The Effect Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Had on History
Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most noted writers of the fourteenth century. Though Chaucer wrote many things, mostly poetry, his most celebrated work was the extensive Canterbury Tales. It began as a listing of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury and then continued with each person telling a tale or story along the way. He details each person’s occupation, personality, and clothing with historical accuracy and societal perspective. Due to this, Canterbury Tales has become a critical English collection of writings that all historians should be familiar with, because Chaucer's works give great insight into the fourteenth century's reflections of social change, religious controversies, and gender expectations.
Photo of Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer was born into Great Britain’s middle class in or around 1343 but then placed in an aristocratic home as a page, which allowed Chaucer to understand the affairs of upper class-and middle-class, as well as their relationship to the lower-class. Because of this, he could uniquely write about those in all social ranks with humor and accuracy, while also reflecting the society’s changes. He was also very well educated, which was not typical of his era — especially having been born into the middle-class.
In Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim tells a story on the way to Canterbury. Although he started it around 1387, he did not finish it before his death in the 1400s. Although unfinished, many of the tales were complete and remained one of the world's most exceptional writings of all time.
From the beginning of Canterbury Tales, he shows how the younger generation was beginning to reject the old way of life. For instance, in the General Prologue, he defines the knight as a “true, perfect, noble,” knight. Then Chaucer contrasts the knight to the knight’s son, who is following in his father’s footsteps. Though he is training for the same profession, he focuses on such issues as singing and poetry, rather than heroism and integrity as his father did. The change in focus reflected the change historians would see from the medieval idea of knighthood to a society that is more similar to modern times. Literature and poetry would become an essential aspect of England’s culture during this time, further reflecting the changes in knighthood. Knighting and the idea of chivalry lost its importance in England during the century before Canterbury Tales.
Characters of the Canterbury Tales
Representative of Role Changing within Society
Not only does Canterbury Tales reflect how society's roles were changing within the elite, but also the ideas regarding religion during the fourteenth century. Canterbury Tales is about a pilgrimage, which in and of itself addresses the importance of religion to England’s society during this time. Jestice defines pilgrimages as a journey that Christians took to the tomb of a Saint. Many on the pilgrimage were clergy members, which gives modern historians a better understanding of views of people within the church and the values at this time.
Robin, the Miller, with the bagpipe
Chaucer's View of Religion
Chaucer’s kindest depiction was that of the parson. The parson was considered to be the ideal clergyman during medieval times. He was holy in his thought, intelligent, as well as visited with the sick and tried to bring souls to God. These attributes ascribed to the parson shows the historian what was valued most within the clergy during the fourteenth century. On the other hand, Chaucer denounces many of the clergymen, which reveals there was hypocrisy within the church in the fourteenth century. For instance, the monk was considered reckless.
Though recklessness is not sinful, the fact that Chaucer relayed this information about the monk as a negative trait reveals that during this time, a clergyman was expected to be prudent and level-headed. Chaucer also felt it was important to describe his sleeves as being fur-lined because he was revealing that the monk was more in love with money than with God. Through this description, Chaucer suggests that not all the “men of faith” were as pious as the parson was.
Immediately after the description of the monk, Chaucer writes about a nun. Her account not only reflects the views of religious figures but also women in general. The nun was very sensitive and cried easily; even if she were to see, “a (mouse) caught in a trappe.” Even within the fourteenth century, women were viewed much like they are today, as being the more emotional sex. Though much like the monk, she too, was caught up in money, for she wore a “brooch of gold.” Nuns, just like all clergymen, were expected to reject such ideas of being wealthy, which ndicates that not all people of faith were as virtuous as expected. There were many negative feelings from laypeople towards the clergy during this time.
A Woman from the Canterbury Tales
Early Feminism Ideas
Through Chaucer’s images, the historian can see how the views of women were beginning to transform during the fourteenth century. This change would eventually cause England to shift away from being a completely patriarchal society. The Norton Anthology points out that there were many anti-feminist writings that the medieval church fostered. Women during this period were expected to be wholesome and submissive to their husbands. Chaucer had written a character in order to oppose these writings.
His first hint to this change is during the General Prologue as he writes about the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands plus extra-marital affairs in her youth. Chaucer’s mentioning of such a woman shows that England’s society began to shift in the way they viewed sexuality revealing that sex was no longer something that only men sought. Though Chaucer did not intend to make this seem typical, he did want to show that there were women who had affairs as well as men.
Chaucer further represents this shift when it is the Wife of Bath’s turn to share a story. During her story, she conveys her feelings towards who should rule a house. Being a very feminist woman, she felt that responsibility should lie with the wife. This idea during the medieval period would have been considered outrageous. Though, the fact that she was able to tell this story presents the idea that a woman was able to more openly share their thoughts, without complete denunciation. Also, it reflected that women were beginning to have their own identities with at least minimal influence in society.
Though Chaucer was merely one man, and could only reflect his beliefs and ideas, his writings in Canterbury Tales is an important work to continue to be studied today. Through his fictional analysis of people from all areas of society, it better educates the historian during this time frame. Canterbury Tales not only reflects how the fourteenth century was evolving, but it also was setting the stage for what England would become, and eventually, the United States. Therefore, The Canterbury Tales should be considered an important historical document.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Canterbury Tales." In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages, by Afred, Simpson, James David, 218-315. New York: Norton and Company, 2006.
David, Alfred, and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Eighth. Vol. A. New York: Norton and Company, 2006.
Jestice, Phillis G. Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Questions & Answers
How many pilgrims traveled with Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales?
This is a very hard question to answer, as the story is inconsistent. You will get answers anywhere from between 29 and 34 pilgrims. The story starts with Chaucer and the host, and then 29 others join. Some say 29 because Chaucer says 29 join. Others say 30 because they join him. Others say 31, because they say he was referring to them joining him and the host. If you read the list of people, it lists 30 people, not 29, which brings the total up to 32. Later a Canon and his Yeoman join, which brings the total up two more. Depending on what total you first came up with, it means that the final total for the pilgrimage is between 31-34. I believe the best answer is 33. Chaucer (1) + the host (1) + 29 more (29) + the canon and his Yeoman (2) = 33. Although as you can see the true total is up for debate.Helpful 4
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz