Breaking Down The Comic In The Canterbury Tales: Satire

From corrupt politicians and Real Housewives of Orange County to hypocritical celebrities in today’s society, these symbols are full of personas that invite criticism. Geoffrey Chaucer’s influential anthropological book The Canterbury Tales features these same symbols. They attest to how class structure has influenced human behavior for centuries. Chaucer mocks his characters for their flaws, and implies their inability to act morally. He targets the three aspects of modern society that are weakened by hypocrisy. These include expertise, religion, and wealth.

Chaucer’s pretentiousness is the opposite of what readers would expect. The characters are more concerned with their social standing and less about their actual jobs. The Sergeant, who was reputedly wise, “was not as busy as he looked” (Chaucer 322 ). To gain respect, he exaggerates his professionalism. The Doctor also appears to be very knowledgeable about medicine, but his non-scientific methods reveal his fraudulence. He was “a perfect practicing doctor” (432) but he treated his patients using diagnoses that were based on mythology. The ambition of the character is far greater than his scientific capabilities, but he still regards himself highly and expects others do the same. Chaucer mocks the overindulgence of the upper class by mocking their pride. These characters look foolish because they are unable to display the sophistication that is expected of them. The Merchant wore a Flemish beaver cap and daintily buckled boots (284) while “harping on his increased capital” (285-286) He displays a haughty demeanor in order to demonstrate that he is aiming to have everyone acknowledge his superior economic status. Chaucer criticizes as well the Squire. “He was embroidered brightly like a pasture” (91). Contrary to his noble dad, the Squire represents wealth’s more boastful face. All he says and does adds to his charm. Even though he presents a completely different exterior from the Merchant’s he is still selfish. In order to show off their status, they become their own worst enemy.

Chaucer emphasizes the characters’ inability to truly adhere to Christian values. They do not follow Christian morals but instead live according to their own rules. The monk’s nontraditionally-religious lifestyle clearly demonstrates his disdain for religion. He “took modernity’s more spacious path” instead (180). His appearance is indicative of his inner value – he looks balding, fat and ugly. He likes “a fat whole swan and the finest gray fur” (210), and wears the “finest, most beautiful, finest fur” (198). These details demonstrate that, like other characters of the upper class, the Monk also indulges in materialistic pleasures. Chaucer also suggests that the Friar lives extravagantly with his money. The Friar is described as “a man who gave penance with ease” (222). He also knows the taverns and bars in each town. Chaucer’s irritated attitude towards the Friar is because he believes that he takes his work as a Priest too lightly. Some religious leaders, however, don’t reveal their hypocrisy in such a blatant way. In order to make herself appear holy, the Prioress creates an aura of Christianity. Instead of focusing solely on her religious duties, she does everything to appear attractive. Chaucer describes her in details that portray her as perfect, such as her gold pin that reads Vincent Amoromnia or her habit to “speak daintily French” (128). She is a religious character, and as such she must uphold the purity expectation. Chaucer exposes their hypocrisy and quickly dismisses any respect they may have for the characters.

The Canterbury Tales is a satire that satirizes the Middle Ages’ greed for money, glory, and power. Greed impacts almost every aspect of society and leads to hypocrisy amongst the upper class. It is most evident in the Church. Members begin to ignore religion and put their personal needs first. It reflects the changing values of an age characterized by growing mercantilism. Chaucer doesn’t directly criticize the people in this period, but his irony leaves the reader with a sense of their social shortcomings.


  • rosewebb

    Rose Webb is an educational blogger and volunteer who also studies for a degree in law. She loves to write about her experiences and share her knowledge with others, and is passionate about helping others to achieve their goals.

Back to top