Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” as a Picture of Contemporary Society

Introduction: Literature reflects the tendencies of an age. Here a literary artist, through his literary work, becomes the mouthpiece of his age. Pope represents the eighteenth century, the Age of Neoclassicism,  Tennyson to the Victorian era, and Wordsworth the Romantic age. Like Wordsworth, Pope and Tennyson, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) represent his own age through his authentic literary work The prologue to The Canterbury Tales. He is truly the social chronicler of England in the late fourteenth century. His poetry reflects fourteenth-century England not in fragments but as a complete whole.

Other poets of his age had limited knowledge and attention about their time. But Chaucer was totally different. He presents the picture of the corruption in the Church, the religious hypocrisy, woman, materialistic outlook, political condition, trade, and so on.

Political Condition of Chaucer’s time

In the “Prologue to Canterbury Tales”, Chaucer realistically presents the political conditions of his times. He refers to the “Peasant’s Revolt” of 1381 in the Clerk’s Tale and again in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. In the Clerk’s Tale, he refers to the ‘stormy people’, their levity, their untruthfulness, their indiscretion and fickleness, their garrulity and their foolishness. In the Nun’s Tale, Chaucer says:

Ne made never shoutes half so shrille

Whan that they wolden any leming kille,

Religious Condition of Chaucer’s  Age

Through the ecclesiastical or religious characters in “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer represents a vivid picture of the condition of the church and its ministers in his age. Instead of devoting their time and energy to religious meditation, the clergymen have shown their love for money, corruption and materialistic outlook. There are seven ecclesiastical characters dealt with Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer could not tolerate the growing corruption, so he satirized them.

Expansion of trade and rise of merchants

For the first time in the history of England, the trade and merchants section of society was coming in literature in the age of Chaucer. The fourteenth century in England witnessed the rise of rich and prosperous merchants and tradesmen.  Chaucer represents five guildsmen. Small traders and handicraftsmen grew into power and became solvent. Chaucer remarks,

Wel semed each of them a fair burgeous

To sitten in a yeldhalle, on a days.

Representation of the lower class

Chaucer faithfully represents the voice of the lower class that they made for better conditions of life. And he also represents the rise of the lower classes. In the Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer refers to the “stormy people”, and their untruthfulness and fickleness. The labourers clamored for their rights. Chaucer’s Ploughman faithfully represents the class of conservative laborers who were devoted to their masters and were faithfully performing the normal course of activities.

 Condition of Table Manners

Chaucer also portrays the conditions of table manners of the pilgrims. In the Prologue, we can see that inns were situated at some distances, and beer was also served in places other than these inns. There is also a long discussion on table manners of that age in the Prologue. Each guest brought his own knife. At the beginning and end of dinner, everyone washed his hands.

Representation of the medical profession

Chaucer’s portrait of the Doctor of Physic is fairly representative of a medieval medicine man. Doctor of Physic practices herbal remedies. Here his knowledge of astronomy and astrology is also traceable. He was so busy in his profession that he had no time to read the Bible. Chaucer rightly said,

“His study was but litel on the Bible”

Situation of Woman

Chaucer represents the situation of a woman by The Wife of Bath. Woman of 14th century was so much passionate and serious about love. They were also hard-working. They were associated with household chores and cloth making. They were a little bit shy and careful about chastity. They were fond of fun and merry-making. That is revealed through The Wife of Bath in Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

Conclusion The prologue to The Canterbury Tales represents vivid socio-political condition of 14th-century England in the age of Chaucer. Each of the pilgrims of the prologue are from a different walk of life and they are representative of different parts of society. So it can be said that Chaucer is the chronicler of his age and reflects his century, not in fragments but almost completely.

Ruhul Amin
Ruhul Amin

This is Ruhul Amin, working and researching for English literature to make it discovered and available to the world.

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