Term Paper: Medieval English Literature

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Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, like the works of Homer, stand as a piece of literary history and also as an indication of actual history. For nearly a millennium Europe was absent of any significant works of literature; between the time of the Romans to Dante, virtually no literary indications of what medieval life was like have survived or stood the test of time. Dante himself -- writing in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries -- provides the modern reader with little by way of what daily life consisted of during his time. Instead, Dante generates a brilliant critique of the role of the Church in medieval Europe, while leaving the more subtle aspects of medieval society unmentioned. Chaucer, on the other hand, brings together a series of stories that seem to defy categorization: they seem to mimic the epics of ancient times, but are put in a uniquely medieval English perspective. At the same time, Chaucer clearly seems to borrow ideas from Dante and the handful of other medieval writers who emerged in the thirteenth century; the most obvious of these inspirations being the deliberate choice to write in the English vernacular -- like Dante's choice to write in the Italian vernacular. Ultimately, Chaucer's approach to poetry allows his work of fiction to, perhaps, come closer to accurately describing the people of medieval England than any other existing piece of literature.

Nevertheless, this presents the modern reader with something of a dilemma. Although we must treat Chaucer's characterization of the people in fourteenth century England as close to accurate in a relativistic sense, we should not allow his unique place in literature to fool us into thinking that personal bias does not exist in The Canterbury Tales. In other words, although the pilgrims and even their stories might represent a large piece of cultural history, the fact that Chaucer himself was one man, living in the midst of the complex social situation that was fourteenth century England, should suggest that everyone in The Canterbury Tales is seen through a particular lens.

With this in mind, it is possible to analyze the female characters that Chaucer presents in a way that goes beyond the one-dimensional tallying of their individual actions and motivations. Certainly, the women of The Canterbury Tales can be, to some extent, understood simply through the way Chaucer intends to present them; but Chaucer's very conception of what a woman is can also be utilized as a method toward grasping the essential role of women in medieval society. Chaucer, as a member of the dominant culture in medieval Europe -- wealthy men -- necessarily creates and describes his female characters in terms of their relationship to specific archetypes. Yet, in this respect, Chaucer is exceedingly innovative -- for his time -- regarding the creation of all his characters: each character is, in a way, held up to the ideal model of what it means to be a monk, a friar, a prioress, or a knight, and shown to somehow diverge from their associated epitome. So in general, "Chaucer was very careful to make his pilgrims representative of contemporary society," (Halliday 95).

Each pilgrim is described by the narrator both in terms of what he or she is, and in terms of what he or she is expected to be. The Monk is the most obvious example of this; he is exceedingly hansom and active for a Monk, and although he purports to take his duty to God seriously, he explicitly scoffs at certain restrictions upon his lifestyle which he sees as unnecessary. He hunts and ostensibly lives the life of a young, carefree lord. When he rides, "Ginglen in a whistlinge wind as cleere / And seed as loude as dooth the chapel belle," (Chaucer 170-71). Chaucer presents the Monk in this ironical way: the jingling bridle of his hunting horse is, for him, the chapel bell of his true calling. So although he is decidedly offered by the narrator in positive terms, it immediately becomes apparent that the characters of this tale are not going to fit the stereotypical molds of their stations. Instead, they will be far more three-dimensional and realistic characters than the simply facts of their social status might superficially indicate. Still, it remains the narrator's and the audience's implicit expectations as to what each character should be that reveals the most about what they are, and what role they actually serve in Chaucer's story.

The Knight is chosen to tell the first tale of the journey by drawing straws. The Knight seems to fulfill the narrator's expectations -- with respect to his social role -- far better than the other characters. He exhibits all the fundamental characteristics that were essential to life as a knight: "chivalrie" (prowess), "trouthe" (fidelity), "honour" (reputation), "fredom" (generosity), and "curteisie" (refinement), (Chaucer 45-46). The Knight also possesses a lengthy and remarkable military career; he has "ridden to battle in both Christian and heathen lands and in every instance served his king well. Despite his valorous deeds, the Knight never boated of his actions nor bored his listeners with his feats," (Nicoll 12). It may also be significant that the Knight, though having fought in dozens of battles, has never engaged in a secular war for his king. This clearly indicates some level of devotion to the principles of right and wrong -- as he understands them -- as well as his loyalty to God.

If any flaw could be found in the Knight's success in living up to the expectations of knighthood it would be that he is overly fond of the particular codes of chivalric action; he seems to be committed to the chivalric code through love of it, and not through a true understanding of it. In this way, his son, the Squire, parallels his father: his love is vested in the courtly love that knights are supposed to uphold. Accordingly, the woman the Squire courts is not necessarily the object of his affections, but the end result of his love for chivalry. Similarly, the Knight is not an honorable character because he possesses honor but, instead, he is an honorable character because he loves and strives for honor.

It may be because of the Knight's high level of congruity with the stereotypical notion of what it means to be a knight that he is the first to tell his tale. Accordingly, the Miller's interruption and subsequent tale should be viewed as a deliberate contrast, on Chaucer's, part between the two characters and the ways in which they view the world. Although both men are capable of exhibiting their physical prowess, the Miller is the one who is rowdy, aggressive, boastful, and obnoxious. The Knight is a far more well-developed character in The Canterbury Tales, so it is appropriate to see the Miller as a mechanism used by Chaucer to put the Knight and his tale into a different perspective -- that of the common people. The Miller is abrasive, brash, and quick to action in every way that the Knight is calm, methodical, and peace-loving. Their stories mirror this obvious contrast. Therefore, the Knight's Tale and the Miller's Tale cannot be approached as just haphazardly connected pieces of fiction.

The Canterbury Tales must be treated as a whole, with delicate considerations made for each pilgrim and each story he or she relays: "Chaucer's adoption of a Canterbury pilgrimage was not a mere excuse for story-telling. Most readers, I am aware, treat this great masterpiece simply as a storehouse of fiction, and so do many critics. Yet everybody feels, I am sure, that Chaucer was quite as much interested in the pilgrims themselves as in their several narratives," (Kittredge 153). So the issue of the women depicted in these tales is exceedingly more intricate than the reader may have initially imagined. Ultimately, this is because the audience is separated three times over from the characters in the tales: first, there is the pilgrim telling the tale; second, there is Chaucer the narrator describing the pilgrims; and third, there is Chaucer himself, who uses all of these characters to mold his complete story and link his audience to his subject.

It has sometimes been argued that Chaucer uses women in a manner that mimics the idealized social role of women in the medieval tradition (Hallett 481). Essentially, the assertion is put forward that women in medieval England could only have been conceived of by men as their opposite, their social "other," (De Beauvoir 1407). Nicky Hallett characterizes this conception of Chaucer by presenting a vision of femininity represented in The Sound of Music (1959) which she feels is congruous with the chivalric traditions of western culture: "You wait, little girl on an empty stage / for fate to turn the light on; / Your life, little girl, is an empty page / That men will want to write on," (Hallett 480). Fundamentally, this is the version of femininity in accordance most with the code of honor by which the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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