Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales #3

Philo MEWelcome to the third post of my short Medieval England series.
In this post I’ll discuss some points concerning The Canterbury Tales and the brilliant author:

  • The Canterbury Tales
    • Geoffrey Chaucer
    • Physiology and imagery
    • Chaucer’s language and versification

Geoffrey Chaucer

The man and the Poet
Geoffrey Chaucer lived from 1340-1400 and was 60 years old when he died of unknown causes. There’s however much to know about Chaucer’s life.
He was born in London as the son of a wine merchant and so became a member of the middle class. This opened doors for him that wouldn’t have if he had been born into the estate of the peasantry. He grew up already learning French and later on his travels he came into contact with foreign poets, something that probably gave him a push in that direction.
Chaucer knew many people from all different ranks of society.
He was employed at court, later became a civil servant (Controller of the customs, Member of Parliament for Kent, Clerk of the Works, Deputy forester) and so came into contact with the peasantry, was a traveller and he had been a soldier.
This influenced his look upon society, as you will see in The Canterbury Tales.

For a detailed biography click here. Though keep in mind that in 1366 Chaucer married Philippa de Roet.

As a Poet, Chaucer wrote a large number of literary works over the years.
1369: The Book of the Duchess
1375: The House of Fame
1380: The parliament of Fowls
1382-1375: Troilus and Criseyde
1385-1386: The Legend of Good Women
And then there is the Canterbury Tales (more about this work see The Canterbury Tales).

In his works his own view on a subject is never out in the open, his poetry is very subtle and he uses slight differences, verbal disruptions and surprises, he knew how to convey more than one image or attitude in one line. And he is simply hilarious.
He knew how to put animated, powerful characters on paper and capturing their sociological details. These characters were not really what they now call round characters but they came very close to being so.

The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is the last work Chaucer wrote before his mysterious death.
It’s about a group of pilgrims all going to Canterbury. There are 29 pilgrims from all social classes plus Chaucer as a character in the Tales. He suggests a contest, who tells the best tale wins.
This work exists of a general prologue, 24 individual tales and between the tales there are prologues, interruptions and there’s commentary by the pilgrims on each other’s tales. It’s a frame narrative, meaning that there is a frame in which the other tales are told.

The Tales can be seen as an entire medieval anthology because Chaucer uses every genre in the Tales that was used in the Middle Ages:
Estates satire was a writing style that was popular in the Middle Ages, targeting the shortcomings of the clergy and the middle class. Mind that an estate satirist doesn’t attack the person but the social function or the profession.
Courtly romance
Breton lay
Fabliaux: Is a piece of literature in verse created to make the reader laugh, it’s a brief and comic tale. The setting is always in the present, real life and familiar places. The characters are ordinary and it usually involves the everyday life. The plot is created in such a way that there is someone deceived and in the end there is final/end justice. Here natural behaviour is rewarded and unnatural behaviour is punished.
Parody: imitates the serious manner/characteristic features in order to make fun of those same manners/characteristics. Often courtly love or the bible is used for this.

(for more information on the genre’s click on the genre).

There is not simply one narrator in The Canterbury Tales. There’s the poet Chaucer who tells the first part of the general prologue, the pilgrim Chaucer who is just a middle class citizen and is very impressed by everyone and everything, there’s Chaucer as the estates satirist and last but not least there are the pilgrims who tell their tales.
Because of this there are also two audiences, the first being the reader and the second being the pilgrims in the Tales.

Chaucer’s language and versification

Chaucer wrote his poetry for the higher social classes. I already mentioned that Chaucer had been in contact with every class in the society and so he didn’t use a lot of judgemental language. If he wanted to point something out he did this in a very subtle way. When he wrote The Canterbury Tales he assumed that his readers would have the basic knowledge of that time, so when you read the Tales this day there’s a massive knowledge gap. To understand why he wrote things one way and other totally different, you need to know what the readers from his time period knew to be basic knowledge. For example the knowledge of the three estates or bestiaries.

Something else altogether is the language he used to write his poetry in.
Back in the day French was the language to write poetry in and Chaucer did something quite uncommon, he started to write in English while this language was seen as vulgar. For certain effects he did use some French words (often to show his characters social status/attitude) but in general he used Middle English for his poetry. (For more about the language click here).
Now if you’ve read my first post in the series about Medieval England you’d know that there were no fixed rules for spelling and grammar, words were simply written down the way they were pronounced and Chaucer took advantage of it. Using also the Southern, Northern, Midlands and Kentish dialect -> Variation.
Chaucer is known for metrical innovation, inventing the rhyme royal, and he was one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, the iambic pentameter.
When there was more than one language involved in a text this is called a macaronic text.

When he wrote The Canterbury Tales he used two versions of style for his writing:
– High style uses restricted vocabulary and words that stand out, it uses rhetorical figures of speech. This was a formal way to write and was difficult to understand by the general audience. It was used when dealing with noble and courtly themes.
– Low style uses everyday vocabulary, it was informal without words that would stand out. The low style was used for the world of the fabliaux and other ‘low’ subjects.
Most of The Canterbury Tales is written in the low style and so it’s easy to spot when Chaucer switches from being the pilgrim to being the poet.

Physiology and imagery

When talking about physiology let’s first create the big picture.
The world existed of 4 contraries: hot vs. cold and moist vs. dry. When these combine in macrocosm they form elements:
– Fire: hot and dry
– Earth: cold and dry
– Water:  cold and moist
– Air: hot and moist

Within the human body (the microcosm) the contraries combine to form humours:
– Fire -> yellow bile
– Earth -> black bile
– Water -> phlegm
– Air -> blood
These humours had to be in a perfect balance or else one would become sick.
Now there’s the thing that the dominate humour in your body determines the complexion of the person and so too much blood could make you sanguine, too much phlegm made you phlegmatic, an overdose of black bile made you melancholic and too much yellow bile made you choleric.
Your complexion was also influenced by the configurations of the heavens during your birth, age and season of the year. IMAG0189When Chaucer describes his character he uses these complexions to show what kind of man/woman the character is.

Now let’s talk about imagery. Here’s a great definition:
“A common term of variable meaning, imagery includes the “mental pictures” that readers experience with a passage of literature. It signifies all the sensory perceptions referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, allusion, simile, or metaphor.” (Wheeler)
Imagery was used for all sorts of things, including:
– to establish the nature of a character
– to contrast/relate various characters
– to foreshadow events
– for comic effect

Animal imagery:
When being compared to an animal, it made a person less human and to understand this one must understand the chain of being:
God ->Angels -> Man ->Animals ->Plants -> Inanimate objects.
When a human was compared to an animal it degraded the human to a lower level of being but the animal always reflected the character of the human it was linked to.
To understand this you must understand that according to medieval beliefs that Nature was God’s second book and was there to teach mankind a lesson. In all sorts of biology books there was an illustration of the animal involved, followed by a description (the nature, the description of the natural behaviour) and then came the moral/allegorical interpretation (the significo). Here’s a site where you can find a bestiary.

There’s also other imagery such as music (probably relating to sexual activity), sweetness (relating to youth and sexual activity), imagery used to predict a coming event and humorous imagery (in Chaucer’s case this usually involved sex).

Chaucer was a great author and to really understand his work you should first know more about the time period in which he lived. All I can say now is that you should simply read his works. He was a genius and once you get used to his way of creating a poem you’ll find that he has a great sense of humour and that he’s stories are very amusing. In short: read the Canterbury Tales!

Next time on Medieval England: Romance, chivalry and courtly love.

The Riverside Chaucer by Benson
Simon Horobin, Chacer’s language
S.H. Rigby, Chaucer in context
Janette Richardson, Blameth nat me: a study of the imagery in Chaucer’s fabliaux


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