Geoffrey Chaucer’s Description Of The Pilgrims In The Canterbury Tales

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

‘The General Prologue’ of the infamous Canterbury Tales by English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer is essentially a rare insight into the reality of those living in middle ages England. In the general prologue, Chaucer presents himself as an objective observer, this gives the reader the unique advantage of being able to read each character’s description from a rather raw and unbiased perspective. Each depiction simply representing facts of their attributes in such a way that the reader can fashion their own opinions on the roles and traits of each personality. Such an unbiased style of writing enables the author to transcend the supposed societal expectations of the time by not only portraying those faithful their profession and work but also contradicts entirely in a relatively controversial way, respective of the time, when describing others.

Chaucer has a naturally humorous, satiric and modern take on each description of the pilgrims. This humour mostly evident when we are given subtle indications to their world’s harsher realities and controversies. This is particularly relevant when observing the portrayal of the religious estate. The same can be said for Chaucer’s depiction of women, speaking from a matter of fact perspective rather than giving backhanded labels, a rare characteristic given the era in which the piece was written.

In complete contrast to his corrupt counterpart, perhaps the most accurate representation of a pilgrim being defined by their work is the Parson. A devout churchman, he is wholeheartedly committed to practicing as he preaches. Ironically, he is the only member of the religious estate described that does explicitly what is expected of him to do. The best example of what he does, the Parson is strategically used as if in relief of the inadequacy of those that should be fulfilling their roles in the same manner. Included in the portrait, is implicitly a sense of all the bad parsons out there. This is the perfect example of Chaucer formulating accurate criticisms through praise, a technique we see him use frequently throughout the general prologue. The Parson is exemplary at his role, he’s used as the true ideal to set beside all the hypocrites encountered.

He is a poor man, “but riche he was of holy thought and werk”, yet despite this he is relentlessly charitable and kind to his parishioners. Striving to understand the circumstances of those he leads, he travels far and wide to visit them. He is concerned solely with preaching the word of God, whilst virtuously practicing as he preaches. He is undoubtedly defined by his work, his portrait adopting appropriate language in purveying just how passionate and all-consumed he is by his office.

To fully appreciate how effectively the character portraits consistently stay true to their office, one must analyse what might be the least traditional profession. When introduced to the Wife of Bath, we are met with a resilient and brave character. She is entirely comfortable in her role of being a ‘serial’ widower- perhaps challenging societal norms at the time. A job description subject to an abundance of criticism in medieval satire, the idea that women travelling solo on a pilgrimage tend to be ‘up to no good’. This is a great example of Chaucer being ahead of his time with regards to the role of women in middle ages society; simply given the fact he does not label her as promiscuous or subject her to unnecessary criticism.

In a rather abrupt turn, Chaucer seems to slightly set aside the objective observational stance he takes on when describing the other profiles. Where qualities are typically denounced or shamed in medieval literature, Chaucer admires them from the Wife of Bath. She seems defiant to the expectations of others. Half-deaf, it’s acknowledged her impairment is the result of being beaten by her husband. This rather arresting aspect of the everyday nature of violence and female subjection in the Middle Ages highlights how this woman’s role, unlike the others, is not one that comes with strict expectations or moral obligations. Chaucer accepts this and plays her portrayal to those unique aspects.

Enjoying such financial independence due to the inheritance of her late husbands’ death; she has the freedom to pursue her own trade, which she excels at. She appears to have a fixed idea of her societal standing; which she feels she has earned. As a result of this, he accurately depicts her as fulfilling what is required of her role- which is, in a certain sense, to be independent.


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