The Canterbury Tales Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Unlike many medieval writers whose backgrounds were religious, Chaucer was a man of the world: a courtier, diplomat, and customs official. Yet his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, containing many worldly elements, is a literary version of a major Christian endeavor, the pilgrimage to a holy place. A pilgrimage could of course attract worldly people, and such types are certainly found among Chaucer’s pilgrims, but all medieval people recognized it as a holy exercise. Three of the tales are plainly religious: the Prioress’s concerns a miracle of the Virgin Mary, the Second Nun’s is a biography of Saint Cecilia (a form that in Chaucer’s time was commonly called a “legend”), and the Parson’s is a sermon, or perhaps more properly a theological tract. The prominence given to the last of these works in itself supports Chaucer’s insistence on the reigning importance of Christian doctrine.

In a number of respects, the medieval Christian perspective permeates other tales. Several are influenced by the De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) of Boethius, who lived in the early sixth century, wrote Christian theological tracts, and was honored at least in Italy as Saint Severinus. The Boethian concept most attractive to Chaucer, gentilesse, is not precisely a Christian term but signifies virtuous nobility. Because “The Franklin’s Tale,” the most positive of Chaucer’s tales on marriage, has an ancient Breton setting rather than a Christian one, the stress is not on the sacramental nature of marriage, but rather the virtue that makes Arveragus and Dorigen everlastingly true.

In the late fourteenth century, a moral decline in the habits of the religious and the deterioration of religious exercises was causing great concern. The Friar’s casual attitude toward confession, the corruption in the granting of papal pardons by the Pardoner, and the worldly interests of the Prioress signal Chaucer’s awareness of these shortcomings and highlights dramatically their threats to authentic Christian life. It has even been suggested by some Chaucerians that Chaucer was motivated by the principles of the Lollards, a sect of religious reformers in England in his time. Whatever the value of this interpretation, Chaucer’s Parson is an obviously important moral counterweight to this deterioration of religious life. “The Parson’s Tale” is an elaborate and authentic statement of the nature of sin and the importance of penitence.

Confession being an obligation of medieval Christian life, it is interesting how often Chaucer’s pilgrims misunderstand and misapply it. The Miller confesses that he is drunk when he is asked for a tale, the Wife of Bath’s prologue is, despite its defiance of the standards of Christian marriage, a confession of her marital failings. The Pardoner candidly acknowledges his avarice. None of them shows any sign of the contrition for their sins that the Parson insists must precede confession, and none expresses a resolution of dealing with their transgressions as an aftermath to confession. They do not turn their hearts to God, as the Parson insists is necessary. Confession, he tells them, must be to a priest in good standing with the church, and it must be discreet. By implication, the false confessions that some pilgrims have been making reflect vainglory, not any attempt to heal their souls.

The Canterbury Tales Themes

Christianity
When The Canterbury Tales were written Christianity was the dominant social force throughout...

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