Although The Canterbury Tales was produced by Chaucer nearly eight centuries ago and the world is vastly changed place from his era, one thing remains the same: human nature. Just like in the 1300’s people will occupy or possess various ranges on the moral compass. There will always be the criminals and public figures of great virtue. In Chaucer’s work, he brings together his pilgrims from all walks of life and with significant variances in moral character. Nearly aspect of The Canterbury Tales has been covered and critiqued in tremendous detail, including whether Chaucer is judging his characters morally.
Obviously, some scholars staunchly feel that he is, while others refute this viewpoint. It is this author’s opinion, however, that Chaucer is most definitely rendering moral judgments on his characters, not merely through his descriptions, but through the device of upholding the three institutionalized social classifications of the time: the class that was worshipped or idolized for their virtue, the common man and those with no morals whatsoever.
Only three of the characters in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer has anointed as being worthy of being looked up to and oddly enough they all hailed from vastly different social backgrounds. The character Chaucer held in the highest esteem is the Knight as his very life’s actions were based on high moral duty, obligation, faith and honor. Joining the Knight in this category is the Parson. Devoted completely to the service of his parish and his faith, the Parson exemplified what Chaucer considered to of a highly moral nature, despite his disparagement of the Church throughout his work. The Plowman, who was the Parson’s brother, also receives the highest level of respect from Chaucer. Although he earns a living by disposing of feces, the Plowman is very selfless and endeavors to aid others in any manner possible. He was satisfied with his lot in life and gained pleasure from his generosity to others.
The common man or middle class as it is known our modern society could be linked to the middle position in the moral compass. While not quite worthy of being revered, they certainly should not be denigrated. The first example of Chaucer’s moral judgment in this category is the Host. Gregarious and entertaining, the Host was overall a good man, but did not perform acts of virtue that would hold him in high esteem. Another character Chaucer classifies as possessing decent moral character is the Clerk. A student, he spent the lion’s share of his funds on books in his pursuit of wisdom, which was the main goal in his life. He also loved to share his knowledge with others and since this could be considered a bit of vanity, the Clerk would not be assessed to have as high as a moral value as the Knight. The Physician also represented the common man as far as moral merit in Chaucer’s view. He believed in moderation and living healthfully, but was materialistic when it came to how he presented himself. He was held sway by money and would never hurt anyone to obtain it. This circumstance, however, clearly relegates the Physician to the middle ground in terms of morality, for he is flawed.
The third and final moral grouping Chaucer creates is of those that have no true moral character. They should be despised for their lack of moral guidance and willingness to employ any means necessary to obtain what they desire for they are selfish. They hurt others in order to help themselves and are sinners. Especially since in most circumstances they veil their true intentions with deceit.
The first example of this classification is the Friar. Consumed by possessing as much money as possible, he would fundraise for the benefit of the church only to place that money in his own pockets. He was not concerned with the souls of people, as he would perform any religious absolution simply for money. In keeping with his lack of scruples in regards to obtaining funds for his own personal gain, the Friar also engaged in nearly every vice he possibly could in direct contradiction to the vows he swore to uphold before the Church. From Chaucer’s depiction, he clearly thought the Friar was a most despicable man.
Joining the Friar, are the Miller, the Reeve and the Pardoner. All three of these men were liars and thieves. They had no qualms about stealing from their clients or telling falsehoods to satisfy their own needs. Chaucer even states the Miller’s language alone is enough to send him to straight to hell for its lack of civility, while the Reeve stole from the very employer that supported him for two decades. He was a man that trusted no one, because he could not be trusted and a horrible temper that people were afraid of. Chaucer, however, reserves his worst moral judgment for the Pardoner. There was not one hint of morality in this man’s soul as he took advantage of peoples’ good nature and their religious faith for his own personal gain. Not that the Miller and Reeve didn’t by fleecing others of their hard-earned dollars for their selfish needs, but Chaucer depicts the Pardoner in the worst possible light.
Although critical debate over whether Chaucer imposes moral judgment on his characters will remain a source of contention amongst literary scholars, it is clear the author does indeed do exactly that. From the language he imparts while describing them and the satire he employs in characterizing them, it is apparent Chaucer is judging his characters. One of the key elements of satire is pointing out a person’s flaws in the hope they will overcome them through criticism. Also, Chaucer maintained the medieval behavior of placing his characters in moral categories. He most certainly was deciding whether they were good or bad people based on his portrayals.