Why is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales so impactful?
Chaucer's tales are, of course, a collection of stories told by specific personalities. What is the appeal, the effect...the impact of these stories?
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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales appeals to a vast majority of people for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the one that stands out the most is its representation of a cross-section of medieval society—it is only on a pilgrimage that people from so many different backgrounds and social strata would intermingle. Chaucer uses the "frame" structure of this pilgrimage to set the stage for the telling of so many diverse tales. (He is also a character in this collection of tales.) Another kind of appeal comes for the way Chaucer tells his stories—as a student of human nature, he could easily see the personality traits that made the Knight or the Parson admirable characters; as opposed to the Pardoner, the Friar or the Monk, who are all disreputable. Chaucer does not lead his audience, but drops subtle hints to allow the reader to make clear evaluations of each.
The Knight is a character that Chaucer admires—the Knight has fought in the crusades and is well-respected. Chaucer writes (in "The Prologue")...
There was a Knight, a most distinguished man,
Who from the day on which he first began
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy... (43-46)
And though so much distinguished, he was wise
And in his bearing modest as a maid.
He was a true, a perfect gentle knight... (64-65, 68)
Just home from service, he had joined our ranks
To do his pilgrimage and render thanks. (73-74)
The Knight is easily a man worthy of admiration. Another is the Parson. Having taken an oath of poverty (being poor), he had no worldly possessions, but gave all he had (in word and deed) to the people he served. Chaucer admires the Parson. However, he does not feel the same way about all the members of the Church.
Compare the reactions above to Chaucer's description of the Pardoner, a clergyman who sells pardons (for their sins) to the poor who could not travel to the Holy Lands or Rome. Members of the clergy were to dress simply—any form of vanity was discouraged. The servants of the Church only to help serve the people. Note Chaucer's description just of the Pardoner's hair:
The Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,
Hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax.
In driblets fell his locks behind his head...
Thinly they fell like rat-tails, one by one... (662-664, 666)
Hair similar to the tails of rats sounds awful, but show vanity, too. He is also dishonest...
His wallet lay before him on his lap,
Brimful of pardons come from Rome all hot... (673-674)
"Hot" pardons are "stolen." The Pardoner is also a cheat:
...in his trunk he had a pillowcase
Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil.
He aid he had a gobbet of the sail
Saint Peter had the time when he made bold
To walk the waves, till Jesu Christ took hold...
The man pretends to have the Virgin Mary's veil, and part of the sail from the boat Peter traveled in with Jesus, when he walked on water.
Chaucer is honest about all of these people. The tales each person tells supports that character's personality—each with a moral. Chaucer is funny...and bawdy. Chaucer provides us with a "slice of life" from the Middle Ages, an amazing feat in itself. He also shows how some things never change, despite the distance in years. The tales are "timeless."
Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.
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