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English society of Chaucer's time

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Most people in the English society of Chaucer's time, about 600 years ago, viewed the world in a similar way and accepted the same beliefs. People then believed that behind the chaos and frustration of the day-to-day world there was a divine providence that gave a reason to everything, even though that reason wasn't always obvious. When you've got faith in an overall system like that, it's easier to accept and understand the world around you. People in Chaucer's society could feel, at least much of the time, a sense of security about the world, knowing that it was following a divine plan. They trusted the system they believed in; it was true, and they felt no need to question it. So behind all of Chaucer's satire and social put-downs in the Canterbury Tales is an unshaken belief in a divine order. It's easier to make fun of something when, underneath, you know you take it seriously. Also, as Chaucer knew, it's easier to write for a group of people who at least roughly share the same set of values, whether they be a cook, a parson, or an upper-class prioress. Those values were represented in the medieval world by two structures: the class system and the church. People believed both setups were established by God, and each went unchallenged. A peasant, like Chaucer's Plowman, wasn't "upwardly mobile" as in our society, and didn't aspire to become a knight. He may want to buy more horses or farm more land, but he wouldn't change his basic lifestyle or his station in life. In the Middle Ages, each person was classified according to his or her "estate" or place on the social scale depending on birth, profession, and other factors (such as whether a woman was married--an important discussion of which is in the Wife of Bath's Tale as well as others). Each social grouping was like a symbol of the divine order, as immune to change as the hierarchy of angels. ...read more.


The gods act as agents of that fortune at the same time that they represent the order of God. ("Jupiter" is named as the First Mover, God, since after all this is supposed to be pre-Christian Greece.) How, you might ask, can it be a poem about God's plan if there are pagan gods running the show? Chaucer gets out of this potentially sticky problem brilliantly by subtly changing the gods to their respective planets. They still talk and act like gods, but the influence they exert is in the form of astrological influences, which many in Chaucer's audience would accept. It's not Saturn the cruel god who topples Arcite from his horse, it's the influence of Saturn an evil planet. The gods/planets also embody abstract ideals, Venus representing both good and bad love, Diana showing cruel as well as proper chastity. 2. SOCIAL ORDER An ordered society represented by ceremony and ritual is crucial to a smoothly running world. Theseus also shows this by conquering the Amazon society, run by women, and Creon, who is not ruled by reason. Another symbol of the importance of society is the stress on "compaignye," which is the opposite of death where man is alone, as Arcite bewails in his dying speech. The marriage ending shows the ultimate victory of the social world over the solitary one. 3. VOWS Arcite and Palamon break their vow of kinship and knighthood; they vow faithfulness to the gods of their choice; they vow undying love for Emelye. These promises made and broken show the conflict of ideals and the difficulty of keeping them, because of fortune's turns and humanity's nature. The only one who's different is Theseus, who changes his mind only when he tempers his vows with mercy. You must look at the two knights' vows and determine which ones are the most important to keep. 4. FORTUNE The wheel of fortune image was very familiar to Chaucer's audience. ...read more.


Is Chanticleer's dream valid in the Freudian sense--dealing with anxiety and wish-fulfillment--or is it, as some would still believe, a psychic way of revealing the future? Chanticleer gives us plenty of ammunition for believing that dreams can tell the future, but do you believe his stories? Does the fact that his dream does come true give more weight to the psychic idea? Or is the dream another way of showing that everything in the world is predetermined and man's actions are pointless? 2. DESTINY AND FREE WILL This is a complex issue that is brought up in the tale but not resolved. We are told two contradictory things: that man is free to make his own choices (as Chanticleer is free to accept or reject Pertelote's advice), and that he is not free because everything is already destined (which means the fox will attack no matter whose advice Chanticleer follows). Both ideas are right, but neither is completely right. That's the problem of being human. 3. HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY This ties in with destiny, as all the themes interweave in this tale. Man is responsible to a divine plan and, on a romantic level, responsible to love and honor. Chanticleer feels he must answer to his wives as well as take care of his own business of crowing and sovereignty over the barnyard. 4. LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE This is what separates humans from animals since, in this sense, Chanticleer and Pertelote and the fox are as human as they come. The wisdom that the rooster and fox learn from experience goes beyond the natural order of things into the higher realm of God's good, where they, like we, learn a "moral." As the end of the tale states, all that is written is written for our "doctrine" (learning, and also church doctrine). 5. KINDS OF LOVE The language of courtly love emphasizes the sensual animal love that Chanticleer has for Pertelote. According to courtly tradition, this is the love through which a knight perfects himself and wins grace from his lady. ...read more.

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