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The Canterbury Tales | Context

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Chaucer's time was one of great change in Europe. Upheaval in the church, as well as the emergence of a middle class that challenged the old social class structure, gave rise to the tensions apparent in The Canterbury Tales.

The Church

In Chaucer's day the Roman Catholic Church, led by the pope, was the sole Christian authority in Europe. Corruption among the representatives of the Catholic Church, such as pardoners, who were paid fees for absolving sins, was widespread. In reaction to such corruption and other church excesses, new religious leaders and scholars, such as John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384), began calling for reform. Wycliffe translated the Bible from Latin to English and promoted the idea that Christians should commune with God directly, without priests as intermediaries. He also promoted the idea that salvation was only achievable through piety, not to be bought from a pardoner. These ideas infuriated the Catholic Church. Church leaders burned at the stake many of Wycliffe's followers, disparagingly called Lollards.

The church was also in conflict with the nobility. Many of the best government posts went to clergymen, reflecting the power of the church in government affairs. The nobility resented this influence, and so two political factions emerged: pro-clergy and anti-clergy. Chaucer, who owed his government postings to his noble connections, may have had an anti-clergy bias.

Anti-clergy sentiments aside, Chaucer's contemporaries were deeply faithful. Many people made pilgrimages, or journeys to sacred sites, as an expression of their faithfulness. A popular destination was Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket (c. 1118–1170), the sainted archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered. Pilgrims went to see his relics, which were believed to have miraculous properties.

Changes in Social Structure

The three traditional social classes—or estates—were still an important part of the social structure of the late Middle Ages. The first estate included people who worked for the church, the second estate comprised the nobility, and the third estate were made up of peasants. However, there was also an emerging middle class composed of tradespeople, merchants, business owners, and financial professionals. These new classes did not fit easily into the three-estate structure. The idea that gaining wealth or education could propel a person into a higher social status was taking hold. While this may have seemed threatening to those used to the old order, it offered opportunities to ambitious men and women. These changes in class structure were helped along by the terrible Black Plague of 1348–1349. The plague reduced the population of Europe by about two-thirds, creating a labor shortage that resulted in higher wages for skilled workers.

Women

Church teachings had a powerful influence on attitudes toward women in the Middle Ages. According to these teachings, the Virgin Mary was the image of female perfection; but Eve, who tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit in Eden, brought sin into the world. As a result women were alternately placed on a pedestal, like the Virgin, and blamed for the entire sinful state of the world, like Eve.

Although men were expected to control their wives, wives were also expected to temper their husband's impulses, exerting influence if not power. Moreover, some women did manage to wield considerable power—when their husbands allowed them to or when a wealthy husband died. (The latter seems to be the case with the Tales' Wife of Bath, who owns her own textile business.) These competing understandings of a woman's role come to life in The Canterbury Tales.

Anti-Semitism

Despite the fact that medieval popes, such as Pope Gregory X (c. 1210–1276) and Pope Martin V (1368–1431), taught tolerance for Jewish people, Christians at this time were quite anti-Semitic. The Prioress's Tale reflects disturbing anti-Semitic themes, such as the blood libel. The blood libel involved the false belief of many Christians that Jews ritually murdered children in order to drink their blood. This belief originated in England and spread throughout medieval Europe. Critics have debated whether Chaucer himself was anti-Semitic or whether, by creating a grotesquely anti-Semitic nun, he was leveling yet another critique at the clergy.

Chaucer's Audience

It's a bit of a miracle that The Canterbury Tales exists because there was no substantial audience for such a major work at the time of its composition. English was not yet widely accepted as a written language. Printing with movable type was not invented until several decades after Chaucer's death. The only real audiences (in the sense of a large group of people) for entertaining manuscripts were the friends who gathered for poetry readings. In Chaucer's case he probably shared some of his tales orally with fellow civil servants and scholars. However, Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales in a time of change, and he might have anticipated possibilities for a wider audience in the future.

One change was the use of Middle English as a written language. Middle English is very different from Modern English, but it was the vernacular, or everyday language. Before the 1380s Latin, Anglo-Norman, and French were the languages used for writing. But in the 1380s people were beginning to write in their common tongue; as a result literacy rates grew. Writing The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, Chaucer was on the cutting edge of this change. In fact, modern scholars credit Chaucer with developing the first Middle English masterpiece.

With the growth of written English, a class of professional scribes emerged as they found wider markets for their skills. At the same time, paper—lighter than parchment—became more widely available, making manuscripts more portable. Wealthy readers could commission scribes to copy a manuscript for them. Some authors even ordered a set of manuscripts in anticipation of selling them. In the decades after Chaucer's death, around 100 copies of his Tales were created, making it a best seller by the standards of the time. Yet Chaucer died before he could personally oversee the compilation of his tales into one volume. In fact, modern scholars continue to argue about the order in which Chaucer intended the 24 tales to appear.

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