Chaucer (1343-1400) is often considered the father of English verse, yet I wonder how many English majors today read The Canterbury Tales. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. This text is a brilliant challenge for my AP students to practice analysis of characterization, to analyze story form, to decipher layers of narrative voice, and in understanding satire. For history teachers, it offers a unique snapshot into late-medieval life. It easily can be excerpted, so that students might be responsible for reading just one or two tales, or parts of the General Prologue.
Chaucer, born the son of a prominent wine merchant, became a courtier in war-mongering King Edward III’s reign. He traveled to Italy as a diplomat, and was ransomed for the price of a good horse in the 100 Years’ War. He served under Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt. Gaunt’s son overthrew Richard II, the heir to Edward III, beginning the internecine War of the Roses. The post-plague world was changing fast.
Chaucer was arguably a genius, a well-schooled intellectual who knew many languages, philosophy, theology, history, and science. He wrote a treatise on the use of the astrolabe, a navigational instrument invented in the Middle East. He was a courtier who wrote poetry on the side and was witness to some of the most egregious excesses of the aristocracy and Church. The Canterbury Tales, largely, is a social satire and commentary, opening a door to Renaissance humanism by questioning the rights of the aristocracy and the authority of the Church. By focusing mostly on common folk, it also reveals a world where this social class was on the rise. This brilliant work proposes moral arguments that prove engaging and important for students. And, it portrays women who hold their own power, even in a society that, while expanded, largely denies women equality.
The General Prologue: Narrative Layers
The premise of The Canterbury Tales is simple: A motley crew of pilgrims, mostly commoners, gather at a pub in London to begin their pilgrimage to pay homage to St. Thomas à Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. The pub owner, the Host, challenges them to a story-telling contest, and the best tale will win a meal paid for by the losers.
The pilgrims include a character called Chaucer, who declares he will serve as the scribe and write all the tales down exactly as he hears them, being too simple to make any changes. And of course, since he is just writing down what he observes, and what he hears, he should not be held accountable for anything offensive. This transparent satirical ploy of the no-nothing narrator is deployed in literature (Voltaire’s Candide), science (Galileo’s Dialogue), and countless examples of journalism, politics, and life.
The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is famous in itself. Chaucer’s alter-ego closely observes the pilgrims and gives a detailed description of each. Just as a good photojournalist can argue that the picture tells the story, the descriptions on the surface are seemingly impartial. But as every good journalist will confess, the devil is in those details. In the General Prologue, the devil is not far from literal, especially in the snapshots of ecclesiasts, especially the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, and the Summoner.
In examining the tales themselves, it is important to examine the description of the teller: How does this picture of the storyteller shade the message of the tale? Note, that now there are two levels of narrative voice: First, Chaucer’s alter-ego as scribe, and then, the pilgrims who tell the stories. But in addition, within the stories themselves, are characters who tell their stories. That presents three levels of narration, with Chaucer the author holding the strings. All of these perspectives are on the table for discussion of thematic elements and character choice.
The tales are also divided by “links” in which the Host comments on the previous tale and introduces the next. The tellers often provide prologues of their own to the tale. The links are also important places to look for characterization of the pilgrims, and some reflection on the tales themselves.
Women in The Canterbury Tales: An Overview
Of the storytelling pilgrims, three are women: the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, and the Second Nun. Two tales are hagiographies of powerful female saints: Saint Cecilia and Saint Cunstance. There are tales that effectively condemn the powerlessness of women: The Shipman’s Tale is a martyr’s story where a father kills his daughter rather than have her forcibly wed to a pagan. The Manciple’s Tale is about a jealous husband who locks up his wife and then kills her for her adultery.
In the Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale, the Merchant’s Tale, and the Cook’s Tale, women effectively rely on their sexuality to gain power and manipulate their elderly husbands, or father. In the Knight’s Tale, two knights fight over poor Emily. It is the same story as Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, although in Chaucer, when Emily prays to Diana, it is to preserve her from marriage, rather than to marry whoever loves her best, as she does in Shakespeare’s version.
In the Nun’s Priest’s tale, the barnyard hen, Pertelote advises her rooster, Chaunticleer, not to be afraid of silly dreams, but to watch out for his own hot-headedness. Chaunticleer had dreamed a fox got him, but when a real fox tempts his ego and asks him to crow, Chaunticleer cannot abide either his dream or his hen. In a stupid display of vanity, he crows and gets caught. He should have listened to his sensible hen.
The Prioress’ Tale
On the surface, the Prioress’ Tale is an anti-Semitic rant, a blood-libel story of vicious Jews who violently slice the throat of an innocent Christian child who is singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary, and dump his body into a sewer. This makes the tale problematic similar to Shakespeare’s Othello and Merchant of Venice, in that it exposes religious and racial injustices without offering apparent apology. This is a difficult one to teach, but with students who can think beyond the narrative itself, it is worth the effort.
Before examining this story, students should know that by Chaucer’s time, Jews had been expelled from England for almost a century, and that a papal letter issued in 1272 by Pope Gregory X, ordered that Jews be treated with clemency and respect. This ruling was largely disregarded, especially during the plague. Rampant anti-Semitism and massacres of Jews took place throughout Europe during Chaucer’s life, a fact he surely would have known.
The story would have been familiar since it is the retelling of the tale of Saint Hugh of Lincoln. After his throat is cut, the dead boy keeps singing the hymn, O Alma Redemptoris, until he reveals a seed on his tongue placed there by the Virgin, who promises that he will go to heaven. When the seed is removed, he dies peacefully.
If you pick apart the tale itself, there are hints at a message beneath the surface: the level of violence in a story told by a nun, an exaggeration of pathos in the depiction of the innocent child, the callousness of the Jews who attack him, and in his weeping mother. When questioned, even though none of the Jews seem to know what happened, all are locked up, and a few are summarily hanged. The hymn is a plea for redemption, and one might wonder who needs redeeming in this story, and where that seed needs to be planted. Most of The Canterbury Tales is written in rhyming couplets, which give a lighthearted tone. This one is composed in rime royal, with an ababbcc pattern. The variation in rhyme lends a serious and heavy tone. It is meant to be frightening.
The Prioress’ Tale provides an excellent exercise in examining the meaning of a story by examination of the narrator. The devil in the details comes through in Chaucer’s simple scribe’s description of her in the General Prologue. A prioress would have been in charge of nuns in a convent, and would have had some power, but not much within the Church. Also, during this time, many women were placed in convents against their will as children. In the General Prologue, she is described as a coy, affable character who puts on airs and speaks school-girl French. She eats meat prodigiously, careful not to let any morsel fall on her breast, careful not to dip her fingers in the sauce too deeply, and careful to wipe the grease from her mouth. She is “by no means undergrown”. She counterfeits courtly grace, to “seem” dignified. She is indeed “seemingly” in most of this description, displaying excessive tenderness, and weeping for mice caught in traps. She feeds her little dog meat, milk, and fine white bread. She is dainty, “all sentiment and a tender heart” with glass-grey eyes. She wears a fine cloak, a coral trinket on her arm, has expensive stones in her rosary, and a gold brooch engraved with Amor vincit omnia – Love conquers all.
What kind of person is she? Does she seem to be someone particularly suited for a life of chastity, prayer, and service to the sick and poor? What might happen to a woman forced into a convent where her sexuality is stolen? Oppression and injustice do not always make people strong and noble. Often, injustice fosters violence, a desire for revenge, and turning on others to secure power and status. While often turning violence on themselves, could oppressed women also aim violence at others, especially in manipulative ways?
Any society that allows injustice plants the seeds of violence within itself. Chaucer does not tell us what to think of his characters. A mark of excellent literature is that is allows students to observe, as they would in life, and make judgments for themselves. While difficult to teach, the Prioress’ Tale offers this kind of challenge.
The Clerk’s Tale
The Oxford Cleric who tells this story is a sallow, starving, student of theology who, in the General Prologue, spends all his money on books. Even his horse is starving. He found no placement in the church, and perhaps like a lot of elitists, is described as too unworldly for any secular job. He certainly proves to have a very unworldly view of women.
The Clerk’s Tale is about Griselda, a beautiful peasant girl, and Walter, a party-boy marquis who doesn’t want to get married. When Walter is pressured to produce an heir, he relents, with the caveat that he gets to choose his own bride. He chooses Griselda, who has no say in the matter. She is now committed to honor and obey him. Her status as a peasant and his as a nobleman ensure that she has no power at all, and Walter is free to do as he pleases. However, her humility and kindness endear her to Walter’s vassals, and Walter grows jealous of their admiration for her. She bears him a daughter, and in an act of unspeakable cruelty, he has a servant take the child from her breast, telling Griselda that the baby will be killed to test her loyalty. Powerless, she relents, and in an achingly moving passage, she prays to God to “take back your little maiden”. After she gives birth to a son, Walter tests her again with the same cruel ploy. The children have actually been removed to another place to be raised. The people love her more for her suffering.
Walter then devises another “test”: He tells Griselda he is going to annul their marriage to marry a younger woman, and that she must be a servant for this wedding. He sends her walking almost naked back to her father. Powerless, she meekly complies. Now, finally convinced of her devotion, he brings back the children and restores Griselda to royalty as his wife. Griselda’s virtuous suffering redeems Walter, and they live happily ever after.
Not so fast.
Chaucer’s alter-ego character objects, vociferously. In an envoy to this tale, he warns men against treating their wives badly. Walter here, is a step away from facing down a peasant rebellion. Chaucer urges women to speak out against this kind of lesson in women’s obedience, and to fight any man who tries to subjugate them: “Arch-wives, stand up, defend your board and bed! / Stronger than camels as you are, prevail!”
The tale employs the same rime royal as the Prioress’ Tale, and similarly, both tales depict misguided, dangerous religious perspectives. But Griselda’s fictional life is not simply an exemplum of wifely devotion and the transformative power of a woman’s virtuous suffering: She represents real women, both in Chaucer’s time, through history, through the time of slavery in our country’s past, and in our own time. When societies allow violence against women, which is often done in the name of religious beliefs, they will degrade into violence, corruption, and ultimate failure. In class, students can discuss sex trafficking, violence perpetrated against women by extremist groups, and by domestic partners. This continues to be an issue that demands redress, and as revealed in the Clerk’s Tale, it will take loud, outraged voices and action to demand change.
The Franklin’s Tale
The Franklin, a landowner who was not a member of the nobility, represents a new social class resulting from the Black Plague. The Franklin in the General Prologue is a sanguine man, an epicurean whose house and generous table is open to all. His tale shows the benefits of generous equality for women.
In the story, Dorigen and Arveragus have a marriage based on parity. As an aristocrat, Dorigen was allowed to marry a knight she loved, and there is a balance of power. When Arveragus is called away in service as a knight, Dorigen pines for him excessively. She obsesses that his boat will be dashed upon the rocks of Brittany when he returns. At a dance, Aurelius, a handsome nobleman, falls for her. Dorigen is loyal, yet she flirtatiously promises to sleep with Aurelius if he does the impossible: removes the rocks of Brittany. After almost dying of love, Aurelius pulls himself together and finds a scholar-magician who figures out how to do this – for a steep price.
When Arveragus returns, all three are faced with a moral dilemma. Because their marriage is based on trust, Arveragus is sympathetic to his wife’s grief, and encouraging her to “do what is right”, releases her of her marriage troth. Dorigen doesn’t want to sleep with Aurelius, but feeling obligated, she goes to him. When she arrives, he feels shame and pity, and releases her from his immoral pact. When the scholar finds out that Aurelius acted honorably, he releases him from the fee. Thus three promises are broken, but honor is kept. It should be noted that an immoral promise, similar to an unjust law, is no true promise. No one is obligated to follow through on a promised wrong.
The honorable behavior of the characters and lack of violence in the story hinge on the autonomy Dorigen enjoys, and an acceptance for her sexual choices on the parts of Arveragus and Aurelius. Because of her freedom, kindness rather than violence erupts. The Franklin poses a demand d’amour at the end: Which of the men is the most generous? It is a question students love to discuss. It would be an excellent story to teach along with #MeToo examples of non-disclosure agreements for sexual harassment.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
The Wife of Bath is a fantastic tour de force. She speaks for women from Chaucer’s time onward. She is a character: gap-toothed, big-hipped, wearing scarlet red stockings and a big hat. In the General Prologue, she is described as a wealthy cloth-maker, someone who had five husbands at church, in addition to others that no one needs to talk about. She has traveled extensively on the pilgrim circuit – Rome, Boulogne, Compostella, Cologne, and three times to Jerusalem. She is bold and handsome, twice called “worthy”, and described as someone who likes to laugh and chat. Another note is that she is “somewhat deaf, which was a pity” and that she knows “the remedies for love’s mischances”. It would have been very unusual for an unaccompanied woman to travel, even on a pilgrimage. The nuns in the group are accompanied by priests. Yet, the Wife of Bath is by herself.
The prologue for her tale is twice as long as the tale itself. It is her unrepentant life story and confrontational views on sex and marriage. She immediately tells us that her first marriage was to an old, rich man when she was twelve. After four more, she has the experience and authority to judge that marriage is nothing but “a misery and a woe”. But she states that while St. Paul argued for virginity, that isn’t the life for her. She is intelligent, well-versed in the bible, and in forming arguments: She names biblical men who had multiple wives, and asks why shouldn’t she have multiple husbands? She declares that God made genitals for pleasure, propagation and urination, and she’s just doing His will. When the Pardoner interjects to say she’s convincing him that he ought to marry, she tells him not to interrupt her.
Three of her marriages were tolerable, to men who were rich and old. With these, she honed her skills in cunning manipulation of their vanity, and sexual bartering for clothes, money, and personal freedom. Her next two marriages, for love, were marred by jealousy and physical abuse. As she forms each of her arguments against marriage, as if told to one of her husbands, she repeats, “You say that” with his example of why women need to be controlled. She counters with calling out their false assumptions. It is an amazing example of corrected “mansplaining”, by the Wife of Bath in the 14th century!
Her last husband was twenty years younger, handsome, and a scholar, who attempted to financially control her, and physically abused her. In a particularly bad fight, he read a book to her containing multiple examples of women causing the demise of men. The stories, she notes, would be different if they hadn’t all been written by men. Done with this, she ripped the book and punched him. He hit her back, causing her deafness. The violent fight continued – until he gave in. She made him burn the damned book, she won control of her finances, rule of the house, and they were happy until he died. Now, she’s on a pilgrimage looking for husband number six.
This is no one’s idea of a good relationship, but remember, she was forcibly married at twelve. Is it any wonder she had control issues? Her prologue is an excellent story in and of itself. This is the powerful, autonomous voice of a 14th century woman, but it is easy to move her to the late 18th century, the mid-19th century, and certainly, the 20th and 21st centuries. For discussion, students should note that she only gains power in her life to choose to marry for “love” when she owns capital and a business. This wealth is also something Dorigen possesses, but something Griselda and the Prioress don’t have. Wealth parity is necessary for women to gain autonomy and political power.
In her tale, we go back to King Arthur’s time, when the Elf Queen and fairies danced in the forest. The Wife of Bath claims that the Friars chased all the fairies away, and women can walk safely, for only the Friars are about: “There is no other incubus but he, / So there is really no one else to hurt you / And he will do no more than take your virtue”. Some things never seem to change!
In her story, a knight (It’s Gawain!) rapes a woman in the forest. He is immediately arrested, and the king condemns him to die. In a parenthetical worthy for its ironic tone, the Wife of Bath notes, “(It seems that then the statutes took that view)”. However, the queen intervenes. Instead of death, she offers this reprieve: If the knight can find out what women most desire, he will be set free. He has a year and a day, or it’s off with his head. He asks women everywhere, but no one agrees: Clothes? Sex? Flattery? Freedom? To be frequently widowed? To be respected for their wisdom? Not overly criticized? To speak, even if they embarrass men?
Just when it looks like he’s cooked, he meets an old hag. She has the answer to his question, but he must promise to do whatever she wants in return. What does he have to lose? When the Queen asks him what do women want, he gives the old woman’s answer: They want power over men. He’s freed.
Now, the old woman claims her fee. She demands that he marry her. He hesitates, and begs her at least not to claim his body. Not happening. The wedding is bad, sad, and he morosely goes off with her to bed. She asks what his problem is. Surely, he knows that although she is poor, true gentility is meritorious. Poverty is something Christ blessed above wealth. Being old, she has wisdom. Being foul, he won’t have to worry about her cheating. He is still not happy. It is her own history, starting when she was twelve, of a poor young woman forced to wed and bed some foul old man, but in reverse. At least in her tale, the old person saved the young man’s life instead of ruining it. Shouldn’t he be gracious at least?
Finally, she asks him to choose. Would he rather have a wife who is old, ugly, wise and true, or a young, pretty wife who is lusty and loose? Something must have sunk in, or perhaps he’s just beaten when he says, “You choose!” Bingo. She transforms into a young, pretty, lusty woman, who is also wise and true – And who has control in the relationship. It’s not only what women want, but perhaps what society needs.
The Canterbury Tales is a great equalizer. Wilbur Cross has students from affluent families of New Haven educated alongside students in poverty, and students from all over the world. While many enriched households might include stories from Shakespeare, very few students arrive knowing Chaucer. My urban students will take this to college.
For this segment, students will work in teams to interpret one of the Canterbury Tales in a reenactment, with a narrator. Their presentation must include a thorough description of the character from the General Prologue, the links before and after the tales, and individual prologues to the tales. Then, students take turns analyzing their claims about what the story says about human nature, providing evidence from the text: How do the voices of women in these stories reflect power and worth in a society whose laws and social norms limited women’s rights? How do the stories reflect emotional and physical resilience of women, particularly evident in dire times? How do the stories reveal advantages for women with property, for the women themselves, and for society as a whole? How might these stories shed light on the continuing need to step forward in forming a society that lives up to American promises of equality?
My students read The Canterbury Tales in Modern English, but as part of their presentations, the group divides a 14-line section to read in Middle English26. This is particularly empowering for my urban students and bilingual students, who often excel at pronouncing Middle English, which uses European-sounding vowels, and is phonetic.