The Canterbury Tales

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Social Satire Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Social Satire Theme Icon
Competition Theme Icon
Courtly Love and Sexual Desire Theme Icon
Friendship and Company Theme Icon
Church Corruption Theme Icon
Writing and Authorship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Canterbury Tales, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Social Satire Theme Icon

Medieval society was divided into three estates: the Church (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought), and the Peasantry (those who worked). The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire. In the Host’s portraits of the pilgrims, he sets out the functions of each estate and satirizes how members of the estates – particularly those of the Church – fail to meet their duties. By the late fourteenth century, the rigid organization of these three estates had begun to break down. A merchant class had begun to rise and was quickly gaining money and power throughout secular society. An intellectual class was also rising – people trained in literature but, unlike monks, not destined for church life. As the son of wine merchants and clerk to the king, Chaucer belonged to both of these new suborders of society. Chaucer puts all of society on parade, and no one escapes his skewering.

The social satire that the Host sets up in the General Prologue continues throughout the tales that the pilgrims tell. The Nun’s Priest’s tale satirizes courtly love by putting chivalry in the setting of a barnyard. Supposedly pious religious figures are shown to be corrupt and greedy just underneath the surface. In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath presents a parody of religious logic, giving her own readings of Scripture to back up her view that experience is the only authority.

Even though the Tales are fictitious, Chaucer draws directly on real people and real events in his satire of human life. Chaucer presents his characters as stock types – the greedy Pardoner, the hypocritical Friar, etc. – but he also presents them as individual people who exist in the world around him. The most famous example of this is Chaucer himself. The author of the Tales does not remove himself from his own satire. On the contrary, Chaucer depicts himself as a bumbling, clumsy fool. Chaucer also draws on real-life settings and events to emphasize the social commentary. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer compares the climactic battle among all the farm creatures to the Jack Straw rebellion, a peasants’ revolt that took place in England in 1381. The clash between the nobility and the peasants gets played out in miniature version between the fox and the rooster.

The rigid hierarchy of the medieval estates is frequently inverted and subverted throughout the Tales. Even though the Host sets forth each of the characters in order and in a procession in the General Prologue, the whole company of pilgrims is mixed. Pilgrims of all levels of society respond directly to each other. The Miller jumps in right after the Knight to tell his tale instead of waiting his place in line. In a pilgrimage, members from all three estates share the same primary function: all of them, great and small, are going to Canterbury.

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Social Satire Quotes in The Canterbury Tales

Below you will find the important quotes in The Canterbury Tales related to the theme of Social Satire.
General Prologue Quotes

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
...
Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages
...
And specially from every shires ende
OF Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they they were seeke.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker)

He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker), The Knight

Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne
Entuned in hir nose ful seemly,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker), The Prioress

He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,
Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees,
Is likned to a fissh that is waterlees––
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker), The Monk

Nowher so bisy a man as he there nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker), The Man of Laws

For May wole have no slagardie anyght.
The sesoun priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh it out of his slep to sterte.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker)
The Knight’s Tale Quotes

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was there noon under the sonne.
Ful many a rich contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wysdom and his chilvalrie.

Related Characters: The Knight (speaker), Theseus

He cast his eye upon Emelya,
And therwithal he bleynte and cride, “A!”

Related Characters: The Knight (speaker), Palamon, Emelye

And there, at the kynges court, my brother,
Ech man for himself, ther is noon oother.

Related Characters: Arcite (speaker), Palamon

The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the fair cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.

Related Characters: Theseus (speaker)
The Miller’s Prologue Quotes

I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghes tale.

Related Characters: The Miller (speaker)

And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale;
For he shal fynde ynow, gret and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse,
And eek moralitee and hoolynesse.
Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.
The Miller is a cherl, ye know wel this.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker)
The Miller’s Tale Quotes

This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent.

Related Characters: The Miller (speaker), Nicholas

Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye,
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye,
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!

Related Characters: The Miller (speaker), The carpenter, Nicholas, Alison, Absolon
The Reeve’s Prologue Quotes

This dronke Miller hath ytoold us heer
How that bigyled was a carpenteer,
Peraventure in scorn, for I am oon.
And, by youre leve, I shal him quite anoon.

Related Characters: The Reeve (speaker), The Miller
The Reeve’s Tale Quotes

Thus is the proude miller wel ybete,
And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete,
And payed for the soper everideel
Of Aleyn and of John, that bette hym weel.
His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.
Low, swich it is a millere to be fals!
And therefore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
“Hym thar nat wene wel that yvil dooth.”

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Quotes

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me.

Related Characters: The Wife of Bath (speaker)

Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, without lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye,
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.

Related Characters: The Wife of Bath (speaker)

By God! if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

Related Characters: The Wife of Bath (speaker)

And whan I saugh he wolde never fyne
To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
Al sodenly thre leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
That in our fyr he fil bakward adoun.

Related Characters: The Wife of Bath (speaker), Jankyn
The Wife of Bath’s Tale Quotes

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel as over hir housbond as hir love
And for to been in maistrie hym above.

Related Characters: The Knight (speaker), The knight

For gentilesse nys but renomee
Of thyne auncestres, for hire heigh bountee,
Which is a strange thing to thy persone.
Thy gentilesse cometh fro God alone.
Thanne comth our verray gentilesse of grace;
It was no thing biquethe us with our place.

Related Characters: The old woman (speaker), The knight

And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves,
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soon verray pestilence!

Related Characters: The Wife of Bath (speaker)
The Pardoner’s Prologue Quotes

But shortly myn entente I wol devyse:
I preche of no thing but for coveityse.
Therfore my theme is yet, and evere was,
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.

Related Characters: The Pardoner (speaker)
The Pardoner’s Tale Quotes

“Now,” quod oure Hoost, “I wol no lenger pleye
With thee, ne with noon oother angry man.”
But right anon the worthy Knyght bigan,
Whan that he saugh that al the peple lough,
“Namoore of this, for it is right ynough!”

Related Characters: The Knight (speaker), The Host (speaker), The Pardoner
Prologue to Sir Thopas Quotes

He in the waast is shape as wel as I;
This were a popet in an arm t’embrace
For any woman, smal and fair of face.

Related Characters: The Host (speaker), Chaucer
The Tale of Sir Thopas Quotes

Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
And I wol telle verrayment
Of myrthe and of solas,
Al of a knight was fair and gent
In bataille and in tourneyment;
His name was sire Thopas.

Related Characters: Chaucer (speaker)
Host’s Interruption of Chaucer Quotes

Thy drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord!

Related Characters: The Host (speaker), Chaucer
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Quotes

For al so siker as in principio
Mulier est hominis confusio,––
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.”

Related Characters: Chaunticleer (speaker)

Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made never shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.

For seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To our doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stile.

Related Characters: The Second Nun and the Nun’s Priests (speaker)