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Chaucer's picture of the fourteenth century English society in The Canterbury Tales

As a story- teller in verse , Chaucer , no doubt a unique master of narration is found to be grand observer of life and society around him . As he narrates his tale , in simple and melodious verses , and creates engaging characters , he presents , too , the life of his time scrutinises its specific traits , with lively and realistic touches .

In The Canterbury Tales , which is the crowing glory of Chaucer's literary achievements , is found fully exhibited his power to represent the fourteenth century English society in its different aspects , ecclesiastical as well as secular , with a rare artistry . The Prologue to The Canterbury  Tales is found to testify to his close association with the English life of his time . Truly speaking , it remains a great social documents of fourteenth  century English life in verse.
Chaucer's picture of the fourteenth century English society

Indeed , in the prologue , Chaucer represented adequately different strata of the English community under the feudal hierarchy . He presents here different character to represent different classes of medieval English society . His triumph lies in his power of observation and analysis that makes his characters typical of the age or society they represent , Here Chaucer stands without any parallel among his predecessors and contemporaries . 

The very conception , on which The Canterbury Tales is based , has a social background . Chaucer is found to exploit here the medieval religious practice to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury . That was a custom in which all the sections of the British people were participants . The pilgrimage to Canterbury is the occasion of Chaucer's Prologue in which he introduces different pilgrims , belonging to different professions , occupations , or functions , both secular and ecclesiastical .

Indeed , the Prologue alone bears out Chaucer's power to observe and examine , in a vivid and lovely manner , the fourteenth century . Except the highest ranks of the feudal order , the varons and the bishops , and the lowest , the serfs , all other sections are possibly represented through different characters , making pilgrimage to Canterbury .

In fact , Chaucer is found to present the then English society through different portraits introduced by him as the pilgrims to but they mainly focus the social types which are represented  in the work . Above all , colour , variety , interest and charm which Chaucer  had represented through  his portraits of pilgrims  make the whole social picture precise , clear , engaging and emphatic .

Thus,  of the secular sections of the society of his time, Chaucer's portraits of the Knights and the squire as also of the Yeoman may be mentioned . They represent the feudal chivalry of the time. In the medieval age those people had a specific role in society . Chaucer is found to have presented them according to their real situation and character,  which he possibly obtained from his own experience and personal contacts . Again , Chaucer goes to treat the members of the other sections of the community . The learned professions of the time , belonging to the secular sections , are typified by the Sergeant of the law and the doctor of physique. Both those professional men were held in highest esteem in the middle ages and Chaucer had his own experiences about them which he gave vent to his portraits of the pilgrims.

The common professional secular people, described by Chaucer,  include the five Guildsmen, the Shipman , the Miller , the Merchant,  and so on . He indicates aptly,  in his portraits , their physical characteristics as well as the nature of their occupation and the impact thereof on their conduct and behaviour. The common officers of state represented by Chaucer in the Prologue are the Manciple and the Reeve while the Franklin and the wife of bath stand for the free gentleman and the family women of the time respectively.

By the side of the secular characters, Chaucer represents the religious order of medieval English through his representation of the persons of some religious professions . They include the Prioress,  Monk,  Friar,  Clerk , Parson,  Pardoner and Summoner . Chaucer is here found to classify the functions which different churchmen had under the ordain of the Catholic code. His range of portraits is quite wide and never appears narrow or shallow in his representations.

Chaucer's picture of the English society of the medieval age as well noticed in his portraits of different pilgrims is varied and engaging.  Of course,  he never makes himself boring by any unnecessary elaboration or detail. On the other hand,  he is extremely precise and what is more, delightfully witty in his scrutiny of different personalities,  secular as well as religious.  As a result Chaucer's characters are not merely documentary but also freely individual.  His originality in the representation of the social figures is amply demonstrated here, and in this respect , the good wife of bath and the monk may be mentioned in particular .

The Wife of Bath is not only a typical , easy going, rather an unthinking feminine being of the age, but also appears to be extremely extrovert and talkative.  Her love for gay companions , fondness for travelling in some good company and other features well bear out the type of characters Chaucer portrays here with acute social consciousness . The Monk,  as already noted,  is an ecclesiastical representation .Chaucer well shows out how his interest lies in physical comfort and the worldly enjoyment of life . He is, therefore, shown as extremely fond of hunting dressing,  eating and other thoroughly physical pleasures.

Indeed, Chaucer's pilgrims well represent a comprehensive circle of social types . At the same time , they remain original and interesting in their individuality and that separates each of them from the general crowd of pilgrims and gives him or her class or rank of his or her own.

In conclusion , Chaucer's slight but enjoyable satire in his social account , is perceived in his representation of the ecclesiastical order in particular,  such as the Monk,  the Pardoner and the summoner. Chaucer court with a love for materialism , splendour and luxurious living . Here he may be placed by the side of Langland in his representation of the vices and follies of the ecclesiastical order of the fourteenth century in his famous Piers Plowman.  But Langland is serious and to some extent openly satirical , while Chaucer remains diverting , even lovely with flashes of wit and banter.  Naturally , the latter remains more enjoyable and popular than the former,  and is read even now with delight and interest to have the knowledge of the social fabric of his time.

Moreover, Chaucer appears to be a spectator of life , one who does not wish to make himself a moralist like Langland . He seems to view life as it was revolving , revealing and renovating. He appears to accept,  with the spectator's disinterestedness , the changes,  taking place rapidly.  Perhaps,  he might have felt that the old order and practices , however good and useful they must have been once,  would necessary change , lest they should go corrupt and inert.


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