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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Does Chaucer's portrayal of characters in The Canterbury Tales reflect contemporary times?

Quick answer:

Chaucer's presentation of the characters in The Canterbury Tales feels true to contemporary times to a considerable extent. This is because he presents the medieval reader with recognizable types with which they would identify.

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In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer presents us with a cross section of medieval English society. Rich and poor, lowborn and aristocrat, he introduces us to people from all walks of life.

In doing so, he gives himself the maximum opportunity to say something about society. As much as anything, The Canterbury Tales is a work of social commentary that attempts to say a lot about fourteenth-century England. In particular, Chaucer is keen to highlight the rampant corruption of the church, a very powerful institution in those days.

That being the case, Chaucer has to ensure that his characters are as real as he can possibly make them. Only if he can do that will his readers and hearers—The Canterbury Tales would often be read aloud at gatherings—be able to identify with the characters in the poem and understand the wider points about medieval society that Chaucer is trying to make.

One of Chaucer's most unforgettable characters is the Monk. Far from being a studious inmate of a monastery, spending all day in prayer and peeling potatoes, he is something of a libertine, a gourmand, a connoisseur of every possible earthly pleasure.

Chaucer's readers will immediately identify the Monk as a recognizable character, of many members of the clergy engaged in behavior very far from being holy. They will most probably also recognize the Monk as a symbol for the corruption of the church, which critics have argued is too worldly, more concerned with its vast power and riches than with saving souls.

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