The use of literary genre in the Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, who had a busy public life as a diplomat, is a most remarkable icon of English literature. His wide acclaimed work, the Canterbury Tales, has put a great contribution to the Medieval culture and is known for innovative use of literary genres. Chaucer immortalized a pilgrimage and conveyed a straightforward commentary on social hierarchy and a diversity of English society. Although he relied on his knowledge of European, especially French and Italian, literary trends, he praised the vernacular, while the elites were predominantly French-speaking. Eventually, he was skillful in the usage of witty humor to prevent himself from being uncreative and repetitive.
The Canterbury Tales comprises many literary genres, popular in those days: courtly romance, fabliau, exemplum, allegory, beast fable, sermon, religious compositions.
The following written words is an attempt to provide the reader with a theoretical framework from which to approach the usage of literary genres in the Canterbury Tales.
An exemplum is one of a few genres used by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Definitely, the exemplum is normally supposed to introduce a moral message. At the same time, religious dimension is inevitable. That genre corresponds to the ambiguous environment determined by the medieval way of thinking. It relates to profane art which was treated with high regard by the third estate, especially population of the cities, who found there a reflection on their own ideals and anxieties, and at the same time, affirms some Christian themes. It is a reason for its usefulness and popularity among priests.
The Pardoner’s Tale is an extended exemplum that illustrates a moral point. The moral of the story is that greed is the root of all evil. Three men set out a journey to the tree where the Death can be found. As soon as they found the treasure there, each of them was thinking about the elimination of his comrades. They had forgotten about their mission and murdered one another. Thus those men, paradoxically, found the Death.
The Exemplum can concern brief or extended story, real or fictitious characters. The main point is a vivid moral message. The Pardoner’s Tale affirms all the conditions. The characters are three young men and an old man. All of them relate to possible average members of society. This feature intensifies the acceptability of that exemplum among the audience at that time. The Death did not appear as a personified subject. Actually, he can be view as a remarkable figure in the story, considered as a fate or justice.
The moral is powerful and creates simple to understand images in the mind. The treasure, which symbolizes all the goods, tempted those man to commit a sin of greed, envy, and at the end, an intentionally killing of friends. The people’s moral sense declined in a confrontation with the idea of possession.
Medieval courtly romance was widely used in Christendom within its elites. It often concerns stories of knights, ladies, noble families, very polite, and honest men behavior towards women and a set of valuable ideas as chivalry for example. Actually, romances took many shapes and emphasized different dimensions. According to Roberta L. Krueger: For an elite minority, romances were a vehicle for the construction of a social code, (…) by which noble audiences defined their social identities and justified their privileges, thus reinforcing gender and class.
Elements of one of the most popular literary genre in the Middle Ages, courtly romance, can be found in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Also known as The Wyf of Bathe provides us an ambiguous story, which is successful for the man-protagonist at the end but expresses devious commentary on the men-women relationship in the English society at that time.
The tale’s storyline concerns series of events that happened to the knight who raped a young maid. He was convicted of a crime and condemned to death. The chance for rehabilitation was given. The Knight was supposed to discover woman’s most desire in the period of a year and a day. Despite, he had a conversation with many women, he was experiencing continuous lack of a proper answer. Eventually, he met a hag. They made an agreement. She told him that women’s most desire is a sovereignty over their husbands, which completed his quest. In return, he was obliged to do any favor for her. Thus, they married each other. The wedding night was not successful but the knight proved his strong belief in woman’s independence, which transformed the old hag into the beautiful lady.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a successful blend of courtly romance, with its necessary elements: the knight, chivalric transformation, courtesy and an ironical satire on the gender relationship in Medieval England, with a social and political meaning. Eventually, the man won at the end of the story. In spite of gallows, he married a woman that turns the beautiful girl, and „In Ecstasy, he caught her in his arms”. But the sovereignty over the husbands emerged as the main virtue. In the society dominated by the men, not a single person would evaluate the so-called woman’s liberation highly. The Wife of Bath’s Tale consists of an early prototype of the idea within the borders of strict Christianity. The author’s choice of the knight’s crime seems to be intentional. A rape is a most harmful onslaught on women. „There was a knight who was a lusty liver, (…) He saw a maiden walking all forlorn, (…) spite of all she said, By very force, he took her maidenhead.” It relates to the Chaucer’s unflattering broad evaluation of society.
A beast fable is an allegorical medieval genre, which stands for stories with personified animals as characters. In some way, that genre has a connection with similar one, bestiaries. These human-like-animals of the beast fables often convey symbolic meaning and express a moral message. People in the middle ages were fond of compositions with strong didactic function. That genre is supposed to do it in a gentle but memorable way.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale performs really well as a beast fable. It relates to the tale of the Chanticleer and the Fox, which was perpetual popular in the Medieval Ages. The storyline concerns a proud rooster who has a prophetic dream about his destiny, which is quite funny to make a reference to a dream vision in the context of animals. At that time, signs that were received during sleeping were a source of interpretations about one’s fate.
The Canterbury Tales, which its broad usage of literary genres should be considered as a masterpiece, is still an invaluable source of entertainment and knowledge about a society of the medieval ages. Geoffrey Chaucer reworked existing conventions with innovative ideas such as satire and realistic approach towards social relationships.