Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: A Faithful Account of People from Different Social Strata of Contemporary England
The Canterbury Tales is the major work by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was the medieval England’s leading poet. The poet talks of 30 pilgrims, comprising a cross‐section of English society, people of different strata, who agree to travel together from theTabard Inn in Southwark to Canterbury and tell stories in competition with each other along the way. Each character represents their typical lifestyle in the society. The paper sheds light on the comparison of Chaucer’s society, and that of contemporary England- the changes that have occurred in all sectors,including the political, social, economic and and cultural background, using the different characters of the poem.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales gives a mesmerizing commentary of the English life in the middle Ages. Chaucer has taken into the account of his Canterbury Tales the very manners and humorspresent in English nation in his era. Not a single character of the pilgrims has escaped his satire: there is a whole group of pastoral figures, representing the diversity of the medieval church, a crowd of other figures of different social strata and occupations, who were making up the society then. The Prologue also enlightens on clothing and food. Manypilgrims are armed, others carrying purse or a musical instrument. Chaucer has used these details to describe the pilgrim’s appearance, and also to throw further insight in his/ her character and role played in the society.
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 comparison with contemporary England has been done using the characters of “Canterbury Tales”.
- Politicaland religious conditions
Chaucer presents the political circumstances of his times. The politics were then controlled by the church, along with the king and his associates. Absolute monarchy prevailed, where the states were constantly at war; mainly for religion. The “elites” in the society were the religious leaders, as satirized through the characters Prioress, Monk, Friar and Summoner.
The characters are seen to promote fakeness, and misusing their powers by making a fool out of people. 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 clergymen instead of devoting their time and energy to religious meditation have given themselves up to profligacy, and Epicureanism.
A short description of each character arte given below.
The Prioress is always trying to show off her skills of culinary arts, table manners and fake French accent. When she sees a mouse caught in a trap, she starts to weep. But again, it can be seen that she feeds her hounds flesh.
“She had little dogs, too, that she fed
On roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread”
She wears a brooch on her breast that reads “Amor Vincit Omnia,”- “Love Conquers All”; having a second meaning of lustfulness. She has rosary in her hands which is more like an ornament rather used for praying.
And ther-on heng a brooch of gold fulsheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincitomnia.
(Prologue: 160 – 162)
Prioress is showing and promoting fakeness here which we can easily see in contemporary England. There are so many ladies along with men who fake their faces and characters by showing their religious mind but they are not like that actually. Even so many people lead a luxurious life by saying religious words to people which they never do. They suggest people to live poverty, to not to be in a wealthy life. But they never be on this way. They live a wealthy life and they never do anything to cure poverty but they show that they are hurt and sad for the people who are in pain and poverty.
The Monk is a manly man whose favorite past time is hunting; he keep gorgeous horses and greyhounds. If he was in heart a true a religious figure, he would have spent time in praying, rather than killing animals to show off his manly hood, because in Christianity a religious figure spends time in dedicating themselves for the welfare of the society, not bygetting a fat swan for meal. Even his dress up shows sign of luxury.
A Monk ther was, a fair for the maistrie.
An outridere, that lovedevenaire
Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he instable;
(Prologue: 118 – 121).
The Friar is seen to beg money from people because the church didn’t provide him enough to lead their life. The people thought they were providing money to the church, whereas, the whole amount went into the friar’s pocket. 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.In England society there so many people who fake their service for their benefit. Actually only they are benefited at anyways but no one is getting help because somehow they only have keen interest on their needs.
A summoner is the person a medieval church used to hire to call people or announce any pastoral service. This person is lecherous, dishonest, and unethical who drinks to excess, and uses the Archdeacon’s name as a pawn to earn money and dominate people. Beyond taking bribes, he is also seen a have concubines, which is strictly against the law.
A better felawesholde men noghtfynde.
He woldesuffree, for a quart of wyn,
A good felawe to have his concubyn
A twelfmonthe, and excuse hymattefulle;
And prively a finch eek koude he pulle.
(Prologue: 648 – 652)
The Political and religious conditions in contemporary England have completely changed now. The country is ruled by democratic government, now ruled by the Conservative party. Queen Elizabeth ll is neutral, but has formal and important role in relation to the government, e.g. granting royal assent to the legislation. The Church holds absolutely no power, but abides by the laws of the country. But however, insight into the abbot or monastery may still show corruption, fakeness and competitions with different convents, which again does promote fakeness, not known to people, but behind closed doors.
- Medieval Chivalry
Chaucer’s England was primarilymedieval in spirit, and showed outstanding chivalry and knighthood. 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 defense of religion. He 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, all the day
He koudesonges make and welendite
(Prologue: 91 – 95)
Chivalry is still seen among the people of contemporary England. It is still maintained. Though the Knights do not fight nowadays, but maintain the societal norms, and not only uphold the laws and rules, but also continue to abide by it. Some people like Squire, however, will always exist in the society.
- Rise of the MiddleClass
The trading and artisan section of society had started to flourish at the age of Chaucer. Fourteenth century in England witnessed the rise of the rich and prosperous merchants and tradesman who laid the foundation of England’s industrial prosperity. Chaucer makes reference to the rise of trades and merchants during his times, and his Merchant is the type of the merchants who were gradually coming into prominence. There is a shipman from the west-country, a representative of those adventurous seamen, half merchant-sailors, half smugglers and pirates, who had already made England’s name a terror on the seas and paved the way for her future naval and commercial supremacy.
Sergeant of law is a wise and prudent Man of Laws who is very well respected and highly sought after for his legal assistance. He is an excellent buyer of land. The Man of Laws is extremely busy and pretends to be even busier than he is. No one could ever find a flaw in his legal documents.
The Man of Laws is a social climber, a hard worker attempting to climb up the ranks through skill and networking. With the fast expansion in trade and commerce, merchants had become prosperous and so had the craftsmen whose goods they traded in. The merchant, sergeant and the sailor belong to the rising middle class.
- 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 laborersclamored for their rights and defied the authority of the landlords. However, there were in the midst of this upsurge among the servants and laborers, 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 laborers who were devoted to the masters and were faithfully performing the normal course of activities. Yeomen, cook, and carpenter represent the lower class of the society, who had no tale to tell, but rather works for their masters.
Such people still live in the contemporary
England, who get no right to speak for themselves but carry out only the works
assigned to them; has no life for them.
- 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.
This poor Clerk of Oxford, dressed in threadbare cloak, spent all that he can beg or borrow upon his studies. He represents that passion for learning which was already astir everywhere in Europe, and which was awaiting only the magic touch of the new-found classical literature to blossom out into genuine thought and imagination.
For him was levere at his beddes head
Twenty books’ clad in black or reed
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
(Prologue: 293 – 295)
Such characters can be seen in contemporary society in England, mainly university goers. This class of people represents the strata of people who strive in life top rise, but cannot sometimes reach their target destination because of proper guidance and money. Such people are usually youth, who needs much care.
“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.