GeoffreyChaucer of the Canterbury Tales
GeoffreyChaucer was a courtier in the middle ages who wrote a collection of24 short stories known as TheCanterbury Tales.He is known as the main contributor towards English literature sincehe used Middle English to portray his works at a time when French,Italian, and Latin were the main languages (Sylvester, 248). Thestories told in this collection consist of characters with ironictraits that clearly indicate the society of the time. His tales focuson criticizing the major religion of the period, which, wasChristianity. The satirical pictures painted by his stories aredirected at the Church (Sylvester, 248).
Verylittle is known about the private life of Geoffrey Chaucer. Eventhough his literal works have earned him great fame among literaturescholars, no one has intrinsic details about the education that hereceived. He was born as an only child in the 1340s. His father soldwine and he became rich after he inherited property that hisrelatives left behind after they succumbed to the Black Death plague.He used the money to send his son, Chaucer, to the residence of anearby noble who could instill various skills into the boy. Geoffreybegun as a page in the estate of Countess of Ulster and his destinywas not to become a wine merchant like his father (Sylvester, 248).He worked under the son of King Edward III both as a soldier and as aspokesperson for the kingdom. His knowledge of different languagesmade him indispensable in the royal court and he usually foundhimself given assignments to different regions. His tour of Italy mayhave made him meet Boccaccio, who is thought to have inspiredChaucer’s writing techniques (Sylvester, 248).
Chaucerstarted to structure his form of English poetry that was aimed to beread by people from all walks of life. At the time, French was theofficial language at the king’s establishment and the Church usedLatin as its key language. He wanted the message from his writtenmaterial to be enjoyed by the commoners who had no knowledge of thesetwo languages (Sylvester, 248).
Chaucerreceived numerous awards for his skills in diplomacy and he workedunder two separate kings who valued him as an important asset. Hiscompensations included property, money, and promotions (Sylvester,248). He was appointed by the monarchy to act as the head in thesector that dealt with importing clothes. The experience that he gotfrom working in this department could be one of the reasons why hehad the ability to describe the items that the characters wore in histales down to the fine details (Sylvester, 248). He married PhilipaRoet that worked for King Edward’s queen and the couple had twosons. Chaucer had married before but the wife died without giving himany children. Academics have also speculated that he had a mistressat some point of his life (Sylvester, 248).
Chauceris known to have started writing the CanterburyTalesprior to his retirement. Even though his plan was that each characterwas to provide four stories for the material, two for the journey toCanterbury and two for the return leg, he resorted to only 24 tales.All of the stories in that text consider the church and the politicalstatus of the time as full of hypocrites and less intelligent people.He was cautious in his writing since he never went overboard whencriticizing any major institution at the time. The stories becamefamous for the low-class members of the society who used the humor inthe text to laugh at their superiors. By subjecting the regime andreligion to public scrutiny, Chaucer attempted to show that everyindividual is equal and they all fail or make mistakes. Through hisneed to reach the least considered people in the community usingpoetry, Chaucer earned himself a position among the best writers inhistory.
Characteristicsof Chaucer in CanterburyTales
Chaucerwrote the CanterburyTalesin Middle English which is no longer used. However, translators wereable to re-write the stories in a form that people from this agecould read and understand. Chaucer in all of those tales wasrewriting stories of different pilgrims that he had traveled with tovisit the shrine of St. Thomas in Canterbury. The mockery of religionand the political structure of the time is presented in a manner thatshows the views depicted in the text were not Chaucer’s opinions(Chaucer, 2012).
Chaucerhad a deep understanding of the nature of human beings and he did nothesitate to apply that skill in his materials. The main gender thathe focused on was women. He tried to express the notions that theChurch, monarchy, and society had for women (Chaucer, 2012). At thetime, women had distinct positions. They could either become a nun ora mother. There was not any other profession that was set for women.All of Chaucer’s 24 tales present this situation. Most of the timethe women were docile and they did not go against the system.However, he presents the Wife of Bath in a new light. The woman isclearly opposed to the rules that were predetermined. She treats menas objects that she can toy with using the powers she has. Chaucer,in this case, showed the future rise of feminism where women wouldspeak out and claim equal rights as men (Chaucer, 2012).
TheWife of Bath’s Prologue
Theprologue of this story begins with the Wife of Bath insinuating howknowledgeable she is in the institution of marriage due to her vastexperience. She had been first married at the tender age of twelve,and since that time, she had been married five more times (Chaucer,2012). She declares that the way her life is set up has beencondemned by the society who use the Scriptures to show theirdisapproval. By including the Scripture where God tells Adam and Eveto be fruitful and multiply, she affirms her conviction to any personthat is against her lifestyles. She states that notable people in theBible such as Abraham and Jacob had several wives and, therefore,women too had such a right. Even though Saints like Apostle Paul haveenhanced the importance of virginity, her understanding is that thereshould be other people busy procreating to produce those virgins. Shebelieves that virginity is for the perfect, and people like her seekto serve God with the gifts that they have, which, is sexual prowess(Chaucer, 2012). She uses the same gift as a tool to influence hermultiple husbands. The first three husbands she thought they weregood. The reason for this opinion is because they were rich, old andsubmissive. She finds humor while recalling the irritations from herthat those husbands had to endure. Her use of verbal abuse and sexualstarvation brought her husbands to their knees (Chaucer, 2012). Herfourth husband, she refers to him as a reveler. She recalls themoments they had while dancing and celebrating. She deemed thatspouse as bad because he had a mistress. She frequently made himjealous until his unexpected death. The fifth husband was muchyounger than her. She loved him even though he physically mistreatedher. He always won her back in bed and through sweet words. Shestated that he was the only one whom she married solely for love andnot for money because he was poor. (Chaucer, 2012).
TheWife of Bath, in her extensive narration of her autobiography, beginsby telling the pilgrims that experience is what places her on such apedestal. Even after stating that experience gives her authority inthe institution of marriage, she still shows her knowledge in anacademic manner (Norris, 406-407). She uses quotes Scripture toexplain her lifestyle and most of the time she misinterprets thoseverses. The incorrect references she makes in her prologue only worksfor Chaucer who was mocking the clergy of the time that were usingthe Bible to validate their purpose (Norris, 406-407). GeoffreyChaucer’s literal works have always been mocking the society andthe main subject of the satire has been the Church. His writingsabout the Wife of Bath show that he was against the religious dogmaof that time and his objective was to enlighten the society about thehypocrisy that was propagated by the clergy (Norris, 406-407). He wasaware of the manipulation that the religious leaders used to make thecommunity blindly follow their commands. Through literature, he wassending a message to the populace that everything they hear shouldnot be treated as a fact until it is proven (Norris, 406-407).
Thisprologue aptly depicts the medieval genre of allegorical“confession”. Such plays involved a personified moral sin beingpublicly declared in the form of a story. The Wife of Bath does thesame as she expounds on her vices (Norris, 406-407). According to theChurch of that time, she is seen as a wicked woman, and herunrepentant facade only serves to further anger the audience. Manysimilar works of the period have always shown women as immoral,superficial, and always trying to disrespect their husbands (Norris,406-407). Chaucer, in TheWife of Bath’sPrologue,follows the same trend. He tried to portray an individual that waswilling to show their imperfections, no matter how extreme theyappeared. This ability to depict characters that are willing toacknowledge their shortcomings is very different from how thereligious leaders of the time acted. Chaucer attempted to expose thelevels of insincerity associated with the men of the cloth. Duringthat period, any religious official was placed on a pedestal wherethey could judge the failures of others without the need of themundergoing the same evaluation (Norris, 406-407). His objective wasto show that they were human beings that had only been given somemoral responsibilities, which they failed to fulfill due to theirfalsehood acts (Norris, 406-407).
TheWife of Bath states her disdains for church clerks and other scholarsthat depict women in a negative light. She states that every storytold about an evil wife or woman was written by a man (Burton,626-627). Geoffrey Chaucer tries to show his readers how women weretreated at that time. Women were made to appear as evil and incapableof offering any benefits to the men. The book that contained storiesabout evil wives in history supports her story. Thus, in her way, shetries to stand up for the women of the time that have been subjectedto misogynistic men (Burton, 626-627). Chaucer was clarifying how thecards were already stacked against the female gender (Norris,406-407). Every example that spoke about the mistakes and failures ofwomen had been written by men. Women had no opportunity to explaintheir side of the story.
TheWife of Bath’s Tale
Thetale is based during the reign of King Arthur in the Isle of Britain.A young knight from Arthur’s court chances upon a beautiful woman,and overcome by desire he rapes her. The crime horrifies everyone,and he is sentenced to death. The queen intercedes for the Knight andArthur listens to her. The knight could be pardoned if he went on aquest to determine that which women want. The answer was expected ina year. If his response was incorrect, his head was to be cut off(Chaucer, 2012). The knight sets off and keeps asking every woman hemeets what they desire. Unfortunately, every answer that he gets isvery different. Many claim to want freedom, flattery or riches. TheWife of Bath cuts in to say that women want discretion, but sheclaims that they cannot keep a secret and she refers to the story ofMidas by Ovid (Chaucer, 2012). Finally, the knight sees a group ofbeautiful women on her way back and plans to ask them the final timesince he already saw that he was going to be executed. When hereaches the place that he saw the women, they had vanished and intheir place was an ugly old woman. He still asks her, and she tellshim that she knows the response, but he has to marry her after. Theknight agrees, and they go to King Arthur. The old woman responds bysaying that all that women desire is to control their spouses andlovers. This answer was what the queen wanted, and the knight isspared. He fulfills his promise after struggling for long by marryingthe woman. While in bed at night, the old woman sees how sad theknight is and she asks him what he wants. The knight tells her to useher best judgment, and since he gave her control, he receives abeautiful bride that true and obedient (Chaucer, 2012).
Thestory of old hags changing to beautiful maidens is common. Themessage is usually that beauty is on the inside and not outside.However, the Wife of Bath states her message that all women need tobe obeyed, whether they are young and beautiful, or old and ugly. Shefinishes her narration with a prayer to Jesus asking that all womenreceive a submissive husband that can satisfy in bed (Burton,626-627). Chaucer attempts to inform the readers that the femalegender had experienced enough of the misfortunes they faced. Theywere ready to instigate a revolution that would grant them equalrights as the male gender. The old woman could also be arepresentation of the Wife of Bath. She might be trying to say thateven though she has aged, she can still be beautiful and vigorousonce she meets the right man for her. She could have been referringto her fifth husband that was much younger than her, but she managedto satisfy him (Burton, 626-627). Geoffrey Chaucer in this analysiswas explaining that every woman has their worth. A person of thefemale gender should not be regarded according to their age orperceived beauty. Chaucer was explaining that even if the status quowas against the wellbeing of womenfolk, their importance was toocrucial to be ignored or subjected to basic forms of assessments(Burton, 626-627). He implied that the way men were judged accordingto their character and not according to their physical attributes,was the same way that women were to be evaluated (Burton, 626-627).
Theresponse that the knight gave might signify that the Wife of Bathbelieves men can change given the opportunity. However, if the knightonly responded like that while knowing that that was the answer theold woman wanted, it would mean that the Wife of Bath did not trustmen (Burton, 626-627). The knight would have only changedsuperficially, yet, his soul was still tainted. From this part,Chaucer was only accepting the shortcomings of men and how themajority of them rate women at superficial levels. He also tried toimply that men could use the intelligence of women against them byresponding to what women want so that they can have their way(Burton, 626-627).
Theact of the queen in sparing the life of the knight that was sentencedto die was a strategy employed by Chaucer to show that women aremerciful and just even after they have experienced uncountable evils(Norris, 406-407). The queen sends him on an educational journeywhere he was to learn through women. This depiction from Chaucertells the men of that period that they can also learn from womensince they are intelligent beings that can act rationally when facedwith tense situations (Norris, 406-407).
Thesetwo tales by Chaucer is a mockery of the society at the time. Womenwere treated as lesser beings and were deemed evil. The satiricalPrologue of the Wife of Bath clearly depicts the evils that menthought women were capable of doing. Chaucer reverts this notion byshowing that women are merciful and intelligent. The tale of thequeen as she spared the knight’s life is evidence of this idea. TheChurch has also been criticized since they wrongly used the Scriptureto validate their erroneous acts. Chaucer is seen as a person thatwas against the rules imposed at the time and his goal was to ensurethat every individual could live free from any judgment orpersecution.
Burton,Janet. "The clergy in the medieval world. Secular clerics, theirfamilies and careers in north-western Europe, c. 800–c. 1200. ByJulia Barrow. Pp. xxi+ 447 incl. 3 maps. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2015. £ 65. 978 1 107 08638 8." TheJournal of Ecclesiastical History 67.03(2016): 626-627.
Chaucer,Geoffrey. Thecanterbury tales.Broadview Press, 2012.
Norris,Ralph. "A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,vol. 2: The Wife of Bath`s Prologue and Tale (Parts 5A and B) ed. byMark Allen and John H. Fisher (review)." JEGP,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 115.3(2016): 406-407.
Sylvester,Ruth. "Shifting traditions: Chaucer`s narrative accomplishmentin the wife of bath`s tale considered in the context of the shiftfrom oral tradition to literate print tradition." etCetera 71.3(2014): 248.