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Geoffrey Chaucer's the Canterbury Tales

By bignerds Jun 28, 2008 1155 Words
In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, participants of a pilgrimage to Canterbury tell tales to entertain each other, revealing many aspects of medieval society. Through the double narration it can be seen that the narrator of the Prologue is Chaucer but this pilgrim Chaucer is not the author Chaucer. The pilgrim never describes his own career or social standing, but upon examination, he proves to be a corrupt individual of the upper class.

The tales are not simply a story or a poem, it is an individual speaking about his observations- an oral performance. In the tales that follow, Chaucher (the pilgrim) will impersonate the others, "The wordes mote be cosin to the dede- (Line 742)" so his words must match the action he sees. It becomes a double narration, where Chaucer creates this pilgrim who tells the story of a great pilgrimage to Canterbury. There is no longer a creator of the poem, simply a speaker, a character who has his own characteristics and repeats what he sees. Despite its subtly, these traits expose the pilgrim Chaucer.

Each of the stories in The Canterbury Tales are to be told with the utmost accuracy, suggesting Chaucer's literacy. "Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce as ny as evere he can
Everish a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large;
Or elles he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thing, or finde wordes newe." (Lines 731-736)
Chaucer tells us that to repeat another man's tale, one must rehearse it as it is told, every single word, no matter how roughly or broadly he speaks because otherwise the tale will be untrue, filled with invented words. With 30 pilgrims telling two tales each on their passage to Canterbury and two tales each on the return home, that totals to over a hundred tales. To recite these tales exactly as they were told is a near impossible promise- to fulfill it he must be writing notes of some sort, proving him to be a writer and a member of the literate community.

The pilgrim Chaucer and the poet Chaucer are not the same person but are both literate- setting them both in a small portion of medieval society. Therefore it may be possible that the pilgrim has a similar social standing, job, and education to the author. Authors in medieval society could not make enough money selling books to support themselves- there had to be some "useful" function for their skill. It is known that Chaucer's (the author) occupation was a government functionary*. Logically we can assume the pilgrim to be a government official also. In government, there were two main positions for the literate: a legal writer or an entertainer. The poetry that Chaucer uses to tell the story suggests that it is the latter. However government jobs are not the only professions for the literate. The Church taught its clergy to read and write, and motivated them to teach others.

Utilizing voice to build the speaker's character, Chaucer reveals positive bias as he depicts his accompanying party. Describing the Millere, "Wel coude he stelen corn, and tollen thryes,/ And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee. (Line 562-563)" The miller steals corn yet is praised for being able to grind it to make three times profit and not have anyone notice the missing corn. He then reverts back to scorning the miller but with a gentle proverb that implies that there are no honest millers. Similar to the Millere, the Pardoner's image remains positive. "Upon a day he gat him more moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye.
And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,
He made the person and the peple his apes." (Lines 703-706) Pardoners sold papal indulgences to raise money to support the construction of religious houses1, but most were fraudulent as was this one. Yet Chaucer makes no disdaining remarks about this pardoner, only makes a simple acknowledgment about a single great day in which the pardoner generates two months pay. The flattered and tricked people were his apes to be fooled for money. Chaucer's biased descriptions reflect his own personality, maybe a bit of favoritism.

The General Prologue provides a profile of each of the pilgrims in such an order that forms social groupings. The Knight, Squyer, and Yeman have a relationship to one another; the Squyer is the Knight's son and the Yeman serves the Knight. The next seven have religion in common and the list goes on. These groups and their descriptions further reveal Chaucer's personality. "An Haberdassher and a Carpenter,/ A Webbe, a Dyere, and a Tapicer (Line 361-362)" are grouped together and are less esteemed. The other characters each receive their own depiction, yet Chaucer groups these five pilgrims together in a description shorter than the Knights, less than half of the Somonour or the Reve's text. Chaucer, as the pilgrim, must have a higher profession than the guildsmen to look down upon them as he does. He moves on to associate himself with five others, "Ther was also a Reve and a Millere,/ A Somnour and a Pardoner also, A Maunciple, and myself – ther were namo. (Line 542-544)" The Millere has an intimidating build and knew well how to steal corn. The Maunciple came from a college of law and used his knowledge to fool people for his own benefit. The Reve is a well-groomed manager of an estate, where no servant dared to speak up about his cunning and deceit. The Somonour calls men to court, however if he likes a man for any given reason he can pardon that man's sin. The Pardoner, who often fooled people for their money, is the Somonour's companion. The common trait that lies in each man is their corruption- they are rogues of their profession. Whatever the pilgrim Chaucer's profession may be, he must also have this same common attribute. Chaucer does not find fault in these men, otherwise he would be looking down upon himself. The groupings hold a strong meaning in the General Prologue, and it has served to describe the narrator who never speaks of himself.

Chaucer's poem has built up a character different from the real Chaucer, creating the pilgrim narrator whose profession is on the same social level as the Reve, Millere, Somnour, Pardoner, and a Maunciple. The narrator also shares the same corruption in whatever his profession may be. Through his description of the Guildsmen, it is asserted that the pilgrim's profession has higher social status than the guildsmen. Chaucer's ability to read and write hint that his career may be associated with the Church or government. Chaucer creates this other entity as a veil, allowing him to express his ideas without repercussion.

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