Why Is The Canterbury Tales Helpful To Historians?

Updated 8 November, 2023
Canterbury Tales has become a critical English collection of writings that all historians should be familiar with because Chaucer's works give great insight into the fourteenth century's reflections of social change, religious controversies, and gender expectations.
Detailed answer:

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are an indispensable historical source, as they provide both a snapshot of the daily lives of various classes and a means to understand historical trends that helped shape the Renaissance. Chaucer's extensive description of the eponymous Canterbury Tales offers historians with detailed insight into the daily life of medieval England. In addition to describing the minutiae of daily life, Chaucer provides information about such events as The Black Plague and the Magna Carta, which offer historians with even more perspective into specific aspects of English history. As such, while Chaucer certainly uses his cast to illustrate particular social trends, he also uses them to chronicle important historical events.
From the beginning of Canterbury Tales, Chaucer shows how the younger generation began to reject the old way of life. For instance, in the General Prologue, he defines the knight as a "true, perfect, noble" knight. Then Chaucer contrasts the knight to the knight's son, who follows in his father's footsteps. Though he is training for the same profession, he focuses on such issues as singing and poetry, rather than heroism and integrity as his father did. The change in focus reflected the change historians would see from the medieval idea of knighthood to a more similar society to modern times.
Not only does Canterbury Tales reflect how society's roles were changing within the elite, but also the ideas regarding religion during the fourteenth century. Canterbury Tales is about a pilgrimage, which in and of itself addresses the importance of religion to England's society during this time. Jestice defines pilgrimages as a journey that Christians took to the tomb of a Saint. Many on the pilgrimage were clergy members, which gives modern historians a better understanding of people's views within the church and the values at this time.
Additionally, through Chaucer’s images, the historian can see how the views of women were beginning to transform during the fourteenth century. This change would eventually cause England to shift away from being a completely patriarchal society. Women during this period were expected to be wholesome and submissive to their husbands. Chaucer had written a character to oppose these writings – the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands plus extra-marital affairs in her youth. Chaucer’s mentioning of such a woman shows that England’s society began to shift in the way they viewed sexuality revealing that sex was no longer something that only men sought. Though Chaucer did not intend to make this seem typical, he wanted to show that there were women who had affairs and men.

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