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).
"Canterbury wend, The holy blessed martyr..." See in text (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)
This holy martyr is a reference to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170 for a dispute with King Henry II of England. Only three years later, Pope Alexander III canonized Becket as a martyr. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Becket’s remains were put into a shrine in the Canterbury Cathedral which would gain an almost cult-like following. Every year people would travel to venerate this shrine and attend a feast in Becket’s honor. This is where Chaucer’s narrator and characters are going.
"Into the Ram one half his course has run,..." See in text (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)
The “Ram” is Aries, the zodiacal time period from March 12 to April 11. The personified sun has “run” half his course, which means the Aries period is half over. This places the pilgrimage around the 27th of March.
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.
"in May, On the third night..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
May 3rd is an unlucky day in the medieval calender. Chaucer used it as the night Chanticleer is seized in the Nun's Priest's Tale and in Troylus and Criseyde.
"God Mercury,..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Mercury is a messenger of the gods in Roman mythology. Much like Hermes of Greek mythology, Mercury would bring dreams, instructions, and visions to a sleeper at Zeus's request. Arcita is having a conventional dream vision, a very common episode in classical and medieval writing. Mercury is also the god of thieves that leads souls into the underworld. His appearance could be ominous, foreshadowing Arcita's coming death on his return to Athens.
"Sworn..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Chaucer alludes here to the custom, even among men related to each other, of swearing a "blood oath" to be true to each other, sometimes even exchanging a drop of blood to seal the pact. A blood oath is as serious and unbreakable as an oath to God.
"the eye Down to my heart..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Chaucer uses a very conventional metaphor based on the belief that the eyes and heart are directly connected, a conception that goes back to the Greeks. Eyes are often referred to as the "mirror of the soul," and the "evil eye" is the negative expression of this concept.
"Saturn..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
In the Middle Ages and, later, in the Renaissance, Saturn's influence on those born under its sign was thought to be always negative. People in the Middle Ages took astrology extremely seriously.
"In honour of the May..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
The celebration of May is well documented in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, especially in England. May Day was a festival celebration that carried over from Pagan practices. On May 1st, many English towns and villages erected May-Poles, sang, danced, and ate cake to celebrate the coming of Spring and the end of Winter.
"without ransom..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
This is very unusual and harsh behavior for a victor in either the Bronze Age or in the Middle Ages. In Chaucer's time, prisoners of rank were routinely captured and held for ransom. Only in very rare cases were prisoners put into prison and left there. Remember that Chaucer served as a soldier and would have been familiar with military law.
"of two sisters born..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
This means that the two knights are cousins as they were born to two sisters. In the Middle Ages, knights who were related indicated their relationship with a symbol on their coat-of-arms, readily recognizable to those who understood heraldry.
"that as he was true knight..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Note that the Knight who is telling the story, as well as the Knight Theseus in the story, are both examples of the ideal medieval knight. All their actions and attitudes are based on the conventions of proper chivalric behavior in the Middle Ages.
"To buried be, or burned..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
In Greek and Roman cultures, burial or burning of dead warriors is necessary to allow them to enter Hades. If their bodies are not handled properly, their souls are destined to roam the earth and, because they are unhappy, they begin to plague the living. Creon's refusal violates both ancient rules and the requirements of chivalry in the Middle Ages.
" old Creon..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Creon ruled Thebes after the death of Eteocles and is often described with the epithet "old." After the siege, Creon orders that Polynices and his army will not receive proper burials and will instead be left to be eaten by dogs as punishment for his treason. While he seems to be the opposite of Antigone, Oedipus's daughter who stands for the will of the gods and the honor of her family, his actions suggest that he believes what he is doing is best for his people.
"King Capaneus..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
King Capaneus is a figure from Greek Mythology. He appears In Euripides's Seven Against Thebes, the only surviving play from this 467 BCE trilogy. In the play, Oedipus's son Polyneices is trying to reclaim the kingdom of Thebes from his brother, Eteocles. During the siege of Thebes, Capaneus, one of Polyneices's supporters, shouts that Zeus himself can not stop him from invading the city. He is then struck down by a thunderbolt for his arrogance. His wife, Evadne, commits suicide when she hears of her husband's death.
"In Pity’s temple..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
The Temple of Pity (Clemency), according to Boccaccio's Il Teseida and Statius's Thebaid, is in the city of Thebes.
"Fortune and her treacherous wheel,..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
The Wheel of Fortune was a medieval symbol that represented the ephemeral nature of good or bad fortune. Anyone with good fortune on top of the wheel, as in kings, queens, or noble people, could suddenly have their fortune reversed and end up on the bottom of the wheel. The Wheel, always moving in its circle, brought both good and bad fortune to everyone, and one had to be prepared for any future. Fortune was a allegorical female figure that was indifferent to one's rank and served to demonstrate the temporary nature of earthly things.
"all in black..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Wearing all black indicates that the ladies are in mourning. Wearing black clothing when someone dies or tragedy befalls a community dates back to the Roman Empire. When mourning, Roman citizens would wear a toga pulla, a toga made of dark-colored wool. The tradition continued through the Middle Ages until present day.
"the realm of Femininity..." See in text (The Knight’s Tale)
Scythia was a region defined by the Ancient Greeks as all the lands north-east of Europe and the norther coast of the Black Sea. In Greek mythology, this is the legendary home of the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors (no relation to the Amazon rainforest). The "realm of femininity" refers to this region.
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.