The Canterbury Tales are one of those required readings that most people suffer through in high school without really taking the time to understand, deeply appreciate Chaucer’s ability to cover numerous aspects of the human experience or even stop and think about whether or not they find it enjoyable reading. Are you the type of person who likes the type of chaste, romantic stories that you might find in Christian romance novels? Or are you more of the type who loves irreverent humor like the type found in modern farce? Either way, Chaucer has something for you.
When my students read The Canterbury Tales, the first thing I have them do is read through The General Prologue. I have them make three columns: people that Chaucer likes or approves of, people that Chaucer does not like or disapproves of and people that Chaucer is ambivalent about. Students nearly always get this wrong the first time around. They skim, they don’t see Chaucer’s biting sarcasm, they don’t connect that the implications they would read into the words today are often the same implications that Chaucer intends. Two prime examples of this misunderstanding are with the Summoner and the Pardoner.
Read quickly, students assume the usual modern tropes as they skim the text. These are religious men, so the students assume goodness. The Summoner’s appearance is described in detail, but in seemingly opposing phrases. His face is described as red and “cherubic,” but because it is covered with sores, he has crazy eyebrows over his small eyes and he smells bad. Modern students are accustomed to this sort of rough exterior holding a heart of gold, but Chaucer tends to be more literal. The Summoner’s interior is no better than his outward appearance, he is usually drunk, he is lecherous and a liar. The Summoner was someone who was charged by the medieval church to charge people with spiritual crimes and bring them before the ecclesiastical court. The description of The Summoner’s many faults, his ignorance (he barely knows any Latin, despite hearing it all day when in church), the way in which he brushes off the teachings of the church (pointing out that you can pay a bribe to excuse yourself) both show that Chaucer thinks little good of him. Students recognize this when you have them go back and read the section aloud. One of the main things they catch onto is the quip about children being afraid of him. Are they merely afraid of him due to his outward appearance and gruff, drunken behavior or is there another reason? My students have mostly asked when they came to this line, “is he a pedophile?” I think, yes, that definitely one possible implication that must be entertained, even if it is not a certainty.
The Pardoner’s description is not much better, but without careful reading it’s easy to miss. The Pardoner is in many physical ways the opposite of the Summoner. He is gentle. He is smooth and hairless. He has flaxen hair. He is carries religious articles. But, a closer look shows other aspects. He is like a gelding. His flaxen hair is greasy and lank. He carries jars of pig-bones. He carries a bag stuffed full of pardons that he is selling for a price, hopefully to a trusting country parson who will pay a dear price for a real religious relic. The implications of his description are a matter of intense controversy. Chaucer surely means the hairless, gelding description to be distinctly negative. Is he really a woman? A hermaphrodite? Is he part of a couple with the Summoner? I don’t think it’s possible to say for certain, it only matters here that sexual immorality of some sort is being implied. These are as much criticisms of the church as they are personal criticisms. The church was in the midst of the great schism. Many of Chaucer’s close friends were executed during the political turmoil of the time. Chaucer was forced to leave London for Kent. There was even a specific event involving pardoners who stole money they claimed to be collecting for a hospital. The Friar’s Tale deals with a summoner who is working for the devil. Clearly, Chaucer is making statements about the corrupt nature of the ecclesiastical structure and politics of the time.
These are the sort of descriptions that can give many students their first realization that the human condition is exactly that, the human condition. There truly is nothing new underneath the sun. Society is no more degenerate now than it was then. Chaucer certainly seems to disapprove of the degenerate nature of several of the pilgrims, but does Chaucer fully approve of the opposite?
The Knight could be seen as the opposite of the first two pilgrims we have looked at. He is first described as “worthy.” He values truth, chivalry, truth, honor and other high-minded qualities. He has ridden to war in defense of Christendom. He is at once wise and humble. But, he is also serious and unhappy. He is the first of the pilgrims to tell his story. His story is chaste, romantic, classical and boring. This is the drawback of clean living. It isn’t very exciting. The same can be said of many modern similar stories. Each of the pilgrims tells a story that reveals their nature and reveals more of what Chaucer thinks about them. Their stories reveal both their proclivities and their prejudices (such as The Prioress’s Tale which is a gruesome, anti-Semitic story).
If you thought that the pilgrims were going continue in order of medieval societal hierarchy, you are quickly disabused of that notion when The Miller jumps in with his own story. The fact that the pilgrims do not continue in some sort of order gives a democratic or egalitarian feel to the group. The Miller’s Tale is a rollicking one involving adultery and more than a healthy dose of scatalogical humor. The ribald nature of The Miller’s Tale rivals modern movies like The Hangover.
The depth and breadth of Chaucer’s tales, told by his pilgrims, is one of the major things that makes them worthy of reading today. Few modern authors could manage so many different genres and styles of writing. The collection shows that movies like The Hangover are not the result of our cultural downfall or erasing of Christian values in a secular society. Stories both chaste and…well…not so chaste have existed since people started writing down stories in the English language. They even existed at this time, when the church was at the height of its political and social power.
Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now. People might find the risque nature of The Miller’s Tale hilarious or offensive, but it is a tale of getting by on one’s wits, justice and the benefits of maturity. The Parson’s Tale offers advice of not believing everything you hear, not being overly trusting and cautions against greed. The Reeve’s Tale takes a “eat or be eaten” attitude toward human nature that suggests that every man is out for himself.
These tales illuminate the nature of the each pilgrim and often, the nature of humanity of a whole. “Holy” men of highly questionable character, cheating businessmen, people who take their civic duties seriously, women fighting to be recognized as equal to men; the pilgrims are a mix of people that can still be found in modern society. This allows students to appreciate the fact that human nature has remained largely unchanged, that the struggles faced today are not new.
It smacks of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on that could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the crazymaking games going on today are love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf, and girls’ basketball.”
Careful reading allows students to connect with people of the past in a way that sanitized summaries in a textbook do not allow for. It allows them to see that there truly is nothing new under the sun. It humanizes the people of the past. It allows students to think that maybe they can make a small difference in the world, even if they cannot change human nature. Say what you want about the downfall of Christian values, but you cannot deny that people have always enjoyed stories that involve sex and fart jokes.
While sex and fart jokes are a large part of some of the stories, there are other stories that balance those out. Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now.
Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.