At a Glance
The Canterbury Tales key themes:
Though the stories in The Canterbury Tales reflect a variety of secular and religious topics, the placement of the more religious stories implies Chaucer’s respect of Christian doctrine.
Chaucer’s caricature of some members of the clergy alludes to the moral decline and corruption of the Church during his time.
Deception runs through many of the tales and is used for both good and evil purposes.
Spring and its symbolism of renewal, hope, and fertility also structures many of the themes of the stories.
Concern for one’s reputation also motivates many of the actions of the characters in the tales.
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...
(The entire section is 1,644 words.)