Chaucerian Commentary Essay, Research Paper
Chaucerian Moral and Social Commentary in the Canterbury Tales
As the first great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer has etched out a tradition of English literary brilliance. From stem to Stern, Chaucer s cheerful and diverse poetry stands apart from other British writers. Between colorful and humorous verse and tale, Chaucer creates a picture of man in his society. The Canterbury tales, Chaucer s defining work, integrates Chaucerian whit, paradox and color into a quilt of medieval social strata. Chaucer played not the part of the poet Baird but of the watchful investigator. The Canterbury Tales represent Chaucer s investigation into the social and moral contradictions of human individuals in medieval society.
Geoffrey Chaucer s 14th century existence created atmosphere, experience and opportunity that allowed Chaucer to delve into the character of the individual and examine the relationship between human ideals and human realities. Chaucer lived in a unique position through out his life that allowed him to bridge the wide canyon between the remote aristocracy and the sometimes volatile lower class. Chaucer was born into the upper middle class, a social strata that was mostly unacknowledged. The Medieval middle class was neither aristocracy nor Plebian; however, the middle class was increasingly important to medieval society and culture. As the son of a well to do wine merchant, Geoffrey Chaucer lived in close proximity with the lower classes, no doubt becoming quite familiar with the culture and attitudes of the commoners. Perhaps most vital to Chaucer s ascension into poetic greatness evolved because of his unusual access and acceptance into the upper world of aristocracy. As an adolescent, Chaucer was sent by his father to serve as a page to Lionel of Antwerp. This initiated Chaucer into the world of the nobility to which he became a distinguished honorary member. Chaucer worked in many critical posts for the aristocracy, parliament, and the royal family. Chaucer s service to the aristocracy provided him with an education and valuable contacts through out parliament and the royal court. It was Chaucer s amicable nature and sharp intelligence that made him a valuable asset to the upper class of England.
During Chaucer s era, England was far behind much of Europe not only in social theory but also in the literary movement of the early renaissance. For this reason Chaucer s earliest literary inspirations were French and Latin examples rather than British works. However it was Chaucer s move to Italy while in service to the British government that brought him in contact with the works of Italian masters, Dante and Boccaccio. It is these two Italian influences, which are most evident in the Canterbury Tales. Although Chaucer never completed his immense plans for the Canterbury Tales, the work illustrates the attitude of the medieval life for members of rural, urban, and noble communities of 14th century England.
Chaucer was way ahead of the common social theory of his time. Where as anyone below the aristocracy was considered unimportant, Chaucer recognized the color and necessity of the middle and lower classes. Through Chaucer s shrewd observation and clever description, the Canterbury Tales provide a picture of medieval life and the character of the medieval generation. Chaucer uses the images of the individual travelers in the Tales to paint a picture of his own society. Chaucer s philosophy best described as humanist, or liberal humanist; it places the individual above history, and esteems the human capacity not to be made but to make history. (Patterson, 1) This humanist theory is evident through out the tales in which it is Chaucer s characters spinning the wheels of action and adventure. Those who are naive or foolish enough to trust their lives to the fates find their strings pulled by their adversaries. Chaucer looked at the individual in his setting.
Chaucer s literature is diverse and satirical. His description of life is often influenced by his intimacy with the aristocracy, yet he still regards the common classes as a practical necessity. Chaucer is greatly known for his paradoxical illustrations, painting the differences between the ideal individual and the reality of the actual human being.
Chaucerian literature is characterized by emphasis on the individual. Through colorful and shrewd description Chaucer paints an image of each pilgrim in the Canterbury tales. It is through each individual that Chaucer attempts to represent the whole of society. Chaucer recognizes the need for each individual to unite into the whole society.
Chaucer frames the tales inside the purpose of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The image of this pilgrimage is vital to the overall picture of the Canterbury tales. In one aspect the pilgrimage can be symbolic of a life journey in which an individual must travel through life to ultimately arrive at the gate of heaven. Chaucer image of the pilgrimage offers a unique perspective on the individual and community. Chaucer chose an ordinary occurrence to frame his tales. Medieval religious pilgrimages were very common for all members of society, from the miller to the King of England. However devout and religious the journey was supposed to be a medieval pilgrimage was often full of gaiety and adventure. The journey offered an escape from the obsessive tine of every day life. Chaucer s language through out the Canterbury Tales is full of bright and colorful description and often time s outrageous and crude images. The pilgrims tales courted the grotesque and the baser elements found in the dregs of society. The color and tone in which Chaucer uses to bring the pilgrims to life evokes carnival and sideshow like images. These images were not far from the experience of the lower classes, which were not unfamiliar with the hideous and outlandish scenes of a visiting carnival. The medieval carnival presented an escape from ordinary life. To the medieval people official life meant fear, humiliation, submission to the whims of those in power, the carnival spirit, in reaction, cultivated the misshapen and incongruous, combining images of birth and life with images of death, disfigurement or dismemberment. (Howard, 1)
By nature the Canterbury tales are embedded in a theoretically religious venture.
In the Prologue to the Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer depicts two side of the 14th century Catholic Church in England. The Prioress, the Monk, as well as the Friar are characterized as frauds pretending to be devout missionaries, but greed, vanity, and even villainy. The most despicable faults of the church are embodied in the Summoner and the Pardoner, who both sell absolution from sin and guilt to these who can afford such indulgences. It is the lone Parson who represents the social Christian disciple. Both of the views, that of the good and devout parson as well as the corrupt characterization of the other religious pilgrims represent two sides of a coin, the ideal and the reality. Chaucer strives to illuminate a startling contradiction between what is expected and what is actually achieved when human flaws are allowed to dominate an institution.
Theoretically the pilgrimage itself is religious and spiritual journey. It was also a relatively common occurrence in the 14th century. It is interesting that Chaucer chooses this vehicle to transport his message. The travelers are far from devout and it does not seem that their gayety and loose demeanor are fitting for a spiritual awakening. It is especially ironic that the religious individuals of the pilgrimage are indeed the most secular and hypocritical and in need of moral cleansing with the exception of the parson.
The Tales are embedded within the setting of a pilgrimage, which in and of itself asserts some religious purpose. Hence it is peculiar that the secular pilgrims by far outnumber those claiming and religious affiliation. Even more ironic is the corrupt and irreverent character of the religious faction traveling to Canterbury with the exception of the Parson and the Plowman. It is the altruistic Parson and the devout Plowman alone who exemplify the rarely achieved Medieval Catholic ideal of a Christian servant.
The medieval Catholic Church was far from devout and pure. Infested with corruption, the Catholic Church was closely tied to local and national government. The 14 the century Catholic Church was as mush a governing body, as was the local constable. The church forced participation and donation, so much so that church officials could become wealthy by abusing power. In this sense the air of religion in Chaucer’s oppression was thick with oppression and corruption. Still there was a need for moral and spiritual guidance. The church however used the guilt of other to fill its coffers, selling indulgences and penance. Sin became an annoyance easily paid off.
“In the Chaucerian universe, the guarantee of truth is the level of authority that can be attributed to the origin of the thing told. (Brother Anthony, 3)
While Chaucer s descriptive Prologue and each tale focus primarily on the individual, the overall scene is one of a society traveling towards one purpose. Chaucer s society of pilgrims represent a cross section of medieval society with diverse and varied characters. The group of pilgrims contains members from all classes, occupations, and degree excluding only royalty.
Reading the tales is always drawn to the tellers: the meaning of each tale cannot only be divorced from the teller but is both initially and finally referred back to him or her. (Patterson, 2)
The knight s tale is precisely a crisis in governance: it tells the story of how the Athenian man of reason Theseus tries to control and discipline and govern The Knight s tale bespeaks a crisis of governance in the way it is told: the Knight is continually anxious about organizing, controlling, structuring, and discipling his own narrative. (Patterson, 7)
All the tales pursue fault lines of human life, the thin line between nature and grace, life and death, Heaven and Hell. (Brother Anthony, 7)
The aspect of judgment in the Canterbury Tales is complex. Through out the tales and the prologue Chaucer refrains from directly condemning the crudeness and immorality of the Pilgrims. Instead Chaucer defers judgment to the reader. Chaucer however does not abandon the reader. Chaucer leads his reader down the path of judgment through careful description, satire and irony.
Chaucer reveals the flaws of the pilgrims by simply reporting upon their appearance and occupation in the prologue. The pilgrims further reveal their true nature as they tell their tale to the travelers.
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