As you read Canterbury Tales, keep the following information in mind:
Historical Circumstances: In the fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing, England was a wild place. War, plague, church scandal, and political controversy were all raging, and the author of the Canterbury Tales was in the middle of all of it.
The Hundred Years’ War with France (actually a series of battles, not a continuous war) was in progress; Chaucer himself actually went to France as part of this war, and was personally ransomed by King Edward III.
During the same time period, the Black Death, or bubonic plague, was devastating Europe. The chaos of the plague led to some dishonest behavior (notice how the Physician in the Tales made all his money), but, more importantly, it permanently altered the order of European society. Whereas medieval society had generally been divided into three estates, or classes (clergy, aristocrat, and commoner), the plague helped form a new category: the middle class. So many workers died that there was a labor shortage; survivors, newly in demand, could lobby for higher wages and better working conditions. Eventually, their improvement in lifestyle became permanent.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 took place in response to a harsh tax on these laborers; Chaucer mentions one of the leaders of the Revolt, Jack Straw, in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. As you read, notice how Chaucer both adheres to the idea of the three estates and departs from it. Which characters are easy to classify, and which seem to belong to more than one class?
The Catholic Church, by far the most important institution in Europe, was also experiencing internal strife. In 1378, a controversy over the papal election resulted in the naming of three popes, all of whom claimed legitimacy. Within England, the theologian John Wycliffe was attacking the doctrine that priests must act as interpreters of God’s word, and asserting that each ordinary churchgoer had the power to understand God for himself. Wycliffe’s followers, called Lollards, were attacked as heretics by the king, and several were beheaded. Can you find any hint of this religious violence in the Canterbury Tales?
Structure of the Church: The medieval church divided the clergy into two categories: regular and secular. The regular clergy were those men, like monks and friars, who belonged to a religious order; they took vows of celibacy and poverty. Monks were supposed to live lives of quiet reflection, prayer and solitude, while friars were supposed to go out into their communities and tend to the people there. Friars were mendicant, which means that they owned no property and supported themselves on whatever money they were given by community members.
The secular clergy were men like the Parson in the Tales; they were local priests and church officials who did not belong to any particular order.
In addition to these legitimate church employees, a number of other, less savory characters attached themselves to the Church to make money. Among these were pardoners—men who would dispense “pardon” from sin for a fee. The Summoner in the Tales is a man who calls people to ecclesiastical (church) court; we see that, for the right price, he will let the summons drop.
Finally, women had positions in the Church that mirrored those of some of the men; nuns, for instance, were the female equivalent of monks. However, unlike the monks, the nuns were not considered ordained clergy. The Prioress is an example of a high-ranking nun. How much does she have in common with the Monk and the Friar?
Economy: During the fourteenth century, Europe was gradually moving from an economy based on feudalism to a more open, money-based system. Under feudalism, society had been organized into different levels of lord and servant; at the bottom were the serfs, who owned no property and had no rights as citizens, and at the very top was the supreme lord, the king. This system dated from a time when Europe was primarily agricultural, and had relied on the trading of needed services—a serf, for example, would supply farm labor to his lord in return for housing and protection. Society was now becoming more urbanized, though, and its new economy was based on money and goods. The Knight, Squire, Yeoman, and Franklin, as well as the Reeve, are remnants of the old feudal system, while the Merchant, Five Guildsmen, and even the Wife of Bath reflect the emergence of the new system.
Of course, the transformation in Europe’s economy was not as simple as an overnight conversion from feudalism to a money system, but knowing that some of these changes were taking place, you can look for them in the Canterbury Tales.
Voice: Part of what makes the Canterbury Tales so complex is its multilayered structure. The narrator—who is not the same as Chaucer, the author—is retelling each pilgrim’s story in that pilgrim’s voice. Try to figure out who is really speaking: the author, the narrator, or the character. Is there ever a time when the character seems sincere, but the narrator or Chaucer is being ironic?
Language: You may be surprised at some of the words and images that Chaucer considered acceptable for literature. In fact, he himself, in the prologue to the Miller’s Tale, apologizes for the obscenity he is “forced” to repeat. Why do you think he includes these kinds of stories?
Common Types of Story: Chaucer did not invent any of the stories he tells; he took the basic form of each from other sources. The Knight’s Tale, for instance, is a typical story of courtly love—a romance in which a knight or gentleman goes to great lengths for a beautiful, seemingly unreachable woman. Tales that deliver a religious message or moral are based upon well-known fables and legends. What Chaucer does so creatively is to make these common stories say something about their teller. While we are reading about what happens in each tale, we are also sitting with the other pilgrims, watching the teller of the story and wondering about his or her own life.
also called the Black Death; wiped out a third of Europe in the fourteenth century. Resulted in a labor shortage, since most of the good workers were killed; surviving laborers could demand more money for their services and more freedom
the three main divisions of medieval society: clergy, aristocrats, and commoners. In the Canterbury Tales, the knight is supposed to be the ideal representation of the aristocratic class, while the parson and plowman are the ideal models of the clergy and laboring classes. Of course, as the Wife of Bath shows us, a person could be born in a somewhat low class and gain both wealth and prestige; the opposite might also occur.
the center of life in medieval Europe. Churches other than the Catholic were not in existence until after 1519, when Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation—although some groups of people within the Church did rebel against what they thought were its sinful tendencies. Chaucer himself obviously has some problems with certain trends in the Church, like the selling of indulgences (practiced by the Pardoner) and the “buying off” of Church officials (like the Summoner).
divided into regular and secular; regular clergy included monks and friars, while the secular clergy included local officials like the parson.
trade organizations for artisans and craftsmen. Like today’s unions, the guilds provided economic and political power for their members; they also purchased public works and entertainment.