Chaucer's Prologue Canterbury Tales as a Picture of Contemporary Society

Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet and representative of the 14th century. He represents his own age and society and holds the mirror to his time and society. His poetry reflects the 14th century not in fragments but as an entire. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales forms an exquisite commentary upon English life. This is in the Middle Ages or the age of Chaucer.

The group of pilgrims in the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is itself an unparalleled picture of the society of Chaucer’s time. Here are some thirty persons belonging to the foremost different classes.

14th century society in Canterbury Tales

The Knight is the picture of a professional and knowledgeable soldier. He is coming straight from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armor. The variety of lords for whom he has fought suggest that he's some kind of mercenary. But it seems that Chaucer may have known people at English court with similar records.

However,  Geoffrey Chaucer writes closely about class and category in The Canterbury Tales. Most often, class and category are explored through contrasting characters. They attempt to show up a higher class than they absolutely are. The narrator compares them with characters who embody their social class. For example, Chaucer paints the Prioress as a woman. She tries to maintain up the appearance of a well-to-do woman. But, due to the fact she is a member of the church. Her social class and status are lower than she would like others to see her in. For example, the narrator says,

peyned hire to countrefete chere
Of court, and to ben estatlich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.

This quote on the Prioress comes from General Prologue. The narrator first describes the Prioress's countenance. Here, the narrator points out a point to exhibit extraordinary manners. They do so to show up an exceptional rank than her authentic profession. To focus on problems the writer shows the social classification and ranking. Chaucer contrasts the Prioress's conduct and appearance with that of the Parson. He puts on and behaves by his occupation and class. The narrator describes the Parson in the following way. He says-

But rather wolde (the Parson) even, out of doute,
Unto his povre parisshens aboute
Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce.

Besides, Medieval social theory divided the English king’s subject matters into three estates and categories. They are: the Military, the Clergy, and the Laity. Chaucer observes this division. The Knight, the Squire, and therefore the Yeoman belong to the Military estate. The knights dominated English society. In the Norman conquest, Chaucer begins his catalog with the Knight.

The clerical estates present a way less worthy trio: the Prioress, the Monk, and therefore the Friar. Like most Prioresses in the Middle Ages, she behaves in a way as if she has been the manners of the upper class. Her tenderness to her dogs and therefore the ambiguous motto on her rosary amuse the readers.

Canterbury Tales reflection of society

In the General Prologue, the writer displayed a social picture of English society and the shortcomings of the 14th century. The monks and nuns were corrupted in their day to day life.

The social picture of English society is reflected through the Clerk and the Parson were members of the secular clergy. Chaucer’s Clerk is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Chaucer’s Parson is the ideal parish priest. He is free from the faults both of the regular clergy and some parish priests.

Chaucer also portrays the Social picture of English society by two church officials namely: the Summoner and the Pardoner. He was conscious of the weaknesses of the church officials. The church officials have greediness of love of money, corruption, and materialism. The Pardoner may be a despicable parasite trading in letters of pardons with the sinners.

Among the poor pilgrims, a Ploughman is a good person. He is a virtuous man. He is usually a hard worker who loves God and his neighbor. He serves others and pays his either. As it is found-

wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve,
For Cristes sake, for every povre wight,
Withouten hyre, if it lay in his might.

In the Doctor of Physic, we have got a vivid picture of the medieval medicine man. Chaucer presented him with his herbal remedies. He is presented here with his knowledge of astronomy as well as astrology. Chaucer indicates that his medical studies had drawn him far away from his study of the Bible:

His study was but little on the Bible.

Geoffrey Chaucer also gives us a realistic picture of contemporary society. He draws the characters of miller, a Maunciple, sergeant-at-law. He also draws the character of Franklin, Reeve, Shipman, and Cook. They are different from each other. Most of them are clearer and materialistic.

Chaucer’s Sergeant-at-law was discreet and deserve great reverence. He was an eminent and efficient lawyer. Nobody could find any defect in his writing. This is also a social picture of English society.

Chaucer’s Franklin kept the open table and was the genius of eating and drinking. He was a person in every way. He presided at sessions of justices of the peace. He had been a Member of Parliament and had functioned as a sheriff and a treasurer.

The Friar, who has taken a vow of poverty, is supposed to live a humble and smooth tending to the terrible and sick. But his pride and his wish for creature comforts cause him to gravitate towards the wealthy. This is a frequent failing of most of the non-secular figures Chaucer describes.

It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille,
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille.

Before telling his tale, the Pardoner expresses his wish for a drink. This activity raises fear in the different pilgrims that he will inform a crude or dirty joke. However, he guarantees not to do it. The Prologue to “The Pardoner’s Tale” is about his personal life. It describes his residing by going from city to city with phony relics. It is signed by means of the pope and cures such illnesses as snake bites and jealousy. He broadcasts his capability to appeal to easy humans with a well-told story. He noted that they love stories. As we find-

...lewd (unlearned) peple loven testimonies of olde;
Swich things can they wel reporte and holde.

He has had enough to drink the Pardoner begins telling a story as usual. He promises that it will be ethical and not dirty.

The Wife of Bath represents the class and category of woman. She, having an amorous nature, cared little for chastity. She was fond of merry-making and fun. The Prologue tells us a great deal about 'the food, the hobbies and therefore the mode of the dress of the days. It also makes us familiar with the clothes. The clothes are worn by persons of different ranks, positions, and professions.

Although Chaucer holds the mirror to his times, his picture of society is incomplete in one respect. Chaucer’s group of pilgrims is a picture of the society of his times which has no parallel in any country.

In Conclusion, Chaucer successfully draws the Social Picture of English Society in the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” He is the representative of the 14th century. He represents the Social Picture of English Society and holds the mirror to his time and society.

His poetry reflects the 14th century not only in fragments but also as an entire. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales forms an exquisite commentary upon English life. This is in the Middle Ages or the age of Chaucer.
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