”The Canterbury Tales” is full of symbols, themes, and motifs. In this lesson, you will find a summary of some of the more common ones, including those related to social status, religion, and the place of women in society.
Themes and Motifs in the Tales
While many enjoy The Canterbury Tales for its old-world charm and its powerful storytelling, there are several linking themes and symbols within the text that make it such a timeless collection. While these themes typically reveal the attitudes and historical context of life in the Middle Ages, they resonate with a modern audience as well.
Women in Society
One of the major motifs in The Canterbury Tales is the role of women in Medieval society, or rather the variety of viewpoints of different women in society.
Perhaps the most influential tale regarding this theme is the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale.’ In it, she argues that what women desire most is power in a marriage, and that by giving it to them, men would be happier. She conveys this view by using the hag archetype, or symbol. A hag, in many mythologies and folk tales, is a woman who can fluidly transition the boundary between youth and old age and often symbolizes the aging process for women. In this tale, the hag uses her powers to give the knight a choice between a woman who is young and beautiful but may be unfaithful, or a woman who is old and ugly but true to him. When the knight tells her to make the decision for him, she is happy because she has the power in the marriage, thus proving the Wife of Bath’s point.
Given that the premise of the Tales was a religious pilgrimage, religion, specifically Christianity, factors heavily into the themes of many of the stories.
Much of the framing device and the characters themselves refer to Christian symbolism. The characters are on a journey to a location of religious significance. Many of the characters also introduce their tales by praying for the good to come out in their stories, and apologizing for any mention of sinfulness.Several tales touch on religious themes, and it’s no surprise that the characters who tell them are members of the clergy or have connections to the clergy. The Prioress is one of these characters. It is important to note some peculiarities about her character in relation to religion.
While she does have associations with the clergy, it appears she does so for the sake of upward mobility in her social life, which was not uncommon at this time. We see that while she considers herself very religious, some of her religious items, like her fancy rosary, are more symbols of her wealth than her piety. There are also many secular aspects of her life. She keeps pet dogs, which she sometimes treats better than people, symbolizing her distance from those she is supposed to serve. Her tale is of a Christian boy who is murdered by Jews but later revived temporarily after having a vision of Mary. While the tale uses many Christian references to saints and hymns, the main focus is its contrast with the Jewish religion.
The Clerk, (a philosophy student), also tells a tale with religious symbolism, and it has several parallels to other myths and folktales. In his story, a marquis marries a peasant woman on the condition that she obey his every wish. For motivations of his own, he decides to test the loyalty of the woman.
First, he takes her children away. Then he claims he is going to leave her and marry another woman, and that she must help prepare for this new wedding. He only reveals his ruse after she has agreed to it all. The story is meant to symbolize the trials of Job, as it mimics how he was tested by God and Satan as they took away all his wealth and family to test his faith.
The final tale, or what was believed to be the final one written, is that of the Parson, and his story focuses solely on religious themes. Particularly, it focuses on penitence, or the process of repenting of all sins.
However, it is the Parson himself who is a peculiar symbol of religion. While Chaucer did make some criticisms of the church through some of his other characters, such as the Prioress’s secular lifestyle, or the Pardoner’s greed, the Parson is the only figure who is genuine and pure. He is sometimes considered the only ‘good’ character, in that his lifestyle and personality is not littered with contradictions.
Medieval society and social status are heavily discussed in the tales, and are often satirized by either the representation of the characters themselves, or within the tales they tell. The prologue, which introduces all the characters, is perhaps the larger source for societal symbolism. Particularly, Chaucer pokes fun at the various social classes and shows how each class fails to live up to its expectations. Originally, there were three social classes in the early Middle Ages: the Church, the nobility, and the peasantry.
However, by Chaucer’s time, this system was starting to fall apart, and two other middle classes began to emerge; the merchant class and the intellectuals. In the prologue, members from all five of these classes are present, and almost all of them engage in actions that rather hypocritical in relation to their status. These satirical representations are further perpetuated within many of the prologues to certain tales.
While there are many themes and symbols in The Canterbury Tales, several in particular are more common and more heavily studied than others. The place of women in Medieval society is one that makes its way into many stories and utilizes several symbols such as the hag or woman who embodies both old age and youth simultaneously.
Religion is at the forefront of the tales, as many religious figures and religious themes are present, such as penitence, or the repenting of sins. Finally, social status, or rather, the making fun of it, was one of Chaucer’s purposes for the story. He shows how hypocritical people can be, no matter their social class, and he includes the major five for his time: the Church, the nobility, the peasantry, the merchants, and the intellectuals.