Somehow, I managed to avoid having to read The Canterbury Tales in high school and at university. So I decided to inflict that punishment on myself independently.
Chaucer was born of fairly middle-class parents, but some good luck for his father and himself saw him rise to a more prestigious place in 14th century society. He could speak English, French, and Latin. At the time he wrote the Canterbury Tales, no one was writing in English. The clergy spoke Latin, and the court (society around the king) spoke French. English was the language spoken in daily life in London, and people were just beginning to think of writing it down.
Chaucer drew heavily from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of tales told by a group of young people hiding in the Italian countryside to escape the plague. And he borrowed very heavily from a lot of sources. I don’t think many people realize how similar many English classics of the 14-16th centuries are to other texts. If there were copyright laws during that time, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chaucer (among others), would have been guilty of 100+ counts. At the time, most stories were told orally. They were the same stories, told over and over, but the storyteller was judged not on his originality, but on his style in telling (and embellishing) the familiar tale. The copy of the Canterbury Tales that I have is a Norton Critical Edition with many of the sources included in the back of the book. Sections are lifted word for word in a few places, and the plot of each one of the tales has a direct relationship with the sources.
So…the Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue, explaining that the narrator is among a group of pilgrims, about to set out on a voyage to Canterbury. Canterbury was/is the head of the church in England–though at this time, it was the Catholic, not Anglican church. Canterbury is also of extreme importance because Thomas Beckett, former archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in the church itself. He became a martyr and was canonized ‘St Thomas of Canterbury’. Pilgrimages to Canterbury were very popular, quite common. Chaucer uses this journey to tell all of his stories, in the guise of many different levels of society, from the poorest to the richest, from the clergy, scholars, even women (gasp!). Each story is told in the style that each of these stations would give–the most educated tell subtle and well-crafted tales, the bawdier members tend to make quite a few vagina-related puns and tell more raucous and less moral tales.
The two most famous tales are the Knight’s Tale and the tale of the Wife of Bath. The Knight’s Tale features a very familiar plot to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Two virtuous knights fall in love with the same woman, who is of course chaste and beautiful and untouchable, as all good women were supposed to be. Shakespeare borrowed the plot for The Two Noble Kinsmen. The Heath Ledger movie has very little to do with the first of the Canterbury Tales, but it did introduce the world to naked Paul Bettany as Chaucer himself.
Where the Knight’s Tale is chivalrous and adheres to quintessentially medieval ideas about men, women, honor, and romance, the Wife of Bath embraces everything scandalous. She gleefully tells her shocked audience (before starting her tale) that she has been married 5 times. She talks about how she has controlled her husbands, marrying them for money, until she became rich. Then she could marry for love. You’ll find a similar plot in the seminal classic ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna.
The Wife of Bath is pretty much the only female character in the Canterbury Tales that is a realistic portrait of a woman. Some are bawdy and classless, others the silent and beautiful paragons that no woman has ever actually been. The Wife of Bath defends her own history (her 5 marriages) by challenging men to prove her own interpretation of the scripture wrong. She has her own opinions, and she won’t be bullied out of them.
On the other hand, she’s a pretty terrible person. She admits freely that she took advantage of her first 3 husbands, using her ‘charms’ to make them pay (monetarily and in other ways). She conforms to a lot of the bad stereotypes attributed to women by men, and she’s unapologetic about those flaws.
The wife of Bath aside, The Canterbury Tales is not a fun read for women. Almost every tale is replete with misogyny, often resulting in violence and/or rape. And there’s a big chunk of virulent anti-Semitism that really adds to the ambiance and makes you want to burn your house down.
When I first started reading it, the Canterbury Tales was sort of fun. The Middle English was like a puzzle. If you thought about it, if you read it aloud, it was like a game. Here’s an example. Read it aloud.
How greet a sorwe suffreth now Arcite!
The deeth he feleth thurgh his herte smyte;
He wepeth, wayleth, cryeth pitously;
To sleen him-self he wayteth prively.
He seyde, ‘Allas that day that I was born!
Now is my prison worse than biforn;
Now is me shape eternally to dwelle
Noght in purgatorie, but in helle.
Readable, right? It’s actually really good for your brain to read something like that–a similar effect to learning a new language.
But as I kept reading, the rampant sexism and really truly awful antisemitism just got more and more and more tiresome and upsetting. By the time I finished, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m glad I didn’t have to study this in school, or to write an essay on it. Because all I got out of the experience was anger. A lot of people debate whether Chaucer was a feminist or misogynist. The Wife of Bath is an independent strong woman…but she’s also a gold-digger and a manipulator. And the rest of the women are either whores or angels. I’m inclined to think Chaucer a realist. And the reality of the time is women were given very little leeway, and many had to conform to the stereotypes to survive. Is the Wife of Bath a bad person for taking advantage of her first 3 husbands? Maybe. But on the other hand, she was first married when she was 12. Can you blame her?
I would not recommend reading this unless you’re really interested in the time period, and can deal with some truly bullshit stuff that went down in the Medieval era.