The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most famous poems written during the medieval period. This infamous essay by Geoffrey Chaucer was written in year 1387 to 1400, and it is a poem that depicts the journey of a group of pilgrims who traveled together to Canterbury for religious reasons. The Canterbury Tales is a reflection of the time and period in which Chaucer lived as many of the characteristics of the political and sociological status at the time was reflected in the poem. Hence, the best approach to study this text would be using the historical/biographical criticism.
Historical/Biographical criticism is an approach to study literature by understanding the time in which the author lived, and also the author’s life. Historical/Biographical critics believed that in order for an individual to truly understand the work of an author, one must first understand the background of the author as the work would be a reflection of the author’s life and times (Kautzman, 2005). Therefore, The Canterbury Tales is a reflection of Chaucer’s life and times in which he wrote the poem.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London to a wealthy family of merchants. (Online- Literature, 2009). He became well-known as a poet for he made a crucial contribution to the English literature by writing his work in English rather than using Latin, which was famous during that period of time (Online-Literature, 2009). Chaucer was born in the period of time where many significant events had occurred. In examples, the 100 years war between the two royals of the French throne and the black plague which had hit England and had taken many lives.
In 1359 to 1360, Chaucer went to war with France under the army of King Edward III (Online-Literature, 2009). This shows that Chaucer was once in the army, and so he may thinks highly of the position as it was shown in the poem. “There was a KNIGHT, a most distinguished man.” (Chaucer). Other than that, because Chaucer had served in the army before, he made the knight in the poem seemed honorable, wise and humble. “And though so much distinguished, he was wise. And in his bearing modest as a maid…He never yet a boorish thing had said.” (Chaucer). This shows that the poem was a reflection of the author’s life as a soldier in the army.
During the medieval period, Feudalism was practiced where there are social hierarchies among men. God has the highest importance, followed by kings and royals, nobles, artists and peasants. This political status was reflected in the poem through character of the rich woman from BATH city. She was a rich widow as it was mentioned in the poem. “Her kerchiefs were finely woven ground; I dared have sworn they weight a good ten pound.” (Chaucer). This woman from BATH city might have been noble and that her status is high among the others. This made the people afraid of her and dare not cross her path; for fear that they might infuriate her as it was shown in the poem. “In all the parish not a dame dared stir, towards the altar steps in front of her. And if indeed they did, so wrath was she. As to be put out of charity.” (Chaucer). This shows that the social hierarchy system that was shown in the poem was a reflection on the political condition during the period of time in which Chaucer lived.
Religion played a huge part in the sociological context in which this poem was written and things that were happened during the period of time were usually defined by the church and God. As this poem is about a group of pilgrims who journeyed all the way to Canterbury to offer their blessings to saints, it reflected the society during the time in which they place high importance on religion as it was during the medieval times. “And palmers long to seek the stranger strands. Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands, and especially from every shire’s end. In England down to Canterbury they wend. To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick in giving help to them when they were sick.” (Chaucer).
Out of the nine characters that were mentioned in the poem, there were two nuns, three priests and a monk. This is a reflection of Chaucer’s time as religion was given high importance as most of the people in the society had religious occupations as portrayed in the poem. Other than that, religious places were often mentioned in the poem that it mirrored the high status of Christianity during Chaucer’s time period. In example, “And she had thrice been to Jerusalem…St James of Compostella and Cologne.” (Chaucer).
The monk that was mentioned in the poem was different than other religious leaders as he hunts for meats for many of the other religion leaders do not. This might have been a reflection to the time in which Chaucer lived that some individuals within the society had begun to change from the expectations of the society. People began to slowly rebel against the idea of the church and it was shown through the monk as he hunts animals, which most monks do not. He tends to think more modernly than the minds of others as Chaucer has portrayed it, “He let go by the things of yesterday, and took modern world’s more spacious way.” (Chaucer). Therefore, it is a reflection during the time of Chaucer in which some individuals might have started to think differently than the conservative minds of the others and the expectations of the church which might have lead to the reformation period.
The stereotyping of women as weak and vulnerable in the poem was also reflection in Chaucer’s time of life. During the medieval period, men were often seen as the muscular and strong while women were often portrayed as weak and vulnerable. This was shown in the poem when Chaucer described all men in the poem as strong and tough. In example, the knight was portrayed as honest and skillful. “Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy. He had done nobly in his sovereign’s war, and ridden in battle, no man more.” (Chaucer). This squire was also depicted as a man who is strong. “In stature he was of a moderate length, with wonderful agility and strength.” (Chaucer). While the males were depict as muscular and strong, Chaucer portrayed the women in the poem to be gentle and weak as how he portrayed the nuns in the poem. “She use to weep if she saw but a mouse, caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.” (Chaucer). Therefore, stereotyping of women in the poem was a reflection of the status of women in the society in which the time Chaucer lived.
In conclusion, historical/biographical criticism is the best approach to study and analyze The Canterbury Tales as it is a poem that reflects the political and sociological status during the medieval period.
~ Li Ann