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Probably the most often mentioned part of society in the course of the Canterbury Tales is the Church, meaning the Roman Catholic Church of medieval Europe. The authority of the Church in secular affairs is questioned; the propriety of selling indulgences is decried; the propriety of the church court system is addressed.
Beyond references to the Church, Chaucer also challenges the expectations of chivalry in society such as the brotherhood of comrades in arms and the frequent violence that developed from supposedly chivalrous interactions.
The divisions between social classes in English society at that time also were examined and found problematic. Chaucer recognizes the deference given to the upper class knight but also equalizes all the pilgrims in the telling of their stories.
The responses above are a perfect representation of the main "aspect of society" that Chaucer ridicules, namely the Roman Catholic Church. Still, I am surprised no one mentioned anything about Chaucer's ridicule of the treatment of women, for Chaucer (kind of) gives us the precursor to feminism in "The Wife of Bath's Tale."
We learn a lot about the Wife of Bath both from "The Prologue" as well as "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Her name is Alice, and she has been widowed five times. Immediately, this shows her prowess over at least five male husbands (even if it is only prowess in regards to life vs. death). The Wife of Bath is also very rich because of her choices in husbands (one at a time). She is also an experienced traveler, even making a pilgrimage to the most holy of Christian sites: Jerusalem. The Wife of Bath is never afraid to mention her prowess, especially in how good she is at being a wife and a lover.
The Wife of Bath's main point (of feminism), as evidenced by her story, is that the woman should be the leader of the household in a marriage. The Wife of Bath turns the tables on society in her story by saying that the husband should be obedient to the wife, and not vice versa. Her story is about a woman who is only a deplorable character because her husband is disobedient. As soon as the husband becomes both obedient and submissive, the woman becomes a model wife.
In conclusion, even thought the strength of women was found absolutely nowhere in English society at the time, the Wife of Bath certainly conquers all within her story and truly triumphs over the weakness of men.
One notable aspect of society Chaucer ridicules is the idea of courtliness versus chivalry. Chivalrous knights deserve the utmost respect in Chaucer's world which is apparent in his description of the knight in the General Prologue. The knight appears more honorable with his chivalry and idealistic principles, as he fought for Christianity in the Crusades.
His son, on the other hand, enjoys courtliness with its popularity. While the king fights battles for Christianity, the son fights battles against other Christians with the motive of winning his lady's favor. The knight tries to be a role-model for his son hoping he will aquire a taste for military duty and chivalry just as King Theseus tries to guide Palamon and Arcite in The Knight's Tale.
Chaucer's disdain for the superficial is apparent in The Miller's Tale. The genre of this tale is a Fabliau, and within a Fabliau, what claims reverence risks ridicule. Each character makes his or her own claim to posterity whether it be beauty or wealth, but make no claims and show no evidence of virtue or honor. Therefore, each receives a humiliating fate.
Chaucer's decision to place of The Knight's Tale first in The Canterburry Tales shows just how strongly he favored chivalrous virtues versus courtly facades. And his choice to place The Miller's Tale directly after The Knight's Tale demonstrates a direct parallel between the knight and squire, father and son.
Although there is debate about whether Chaucer was critiquing the Church as a whole--and here, 'the Church' means the Holy Catholic Church, which was not only the main religious organization of the day but also the arbiter of morality and political power--or merely some of its officials, it is clear that religion and its peddlers were some of his favorite targets in his Canterbury Tales. His position as a diplomat and member of the royal court allowed Chaucer a close-up view of corruption in the Church, and this translated to some of the most memorable characters in The Canterbury Tales.
One of these characters is the Friar. The word 'friar' most likely comes from the Latin frater or the French frére, both which translate as 'brother.' Friars had to take a vow of poverty, abandoning all earthly possessions, and commit to a life of chastity and service. Chaucer's friar, however, advances himself through extortion and bribery, charging for his services those for whom he is to freely pray. He makes even more money for himself by selling penitence to the highest bidders. In addition, he uses this ill-gotten money to purchase pretty baubles, which he keeps in his pockets for the purpose of seducing young women.
The Summoner is another character Chaucer uses to critique the Church. A summoner was an officer of the ecclesiastical court, and his job was to 'summon' offenders to the court to hear their crimes and punishments pronounced. Like the friar, the summoner ignores the tenets of the church he claims to serve and takes bribes in exchange for leniency. He, too, is likely working to seduce young girls, and he is often drunk. Unlike the friar, the Summoner looks like the loathsome character he is" he is covered in open sores, his bushy eyebrows are so large they nearly hide his eyes, and he smells of the onions and garlic that comprise a staple of his diet.
Female representatives of the Church are not exempt from Chaucer's criticisms. Chaucer also introduces us to the Prioress. A prioress was the head of an order of nuns and generally rose through the ranks of nuns by embodying the tenets and values of that order to reach her position. Like monks, nuns were to live a life of poverty, chastity, and service. In Chaucer's prioress, however, we meet one who is draped in fine beads and clothes and travels with a small cadre of 'lesser' church servants who must serve her. In addition, Chaucer describes her as being a large woman, which alludes to her penchant for eating foods that those in poverty would not have access to. In each of these characters, we see a portrait of the Church that is definitely out of sync with the message it trumpets.
But the Church was not Chaucer's only target. In 'The Miller's Tale' and that of the Wife of Bath, we can see Chaucer challenging medieval stereotypes of women since both Alison and the Wife are portrayed as lusty, sexual beings who are also smart enough to manipulate the weak men around them. In this same way, he critiques current notions of courtly love and romance. Chaucer also challenges societal and religious notions that women are property to be mastered and owned when through the Knight, we learn that women who are free to choose their husbands make the best and longest-lasting spouses.
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