Essay, Research Paper: Canterbury Tales By Chaucer

Literature: Geoffrey Chaucer

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a story of nine and twenty pilgrims
traveling to Canterbury, England in order to visit the shrine of St. Thomas A.
Becket. The General Prologue starts by describing the beauty of nature and of
happy times, and then Chaucer begins to introduce the pilgrims. Most of
Chaucer’s pilgrims are not the honorable pilgrims a reader would expect from
the beautiful opening of the prologue, and instead they are pilgrims that
illustrate moral lessons. In the descriptions of the pilgrims, Chaucer’s
language and wit helps to show the reader how timeless these character are.
Chaucer describes his pilgrims in a very kind way, and he is not judgmental.
Each of these pilgrims has a trade, and in most cases, the pilgrims use their
trade in any possible way to benefit themselves. By using our notion of
stereotypes, and counter stereotypes, Chaucer teaches us many moral lessons
about religion and money. Chaucer’s moral lessons start while he is
introducing the pilgrims. These pilgrims are not from the same social stations
in life, and instead they range anywhere from a rich lady from Bath to a drunken
miller. It is nice to think twenty nine people with different social classes can
all join together and go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but this is not likely
in today‘s society. This idea helps not only to show Chaucer’s religious and
platonic view, but also how society should be accepting and look at each other
the way Chaucer does in the General Prologue. Each of the pilgrims Chaucer
describes can be considered timeless characters with timeless moral problems,
since people today still display these characteristics. Chaucer describes all of
the pilgrims; however, some character’s moral problems stand out more so than
others do. The Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath,
the Summoner and the Pardoner are all characters that have valuable lessons to
teach us through their behavior and through Chaucer’s wit. The most obvious
problem with these characters is that they are not at all who a reader would
think they are. Chaucer shows the characters faults in a diplomatic way, and
these faults are apparent through the description in the General Prologue. The
Prioress, also known as Mme.Eglantine, is the mother superior at her nunnery. By
saying she is the superior at her nunnery, the impression is that she must be a
devout lady who loves God, however, this is not the case. She is a very proper
lady who sings through her nose, loves her lap dogs and eats with impeccable
manners. As Chaucer describes, “She was so charitable and so pitous,” she
even cried when she saw a dead mouse (p. 218). She had an impressive forehead
and a gold broach which said “Amor vincit omnia,” which means love conquers
all (p. 219). Her engraved broach seems to speaks more of secular love than of
Godly love, (Godly love in Latin is Amour Dei) (class discussion). This prioress
is much more concerned with manners and demonstrating her demureness than
showing her love for God. Her broach demonstrates what she thinks is most
important. Chaucer ends with this, and the reader realizes that her love for God
should be what is most important to her. The next character we learn from also
holds a position in the Church, the Monk. This religious servant, like the nun,
also loves something before God; this man loves the outdoors and hunting. In
this case, the reader usually pictures a monk as someone who really loves God
and devout in his religious studies, but the monk is a very different case.
Studying inside the cloister or working with his hands was out of the question;
riding is much more his style. He has the finest horses with decorated saddles,
and he also uses the church’s money for racing greyhounds. He has spared no
expense for his clothes or his meals. Chaucer elegantly shows how materialistic
this monk is; it seems he cares more for hunting and racing than he does for
God. Another religious figure is the Friar, who is the one the most corrupt of
the religious pilgrims. A Friar is not high in the Church, but nonetheless they
have a duty to be of good moral standards and help anyone who comes to them;
this Friar is not the typical stereotype. Today, He is of good nature and as
Chaucer said “ful wel biloved,” liked by all (p. 220). He is very familiar
with Franklins (who were rich landowners) and with the young women. In fact, he
has found many young women husbands. This Friar hears confessions and is easy to
give forgiveness if the confessor has money for penance, plus he figures that he
does not need to be seen with leapers or poor people. Penance is better than
crying or weeping over the sin, and in his patrons eyes he was courteous and
humble. There is no better a beggar in his entire house and he always left with
a donation. The Friar is very clever at his trade. He deals only with the people
who would reward him handsomely and did not even bother with the poor or sick;
although, he does take time to talk to all of the young women. It is not hard to
understand Chaucer’s use of wit with the Friar; it is obvious that he takes
full advantage of his position and has no site of God in his mind. He does
everything for himself, especially to get money or “relations.” He takes no
consideration that he should be helping people instead of taking advantage of
them. The Friar dealt with many Franklins, and there is also a Franklin on this
pilgrimage. The Franklin has a red face and this might be related to his love of
wine. Here is a pilgrim who is not in the Church, however, he still can teach us
a moral lesson. He is described to have a sanguine complexion, and in middle
evil times people were described by four bodily humors (p. 225). Chaucer uses
his wit here and says “For he was Epicurus owene sone;” Epicurus is a Greek
philosopher who believed pleasure is the goal of life (p.223). This man loves to
eat and his tastes change with the seasons, although his table was always set
well. Food and wine were this man’s vices as Chaucer shows, and the lesson
this pilgrim shows us is that pleasure is not the main goal of life. In fact,
this man’s main goal in life should be to serve God. The Wife of Bath is the
next pilgrim in mind, and she is not in the Church, however, she more than the
stereotypical housewife. This lady is in a category of her own. She is a
housewife and can be considered a professional pilgrim who has traveled to many
destinations. She also enjoys husbands, five to be exact. Chaucer says she has
is respectable, not counting her youthful days. She is a bold, outspoken woman,
and her clothes reflect her personality, especially her headdress that hangs to
the floor. She is charitable if and only if she is the first to the altar. The
Wife of Bath also rides well and is good company. She knows of many love
remedies, because she knows about “that old dance” (p. 226). In the Wife of
Bath’s description, Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to illustrate love, or lack
of it. The Wife of Bath marries older rich men and when they die, she finds
another. This woman’s pilgrimaging might be to find rich husbands more than
celebrating the holy destinations on the pilgrimage. Like other pilgrims, she
knows how to work her station in life to her advantage. The Summoner and the
Pardoner are two of the most corrupt pilgrims, and yet they have the jobs with
the most power over people’s souls and lives. One would expect the two
pilgrims who are high in the Church to be some pilgrims that really did care for
God and truly are in this job to serve others and God, however, this is not
true. The Summoner appearance scared children because he had a fire red face
with sores all over it. He, like the Friar, also likes female “company.” The
Summoner’s job is to summon offenders to the ecclesiastical court, sometimes
guilty or not depending on the person’s purse. His position makes him
powerful, and he used his rank in any way he could for money. The Pardoner also
loved “earning” money; his appearance was frightening, but he believes he is
following the latest fashion. His wallet is full and hot of pardons and money,
and in his bag he claimed to have part of the sail that St. Peter had until
Jesus got it. The Pardoner also has other relics that he used to make money off
of unsuspecting parsons. Although, when in church, he is a “noble ecclesiaste,”
teaching lessons, preaching and especially singing because he knows the money
will follow. This pilgrim is high in the Church, yet he seems to have no respect
for God; he only cares for money. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer creates
timeless characters that we can still learn from today. The General Prologue
starts with the idea of springtime and flowers blooming, and this may be
Chaucer’s way of saying these characters, despite their moral afflictions,
might be born again over the pilgrimage. It is ironic how all of these morally
corrupt people go on a religious pilgrimage, yet they do not seem to incorporate
God in their everyday lives. Chaucer’s style of writing, his use of
stereotypes and counter stereotypes really helps the reader to think and learn
the moral lessons the characters have not quite mastered. There are many lessons
learned here just by the description of the characters, and most of the moral
lessons and wit stems from the pilgrim’s taking advantage of their trades
whether it is a housewife or a pardoner.
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