The Canterbury Tales, which were written in the fourteenth century, is arguably the greatest literary work in the English history. The poem is presented as a collection of unrelated tales linked together by a single narrative. The narrative itself describes a traveling group of the storytellers, who tell the stories in order to entertain themselves as they journey to Canterbury (which was a popular destination for the medieval pilgrims). The stories are as different as the pilgrims themselves, and the tone ranges from spiritual and moral to the rude and childish. The Canterbury Tales are surprising in their variety, providing the readers with an interesting glimpse into the ethics and sensibilities of the medieval people.
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The author of The Canterbury Tales was a courtier, philosopher, and poet named Geoffrey Chaucer, who probably intended his stories to be read by a wide audience. “Chaucer himself was a member of [the] middle social grouping, his place within it secured by various forms of what might be called ‘civil service” (Strohm, 2003, p. 3). Chaucer traveled a great deal, and was even captured by the French while accompanying English army through France. His work earned him enough and he did not have to seek out the patrons when he wished to produce a literary work. The most surprising about Chaucer is the fact that he chose to write in English at a time, when most literature coming from England was in French or Latin.
Though English was gradually coming to the fore, the last quarter of the century still saw Latin as the language of ecclesiastical and theological discourse, and French as the language of statecraft and civil record-keeping (Strohm, 2003, p. 6).
The fact that Chaucer chose English suggests that he wished his stories to be read by (or read aloud to) the audience that included the middle and lower classes.
The Canterbury Tales are presented as a collection of stories that are linked together by a single narrative. Such style is similar to what can be found in The Arabian Nights or Boccaccio. In the case of The Canterbury Tales, the stories are being told by a group of people traveling to the English city of Canterbury, which was a common destination for the medieval pilgrims. The most interesting is the fact that the group is composed of people from very different social classes that, in reality, would not normally associate with each other. A knight and his squire, a reeve, a miller, a cook, a friar, and a prioress are among the travelers. Chaucer describes each of them in a manner that seems to reflect his opinions on certain types of people. The pardoner, for example, is not described as being a very pious or spiritual man.
Non-normative figures like the Wife of Bath (with her commando approach to gender relations) and the Pardoner (whose unclassifiable sexuality chimes disturbingly with his religious apostasy) create their own variety of havoc on the pilgrimage, posing a challenge to the status quo (Strohm, 2003, p. 15).
What is surprising about The Canterbury Tales is the fact that Chaucer decided to include such bawdy and immature stories in his collection. The tales “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Reeve’s Tale” involve sex, adultery, and a gullible and oblivious husband. “He jealously / kept her as if inside a cage, for she / was one both young and wild, and he had fears / of being a cuckold, so advanced in years” (3223-3226). Both of the storytellers, Reeve and Miller, are using these tales to antagonize each other. The cuckold in “The Miller’s Tale” is a carpenter (like Reeve), while the unfortunate victim in “The Reeve’s Tale” is a miller. However, the sexual content in these tales is quite surprising, and the level of immaturity in “The Miller’s Tale” is truly amazing.
Absalon wiped his mouth till it was dry. / The night was dark as pitch, as black as coal, / and from the window she stuck out her hole; / and Absalon, not knowing north from south, / then kissed her naked ass with eager mouth (3730-3734).
The presence of such content is another indication that Chaucer intended his stories to be enjoyed by a less gentile audience.
The Canterbury Tales reveal a great deal about medieval sensibilities. It is interesting to see that people in this time period, who are normally presented as humble and deeply pious, enjoyed slapstick and rude jokes as much as anybody. The fact that Chaucer was able to subtly mock the Church and include stories like “The Miller’s Tale” alongside the religious and ethical stories shows a degree of free thinking and secularism that is not normally associated with the medieval figures. Chaucer clearly knew his audience, and it is no surprise that The Canterbury Tales are regarded as a pillar of English literature.
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