By Daniel Kimmick, VI Form
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in part as a commentary on the Middle Ages and a satire to expose the behavior of society in that period. The way that he made this commentary, because of its blunt attitudes, evinces a lot about the culture of the period. In this way, Chaucer’s work can be easily examined through the lens of modern thought and culture. Chaucer has a number of interesting comparisons which he is able to emphasize easily due to the inclusion of multiple stories and the social dynamic he was able to insert using his general prologue, story prologues, and interjections[i]. One of these many themes is the recognition of stereotypes; of the party members on their pilgrimage, the majority are insulted at one time or another by the others in the group. These insults are oftentimes repeated, and it is interesting to see how the characters respond to these insulting comments, portray themselves in their story, and truly act. We receive from Chaucer an intriguing wealth of information regarding the way people say they act, the way they act in reality, and the way others believe they act; with this information readers can interpret how stereotypes were used when Chaucer was alive and compare them to the ideas and perceptions that western culture holds today.
The Knight is the first character to be introduced to readers in The Canterbury Tales, and knights are therefore one of the first groups assaulted. As Palamon and Arcite[ii], two valiant knights who are willing to die for love and fight for what they believe is right, are of the same post as the Knight, we become aware of some of the Knight’s self-perceptions. He expresses the traits he holds in esteem through this tale: reverence for a higher power, purity, love, and persistence; however, the mold of a knight set in this tale is reformed in later ones. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” there is no knight who speaks poetically of how Emelye’s “fresshe beautee sleeth” him or prays to the goddess of love for her blessing, but instead there is a “lusty bacheler” who “rafte [the] maydenheed”[iii] of an innocent pedestrian “By verray force” (“The Knight’s Tale” 1118, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” 883-888). This event brings into question the true morals and motivations of the Knight, all-the-while repudiating the knight’s ideas of purity and love. The Wife of Bath is able to do this by highlighting and twisting the persistence of knights. The Merchant similarly plays with the traits the Knight emphasizes, instead suggesting that the love and purity of a knight is too great to realize he is a cuckold even when his wife ‘swyved’[iv] not only behind his back, but on top of it! (“The Merchant’s Tale” 2345-2395) Through these insults, we see that the traits the Knight finds important to him are only valuable when they are not used against him, and stereotypes and aversions to groups of people existed in the time of Chaucer as they do now.
Another similar dynamic is created between the Friar and the Summoner. The characters, who both ‘earn’ their money begging or sending messages (whether in the form of prayer, summons, or the word of God), are competitors. Supposedly helpful and trustworthy members of society, these characters do nothing less than doom each other to hell. Though Chaucer’s description of the Friar in “The General Prologue” says he was “Ful wel biloved”, it is doubtful the Summoner was friends with a man who he says will be doomed to an afterlife underneath Satan’s tail (General Prologue 215, “The Summoner’s Prologue” 1690-1695). These characters are so defensive of their own livelihoods and competitive with their adversaries that they use the same stereotypes and insults that others use against them! Chaucer, in “The General Prologue,” states that the Summoner would scare children with his face alone (628); the differences in the descriptions of the Friar and Summoner show that, as in real life, there are people who fit and do not fit stereotypes, and there are people who are “lecherous” and others who are simply “plesaunt” (626, 222). The Summoner and Friar in this collection of tales are comparable to lawyers of today; even though only some are despicable and many others truly live a moral life, an immense number are the subject of jokes and insults. Chaucer adds an interesting element to the relationship between the Summoner and the Friar when he gives an example of someone fulfilling this stereotype outside of a story. The Pardoner, in his prologue, directly tells his audience that he does not preach to help others, “but for to winne”[v] (403). This shows that the competitors may have been warranted in their stereotypes to some degree, but it is still unclear as to what degree they committed these crimes.
Lastly, the Clerk is one of the characters who is most insulted early in the tales and stereotyped among the group of travelers. The Wife of Bath, in her prologue, describes her relationships with all of her husbands, and when she describes her most recent husband Jankyn, she states that “no womman of no clerk is preysed” because of their “diverse disposicion”[vi] (706, 700). The Miller preemptively emphasizes this idea through Absolon and Nicholas in his story. Both clerks, these men have horrible relationships with women. Nicholas makes a cuckold out of his roommate, and Absolon is punished for his vanity and denied reciprocation from the carpenter’s wife. The Clerk, though he is simply portrayed as an unassuming, skinny intellectual in “The General Prologue,” is lambasted and branded as being horrible with women (285-295). In reality, however, the Clerk tells his tale and offers a nice, logical, and wife-friendly moral: men should not attempt to subdue their wives as it will only cause harm (“The Clerk’s Tale” 1164-1169). In this way, the Clerk proves to Chaucer’s readers that stereotypes are not always reliable and that they should be treated with care.
Chaucer shows us that stereotypes existed as they do now when he was alive; he tells us through his tales that they are sometimes correct and often used to insult others, but they have always existed. The Knight and the Clerk may have both been perfect angels, but who knows whether the Friar was more lecherous than the Summoner? The Wife of Bath, who some may see as a good wife and an excellent accountant, could just be known as “Gat-tothed” to the Squyer[vii] (Mary Carruthers, “The General Prologue” 468).
Daniel Kimmick is a VI Former from East Norwich, NY who lives in Sawyer House. He enjoys singing, daydreaming, and deep conversation.
[i] The book is comprised of a group of stories told by a diverse group of people on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral as well as intermediary text for context.
[ii] Protagonists in “The Knight’s Tale”
[iv] Had sexual relations
[v] To earn money
[vi] The Wife of Bath argued that Clerks (students or some form of scholar), due to their interests in both academia and revelry, would never treat a woman ‘right’.
[vii] The Wife of Bath is hinted as being a good book-keeper who helped her husbands gain and maintain capital; however, she was also gap-toothed, which was considered a sign of being extremely sexual in the period. The Squyer (Squire) was portrayed as a lusty lover in the spring of his youth.