Cross Section of 14th Century – How Chaucer Sees It

Apart from its great poetical and literary merits, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a wonderful commentary upon the English life in Middle Ages. Dryden has rightfully remarked that Chaucer must have been a man of most comprehensive character who could bring into the compass of his The Canterbury Tales the manners and humors of his age. His keen observation, extensive travel, great knowledge and variegated experience in the service of state had enabled him to present such a vivid picture of human life and pattern. Perhaps it was his desire to characterize his great knowledge that he conceived the idea of writing The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s technique in portraying his characters lie in joyous originality, free from complications. In fact Chaucer being the true narrator of his age, brings before us the reality in its very original form. He is an objective writer for whom the things are best represented when they are in their original shape. He is perhaps among those who first abandoned the conventions which did not present the thing in its obvious beauty. Chaucer exhibited the complete pageant of humanity with its most part exposed and little drapery thrown over it.

Chaucer has given a great variety of professions of his time. The Knight and the Squire present chivalric class. The Clerk, Doctor of Physic and already poet himself are the representatives of learned and liberal class. Chaucer has discussed neither the elite nor the downtrodden class of his age. He gives us the vivid picture of all those professions, which were adopted by the middle class. Trading, manufacturing and already farming are not ignored by him. He has included all the professions from the town in addition as from the village side.

The important aspect that we get from his masterpiece of writing is the moral condition of that age. He has introduced a number of ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical characters and most of them are morally bankrupt. Friar, Monk, Summoner and Pardoner being church officials. are expected to be ethical and religious but it is only their apparent look, inwardly they are money makers out of others’ problems, they are mercenaries. Chaucer has presented them in a way which exposed their without of discipline. The institution of church, which attained great strength in the Middle ages, had become a place of extortion. The wickedness was not taken as a disease to be eradicated but an opportunity of money making. The practice of giving huge tithes to abbot when vicar had inadequate income was a shared occurrence. Many people abandoned their ignored and half-savaged peasantry to flock to London or some other place as chantry priests; Monk’s Statement “Why sholde he studie and make hymselven a wood” gives the true picture of his unsuitability to his job.

Not only the religious authorities but also the various social sects of life mirror the same impression. Doctor of Physic, lawyer, Manciple, Reeve and already Merchants are not sincere to their obligations. They are wearing the masks of virtue but in practice they never leave a chance to cash from others’ sufferings. Chaucer has exposed the reality in a sugarcoated way as he knew it may evolve hatred against humanity.

Females in “The Canterbury Tales” are Prioress and Wife of Bath who embody the spirit of revolt against the current gender discrimination. Wife of Bath is a principal character who declared a revolt against men in general. Prioress does not obey the injunctions of the bishop, she keeps the pets and goes to pilgrimage.

Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” gives abundant information about the dresses, food and different instruments shared in those days. Knight’s doublet, Squire’s short embroidered dress, fur lined sleeves of Monk’s attire, Wife of Bath’s general wimple and heavy kerchief depicts the fact and style of wearings in those days. Roasted swans, red wine, different kinds of fish were the popular food of the day. Daggers, swords and horses were a shared sight.

It is interesting to see that his keen examination of the characters with all their manners, idiosyncracies, likes and dislikes make them complete of life and not insignificant bloodless dummies. They keep no more phantoms of the mind because they are not the spokesmen of Chaucer but a true reflection of their age. Along with the profiteering clerics there are various characters in “The Canterbury Tales” which are spokesmen of christian doctrines and dogmas in the fourteenth century. Among these moral characters we find Parson, Clerk, Ploughman etc. who are though poor in worldly material but high in thoughts and deeds. Parson satisfies his conscience by being functional and not just a theoretic; As he says

If gold reuste what shalt irene do” and

A shiten shepherd and a clene sheep

These statements justify the poor condition of church and social ranks because its natural that inferiors or poor will indulge in crime if the aristocratic and leading faculties are vicious. The state of morality was poor in Middle Ages when high and poor all were sinners and had to submit to penance which was easier for high in the shape of hefty amount.

We may conclude that Chaucer without amending or disguising interpreted the life of fourteenth century by the experience of persons and professions.

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