Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most noted writers of the fourteenth century. Though Chaucer wrote many things, mostly poetry, his greatest work was the extensive Canterbury Tales. It began as a listing of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury and then continued with each person telling a tale or story along the way. He details each person’s occupation, personality, and clothing with historical accuracy and societal perspective. Due to this, Canterbury Tales has become an important English collection of writings that all historians should be familiar with, because Chaucer’s works give great insight into the fourteenth century’s reflections of social change, religious controversies, and gender expectations.
Chaucer was born into Great Britain’s middle class in or around 1343 but then placed in an aristocratic home as a page. This allowed Chaucer to understand the affairs of upper class-and middle-class, as well as their relationship to the lower-class. Because of this, he had the ability to uniquely write about those in all social ranks with humor and accuracy, while also reflecting the society’s changes. He was also very well educated, which was not typical of his era. Especially having been born into the middle-class.
The Canterbury Tales is set up so that each pilgrim tells a story on the way to Canterbury. Although he started it around 1387, he did not finish it before his death in the 1400s. Although unfinished, many of the tales were complete and remains one of the world’s greatest writings of all time.
From the beginning of Canterbury Tales, he shows how the younger generation was beginning to reject the old way of life. For instance, in the General Prologue, he defines the knight as a “true, perfect, noble,” knight. Then Chaucer contrasts the knight to the knight’s son, who is following in his father’s footsteps. Though he is training for the same profession, he focuses on such issues as singing and poetry, rather than heroism and integrity as his father did. This reflected the change historians will see from the medieval idea of knighthood to a society that is more similar to modern times. This also shows how literature and poetry would become an important aspect of England’s society during this time, further reflecting the changes in knighthood. Knighting lost much of its importance in England during the century before this was written and its idea of chivalry.
Not only does Canterbury Tales reflect the way in which societies roles were changing within the elite, but also the ideas regarding religion during the fourteenth century. Canterbury Tales is about a pilgrimage. This in and of itself addresses the importance of religion to England’s society during this time. Jestice defines pilgrimages as a journey that Christians took to the tomb of a Saint. Many of those on this pilgrimage were members of the clergy. This gives the modern historian a better understanding of how those who worked within the church were viewed and also what was valued within these men and women during this time.
Chaucer’s kindest depiction was that of the parson. The parson was considered to be the ideal clergyman during medieval times. He was holy in his thought, intelligent, as well as visited with the sick and tried to bring souls to God. These attributes ascribed to the parson shows the historian what was valued most within the clergy during the fourteenth century. On the other hand, Chaucer denounces many of the clergymen, which reveals that even in the fourteenth century there was hypocrisy within the church. For instance, the monk was considered reckless. Though recklessness is not sinful, the fact that Chaucer relayed this information about the monk as a negative trait reveals that during this time, a clergyman was expected to be prudent and level-headed. Chaucer also felt it was important to describe his sleeves as being fur-lined. This was significant because Chaucer was revealing that the monk was more in love with money than with God. Through this description, Chaucer suggests that not all the “men of faith” were as pious as the parson was described.
Immediately after the description of the monk, Chaucer writes about a nun. Her description not only reflects how the religious figures of that time would have been viewed but also women in general. The nun was very sensitive and cried easily; even if she were to see, “a (mouse) caught in a trappe.” This reveals that even within the fourteenth century, women were viewed much like they are today, as being the more emotional sex. Though much like the monk, she too, was caught up in money, for she wore a “brooch of gold.” Nuns, just like all clergymen, were expected to reject such ideas of being wealthy. This again indicates that not all people of faith were as virtuous as expected, revealing to the historian possible negative feelings from laypeople towards the clergy.
Through Chaucer’s images, the historian can see how the views of women were beginning to transform during the fourteenth century. This change would eventually cause England to shift away from being a completely patriarchal society. The Norton Anthology points out that there were many anti-feminist writings that the medieval church fostered. Women during this period were expected to be wholesome and submissive to their husbands. Chaucer had written a character in order to oppose these writings.
His first hint to this change is during the General Prologue as he writes about the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands plus extra-marital affairs in her youth. Though this was not accepted during medieval times, Chaucer’s mentioning of such a woman shows that England’s society began to shift in the way they viewed sexuality. This shows that sex was no longer something that only men sought. Though Chaucer did not intend for a historian to believe that this was common; he did want to show that there were women who had affairs as well as men.
Chaucer further represents this shift, when it is the Wife of Bath’s turn to share a story. During her story, she conveys her feelings towards who should rule a house. Being a very feminist woman, she felt that responsibility should lie with the wife. This idea during the medieval time period would have been considered outrageous. Though, the fact that she was able to tell this story, presents the idea that a woman was able to more openly share their thoughts, without complete denunciation. Also, it reflected that women were beginning to have their own identities with at least minimal influence in society.
Though Chaucer was merely one man, and could only reflect his beliefs and ideas, his writings in Canterbury Tales is an important work to continue to be studied today. Through his fictional analysis of people from all areas of society, it better educates the historian during this time frame. Canterbury Tales not only reflects the ways in which the fourteenth century was evolving, but it also was setting the stage for what England would become, and eventually the United States. Therefore, The Canterbury Tales should be considered an important historical document.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages, by Afred, Simpson, James David, 218-315. New York: Norton and Company, 2006.
David, Alfred, and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Eighth. Vol. A. New York: Norton and Company, 2006.
Jestice, Phillis G. Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.