The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: A review

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende...
How many of us spent part of our freshman year in college learning that prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and then struggling to recite it for our English literature professor? Surprisingly, although I can't always remember what I did last week, I can still remember much of that prologue that I learned all of those long years ago.

I think it is the lyricism, the lilting cadence of the thing, that makes it so memorable. That was a feature of the Middle English in which Chaucer wrote. This week, I read a modern English translation by David Wright for Oxford World's Classics of the entire work and I felt it had that same quality of lyricism. It seemed very true to the original.

In college, I read the excerpts that were required reading for my literature class, but I had never read the work in its entirety. Several books that I have read this year, both fiction and nonfiction, have dealt with this period in history, and, in particular, Barbara Tuchman's excellent  A Distant Mirror about the 14th century made several references to Chaucer and to his masterwork. It piqued my interest and made me decide to read the whole thing.

The setting of the tales is that a group of diverse pilgrims are about to make their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to worship at the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered. To amuse themselves along the way, they agree to a competition in which each will tell a story. At the end, the teller of the story which is judged best will receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn back in Southwark, the meal to be paid for by the other pilgrims. Among the pilgrims is Chaucer who records the tales.

Many of the pilgrims are officials of the Church or are in some way tied to the Church and Chaucer is unsparing in his depiction of these characters. They are mostly venal, greedy, often licentious beings who are completely devoid of Jesus' empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

Especially are they devoid of any empathy or understanding for the lives of women. Perhaps because I am a woman, I was particularly and acutely sensitive to the portrayal of the women in the tales. For the most part, they are either idealized, chaste, saintly beings, an image worshiped by chivalric knights, or else they are complete bawds, living only for the pleasures of the bed. If they are married - and almost all of them are - their chief goal in life is to make a cuckold of their husbands. The married men in the party who tell tales of wives depict them as harridans, as violent creatures who cheat and beat their husbands and get their comeuppance in the end.

One wonders why Chaucer's tales so characterized women. Was he simply reporting the common themes of the day? Were his cartoonish portrayals of women his sly and satirical way of making a point, somewhat like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal? Was he, in short, a 14th century feminist trying to bring change to a world view that was totally hostile to women?

Incidentally, Barbara Tuchman, whose book pointed out the similarities between the 14th century and our own time, would likely be quick to see the analogy between the Church's attitude toward women in the 14th century and the Church's attitude toward women today. Not much progress there, I'm afraid.

The 14th century was, of course, a God-obsessed period and nearly all of the tales relate in some way to the Bible or theology. My two favorites among the stories, though, were mostly free of such associations.

"The Wife of Bath's Tale" introduces us to a woman who has buried five husbands and is on the lookout for a sixth! She may be as close to being liberated as a 14th century woman could be and she has a joy in life and a bawdy sense of humor which is totally infectious. I loved the Wife of Bath!

My second favorite story was "The Nun's Priest's Tale" perhaps because some of my favorite animals are chickens. This story is a retelling of a popular Middle Ages parable about the rooster and the fox. In this case, it's the tale of Chantecleer and his favorite hen Pertelote and the dastardly fox Renard. The priest does manage to get in a dig at women in that it is Pertelote's advice which causes her beloved Chantecleer to be caught by the fox. Never fear, though. As always in these stories, the rooster outfoxes the fox!

This was a wonderful read. It really stands up well over the six centuries since its writing. The bawdy, irreverent tone is not so different from something you might see on late-night television today. I'm not sure if that is such a wonderful recommendation, but I guess what I mean to say is, the world really hasn't changed much since Chaucer's time. He and his other pilgrims would fit right in today.


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