The Canterbury Tales is an unfinished work by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the late 14th century, in Middle English. The work is a collection of prose and poetic novellas, united by one common frame: the stories are told by pilgrims heading to worship the relics of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. The storytellers represent different social strata and different professions: there is a merchant, a priest, a sailor, a weaver, and many others. The work that is so saturated with characters from the different strata of society could not miss acute social topics. One of the main of them touched upon by the author is church corruption and claims among the nobility. These themes, along with the most ordinary human stupidity, are ridiculed both by the author and by the characters themselves.
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The problem of social inequality manifests itself literally from the first stories of the author. The Canterbury Tales opens with the story of a knight, who tells its own story in the style of a knightly romance. Following him, the miller tells a story with a similar plot, but in a simpler folk language (Chaucer, 2012). The author introduces low-class characters as hungry for booze, which is why some of them are unable to finish their stories, or interrupt the order of the queue. The representatives of the higher strata of English society are also not without human flaws: for example, the friar and the bailiff of the church court try to ridicule each other with obscene stories. Another prime example is also Pardoner who sells fake relics.
However, it is necessary to pay tribute to the author – all the heroes of the work are really extremely different and contrasting. Each tells his story in his own language and about what is really important to them: the knight – about adventures, the priest – about repentance, the seller of indulgences – about greed. The lower strata of society talk about gossip, about the personal lives of other more famous people, sometimes going so far that their story is interrupted (Chaucer, 2012). Chaucer presents humor in a gentle way: he puts direct irony in the speech of very few characters. Most often, it sounds from the lips of Harry Bailey, the owner of the hotel.
Satire in Tales
Not only does the author ridicule some of the qualities of his characters, but the characters themselves tell their stories with irony and satire. The story of Sir Topas is a parody of chivalric romances, but in the story itself, the foreground is not brave knights, but elves and giants (Cooper, 2017). The prologue, story and epilogue of the monastery chaplain are written in the style of a fable and a heroic poem (Olson, 2017). The miller makes fun of the knight’s story, leaving the skeleton of the plot, changing the characters and the very action of the story in his own way. If the knight tells about deadly battles with sword and spear, then the miller describes the battle as a comedy, noting all human shortcomings.
The representatives of the lower classes are filled with much more irony, since most of their stories are inspired by rumors, in which they, without fear of harming their reputation, cross all possible boundaries. Many of them never give up drinking, which makes the various remarks in their stories more poignant. In contrast, the tact and education of the upper classes is reflected in their narrative language. However, despite the high syllable, some storytellers also do not skimp on obscene expressions, trying to annoy other characters with their stories. An extremely vivid example is the skipper’s story, which tells about the love triangle and the promissory notes between its participants.
The corruption of the Catholic Church was a serious problem during Chaucer’s time and a major theme in The Canterbury Tales. Through the use of satire, he reveals this problem to an audience. The author sometimes deliberately exaggerates the shortcomings of religious leaders. The only moral religious figure, a pastor whose pure lifestyle is meant to exemplify the falsified lifestyle of other members of the clergy.
It is worth noting that in addition to stories filled with satire, there are many stories in the work with more serious morality. A nun tells an anti-Semitic story about the murder of a martyr boy by Jews. A similar motive has a doctor’s story about an unwanted marriage and the father’s murder of his daughter. The author of The Canterbury Tales created a truly impressive work in which stories that are so different, even in literary genres, coexist. No wonder this work is included in the list of the most significant works of world literature.
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In this work, Chaucer exposes such vices of contemporary England as extortion, greed and idleness. These vices are most inherent in people in power – the English nobility. Thriving upper-class corruption led to Wat Tyler’s bloody peasant uprising in 1381. There is an opinion that Chaucer expressed his attitude to this uprising and to all classes of English society with the Canterbury Tales (Agbabi, 2018). This unusual style of storytelling finds a response from researchers to this day, attempts are being made to even rewrite the Canterbury stories in a modern way.
Chaucer is considered one of the founders of classical English literature. He was one of the first to present the institution of chivalry not as an ideal of loyalty and honor, but as an object of irony and satire. Representatives of church culture, who undoubtedly had a great influence in England in the 13-14 centuries, are also revealed by the author from a new, unexpected, far from ideal side. And only ordinary people, represented by the lower classes, remain honest with the reader – they are not bound by the codes of the knight’s honor and the morality of the Bible, and they never hide it.
Chaucer grasped this fine line of irony in the social regime: the upper strata of society promote honor and loyalty, but they themselves do not adhere to them. In opposition to the English nobility the lower strata are the voice of unadorned truth. Moreover, in those days, palaces and churches were built to glorify the triumph of God and human. However, at the same time, the same human was at the center of ruthless political decisions. A person was a victim of trade, disease, and poverty. In such a paradoxical world, Chaucer became a comedy writer. The author’s humor was revolutionary for the troubled times of 14th century London. Despite the personal tragic fate of the author, Chaucer’s work is discussed by scientists and literary scholars today. His personality and works have had a huge impact on the culture of England.
Agbabi, P. (2018). Stories in Stanza’d English: A cross‐cultural Canterbury Tales. Literature Compass, 15(6), 1-8.
Chaucer, G. (2012). The Canterbury Tales. Broadview Press.
Cooper, H. (2017). Sources and analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Reviewing the work. Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 19(1), 183-210.
Olson, P. A. (2017). The Canterbury Tales and the good society. Princeton University Press.