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Cross Section of 14th Century – How Chaucer Sees It
Apart from its great poetical and literary merits, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a wonderful commentary upon the English life in Middle Ages. Dryden has rightfully remarked that Chaucer must have been a man of most comprehensive nature who could bring into the compass of his The Canterbury Tales the manners and humors of his age. His keen observation, extensive travel, vast knowledge and variegated experience in the service of state had enabled him to present such a vivid picture of human life and pattern. Perhaps it was his desire to exhibit his vast knowledge that he conceived the idea of writing The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer’s technique in portraying his characters lie in joyous originality, free from complications. In fact Chaucer being the true narrator of his age, brings before us the reality in its very original form. He is an objective writer for whom the things are best represented when they are in their original shape. He is perhaps among those who first abandoned the conventions which did not present the thing in its obvious beauty. Chaucer exhibited the entire pageant of humanity with its most part exposed and little drapery thrown over it.
Chaucer has given a great variety of professions of his time. The Knight and the Squire present chivalric class. The Clerk, Doctor of Physic and even poet himself are the representatives of learned and liberal class. Chaucer has discussed neither the elite nor the downtrodden class of his age. He gives us the vivid picture of all those professions, which were adopted by the middle class. Trading, manufacturing and even farming are not ignored by him. He has included all the professions from the town as well as from the village side.
The important aspect that we get from his masterpiece of writing is the moral condition of that age. He has introduced a number of ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical characters and most of them are morally bankrupt. Friar, Monk, Summoner and Pardoner being church officials. are expected to be ethical and religious but it is only their apparent look, inwardly they are money makers out of others’ problems, they are mercenaries. Chaucer has presented them in a way which exposed their lack of discipline. The institution of church, which gained great power in the Middle ages, had become a place of extortion. The wickedness was not taken as a disease to be eradicated but an opportunity of money making. The practice of giving huge tithes to abbot when vicar had inadequate income was a common occurrence. Many people abandoned their ignored and half-savaged peasantry to flock to London or some other place as chantry priests; Monk’s Statement “Why sholde he studie and make hymselven a wood” gives the true picture of his unsuitability to his job.
Not only the religious authorities but also the various social sects of life reflect the same impression. Doctor of Physic, lawyer, Manciple, Reeve and even Merchants are not sincere to their obligations. They are wearing the masks of virtue but in practice they never leave a chance to cash from others’ sufferings. Chaucer has exposed the reality in a sugarcoated way as he knew it may evolve hatred against humanity.
Females in “The Canterbury Tales” are Prioress and Wife of Bath who embody the spirit of revolt against the contemporary gender discrimination. Wife of Bath is a dominant character who declared a revolt against men in general. Prioress does not obey the injunctions of the bishop, she keeps the pets and goes to pilgrimage.
Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” gives ample information about the dresses, food and different instruments common in those days. Knight’s doublet, Squire’s short embroidered dress, fur lined sleeves of Monk’s attire, Wife of Bath’s broad wimple and heavy kerchief depicts the fashion and style of wearings in those days. Roasted swans, red wine, different kinds of fish were the popular food of the day. Daggers, swords and horses were a common sight.
It is interesting to see that his keen analysis of the characters with all their manners, idiosyncracies, likes and dislikes make them full of life and not mere bloodless dummies. They remain no more phantoms of the mind because they are not the spokesmen of Chaucer but a true reflection of their age. Along with the profiteering clerics there are various characters in “The Canterbury Tales” which are spokesmen of christian doctrines and dogmas in the fourteenth century. Among these moral characters we find Parson, Clerk, Ploughman etc. who are though poor in worldly material but rich in thoughts and deeds. Parson satisfies his conscience by being practical and not just a theoretic; As he says
“If gold reuste what shalt irene do” and
“A shiten shepherd and a clene sheep“
These statements justify the poor condition of church and social ranks because its natural that inferiors or poor will indulge in crime if the aristocratic and leading faculties are vicious. The state of morality was poor in Middle Ages when rich and poor all were sinners and had to submit to penance which was easier for rich in the shape of hefty amount.
We may conclude that Chaucer without amending or disguising interpreted the life of fourteenth century through the experience of persons and professions.
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