The Virtue of Men and Women in The Canterbury Tales
Length: 1572 words (4.5 double-spaced pages)
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People never change. In every town you will always be able to find the "rich guy," the "smart guy," the "thief," and the "chief." It has been that way since the first man was swindled out of his lunch. Throughout his life, Geoffrey Chaucer encountered every kind of person and brought them to life for us in "The Canterbury Tales," a collection of short stories written in the 1300's. There are tales of saints, tales of promiscuity, tales of fraud, and tales of love. While reading, one has no choice but to come to the simple realization that nothing has really changed from Chaucer's time to ours. In "The Canterbury Tales" Chaucer depicted people from all walks of life. Society then had three basic classes of virtue that most people fell under: the Revered, the Commonfolk, and the Despicable. In the days of Chaucer, these people could be found in any village or town, just as they can be found today in our towns. Times were different then, but the people haven't changed a bit.
Chaucer wrote of only three people who are deserving of the title "The Revered." These are the people who are always admired for their altruism, honesty, and kindness. They are proud and courageous with unalterable beliefs and unbreakable morals. Each of them may have a few harmless quirks, but are nevertheless revered.
The most known of "The Revered" is the Knight. The Knight served in the Crusades where he fought for his king and the preservation of his beliefs in Christianity. Honor and virtue were reflected in everything he did. The Knight represents one of the most admirable characters in literature and is revered because of what he stands for. Though the Parson did not fight in the Crusades like the Knight, he also served God. The Parson was a man of the church whose beliefs in Christianity were unyielding. Decent and principled, he was a man devoted completely to his congregation. The Parson fully accepted the responsibility bestowed upon him to guard his people from sin. He said, "If gold rusts, what will iron do?" By this he meant that if the priest became corrupt, what would the parishioners do? As a parishioner and a brother of the Parson, the Plowman was a prime example of how well this philosophy worked. The Plowman is considered to reside in society's lowest class.
His profession consists largely of shoveling manure, yet he holds more honor in this than many others I have yet to speak of. Altruism is among his greatest attributes, for even though his is poor himself, he would work tirelessly to help others. He loved God above everything else and lived in peace and perfect charity.
Few people in our world today fit into the "Revered" class. If I were to guess, I would say that most people would be considered Commonfolk. To Chaucer, Commonfolk were those people who were mostly good, loyal, and kind. They were basic folk though, and were not free from vice or the occasional sin, which usually caused them much guilt. This guilt is what separates the Commonfolk from the Despicable ones. Each of these old English characters will probably seem very familiar to you.
The Host was a good-natured, merry man. He was an excellent leader and mediator who knew how to tell a good joke and play a bouncy tune. It does seem, though, that the Host was not the head of his household, for he complained about being somewhat henpecked by his wife. Even so, his manner was always kind and loving. Much quieter and less conspicuous than the Host was the Clerk. The Clerk was a student at Oxford. Books were his most prized possessions, and reading his favorite pastime. In order to buy books he would borrow money from friends. In payment he would pray for them. He desired knowledge so strongly that both he and his mare were sporting ribs through their flesh because he wasted no money on food that could be used to buy knowledge. The Clerk would gladly share his knowledge with any person who cared to learn. The Physician, like the Clerk, was a learned man. The Physician dressed richly in silk and gold. He was a smart man and an accomplished physician, but he was a victim of materialism. Money and gold awed him. Though he desired many riches, he still believed strongly in moderation. He moderated all aspects of his life. This included eating only healthy foods. Moderation was not something that concerned the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath was the type of woman that you would not soon forget. She was very audacious, spunky and adventurous, slightly resembling a modern day tomboy. Some, though, might call her slightly ostentatious. She had been married five times and was on the prowl for husband number six, preferably a younger man. She was incredibly self-secure and didn't give a nit whether the church approved of her actions or not. You might say that she was a feminist well ahead of her time. Though very outspoken, she was not a busybody like the Canon's Yeoman. The Canon's Yeoman is the last of our Commonfolk. The Yeoman worked as an assistant to a Canon who practiced the science of alchemy (turning everyday metals into riches like gold and silver). He was a personable man with an eager tongue, perhaps too eager. The travelers were enlightened with all the deceptions he told of his master's trade. Disloyalty and a wagging tongue proved to be his most disastrous vices.
Greed, deceit, and envy masked by lies and a sane smile characterize the Despicable ones. Today these people fill the news with stories of crime and shame. Chaucer encountered many Despicable ones in his day. Vices controlled the actions of these people. Though they often put on a most altruistic front, they care nothing for the wellbeing of others. Their own stature and wealth is of the utmost concern. The devil has them gripped tightly in his claws and is squeezing every last juicy sin from their wretched bodies.
The Friar was a very immoral man, concerned mostly with profit margins. His job was to beg for offerings to benefit his church, but most of this holy money never saw a steeple. He would repent anyone's sins for a small fee only. Promiscuity and grafting were vices not uncommon to him. And what of his sacred vows as a man of God? No, they were below the likes of the Friar. The poor never benefited from his aid, more often the bartender from his business.
The Miller was crude, contemptuous, and a thief at best. His mill ground grain to flour, but the weight of the flour never quite equaled the weight of the grain. The excess weight of his thumb on the scale when the grain was weighed gave him a little extra compensation for his services. So did the portion of flour he skimmed off at the end. Chaucer said that the mouth of the Miller was like a furnace. The nasty, heated, words that came out of it were sure to send him straight to hell. The Reeve also stole from the person who supported him. He was a slender, lanky, man with a fiery temper. For twenty years he held the position of Superintendent of the Estate. And for twenty years he embezzled money from his Lord. For his wages alone could not uphold the lifestyle he deserved to live. Workers on the Estate feared any kind of encounter with him and his raging temper. During his travels he always rode at the end of the line in fear that someone might trick him. The Pardoner, like the Miller and the Reeve was also very deceitful. A shamelessly immoral man, corrupt and disheveled, he used religion as a pawn. He was effeminate and intensely self-loathing, yet he was devoted to the task of defrauding people of their own precious money by convincing them that they had sinned horribly. For repentance from these horrible sins, they could buy pardons from the Pardoner himself. He would sell pieces of bone from last weeks dinner by passing it off as a sacred piece of Adam or Eve. Even an old mitten could be sold to unsuspecting sinners because it was said that any man who wore it could grow never-ending crops of wheat. The Pardoner was truly a misled man, and sadly he possessed no firm morals or beliefs of any kind.
All of the characters presented to us in Chaucer's book show us that people are the same now as they were seven hundred years ago. The Commonfolk are people that we are surrounded by. The Host reminds me particularly of one of my parents' friends. The Canon's Yeoman could be any one of the gossips in the world who just can't wait to tell a good secret. The Revered are those people that are only met once in a lifetime. They may leave a greater impression on someone than anything else they could experience. The Despicable Ones have an ability to strike fear into people's hearts. Their tricks and lies serve only to increase everyone's wariness of further deception. Our society is continually trying to reform itself, but the way I see it; people haven't changed, and probably never will.