Ellis Washington
On Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the complexities of human nature
By Ellis Washington
September 21, 2014


Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), known as the Father of English literature, is commonly called the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to be buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Although he attained recognition during his lifetime as a philosopher, astronomer, alchemist and author, writing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also sustained a dynamic career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. A prolific writer his most important works include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Criseyde, and his most celebrated work, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is an essential literary figure whose works helped standardize the language of Middle English, when French and Latin where the prevailing languages in England. Chaucer's intent was to construct a literature and poetic language whereby all classes of society may understand and succeeded, and today Chaucer still stands as one of the greatest writers of literary narrative and character development.


The Canterbury Tales is a group of legends narrated by fictional pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the cathedral at Canterbury and though these stories would help to develop English literature it differs with contemporary literature of the time in its strong naturalism and realism of its narrative, the diversity of stories expressed by the pilgrims, the diverse characters participating in the pilgrimage and the psychological depths Chaucer is able to reach. Literary scholar Harold Bloom believes that the construction of the Tales is mostly original, but motivated by the "pilgrim" characters of Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy.

Many of the stories recounted by the pilgrims appear to conform to their individual characters and social standing, while a few of the stories appear contrary to ideas the narrators are speaking about (possibly as an outcome that the work was never completed). Chaucer relied on actual situations in life for his narrative to demonstrate the myriad complexities of human nature – for example, the innkeeper shares the name of a contemporary keeper of an inn at Southwark, and realistic characteristics for the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law and the Student have been promoted. The various jobs that Chaucer did during his lifetime also appeared in his stories – page, soldier, messenger, valet, bureaucrat, foreman, courtesan, and administrator – probably exposed him to many of the types of people he depicted in the Tales. Chaucer skillfully developed the English language to satirize the behaviors of people among all social classes thus developing popular literature within the various social classes he wrote about.

Social class, custom and convention

Chaucer demonstrated the class division and custom in all of his stories. For example, the Knight and his Squire primarily represented the higher classes or nobility, which was in Chaucer's era immersed in a culture of chivalry and gallantry (though even in Chaucer's day chivalry was in decline). Nobles were viewed as authoritative combatants prone to cruelty on the battlefield, yet respectful in the King's Court and Christian in their mannerisms. The Knight's Tale demonstrates how the brotherly love of two companion knights falls into a deadly vendetta because of a woman whom both idealize and who for honor's sake and to win her love, both knights willingly fight, even to the death. The Tales frequently portray the struggle between classes. For instance, the division of the three estates; the characters are all separated into three different classes, the classes being those who pray (the clergy), those who fight (the nobility), and those who work (the commoners and peasantry).

Chaucer links most of his tales by common themes, and some contradict, answer to or seek revenge against other tales. Convention is demonstrated when the Knight initiates the game with a story, as he characterizes the upper social class in the gathering. Conversely, a subsequent story given by the Miller, who denotes a lower class, sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Literary scholars like Helen Cooper, Mikhail Bakhtin and Derek Brewer, call this opposition "the ordered and the grotesque, Lent and Carnival, officially approved culture and its riotous, and high-spirited underside."

Historical Context and Themes

The Canterbury Tales was written during a tempestuous era in English history. The Catholic Church was in the middle of the Western (or Pope) Schism, a political split within the Catholic Church from 1378 to 1418 whereby several men claimed to be the Pope, nevertheless was still the only Christian power in Europe, it was the focus of extreme controversy. Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving "pardoners" (church officials who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin). The Canterbury Tales was one of the first English works of literature to mention paper, which was a comparatively new invention which permitted the spreading of the written word throughout England much faster and cheaper than ever before. The invention of paper also led to the increase in education and literacy rates of the underclass foretelling the Renaissance.

Political battles, such as the 1381 Peasants' Revolt when the peasantry, aided by the artisan class, revolted against the Church killing many of Chaucer's friends thus forcing him to move out of London to live in Kent. This Revolt eventually led to the end of the reign of King Richard II and further revealed the prevalent anarchy of the times of Chaucer and the era that he wrote the Tales. The gatherings that took place in his stories reflected actual pilgrimages to sacred places (Canterbury Cathedral) and to sacred lands (Jerusalem); perhaps settings meant to describe people escaping the ravages of the Black Death (1346-53) which wasted England during Chaucer's childhood and continued for decades up to the late 1370s killing 100 to 200 million people and decimating approximately thirty to fifty percent of Europe.


The Tales reflect different opinions of the Church in Chaucer's England. After the Black Death, most Europeans started doubting the power of the established Catholic Church (*N.B.: the time of Chaucer being two centuries before the Protestant Reformation [1517]). One way people fought against Catholic hegemony was through the practice of lollardy who though its leader John Wycliffe tried to reform Christianity, while others elected less confrontational tactics like opening new monastic orders or launched smaller movements revealing church exploitation of the people by the bad acts of the clergy, idolatry through worshipping of false church relics, or exploitation of peoples' money through the system of indulgences. Many of the characters in the Tales are religious characters, and his comments about them reflect their un-Christian acts.

Two figures, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose vocations represent the church's secular power, together are represented as extremely corrupt, materialistic, and offensive. A pardoner in Chaucer's day was a person from whom one bought Church "indulgences" for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners frequently abused their office (and the common people) for financial advantage. Chaucer's Pardoner openly acknowledges the exploitation of granting papal indulgences – amnesties from penance in exchange for charitable donations to the Church – literally selling people the blasphemous idea through indulgences system that salvation is for sale. The Summoner is an officer who brought sinners to the church court for likely excommunication and other punishments. Unethical summoners would write false certifications and frighten people into buying off unwarranted punishments to enrich the Church. Chaucer demonstrates the irony of Summoner charging people for sins he is guilty of, including having an immoral association with the Pardoner. For example, in The Friar's Tale, one of the figures is a summoner who is exposed as allied not with God, but with the devil.

The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue, and Tale

The Pardoner is one of my favorite stories in Chaucer's Tales and starts with the Host being depressed by the terrible injustice of the previous story (the Physician's Tale), and requests that the Pardoner tell a more cheerful story. The tension of the story is heightened with some pilgrims demanding instead from the Host a story on morality, which the Pardoner decides to narrate after he eats a meal. The Pardoner confesses to the group how he defrauds people out of their money by preaching that money is the root of all evil. His story describes three rebellious young men willfully seeking out Death so that they can kill him. An old man tells them that they will find Death under a tree. In its place, they find eight bushels of gold, which they intend to take into town when darkness arrives. One of the young boys goes to town to get dinner for the others, but secretly tries to poison the others under a conspiracy to keep all the gold for himself. However, in a separate conspiracy his cohorts decide kill him when he returns with the food to increase the amount of gold they can keep. Unfortunately, they both drink the poison (thinking it safe) and ironically all three young men die under the tree where the old man told them they would find Death waiting for them. Chaucer's story here brilliantly demonstrates the complexities of human nature like murder, jealously, greed, deceit, duplicity, conspiracy, judgment, morality, truth and the consequences thereof.

Chaucer in Modern Times

In the article on Courage in Great Books of the Western World the authors cite Chaucer on the complexities of human nature by defining courage as a supreme virtue all humans should aspire to; courage as containing a rational, wise or prudent discernment between what ought to be feared and what must be accepted in spite of danger, pressure, or pain. As the Parson proclaims, in his discourse on the Seven Deadly Sins in the Canterbury Tales, "this virtue is so mighty and so vigorous that it dare to withstand sturdily, and wisely to keep itself from dangers that are wicked, and to wrestle against the assaults of the Devil. For it enhances and strengthens the soul . . . It can endure, by long suffering, the toils that are fitting."

Human nature refers to the distinctive features – including ways of thinking, feeling and acting – which humans are inclined to have naturally, separate from of the mitigating influences of society and culture. Although Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were written before the ubiquitous nature/nurture debates and 500 hundred years before the discovery of such academic disciplines as anthropology, sociology, sociobiology, psychology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology, we see repeatedly throughout Chaucer's Canterbury Tales wonderful and profound expositions of the human condition in all of its real, unremarkable, sublime, and grotesque manifestations.

Chaucer follows Socrates's teleological approach which recognizes human nature in terms of final and formal causes. The teleological view of human nature is an "idea," or "form" of a human. Representative of this interpretation, human nature actually causes humans to become (or be) what they are (e.g., destiny), and so it occurs somehow independently of individual humans. Under Chaucer and other classical and medieval writers the human condition develops overtime during the course of life; presenting a distinctive, even transcendent association between human nature and the divine . . . an eternal, existential battle of the ages humanity still grapples with; even to this day.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 1, Chap. 13 – Courage, Vol. 22 – Chaucer.

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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