Literature Review: The Canterbury Tales
Sometime near the end of the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a collection of over 20 stories known as The Canterbury Tales. Mostly written in prose, it has been argued that the Tales’ greatest contribution to English literature was in popularizing the use of the vernacular in literature. One of the stories was adapted into a play written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher called The Two Noble Kinsmen and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressbuger wrote and directed a 1944 film loosely based on the native known as A Canterbury Tale. The 1995 film Se7en also references the work as does the 2014 Young Adult short novel by M. L. Millard, Anaheim Tales.
The story tells of group of pilgrims traveling together on a journey form Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury cathedral. To pass the time, they take part in a storytelling contest in which the prize is a free meal at the inn when they return.
A critique against the society of Chaucer’s life, The Canterbury Tales not only reflects the era’s views of the Church and the time’s social classes but also the conflict between them.
The story has quite a few religious elements, namely the setting of the pilgrimage as well as the existence of some characters. Two of which are the Pardoner and Summoner and both are given unfavorable portrayals reflecting the culture of Europeans questioning the Church’s authority. The former was the person from which indulgences were purchased. The people saw them as abusers of their office, doing so for personal gain, and the Pardoner in the story openly admits that he does so.
The latter brought sinners to the church to be excommunicated or given other penalties. However, they would also abuse their position and write false citations, expecting bribes. As with the Pardoner, the Summoner in the tale is guilty of doing so as well and is also hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner.
Another religious figure, the Monk, isn’t as corrupt as the Summoner and Pardoner, but is also portrayed as negatively falling short of the ideals he prescribes to. He is dressed expensively and shows signs of a luxurious life when he is called to dress and live modestly. Those three and the other mentioned religious characters (the Prioress, Nun’s Priest, and the Second Nun) are part of an order that originated out of a desire to live a lifestyle separated from the world, but had become involved in worldly matters during Chaucer’s time. None of the characters are given completely favorable portrayals, especially the Prioress who is stated as not being able to tolerate cruelty to animals nor a lack of cruelty to Jews. It’s been noted that writings of virtuous characters in the medieval ages started with mentioning their manners and love of animals before going into how charitably they acted towards the poor. It seems what Chaucer was trying to do was subvert people’s expectations and show that the Prioress was nicer to animals than she was to people.
Speaking of the pilgrimage, which was prominent in medieval society, it’s an interesting frame story that ties the tales of all the characters together. It could also represent Christians as a whole too, showing them all striving for the same destination even though they have weaknesses, disagreements and more than a few differences in opinions.
As for social element, the upper class is represented by the Knight, whose tale tells of his feud with a fellow knight regarding a woman the two idealize. It’s possible that Chaucer was trying to show the flaws of chivalry, which was in decline at the time, where the aim was to be noble, but denigrated into violence many times. However, it should be noted that the Knight was given the most favorable portrayal by Chaucer.
And this all ties into the conflict and division of the three classes: the clergy (or those who pray), the nobility (or those who fight), and the common peasants (or those who work). It’s interesting that the Knight, who is of the highest social class in the group, starts off the Tales, but he is then followed by a Miller, who is part of a lower class. This demonstrates that the entirety of the work both respects and disregards upper class rules.
Demonstrating the link between classes and how the era saw the church and said classes, The Canterbury Tales is an interesting look into the 14th century. It’s recommended and, since Hubpages doesn’t allow for half stars, gets four stars.
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