Chaucer as a Chronicler of His Time with Special Reference to ‘The Canterbury Tales’



"Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love."

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343? - 1400)
 
 The Canterbury Tales is Geoffrey Chaucer’s most mature work. It is a collection of tales with a lengthy prologue. In fact, the shrine of Canterbury was visited by a group of pilgrims and on there journey it had been planned that each one will tale four stories together. There were thirty pilgrims including the author. But instead of original plan of 120 tales, only 24 are finished, of which two are interrupted before the end and two broken off soon after they begin. The group of pilgrims include a wide cross- section of English society: a knight and a squire (his son), professional men like the doctor and the lawyer, a merchant, a ship-man, various representatives of the religious orders like the prioress, the make, the friar, the parson  several craftsmen, and so on.

A woodcut from William Caxton's 
Thus as far as his characters go, The Canterbury Tales is the very picture gallery of medieval English society. The narrative style might have a parallel to Boccaccio’s Decameron or the Novel of Giovanni Sercombe but it has many original scores. Chewer offers a comic pageant of 14th century life with the pilgrims revealing their habits, moods and private lives indirectly through the stories they tell. Among the different tales the courtly romance is represented by the Knight’s Tale or the fragmentary squire’s Tale. The physician’s Tale is a retelling of a fall tale. This dirt story is as fascinating as her character who has had five husbands and would not mind a sixth. Her earthly frankness and open policy of dominating husbands are somewhat immortal.

The pardoner’s Tale and The Parson’s Tale are sermons and didactic treatise. The Nun’s priest’s Tale is a memorable example of the best fable Chaucer’s objectivity is the hallmark of his greatness in The prologue and the Canterbury Tales. He completely effaces himself and takes upon the role of a mere interpreter, a chronicler reporting verbatim a word or stories he has heard being told. The group-wise representation of person of different profession, and the impartial allowance given to them to speak out freely helped Chaucer to paint exactly the body and soul of the society of his time. We can say with authenticity that he was truly the social historian of England in the late fourteenth century as Froissart was the political and military chronicler of the same period.




Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Prologue are a picture gallery with the twenty-nine travelers making many portraits on the walls. Chaucer’s exactness of description, correctness of emblem; honest awkwardness and an insistence on minute a point make him a primitive and induce a simile on our lips. There is no method of demarcation in the descriptions. They are haphazard, costumes and points of character are exchanged, substituted and taken up once again. Though careless, it is ending and conceals his art and increases the impact of truth he wants convey.

Chaucer’s picture gallery is replete with ‘some patches of brilliant color’ dominating one or other of the portraits. The power of the squire, the yeoman ‘in coote and hood of green’, the Prioress’s rosary ‘of small coral’, its hanging brooch ‘of goldful scheme’ bringing into relief her dress. Some of the faces of pilgrims are as strongly colored as their dress. The beard of the Miller is ‘as any sowe or fox was reed’, with his wart from which sprang a tuft red hairs. His nostrils were black and his mouth ‘as was a great Forney’s’.  


Ref: 1. The Short Oxford History of English Literature-Andrew Sanders
        2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
        3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canterbury_Tales.png
  
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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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