Nothing gives us a better idea of medieval life than Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Written in the late fourteenth century in the vernacular, it gives us an idea of the vast spectrum of people that made up the different classes within society. The poem describes the knightly class, the clergy, and those who worked for a living, thus describing the different classes as well. Chaucer gives us a cross-section of fourteenth century society by giving us the small details of people’s clothing, demeanor and professions; therefore giving us information on the lower and middle classes, not discussed in literature before.
Geoffrey Chaucer survived The Black Death’s peak at around age six, where twenty percent of England’s (about fifty percent of Europe’s) population quickly died within a span of five years. He was born into a prosperous wine merchant family, who was wealthy enough to send Chaucer to be a page to another wealthy family as a child and to receive an education. During his lifetime he held many different types of titles and professions allowing him to meet many different kinds of people within the social classes, probably giving him the background information for making the wide array of characters found in The Canterbury Tales. This story, in which many people from every aspect of fourteenth century society happen to meet at this inn in Southwark and travel the last sixty miles together on a pilgrimage to shrine of Christian martyr, Thomas Becket, in the Canterbury Cathedral. “Medieval Christians believed that a pilgrimage to a holy shrine was of particular spiritual benefit” (Spielvogel 272). They believed that by making the long journey and visit a shire it would bring them closer to God and their entrance into Heaven. It is here we learn just how the lower and middle classes lived. It has been said that the characters of the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Sergeant of Law and the Student were based on real people from Chaucer’s life.
The Canterbury Tales was one of the first works of literature actually written in English. Since society was ruled by the Church and the Church exercised in Latin, most of what was written by authors before the fourteenth century was in Latin or in the other major languages in Europe: Italian or French. English was seen as vulgar and only for the lower classes as it was these classes who would not be able to read or write in any other languages because that would mean they had the money to be educated. Chaucer made English literature more acceptable by writing The Canterbury Tales. It also brings light in the evolution of our language and how people of the Late Middle Ages pronounced the words.
Chaucer constructed the prologue in such a way that it gives a panoramic view of fourteenth century society. It allows us to see the lower classes of this time that would otherwise be unknown. The elite (those who would write in the educated languages of Latin and French) could only describe their own upper...