Literature and Dissent in the Age of Chaucer Essay


“[Chaucer’s] method of communicating [the] impact and importance of [the events of his day] was indirect, whether because of temperament, or the political caution needful to someone of his rank and position, or because of a deliberate choice concerning the materials appropriate to high-literary vernacular poetry” (Pearsall) In light of this comment, write an essay on Chaucer’s responses to contemporary political and religious practices, and to the groups or institutions with which they were associated. You should refer to the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales in your answer, but need not confine your discussion to this text.

Tutor : Stephen Penn


It can be seen within Chaucer’s writing that the politics and religions of his day are important factors behind the ideology with which he engages in the work of the Canterbury tales. This we can see clearly. The manner in which Chaucer embraces such historical events of his day, however is somewhat indirect. As a result this has raised questions among Chaucer theorists as to why he should be so oblique about this aspect of his work.

We can see this in Pearsall’s statement: “Chaucer’s method of communicating the impact and importance of the events of his day was indirect, whether because of temperament, or the political caution needful to someone of his rank and position, or because of deliberate choice concerning the materials appropriate to high-literary vernacular poetry” As such it is my intention to study closely the Canterbury Tales, in order to attempt to discern why it was that Chaucer was so indirect in his use of elements such as estate satire, whether it be for only one of the above mentioned reasons or for all of them. To come to such a conclusion I will refer heavily to the General Prologue of the Tales.

In order to understand Chaucer’s position when writing the Canterbury Tales (C.T.) I shall first look at the way in which he uses religion within the text then politics. Paying attention to the way in which he affects historical relevance through devices such as poetic effect and form.

Estate Satire was the way in which Chaucer divided up society into three common groups, these being nobility, clergy and commoners. “Those who protect all, those who pray for all, and those who feed all” By dividing these groups up Chaucer is able to comment critically upon the flaws and attributes of the groups as a whole. For the time being I shall concentrate mainly upon the clergy. Initially religion is portrayed directly through the topic of the Canterbury Tales.

The pilgrimage is a religious one and thus the tone for the poem is set as one which revolves around this theme. Chaucer goes on to portray religion even more clearly through the clergy within the C.T. The Monk, the friar, the prioress, the parson and the three nuns. However we also see religion being portrayed within the lesser members of this cross section of society, such as the pardoner, who is not a member of the clergy, but certainly displays clear aspects of religious practice. In order to ascertain why Chaucer uses religion as a part of his estates satire I shall first look at the language he uses with reference to the prioress line 119: “There was a nonne, a Prioresse

That of her smylyng was ful simple and


Entuned in hir nose ful semely ,

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly …”

Here we can see that Chaucer speaks of the prioress in a manner which depicts her as a person of polite manners and breeding. On the face of it this seems to the ear a virtue given to the prioress on the part of the poet, however as Chaucer continues to employ flattery towards the Prioress, the reader is given over to a feeling of sickly sweetness. There is something not quite right in the portrayal of the nun and that is the fact that although Chaucer says nothing directly derogatory of this figure of the clergy, he makes use of irony by means of imparting upon the nun virtues that would be more fitting of someone of a more social upper class background than of a nun, who is supposed to be humble and live a simple life. We can see this use of over emphasis upon the nuns so called virtues again as the poem continues on line127: “…At mete wel taughte was she with alle:

She leet no morsel from hir lips falle,

Ne wette hir fyngres in hir deep sauce

Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe

That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.

In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest…

This section of the poem continues to highlight such attributes as highly trained table manners, which although they do not explicitly say so, impart upon the reader a rather greedy image of the prioress. Chaucer then ends the section on the prioress with a description of her bejewelled dress line 159: “A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,

And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,

On which ther was first write a crowned A,

And after Amor vincit omnia”

From this we can see as I have described earlier the way in which the description of the prioress escalates to a point where she is literally described in a gaudy fashion. For a nun who is supposed to have no expensive belongings she seems to have many. Chaucer subconsciously raises the question of where such a nun could afford jewels such as gold. In particular however is the use of the “crowned A” around her neck, which not only implies a service to the crown, when her service should be only to god, but the latin words “Amor Vincit omnia” which literally translate as love conquers all and as such this is a highly ironic line for Chaucer to end his description of the prioress on, due to the fact that it denotes a mind set which the prioress should be without, as Chastity and love (of the sort implied) are something which she should abstain from.

The idea also that it conquers is one which seems out of place when the reader is focused upon a member of the clergy as it denotes imagery of battle and bloodshed in the name of a love that is forbidden. From a religious point of view the prioress should be gentle and caring, and any sort of love for which she is allowed to impart should be entirely benevolent in nature.

We can see also within the character of the monk, the way in which Chaucer makes use of satire for effect. With the Monk Chaucer begins to become a little more direct in his attack. This is not to say, however that Chaucer is explicitly derogatory of this character, but more that he begins to make clearer what it is about the clergy that he is attacking. I use the word clergy specifically, as opposed to religion because I believe that Chaucer does not satirise upon the religion but the type of people representing it. We can see within the Monk’s portion of the general prologue that he directly criticises the book by which he is supposed to live his life in line 175: “This ilke monk leet olde thynges pace,

And heeld after the newe world the space

He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,

That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men”

Chaucer openly states here that the monk does not give a “pulled hen” for a bible that states that what he does is wrong, namely hunting. So we see here that we go from a situation where the prioress is satirised for aspiring to be more than just a religious dignitary, to the monk who literally denounces that for which he is meant to stand. Again however, as with the prioress, Chaucer portrays a picture closer to that of an aristocratic landowner than a man of the cloth. We can see this in line193: “I seigh his sleves purfiled at the hond

With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;

And for to festne his hood under his chyn,

He hadde gold ywroght a ful curious pyn;

A love knotte in the greter ende ther was.

Again Chaucer employs the imagery of a gold “love knot” around the monks neck, in a similar fashion to the way in which he places the gold crowned A around the prioresses neck. The placing of such a symbol around the neck of clergy seems significant in that it symbolises a weight or a burden. Not to the prioress and the monk themselves, but a burden to their original cause. I believe that the imagery of a heavy symbol of a love to which they are forbidden weighing them down by being tied around their neck may represent the thing which is stopping them from reaching any religious enlightenment, as they are still bound by earthly desires such as hunting and high fashion. I believe that this sign of love represents the love of all things earthly and forbidden.

Therefore what we can see from Chaucer’s description of the Prioress and the monk is that he is most definitely employing estates satire with regards to the clergy, and as such is making a social comment upon the religious practices and doctrines of his day. He does this in a way which is not only underhanded, but also very clever, as he uses flattery to paint a grotesque picture of both of these religious person’s characters. By doing so he shields himself a little from the flack which he may have gotten for criticizing the church as there is nothing direct to which any authority could grasp hold of and lynch him for. Chaucer indirectly makes it clear that he considers the clergy to be hypocrites as far as being patrons of the religion which they are supposed to represent goes and that where they are supposed to have surpassed earthly desires they are still bound.

By using estates satire Chaucer effectively generalises the people associated with these groups and therefore dampens the blows which he may strike against the flaws of the people within those groups. At the same time however he cunningly provides them with attributes that if the people are as he implies should pride themselves in such things, i.e. the nun prides herself of her manners, and the wife of bath on her ability as a good wife, and therefore such people will be blind to the irony in Chaucer’s work and such “attributes” may even help him curry favour.

The question however is whether these attributes are designed for the task of winning back favour which he might jeopardise through certain areas of his work, or whether it is designed with the intention of ironically highlighting the gaudiness of these so called good people. It should be noted here that even though Chaucer divides his groups within the estates satire into groups, one of which being nobility, he does however avoid high nobility such as the monarchy in order to protect himself, as he could actually be killed for such acts of treason, if the satire were to be picked up on.

It seems that Chaucer is sharing a ‘personal joke’ with the people of his time who will be wise enough to choose to see through the statement, to get to what he is actually thinking. Through use of form Chaucer has been able to make the Canterbury Tales accessible to all walks of life. Though use of easy colloquial dialogue Chaucer allows the common class to be able to see the faults of the aristocratic. As they do not identify with such things they will be more inclined to see the flaws of the aristocratic class. The same applies to the nobility and clergy, who will be attracted by the use of sophisticated poetic effects such as the internal rhyming couplets in four stress lines.

They will also have their attentions redirected to the flaws of those whom they do not understand and as is the nature of most people, they also will not see their own flaws, but only those of others. This is one way in which Chaucer indirectly attacks certain aspects of the events of his day, although I must make it clear here that even though I have stated that Chaucer does such things underhandedly, there are points where it would still seem clear to people that Chaucer was launching an attack upon them, and so in lines 735 – 746 Chaucer begs to be excused for his “wit is short”. As this seems more specifically directed at the characters of the people then again I feel I must stress that I believe it is not religion in itself that Chaucer is attacking but the politics and beliefs of the characters (not the beliefs of the church which they claim to hold) which affect a religious malpractice on the part of the people themselves.

In light of the claim that Chaucer is more focused upon the personal politics of the characters themselves, it seems important to point out one of the main political altercations going on around that time which was The great Western Schism. The Great Western Schism was a time when the catholic church were divided into tow factions regarding where the pope should lie, one side believing that the pope should be elected in Avignon and the other believing that an Italian pope should be elected and lie in Rome.

The occurrence of this faction coincides with the writing of the Canterbury Tales and as such Politics and religion are undeniably merged with one another. As the Catholic encyclopaedia states, at that time the church and its patrons were “fed by politics and passion”. This allusion to the great western schism can bee seen through the pardoners tale, who incidentally being the religious figure of the commoners, is the most directly attacked of all of the characters, showing how Chaucer actually feels regarding the abuse of the religion by such people. We can see this in line 702: “A povre person dwellynge upon lond,

Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye

And thus with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes”

Here we can see clearly that Chaucer does not hold back in his grotesque description of the pardoner, because here it is not so dangerous to say what he is thinking. Therefore it could be said that Chaucer, in his freedom to say to an extent what he feels, has betrayed himself to an extent, by subconsciously imposing his own, more provoking beliefs upon us. My reason for saying this is due to the fact that around this time there are many places from which a pardoner would originate out of. That is to say, many places which Chaucer could have chosen to make the pardoner from. Why then did he choose to make the pardoner “out of Rome”? Being that we are told that everyone else is of Britian, with exceptions of the knight who is given no fixed place.

I believe that this is an important point due to the fact that at the time Rome was a hot spot for political and religious upheaval. I believe that Chaucer has unintentionally (or even possibly with intent) let show that his ideals lie with Avignon. It seems to me that the pardoner’s section of the general prologue is a direct attack on not only religion, but more specifically religion in Rome. I also believe this to be another reason for why the attack upon the pardoner was so much more fired up than the attacks upon other clergy, because although the topic of religious malpractice is one which Chaucer obviously feels for, I my theory that Chaucer is an Avignon sympathiser holds then the pardoner’s tale will inevitably have more passion to it.

In conclusion I believe that Chaucer presents us with a spectrum of righteousness, by contrasting the placement of the characters in the religious hierarchy to their actual level of morality, and moreover it would be unwise to assume that Chaucer had only this one end in view when he wrote the Canterbury tales. Whether or not Chaucer consciously or sub-consciously intended to be both Satirical and exercise his poetic skill, it does not matter because as it turns out he has managed to do both. At the time it could be possible to read Chaucer in isolation to the subjects of religion and politics without doing any damage to his literary career, however I believe that both of the themes of religion and politics run through and unify the text as a whole.