During the Middle Ages it was custom for many Christians to go on pilgrimages to perform what they believed was God’s work. Canterbury was one of many sites that the pilgrim would go to. Geoffrey Chaucer centers his book The Canterbury Tales around the pilgrims on their way to thank St. Thomas of Canterbury for his help in keeping them alive.
The pilgrims met at an inn and it is here that the Host proposes that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the pilgrimage to Canterbury and then two on the way back. “Each pilgrim represents a certain part of medieval society.” (Mack 1895) The pilgrims sit at the top of their social standings; they are either exceptionally good or very corrupt. The prologue provides the reader with detail descriptions of the pilgrims, and it is here that a medieval audience would compare and contrast the characters with social stereotypes already know at the time.
It is in The Canterbury Tales that a reader can best understand the social, religious, and economic and political views of the different social societies during the Middle Ages.”Medieval society was traditionally and authoritatively represented as a body organized into three estates: those who worked to sustain the basic life practices of the community, those who were said to defend, and those who prayed.” (Aers 233) Chaucer combines all three of these positions into a common place and provides them with the same goal: Canterbury. Class distinctions are apparent and help to demonstrate much of the jealousy and discord that arose between the pilgrims of different classes. “In the Middle Ages, each person was classified according to his or her place on the social scale depending on birth or profession. People believed that this setup was established by god and therefore was never changed. (Barrons) It is through the tales told by the Knight, the Wife of Bath, and the Pardoner that a reader can develop a strong understanding of the more important class distinctions of the time.
The three characters provide information about the noble, the feminist, and the corrupt. The tales told by the three make moral and ironic points. “The Knight’s tale draws references between the medieval chivalry of England and the society of ancient Greece, while the Wife of Bath intentionally places her tale in the days of King Arthur.
“(Barron’s) The Pardoner serves to demonstrate the belief of churchmen as greedy and corrupt but still accepted by society. Within each noble household were knights who were ranked midway in status between the noble families and the peasantry. Knights were trained in techniques of mounted combat and were exempt from agricultural labor. “Knights would gradually receive high prestige as the church emphasized the idea of Christian knighthood and the crusading movement glamorized by the “Knights of Christ.”(Hollister 175) Common knights began to receive more extensive lands along with privileges and jurisdiction rights formerly limited to just the old nobility. It is the Knight who is presented first and tells the first tale because he comes from the highest class.
The nobility, which was at the top of the social scale, was responsible for cultivating virtue, keeping the peace by maintaining social order and setting a moral example for the other classes to follow. Later in the story it is the Knight who will serve as judge between the conflicting pilgrims. The prologue tells us more about the Knight’s fifteen “mortal battles” than about his appearance because “his actions are more important than his looks.” (Barron’s) The Knight’s tale is a story about two Theban knights, Palamon and Arcite. The two knights are cousins who were sent to Athens by Theseus to be imprisoned for life. Palamon sees Emelye walking in the garden and instantly falls in love with her. Arcite too sees Emelye walking and also falls in love with her.
Duke Perotheus arrives to visit Duke Thesues and has Arcite released under the condition that Arcite can not return to any of Theseus’ lands. The become very angry, Arcite becomes upset about this because at least Palamon can see Emelye and Palamon is angry that Arcite has the chance to gather an army and return to conquer Athens and win the love of Emely.Arcite became so sick that he was unrecognizable and he was able to return as a page in Theseus’ court. What Arcite did not know was that Palamon escaped from prison and overheard Arcite disclose his identity. The cousins agreed to fight the next day.
Theseus, Queen Hippolyta and Emelye attended the battle and Palamon told Theseus the entire story. Theseus arranges for them to have a tournament joust with the winner receiving Emelye as the reward. Palamon prayed to Venus, the goddess and planet of love, while Arcite prayed to Mars, the god of war.
However, Saturn promises Venus that Palamon should win the battle. Palamon is captured in the tournament and Arcite wins, but just as he comes to accept Emelye, Saturn shakes the earth beneath Arcite causing his horse to fall onto thus him killing him. This event proves that man is not superior to the gods.
Arcite was killed by his horse rather than in battle, thus proving that even though Arcite was able to defeat Palamon in battle he was not superior to the higher power of the gods. After mourning for Arcite ends, Thesues orders for Palamon and Emelye to be married.”The tale shows the reader that fortune causes rises and falls in the world while above all God’s providence remains stable. The gods act as agents of fortune while at the same time they represent the order of God. Although, the tale uses pagan gods it still represents God’s plan because the influence exerted is in the form of astrological influences.
” (Barron’s) In a time when religion was so important the reader would diminish the importance of the Christian belief that there was one single god. The Knight’s tale incorporates passion, duty and the idea of reasonable leadership to form a conclusion that fate is unavoidable. The Knight is a perfect example of a medieval man. He was courteous, a peacemaker, and very wise. The knight had traveled around the world fighting battles and was the perfect example of a Christian knight. Not only was the knight a source of truth but he was honored for his gentle ways.
The Knight’s tale is a romance about the competition between two cousins over the love of a woman. Unlike Chaucer’s description of the knight, the knights in the tale are shown to be impulsive and do not think rationally. This tale provides a vast contrast and shows the reader that not all knights were as perfect as Chaucer’s knight.
The Wife of Bath is one of only three women on the pilgrimage to Canterbury and the only among the lay, urban or middle class pilgrims. The Wife is a wealthy widow, which “endows her with a sexual, economic and political power, which is peculiar to England in the Fourteenth Century.”(Amsler 233) The Wife of Bath thinks very highly of herself as a weaver and tells her consistent church attendance and also reveals that she had five husbands.
The reader is also made aware of the Wife’s gapped teeth, which was considered at the time as “a medieval sign of sexual accomplishment, with a bold nature or with traveling,” the reader finds that she has plenty of all three. (Fleming 233)The Wife of Bath begins her tale by first telling her views on marriage and the grief she has given to all of her past husbands. To her marriage was only a game, and had only one purpose and that was for her to gain the upper hand.
This was an easy task with her first three husbands because they were old and willing to do what ever she wanted them to do for her. Her fourth husband was not so easy, he caused problems for her. The fourth husband had a mistress, so to try and get back at him she made him believe that she was also cheating to make him jealous. While her husband was away in London she began a relationship with Jankin, a clerk that was twenty years younger than her. When the Wife of Bath’s husband died she married Jankin.
This was her only marriage based on love, but Jankin treated her awful. He would read to her from a book that talked about how women can not be trusted, she would get angry and rip pages out of the book and he would hit her. He hit here one time that left her partially deaf. So to get back at him she made him believe that she was going to die and he swore to obey her every word. This proves that the typical marriage of medieval times was not based on loved, rather it was a means of gaining social prestige.
The Wife of Bath married for love and until she deceived her husband she did not have any control in the marriage. Women were subservient to their husbands and had to obey by their rules. The Wife of Bath did not take to that very well, she wanted to be in control.”Marriage was seen as a part of a larger political, economic, and moral order. Marriage was no accident that courtly love traditions existed outside marriage; it was inevitable that such would be the case.
” (Fleming 233) Although the church condemned adultery as a mortal sin, aristocratic society looked tolerantly on the escapades of men. It is through the Wife’s tale that the reader can understand the role of women and legitimize the development of her feminism.The Wife of Bath tells a tale of a knight who is sentenced to death for raping a woman.
The Queen will allow him to live if can answer one question: What do women what? The knight searches for the answer but no two people agree. An old women tells him that what women what, is mastery in marriage and because she is right he must grant her, her request which is to marry her. On their wedding night she offers him to choose between her staying ugly and faithful or to turn young and beautiful with the chance that she may not stay faithful to him. He leaves the choice up to her and promises her domination over him. The old woman becomes beautiful and she stays faithful towards him and they live happily together. During the middle ages women wanted to have control of their marriages and their husbands to remain faithful, but did not often get the opportunity to do so. The tale proved that although the man was initially upset and unhappy with his marriage he eventually began to love his wife and together they became happy.
In this case it was the woman who had domination over her husband and had the chance to be unfaithful, but decided against it.The Wife of Bath’s tale is satirical yet is put in the form of a fairy tale. The relationship to King Arthur’s Round Table is used because it took place during a “time of chivalry and enchantment and the audience would be able to capture the importance of female superiority.” (Barrons) The Wife of Bath clearly represents a unique female character of the Middle Ages. Rather than being subservient the Wife reverses the role of the female and becomes the controller of her own fate. She dresses herself very well and traveled often in an attempt to gain as much experience as possible in matters of love.
The Wife controlled her first three husbands and totally enjoyed giving them all her grief. She maintained the upper hand in all of her marriages, which was not a common practice for women of that time period. However though, it supplies the reader in establishing the contrast of the Wife of Bath with the familiar role of women as being controlled by their husbands.
“Pardoners were supposed to issue papal indulgences for such things as forgiveness of sins, in exchange for alms money which was to be given to the sick, poor or any other worldly cause. Many medieval pardoners were frauds, selling worthless pieces of paper or keeping more of their share of the precedents.” (Barrons) Fake pardoners claimed that they could do almost anything for the right sum of money, even remove an excommunication. The belief was that even though a pardoner was less than perfect his social position still commanded respect. So people still gave money to friars and pardoners even if they were corrupt because they believed it could still get them into heaven. The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales is from Rouncivalle, a London hospital that is “well known for the number of corrupt pardoners connected to it.” (Barrons) The Pardoner quickly reveals his corrupt way of life by telling the other pilgrims that he tells the same sermon wherever he goes, “Money is the root of all evil.
” What is funny here is that what the Pardoner fails to realize is that he is a prime example for greed, which he preaches against. Not only does he mention that his sole purpose in life is to make money, but his physical description would have significant meaning to the medieval audience. The Pardoner is described as having glaring eyes, which in medieval society would signify folly, gluttony, and drunkenness. The Pardoner “embodies the theory of evil with his thin goat like voice, suspiciously effeminate nature and the assumption that part of him is missing. To the medieval mind, an absent part is a clear indication of moral deprivation.
” (Barron’s)The Pardoner begins his tale in the same way he would have begun one of his sermons, by warning the pilgrims about drunkenness, gluttony, gambling and swearing. The Pardoner continues by telling a tale of three men who were guilty of all three of these things. The three men are in a bar when the dead body of their friend goes by and a servant boy tells them that Death is killing everyone.
So the three decide to go out and find Death and kill him. The three men encounter an old man who tells them that he wants to but can not find anyone who will trade their youth for his old age. The man points to a tree and tells that Death is underneath the tree. The three men dig up the tree and find eight bushels of gold coins but they decide to wait until nightfall to move the coins. Two of the men decide to send the youngest into town and while he is gone they plot to kill him when he returns so they can share his portion of the gold coins.
What the two men do not know is that the young man had poisoned the wine, so that he would get all of the gold coins. All three men end up dying and the Pardoner ends his tale by offering the pilgrims pardons for redemption. The theme of the sermon is that money is the root of all evil, we are meant to that “money is Death, which symbolically is lying at the root of the tree.” (Barrons) The Pardoner tells his tale stressing morality yet he himself is more immoral than the men in his tale are. Not only does he deceive Christians, but also he is a drunkard, a glutton and commits blasphemy against the Church. The thing about the Pardoner is that yes he is the most evil of them all, but rather than being ashamed of himself the Pardoner is proud of his lifestyle and continues to seek wealth.
The Pardoner serves as the worst representation of medieval society. He is a greedy man whose main purpose in life is himself and gaining wealth any way he can. The pardoner tricks people into believing that he was poor so they would give him money. It is ironic how the Pardoner’s tale contains everything that he is guilty of. He is proud of his evil nature and realizes his deceptive nature. Although the one characteristic that the Pardoner does hold is honesty, he does not deny his trickery was or the sins that he commits. The Canterbury Tales provides a clear representation of the different lifestyles and beliefs of the Middle Ages.
The tales of the Knight, Wife of Bath, and the Pardoner provide for some interesting representations of both good and evil, which are characteristics that can be found in medieval citizens. Chaucer developed a very effective way to frame his story by combining physical descriptions, morals, and political and economic beliefs of the different classes into a single setting. Chaucer is unique in his ways of writing, how he ties together a great piece of literature with what was going on in the Middle Ages. It is from The Canterbury Tales that medieval society is exactly represented and allows for the reader to develop a clear knowledge of the religious and social distinctions of the Middle Ages.
Works CitedAers, David. Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Vol 17.
Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.Barron’s Booknotes. Canterbury Tales. America Online.
Fleming, Martha. Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Vol 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
French, Robert Dudley. A Chaucer Handbook. New York: Meredith Corporation,1995.
Hollister, Warren C. Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York: McGraw Hill,1998.
Mack, Maynard. Nortan Anthology of World Masterpieces: Expanded Edition.New York, WW Nortan Company, 1995.