Last Updated November 9, 2022.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer presents a collection of stories similar to other medieval anthologies like Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Like many such collections, Chaucer’s work presents a frame story that ties the tales together. In this case, a group of pilgrims are riding to Canterbury and decide to have a story contest to pass the time. There is some irony in this, for pilgrims ought, perhaps, to be engaged in preparing their hearts, minds, and souls for a holy encounter, but these pilgrims are mostly more interested in entertainment. Only the Parson refuses to narrate a fictional tale, considering such things wicked and deceptive. Everyone else seems quite enthused by the activity.
The stories in this collection vary widely. On one end of the spectrum are religious narratives like the Prioress’s miracle story of the young martyr and the Second Nun’s legend of Saint Cecilie. The Man of Law’s tale also presents a Christian perspective in the sufferings and perseverance of Lady Custance, and the Clerk’s tale is meant to be a moral allegory for a soul’s submission to God. The Knight chooses a tale of chivalry with a tournament to win a beautiful lady, and the Wife of Bath selects an Arthurian story. The Franklin’s story represents the Breton lay, a famous type of medieval romance. On the other end of the spectrum are the bawdy stories of the Miller and the Reeve and the tales of the Friar and Summoner that are meant to insult each other. Still other tale-tellers choose beast fables and folktales. The collection even contains two theological or philosophical treatises. Chaucer seems to be trying to include something for everyone, but he is also offering a full cross-section of medieval life and medieval preferences for storytelling.
The setting of a pilgrimage offers plenty of room for reflection. Medieval people made pilgrimages in order to make satisfaction for their sins, grow closer to God, and pray for particular intentions. Pilgrimage destinations were often churches that held relics of Jesus, Mary, or the saints or other holy sites like Rome or Jerusalem. In this case, the pilgrims are heading to Canterbury, where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas resisted the interference of Henry II in church affairs, and he was killed by some of Henry’s knights, who thought they were acting on the king’s desires. Chaucer’s pilgrims, like many others, may be traveling to Canterbury to pray for Saint Thomas’s intercession, for they believe that saints pray to God for them and for their intentions.
These pilgrims reflect the broad spectrum of medieval social classes. Medieval society generally recognized three estates. The first estate was the church, especially the clergy, which is represented by the Pardoner, the Friar, and the Parson as well as, indirectly, by the Summoner, the Monk, and the Prioress. The second estate is the nobility, shown here in the Knight, the Squire, and the Franklin. The third estate refers to the rest of society, and it includes everyone from the Merchant to the Wife of Bath to the Miller and the Plowman. The third estate shows the widest span in its social spectrum, for some members are quite well off while others are artisans and peasants. Yet they all come together in one pilgrimage, and in this gathering, Chaucer focuses on what draws people together, namely, religious beliefs and practices (even with varying levels of sincerity) and the desire for companionship symbolized by storytelling and shared culture.
Yet Chaucer employs heavy satire and irony as he describes his pilgrims and tells their...
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stories. Satire is the exposition of the faults and corruption of society, institutions, and individuals through exaggeration, humor, irony, and other literary techniques. Chaucer spares none of the three estates, but he is especially hard on the first estate. These church people are supposed to be society’s leaders, drawing people to God and to virtue. Chaucer satirically reveals their failings in characters like the Pardoner and the Friar. These men are corrupt. They care little for the souls entrusted to them and are almost completely focused on their own pleasure and gain. Ironically, these spiritual leaders are leading the people into corruption and wretchedness.
Chaucer’s satire extends to the second and third estates as well. While the Knight comes off as a virtuous man, his son the Squire is rather frivolous with his sleepless love and foppish dress and behavior. The narrator does mention his humility, but Chaucer also satirizes the chivalric life through this young man. The Franklin, a member of the lesser nobility, is described as an Epicurean focused more on fine dining, pleasure, and honor than anything else. He likes holding office, but there is no evidence that he has done any good for the people he represents. As for Chaucer’s representation of the third estate, many of them are crude people, like the Miller and the Cook, who get drunk and cause a ruckus. Others are rather dishonest in their professions, like the Manciple. Still others, like the Wife, do well for themselves but come across as silly due to exaggeration on Chaucer’s part as he shows how ludicrous human beings of all classes can be.
The Canterbury Tales, with all its satire, is largely composed in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter refers to poetic lines that are five poetic feet in length and present a pattern of unstressed-stressed syllables. The poem’s second line, for instance, scans as follows (with stressed syllables in bold): “The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” Notice how “roote” rhymes with the “soote” of the first line. Chaucer does sometimes vary his meter by adding extra syllables or switching out his stress patterns as most poets do to keep their lines fresh, yet most of the tales follow the iambic pentameter pattern quite closely. The exceptions to this are the “failed” story of Sir Thopas, in which Chaucer pokes fun at himself and at poets who create sing-song rhymes and rather goofy stories, and the two prose treatises.
Of course, The Canterbury Tales are incomplete. At the beginning of the frame story, the group agrees that each pilgrim should tell two tales, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back. The tales included in the collection are all from the journey toward Canterbury, and not every member of the company narrates a story. Scholars have speculated much about why Chaucer did not finish the tales. Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed by the task and by his duties as a civil servant, but the “retraction” at the end of the work offers another clue. In it, Chaucer presents something of an apology for many of his writings, particularly those that are worldly, vain, and even sinful. He asks God for mercy and forgiveness and promotes other works that are focused on morality and devotion. Perhaps Chaucer simply had a change of heart and a change of focus that led him to abandon The Canterbury Tales.