Before TV and the Internet existed as forms of entertainment, there existed Chaucer. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s diverse group of individuals, share tales to pass the time on their journey to Canterbury. Similar to modern-day talk shows that focus on popular topics, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales focus on topics such as love, justice, the relations between men and women, among others. During a time when most writers focused their tales on aristocrats and legends, Chaucer stood out by showcasing a broad range of humanity. From the lower to the upper class, Chaucer’s primary focus on each character’s true individualism reigns supreme over the character’s social role. Therefore, Chaucer’s celebration of the individual, within various social classes, creates a feel of actuality that is based more on the character of the teller and his opinions than on the rise of the middle class in the Middle Ages.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer pays close attention to each character’s individuality to evoke a sense of realism in the tales. This, in turn, provides for an exciting narrative that is entertaining and insightful. In The Riverside Chaucer, Larry D. Benson explains how the character’s place in society is overshadowed by the character’s individual sense of being.
Each of Chaucer’s characters is vividly individualized. The Friar is a representative type of the unctuous hypocrisy one may still encounter in daily life and a clear example of the type of the hypocritical friar well known in medieval satire, but he is also a particular individual, with a specific name, Friar Huberd, with his peculiar habits, his lisp, and his own personal history. (6)
Chaucer shows how each individual has his own way of being, regardless of his occupation and class. Cummings describes the pilgrims as the learned, the religious, the worldly, the romantic, the practical, the idealistic, the merry and the irreverent…as a group, they are a microcosm of the English society that flourished beyond the pale of the highborn (1).
While some of the individuals in The Canterbury Tales may differ in class, personal background and occupation, they are united through their individual vices. Yale Professor, Lee Patterson, explained how Chaucer was one of the first writers in the Middle Ages to celebrate individualism in literature:
The great innovation of the Canterbury Tales is that our attention in reading the tales is always drawn to the tellers… None of the tales [except for] Parson’s Tale can stand alone from its teller. In a very real sense, the subject of the Canterbury Tales is the subject… Think of the General Prologue. There Chaucer defines each pilgrim in terms of his estate, by which he means his social role…But in virtually every instance his focus in the descriptions is not upon the pilgrim’s social role — his or her function in society — but upon the character…that inhabits that role. So, for instance, the Monk’s passion for hunting, and the erotic energy that drives it, may make him a poor monk, but his failure as a monk, and any social consequences that it might have, is given very little attention (2).
The characters in The Canterbury Tales each have their own set of vices that they talk about and deal with. For example, in The Clerk’s Tale, Griselda’s release of emotion at the climax highlights the self-control she maintained throughout her difficulties and shows that her patience was created by her strength of character rather than submissive behavior.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses individuals to showcase different interpretations of common life situations. Chaucer’s use of allegories to speak on concerning issues was definitely innovative for a medieval author. For example, the problems of war and peace, of the maintenance of national honor and on the proper roles of legislatures in creating policy, which are found in The Tale of Melibee, are still concerning issues today. During a period where social structures and theory were always changing, one should remember that applying notions of class, especially middle-class, to Chaucer’s world, isn’t so accurate in analyzing medieval society or the ways in which the society thought about itself. Instead, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales served more as a portrait of each individual within a society. In this way, The Canterbury Tales was a kind of review of society during the late fourteenth century.
- Benson, Larry D. The Riverside Chaucer. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.
- Cummings, Michael J. “The Canterbury Tales: A Study Guide.” June 2012. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.
- Patterson, Lee. “Patterson on Chaucer.” Yale University. N.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.