By Chet Yarbrough
The Canterbury TalesBy Geoffrey Chaucer
Narrated by Charlton Griffin
What value does a 14th century book have for a 21st century person?
“The Canterbury Tales” is a rhyming entertainment (except for Christian preaching at the tales end) that recalls romantic heartaches, heartbreaks, and belief in divine justice that is as present today as yesterday. The unchanging nature of men’s lust for women and women’s superiority is comically and tragically told and repeated in Chaucer’s travelers’ tales. Though women play a primary focus in “The Canterbury Tales”, belief in Christianity and its power to heal and destroy is a paramount subject.
In the Knight’s tale, two brothers lust for the same woman. They plan to fight each other to the death but are interrupted by the King. The woman wishes to retain her maidenhood and appeals to her deity to insure continued chastity. The two brothers and the woman have different agendas with each agenda appealed to a different god. The tale progresses with the three appellant deities determining the brothers and woman’s fates. It is an ironic pagan tale of Chaucer’s disbelief in many gods rather than the One.
In Chaucer’s tales, men are shown to be the weaker and dumber sex. Old rich men marry young beautiful women and become cuckolds. Powerful and rich young men choose poor and beautiful women to be their wives and treat them horribly to test their love and loyalty. Male insecurity and desire drive men to make foolish decisions about whom they should marry and how they might measure their worth through earth-bound pleasure. Men foolishly seek revenge at any cost while women seek justice through diplomacy and prudence.
The incredible power of religion in Chaucer’s time is illustrated in the Nun’s tale of a chaste bride that convinces her betrothed to forgo conjugal relations for the sake of eternal life in heaven. The husband asks for proof of an angel that visits his wife and, if he can see the angel, he agrees to forever forego sex with her. She refers her husband to the Pope.
The Pope convinces the husband to become a Christian; he returns home and sees the angel and agrees to his wife’s demand. The husband then convinces his brother to meet with the Pope and the brother also becomes a Christian. Her husband and his brother are executed because they refuse to obey their Overlord when he insists that they sacrifice to pagan idols.
After the brothers’ execution, the Overload summons the wife. The chaste wife is sentenced to be burned in her house because she also refuses to sacrifice to her Overlord’s deities. The fire fails to kill the wife so the ruler has an executioner sent to cut-off her head. The executioner strikes her neck with an ax three times but is unable to remove her head; a fourth strike is not allowed and she continues to preach her beliefs.
Prejudice comes through Chaucer’s strong Christian beliefs; i.e. “The Canterbury Tales” endorses Christianity as the salvation of mankind with vilification of Jews which is presumably justified by Christian’ belief in Jewish betrayal of Christ.
It is perplexing to think that much of what Chaucer says about Christian believers remains true today but Chaucer’s understanding of women’s superiority to men in the 14th century seems quite enlightened in the 21st.