QUESTIONS FOR STUDY AND IDEAS FOR ANSWERS
Q: What does Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury
Tales’ have to say about life in Medieval England?
Religion: Unlike today, religion had much more influence over the everyday lives of people throughout Europe.
Over the centuries, politics has replaced religion and today it is the political leaders and officials that are criticized, but in Chaucer’s time the Church had much more power, and their officials were the butt of jokes. A high proportion of the Pilgrims worked for the Church. In Chaucer’s time, a good living could be obtained by doing ‘God’s work’. No doubt there were many pious Church officials who unselfishly dedicated their lives in pursuing God’s will, but likewise there were many who used the Church as a means of furthering their own position. These latter figures brought the Church into disrepute and were symbols of the corruption that was to be found at all levels of Ecclesiastical life. The Church used the fear of eternal damnation and purgatory as a means for ensnaring the lower classes into the fold of the Church. Likewise, richer members of society could be relieved of part of their wealth in order to secure a place in paradise. There seemed to be more officials in the Church in Chaucer’s time. In addition to Bishops, Priests, Monks and Friars, we have Pardoners, Summoners and their assistants. Some worked for the Church in England or for particular Monasteries, and others worked directly from Rome. Most of the services were conducted in Latin and the majority of the congregation were ignorant of this language, and thus were denied hearing God’s word in their own tongue.
The majority of women in Chaucer’s time seemed to have a subservient role to men, or were subservient to God. There are exceptions best illustrated by the Wife of Bath, so there is evidence that women could break loose from the shackles they wore in a male dominated society. Although they were subservient, their chastity was honored and to violate a woman was perhaps a bigger crime then than now. Many of the tales revolve round the chastity of women, and the consequences faced by men who encroached on this. The attitude of men towards women seemed shallow and more store was set on a woman’s good looks than on her character. The ideal woman had to be beautiful, loyal and a poor third is intelligent. Women had little opportunity to obtain an education - even less than men and it is really only in the higher social groups that they obtained an education.
Social structure: Although Medieval England was far less sophisticated than life today, we can see that people got on quite well with one another, and there was perhaps more
interaction between people in Chaucer’s time than today. Perhaps the pilgrimage is a false setting, but it is clearly not outlandish to have all representatives of society traveling together, communing with
one another with the same goal of reaching Canterbury and Beckett’s tomb. The Pilgrims show the same interaction with one another as we might expect today if a similar pilgrimage were to be carried out.
We have the various rivalries between certain members of the party, the Miller and the Reeve for example, and although insults are hurled between members of the group, the feeling is that in true Christian spirit they are able to forgive one another the insults, for no-one leaves the party and they all carry on together in the company. One gets the feeling that there are less barriers between the social stratums in Medieval England, and that perhaps the Church representatives are more down to earth than their counterparts are today. Maybe this is because life was a bit more basic in the 14th Century than it is today.
Q: How would you rate Chaucer as a writer?
‘The Canterbury Tales’ represents a major milestone of literary history.
They are a stepping-stone between all that has gone before and a benchmark for what has been composed subsequently. We still get a taste of how stories were told in the Early and Middle Ages. Most stories were in the form of songs where the content was sometimes just as important as the rhyming song. Virtually the whole work is in the form of poems and the various tales differ regarding their content, but in most instances there is a strict adherence to keeping the rhyme and the rhythm flowing. It is perhaps hard to appreciate the difficulty in achieving this, but clearly Chaucer was adept at this type of work. Imagine trying to tell any of the major works of literature in the form of a rhyming song! It is important that the reader tries to at least review some of the tales in their original format and look beyond the fact that some of the words will be unfamiliar. The way in which Chaucer has constructed the poetry is exceptional. He also uses rhyming in order to reinforce certain important points in some of the tales so that the listener not only marvels at the poetry, but at the content as well.
Chaucer is quite rightly regarded as the father of narrative poetry and he provided a great service to the English-speaking world of his time by translating
many tales from around the world into the common English tongue. We see from his life that he had many irons in the fire, and it is a pity that he never completed this immense project.
Q: Most of the tales have a moral or a particular message. Please give examples.
The Knight’s Tale:
The rules of honor must be adhered to and people should conduct themselves in a proper manner. The Knight’s Tale is filled with chivalry, adventure, love and honor.
The Miller’s Tale: Old men should not marry young girls!
The Reeve’s Tale: Cheats never prosper!
The Man of Law’s Tale:
Loyalty is a virtue, as exemplified by the main character, Constance who was endowed with great patience.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale: The thing that most women desire is complete sovereignty over their husbands.
What are the rest? Remember that some of the tales are linked i.e. the Friar and the Summoner.