Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
"The Canterbury Tales" is a complex work with several overlapping thematic concerns. The poem represents the English society of the fourteenth century All the three fundamental strata of medieval society-the Knighthood, the spiritual clergy and the toiling agricultural classes - have ample representation in the portraits of the Knight, Parson and Plowman. The well - born gentility is represented through the Prioress and the Monk. The medieval manor is depicted through the Miller and the Reeve. The Merchant, the innkeeper Host, the Manciple, the Cook, and the five guildsmen represent the middle classes. The professional class is depicted through the Sergeant at Law and the Physician. Provincial England is also represented through the Wife of Bath and the Sea captain from Dartmouth.
Another prominent theme is Chaucerís critique of the church of medieval England. The Canterbury Tales provides the reader with a picture of a disorganized Christian society in a state of decline and obsolescence. Chaucer is aware of the corruption of the clergy and draws an ironic portrait of the Prioress and presents satiric portraitures of the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner. The ideal portrait of the Parson counterbalances the moral depravity and corruptness of the other ecclesiastics and represents what should be. Chaucerís ironic praise of the Prioressís affectations, classical beauty, and attachment to worldly concerns only serves to highlight her inappropriateness as the head of a religious convent. Her achievements would have been more suitable for a fashionable lady of the society.
Similarly Chaucerís approbation of the Monkís delight in the finer things of life and passion for hunting is aimed at eliciting the readerís disapproval as they go against his monastic vow of poverty. His frequent hunting expeditions contravene the monastic vow of leading a cloistered life and devoting oneself to studies. The irony is intensified when Chaucer commends the Monkís refusal to follow the rules laid down by St. Benedict and reminds the reader that, "And I seyde his opinion was good." The Friar is first praised for his humility, courtesy, virtuousness, and ability to extract money from the poor. Chaucer approvingly says that the worthy Friar had arranged the marriage of many young women at his own cost. The readers only realize a moment later the Friarís motive for doing so and are filled with derision at his lechery. Similarly Chaucer praises the Friarís knowledge of the taverns and bars in town and agrees that it is unprofitable to associate with the poor. Thus in the portraits of the ecclesiastics Chaucer praises those qualities which are diametrically opposed to their profession. There is a sort of ascending scale of moral depravity and corruption from the indulgent portrait of the worldly Prioress to the portrait of the dissolute Friar. But Chaucer reserves his maximum acrimony for the Summoner and the Pardoner.
The Summonerís main function was to summon sinners before the ecclesiastical courts for justice. It is extremely ironic for a corrupt Summoner who is himself guilty of committing sins, to bring sinners to justice. His repulsive physical appearance is an indicator of his diseased soul. Chaucer strongly condemns the Summonerís acceptance of bribes and the philosophy that the purse is the archdeaconís hell, which implies that the only punishment is to the purse of the sinner. The Ďgentilí Pardoner is the representation of evil. He sells indulgences and dupes naïve people by selling them false relics. Moreover the hypocritical crook always preaches against avarice even while he himself is guilty of the same sin. The Canterbury Tales thus constitutes a passionate attack on the decadence and corruption of the medieval church. Chaucer exposes the evils attacking the very root of Christianity. Chaucerís portrait of the ideal Parson, indicates his desire for reform and revitalize Christianity.