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Chaucer is generally considered as the ‘father of English poetry’; looking specifically at ‘The Canterbury Tales’ we can see that Chaucer attempted to portray a depiction of society as he knew it. It is also evident that he attempted to provide his own commentary on his society. Chaucer distances himself from the comments made in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ as he tells his audience “Blameth nat me” (Chaucer, 2006, line 73) if they are to take offense from what the Miller says as it is not Chaucer, himself, saying it, he simply has too repeat what was said. This is a very clever technique that Chaucer uses so that he can’t be faced with controversy or come under attack from any one as he has only repeated this tale.
Chaucer would have had to ensure that his work did not offend those in the church, seeing as the church was the only place where literature was preserved. However Chaucer still attacks society, and the greed of the church amongst other social issues, by not personally saying it, he skilfully distances himself from the issues he highlights in this tales. Chaucer also manages to tactfully deal with these issues, resulting in highly enjoyable tale, which offers a social commentary on a society faced with corruption and hypocrisy.
‘The Canterbury Tales’ was written in a time where an “audible, social reading of literature” (Ford, 1976, p86) was preferred, this is possibly because of the influence that the church had on Medieval Literature. One of the main reasons for this may be due to the church, as they supplied the only form of education, everyone at church would have been listened to preachers, and as “preaching itself had throughout the Middle Ages a great influence on other literature of all sorts” (Ford, 1976, p85) it is not unreasonable to assume that this is why oral forms of literature were preferred in the medieval period. ‘The Canterbury Tales’ were written as thought hey were being spoken aloud, so they fit in well with this medieval trend. The language and diction used in both ‘The Millers Tale’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’ conforms to a “plain, low style” (King, 2000, p47). Chaucer’s “dominant sentence structure is paratactic” (King, 2000, p47); with a rhyme scheme consisting “of couplets of iambic pentameters” (King, 2000, p47). The purpose of Chaucer’s use of language, allows both tales to be easily read aloud for a group of people, rather than just read alone. Aware of his language choices, Chaucer will have also been attempting to make the background story to ‘The Canterbury Tales’ seem authentic. The narrator is telling these stories on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, so as we read the tales to ourselves we can get a sense of the pilgrimage, and the way these tales would have been told.
Chaucer uses ‘The Canterbury Tales’ as a social commentary. Through the general prologue we can see “how he feels about whole sections of society by making individuals represent whole groups of medieval life” (Bunting, 2003, p6). These representations slowly begin to build up an entire view of Chaucer’s life in the medieval period. ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is famous for upsetting the social hierarchy. Despite the conventions, after the Knights tale is told at the very beginning the rest of the tales are not told in order of those with the higher social standing, as would be conventionally expected. Certain characters interrupt, pushing their tales over others, making ‘The Canterbury Tale’ humorous as it does not follow the conventional order as “som bettre man shal telle us first another” (Chaucer, 2006, Line 21).
Chaucer also satirises the medieval idea of romance, through the tales, he satirises courtly love, and how it is portrayed as being the ideal way to create a romance. The Miller’s Tale, in particular, satirises this concept as it is a “parody romance” (King, 2000, p73). This medieval concept is often found ridiculed in these tales. In the Wife of Bath she admits “that I have wedded five!” (Chaucer, 1995, line 44), if this had been a courtly love, surely it would have lasted and the Wife of Bath would not have been able to marry again, out of love for her previous husband. Absolon in the Miller’s Tale attempts to woo Alison using techniques expected of a courtly lover, however he fails to impress Alison and his efforts go unrecognised. Chaucer uses the literary convention of courtly love with Absolon to demonstrate just how ridiculous the efforts of the courtly lover can be, and how ridiculous it can be presented in literature.
Chaucer is able to express some views on religion in the tales, even though he would have had to ensure that this was not a deliberate or obvious attack on the church. In the Miller’s Tale Absolon is satirised as the “parish clerk” (Chaucer, 2006, line 204) as “That of no wyf took he noon offrynage” (Chaucer, 2006, line 242). Chaucer also suggests that when Alison goes to church it is much more of a social outing, rather than a religious event. In the Wife of Bath the satire is “directed at the sex obsessed and guilt-ridded attitudes of medieval christianity” (Whittock, 1968, p121).
The main social issue that Chaucer is seen to satirise in both these tales is the idea that women are repressed. Chaucer seemed
“able to perceive the genius and subtlety of the female mind in making the best of their situation in life, while still allowing the men to think they were in control” (Bunting, 2003, p5).
This is perhaps best envisioned in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. She mentions her having had “wedded five!” (Chaucer, 1995, line 44). However she is able to defend this position that she is in as God says “that to be wedded is no sinne” (Chaucer, 1995, line 51), she also asks when God “commanded he virgintee?” (Chaucer, 1995, line 62). She speaks out against the church and what they are saying in the medieval period, where women were given two stereotypes, either compared to the treacherous Eve, or had to live up to the standards of the Virgin Mary with her being both a virgin and a mother this was an impossible role model for women to achieve. The Wife of Bath is unashamedly a larger than life character designed to squash the constraints that medieval Christianity have placed upon women. She is a “matriarchal figure who has declared war on mankind” (Whittock, 1968, p119) Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to defend womankind.
Chaucer looks at the relationship between the two sexes, as it is often perceived that women were always the weaker of the two, due to all the constraints put upon them from the Medieval church. However Chaucer seems to argue that not only do they not deserve this, but that women are cleverly able to control men, by subtlety manipulating them, however they exist in a masculine world so “self-satisfied, or stupid to realise it” (Bunting, 2003, p45).
The Wife of Bath’s tale itself sees an important moral message, Chaucer cleverly places behind the shadow of the Wife of Bath. Faced with the issue of what women desire, the Knight concludes that:
Wommen desiren have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
(Chaucer, 1995, lines 1038-1041)
The moral hides not behind the fact that women desire equality, the tale “condemns the desire for mastery” (Whittock, 1968, p126). When the Knight allows the woman to be independent and gives her the choice to be with him, he does not force his will upon her, resulting in an ideal relationship between the two. Chaucer demonstrates that possessing a woman can bring no man joy, out of fear that they will end up “a cokewold” (Chaucer, 1995, line 1214). When the woman chooses the Knight Chaucer shows that woman should have the right to choose their husband too, and more importantly he shows that when this happens this creates the best marriage.
With the Wife’s constant use of plural, it “dissolves her individual situation into a general female experience” (Saunders, 2001, p292) emphasising that this is a universal problem for all women in the medieval period. In the Miller’s Tale Alison manages to secure a victory at the end, being the only character not punished for her actions. She is able to manipulate Nicholas into thinking that she was doing him a favour by sleeping with him, however it is obvious throughout the tale that it is mutually beneficial for both of them. She manages to escape her “narwe” (Chaucer, 2006, line 116) “cage” (Chaucer, 2006, line 116). Both the Wife of Bath and Alison demonstrate that Chaucer definitely approved of women being treated as equal to men, allowing them to choose their own destiny, he also held them in high regard for their ability to overcome the fact that they were used as a commodity by men by quietly controlling small issues, eventually helping their own trapped and difficult situation.
However it can be argued that although the Wife of Bath was a “vehicle for satirising male attitude” (Whittock, 1968, p121), but also to satirise “female attitudes” (Whittock, 1968, p121). She is a grotesque personification of all the undesirable traits found in women. While she argues that God has never forbidden marriage, and that she is actually doing a good thing by following her “owene juggement” (Chaucer, 1995, line 68), she then contradicts her arguments for marrying five times by wondering why “members maad of generacion” (Chaucer, 1995, line 116) were made and argues that they were “nat maad for noght” (Chaucer, 1995, line 118). This statement suggests that she marries for sex and lustful thoughts, not for the ideal love.
The Wife of Bath is “every anti feminists dream come true” (Cooper, 1983, p76). It is argued that Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to make these arguments against the church and male dominance as she is “sexually predatory, extravagantly dressed, ultra sensitive to social positions and worst of all irresistible attractive” (Cooper, 1983, p76). She is over indulgent, and it is often suggested that she has married her husbands for reasons other than love, something both the church and society frowned upon, regardless of gender.
Alison is described by Chaucer using a heavy amount of animal imagery, suggesting that she is in fact an animal, with uninhibited desires and wild attitudes. She is also described with a high undertone of sexuality, again suggesting her unmanageable sexuality. This is not a woman who would be expected to dispute the controlling power men hold over them; although neither does the Wife of Bath, yet in both Tales women secure a victory, albeit a small one, against the men in their lives. Suggesting that Chaucer is not only trying to give women a disguised victory, but shows that in every undesirable position you find yourself in there will always be a small victory to be had.
Chaucer is “viewed as inheritor of a great tradition as well as the inventor of a new one” (Saunders, 2001, p5) he stuck to particular conventions of the medieval period, and is work is characteristically medieval. He is also held in high regard as he invents a whole new way of tackling many of the medieval literary and social issues that he did not agree with in this social commentary. Chaucer has contributed highly to literary criticism as he produced a prose narrative that is clearly medieval in it’s style and delivery, however its message provides a strong moral message, and a social commentary on a society that without literature we would not know how society worked and what people thought about it without Chaucer’s work providing a social commentary and literary criticism.
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