The Canterbury Tales (1400)
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)
The first great poet in English literature was Geoffrey Chaucer. “Immediately one finds an author who had a tremendous feeling [emphasis added] for life, understood human motivation, and could tell a story with great gusto.”[i]
Simple Reality posits that there has been no fundamental change in human behavior since the birth of civilization because of the perennial and dominant presence of P-B and the false self. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales provides some food for thought and compelling evidence of what life among the common folk was like in Medieval England 600 years ago, which is basically pretty much like it is today in post-modern America. “We see the pilgrims as they are with all their virtues and vices, and we can readily identify with their humanness.”[ii]
Seen from the perspective of P-A, medieval pilgrimages are metaphors for life as a spiritual journey. Most of us believe we are going somewhere after this life and of course many believe that they have also been somewhere before this life. In short, we all have a story to tell about our “lives,” real or imagined, whether we choose to share it or not. One thing that unites most of us is that we are natural storytellers. What we are less aware of is that we are “contained” in a story—a worldview—that we all share. So we have conscious sharing and unconscious sharing, and the basic narrative has not changed in the 600 years since Chaucer’s death. However we conceive our human journey, we are experiencing it together; we are experiencing “compassion” (literally “suffering” together).
Chaucer referred to his pilgrims as a “company.” Company derives from the two Latin words com (with) and pane (bread). So the two basic things that these fellow travelers are going to share on their way to the sacred site of Saint Thomas Becket’s martyrdom are stories and bread. In a much broader, sociological sense, the word company showed a growth in consciousness as medieval people began to engage in the democratization of their society. “Company was a leveling concept—an idea created by the working classes that gave them more power and took away some of the nobility’s power and tyranny.”[iii] Here we see the functioning of the power energy center of the collective false self.
The Canterbury Tales itself demonstrated a fundamental change in Medieval England as power itself began to shift from the Church and court to the English people. Chaucer wrote in Middle English at a time when the language of the court was French and that of the Church, Latin. Chaucer was part of the same revolution in language that saw Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio begin writing in the Italian vernacular. The common people throughout Europe began to claim a language of their own and that would begin a shift in identity as well as a shift in self-confidence.
The 24 stories that comprise The Canterbury Tales reveal much about how our travelers felt about themselves, the world they lived in and their purpose in life. They were dealing with the same basic struggle to make sense of their lives that the people in today’s world are. They wanted to know: Where am I? Who am I? and Why am I here? We are not able to respond to those basic questions today any more effectively than these 14th century pilgrims did. We, the 21st century pilgrims on planet earth, form a company sharing bread and stories but we do not know who we are, where we are going or how we are going to get there.
We present various characters from The Canterbury Tales in this essay, beginning with the Host. He is ready to give a prize to the story that has the “best sentence and moost solaas (most solace).” So our stories on the pilgrimage will deal with power, security and sensation where the ego and the shadow will be most evident as well. The centrality of the Church in medieval society guaranteed that religion would be the topic in many of the tales.
Romantic tales were always popular then as they are today as seen in our daytime “soaps.” Tales of financial success were also popular although not on the scale of certain of our real estate magnates and Wall Street speculators. “The Knight has fought in the Crusades, wars in which Europeans traveled by sea to non-Christian lands and attempted to convert whole cultures by the force of their swords. The knight has battled the Muslims in Egypt, Spain, and Turkey, and the Russian Orthodox in Lithuania and Russia. He has also fought in formal duels. In the Prologue to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale it is about men who start off in poverty climbing in fortune and attaining wealth.”[iv]
Notice how the three energy centers of the false self and the collective shadow reveal themselves through the identities of our pilgrims. A chief cause of human suffering is greed (security energy center) represented by the Pardoner’s tale. “The rapacious Pardoner is an exemplum, a tale designed to illustrate the theme of a sermon. His unvarying theme—that avarice is the root of all evil (and incidentally, an obstacle to his success as a con man)—he exemplifies by his tale of three carousers who seek to kill the ‘false traitor Death,’ the destroyer of many of their friends [the Black Death or Plague periodically ravaged England at times killing up to 50% of the population].”[v]
“A strange old man points the way to Death’s abode; they follow it and find a pile of gold. Their original quest now forgotten, two of the revelers send the third for food and drink to celebrate their find. When he returns, they slay him to increase their share, then consume the poison he has brought back for them. Thus all three find death.”[vi]
Religion and The Pardoner, The Parson,
The Monk, The Friar and The Summoner
The security and power energy centers are all too evident in the institution of the Church. “The religious figures Chaucer represents in The Canterbury Tales all deviate in one way or another from what was traditionally expected of them.”[vii] Chaucer was a realist and did not romanticize the medieval society that he saw only too clearly.
The Pardoner as his name implies sells salvation and forgiveness. To put it in a cynical but accurate way “one could cleanse oneself of sin by simply paying off the Church. The Pardoner carried with him and sold freshly signed papal indulgences and a sack of false relics, including a brass cross filled with stones to make it seem as heavy as gold and a glass jar full of pig’s bones, which he passed off as saints’ relics.”[viii]
The Church today still puts pressure on the faithful to conform to the religious dictates of Papal infallibility. The struggle within each person between what the Church sanctions and what the individual’s conscience dictates has been going on since the beginning of religion. The Parson is a gentle soul who understands and tries to practice the teaching of Christ “[and] he hates excommunicating those who cannot pay their tithes.”[ix]
We think of a medieval monastic as praying, meditating and working hard in an isolated religious community. Chaucer’s character challenges that stereotype: “The Monk enjoys hunting, a pastime of the nobility, while he disdains study and confinement.”[x]
Friars were mendicants who made their living traveling around begging and accepting money to hear confessions. “Friars were often seen as threatening and had the reputation of being lecherous. The Summoner and the Friar are at each other’s throats so frequently because they were in fierce competition in Chaucer’s time—summoners too, extorted money from people.”[xi]
The Summoner and the Pardoner are lay officers of the church. “Neither believes in what he does for the Church; instead they both pervert their functions for their own gain and the corruption of others.”[xii]
Romantic Love and the Squire
Contained in the sensation energy center is the illusion of romantic love. “The romance, a tale about knights and ladies incorporating courtly love themes, was a popular literary genre in fourteenth-century literature. The genre included tales of knights rescuing maidens, embarking on quests, and forming bonds with other knights and rulers (kings and queens).”[xiii]
Thanks to psychology we can understand romantic love today in terms of the projection of the personal archetypes of the anima and animus. Or we should say we could understand romantic love in those terms, but we don’t, and we continue to suffer the consequences. Mistaken cultural beliefs about romantic love promote a destructive illusion that pervades our society as it did in Chaucer’s time. “[The] Squire isn’t simply in love because he is young and handsome; he has picked up all of his behaviors and poses from his culture.”[xiv]
Private Enterprise and the Physician
The practice of medicine was primitive in Chaucer’s time but was still subject to the greed of the security energy center. The apothecaries (medicines) were sold directly by the physician to the patient which entailed an obvious conflict of interest. “He has a good setup with his apothecaries, because they make each other money [hence] the doctor’s favorite medicine is gold.”[xv]
Translation, Transformation and Transcendence
The Canterbury Tales is further enriched by viewing it from the specific model of the three T’s: Translation, transformation and transcendence. As a model of the spiritual path it will provide a second more specific context in which to understand Chaucer’s inspiration. In the beginning of our journey of life we engage in translation, we intellectually understand the journey of life. Transformation occurs as we are transformed by our life’s experience. Finally, if we can insightfully see life as it really is, we transcend the conventional pilgrimage and experience the perfection of life’s unfolding.
The Canterbury Tales is eloquent because of its uncompromising realism. “[The] narrator apologizes for any possible offense the reader may take from his tales. He feels he must be faithful in reproducing the characters’ words, even if they are rude and disgusting. He cites Christ and Plato as support for his argument that it is best to speak plainly and the truth rather than to lie.”[xvi] Chaucer educates us about human nature as well as the nature of the medieval society that contained him. He was a very perceptive translator and educator.
Pilgrimages, as we have seen, have a democratizing effect on the medieval culture because the people participating on journeys to the shrines of saints are having experiences that begin to break down the sociological barriers that separate them. Sharing a common language that all could understand was foundational to the development of democracy and Chaucer made a profound contribution to that end. A transformation in consciousness was taking place in Chaucer’s time.
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale we find a gem of wisdom that is one of the foundational principles of P-A. “Her family may be poor, but real poverty lies in covetousness, and real riches lie in having little and wanting nothing.”[xvii] This reminds us of the prompting of Nisargadatta Maharaj’s to “have nothing” and of Buddha’s realization that craving (covetousness) is a major cause of human suffering.
One of the most insightful descriptions of the human journey is a transcendent one:
We arrive at the place we never left and
experience it for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 121.
[iii] Sparks Notes LLC. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Spark Publishing, 2003, page 32.
[iv] Ibid., page 27.
[v] Magill, op. cit., page 121.
[vii] Sparks Notes, op. cit., page 33.
[viii] Ibid., page 28.
[ix] Ibid., pages 44-45.
[x] Ibid., page 34.
[xii] Ibid., page 47.
[xiii] Ibid., page 34.
[xiv] Ibid., page 42.
[xv] Ibid., page 44.
[xvi] Ibid., page 48.
[xvii] Ibid., page 67.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.