Themes in The Canterbury Tales
Church corruption: By the late 14th century, Catholicism had become the dominant religion across Europe. The Catholic Church had overwhelming influence over politics, art, education, and society. For this reason, the church was enormously wealthy. Its ostentatious display of wealth led many to criticize the church as being corrupt, especially in a time when many people were dying, starving, and unable to work. A particularly hypocritical church practice was the selling of indulgences. People would buy indulgences from the church in order to ensure that their soul would reach heaven quickly after death instead of remaining in purgatory. There were many opportunities for priests and other high-ranking members to take advantage of people. Many stories and characters within Chaucer’s tale demonstrates a severe social critique these types of corruptions within the Catholic Church.
Courtly Love vs. Sexual Desire: Courtly love was a literary trope in medieval Europe used to invoke ideas of chivalry and nobility. It generally featured a knight who loved a married noble woman. The love was absolute and ennobling, but always unrequited. This type of devotion, self-sacrifice, and passion was meant to mimic the knight’s love for the monarch and God. In many of Chaucer’s stories, the ideals of courtly love come up against themes of indulgence in sexual desire. This tension demonstrates the disconnect between the ideals of the society in which Chaucer lived and the reality in which people actually lived.
Themes Examples in The Canterbury Tales:
The General Prologue - The Friar
"money given(15) Is sign that any man has been well shriven..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Friar)
This means that giving money is a sign that one has confessed and purged one's soul of sin. However, in Catholic Church doctrine, it is not confession and payment for confession that relieves sin but honest repentance for that sin. Here, Chaucer ventriloquizes the Friar's argument in order to demonstrate his corruption and hypocrisy. This corrupt member of the clergy highlights one of the main themes in Chaucer's text of Church corruption.
The General Prologue - The Plowman
"plowman..." See in text (The General Prologue - The Plowman)
A plowman is a farm laborer or rustic peasant, generally one who drives a cattle plow to till soil. Notice that characters who are lower in the social order are described with less sarcasm and irony. This could suggest a social critique that the upper classes are more corrupt and hypocritical while the poor workers are more genuine.
The Miller’s Tale
"his watching and his jealousy..." See in text (The Miller’s Tale)
John seems to have the worst fate in this tale because he is both physically injured and ridiculed. This suggests that the moral of the Miller's crude tale is that one should never marry outside his station. This summary at the end could also signify that the Miller wants to give his tale the significant "happily ever after ending" that concluded the Knight's tale. However, the moral he creates once again shows his low class as his tale does not lend itself so easily to morals.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
"women had but written stories..." See in text (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)
Here the Wife demonstrates the importance of perspective in shaping a narrative. She notices that because stories about women are written by men, women are perceived as wicked. In this acknowledgement, the Wife denies that women are by nature evil or deceitful. This acknowledgement is interesting coming from a female character written by Chaucer, a male author. It highlights the theme of perspective and its ability to shape a narrative, which is prevalent throughout Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
The Tale of the Wife of Bath
"young too,..." See in text (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)
Since the wife tells us at the beginning of this tale that the world has lost its supernatural magic, scholars have debated whether or not the wife actually transforms into a young and beautiful woman, or the knight simply perceives her as beautiful now that she has power in their relationship. Notice again that perspective shapes the story that we are given.
"Some said..." See in text (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)
Notice that the knight does not seem to be asking women what women love most. Much like the husband and the book that the Wife described in her prologue, the knight is looking to male authorities to know women's minds.
The Pardoner’s Tale
"knight..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
The Knight's ability to save this situation at the end of the tale reinforces the image of him presented in the General Prologue. He seems to be one of the only pilgrims who is true to his nature and rank. The favoring of this Knight and the depiction of this church official as vile suggest a very strong social critique theme.
"That I within your fellowship did fall,..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
Notice how the Pardoner's rhetoric tries to transform the action of the pilgrims giving him money into a favor that he does for them. This rhetorical appeal seems to fail because it is obviously an attempt to profit off of them rather than save their souls. In this way, Chaucer's larger rhetorical strategy comes through: in making the Pardoner an unsuccessful and transparently greedy character, Chaucer is able to show his audience church hypocrisy and reinforce his theme.
"My holy pardon cures and will suffice, ..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
Until this point, the Pardoner has told a straight forward exempla that demonstrates the slippery slope of indulging in one's vices and teaches a moral tale. However, rather than concluding in a moral message that will help his listeners live more virtuous lives, the Pardoner concludes his tale by telling his listeners that the only way they can avoid this fate is by buying an indulgence from him. This turn demonstrates the Pardoner's hypocrisy and demonstrates Chaucer's larger theme that church officials are corrupt.
"sought..." See in text (The Pardoner’s Tale)
Notice how quickly the rioters forget their vow to kill death in the presence of money. Their willingness to abandon their noble (if not foolish) quest demonstrates the weakness of their moral characters. This foreshadows their downfall and the Pardoner's ultimate theme that greed is the most dangerous vice of men.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
"first to woe..." See in text (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
Rather than grapple with serious philosophical questions about God, the Nun's Priest blames women and their bad advice for Chanticleer's coming misfortune. This is a complete reversal of the vision of women presented in the Wife of Bath's tale, in which female advice saves the Knight from execution. Notice how the stories take up and change each other's themes.