Stereotypes In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
While reading The Canterbury Tales, it’s hard to not think about what made the author, Geoffrey Chaucer, write these various numbers of comical stories. Each story has an incredibly different theme to it and Chaucer never finished writing all of the stories like he had planned. After doing research, these stories seem to be strongly influenced by the implementation of status labels. What was once a simple time without many labels quickly turned to a complex way of life where one’s worth was determined by numerous factors. Society had gone from three basic categories to a world with labels of birth, wealth, profession, and personal ability. Chaucer took this major change as an opportunity to write about the stereotypes formed and even somewhat ridiculed them through his works.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is about a man whose punishment is seeking out what women want most in life. This man goes on a hunt and meets this old woman who tells him the secret is that women want control of their husband’s life and their own lives. The old woman then asks the man if he would marry her, he becomes disgusted at the idea but is eventually forced to consent. The man is miserable and talks very ugly of his new wife but she does not get upset. She asks her new husband if he would rather her be loyal and ugly or beautiful and unfaithful. He says that he trusts her judgment and says for her to choose. Since he gave her control over it, she became both loyal and beautiful and they lived happily.
I believe this story was influenced by the stereotype that’s held around women during this time period. It is said that Chaucer enjoyed writing and wrote for entertainment of himself and friends and family This tale is taking a jab and women and what they want in life. I don’t believe that is what women really want but it made a good story and Chaucer grew up in a time where women were seen as objects and not people.
Another example of a stereotype written into one of Chaucer’s stories is the Knight’s Tale. This story begins with two knights who while in prison fall in love with the same woman. One is released but forbidden from Athens so he gets a disguise and returns to work for the woman. The other knight escapes prison and there is a tournament set up so the two knights can fight over the woman. One wins but is then fatally knocked off of his horse, so the other marries the girl.
Chivalry was obviously a big part of this time period, so it’s not a surprise that it was portrayed in one of the tales. In my opinion, Chaucer put this in his work because men were taught to grow up with chivalry, even though not all did. The knights in the story fought until one of them died just to win this woman, which shows great bravery and that they would have done anything to end up with this woman.
Love triangles and objectifying women play a strong part in the next tale, The Miller’s Tale. It starts with a student who seduced his landlord’s wife to spend a night with him while he also convinced his landlord that the second flood would be approaching soon so that he would be busy preparing for the flood. Another young man is also secretly in love with the landlord’s wife so he goes to her window to ask for a kiss when she sticks her rear out of the window and releases gas. The young man then gets mad and goes and gets a hot poker and returns for another kiss. This time, the student decides to stick his rear out but he gets branded and screams for water causing the landlord to believe that the flood was here.
This tale has two young men stepping out of their “social status” and competing for a woman that should be considered out of their league due to her status of being a married woman. This is very unlike things that happened during Chaucer’s time because most people would not cheat because almost everyone was very religious and the Bible said that cheating and lying was a sin, so this was out of Chaucer’s normal storylines based on society.
The Reeve’s Tale starts out with two students who keep getting cheated by the miller out of grain, so they go to the mill to watch the grind the corn so the miller can’t steal any of it. The miller unties their horse so they go running after it and the miller steals some of the flour. The students just stay at the millers house after they catch the horse because it’s so late. They know the miller stole flour so one student seduces the miller’s daughter while the other seduces his wife. Once the miller realizes what had happened, he tries to beat the students but his wife thinks he is one of the students so she beats him over the head and the students return their stolen goods and escape.
As was mentioned earlier, most people were very religious in these times because they had no idea why you wouldn’t be. The Reeve’s Tale has a theme of an evil end will come to an evil man. A proverb is mentioned at the end of the telling of this story that accompanies that message also. Chaucer was a Christian and was portraying the Biblical work in his own work because he is a religious man.
Another tale that portrays a stereotype in society would be The Clerk’s Tale because it starts with a man who decides he needs to test his wife’s courage. He does this by telling her that he thinks he needs to kill their children and she agrees whatever he wants. He does not actually kill the children however, he does send them away to his sister. His final test is having her prepare for his wedding with a new woman. She obeys all of her husband’s requests and afterwards he informs her that she is and always will be his wife.
In The Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer is mocking the idea that women must follow every man’s order or else she isn’t worthy of being a wife. Again, the stereotypical thought that women are below men and men can do whatever they want. The clerk even mentions afterwards how there aren’t many women like that nowadays.
The Pardoner’s Tale is a story about three boys who heard of this thing called death who keeps killing people, so these three drunken boys go on a hunt to find death and kill him. An old man tells them that they will find death under a tree, but instead they find bushels of gold. They plan to sneak the bushes of gold home once its night so no one can see them. One of them goes into town to get snacks and drinks while the other two stay behind to watch the bushes and also plan a way to kill the other so they don’t have to share the money with him. While the one boy was headed to get snacks he also got added poison to two bottles of wine so he also didn’t have to share the gold with them. Once the younger one comes back, he is automatically killed, then they decide to sit and have a glass of wine. Then they also immediately die, so no one ends up with the gold.
Money plays a big part in stereotyping: if you have a lot of money, you’re most likely positively stereotyped, and vice versa. The Pardoner’s Tale shows that money isn’t everything though, Chaucher was born into wealth and a good life, so he was playing around with the aspect of money and what it means in that day and age because he knew the positive side of having money. .
Chaucer had many different influences from the surrounding society while he was writing; women, money, and chivalry. As the labels we sadly still know and use today became so influential in Chaucer’s time, he chose to not fall victim to the labels. Instead, he poured himself into writing the tales and almost making fun of the labels. The Canterbury Tales, in their satirical format, have become commonly used in college classes throughout the US.
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