The Canterbury Tales as a social commentary of the age

Literature mirrors the tendencies of the period in which it was written. In addition to that, there is inevitably a leading writer who becomes the representative of his time gives expression to its achievements and expectations, its success or deprivation in his literary works.

Chaucer has also presented the achievements and expectations, success or deprivation of his time through his poem “The Canterbury Tales”. Through the characters of all the classes, Chaucer portrays the vast range of contemporary society by making each character tell their own story. In this way, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” is not only the best social commentary of the age but also an authentic picture of fourteenth-century England.

Medieval Chivalry in “The Canterbury Tales”

An important characteristic of the Age of Chaucer is the Chivalric spirit. The qualities that include the Chivalric spirit are bravery, integrity, justice, being respectful to a lady and protecting her, etc. The Knight of “The Canterbury Tales” truly represents the chivalric spirit as he fought Fifteen Wars to defend his faith or religion. But during the age of Chaucer, the concept of chivalry is slowly changing. Chaucer presents the declining spirit of chivalry of the medieval period through the character of the Knight which was a combination of courage, love, and religion, on the other hand, Chaucer represented the growing spirit of chivalry through the character of the Squire, who was a man of free and easy. He has as much preference for pleasure as for the spirit of chivalry. 

The representation of the religious conditions of the age in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”

Chaucer has presented the religious conditions of 14th century England through ecclesiastical characters like The Monk, The Pardoner, the Clerk of Oxford, etc. Chaucer demonstrates the idiocies, the excessive desire for wealth, and all in all, the impious behaviors of these religious men. These religious men are not only the most materialists but also deceitful, unethical, and corrupt. For example The Prioress. The Prioress cares more about manners than sentiments and moderation. During Chaucer’s time, nuns were not allowed to have any kind of pets, but the prioress has a pet dog on whom she showered a lot of love and even fed them flesh and bread. The Prioress is also very fond of jewelry. The rosary that she has is too embellished and her brooch is also made of gold. So The Prioress of “The Canterbury Tales” truthfully represents the prioress of 14th century England.

Chaucer satirically presents another ecclesiastical character “The Monk”. The Monk does not focus much on his religious work; instead, he is very fond of good food and expensive clothes. The Monk never fasts or refuses expensive things like gold pin and supple boots. So like The Prioress, The Monk is also a truthful representation of his class.  

The representation of the political conditions of the age in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” 

Through the stories of the characters, Chaucer faithfully reveals the political conditions of the period. The Clerk and The Nun’s Priest mention the ‘Great Rising’ or ‘The Peasant Revolt’ in their respective tales. Another major event that happened in the period is the “The Black Death” and the reference to this major happening appears in Chaucer’s character portrayal of the Physician. Through the character of the “Poor Parson”, Chaucer refers to another important movement of the time “The Lollard Movement”. This was a religious movement initiated by John Wycliffe to reform the irregularities of the church. In “The Canterbury Tales”, like John Wycliffe, Poor Parson believed in living more meaningfully rather than affluently. 

The Rise of the Merchant Class during 14th century England: 

The Age of Chaucer witnessed the growth of the wealthy and flourishing merchants and tradesmen. They conveyed successful trading with neighboring nations and were setting the strong base of England’s industrial prosperity. Chaucer does mention the growth of business and merchants in the Middle English period. His characters from the merchant class are the type of characters who were slowly gaining wealth and prosperity.  The Merchant’s “Flaundryss bever hat” indicating affluence and flashy fashion, depicted him as a prosperous trader. Chaucer says that The Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, and the Dyer were all well dressed and their equipment were also very costly. Chaucer also states that the merchant class was no longer detested by the nobility. 

The representation of the medical profession in Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales” 

Chaucer’s depiction of the character Doctor of Physic is adequately exemplary of the exercise of medicine in his time. During the Age of Chaucer, it is very important for a physician to have knowledge of astronomy. Because physicians believed that all physical ailments depend on the positions of the stars and planets. For this reason, Doctor of Physic was also committed to astrology. His accumulation of fortune during the time of pestilence and his love for gold reveal his greedy nature. 


In the end, we can say that “The Canterbury Tales” gives us a rather realistic and substantial depiction of the socio-political conditions predominant in the Middle English Period. All the characters that Chaucer has presented in “The Canterbury Tales” represent different sections of society. Chaucer has not shown the reality in the poem as fragments but has shown it as a whole and for this reason; we can call “The Canterbury Tales” a complete social commentary of the age and a realistic picture of fourteenth-century England.

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