As a story-teller in verse, Chaucer, no doubt a unique master of narration, is found to be a grand observer of life and society around him. As he narrates his tale, in simple and melodious verses, and creates engaging characters, he presents, too, the life of his time and scrutinises its specific traits, with lively and realistic touches.
In The Canterbury Tales, which is the crowning glory of Chaucer’s literary achievements, is found fully exhibited his power to represent the fourteenth century English society in its different aspects, ecclesiastical as well as secular, with a rare artistry. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, is found
to testify to his close association with the English life of his time. Truly speaking, it remains a great social document of fourteenth century English life in verse.
Indeed, in the Prologue, Chaucer represents adequately different strata of the English community under the feudal hierarchy. He presents here different characters to represent different classes of medieval English society. His triumph lies in the power of his observation and analysis that makes his characters typical of the age or society they represent. Here Chaucer stands without any parallel among his predecessors and contemporaries.
The very conception, on which The Canterbury Tales is based, has a social background. Chaucer is found to exploit here the medieval religious practice to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket at
Canterbury. That was a custom in which all the sections of the British people were participants. The pilgrimage to Canterbury is the occasion of Chaucer’s Prologue in which he introduces different pilgrims, belonging to different professions, occupations or fictions, both secular and ecclesiastical.
Indeed, the Prologue alone bears out Chaucer’s power to observe and examine, in a vivid and lively manner, the English society of the fourteenth century. Except the highest ranks of the feudal order, the barons and the bishops, and the lowest, the serfs, all other sections are possibly represented through different characters, making pilgrimage to Canterbury.
In fact, Chaucer is found to present the then English society through different portraits introduces by him as the pilgrims to Canterbury. Of course, Chaucer’s pilgrims have distinct individuality but they mainly focus the social types which are represented in the work. Above all, colour, variety, interest
and charm which Chaucer had represented through his portraits of pilgrims make the whole social picture precise, clear, engaging and emphatic.
The common officers of state represented by Chaucer in the Prologue are the Manciple and the Reeve while the Franklin and the Wife of Bath stand for the free gentleman and the family women of the time respectively.
By the side of the secular characters, Chaucer represents the religious order of medieval English through his representation of the persons of some religious professions. They include the Prioress, Monk, Friar, Clerk, Parson, Pardoner and Summoner Chaucer is here found to classify the fictions
which different churchmen had under the ordain of the Catholic code. His range of portraits is quite wide and never appears narrow or shallow in his representations.
Chaucer’s picture of the English society of the medieval age as well noticed in his portraits of different pilgrims is varied and engaging. Of course, he never makes himself boring by any unnecessary elaboration or detail. On the other hand, he is extremely precise and, what is more, delightfully witty
in his scrutiny of different personalities, secular as well as religious. As a result, Chaucer’s characters are not merely documentary but also freely individual. His originality in the representation of the social figures is amply demonstrated here, and in this respect, the good Wife of Bath and the Monk maybe mentioned in particular.
Therefore, The Canterbury Tales represents a faithful picture of the 14th century life and society. Chaucer has successfully drawn the complete picture of 14th century life and society by creating his realistic characters.