Historical Context in The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, a form of English that combined elements of Old English and French which was spoken from 1150 to 1470. Chaucer was one of the first writers to create popular fiction in the English vernacular. When he was writing in the 1300s, English was rarely used in official contexts; Latin was the language of the Church and French was the language of the court. The enormous popularity of this text contributed to the legitimization of the English language. Not only was language unstable during Chaucer’s lifetime but so was the political and social makeup of England. The Black Death ravaged Europe throughout Chaucer’s childhood and adulthood. An estimated thirty to fifty percent of the population died, leaving the peasant working classes ravaged. This scarcity of labor led to workers being able to better bargain for higher wages and better treatment. The Hundred Years War further contributed to class tensions. The rich profited off of the war and began indulging in showy luxury items, which led to the establishment of a rich merchant oligarchy that had significant influence in London. This, coupled with the increasing demands on the peasantry, led the artisans and peasants to revolt. Escalating class tensions from Chaucer’s time are evident throughout the stories within The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was influenced by famous Italian writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The Canterbury Tales borrows most heavily from Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which also uses a frame story to relate a number of smaller tales. Chaucer’s story follows pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. The Cathedral was a popular pilgrimage location because it contained the remains of Sir Thomas Becket, a Catholic martyr and saint.
Historical Context Examples in The Canterbury Tales:
The General Prologue - The General Prologue
"And with a knight thus will I first begin..." See in text (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)
Here the narrator makes his bias clear: he's beginning the introductions with the Knight because in his opinion the Knight has the highest social rank and, thus, the best character. All subsequent introductions proceed according to rank: first the Knight, then his squire and yeoman, then those with the highest status in the Church (the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar).
The General Prologue - The Knight
"Tramissene..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Knight)
Tramissene, or Tlemcen, is the site of Christian crusades in Algeria. The Crusades were a series of periodic military campaigns into the Holy Land sanctioned by the Pope undertaken by Catholic monarchs and their subjects from 1096 to 1487. The goal of these campaigns was to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control and unite the eastern and western branches of Christendom. This is another example of the Knight’s ability to fight for the crown and promote Christianity abroad.
"chivalry..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Knight)
Chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy are the five courtly ideals that a knight should have. Chivalry was an honor code that dictated Knightly behavior, especially in terms of the respect that they were meant to show towards women. This idea of the ideal knight and the importance of chivalry becomes the later subject of the Knight’s tale.
"At Alexandria, he, when it was won..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Knight)
The Alexandrian Crusade, also known as the sacking of Alexandria, took place in October 1365, approximately twenty years before Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales. This Crusade was led by Peter I of Cyprus and resulted in the destruction of many mosques and temples. The Knight's presence at the sacking is meant to represent his holiness as a good Christian.
The General Prologue - The Prioress
"but “By Saint Eloy!”..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Prioress)
Because she is a nun, it is odd that her greatest oath is "but" to Saint Eloy, the saint of metal workers and goldsmiths. This oath is out of place for nuns as they weren't supposed to go on pilgrimages or swear oaths. The presence of the oath could suggest that the Prioress' character is meant to be a social satire.
The General Prologue - The Monk
"Maurice or Saint Benedict,..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Monk)
Saint Benedict is called the father of Western monasticism. He established the Benedictine Rule in order to regulate how monks behaved in monasteries. These practices consisted of reading, praying and performing manual labor and imagined the monastery as the father and the monks as brothers. Maurice was his disciple who introduced the Rule to France.
"As Austin bids..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Monk)
Austin here refers to Augustine of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury—an important role in the Anglican Church. Augustine of Canterbury believed that monks should labor in service of the Lord, working in cloisters and on the land to prove their piety. It's clear that the Monk doesn't follow this rule.
The General Prologue - The Friar
"champion..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Friar)
In the Medieval context, a champion was someone who won a trial by arms. In it, someone convicted of a particular crime had to fight another man to the death in order to prove his innocence. It was believed that God would be on the side of the man who's cause was just. In other words, if the accused was innocent he would win, and if he were guilty, he would lose.
"friar..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Friar)
Friars differ from monks because they vow to serve God in society rather than in an isolated community of pious individuals. Friars are part of mendicant orders, groups of religious people who vow to live in poverty and travel the world preaching their beliefs. They avoided owning property and survived off the charity and good will of the people to whom they preached.
"Orders Four..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Friar)
This is a reference to the four prominent orders of friars, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, and the Carmelites.
The General Prologue - The Merchant
"Flemish beaver hat..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Merchant)
A Flemish beaver hat was a fashionable item of clothing for this time period. It signifies far off exotic lands as the beaver pelt would probably have come from the New World. The Merchant's clothes reveal that he is not only fashionable and wealthy, but that he is involved in trade.
"He would the sea were held at any cost..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Merchant)
This means he wants the sea to be protected from pirates at any cost, since they negatively affect his profits. Middleburgh is a trading port in Holland that traded often with Orwell, its counterpoint in England. Chaucer uses this description to show that the Merchant is most concerned with trade and profits.
The General Prologue - The Clerk
"clerk from Oxford..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Clerk)
In Chaucer's time, clerk meant scholar. Oxford, now a famous University in England, was one of the first collection of colleges in Chaucer's time. Oxford's primary goal was to translate Greek philosophers and reconcile their thoughts with Christian theology.
The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen
"livery..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)
"Livery" is a particular type of clothing or uniform that distinguishes someone as a member of a guild. It also signifies a distinguishing feature or characteristic of the person wearing it. Notice that throughout the introductions Chaucer has used dress in order to describe a character's personality. Here, the characters themselves wear livery in order to intentionally present their occupations as personality characteristics.
" haberdasher and a carpenter, An arras-maker, dyer..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)
A Guild was a group of people that practiced a similar trade who banded together in order to regulate their products and protect their members from exploitative feudal lords (similar to a modern-day union). These men were probably part of a craft guild since a "haberdasher" is a hat maker, an "arras-maker" made tapestries, a "dyer" dyed fabrics, and a "weaver" weaved cloth.
The General Prologue - The Physician
"gold he gained from pestilence..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Physician)
"Pestilence" here refers to the black death that swept Europe in the 14th century and wiped out 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population. People began to accuse physicians of being corrupt during this time period as the remedies they prescribed for the deadly disease repeatedly failed. Chaucer takes up this characterization of the corrupt physician who profits off of misery and cares only for money in his portrayal of the Physician.
"gold in physic..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Physician)
This is an ironic reference to the medieval treatment aurum potabile, which was a liquid medicine made of gold. This remedy was believed to be the best treatment for disease. Here, the narrator uses this reference to gold treatment to suggest that the use of gold is an essential part of being a physician, which suggests that physicians are corrupt.
"astronomy..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Physician)
"Astronomy" in this context means astrology. In Chaucer's time, physicians believed that the body was controlled by the balance between four humors. They would use astrological charts in order to understand how these humors would be effected by the twelve constellations and prescribe treatments based on this analysis rather than empirical evidence gathered from symptoms.
"humour..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Physician)
In the Middle Ages, physicians ascribed to an ancient medical theory called humorism, in which the four "humours," or temperaments, governed a person's health. A person was either sanguine, melancholic, choleric, or phlegmatic. Each of these humours was associated with a bodily fluid (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) and caused a specific series of ailments if one had more or less of it than normal.
The General Prologue - The Parson
"parson..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Parson)
A parson was a priest of an independent church. While vicars were priests that were monetarily supported by the Roman Catholic Church, a parson gained his revenue from the contributions of his parishioners.
The General Prologue - The Manciple
"vulgar..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Manciple)
In Chaucer's time "vulgar" referred to the common man, someone who spoke the vernacular. The term did not yet carry the negative connotation that we now associate with it. Here he is simply showing that this common man is so clever that he can keep up with the wisdom of a crowd of learned men.
The General Prologue - The Reeve
"choleric..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Reeve)
"Choleric" is a reference to the four humors believed to control humans and their emotions in Chaucer's time. People believed that yellow bile, one of the four humors, caused a choleric disposition. Being choleric meant being quick to anger or aggression.
The General Prologue - The Summoner
"Latin..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Summoner)
Latin was the language of learned men and the only language spoken in the church in Chaucer's time. Speaking Latin was a sign of distinction that signified holiness or learning. However, the summoner here only speaks it when he is drunk and only knows a few phrases in Latin. In this way, the summoner's use of Latin both parodies its social importance and demonstrates the summoner's lack of education and status.
"summoner..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Summoner)
In the 1300s, the Catholic Church would hire a summoner to call sinners before an ecclesiastic court. These spiritual crimes could be anything from adultery to heresy, and generally courts would excommunicate those found guilty.
"cherubic..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Summoner)
Cherubs are winged beings like angels common in Christian art and iconography. Cherubs have traditionally been depicted as babies or infants with round, rosy cheeks, hence the description of the Summoner as having a red "cherubic" face. In this case it's not a reference to the Summoner's holiness but rather a description of his skin condition.
The General Prologue - The Pardoner
"Our True Lady’s veil..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Pardoner)
"Our True Lady" refers to the Virgin Mary. Relics are the physical remains of a saint, holy person, or martyr, or a thing that was believed to be sanctified by contact with this holy person. In the Catholic Church, these items were venerated as shrines that could connect a worshiper directly to a saint. Here, the Pardoner claims to have relics. However, the narrator points out that the items the Pardoner claims are holy are actually mundane household items such as a pillowcase.
"But lank it hung..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Pardoner)
The medieval church frowned upon men wearing their hair long. This is a sign that the Pardoner is not a holy man that respects the rules of the Catholic Church.
"pardoner..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Pardoner)
A pardoner was someone licensed to sell papal pardons or indulgences. In the Catholic conception of the afterlife, those who sin without repentance go to hell, the pious go to heaven, and those who have sinned but repented on Earth go to purgatory where they will labor until they have redeemed their sins and can go to heaven. An indulgence was a way in which someone could pay to reduce their time in purgatory or lessen their earthly penance for sins. The sale of these indulgences was a hotly contested issue in the Middle Ages.
The Knight’s Tale
"Diana..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Diana is the goddess of the hunt and virginity. In the myth associated with her, Actaeon, a male hunter, witnesses her bathing naked in a stream. To punish him for looking at her, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag, which is then pursued by and devoured by his own hunting dogs. She symbolizes freedom and female power.
"Is ridden to the fields ..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
In ancient Greece, horses were an extremely expensive luxury that only the nobility could afford. Generally, horses were used for battle rather than entertainment, especially because the grecian terrain was not especially suitable for horses. Arcita riding into the countryside for fun is either Chaucer's way of showing us how wealthy he has become in Theseus's employment or a projection of Chaucer's contemporary time period onto his ancient Greek characters.
"Phoebus..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
"Phoebus" is another name for the god Apollo, the god of the sun, truth, healing, poetry, and plague. This is an artistic way to say that the sun rose. It situates the story in the world controlled by the gods and destiny.
"malady of love..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Arcita suffers from lovesickness. In the Middle Ages, lovesickness was believed to be a real and serious disease, caused by lust and the sight of beauty. It was generally an affliction that effected noble men and carried symptoms similar to melancholy. In medical texts surrounding the malady, women are portrayed as instruments that curse men and infect them with this potentially fatal disease.
"siege..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
The Siege of Thebes occurred after the events of Sophocles's Oedipus. After learning that he has fulfilled the prophecy to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus leaves his kingdom to his two sons Eteocles and Polynices. They are meant to alternate rule every year. When Eteocles refuses to step down after his year is up, Polynices takes an army to siege Thebes and reclaim his throne. Both sons are killed and Creon, Oedipus's uncle and brother-in-law, takes the throne.
"swooned..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Notice that the depiction of women in this tale firmly supports male power. It begins with a male hero conquering a land ruled by women and subduing their queen and immediately turns to helpless, swooning women who need his help. While this depiction of women is consistent throughout the Knight's tale, it is not consistent throughout the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's use of different perspectives gives us a better understanding of the society in which he lived and allows us to see that marginalized persons had more agency than we might believe by reading chivalric tales.
The Miller’s Tale
"Angelus ad virginem..." See in text (The Miller’s Tale)
This is a medieval carol that takes its lyrics from the Hail Mary. It is believed to be a Franciscan hymn brought to England in the 13th century by the French.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
"Arrius..." See in text (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)
Latiumius and Arrius are stock characters from a story popular in Chacuer's time. Latiumius tells Arrius that a certain tree on his property is cursed as three of Latiumius's wives have hung themselves from it because they were wicked women. Arrius asks for a slip of the tree because he wants to plant the tree in his yard in order to test his wife.
"Livia and Lucia ..." See in text (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)
In ancient Roman history, Livia was the wife of Drusus. She posioned her husband after the idea had been planted in her head by Sejanus, an ambitious soldier and friend of her husband. Lucia was the wife of Lucretius, a famous Roman philosopher. She prepared a potion that she believed would make her husband love only her. Unfortunately, the potion ended up killing him.
"Clytemnestra..." See in text (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)
In ancient Greek mythology, Clytemnestra was Agamemnon's wife. Accounts of the story vary, but in every one, Clytemnestra is in some way responsible for Agamemnon's murder. In one, she kills him because he brings home a concubine from the Trojan War; in another she kills him because he sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia. In the account that the Wife seems to refer to here, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon so that she and her lover Aegisthus can take over his rule.
"Samson..." See in text (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)
Samson is a character from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament who was given supernatural strength from God. His power comes from his long hair. His love for a woman named Delilah causes his downfall. Delilah allows his mortal enemies, the Philistines, to shave his head while he is sleeping, rendering his strength non-existent before a major battle. The story of Samson and Delilah is another Biblical story that Alison's husband uses to show her that women are wicked.
The Tale of the Wife of Bath
"holy friars..." See in text (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)
Here, Alison blames the disappearance of the fairies and elves that existed during King Arthur's time on the friars who walk around praying and begging for money. This is an interesting critique of the church and Christianity. Fairies and elves would have been associated with Pagan traditions, which were seen as heretical by the church. However, here, Alison seems to lament the loss of these creatures rather than denounce them as a good Christian should.
"King Arthur..." See in text (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)
King Arthur was a British king who defended the island from Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th century. Legends of King Arthur depict him as a great man who battled beasts, men, and supernatural forces. Though his actual existence is under debate, there is no denying that his story was a powerful influence on the histories and chivalric romances of the medieval period.
The Pardoner’s Tale
"fall down one or two,..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
In the Roman Catholic Church it is believed that if one does not repent before they die, they will go to hell. If they repent they will be able to go to purgatory and once there earn the chance to go to heaven. The Pardoner uses this threat to scare his fellow pilgrims into buying his indulgences.
"pestilence..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
The personification of Death in the Middle Ages was a popular image in literature, poetry, and paintings, and would have been recognizable to Chaucer's audience. He was widely feared especially in the context of the Black Plague. Because the religious and scientific knowledge of the time could not explain the plague, this personified Death became an explanation for the seemingly meaningless and random deaths of many people.
"folly..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
The "Pardoner's Tale" takes the form of an exemplum, a moral anecdote that emphasized binary character traits in order to make a point. Preachers used exempla to punctuate their sermons with vivid stories that would illustrate the point of church doctrine. Often these stories would be put into collections of exempla that preachers could copy into their sermons. The Pardoner's use of exemplum indicates that this story is not his own but rather taken from another source.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
"My tale is of a cock..." See in text (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
The Nun's Priest begins to grapple with the the concept of predestination and the medieval philosophical question of how evil can exist in a world controlled by God. However, he quickly undermines this revelry by stating that he is only telling the story of a rooster. This claim is clearly undermined by the complexity of the rooster he is talking about and the parallels between this rooster and the court. This is a literary device that allows the Nun's Priest to move back to the light hearted, humorous tone of his story.
"Cato..." See in text (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
Cato is a Roman senator and historian who is credited with writing the first history in Latin. He is remembered as Cato the Wise. While this reference is apt, it is funny because it exists within a beast fable and comes from a hen. References to antiquity and medical knowledge are used here to simultaneously equate this barnyard with the learned court and humorously mock the learned court.