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Cultural Differences in Early British Literature

Updated on January 12, 2015

Never Back Down

The manuscripts have been discovered. What do they show about the culture of the time? This is the task you handed me, and I graciously accepted this challenge. The following report is what I have found—the results may be groundbreaking. It is in my discoveries, and careful reading of both Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and The Monk’s Tale, as part of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, that there are key cultural differences between the two. By paying attention to the minute details of language in each of these texts, one can see that Chaucer is mocking the relationship between enacted actions and expected societal actions, whereas Marlowe is promoting a break from societal expectations. These differences are essential to understanding each of their respective cultures.

To begin this comparison of texts, it is important to have a basic understanding of each of the authors’ backgrounds—their backgrounds have a great impact on their writing, and outlook on their texts. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in around the year 1340 in London. He was the son of a middle class merchant, and was part of a bourgeois family. His family had a history of money, and were very successful merchants in England. For his education, it was believed that he attended St. Paul’s Cathedral school—potentially where he became influenced by ancient Greek writers.

Chaucer became a civil servant in 1357 to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster. Two years later, he was off fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, in which he was captured, held ransom, and released. He then became a diplomat and traveled throughout Western Europe. In 1368, he became an esquire of King Edward III ( There are more details of Chaucer’s life, but these basic beginnings are what are necessary for understanding this interpretation of his text. Knowing he grew up in a well-off family shows that his representation of the Monk is not just a spiteful commoner that is merely jealous of the Monk’s wealth—it is coming from one who indulges in the world’s luxuries, and he even points out the flaws of the system.

Chaucer was a wordsmith, crafting each phrase, carefully choosing every word to build up to his bigger meaning. One has to carefully read in order to catch the full meaning of his texts. He slyly interjects words that add a subliminal meaning to his texts, and are what show the cultural norms of the time. In The Monk’s Tale, Chaucer begins by overtly praising the Monk and his actions. He begins the tale by saying, “A Monk ther was, a fair for the maistrye,/ An outridere that loved venerye,/ A manly man, to been an abbot able” (Chaucer 165-167). These few introductory phrases essentially praise the Monk and his actions. The first line says that the Monk took pains to imitate the behavior of a Monk—this is a clear indicator that people attempted to follow social norms; however, we will find out in Chaucer’s tale that this is in fact not the case.

The second line is where we begin to see Chaucer’s underhanded mockery of the Monk and his actions. There is no mention of his piety, but of his love of hunting. Without directly saying it, one will slowly see how Chaucer has disdain for the Monk and his practices. The next section of the tale shows how the Monk partakes in earthly pleasures, and again makes no mention of his devotion to God or the church. “Ful many a daintee hors hadde he in stable,/ And whan he rood, men mighte his bridel here/ Ginglen in a whistling wind as clere/ and eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle/ Ther as this lord was kepere of the celle” (Chaucer 168-172). This is another example of the supposed praise that is in fact an undercut of the Monk’s character. Chaucer is showing how the Monk owns many horses, and when he rides, the jingle of his bridle is as loud as the chapel bell. In fact, Chaucer is suggesting that this bridle sound is seemingly replacing the chapel bell sounds—replacing his spiritual duties with his worldly possessions.

This text is very complicated, as Chaucer overtly praises the Monk and his actions that go against the societal expectations of a member of the clergy, but underhandedly scolds and mocks him. We see the shift from light praise to mockery in the middle of the Monk’s tale. “And I saide his opinion was good:/ What sholde he studye and make himselven wood/ Upon a book in cloister always to poure,/ Or swinke with his handes and laboure,/ As Austin bit? How shal the world be served?” (Chaucer 183-187). This is the section where his mockery becomes obvious. He begins by saying that he thinks that the Monk’s opinion was good—setting him up as an upstanding individual. He then unravels the stature and authority of the Monk in the next few lines. His next few lines are rhetorical and sarcastic questions that he poses to the general audience. “What sholde he studye and make himselven wood” is asking why the Monk must study and bore himself with the task, when he has so many other worldly things to partake in. He is mocking the Monk’s lack of piety and work ethic, and satirically ‘supports’ the Monk, essentially saying that it isn’t necessary to have him work with his hands. The last two lines of this small section are what truly make the mockery complete—without them, the satire is incomplete. Without it, we do not see the shift in tone that Chaucer presents, truly representing the culture’s thoughts on straying from social norms.

“As Austin bit? How shal the world be served?” (Chaucer 187). This is a direct blow to the Monk as a character. He is giving a direct comparison of the Monk, and how he is as far from St. Augustine as possible—a religious historical figure that many throughout history strived to emulate. His final question in this section finalizes the satire and completes his underhand of the Monk and his societal stray. He is commenting on the constant overindulgence of certain levels of society, and how many get away with it—his negative connotation to the matter is much different than what Christopher Marlowe promotes in Doctor Faustus.


As with Chaucer, Marlowe’s history is important to understand while interpreting the text. Born over 200 years after Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England in 1564. He had a tragically short life, dying at a very young 29 years of age, in 1593. He was educated at Corpus Christi College. He was infamous for being an atheist, and potentially could have been a government spy. After graduating from University, he moved to London and became a full time writer (

Doctor Faustus is the story of a man who is fed up with the normal conventions of life—and because of this, decided to learn how to practice magic. His first act is to summon Mephastophilis, a devil. Faustus offers Mephastophilis’ master, Lucifer, his soul in exchange for 24 years of Mephastophilis’ service. Faustus then continues his life, sometimes doubting his decision, yet despite the warnings from many he encounters, still sticks with his deal that he struck. In the beginning and the end of the story, Marlowe shows how societal stray is actually promoted—not for the act of rebellion, but for the virtue of free thought and action.

The first instance of this freedom of thought is in the initial scene, where Valdes is speaking to Faustus. “Valdes, as resolute am I in this/ As thou to live, therefore object it not” (Marlowe 134-135). Here we see Faustus’ resolute will to continue with his choices. It is expected, in the time, to not partake in these sacrilegious acts. However, by having Faustus commit these acts, and stick with them, despite numerous warnings, shows his belief in human thought and choice. Humanism was defined as the ability to make self-aware choices using intellect and reasoning. This story is Marlowe’s way of promoting that aspect, and in doing so, promoting a stray from societal expectations. This is a very different approach from Chaucer, who as aforementioned, saw such a stray from expectation to be a flaw in the societal system. This is a stark difference of the two cultures, separated by 200 years of rich history and conflict.

Faustus does not stop there with his resolute desire to continue with his dark dealings. The very last lines in the story, said by the chorus, show how Marlowe feels about human thought and volition. “Regard his hellish fall,/ Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise/ Only to wonder at unlawful things:/ Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits/ To practice more than heavenly power permits” (Marlowe, Epilogue, 4-8). The last two lines are the true reflection on the matter. He is saying that these dark deeds entice those of advanced minds, yet they still have the choice of doing them. These beings of higher intellect are choosing to be a part of these heretical acts—conversely, those with lesser intellect merely fall into place, the sheep of society. This is a very important distinction, and widens the gap of opinion between Chaucer and Marlowe.

Marlowe even goes so far as to structure his work to reflect his true feeling on the issue of societal expectation. The entire story is a complex text that forces you to not like the main character, and in doing so reinforces the idea of individual choice and control. This cautionary tale shows what can go wrong with certain decisions, but without these decisions, we lose what make us human. This is a key difference between Chaucer and Marlowe; Marlowe believes in making your own decisions, even if it means straying societal norms, whereas Chaucer mocks that notion.


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As seen, these two cultures have very different opinions toward the issue of societal expectations. The fine reading, attention to detail, and in some instances structure of the texts are all indicative of the overall sentiment. Chaucer underhandedly mocks the characters that stray from their expected role, and if one does not pay attention, passing over the details that reveal this is highly likely. Conversely, Marlowe’s tale is a promotion of individual choice, even if it means straying from norms. No matter the outcome, choice is the most important. These two cultures, separated by 200 years, have vastly different approaches to the subject based on these texts. Their correlating beliefs are unexpected of men in their circumstances—it seems as if they both in fact are promoting a stray from norms, and to never back down from what you believe.

Sources "Christopher Marlowe." A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013. "Geoffrey Chaucer Biography." A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Canterbury Tales." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2012. N. pag. Print.

Marlowe, Christopher. "Doctor Faustus." The Norton Anthology of English Literature.New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. N. pag. Print.

© 2015 Nathaniel Marceau


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