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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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How does Chaucer find humor in the difference between the ideal and the real in the characters that populate The Canterbury Tales?

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The Canterbury Tales, most likely composed between 1387–1400 CE, are centered on the journey of 31 pilgrims (including the poet) to visit Canterbury Cathedral to pay homage Thomas a Becket, the archbishop murdered by Henry II. Each pilgrim represents a different occupation, rank, and personality type—in the aggregate, Chaucer...

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The Canterbury Tales, most likely composed between 1387–1400 CE, are centered on the journey of 31 pilgrims (including the poet) to visit Canterbury Cathedral to pay homage Thomas a Becket, the archbishop murdered by Henry II. Each pilgrim represents a different occupation, rank, and personality type—in the aggregate, Chaucer presents us with a picture and analysis of English society in the Middle Ages, and his method, as the question implies, is to use both biting and gentle humor to point out the sometimes wide gap between what a pilgrim should be, given his or her occupation or rank, and what he or she actually is.

One of Chaucer's gently satiric portraits in the Prologue is of the Prioress Madame Eglantine , a rank just below that of Abbess in a convent, who is introduced as

There was also a Nun, a Prioresse,/Her way of smiling very simple and coy,/Her greatest oath was only "By St. Loy!" (ll. 122-24)

Chaucer's choice of Madame Eglantine's oath to St. Loy is not random. St. Loy, the English rendering of St. Eligius, is a Bishop of Noyon who was known for having been the goldsmith for several of the Merovingian kings in France and was a courtier with particularly fine manners and clothes. Only later in life did he become concerned with the poor. Madame Eglantine's choice of patron saint is consistent with her behavior, described as "a courtly kind of grace,/a stately bearing fitting to her place" (ll. 144-45). Later, we learn that she has a brooch, which is inscribed with the phrase "Amor vincit omnia," or love defeats all—a concept common in the doctrine of courtly love, not in the Church that the Prioress represents.

The gap between the ideal and the real is much wider when Chaucer exercises his humor on the Monk, who should be quietly contemplating salvation in a monastery or ministering to the sick in his parish, but instead is

... a good man to horse;/Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds, to course [to hunt with him]. (ll. 193-94)

Chaucer describes a monk who has the trappings and behavior of a wealthy landowner—a horse, greyhounds to hunt with—that are antithetical to his position in the Church, which calls for good works rather than good hunting.

The Monk not only engages in unseemly behavior, but he also wears clothes to which he is not entitled as part of the religious establishment, going so far as to close his hood with a "wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin;/Into a lover's knot it seemed to pass" (ll. 200-01), an ornament that would be strictly forbidden by his order and made worse by its "lover's knot." Another telling sign that the Monk has abandoned his calling is in Chaucer's description of his head, which "was bald and shone like a looking- glass" (l. 203), another violation of his order which would have required a tonsure.

With few exceptions among the pilgrims—the Knight, the Clerk of Oxford, the Knight's Squire (son), the Franklin—Chaucer finds significant gaps between the ideal and real in the personalities of the pilgrims, gaps that he explores with both gentle humor and biting satire, and in this, Chaucer's portraits create a montage of England in the Middle Ages.

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The characters who journey together to Canterbury are an irreverent bunch, despite many of them being in religious orders.

Like all good humorists, Chaucer uses hyperbole or exaggeration to make us laugh. His evil clergy are not simply a little bit evil: they can be jaw-droppingly bad. One example is the Pardoner. This man has no shame whatsoever in his unrepentant bid to rake in as much money as he possibly can selling indulgences (pardons for sins) and pocketing as much of the money he can rather than giving it to the church. He openly tells of how he has weighted a brass cross with stones so he can pass it off as made of gold and says that his supposed saints' relics are merely pig bones. He even tries to sell indulgences to his fellow travelers, breaking the rules of the journey. There seems to be no depth too low for him to sink, and we laugh both at his audacity and at the slippage between what he is supposed to represent (a holy church) and his greedy, lying, cheating, low-life behavior.

Likewise, there is a certain ideal of a wife (as loving, submissive, and obedient) that the Wife of Bath not only violates but violates to such a degree that we again can't help laughing. She openly expresses that she married older men for money, not love, and quickly got control of the relationships during her first four marriages. Rather than being submissive and kind, she is feisty, manipulative, and difficult, psychologically tormenting her husbands into doing her bidding until she gets her comeuppance with the fifth and final one.

Such characters are so outrageously over-the-top that we can't help but laugh.

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Chaucer juxtaposes the idealized public masks and true inner identities of these characters to a humorous effect. Generally, the more "noble" a pilgrim is, the more corrupt they are, though this is not always so.

For example, the Pardoner is an employee of the Church, selling indulgences to people so their sins can be forgiven and their time in purgatory allegedly lessened. However, he is a shady figure, pocketing the donations he receives which are supposed to go to the Church and making money by presenting peasants with fake relics. His behavior hints that he may also be homosexual, which the Church views as sinful, so it is clear that the Pardoner is not devout.

The Friar is supposed to live as a beggar and serve the poor. However, he is presented as lecherous, often having to find a way to marry off the young girls he seduces and impregnates. Even though he is supposed to gather alms for the poor, he is a man who prefers to take bribes.

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All of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales have a public identity that defines them in the eyes of society. The Knight, for example, is a brave, noble warrior; the Prioress, head of a religious order of nuns; and so on. But as part of his satirical portrait of medieval society, Chaucer shows us a different side to these pilgrims, revealing the real personalities beneath their public identities. Therein lies much of the poem's humor.

The Prioress, for example, is supposed to be religiously devout; a meek, mild woman who'd cry over a mouse caught in a mousetrap. Yet her whole demeanor would suggest otherwise. Far from being a self-denying ascetic, this is a woman who clearly enjoys her food. And that's not all she enjoys, either; she loves to wear expensive clothes and jewelry, showing off her wealth and high social status to all and sundry.

Then there's the Monk. When we hear the word "monk," we tend to think of a devout man of God, living a quiet life of prayer and contemplation in a cloistered environment. But not this monk. For Chaucer's monk would much rather be out hunting and riding than being cooped-up in a monastery all day, praying, studying, and peeling potatoes. The rules of his monastery clearly state that monks are not allowed to stray outside the confines of the institution. But Chaucer's monk is an inveterate rule-breaker; he lives his life the way he wants and to hell with the consequences.

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