The Canterbury Tales is characterised by the document of social realism. Chaucer is a keen observer of the various tendencies of his times, which are being exhibited by him in poetry. At the outset, it must be made clear that Chaucer was a realist, and he revealed the truth about life as he saw it. Before him, the writers were lost in the world of dreams and allegories. In his French period, Chaucer, too, was an allegorist, but in the English period he shook off the shackles of the dreamy allegory and came out with healthy observations about the life that he found unfolding before his eyes.
This note of realism had been sounded by Chaucer long ago in the 14th century. He made a thorough study of his times in its varied aspects and gave expression to its hopes and aspirations, its fears and doubts in The Canterbury Tales. He reflected his century not in fragments, but as a whole. He had the innate instinct to catch within his purview the soul of his generation in all its fulness and its depth. He had the seeing eye, the retentive memory, the judgment to select, and the capacity to expound. His observations about his times are true and realistic, and they are not set forth with the vision of a dreamy allegorist.
He stands in much the same relation to the life of his time as Pope does to the earlier phases of the eighteenth century and Tennyson to the Victorian age. He presents a cross-section of English life in the fourteenth century in a very successful manner.
Chaucer’s best descriptions of men, manners and places are of the first rank in their beauty, impressiveness and humour. Even when he follows the common example of his times, as when giving details of conventional spring mornings and flowery gardens he has a vivacity that makes his poetry unique.
His power of describing his fellowmen with all their merits and demerits, their tastes and temperaments was unique and the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a picture gallery bringing in its scope all classes of people ranging from the Knight to the Miller and the Cook.
Chaucer symbolizes the Middle Ages, and his world is medieval. But beneath his medievalism, the leaven of the Renaissance is already at work, and the poet stands at the dividing of way linking himself with the old world of medievalism that was passing away, and heralding the birth of the new age that was peeping at the horizon. Let us now examine how Chaucer realistically portrays his Age in all its varied aspects.
A Cross Section of 14th Century English Life
Chaucer’s realism, primarily comes out in the setting of The Canterbury Tales. The pilgrimage to the holy shrine by a group of pilgrims belonging to all classes of society except the aristocracy and the riff-raff provides Chaucer with a fitting opportunity to present realistically the picture of the real world of the fourteenth century life. Chaucer gives us not the illusion of an imaginary world of make belief, but a real world peopled by real living human beings with their foibles and virtues. Chaucer imparts the solid touch of realism in the portrayal of his character. The minute and detailed manner in which each character is set forth in his dress, manner and behaviour is highly realistic. Each character whether the Miller, the Reeve, the Cook or the Carpenter, by his ways, comments, narrations and humour adds to the impression of realism that Chaucer seeks to present in The Canterbury Tales. With these remarks, let us now examine how realistically Chaucer represents his age.
Chivalric Spirit of the Age
Chaucer’s poetry reflects the chivalric spirit of the medieval times. The fourteenth century was still in the fascinating hold of chivalry and knighthood. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reflects the fading chivalry of the Middle Ages represented in the person of the Knight, and the rising chivalry of his own times reflected in his son, a young Squire. The old Knight was a brave warrior, and like many chivalric knights of the Middle Ages, had signalised his chivalric career by fighting in fifteen mortal battles all for the defence of religion. He was the true symbol of the old world of knighthood that was passing away, giving place to a new conception of chivalry represented by his son, the young Squire, who, inspite of his military exploits, was a man of happy-go-lucky nature. The young Squire was hardly as sober, sedate and prudent as was his father, the embodiment of the world of chivalry. He was a knight of revelry, representing another kind of chivalry, the more luxurious and less idealistic temper of the age of great French wars. All the whole day he was not lost in dreams of warfare like the knights of old, but he took delight in singing and playing upon the flute:
Well could he sit a horse and ride, Make Songs, joust and dance, draw and writ.
Political Conditions of the Time
In his tales, Chaucer realistically presented the political condition of his times. He referred to The Peasants’ Revolt in the Clerk’s Tale and in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale – wherein hands of peasants armed with weapons turned out from villages, plundering, looting, burning, killing the aristocracy of the age. In the Clerk’s Tate he referred to the ‘stormy people’, their levity, their untruthfulness, indiscretion and fickleness, their garrulity and their foolishness, and he frankly gave his opinion that it was an act of great folly to have any trust in them. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale Chaucer says:
So hideous was the noise, ah Bencite! That of a truth Jack Straw, and his meine Not made never shoutes half so shrill. When that they any Fleming meant to kill.
Chaucer had no love and liking for the rabblement and hence in his works we have few references to these popular movements of the people out for grabbing power from the nobility. In Chaucer’s presentation of the Carpenter, Dyer, Tapicer, Haberdasher, we meet the new power that these commoners were getting or grabbing at this time. They were all clad alike and each of them seemed fair ‘burgeys’.
To sitten in a yeldehalle on a deys.
Rise of the Merchant Class
The fourteenth century in England witnessed the rise of the rich and prosperous merchants and tradesmen. They carried profitable business with European countries and were laying the foundation of England’s industrial prosperity. Small traders and handicraftsmen grew into power and began to behave like aldermen and well-to-do citizens. The importance and self-consciousness of the smaller tradesmen and handicraftsmen increased with that of the great merchants. The middle-class people contested seats for Parliament. Chaucer makes reference to the rise of traders and merchants during his times, and his Merchant is the type of the merchants who were gradually coming into prominence. The picture of the average merchant has a familiar ring about in:
A merchant was there with forked beard, In motteleye and hye on horse he sat Upon his head a Flaundryssh bevere hat: His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
In Chaucer’s Doctor of Physic, we have an excellent picture of the medieval medicine man, with his herbal remedies and his knowledge of astronomy or what we should call astrology. As a type character of the physicians of the day, he had no time for reading the Bible. “His studie was but litel on the Bible”. Chaucer gives a sly dig at him for his love for his fee-loving propensities:
For gold in physick is a cordial Therefore he lovede gold in special.
The supposed medical value of the metal, so common not only in the Middle Ages but a century so later, is here touched upon with interest by the poet.
Religious Conditions of the Age
Chaucer refers to the religious conditions of his time by creating ecclessiastical characters in the Prologue. He does not strike pointedly at the corruption among the clergymen of the time, but he certainly presents realistically the fatty degeneration that had set in the religious life of the times. The clergymen, instead of devoting their time and energy to religious meditation and genuine redemption of fallen souls, had given themselves up to profligacy, and epicureanism. Chaucer does not attack like Wyclif or Lollard any principle or dogma of the Catholic Church, but certainly he cannot tolerate the growing corruption, laxity of discipline, and love of luxury prevailing among the clergy. He, therefore, satirises these depraved and fallen ecclesiastics of his times. The picture of the Clergy as presented by Chaucer is not at all encouraging. The monks had forgotten their original rule of poverty and labour. Chaucer’s Monk is a fat, well-fed individual who is more interested in hunting than in the performance of his religious duties. Other ecclesiastics are hangers-on and caterpillars of the Church. The Friar is a depraved fellow, for he knows all the town taverns and every inn-keeper and barmaid better than the lepers and beggar-women. It does not accord with a man of his importance to have acquaintance with sick lepers, for he is very much acquainted with the rich folk and sellers of victual. The Summoner and the Pardoner are traders in religion, selling, religious pardons to those who seek their blessings for money. Chaucer presents these religious figures of his times in true colours and thereby realistically provides a peep into the religious condition of his age. Chaucer gives his ideal of a true and saintly clergyman in the figure of the Parson, who should have served as the beau ideal to his other brother clergymen. The Parson is a learned man faithfully preaching Christ’s gospel and devoutly instructing his parishioners. He is holy and virtuous, meek and polite. He is no hireling but a worthly shepherd to his flock.
Condition of Women
Chaucer throws light on the condition of women in the Prologue as well as in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s tales with the exception of one or two contain bitter attacks on women in keeping with the conventional attitude of men towards this sex. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale Chaucer points out that a husband who follows the advice of the wife will come to grief. In the Prologue Chaucer has presented three ladies: The Prioress, a Nun, and the Wife of Bath. These ladies represent women of his times.
Rise of the Lower Classes
Chaucer represents faithfully the rising of the lower classes and the noise that they made for better conditions of life. In the Clerk’s Tale Chaucer refers to the “stormy people,” their levity, untruthfulness, indiscretion, fickleness and garrulity. The labourers clamoured for their rights and defied the authority of the landlords. But there were in the midst of this upsurge among the servants and labourers, a class of conservative workmen who were still devoted to their old ways of living, and paid respect to the higher authorities. Chaucer’s Ploughman faithfully represents the class of conservative labourers who were devoted to the masters and were faithfully performing the normal course of activities.
Condition of the Inns and Table Manners
Chaucer also reveals the conditions of the inns of his times and the table manners of the pilgrims. We gather from Chaucer that inns were situated at some distances and beer was also served in places other than these inns. There is also a disquisition on table manners of the age in the Prologue. Each guest brought his own knife, but for common use there were no forks. At the beginning and end of dinner everyone washed his hands an obviously desirable practice.
Love of Display and Extravagance
Chaucer represents faithfully love for display and extravagance both in the upper and the lower classes of the fourteenth century England. This love for display is shown in several characters of the Prologue. The horse of the Knight was decked with finery. The Wife of Bath decked herself with ‘kerchiefs’ and finery. The youthful Squire also put on a fine dress:
Embroidered was he, as it were a mead All full of freshest flowers, white and red.
Revival of the Classical Learning
Through the character of the Clerk of the Oxford, Chaucer has presented the interest that people of this age started taking in the classical writers. The New learning began to be popular at the time, as can be seen in the case of the Clerk of Oxford:
For him was levere at his beddes head Twenty books' clad in black or reed. Of Aristotle and his philosophy Than robes riche or fithele or gay sautrie.
In all these ways it can be said unhesitatingly that Chaucer is the chronicler of his age, he reflects his century not in fragments but almost completely. He heralds the birth of the new humanism and the dawn of the Renaissance, and at the same time he vividly brings before us the tradition and conventions which his age had inherited from the Middle Ages.