Notes on Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales: "The Pardoner's Tale"

Chaucer lived from 1340-1400.

Chaucer came from a prosperous middle class family. He received a classical education and was placed as a courtier in the royal household, where he served in various capacities. He was later a soldier, diplomat and civil servant under several kings. He survived the worst period of the Black Death. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, an unusual honor for a commoner.

Chaucer's original audience would have been the courtly circle he inhabited. These people, like Chaucer, well well-educated, speaking French, competent in Latin and Italian, and familiar with both Classical and modern Continental poetry, as well as saturated in the medieval Christian worldview, namely, that the things of this world are transitory. The poems would have been read aloud by Chaucer before small audiences.

Chaucer was philosophical poet, religious poet, love poet, and bawdy poet.

The tales are frequently allegorical (as is most medieval literature). Allegory was valued by the Church according to the principle of "pearls before swine," an attitude also supported by Jesus' practice of telling parables.

Important thematic reference points:


St. Augustine's definition:

"I call charity the motion of the soul toward the onjoyment of God for his own sake, and the enjoyment of one's self and of one's neighbor for the sake of God; but cupidity is a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one's self, one's neighbor, or any corporal thing for the sake of something other than God."


3. Seven Deadly (or Cardinal) Sins

These are the most serious sins because they give rise to all other sins. This list was codified in early monasticism, as early as the 6th century. Pride or self-love was regarded as the worst of all, the sin that caused Satan's fall. These sins provided a set of popular themes in medieval literature.

1. Pride

2. Covetousness

3. Lust

4. Envy

5. Gluttony

6. Anger

7. Sloth

About the Tales:

1. A framed narrative; also a kind of quest narrative

2. Attempt to represent all stations in society

3. Explicitly religious context

4. The work is incomplete

5. The Tales are essentially the origin of the standard English poetic line: rhymed iambic pentameter.

6. The Tales are also remarkable for the complexity and ambiguity of their narrative stance(s). Authorial intention is often quite a puzzle, and all of the Tales make substantial use of irony.

About the Language:

OLD ENGLISH (prior to 1066): A Germanic language, also called Anglo-Saxon. Heavily inflected. Poetry organized by alliteration and rhythm, not rhyme; "kenning" the typical variety of metaphor. Unreadable to modern English speakers without special study. Representative work: Beowulf.

* MIDDLE ENGLISH (1066 to 1500): Product of the blending of anglo-Saxon with French following the Norman invasion. Grammar remains mostly Germanic, but vocabulary is greatly supplemented by French nouns in particular. Less inflected than Anglo-Saxon. Poetry now most heavily influenced by Continental models (French, Italian), organized by rhyme now. Most striking difference from modern English is pronunciation: vowels are like those of Continental languges, there are no silent consonants, there is no syncope of inflectional endings. Representative work: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

MODERN ENGLISH (1500-present): Major change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift). Winnowing out of remaining Germanic grammar, yielding an almost totally uninflected language whose grammar depends on word order primarily. With Shakespeare especially, the continued introduction of Latinate words and words from all possible sources, leading to the enormous vocabulary we see today. Representative work: Shakespeare's plays.