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Reflections on Chaucer’s “The Prologue”

Chaucer’s goal in “The Prologue” of his famous work The Canterbury Tales was to demonstrate, with some humor, the common figures of the day, and how they mix and intermingle when thrown together. As Dryden stated: “it is sufficient to say, according to the proverb that here is God’s plenty.” (Dryden 34) Dryden’s quote accurately can be used in relation to Chaucer’s work because Chaucer’s prologue reflects on “God’s plenty,” or the various features of Chaucer’s society (including, of course, religion). Chaucer gives us a wide variety of personalities that were representatives of their times, but the two most interesting characters, at least in this writer’s opinion, is that of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, mainly because of what these two characters reflect on regarding the culture of the time period.

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Chaucer has taken immense pains to realize the grand figure of the Wife of Bath in a creative impulse of supreme intensity. At the outset, we are told that she was somewhat deaf (owing to a blow she received from her fifth husband.) in spite of having five husbands she had a lot of lovers too. “The story of her own life told in a Prologue that is considerably longer than her Tale, presents an account of the Wife of Bath’s failures to follow the marriage rule…” (Nelson 3). She had a great talent for cloth making, possessing in this craft a skill superior to that of the workmen of Ypres and Ghent. This gap-toothed woman sat upon an ambling horse with ease and was neatly veiled. Her hat was as wide as a shield and her garb included an outer skirt and a pair of sharp spurs on her feet. No doubt, she was well-versed in all the devices of love-making and she knew all methods of gratifying love. The Wife of Bath does not strike readers as the usual female character we would expect—and that is Chaucer’s intent. Most medieval literature gives us the picture of the beautiful princess, or the high-born lady, in the form of courtly love—or the lover that can never be achieved.

Here, we have the lover that is achieved—and she is not only not attractive, but harsh and almost repellent with her knowledge and speech, as well as her looks. Chaucer is giving us what he feels is the “real” or “common” representation of women, not the mythical. Of course, this is Chaucer’s point in the prologue—to show the “common” aspects of his society.

Religion, like the common woman, was also a huge factor in Chaucer’s society. Chaucer’s Pardoner’s bag is seen as jam-packed with indulgences (remission of punishment to repentant sinners) which he claimed as directly acquired from the Pope at Rome. Chaucer, never a fan of the Church, certainly had no problem bringing up indulgences here since he never supported the idea. He had in his possession several articles which he claimed to be very precious holy relics. Again, Chaucer himself always felt holy relics were questionable; and he was perhaps too smart to buy into either the concept of indulgences or relics. Carrying all these the pardoner never missed an opportunity to befool parsons and their flocks wherever he went. Within the precincts of a church, this character appeared to be a very noble pardoner as he knew how to read a passage from the Bible or the life story of a saint and when to sing an anthem preparatory to the ceremonial offering of the bread and the wine. Lack of virility, the effeminacy of mind, and above all, the inborn trait of deceiving others is indicated by his hair, which was as yellow as wax and as smooth as a coll of flax. His concern for clothes and his wish to be updated and perfect in the latest fashion confirms that. Again, we see a distinct reflection on the Catholic Church, whose wealthy cardinals conflicted harshly with the ideals of poverty preached by Jesus. We see that in the delineation of the pardoner, Chaucer shows little sympathy. This is a direct reflection on Chaucer’s own feelings about the Church.

Thus, through the presentation of “The Prologue,” readers are able to view a cast of interesting characters that help demonstrate Chaucer’s own reflections on the time period in which he lived. The two presented here stand out in stark contrast to what the actual expectation usually was as far as the common woman or the pardoner were concerned.

Generally, when we think of the medieval concept of woman, we think of either the beautiful noble lady or the submissive, virtuous wife—neither of which the Wife of Bath is a reflection of.

She is actually a representation of the truth—more women were probably like her than any of the female ideals of the time period. This is certainly also true of Chaucer’s pardoner; a man usually respected for being saintly; he is actually an individual interested in deception and money, using the Church as a cover. Thus, Chaucer uses his presentations to break about common stereotypes of his day.

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Nelson, Marie. Papers on Langiage and Literature. 2002. Web.

Dryden, John. The Columbia World of Quotations. Ed. Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, aMichael Seidel. Columbia University Press, 2006.

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