Canterbury Tales as a Microcosm of the Middle English Society
Rosielyn Mae T. Bolon
III-13HC BSE English
August 12, 2013
EngLit/ Prof. M.Papango
The Canterbury Tales as a Microcosm of the Middle English Society
Beyond being a mere collection of amusing stories and entertaining characters, Chaucer
paints the 14th Century through The Canterbury Tales by depicting the society‟s social
stratification, its problems on Church‟s corruption and the values and character of the Middle
The Middle English society was structured and divided into classes. It follows the old
medieval tripartite division categorized into „those who fought‟ (the nobility and knights), „those
who prayed‟ (the churchmen) and „those who laboured‟ (the peasants) (James, 2011). This social
hierarchy is apparent in the tale‟s prologue where the author begins by introducing the Knight
and the Squire who belong to the upper class followed by the churchmen down to the laity. In
addition, Chaucer reflects the social tension among the classes by adding satire to the conflicts.
For example, after the Knight, the Miller who represents the lower class follows and mocks the
Knights tale. The contrast in the tale‟s themes as told by different tale tellers represents the clash
among the classes.
Aside from the being a mirror of social structure, the Canterbury tales is also a reflection
of the society‟s problem on Church‟s abuse. During that time, the Church was one of the most
powerful institutions in England. It was even deemed to be rivaling the power of the monarchy.
However, just like our own “Padre Damaso”, the Church people in Chaucer‟s time were also
found to be corrupt and abusive. Instead of being spiritual, they were rather focused on securing
wealth and worldly pleasures for themselves. The author shows this predicament by
characterizing nine out of ten members of the Church as corrupt in some way. He used direct and
indirect descriptions to satirize and ennoble archetypal characters of his day. Also, he made use
of humor and exaggeration to show contrast in the character‟s actual behavior and supposed
For example, the nun or prioress in the tale had inappropriate table manners that show
that she is more concerned with being “courtly” rather than religious. “She was at pains to
counterfeit the looks of courtliness and stately matters took” (139-140). The monk, too, was no
conventional holy man but a direct opposite of it—a man who holds his personal enjoyment
dearer than his faith. “This said monk let such old things slowly pace and followed new world
manners in their place (175-176). This line tells the reader that the Monk finds joy and happiness
in modern privileges.
The Monk who was supposed to be an advocate of frugality and
orthodoxy was rather liberal and sophisticated. “Since riding and the hunting of the hare were all
his love for no cost he would spare/ I saw his sleeve were purified at the hand/ with fur of Grey
the finest in the land/ Also, to fasten hood beneath his chin/ He had a good wrought gold a
curious pin” (191-195). The friar, on the other hand, was greedy and garrulous. As described
“equal his gossip and his fair language” (211); “Therefore instead of weeping and of prayer/ Men
should give silver to poor friars all bare (231-232); There is no honest advantageous/ In dealing
with such poverty-stricken curs/It is with the rich and with big victuallers/ and so wherever profit
might arise (246-249). But above them all were the Summoner and the Pardoner. These two
were very vocal of their wicked acts. They outrightly use religion as a means of eliciting money
and goods from even the poorest of the poor. The lines “Except a man‟s soul lie within his purse/
For in his purse the man should punished be” shows the Summoner‟s twisted mentality on
salvation and death. Meanwhile, the Pardoner was pictured as a cocky person who brags that he
can deceive people using his fake relics. Lines 695-697 prove this to us: “He was no such as
Pardoner in any place/ For in his bag he had a pillowcase/ the which he said was Our True
Chaucer‟s negative portrayal of these characters reveals how he views the
Catholic Church as a corruption-stricken institution.
Furthermore, he was able to vividly portray the values and character possessed by his
According to Spiceman (2007), the pursuit of wealth and status is the common
denominator of Chaucer‟s pilgrims. As evident in the characterizations seen in the prologue and
in selected tales like the Pardoner‟s tale and the Wife of Bath‟s tale, wealth and status indeed
play a great role in people‟s motivation. So as to prove this, a character in the Pardoner‟s tale
said, “O, Lord, thought he, if so be that I might/ Have this treasure to myself alone/ there is no
men who lives beneath the throne/ Of God that should be then so merry as I” (227-230). The tale
shows how greed and quest for riches becomes one of the major problems of the period.
In addition, the author shows how moral standards with regards to sex and marriage were
violated by some classes in the society. They are represented in the Miller‟s tale and the Wife of
Bath‟s tale. In the Miller‟s tale, Chaucer showed how love seen is a lust or a cause of deception
contrary to the noble kind of love in the Franklin‟s and Knight‟s tale. “And it chanced the game
should go a-right/ She was to sleep with him all night/ For this was his desire, and hers also”
(219-221); “For some [women] are won by means of money spent/ And some by tricks, and
some by long descent” (195-196).
Impressive, indeed, that Geoffrey Chaucer was not only able to create a series of
connected tales that reflects the eccentricities of the Middle English people but also the social
fabric that envelops them—an evidence that a good literature is a microcosm of the real world.
Spiceman C.L. (2007). The Canterbury Tales as a Microcosm of Chaucer's England.
Retrieved on August 6, 2013 @ http://voices.yahoo.com/the-canterbury-tales-asmicrocosm-chaucers-england-159517.html?cat=38
James, T. (2011). Black Death: The lasting impact. Retrieved on August 11, 2013 @