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November 3, 2014

Chaucer as a Social Chronicler of His Age

Preamble

Chaucer has been lavishly eulogized to be the greatest social chronicler of the 14th century England. His acknowledged magnum opus The Canterbury Tales mirrored an all-embracing portrait of the social, economic, cultural, and religious milieu of his age. In many respects, Chaucer’s representation of his age was more faithful and realistic than any other contemporaries. He primarily achieved this goal through portrayal of a wide variety of characters chosen carefully from every facets of society with their real follies and virtues. By portraying each character realistically, he in turn satirized the manners and affectations of the whole medieval society as well. The following discussion revolves round the various social issues captured in the writing of Chaucer:

Socio-political Condition

Initially, the medieval English society was divided into three groups, namely the church, the nobility, and the peasantry. The Church was a visibly potent force throughout England. The chief business of this sector was to pray. They did not need to work as they were supported by the nobles and the peasants. The nobility was represented by the Knight, whose job was to fight. The other characters in this group are the Yeoman, the Franklin, the Miller, and the Reeve. The peasantry consisted of the working class, represented by the Plowman.

So far, the lifestyle in the medieval society was free from the complexities of modern life. But by the late 14th century the English society encountered a huge shift and changes. During this phase the established social structure began to disintegrate due to the devastation of the grievous plague or the Black Death, which was subsequently much deteriorated by the peasant revolts such as Jack Straw rebellion of 1381. The shock of the Black Death loosened peoples’ trust on the authority of the Church, whereas the turbulence of the Jack Straw rebellion eventually paved the way for the emergence of a new middle class. This new middle class mostly consisted of the educated workers such as the merchants, the lawyers, and the clerks. Gradually, this new class gained more power and attention than ever before. And Chaucer, being a member of this new middle class endeavoured to depict and satirise the conventions of these turbulent times. In Chaucer’s description this group was represented by the Pilgrims, the Doctor, the Lawyer, the Maniciple, the Merchant, and the Wife of Bath. The Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, and the Dyer collectively presented as the members of one of the great parish guilds and the new urban artisans achieved the power through these guild associations.

The Corruption of the Church

Geoffrey Chaucer was brave enough to unveil the decadence of the medieval Catholic Church. Chaucer’s description confirms about the moral and spiritual bankruptcy within some of its officials. Since the Church officials were not allowed to work for a living, they disregarded the vocational rules or values and resorted to various unfair means for personal gain. For example, the Monk prefers hunting and horse riding than worshiping at his monastery. Although he is aware that the monastery rules discourages monks from hunting, the Monk deliberately breaches them by stating them outmoded:
“But this same text he held not worth an oyster;
And I said his opinion was good.”
But Chaucer satirically remarked that the Monk ignores the rules lest he should give up hunting, owing possessions, and eating fine foods. The handsome and well-dressed Monk resembles more like a wealthy lord than a religious figure.

The Friars were also corrupt and hypocritical. They lived entirely by begging. They used to hear confessions and assigned relatively easy penance to those who donated money. They held that donating the friars is a good sign of true repentance.  Although they vowed to eradicate poverty, they paid no attention to the poor and used the donations to live a lavish life. Chaucer ridicules the Friars as under:
“He was the finest beggar of his house;”
In addition, the Friars also maintained a good relationship with the innkeepers and the barmaids, who can provide them food and drink.

The Summoner and the Pardoner belongs to the most corrupt Church officials. Both the characters turn to dishonesty for personal gain. The Summoner is a lecher and a drunk, always looking for a bribe. The Pardoner has a mesmeric voice to convince his audience to purchase indulges to get forgiveness for their sins.

The superficiality within the religious figures is portrayed with the character of the Prioress. Even though she is not a member of the court she is striving too hard to be courtly. In the words of Chaucer:
“She was at pains to counterfeit the look
Of courtliness, and stately manners took,
And would be held worthy of reverence.”
The Prioress is not corrupt like the other characters but Chaucer satirizes her for her affectations, the habits which do not necessarily suit a religious figure. She is so obsessed with courtly mannerism that she always dresses elegantly, speaks incorrect French and eats so carefully that she never spills a drop. Like courtly damsels she weeps when she sees a trapped mouse. But ironically, she feels no discomfort while feeding her hounds flesh, which is suggestive of her feigned courtliness. Even her devotion to the Christ is also showy since instead of carrying a rosary beads with a crucifix she wears a pendant which seems much more like a shiny piece of jewelry than a sacred religious object. More importantly, the pendant has an inscription that reads "Amor Vincit Omnia," or "Love Conquers All." Although most appropriately it could refer to God’s love but in her case more probably refers to the courtly love between a damsel and hero in one of the romances that were popular reading material for women of this time:
“Of coral small about her arm she'd bear
A string of beads and gauded all with green;
And there from hung a brooch of golden sheen
Whereon there was first written a crowned "A,"
And under, Amor vincit omnia.”
The Parson is the only honest man amongst all religious figures. He is temperate, learned, virtuous and deeply respectful towards the teachings of Christ. The Parson is dedicated to his parish and does not seek a better appointment. He visits all his parishioners of no matter how far away. He is also compassionate to the sinners and instead of rebuking he tries to teach them to lead an honest life.

Vanishing Chivalric Spirit

Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales remarks on the diminishment of the true chivalric spirit in medieval England. Through the character of the Knight Chaucer visualized the true spirit of chivalry. The aged Knight was a brave warrior and fought fourteen mortal battles for the sake of preserving religion. In the contrary, the young Squire, his son represents the rising conception of chivalry. Unlike his father he fights for pleasure and to receive attention from the ladies. The Squire lacks the intelligence and seriousness of his father and is much interested to lead a carefree life:
“Well could be sit on horse, and fairly ride.
He could make songs and words thereto indite,
Joust, and dance too, as well as sketch and write.
So hot he loved that, while night told her tale,
He slept no more than does a nightingale.
Courteous he, and humble, willing and able,
And carved before his father at the table.”

Courtly Love

In The Knight's Tale Chaucer gives us a description of courtly love, a recurring subject in the Middle Ages. Such a relationship is usually constituted between knights, squires and women from noble background. The knights exhibit great courage to earn their ladies’ respect, while the ladies exhibit grace, modesty, and loyalty for the knights.  Although the lover and the beloved are not married to each other, they fall deeply in love but strictly avoid immorality. Courtly love was deemed to be the true form of love and was valued over the marital relationship. Marriage was treated as social formality and a wife was treated as another property owned by the husband. More obviously, marriage was nothing but an arrangement for procreation and to avoid fornication with the partner of courtly relationship.

Feminism

A great deal has been written about the position of women in the middle ages. Chaucer’s description confirms that some part of the womankind sought to liberate themselves from the clutches of the patriarchal society. The Wife of Bath, for example is an epitome of the emancipated women since she reacted against the accepted norms of sex and marriage. She wanted to release women from the male-domination by stressing on women’s freedom in marriage. With reference to the Bible she argues that there is nothing wrong to marry several times. The wife has extensive knowledge about love and sex as she was married for five times. Multiple marriages helped her to understand the ruse to gain independence in an essentially male-dominated society. She did that by depriving her husbands from using her body until they agreed to meet certain demands:
“The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she'd learned the old, old dance.”

Criticism

Chaucer’s poetry came under fierce attack for his apathy towards social reformation. He opted to depict life as he saw it and humbly refrained from suggesting any moral improvement over the blemishes of humankind. Moreover, his poetry encompasses a partial picture of the then society and is devoid of many other significant issues of the day. His description chiefly hinges round the tumultuous moments in England during the second half of the 14th century.


References

“How Does Satire in Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Work within a Subtle Frame
of Evaluation of the Pilgrims.” eNotes.com. 2014. eNotes.com, Inc. 14 September 2014
<http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/satire-chaucers-prologue-canterbury-tales-works-441519>.

 “The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story.” Shmoop University. 2014. Shmoop University.
14 September 2014 <http://www.shmoop.com/canterbury-tales-prologue>.

“The Canterbury Tales : Prologue.” Fordham University. 1996. Paul Halsall. 14 September 2014
<http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/CT-prolog-para.html>.

 “The Canterbury Tales.” LitCharts. 2014. LitCharts. 14 September 2014
<http://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-canterbury-tales/themes>.

“The Canterbury Tales.” SparkNotes. 2014. SparkNotes. 14 September 2014
<http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/canterbury/themes.html>.

“TheBestNotes on The Canterbury Tales.” TheBestNotes.com. 2014. TheBestNotes.com.
14 September 2014 <http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Canterbury_Tales/Canterbury_Tales41.html>.

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