars have argued that this explanation for her financial prosperity may be a lie fabricated by the Wife of Bath to make herself look like a successful and desirable woman. Her wealth may actually be a result of her own effort. She is described as the best weaver in England, and her skill at this profession may be the true source of her financial success.
The Wife’s prologue explains her view of marriage; she believes it is an institution that allows people to enjoy their sexuality. The Wife goes on to propose that a woman receive equal or superior power to that of the man in marriage. This issue, which she calls sovereignty, is central to her tale.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” contains a folk motif: a knight faces execution for the rape of a young maiden. The women of the court offer him his freedom if he can give the correct answer to a question the queen asks: What is the thing that women most desire? The queen gives the knight one year to go forth and seek the answer. He conducts an exhaustive search and receives many possible answers, including honor, pleasure, flattery, and freedom. None of these responses satisfies the knight, and he rides dejectedly back to the castle to face his fate. On his way, the knight encounters an old woman who gives him the correct answer—a woman wants the same level of power and mastery over her husband as she would have over a lover; neither one should be above her, and she should be equal to both. The twist in the story comes when the old woman demands that the knight marry her as payment. He complies, and this triggers a surprising and satisfying conclusion to the tale. In the end, the old woman is transformed into a young and beautiful wife.
Counterpoint and views on women
The Wife’s tale so upsets the character known as the Clerk that he feels compelled to respond with a tale of his own. He tells a story that is primarily about keeping one’s promises, but features a wife named Griselda who is unwilling to break her oath of obedience to her husband. Griselda, though married to a tyrant, is a long-suffering and submissive wife. In contrast, the Wife of Bath seems to have a domineering and coarse nature that reduces her chance of attracting a man’s genuine affection, which, despite her focus on sex and wealth, is probably her true ambition.
There has been much speculation about Chaucer’s view of the institution of marriage, and some scholars suggest that he did not hold it in high regard. But in the tale of the Wife of Bath and in other stories, such as the Franklin’s, it seems as though Chaucer does have great respect for the wisdom of women and for their right to be treated fairly and gently by husbands who loved them. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” suggests that women should be recognized as equals in relationships and that men should treat them kindly.
The Franklin’s Tale
The Franklin is essentially a newly rich upstart trying to act the part of the gracious, sensitive, compassionate man of wealth. He pretends that he wishes to share his good fortune and wisdom with everyone, yet his deeper intent is to draw positive attention toward himself. He is overly lavish with his hospitality, calling more attention to his own virtue than to the plight of those in need. He claims to be rough and uneducated, while also letting his audience know that he is quite familiar with Cicero, who was an authority on the subject of rhetoric.
The Franklin’s Tale concerns a knight, Arveragus; his wife, Dorigen; and a neighboring squire in love with Dorigen named Aurelius. Complications arise when the husband, Arveragus, leaves his native France to go to England on knightly business for a period of two years. His wife, Dorigen, falls into a deep depression, and the squire Aurelius pursues her affections to the point even of trying to trick her into an affair with him. Aurelius approaches Dorigen, declaring his love. Dorigen, who loves her husband and feels concerned for his safety, rejects the squire, although she adds playfully,
Aurelie, by heighe god above,
Yet wolde I graunte yow to been youre love,
Syn I yow se so pitously complayne.”
[Aurelius, by high god above,
Yet would I grant to be your love,
Since I see you so piteously complain.]
(Canterbury Tales, fragment 5, lines 989-91)
Dorigen then sets Aurelius what she believes is an impossible task, thereby letting him know that she wishes to stay faithful to her husband. When Aurelius manages to complete the task, both her marriage and the moral integrity of the characters are put to the test. Her husband, Arveragus, intent on behaving honorably, orders that she keep her word and submit to her admirer, though Arveragus instructs her to keep this a secret. Aurelius, in turn, behaves in a noble way that results in a happy ending for Dorigen and her husband.
It is known that Chaucer translated a large part of the “Roman de la Rose,” a French poem, as part of his training as a poet, and that some of the elements of courtly love involved in this work are found in the Canterbury Tales. Probably Chaucer was also aware of the work of poets such as Will Langland, author of Piers Plowman. It seems certain that Chaucer knew of the Decameron, a collection of tales by Boccaccio framed by a dramatic device similar to that used in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is said to have adopted the convention of a time-passing exchange of stories, a technique employed in the Decameron. Chaucer may have become acquainted with this work on his second visit to Italy in 1378. There is also evidence in the tales of the influence of Italian poets such as Petrarch, who was still living in Italy at the time of one of Chaucer’s journeys there, and Dante, the author of Divine Comedy (Inferno , the first part of Divine Comedy, is also covered in Literature and Its Times).
While Chaucer’s travels and readings contributed to his creation of the Canterbury Tales, traditional folk stories, and even tavern stories, like those so familiar to the Miller, had a greater effect. Probably Chaucer’s greatest source was the living world of people around him. There is in all of the Canterbury Tales a celebration of our shared humanity and the humorous, difficult situations that the desire for love and companionship can create. This celebration spans the social classes of Chaucer’s time, a range of people whom Chaucer was well situated to observe. He resided above one of the gates of entry into the city of London for much of his career. It seems inevitable that this location, amid the swirling masses of English society, would have encouraged and influenced Chaucer’s creation of the Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
Myers, A. R. England in the Late Middle Ages. New York: Penguin, 1952.
Serraillier, Ian. Chaucer and His World. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1968.
D. C. Whaley
Canterbury Tales: see Chaucer, Geoffrey.