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The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims. The Canterbury Tales, the work stands as a historical and sociological introduction to the life and times of the late Middle Ages. he was familiar with and was accepted by the lower classes as well as by the higher classes; thus, throughout his life, he was able to observe both the highest and the lowest, and his gifted mind made the best of these opportunities.

In The Canterbury Tales, the Knight is a representative of those who belong to the very high social class of the nobility. His behavior – peacemaking, speaking like a gentleman, telling a polite romance – is probably meant to provide a point of contrast with the very different “low-born” behavior of characters like the Miller and the Reeve.

the Prioress which represents an ideal religious figure in the General Prologue, to find out the answer. With the Prioress, our first example of someone from the religious life, we have not only our first supposedly pious person with her priorities out of whack but also our first example of someone who’s trying way too hard to be perceived a certain way, and how ridiculous that looks.

The Clerk The narrator tempers his satire of the Clerk by also telling us that he diligently prays for the souls of those who lend him money for books and lessons, that he speaks little but what he does say is always virtuous. Kind of like us here at Shook, this guy’s generous with his knowledge. Since this attribute was one of the most desirable for medieval scholars, we have permission to think well of the Clerk. And don’t feel too sorry for this guy – his fortunes could take a turn for the better if he gets a benefice – a position as a priest that comes with a salary.

The Physician With the Physician, one of the most educated of the pilgrims, Chaucer provides us with an interesting contrast to the Clerk. While the Clerk’s studies have been motivated by pure love of knowledge, to the detriment of the Clerk’s financial situation, the Physician pursues his learning for financial gain. The comparison of these two highly-educated men allows us to weigh the consequences of both motivations for education.

The Wife of Bath Chaucer is representing the medieval estate, or social class, of wifehood. There were many anti-feminist stereotypes about wives during this time period. We see them expressed here, in the portrayal of the Wife as lustful, in the Host and Franklin’s complaints about their wives, and in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. But the presence on the pilgrimage of a dynamic and articulate wife who gets the chance to answer her critics means that these stereotypes are not allowed to remain unexamined.

the Parson’s portrait we see a lot of pastoral imagery, or language about sheep and shepherds. The Parson sees his parishioners as his sheep, and says that he cannot leave them stuck in the mud. He reinforces his reasons for living a holy life by saying that it wouldn’t be right for a flock of white sheep to be watched by a “shiten” (dirty) shepherd, someone bespattered with sin. From this language we get the impression that the Parson truly views himself as the caretaker of Christian souls. He takes his responsibility extremely seriously.

Many parish priests at this time period chose to take a “benefice,” or position far away from their parish, in which their only job might be to say mass for one departed rich person once a day. This was a way for a priest to make much more money, but it required him to live far away from his parishioners. By rejecting this option, the Parson shows that he is willing to sacrifice his own comfort to do his job as a shepherd of souls.

The Summoner With the Summoner’s portrait we have a critique not only of his individual character, but also of the situation that has created him. Although the Summoner’s conviction that one can avoid excommunication by paying a bribe is morally reprehensible, it may also have been true. Historians also think that summoners were not paid enough money by the church to really make a living; thus, they may have had to depend upon bribery to get by.

The Pardoner From the Pardoner’s portrait, we have good reason to believe the Host is probably right not to trust the guy: Chaucer tells us that, among his relics, he’s carrying a jar full of pigs’ bones, and that, with them, he’s able to cheat a poor parson out of two months’ salary. The Pardoner is good at preaching, but in his prologue he tells the pilgrims he only does it to win money, berating the people for their sinfulness so they’ll be more likely to buy what he is selling.

Like the Summoner’s, the Pardoner’s portrait throws into question not only the character himself, but also the practices upon which he relies to make a living. Both of these portraits explore what happens when spiritual goods begin to be profit-earning commodities like any other, and question the effect of this trade upon the souls of those who practice it.

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