illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

Start Free Trial

What does the prologue to The Canterbury Tales reveal about medeival society?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the prologue, the narrator describes the group of pilgrims who are journeying to Canterbury for a religious pilgrimage. One thing the reader learns about the late 14th century society is that there is a great deal of anticlerical sentiment, meaning that many people felt that the church was corrupt. For example, the Friar is willing to accept a nice bit of change in exchange for giving people penance. At this time, many people felt that the church should not be giving penance or forgiveness to people in return for money. The Pardoner makes money by selling fake reliquaries or remnants of saints, such as a pillow case he claims was Mary's veil.

In addition, the reader learns that people in Chaucer's time were characterized by their professions, and it was widely believed that the followers of each profession had certain stock qualities. For example, the lawyer is eager to collect large fees and purchases many robes, as he is learned but also hungry for money. The sailor, with his sun-darkened face, swipes wine from tradesmen while they sleep and possesses no guilt about doing so. It was also believed at the time that physical characteristics influenced a person's character. For example, the Wife of Bath, who has had many husbands, is gap-toothed, which was supposedly a sign that she was quite lusty. From her description, it is obvious that some women held a great deal of power in society. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Since the Canterbury Tales prologue presents a cross-section of medieval society, we can learn much about the daily lives of the people, the various classes, and social issues.

We learn, first of all, about the three divisions of medieval society--fuedal, town, and church--and the characters associated with each.  We learn about the ways various characters dress--the short tunic of the young squire, which attracts the ladies; the fur-lined coat of the monk, which indicates his wealth and his secular hobby hunting; the red stockings of the Wife of Bath, revealing her wealth (Dye was expensive).  We learn also that overweight bodies (such as the Nun's and the Monk's) were a sign of wealth and privilege.

We learn more about various occupations. The Pardoner, for instance,  sold fake relics to those searching for a place in heaven. The Summoner's job was to bring sinners to answer to the Church. The Guildsmen, had suddenly become rich through a sudden demand for their skills, as a result of the plague wiping out one-fourth of population.  Physicians  profited from the plague as well as from kickbacks from apothecaries.

We learn that medieval society was plagued by hypocritical church officials (for example, the Monk, Friar, Pardoner) who enriched themselves by preying on the poor and vulnerable. We learn that not all who worked for the church were truly pious, and that many were quite corrupt and heedless of their vows of poverty, chastity, and devotion. But we learn that those outside the church could also be corrupt.   A street-smart Manciple could outsmart book-learned lawyers. A Miller can easily increase his profit by putting a heavy thumb on the scale. A Merchant could dress in finery but actually be in debt up to his eyeballs.  An unsavory Skipper might execute his prisoners.  An otherwise skillful Cook might have an oozing sore.

But then we learn also that virtue could be found in Medieval society.  Some scholars, such as the Oxford Cleric, loved to learn and teach; some preachers led by example, such as the Parson; decent farmers, such as the Plowman, might lead humble and compassionate lives; hospitable Franklins might offer guests fine food and drink.

In short, we learn much about medieval society and much about our own.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One place to start for your essay concerning what is revealed about medieval society in "The Prologue" to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is with the orders and ranks of two segments of society:  the secular and the Church.  The secular ranks include the nobility, the professional, and the craftsmen/peasants.  The Church consists of the friar, the pardoner, nuns, etc.  As you reread and research the material, make notes on which segment of society each character belongs to.  This is a starting place to gain an understanding of what Chaucer reveals about the society he lives in.

For more information, I suggest asking your question as a discussion question in a group.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team