Depiction of Women in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in Comparison Across Medieval Genres

Depiction of Women in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in Comparison Across Medieval Genres

By Eva Kudrnová

Bachelor’s Thesis, Masaryk University, 2010

Introduction: In my thesis I focus on the analysis of presentation of women in various medieval genres and their comparison in Geoffrey Chaucer’s masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, where women appear as both narrators as well as subjects of the narrative.

My aim is to prove that greater attention is paid to the various portayals of women in The Canterbury Tales than in other medieval works and that this portrayal in many cases widely differs from that presented in literature of that time. I also intend to demonstrate that despite the fact that women are in a minority among the Canterbury pilgrims (there are only three women out of a total of twenty nine pilgrims) and therefore it may seem they are underrepresented, they are an irreplaceable part of the work. Not only do they appear as story-tellers, but they also feature as important characters in stories told by both men and women. Chaucer offers us a wide variety of their representation – from the passive, obedient or godly characters through insidious, faithless or hypocritical to the radical ones – which displays the prejudices and expectations connected with the social roles of women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s manner of their vivid and varied depiction makes these characters unforgettable and, therefore, it is no coincidence that they are at the heart of the most popular stories of The Canterbury Tales. In my opinion, it is one of the things that makes Chaucer one of the most outstanding figures of English literature.

In the second chapter I briefly introduce the main literary genres and tendencies in medieval literature. I pay attention to the development of literary genres appearing in medieval literature and their brief characteristics and themes. I focus in detail on the romances and the works of church representatives because they provide us with two major ways of depicting women in the fourteenth century – a woman as the ideal (courtly or religious) and a woman as the object of antifeminist satire. In the second part of the chapter I focus on the most important social changes of the Chaucer’s time and his life and career to ilustrate that he was an experienced man who encountered people of many ranks during his career which provided him with material to benefit from when creating The Canterbury Tales. Then I pay attention to the main genres that appear in The Canterbury Tales and try to prove that Chaucer was very well aware of their conventions as well as of their characteristic themes. I am going to prove that in many cases he deliberately violates them in order to raise a discussion and to propose a new way of portraying and perceiving women in literature.

Click here to read this thesis from Masaryk University

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