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The Effect Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Had on History

Angela is an avid reader who studied English Literature in college. She has a passion for the written word and loves literature.

Canterbury Tales is set on a pilgrimage of many.

Canterbury Tales is set on a pilgrimage of many.

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

Geoffrey Chaucer was born into the Middle Class, but was very aware of all the classes.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born into the Middle Class, but was very aware of all the classes.

Chaucer's Background

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 the upper class and middle-class and 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 society's changes. He was also very well educated, which was not typical of his era, especially 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.

From the beginning of Canterbury Tales, he shows how the younger generation began 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 follows 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 more similar society 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 their importance in England during the century before Canterbury Tales.

Characters of the Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales was of a very mixed group of people, which is why it is a good source of knowledge about the time period then.

The Canterbury Tales was of a very mixed group of people, which is why it is a good source of knowledge about the time period then.

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 people's views within the church and the values at this time.

Robin, the Miller, with the bagpipe

Robin, the miller was one character from the Canterbury Tales.

Robin, the miller was one character from the Canterbury Tales.

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, visited with the sick, and tried to bring souls to God. These attributes ascribed to the parson show the historian what was valued most within the clergy during the fourteenth century. On the other hand, Chaucer denounces many 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 a clergyman was expected to be prudent and level-headed during this time. Chaucer also felt it was important to describe his sleeves as fur-lined because he revealed that the monk was more in love with money than with God. Chaucer suggests that not all the “men of faith” were as pious as the parson was through this description.

Immediately after the description of the monk, Chaucer writes about a nun. Her account reflects the views of religious figures and women in general. The nun was very sensitive and cried easily, even if she were to see “a (mouse) caught in a trappe.” Those in the fourteenth century viewed women much like they are today as the more emotional sex. 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 indicates 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

Chaucer had a very modern view of woman and woman's rights.

Chaucer had a very modern view of woman and woman's rights.

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 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 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 wanted to show that there were women who had affairs and men.

Chaucer further represents this shift when 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 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 are an important work to continue to be studied today. His fictional analysis of people from all areas of society better educates the historian during this time frame. Canterbury Tales reflects how the fourteenth century was evolving, but it also set the stage for what England would become, and eventually, the United States. Therefore, The Canterbury Tales should be considered an important historical document.

Works Cited

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

Question: How many pilgrims traveled with Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales?

Answer: 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.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on July 23, 2020:

Excellent. In high school, we had to write a story using Chaucer's style like in the book. I think in many cultures, women probably ran the household in more ways than we understand because they were never noted as primary sources of historical events, always in the background until recently. Great write up. Gratitude.

beautywealth on July 12, 2018:

he is just too great í ½í±.

Neetu M from USA on September 27, 2014:

Angela, I read Chaucer about 30 years ago and I still remember the wife of Bath and the strong character she exhibits. Thank you for reminding me of her, of Chaucer and oh, medieval English it is written in! :)

safirullah on March 13, 2014:

Chaucer takes a prominent place among the writers ,the characters in the Canterbury tales represent only fourteen century but they are also representing twenty first century.I am an oriental boy.Iam accompanying these characters every now and then.I pay tribute to Chaucer that he has portrayed these characters in fourteen century.


CHAUCer deserves 1st place among all writers up to the present. i hardly read abt him b4 bt nw i undrestood hw genius he was. hatts off.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 19, 2012:

Thank you, I quite enjoy them myself. I should read them again.

Anastasia Kingsley from Croatia, Europe on April 18, 2012:

Hi Angela Michelle!

The Canterbury Tales made a huge impact on me as well, and it was something I returned to after college to read and then later listen to on CD during my daily commute to revisit the wonderful - you guessed it! - wife of Bath. Voted up up up and across across across....

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 26, 2011:

Yes it is :)

Shahid Bukhari from My Awareness in Being. on March 20, 2011:

Thanks for correcting, what I always thought was Titled

a "Prologue" or, "Ode, to Canterbury Tales ..."

Its, some heck of a difficulte writinge ya se.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 20, 2010:

I had just as much trouble finding this information as yourself. Good luck! Hence why this article is so much shorter than many of my other articles.

anoymous on November 18, 2010:

i am a student and my teacher assinged me to do a report on geoffrey chaucer and i am supposed to find his contributions and stuff and i cant find it!!!! but hes a gr8 person anyway :)

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 10, 2010:

Oh goodie, it's reciprocal! LOL. I do find the subject very fascinating. I on occasion add to this hub. A sentence here, a sentence there.

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on June 10, 2010:

Very interesting!

It's a fascinating subject, I think.

I have added a link to my hub, angela_michelle ~ and thank you for referencing mine :)

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 16, 2010:

Rabbit, very interesting, I did not realize that. I guess if I would have thought about it, I would have assumed as much. I'm not sure if he was defending women or not, but I do sincerely believe he had a strong respect for women, and a good sense of humor.

Rabbit on May 16, 2010:

Jus to add a bit:It was only recently that the literary works of Chaucer became a feminist critique. During the Middle Ages literature was never expected to be analyzed from the woman’s perspective, nor did writers make special efforts to represent women, or their womanhood. However, in the Canterbury Tales through the marriage theme there were elements suggesting that Chaucer did highlight some of the plights felt by the women in the Medieval Ages, but were his highlights strong enough to say he were defending women?

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 02, 2010:

Thanks, I really like his work!

Peter Freeman from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales on April 01, 2010:

A great introduction to Chaucer and a well thought out analysis of his views. Excellent work.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 27, 2010:

Thank you so much!

changtian on March 27, 2010:




Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 27, 2010:

Oh I agree! :) I think Chaucer had a definite understanding of the power and influence of woman despite his era!

Holle Abee from Georgia on March 27, 2010:

Chaucer was a genius! My favorite CT character has always been the wife of Bath. She's a hoot!