In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reflects his views on society and the values he holds through his representation of his characters in the general prologue and in each of their tales. Chaucer held the values of poverty, chastity, obedience, chivalry and true love. He uses three distinct social classes to display how misconstrued and ignored these values can be. These classes are the clergy and religious followers, the learned professionals and women.
Chaucer’s view on poverty and the way in which it is perverted is clearly apparent in his representation of the Monk and the Friar. Poverty was a sworn oath by people of the church. The Monk does not particularly want to commit to a life of poverty; it is not in his nature. ‘Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable’, by this Chaucer is saying the Monk owned many lavish and valuable horses, which could not have been purchased with any money he earned as a monk. He was also considered very fashionable and spared no expense on elaborate clothing and accessories. He wore a beautiful gold brooch, with a love knot at the end; ‘He hadde of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn; A love knotte in the gretter ende there was’. Extravagancies such as this. Chaucer used as a source of satire. It was highly hypocritical, and audiences of Chaucerian times would have found this highly amusing. The Friar, Hubert, was also a source of Chaucer’s interpretation of poverty. The Friar was the most corrupt of all of the religious travellers on the journey. His role as Friar was to collect the beggings from people. He was also given the power to grant absolution of people’s sins… for a price; ‘for he hadde power of confessioun, as seyde hymself, moore than a curat, for of his ordre he was licenciat’. As all monks, friars and priests were expected to beg for everything they needed (eg food and clothing), they were also expected to beg for money to donate to the Church. The Friar was considered the best beggar. The source of victory in his begging can be seen through Chaucer describing him as a ‘lymytour, a ful solempne man,’ meaning very imposing.
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The most grievous of his sins however, remained in the fact that, anything he collected, a substantial portion of which he would keep for himself. ‘His purchas was wel better than his rente,’ by this Chaucer means that the proceeds of his begging were far better than that of his own income. So blinded by greed (thus abandoning the concept of poverty), the Friar would steal from his collection.
Through Chaucer’s characterization of the Wife of Bath and the Friar show his value of chastity in society. The Wife of Bath is not seen as a chaste woman. She has had five husbands and committed adultery with all of them. She is commonly seen as ‘soiled goods’, and relishes in this title. She does however; try to use the Bible to support her actions (‘Biside a welle, Jhesus, God and man, “Thou hast yhad five housbondes,” quod he, “And that ilke man that now hath thee is nought thyn housbonde seyde he certeyn.’). In no way does she feel remorse for her sins. She already feels that the Bible supports her, but also believes that her husbands must support her adultery also. ‘What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese. But it were for my profit and myn ese?’; By his, the Wife of Bath means to say, she gives her husband pleasure and sex by night and gains nothing from it. Is it really that bad that she cheats by day? She believes that her husband should accept this, as adulterous sex is her reward for sleeping with them. Chaucer’s interpretation of the Wife of Bath is almost that of a caricature. He uses her robust personality in a most satirical and exaggerated form to increase the extent of her unchaste lifestyle. The Friar, not only breaking the value of poverty, also breaks the law of chastity. Being a member of the clergy, this is very much a ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ hypocritical attitude. In the first few lines of his introduction it is told to us that, the Friar is a matchmaker for the women and prostitutes he’s seduced; ‘He hadde maad ful many a marriage of yonge women at his owene cost.’ He is a tremendous flirt and seduces women through song. He sings and plays the rote wantonly and wives had to be weary of him or else they’d fall under his spell. He is a sensual being yet repulsive at the same time. Sensual in his seductive ways and accomplishments. Repulsive in his blatant sinning and hypocrisy. Chaucer despises him for this.
The value of obedience to God can be seen through Chaucer’s representation of the Nun and the Monk. The Nun is sworn by the patron Saint of Beauty, showing her tendency to being quite vain. She was very compassionate and cared a great deal about animals; ‘She woulde wepe, if that she saugh a mous kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.’ But this charity and sensitivity was misplaced as none of it was reflected back to God. She held the idea that ‘love conquered all’, but not Godly love. The Nun believed in living her own life, and could not find it in herself to devote it fully to God. This meant she had no business coming on this pilgrimage, but what drove her was her undying wish to be held worthy of reverence. With this came the respect and gratitude she desired for herself, not for God, and so she continued her lifestyle. The Monk is also an example of how the sacred oath of obedience was disregarded in The Canterbury Tales. The Monk, ‘Is likned til a fish that is waterless- this is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystere.’ The Monk was totally out of place in the monastery. He didn’t want to commit to the life of a monk; he wanted to live his life independent of the Church. The Monk loved to hunt and would have much rather been a hunter than a monk, which shows the blatant disregard of God’s teachings in killing his creations for sport. Chaucer uses the Monk as a subject of satire due to the irony of his situation. The Monk is described ‘faire for the maistrie’, meaning he is excellent at what he does. He has the potential of becoming an Abbot, yet all he really wishes to do is sin against God by hunting wild game. The irony of both the situation of the Monk and the Nun are played to the Chaucerian reader in a most satirical manner.
The character of the Knight in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is praised and admired for upholding the value of chivalry. The Knight was much more than just a man of chivalry – he went to the extent of loving it. He went campaigning for the qualities of being chivalrous; fidelity, loyalty, liberality, graciousness and considerate conduct. Chaucer explains that the Knight had never said a discourteous thing to anyone; ‘He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde in all his lyf untono maner wight.’ He was never condescending and was a most humble person. The Knight embodies the qualities of sensitivity, goodness and bravery. Chaucer admires the Knight to a great extent and describes him as the ‘fittest character of the company.’ The Knight and his integrity are in direct contrast to the Nun, Monk and Friar and their hypocrisy.
Chaucer uses the two contrasting characters of the Squire and the Wife of Bath, to explain his admiration for the value of true love. The Squire is a firm believer in true love, and goes to all lengths to try and find ‘the One’, regardless of how many women he must search through. Because of this unfaltering belief, Chaucer shows a firm approbation for the lad. He is described as ‘A lovyere and a lusty bachelor,’ very attractive and of great strength and went to all lengths to keep up appearances. He was a very seductive young man who could make women swoon through his paintings, or poetry or songs; ‘ He koude songes make and wel endite, juste and eek daunce, and weel purteye and write.’ He was an excellent squire who would one day, like his father, make a terrific knight. The path towards total chivalry was set for the Squire and his belief in true love made this journey easier. In contrast, Chaucer conveys a strong dislike and contempt for the Wife of Bath and her adulterous ways. Chaucer believed firmly fidelity and the Wife if Bath’s promiscuity and trail of husbands does not rest lightly with him. A woman of this nature believes in true love her herself and for no one else. For this reason, Chaucer exemplifies the Wife of Bath as a loveless person in contrast to the Squire, who is a loving, hopeful soul.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer attacks the corruption in society and praises goodness in those that are honest. The hypocrisy and sinful nature of the Nun, the Monk, the Friar and the Wife of Bath show a great distinction from the righteous nature of the Knight and the Squire. Through these examples we can see how highly Chaucer held the values of poverty, chastity, obedience, chivalry and true love.
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