The Satire and Humor In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, he was primarily know for being the writer of love poems, such as The Parliament of Fowls, narratives of doomed passion, and stories of women wronged by their lovers. These works are nothing short of being breath taking, but they do not posses the raw power that the Canterbury Tales do. This unfinished poem, which is about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all of literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Together, the pilgrims represent a large section of 14th-century English life. To help pass the time of the journey, the pilgrims decide to tell stories. These tales include a wide variety of medieval genres, from humorous fables to religious lectures. They vividly describe medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Chaucer was a master storyteller, and his wit his shown throughout his work by the use of humor and satire, and it is most present in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, The Pardoner’s Tale, and The Wife of Bath’s Tale.
Many people that the most popular par to of the Canterbury Tales it The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach, claiming that the portraits are indicative of social humor and satire, “estates satire,” and insisting that they should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in a novel (Gittes 15). It is the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that serves to establish firmly the framework for the entire story- collection:
the pilgrimage that turns into a tale-telling competition. Since The Prologue begins the story, it is only fit that it contains the most humor and satire.
The Prologue begins with the Knight. In Chaucer’s description of the Knight, he describes him as being the perfect being. He’s tall, handsome, brave, and he has won many battles. He has traveled to many places because Chaucer tells us that he has fought in Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Turkey (Chaucer 3). However, even though Chaucer describes the Knight as being the perfect being, he begins to poke fun at him. He insists that the Knight was “a very gentle knight.” This is very strange because Chaucer thinks the Knight to be the ideal warrior, yet he believes him to be gentle (Brown 6). This is a very humorous contrast, and it adds a little mystery to the Knight’s description.
The next character in the story is the Squire. The Squire is the son of the Knight, and he is described as being very young and handsome. Many people read the Squire’s description and think him to be a “to die for” young man. However, when you analyze the text closely, Chaucer adds some feminine and childlike traits to the Squire’s description. It is said that the Squire has long curly hair, is full of flowers, and he wears a very short gown. He likes to sit around and just stare at the sky, and he also likes to sit and play the flute (Chaucer 4). I believe that Chaucer is trying to portray the Squire as being very confused, and even though he may have a lot to offer the world, he still has to find the time to grow up.
The next bunch of characters that are analyzed in The Prologue are the members of the Church. These characters include the Nun, Monk, Friar, and the Pardoner. One aspect of medieval life that I came to realize even before I read parts of the Canterbury Tales was the
importance of religion. History books have placed the church high on the priority list of every single member of medieval times. Chaucer, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach when describing the religious pilgrims in his story. Chaucer begins with the description of the Nun. When you think of a Nun, you think of a very holy and religious figure, but Chaucer’s Nun is the exact opposite of this stereotypical assertion. The Nun likes to do many different non-religious things, such as drinking and taking part in sports. She is also obsessed animals, and she is in love with them so much she prefers them over her fellow human beings (Brewer 18).
The next religious figure Chaucer describes is the Monk. Usually, Monks live in monasteries or churches, but Chaucer’s Monk is the master of his own estate who is somewhat wealthy. The Monk wore very fine clothes, such as a cloak made from the finest gray fur in the land and a pin made form solid gold. Monks are supposed to live with only what the need, and the Monk definitely doesn’t need the finest cloaks or pins made from solid gold (Ferster 25). Chaucer also says that the Monk’s only life is the life of a hunter and rider. A Monk’s life should be devoted to God and his people, not the killing of his creations.
Chaucer’s Pardoner is the worst out of all of the religious figures. Strangely, the Pardoner’s description is the longest and most vivid (Ferster 36). The Pardoner’s job was that he was too go around and give out pardons from the church. However, this wasn’t the Pardoner's main concern. All the Pardoner cared for was money. On the side of the Pardoner’s horse was a very large pillowcase. In it, supposedly, were ancient religious relics such as Saint Peter’s sail, a rotten cross full of stones, and a bottle of ancient bones. The Pardoner sold these relics to people
who thought that they were genuine. However, the relics were far from being real, and the people were being ripped off (Chaucer 22).
What Chaucer is trying to do with these descriptions is show the people that even though the church was supposed to be a house of God, it was really a house of corruption. His satirical descriptions of the religious pilgrims show that they didn’t care for what the church stood for or for what the people believed in, all they cared about was their own personal welfare and self gratification. In a sense, Chaucer is saying that the Church’s real foundation was money, and all of its religion was only implemented to ensure that the people would keep coming back (Brewer 68).
The rest of the Prologue contains small but significant descriptions of the other characters. The most humorous of these descriptions is the description of the Wife of Bath. Pilgrims that are lower on the social scale usually don’t receive very vivid descriptions., but Chaucer makes an exception when he describes the Wife of Bath. He starts off his description by telling of the Wife of Bath’s very humorous physical description. Chaucer says that she has a gap between her teeth, a very large and broad body, and a very fat buttocks. He also adds that she is very lewd and boisterous. Overall, the Wife of Bath is made out to be a very ugly woman. Strangely, men seem to like her because she has been married five times (Chaucer 15). The Wife of Bath’s description isn’t serious at all, and it is only included in the story to provide a the reader with some humor.
One other character that receives a somewhat humorous description is the Summoner. Chaucer describes him as having a fiery-red face with narrow eyes, black and scabby eyebrows,
and a scanty beard. He also adds that the Summoner had boils and pimples all over his face, a face that any child would fear. Chaucer then compares the Summoner to somewhat of a monster because he says that the Summoner would shout and scream like a madman. As long as liquor was poured, he would utter every single foul word he knew in Latin, and he would continue to say them all day (Chaucer 22).
In general, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales contains all of the background information Chaucer needs in order to tell the rest of his stories. No book should contain just facts, and this is why Chaucer incorporates humor and satire into his story. This technique adds to Chaucer’s mastery of prose, and the combination of the two help make a vivid introduction to Chaucer’s magical literary world (Rossignol 81).
The next story that contains a lot of humor and satire is The Pardoner’s Tale. As we find out in The Prologue, the Pardoner a fraudulent person who shows no regrets about selling false relics to people for money. The Pardoner shifts from moments of direct honesty to shameless deceit, openly admitting the tricks of his trade to the travelers but nevertheless attempting to use these various methods on these travelers who are aware of his schemes. The Pardoner is in many senses a warped character, unable to hold to any consistent code of moral behavior. The Pardoner is not a moral man, but he does have a moral system which he rarely follows (Gaylord 105).
The Pardoner’s Tale starts off with three men are in a inn drinking beer. They find out that their friend has died, and they want to find out who killed him. When they ask a boy that works at the inn who has killed their friend, he tells them the same one who has been killing everyone lately: death. Thinking that death is a physical being, the three men make a pact. They
vow that they will chase death and they won’t stop until they find and kill him. With one last toast, the men set off on their journey. Not long after the start, the three travelers come across an old man who says that he cannot die. He tells them that he knows where death is, and, excited about the news, the three men ask the man where he is. The old man tells them that death is beneath a tree in a nearby ally way. The three men find the tree, but they don’t find death. Instead, they find a box, and inside the box is gold. To make a long story short, the three men end up killing themselves because of their greed. They did find death, but not in the way that they had hoped (Chaucer 302-309).
In a way, The Pardoner’s Tale is a direct extension of the personality of the Pardoner. The character of the Pardoner is omnipresent throughout the tale, which is told in an intimidating style that intends to create a sense of horror at the consequences for sinful action. The Pardoner takes a religious role in the tale because he is preaching against sin (Brown 156). What is ironic, and humorous, about this is that the Pardoner himself is one of the biggest sinners of all. The Pardoner admits that he feels guilty, but yet he still continues his sinful actions.
Another humorous thing about The Pardoner’s Tale is that Pardoner really never mentions anything about the three main characters of the story. Besides the fact that he mentions that they are hoodlums, the Pardoner never mentions any distinguishing characteristics. Basically, the only real thing we know about the characters is that one of them is younger than the other two (Morse 143). The only somewhat developed character in the story is the old man. He is a grotesque figure that is condemned to walk the earth for eternity. He mentions that he
doesn’t believe in heaven, and the only way he can die is if he exchanges bodies with another man. This brings up my next point: this is the only thing even closely related to religion in the
story. One would think that a man which such a religious stature as the Pardoner would tell a story that would have to do with God or the church. The Pardoner’s Tale doesn’t even come close. Instead, the Pardoner chooses to tell a story about greed and money, the only two things that are on his mind.
One final story that contains a significant amount of humor and satire is The Wife of Bath’s Tale. We find out in The Prologue that the Wife of Bath is one of the most fully realized characters in the Canterbury Tales. She is very headstrong, boisterous, and she is constantly fighting to promote woman. She believes that woman have the right to do anything the wish, and the laws of the land and the church that prevent this are unmoral and unjust (Gittes 267). This is the basis for The Wife of Bath’s Tale.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale starts off with a knight who comes across a maiden and rapes her. The knight was brought in front of King Arthur, and the King wished to condemn him to death for the crime that he committed. The Queen, however, had different plans. She said that she would spare the knight if he could answer one question: “what do woman most desire?” She gave the knight one year and sent him off. The knight vigorously look for an answer, but he couldn’t find the right one. One day he came upon an old woman and he asked her for the answer. She said she knew the answer, and she would tell him if he would agree to marry her. He agreed, and she told him this answer: “women desire to have the sovereignty and to rule over their husbands.” When he went to the Queen with the right answer, he was spared, but he still had to marry the old woman. She sensed that he was disturbed, and she asked him what he would like, old and humble or young and independent. When he kissed her, the woman became
young and they lived happily ever after. The Wife of Bath ends the story with this moral: let Christ grant all women submissive husbands who sexually satisfy their wives (Chaucer 334-345).
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is humorous because it centers around the Wife of Bath’s belief that woman should dominate over men. Many feminine issues are addressed, such as male dominance and marriage. The personalities of the old woman and the Wife of Bath are nearly identical, which shows that The Wife of Bath in a way is telling a story about herself. She is telling her fantasy because she is ugly as the old woman is ugly, and the old woman suddenly turns into a beautiful young one at the end of the story. The tale closely resembles the princess and the toad story, where the princess kisses the toad and it turns into a beautiful prince (Gaylord 169).
The ending of this tale is very satirical because it pokes fun at the Wife of Bath. She is always talking about how woman should be independent from men, especially if they are their husbands. However, once the woman in the story gets her independence, she is still loyal to her husband, and this defeats the whole purpose of the Wife of Bath’s entire argument.
For almost a seven hundred year old book, the Canterbury Tales still is a very irresistible collection of analysis's of human life. Not much has changed in seven hundred years. Medieval traits that Chaucer described in his tales such as corruption and greed still play a major part in our society today. Also, issues such as woman’s rights that were debated back then are still heavily debated today. No other writer has been able to duplicate the way Chaucer has analyzed and described human life, and no one has even come close to doing it in such a humorous and satirical way. The Canterbury Tales brought Geoffrey Chaucer too his full artistic power, and it
will forever remain as one of the most brilliant and vivid piece of literature ever written in the English language.