The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a well-known piece of literature that is studied in schools and universities worldwide. For some readers, it’s pleasant read of a band of travelers, making honest pilgrimages to pay their respects, who tell stories to pass the time. For others, it’s an impactful piece that not only resonates in the hearts of readers, but changed the history of literature as we know it to be. One reason for this, are the themes that Chaucer echoed throughout the tales, which were relevant to the time period in which he wrote it, the Late Middle Ages. Let’s take a closer look into these themes.
Love & Sexual Desire
The first of these major themes is courtly love. Courtly love and sexual desire is expressed through a multitude of these tales, such as The Knight’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, and the Reeve’s Tale. For this analysis, we will actually be taking look into The Wife of Bath’s prologue. In the prologue, the Wife of Bath tells her own personal story, and how she was married to 5 different husbands. The Wife of Bath explains that in her first three marriages, she was able to gain “sovereignty” over them through manipulation “as a means to consolidate money and power” (Lipton). The stories of her last two husbands talk more in detail about the role of love in a marriage, including how she married her last husband purely out of love, and not riches. At the current time period, marriage was seen as lower than celibacy. It was much more noble to remain pure and be a virgin, than to wed a husband and engage in sexual relations. And if a woman was married, her status during that period was based off who she was married to, while a man’s status was judged by his job. The Wife of Bath challenges these notions in various ways, citing experience from her former marriages, especially her last husband, as well as using biblical examples from the apostle Paul to defend marriage. There are many debates today, as to whether the Wife of Bath represents modern feminism, or whether she is a product of male misogyny. No matter what you might believe of the Wife of Bath, her story gives multiple insights to the idea of marriage and courtly love during the Late Middle Ages.
The second theme that we will be exploring is the idea of church corruption. For analysis on this theme, we will explore the Pardoner’s tale. A pardoner is defined as “a medieval preacher delegated to raise money for religious works by soliciting offerings and granting indulgences” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). In this story, the Pardoner walks around with religious relics, preaching about the dangers of greed and money, and then selling the promise of salvation if those who he is preaching to gives him money. His story warns about that same greed. He tells of three men who hear of their old friend being slain by Death. These men decide to find Death and kill him, but instead, stumble upon a bag of coins. They decided to each split the coins, but all end up killing each other, due to greed and desire to retain the entire bag of coins for themselves. The whole irony behind this tale, is that the Pardoner admits to the pilgrims that he does his job for the sole purpose of gaining more money. But instead of seeming sorrowful or remorseful, the Pardoner seems to take pride in his corruption. This echoes similar actions to the Catholic church during this time period. The effects of the Black Death were disastrous throughout Europe, leaving thousands upon thousands dead. Meanwhile, the Catholic church adorned their cathedrals with beautiful artifacts and windows, with all the money they had collected. The people lost their trust in the church, as they now viewed church officials as corrupt and money hungry. In particular fashion, Chaucer illustrates this with the Pardoner’s corruption and lust for money, echoing a popular sentiment for commoners of that time.
The third major theme of The Canterbury Tales is competition, which is not only expressed in the tales, but between the pilgrims themselves. The Knight’s Tale is almost entirely about competition, as two prisoners, Arcite and Palamon, have both fallen in love with a girl, Emily, who they viewed from their imprisoned tower. Both are friends, but the competitiveness between the two begins to drive them apart. It eventually results in a duel, where Palamon is badly injured. Arcite appears victorious, but after divine intervention by the Roman God, Pluto, through the power of the Roman God, Saturn, Arcite is killed, and Emily is awarded to Palamon. But outside of this tale, there is competition between each of the pilgrims. When the Knight concludes his tale, the Miller jumps in after and says, “To swear, ‘By arms, and by blood and by bones, I know a noble tale I’ll tell at once, with which I shall requite the Knight’s tale!” (Chaucer, p. 195). And outside of the individual tales and disputes between pilgrims, the entire piece is about competition itself. Everyone is telling these stories as a competition to see who has the best story and who will get a free dinner from the Host of the inn. Competitive storytelling was very popular during the Late Middle Ages, and The Canterbury Tales is the perfect example of that. Competition is everywhere in this book, driving the entire story, through three different layers of depth.