The Canterbury Tales Themes
The main themes in The Canterbury Tales include Christianity, deception, and spring.
- Christianity: Although The Canterbury Tales contain a variety of religious topics, the more religious stories implies Chaucer’s respect for Christian doctrine. However, Chaucer’s caricature of some members of the clergy alludes to the corruption of the Church during his time.
- Deception: Deception runs through many of the tales and is used for both good and evil purposes. Concern for one’s reputation also motivates many of the characters in the tales.
- Spring: Spring, with its rich symbolism of renewal, hope, and fertility, underlies many of the stories' themes.
Last Updated on April 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
When The Canterbury Tales were written Christianity was the dominant social force throughout western Europe, including England. Its influence stretched across the social spectrum from nobles to poor beggars. In 1388, while Chaucer was working on the tales, a change occurred in the way that Christianity was perceived and practiced when John Wycliffe, an English reformer, released a version of the Bible translated into English. For the first time, people from the lower classes, who had not been educated in Latin, could read the Bible themselves instead of having its word interpreted to them by members of the clergy.
The influence of Christianity can be seen in The Canterbury Tales by the variety of social types presented. Fourteenth century Christian society had room for different ways of incorporating faith into lifestyle. The Knight, for instance, espouses romantic love and brotherliness, and the Franklin tells a tale that ends with mercy and forgiveness for all. The Prioress, on the other hand, tells a story that propagates hatred toward non-Christians, making them out to be evil and relishing their punishment. The Wife of Bath proves to be very familiar with Biblical Scripture, finding her own sexuality to be acceptable, if not ideal, by Biblical standards. The Pardoner is the most cynical Christian, condemning the very behaviors that he indulges in and trying to sell salvation by way of the counterfeit icons and the signed certificates from the pope he carries with him. It was in fact the sort of fraud perpetuated by people like the Pardoner, as well as actions by angry reformers like Wycliffe to make religion accessible to the common people, that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that weakened the Catholic Church’s powerful hold over Western thought.
Many of the stories in this book deal with deception—the potential to mislead people with words and the consequences that result. In some cases, decent people are compelled to employ deception, such as when Arcite from “The Knight’s Tale” disguises himself to enter the court of Emily, whom he loves, or when Aurelius from “The Franklin’s Tale” is driven by love to trick Dorigene so that she will leave her husband for him. Other characters are deceptive for purely greedy reasons, such as the fox who charms Chaunticleer twice (once successfully, once not) in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” and the three thieves who plot to kill each other to increase their share of the found gold in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Still, other characters in the tales deceive people for the noble cause of teaching them a lesson about how to behave. For instance, the “old woman” in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” only pretends to be old and ugly until the knight in that story proves that he has thought about how women should be treated and that he has learned to respect more than superficial beauty.
There is excitement in the air as this band of pilgrims travels toward the religious shrine at Canterbury, where they all hope to gain God’s grace. Their trip begins in April, and the very first lines of the book emphasize the significance of that time of year: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote.” In other words, the poem begins by evoking the process of rainwater reaching dormant roots, revitalizing them. It is the period of revitalization that happens over and over in the earth’s cycle each spring. It is a time of renewal, of life, of the glories of nature shaking off the mundane. It is a time of beginnings and a time of hope.
In addition to this beginning of the General Prologue, there are several additional places where the time of year is mentioned, referring back to springtime in several of the tales. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” the young wife who misses her husband while he is away is approached by a handsome, muscular, wealthy stranger while she is at a dance on the sixth of May, adding even more temptation to that presented by his charms. Spring is the time of fertility for plants, which has evolved over time to it being associated with romantic love. The text is also very specific in stating that it was the third of May when Chaunticleer forgot his foreboding dream and allowed himself to be tricked by the fox who asked him to sing. The implication is that the beauty of the season may have pushed the premonition of death from Chaunticleer’s mind, driving his concentration toward more uplifting things (such as the sound of his own singing) and away from life’s more frightening prospects.
The characters in the tales told by the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury show more concern about their social reputations than the pilgrims themselves show. In part, this is due to the instructive nature of tales in general: many of these tales are told to teach a “moral” to their listeners, and so they often include advice about personal behavior, with an emphasis on observable behaviors. The most obvious example of one of these pilgrims preaching the need for a good reputation is the Pardoner, who claims that he cannot start his story until he has taken a drink and then immediately starts by warning his listeners against drinking with several stories from the Bible to illustrate his point that “The Holy Writ take I to my witness / That luxurie (lechery) is in wyn and drunkenness.” The Knight, on the other hand, seems to live by the same code of nobility that the knights in his story live by, while the Nun’s Priest, a meek man who almost escapes notice, tells the story of the danger that pride and bragging bring to the rooster Chaunticleer. Perhaps the most powerful story about keeping a good reputation is the Franklin’s. In it, Dorigene is so torn by the prospect of having to cheat on her husband to stay true to her promise that she considers suicide as a way of avoiding either prospect, while her husband, who is just as concerned about her reputation, would rather have her sleep with another man than break her word. The story rewards them both by having Aurelius forgive the wife her promise because he is so moved by the honor they both show, and it rewards Aurelius by having the magician forgive his huge debt because he has shown himself noble enough to recognize the nobility of the couple.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547
Unlike many medieval writers whose backgrounds were religious, Chaucer was a man of the world: a courtier, diplomat, and customs official. Yet his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, containing many worldly elements, is a literary version of a major Christian endeavor, the pilgrimage to a holy place. A pilgrimage could of course attract worldly people, and such types are certainly found among Chaucer’s pilgrims, but all medieval people recognized it as a holy exercise. Three of the tales are plainly religious: the Prioress’s concerns a miracle of the Virgin Mary, the Second Nun’s is a biography of Saint Cecilia (a form that in Chaucer’s time was commonly called a “legend”), and the Parson’s is a sermon, or perhaps more properly a theological tract. The prominence given to the last of these works in itself supports Chaucer’s insistence on the reigning importance of Christian doctrine.
In a number of respects, the medieval Christian perspective permeates other tales. Several are influenced by the De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) of Boethius, who lived in the early sixth century, wrote Christian theological tracts, and was honored at least in Italy as Saint Severinus. The Boethian concept most attractive to Chaucer, gentilesse, is not precisely a Christian term but signifies virtuous nobility. Because “The Franklin’s Tale,” the most positive of Chaucer’s tales on marriage, has an ancient Breton setting rather than a Christian one, the stress is not on the sacramental nature of marriage, but rather the virtue that makes Arveragus and Dorigen everlastingly true.
In the late fourteenth century, a moral decline in the habits of the religious and the deterioration of religious exercises was causing great concern. The Friar’s casual attitude toward confession, the corruption in the granting of papal pardons by the Pardoner, and the worldly interests of the Prioress signal Chaucer’s awareness of these shortcomings and highlights dramatically their threats to authentic Christian life. It has even been suggested by some Chaucerians that Chaucer was motivated by the principles of the Lollards, a sect of religious reformers in England in his time. Whatever the value of this interpretation, Chaucer’s Parson is an obviously important moral counterweight to this deterioration of religious life. “The Parson’s Tale” is an elaborate and authentic statement of the nature of sin and the importance of penitence.
Confession being an obligation of medieval Christian life, it is interesting how often Chaucer’s pilgrims misunderstand and misapply it. The Miller confesses that he is drunk when he is asked for a tale, the Wife of Bath’s prologue is, despite its defiance of the standards of Christian marriage, a confession of her marital failings. The Pardoner candidly acknowledges his avarice. None of them shows any sign of the contrition for their sins that the Parson insists must precede confession, and none expresses a resolution of dealing with their transgressions as an aftermath to confession. They do not turn their hearts to God, as the Parson insists is necessary. Confession, he tells them, must be to a priest in good standing with the church, and it must be discreet. By implication, the false confessions that some pilgrims have been making reflect vainglory, not any attempt to heal their souls.
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