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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What kind of social criticism is shown in The Canterbury Tales?

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales offers gentle satire throughout. Irony exists between the various tale-tellers and the types of narratives they offer, often suggesting something amiss in their value. However, the most significant social satire occurs in the General Prologue itself, where the naive narrator provides descriptions of the pilgrims. This prologue offers one of the best examples of the medieval genre of the Estates Satire, whose function is to show the difference between a feudal ideal and the reality. The Estates Satire makes the assumption that society will be well ordered if everyone remains in his or her proper social place and fulfills the duties required by that role, yet Chaucer's General Prologue illustrates the difficulty of finding people who willingly remain where the social order has placed them.

The prologue divides pilgrims according to their place in society: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. One might imagine the Knight as a medieval ideal of an earnest Crusader, while his son the Squire falls short (fighting in less significant battles and largely to capture the attention of his beloved), and the Yeoman seems to be a mercenary. Similarly, in the religious group, the Nun is harmless in her dedication to social graces as well as God's grace, while the Monk is clearly out of place in a monastery, and the Friar is downright criminal in his negligence of religious values and support of the community. Among the working pilgrims, readers find a range of personalities from the slightly negligent to the criminally dangerous.

In each instance, the reader makes a judgment about the ways in which individuals fail to live up to society's expectations. In the tales, as well, Chaucer offers commentary about the ways in which society's expectations for individuals often fall short of justice. Most notably, the Wife of Bath's Prologue lays bare the injustice of marriage expectations (marrying Alison at twelve to an elderly husband and enforcing the medieval notions of the marriage debt, thereby conflating sex or arraignment and money), of clerical misogyny, and in the Wife's Tale, of the failure to redress the injustice perpetrated on women by men, specifically regarding the rapist knight.

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"The Wife of Bath's Tale" critiques the treatment of women in the Wife's society. Her tale opens with the rape of a woman. In exchange for his life, the guilty knight is sentenced to find out what women really want. This speaks to the reality of a communication gap between men and women. What the queen is really asking is that the knight put himself in a woman's shoes and show the empathy that his rape reveals he lacks. The answer—that women want power over their husbands—critiques a society that constantly emphasizes female submission and subordination. The Wife of Bath also criticizes her culture's misogyny, typified by many stories showing women as evil. For example, she states:

By God, if women had written stories,
As clerks have within their studies,
They would have written of men more wickedness
Than all the male sex could set right.

"The Wife of Bath's Tale" exposes the behavior of knights. Knights were expected to idealize and protect women. However, this tale shows a knight who, though at the top of the social order and expected to be chivalrous, rapes rather than protects a woman.

Furthermore, the tales frequently highlight the corruption of the church in Chaucer's day. Summoners, for example, are depicted as corrupt. Summoners wrote up writs that would bring (summon) people to court for possible excommunication, often with the hope that people would pay bribes to be spared. Chaucer's summoner is a hypocrite in that he commits the sins he is dragging other people to court for. In "The Friar's Tale," the Summoner works for the devil, not God.

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The most prominent social criticism in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is targeted at the church and its leaders.

In the Prologue, for instance, the Friar arranges marriages for women whom he has impregnated. The naive narrator presents this as if it is a good thing—the Friar takes care of his people. But of course, it's not a good thing. The reader understands this.

Religious figures are, for the most part, presented as corrupt, greedy, arrogant, and prideful. They are "confidence" or "con" men.

"The Pardoner's Tale," for another example, reveals how the Pardoner blatantly uses a story about greed to fulfill his own greed. The Pardoner is very upfront about the fact that he is just out to separate his listeners from their money.

When analyzing in search of social criticism, remember that Chaucer uses irony here. He uses the merry, naive narrator to present characters in what seems to be a positive light. The reader should understand, though, that some of the characters are not positive at all. The fact that the unreliable narrator is gullible and accepts people as they are doesn't mean the reader has to.

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