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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


While Dante speaks of a divine comedy, Chaucer envisages a human comedy. If Dante inveighs against sin and corruption, Chaucer humorously portrays human weakness. While Dante depicts people separated according to their vices in hell or purgatory, or joined according to their virtues in heaven, Chaucer has them all rubbing elbows here on earth. The characters in Dante's drama exist in a state of final judgment; those in Chaucer are still on earthly trial. The starting points for both authors also differ. Dante begins by analyzing the end result of the human drama, using flashbacks to describe the events leading to that conclusion. On the other hand, Chaucer works in the reverse way, giving the human events and allowing the reader--or the characters themselves within the drama--to project the conclusion.

Born sometime between l340 and l344, Chaucer probably attended one of the better elementary schools of London, a city then numbering about 40,000 inhabitants. He later rendered service as page and squire in the Royal Household of Prince Lionel, a position which required him to learn the art of verse-writing. Around l372, he went to Italy on behalf of the king and there may have come under the influence of contemporary Italian writers like Boccaccio and Petrarch.(1) This Italian influence, added to that of French writers, helped Chaucer perfect his own craft as a poet of the first magnitude. Between 1387 and l394, he wrote, and left unfinished, his human comedy, The Canterbury Tales.

The setting of the Tales is, once again, a pilgrimage; but unlike Dante's journey through the afterworld, where God has already rendered final judgment, this journey occurs on earth. The work invites, indeed challenges, readers to render their own judgment. When the poem opens, the time is spring. The starting point is the Tabard Inn in London, where twenty-nine pilgrims from diverse social strata are on their way to visit the shrine of Thomas-a-Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Each pilgrim must tell two stories going, and two returning, with the best storyteller to receive a free meal.

These pilgrims represent a popular theoretical model of medieval life known as the three estates: the warrior, the prayer-offerer, and the worker. Already out of date in Chaucer's age, this division overlooks the much more complicated culture that existed in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century urban Europe. Since part of Chaucer's plan, however, involves juxtaposing the real and the ideal, this harking back to a traditional order helps define the nature of the ideal the pilgrims supposedly represent. In the first category, the Tales describe a knight and squire. A knight pledged his loyalty to the king or some other lord, possibly held land on condition that he render service as a mounted man of combat, and consecrated himself to a code of chivalrous conduct. Generally, a squire was apprenticed to become a knight.

The prayer-offerers on Chaucer's pilgrimage to Canterbury include a prioress, a woman in charge of a house of nuns called a priory; a monk, who was either a priest or lay-brother praying and working in a monastery; and a friar, who belonged to an order like the Franciscans and had more contact with the world.

The workers include tradesmen, like the miller and the merchant. Falling somewhere between the prayer-offerers and the laborers are the summoner and pardoner. The summoner was similar to our modern day process server, charged with delivering a document of excommunication or an order to appear before a church tribunal. The pardoner was someone authorized to sell papal indulgences, that is, remissions of purgatorial punishments; Chaucer's pardoner does a brisk business selling "relics" as well. Larger than life, perhaps because she combines in herself all three classifications of warrior, prayer-offerer, and worker, is Chaucer's Wife of Bath.

The stories the Canterbury pilgrims recount represent the full spectrum of medieval narrative genres. The Knight begins with a romance, a narrative in prose or verse sometimes set in far-away lands and in the distant past, that stresses adventure, love, valor, and even the supernatural. The Miller counters with a fabliau, a funny and sometimes obscene tale often satirizing the clergy or middle class. The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner offer exempla, didactic stories frequently employed in medieval sermons, that illustrate a moral lesson. The Clerk and Manciple repeat folk-tales, quasi-historical or anecdotal accounts about known figures. The Franklin's story is a Breton lay, an abbreviated romance usually set in Brittany. The Physician delivers an historical tale, the Prioress a miracle story, the pilgrim Chaucer an incomplete burlesque romance and then a moral allegory. The Monk continues with a series of tragic stories and the Nun's Priest tells a beast fable, a story about animals that often contains satiric and allegorical elements. The second Nun gives a saint's life, and the Parson delivers a treatise on penance and the seven deadly sins.

The range is impressive, as though one composer today decided to offer a long evening's entertainment by writing a sequence of musical forms ranging from a piano sonata to a country-and-western ballad, played on every conceivable kind of instrument, at the highest level of composition. Along with this mastery of genres, Chaucer is a master of literary techniques as well. Probably best known as an ironist, a manipulator of subtle contrasts, Chaucer often quietly undermines what is said by hinting that something else is intended. Irony occurs, for instance, when someone refers to a thief as "this honest man." Or it might reside in the contrast between what is expected and what actually happens, as when a fire-house itself burns down. Irony might be described as the unexpected contrast between the appearance of something and its differing reality. And Chaucer revels in this kind of contrast.

Although full of human imperfection, the Canterbury pilgrimage is also, as the Parson in the Tales suggests, an analogue of that other-worldly pilgrimage. He prays for the wit "to show you the way, on this journey / Of that perfect and glorious pilgrimage / which is called the Heavenly Jerusalem." However, the stress in the Tales is not on the Heavenly Pilgrimage suggested, but rather on the earthly pilgrimage, enjoyed both in its spiritual successes and spiritual failures. The sinful element here is as integral a component in the Tales as it is in Dante's Comedy. Before Dante can ascend the mountain, he must first descend into the lower regions of hell. Every soul must confront both the demonic as well as the angelic in life, because these are the constant companions. Chaucer, in his own way, echoes Dante's thought, but with an enormous difference, for Chaucer expresses no fierce divine condemnation. Instead, he views the contrasting realities of life with genial good humor.


1. Dante had been dead about 50 years.