Humour, Irony and Wit in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

In introducing the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales in the General Prologue, Chaucer draws upon the traditional themes of “estates satire”. The “estates satires”, common through out the medieval Europe, aimed at giving an analysis of society in terms of hierarchy, social profession and morality. The Prologue differs from the standard patterns of “estates satire” in a number of significant ways, but the model remains none-the-less crucial. The most fundamental difference occurs in Chaucer’s presentation of a naïve and gullible narrator, Chaucer the pilgrim. This projection of a fictional narrator poses some problems of perspective regarding the presence of absolute moral judgement in the poem. But at the same time, it allows Chaucer to remain a member and an observer as well in the pilgrimage so that he can exploit the gaps for irony and humour without pronouncing absolute moral judgements. However, Chaucer is a secular writer whose attitude to life is based on the principle of a broad breasted acceptance. A large part of the narrator’s criteria for judging people then becomes their success in social relationship at a personal level; they are judged on pleasantness of appearance, charm of manner, social accomplishments. But this should not mean at all that Chaucer is callous of the vices and abuses of the times. He is conscious of all these and does pinpoint them in the poem, but in a manner which is subtle and varied.

That Chaucer presents himself as the most unassuming and short witted of the pilgrims—gathers in itself humorous overtones:

“My art is short, yet well understonde”

The pilgrim-narrator deliberately pretends to be impressed by most of the pilgrims to the extent of endorsing their unworthy opinions. As such that he apparently stands by the ideas of the Monk, concerning the monastic rules.

“I seyde his opinion was good

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood?”

In reality, Chaucer knows the monk to be a wretched rascal. The same kind of degradation from the exacting ideal can also be seen in the Prioress’s portrait; she bears on her breast the inscription amor vincit omnia . (Love conquers all). But in her case, this love turns to be much more fleshly and worldly than spiritual or heavenly. The Manciple and the Pardoner are said to be gentil, but at the same time they are dishonest rascals. The Miller and the Reeve are excellent at their calling, but they are originally bold-faced thieves. About the Friar Chaucer says:

“He knew the taverns well in all toun

And everich hostiler and tappestere

Bet than a lazar or a beggestere”

The ironic signal here is set in the contrast between what the Friar does and what everyone knows his order is expected to do.

Chaucer sets the pilgrims in accordance with their social rank and position. In so doing, he subtly exploits different semantic values of words—like, “worthy”, “gentle”, “fair” – by applying the same words to different pilgrims of the poem. The epithet “worthy” is used as the keyword of the knight’s portrait, where it has a profound and serious significance, indicating not only the social status, but also the ethical qualities appropriate to it. The same word is applied to the Friar’s portrait ironically. The reference to social status seems to be the only criterion in the portrait of the Merchant who “was a worthy man with alle”, but we are informed that “…he was in dette”. In the Franklin’s portrait the word is used as signifying model or ideal—“was nowher such a worthy vavasour”—which proves an irony in respect of the previous comment on him:

“To lyven in delit was evere his wone

For he was Epicurus owne sone”

Again the word “courteisie” in the Knight’s portrait is associated with an absolute ideal, to which one may devote one’s whole life. The Squire’s “courteisie”, on the other hand, is linked with other characteristics, such as his devotion to love and his courtly accomplishment. The “courteisie” in which the Prioress “set ful munchel her lert” should be spiritual courtesy, but ironically it has become embarrassingly worldly.

Sometimes the pilgrim-narrator is quick in passing witty humorous comments regarding the pilgrim’s professional behaviour and their social engagement. For instance, about the Sergeant of Law, he says,

“Nowher so bisy a man as he ther was

And yet he semed bisier than he was.”

In the same way he most delicately satirises the wife of Bath’s practice of marrying and flouting the solemn bond of marriage,

“Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve

Withouten oother compaignye in youthe”.

But he also immediately informs that “Three times she’d journeyed to Jerusalem”. It is obvious that Chaucer’s intention is not solely ironical, but to a great extent humorous, always having sympathy for the fallibility human nature. For this, while he describes the Miller’s animal-like coarseness and dishonesty, he does add that, “A bagpipe he could blow well.”

In fine, the Prologue presents the world in terms of worldly values, which are tragedy concerned with an assessment of facades, made in the light of half-knowledge and on the basis of subjective criteria. Therefore, the ethic we have in this poem is an ethic of the world. The adoption of this ethic does not constitute a definite attitude but a piece of observation and the comic irony ensures that the reader does not identify with this ethic. For this, Mathew Arnold accuses Chaucer’s poetry of the lack of “high seriousness”. This is true, but the “lack” deliberate on Chaucer’s part: he does not want to pronounce absolute moral judgment, rather he lets the conclusions to be formed by the reader or audience himself. And in this lies Chaucer’s modernity and success even down to their age of ours.


  1. A fair, balanced, reasonable, and nuanced introduction to a difficult work for many high school and college students. I especially appreciated your includsion of Matthew Arnold’s criticism, and a quick rebuttal.

  2. Kienchuks

    Thanks it was useful for me…

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