Chaucer's Canterbury Tales" as a Picture of Contemporary Society


by Purwarno
Fakultas Sastra
Universitas Islam Sumatera Utara, Medan

Artikel ini membahas tentang kehidupan sosial dan politik nasional di Inggris pada abad pertengahan yang digambarkan dalam karya terbesar Geoffrey Chaucer, “Prologue to Cantgerbury Tales”. Chaucer yang juga dikenal sebagai bapak puisi Inggris menggambarkan secara detail berbagai aspek sosial, budaya dan politik nasional pada masanya. Gambaran kehidupan masyarakat pada masa itu diramu dengan baik oleh Chaucer melalui presentasi tokoh-tokoh yang ditampilkan dalam karyanya tersebut sehingga dengan membaca artikel ini pembaca akan mendapat gambaran yang baik dan jelas tentang kehidupan dan situasi sebenarnya pada masa itu.

Keywords: contemporary society, Middle Age, ecclesiastical characters, chronicler, medieval chivalry.

Literature reflects the tendencies of the age in which it is produced and there is always a supreme literary artist who becomes the mouthpiece of his age and gives expression to its hopes and aspirations, its fads and fetishes, its fears and doubts, its prosperity or poverty and its enterprise in his works. Chaucer symbolizes the Middle Age. He stands in much the same relation to the life of his time as Pope does to the earlier phases of the eighteenth century, the Age of Neoclassicism, and Tennyson to the Victorian era in the later nineteenth century; and his place in English Literature is even more important than theirs.
So far as religious belief is concerned, Pope was not a representative of his age. He was a Roman Catholic whereas the majority of Englishmen in his age were Protestants, with a fair sprinkling of Puritans among them. However, Pope never asserts his religion anywhere in his work. He faithfully represents his Age, its social, intellectual life and literary tendencies in the poems such as “The Rape of the Lock”, “Dunciad”, “Essay on Man”, and “Essay on Criticism”. In “The Rape of the Lock”, Pope satirically portrays the frivolous pursuits and affected life of the upper-class ladies of his age in the person and activities of Belinda. “The Essay on Man” is, likewise, an attempt to present the philosophical and intellectual principles of his Age. In the “Dunciad”, Pope lets loose the floodgates of scurrilous satire attacking the political strife of the age and the low moral standards to which the wits had fallen in those days. Like Pope, Tennyson was equally the mouthpiece of the Victorian society, and represented the ideas, traditions, hopes and aspirations of the people. He reflected the fancies and sentiments of the Victorian England. In the “Princes”, Tennyson associates himself with the suffragist movement of his time and makes a plea for the education and better placement of woman in society. In “Locksley Hall of 1842”, he effectively presents the restless spirit of ‘young England’ and the optimistic belief of the age in science, commerce and the progress of mankind; while its sequel “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886) shows the revulsion of new things which had occurred in many minds when the rapid development of science seemed to threaten the very foundation of religion, and commerce was filling the world with the sordid greed of gain. In the “Palace of Art”, he describes and condemns the spirit of aestheticism and Pre-Raphaeliticism, whose sole religion was the worship of beauty and knowledge for its own sake. “Maud” gives a dramatic rendering of the revolt of a cultured mind against the hypocrisy and corruptions of a society degraded by the worship of Mammon. In his “Idylls of the King”, he has reduced the plan of the Arthurian stories to the necessities of Victorian morality. In “Memoriam”, he traces the triumph of Faith and Love over Death and Skepticism. In all these ways, Tennyson represents the Victorian Age.
Like Pope and Tennyson, Chaucer represents his own Age. He is as truly the social chronicler of England in the late fourteenth century as Froissart is the political and military chronicler of France during the same period. His poetry reflects the fourteenth century not in fragments but as a complete whole. Other poets of his Age direct their gaze and attention to only a certain limited aspects of the age. For example Wyclif (1330-1408) reflects the fear produced in the wealthier class by the Peasant Rising; Barbour mirrors the break between the literature of Scotland and of England and the advent of patriotic Scottish poetry; and Langland (1330-1400) presents a picture of the corruption in the Church and the religious order. Each of these authors throws light only on one aspect of fourteenth century life. It is Chaucer’s greatness that he directs his comprehensive gaze not on one aspect only of his Age but on all its wide and variegated life. He is the wide and capacious soul, and takes a fuller view of his times more than anyone else could have taken in those days. Chaucer gives us a direct transcription of reality and a true picture of daily life as it actually lives in most familiar aspects. Chaucer represents all this fully nowhere but in “Prologue to Canterbury Tales” in which through the presentation of the characters, Chaucer represents the wide sweep of English life by gathering a motley company together and making each class of society tell its own typical story.

At the outset, it must be made clear that Chaucer at heart was a realist, and he revealed the truth about life as he saw it. Chaucer’s realism primarily comes out in the setting of “The Canterbury Tales” which is not only his masterpiece among the poet’s own works but also the high point of all English medieval literature. The pilgrimage belonging to all classes of society journeying from London to the holy shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury provides Chaucer a fitting opportunity to present realistically the picture of the real world of fourteenth century life. Chaucer imparts the solid touch of realism in the portrayal of his characters. Each character with the dress, manner and behavior is highly conducive to realism. Chaucer presents the variegated life of his age faithfully and realistically.

a. Medieval Chivalry
Chaucer’s England was predominantly medieval in spirit, and the most outstanding feature of the middle Age was chivalry and knighthood. It is in “The Prologue to Canterbury Tales” that Chaucer reflects very clearly the chivalric spirit of the medieval times. Chaucer reflects the fading chivalry of the middle Age represented in the character of the Knight, and the rising chivalry of his own times reflected in his young son, the Squire.
The Knight is a true representative of the spirit of medieval chivalry which was a blend of love, religion, and bravery. He has been a champion of not fewer than fifteen mortal battles in the defence of religion.

At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for oure feith …
(Prologue: 61 – 62)

However, it is in the Age of Chaucer that the spirit of true chivalry was breathing its last. The Knight was the true symbol of the old world of knighthood that was losing its ground giving place to a new conception of chivalry represented by the Squire, who, in spite of his military exploit, was a man of happy-go-lucky nature. He has as much taste for revelry as for chivalry. He is “a lover and a lusty bachelor”. He is singing and fluting all the day.

Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day
He koude songes make and wel endite
(Prologue: 91 – 95)

b. Political Conditions
In the “Prologue to Canterbury Tales”, Chaucer realistically presents the political conditions o his times. He refers to the “Peasant’s Revolt” of 1381 in the Clerk’s Tale and 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:

So hideous was the noise, ah, Bendicte,
Certes, he Jacke Straw, and his meinee
Ne made never shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any leming kille,
(The Nun’s Priest’s Tale: 573 – 576)

The very reason why there is only few references to the movement of the people out for grabbing power from nobility in “The Canterbury Tales” is that Chaucer had no love and liking for the rabblement. Another important national event taking place in the Age is the “The Black Death” or the terrible plague of 1384 – 89. The allusion to this event comes in Chaucer’s character-sketch of the Doctor of Physic: “He kepte that wan in pestilence”.
There is then a latent reference to Lollardism,--The Lollard’s Movement started by John Wyclif in 1377 for the reformation of the church, in the delineation o the “Poor Parson”, who like a Lollard, (one of Wyclif’s disciplines) believed in simple living and high thinking.

c. Rise of the Merchant Class
For the first time in history, the trading and artisan section of society were coming to their own in the age of Chaucer. The fourteenth century in England witnesses the rise of the rich and prosperous merchants and tradesman. They carried profitable business with European countries and were laying the foundation of England’s industrial prosperity. Small traders and handicraftsmen grew into power and began to behave like aldermen and well-to-do citizens. The importance and self-consciousness of the smaller tradesmen and handicraftsmen increased with that of the great merchants. The middle class people contested seats for Parliament. Chaucer makes reference to the rise of trades and merchants during his times, and his Merchant is the type o the merchants who were gradually coming into prominence. The picture of the average merchants has a familiar ring about in:

A merchant was there with forked beard,
In motteleye and hye on horse he sat
Upon hid head a Flaudryssh bevere hat:
His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
(Prologue: 270 – 273)

With the fast expansion in trade and commerce, merchants had become prosperous and so had the craftsmen whose goods they traded in. We are told by Chaucer that the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Tapicer were well clothed and equipped. Their weapons were not cheaply trimmed with brass, but all with silver. They were so respectable-looking. They were no longer despised by the nobility.

A Haberdasher, and a Carpenter,
A Webbe, a Dyere, and a Tapycer,
And they were clothed alle in olyveree
Of a solempne and greet fraternitee;
Ful fresh and newe hir geere apiked was;
Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras,
But al with silver, wrought ful clene and weel,
Hire girdles and his pouches everydeel.
Wel semed each of them a fair burgeous
To sitten in a yeldhalle, on a days.
(Prologue: 361 – 370)

d. Medical Profession
Chaucer’s portrait of the Doctor of Physic is fairly representative of the theory and practice of medicine in his age. The knowledge of astronomy or what we should call astrology was a must or a physician as all the physical ailments were supposed to be the consequences of the peculiar configurations of stars and planets. That is why the Doctor of Physic too was “grounded in astronomy”. However, as a type character of the physicians of the day, he had no time for reading the Bible; “His study was but little on the Bible”. Most probably, it is because he had not much time to spare from his professional studies. He had amassed a fortune in the year of the great plague and was keen to keep it with him. It also gives a sly dig at him for his gold-loving nature.

He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
For gold in physic is a cordial
Therefore he lovede gold in special
(Prologue: 442 – 444)

e. Religious Condition of the Age
Through the ecclesiastical characters in “The Canterbury Tales”, Chaucer constructs a representative picture of the condition of the church and its ministers in his age. He does not strike pointedly at the corruption among the clergymen of the times but he certainly presents realistically the fatty degeneration that had set in religious life of his age. The clergymen instead of devoting their time and energy to religious meditation have given themselves up to profligacy, and Epicureanism. Chaucer does not attack like Wyclif or Lollard any principle or dogma o Christian Catholicism, but certainly he cannot tolerate the growing corruption, laxity of discipline and love o luxury prevailing among the clergy. He, therefore, satirises these depraved and fallen ecclesiastics of his times. There are seven ecclesiastical characters dealt with by Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”, not counting the nun and the chaplain in attendance upon the Prioress. The seven ecclesiastical characters are the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Clerk of Oxford, the Parson, the Summoner, and the Pardoner. It may be pointed out, at the very outset, that Chaucer presents the clergymen of his times in a most unfavourable light. The only ecclesiastical characters whom Chaucer admires and whom the readers admire also are the Clerk and the Parson for whom Chaucer has nothing but praise. The other characters belonging to the church are ridiculed and satirized. Chaucer exposes the follies, the absurdities, the monetary greed, the hypocrisy, and, on the whole, the irreligious nature of these men of religion. These clergymen are not only most worldly-minded but also dishonest, immoral, and corrupt.
The Prioress comes first. A study of the conditions prevailing in Chaucer’s time would show that Chaucer creates this Prioress straight from his own world. The Prioress bothers more about modish etiquette than austerity. This Prioress is essentially well-bred but she is also individualized. She has a romantic name, Eglantine. She indulges in certain vanities which belonged, either wholly or partly, to many nuns of Chaucer’s time. A Prioress was not expected to swear at all, but Eglantine swears by Saint Loy, the seventh-century courtier-turned saint.

There was also a Nonne, a Prioress,
That of hir smyling was ful simple and coy;
Hire gretteste oath was but by saint Loy,
And she was cleped madame Eglentyne.
(Prologue: 118 – 121)

Besides, Nuns were also forbidden to keep pets of any kind but Eglantine possesses little dogs upon which she lavishes affection and care, even feeding them with meat and expensive white bread.

Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flesh or milk and wastel breed;
(Prologue: 146 – 147)

She cannot hide her love of jewellery. Her rosary is too elaborate or a nun, and the brooch she wears, bearing an ambiguous motto, should not be worn by a nun.

And ther-on heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincit omnia.
(Prologue: 160 – 162)

The Prioress indeed corresponds to the character of prioress as they were in the fourteenth century.
The Friar is a jolly beggar who employs his tongue to carve out his living. He is a representative of his class. He is a “limiter”, that is, a friar who has secured the begging rights in a specified area. He knows how to induce all the women in that area to give him money or food in response to his “dalliance”. He has a way with him. He knows all the latest songs, with which he entertains the fair wives with presents of ornamental knives and pins, and his initial blessing of each house he visits is pleasantly satisfying. When he visits richer or more important people, his manner changes; he becomes courteous and humble. He is only ready to hear confessions, and to sell absolution for money, which is, of course, his greatest sin. He will have nothing to do with lepers or with the poor. He will deal only with those who can be a source of profit to him.

For unto swich a worthy man as he
Acorded nat, as by his facultee,
To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce;
It is nat honeste, it may nat avaunce,
For to deelen with no swich poraille;
But all with riche and sellers of vitaille.
And over al, ther as profit sholde arise,
Curteis he was and lowely of servyse:
(Prologue: 243 – 250)

The Monk is also satirically portrayed. The Monk is a fat well-fed individual who is more interested in hunting than in the performance of his religious duties. He neither labours with his hands nor pores over a book in the cloister. The Monk does not fast or deny himself costly garments; instead he loves a fat swan the best of any roast; he wears the finest gray for in the land, an elaborate gold pin in the shape of a love-knot, and costly supple boots. He owns greyhounds which are swift as birds, and in his stables are many valuable horses. Thus, Chaucer’s Monk is a lively representative of his class.

A Monk ther was, a fair for the maistrie.
An outridere, that lovede venaire
Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he instable;
(Prologue: 118 – 121).

The Summoner is basically wicked. He teaches a sinner not to feel afraid of the archdeacon’s curse because money, he says, will set everything right. The Summoner has all the young people of the parish under his thumb as he knows their secret and acts as their advisor. The Summoner will readily excuse a fellow or keeping a mistress for a year, if he is given only a quart of wine. He is sexually immoral himself, because he can take advantage of a girl, that is he will seduce a girl, if he gets the opportunity.

As hoot he was, and lecherous, as sparwe,
(Prologue: 626)

A better felawe sholde men noght fynde.
He wolde suffree, for a quart of wyn,
A good felawe to have his concubyn
A twelf monthe, and excuse hym atte fulle;
And prively a finch eek koude he pulle.
(Prologue: 648 – 652)

It is clearly noticed that the Summoner is a depraved fellow. He will excuse a fellow fully for the sin of keeping a mistress for a year only for a quart of wine. It also fully signifies that he loves to drink wine.
The Pardoner, who is the Summoner’s friend and comrade, is a despicable parasite trading in letters of pardon with the sinners who could ensure a seat in heaven by paying hard cash. The Pardoner, we are told, has come straight from the papal court at Rome, and he bears a bag full of pardons. The Pardoner carries with him, as relics, a pillow case which he claims to be part of the Virgin Mary’s veil, and a piece of cloth which he claims to be part of the sail of St. Peter’s boat. He also has a cross made of brass but studded with gems, and some pig’s bones which he claims to be a saint’s relics. He well knew how he must preach and speak in a biting tone in order to obtain money from the congregation.

For wel he wiste, whan that song was songe,
He moste preche, and wel affile his tonge
To wynne silver, as he full wel koude,
(Prologue: 711 – 713)

The Clerk and the Parson, as has already been said above, are worthy of respect and admiration. The Clerk is a devoted student of logic, and he would rather have twenty volumes of Aristotle than rich robes or a fiddle. His outer coat is threadbare for he is poor, even his horse is as lean as a rake. What money he receives from his benefactors, he spends on books and learning, and he repays the benefactors by heartfelt prayers for their souls.

But al that he myghte of his freendes hente
On bookes and his lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soule preye
Of hem that yaf hym wher-with to scoleye,
(Prologue: 299 – 302)

He never displays unseemly levity in behaviour. He does not speak one word more than is necessary; when he does speak, he is brief, to the point, and always noble in his meaning. He is glad to learn and glad to teach.
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
(Prologue: 304 – 308)

The Parson is apparently a follower of Wyclif who revolted against the corruption of the church. He is a learned man faithfully preaching Christ’s gospel and devoutly instructing his parishioners. He emphasizes two facts: if gold rusts, iron will do far worse; and if the shepherd is foul, the sheep cannot be clean.

That If gold ruste what shal iron do?
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a prest take keepe,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheepe.
(Prologue: 497 – 451)

He is holy and virtuous, meek and polite. He is no hireling but a worthy shepherd to his flock. The Parson will not leave his parishioners “to sink in the mire”, in order that he may make more money by running off to London to become a chantry priest or to seek a position in some guild: “he was a shepherd and noght a mercenaire”. Although he is good, he does not hesitate to reprimand anyone who shows no repentance. He treats those of high or low position in exactly the same way.

But if were any persone obstinate,
What so he were, of high of lough estat
Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys.
(Prologue: 521 – 523)

f. Condition of Lower Class
Chaucer represents faithfully the rise of the low classes and the voice that they made for better conditions of life. In the Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer refers to the “stormy people”, their levity, untruthfulness, indiscretion, fickleness, and garrulity. The labourers clamoured for their rights and defied the authority of the landlords. However, there were in the midst of this upsurge among the servants and labourers, a class of conservative workmen who were still devoted to their old ways of living, and paid respect to the higher authorities. Chaucer’s Ploughman faithfully represents the class of conservative labourers who were devoted to the masters and were faithfully performing the normal course of activities.

g. Condition of the Inns and Table Manners
Chaucer also portrays the conditions of the inns of his times and the 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 disquisition on table manners of the age in the Prologue. Each guest brought his own knife, but for common use there were no forks. At the beginning and end of dinner everyone washed his hands.

h. Love of Display and Extravagance
Chaucer represents faithfully love for display and extravagance both in the upper and the lower classes of the fourteenth century England. This love for display is shown in several characters of the Prologue. The young Squire’s garments were embroidered like a meadow all full of fresh flowers, white and red.

Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
Al ful of fresshe floures whyte and reede;
(Prologue: 89 – 90)

The prioress carries a coral rosary with large dividing beads of green, and on it there hangs a brooch of the brightest gold on which there is first written a crowned “A” and then the words “Love conquers all”.

Of small coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded all with grene,
And there-on heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which there was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincit omnia
(Prologue: 158 – 162)

A Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapestry-maker are all clothed in one kind of livery prescribed by a distinguished and great organization. The clothes of all these persons are freshly and newly trimmed. Their knives are mounted, not with brass, but with silver which has been rubbed perfectly clean.

And they were clothed alle in o lyveree
Of a solempne and great fraternitee;
Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;
Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras,
But al with silver, wroght ful clene and weel.
(Prologue: 363 - 367)

The Wife of Bath decks herself with “kerchiefs” and finery. Her kerchiefs are finely woven, and the kerchiefs she wears on her head on a Sunday must have been ten pounds in weight.

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound;
That on a Sunday weren upon hir head
(Prologue: 453 - 455)

i. Revival of the Classical Learning
Through the character of the Clerks of the Oxford, Chaucer has presented the interest that people of this age started taking in the classical writers. The New learning began to be popular at the time, as can be seen in the case of the Clerk of Oxford. He is an austere scholar who prefers twenty books of Aristotle’s philosophy on his bed’s head to gay clothes and musical instruments.

For him was levere at his beddes head
Twenty books’ clad in black or reed
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
(Prologue: 293 - 295)

“The Canterbury Tales” gives us a fairly authentic and equally extensive picture of the socio-political conditions prevailing in England in the Age of Chaucer. Each of the pilgrims hails from a different walk of life, and among themselves they build up an epitome of their age. Each of them is a representative of a section of society as well as an individual. Chaucer was a delineator of reality. In all these ways, it can be said that Chaucer is the chronicler of his age and reflects his century not in fragments but almost completely. He heralds the birth of the new humanism and the dawn of the Renaissance, and at the same time he vividly brings before us the traditions and conventions which his age had inherited from the Middle Ages.



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