Has it ever crossed your mind that something produced thousands of years ago can still impact our era? A written piece that makes you go, “Yeah, I can relate to that!” or speaks of matters which still affect the world today? What if I told you about a collection of stories known as “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, a time where knights in shining armour were real, courtly intrigues a deadly affair and kingdoms ever-changing in the blink of an eye? Even though these times are long gone, with these events relegated to books located into history section, the contents and themes they carry can still be seen in the modern day.
Old and New Friars Alike
Each story is narrated by a different pilgrim, who were all travelling together to the Shrine of St Thomas Becket, as part of a storytelling competition to win the prize of a free meal along with a night’s stay at an inn. These pilgrims represent both sides of the moral spectrum, spinning tales that contain elements of corruption and immorality, while some contain heroism and loyalty. Even though the 14th century is long behind us, the content of the stories told have prevailed through time.
“The Summoner’s Tale” speak of a friar who commits simony, which is the usage of his position at church to enrichen himself, a grievous sin in the Middle Ages. Adding on, he is painted as an uncompassionate and lecherous figure in the tale as he fondles and kisses a dying man’s wife the first time they meet as well as sees the man’s death as an opportunity to earn a fortune. This story questions the assumption on moral values that a friar is expected is to have, by putting a friar in a situation both medieval and modern audiences would find reprehensible. Simony has not died with the passage of time, and friars or officials of the church who do not act up to their standards are still in existence. “The Summoner’s Tale” with these elements has stayed relevant throughout the years.
Ego over the Church
Furthermore, besides elements of crime along with bad intentions, this work has also displayed the hypocrisy of human nature, as the Friar gives a sermon about the danger of wrath but is also himself quick to anger. Also, this Tale is a rebuttal towards “The Friar’s Tale” that painted Summoners in a negative light and mocked the legitimacy of their office, with a character who colluded with a demon to learn the secrets to gain more riches.
Under the guise of participating in the competition, both characters have chosen to tell unsavoury tales about each other, which attacks the legitimacy of both offices along with each trying to assert dominance over one another. This war of words is also shown through the interruptions both characters make when distasteful stories targetting them are being told, contributing to the realism of these characters as they behave as expected. However, this realism shows that both characters give in easier to the needs of defending their ego through retaliation and a need for dominance by putting down each other’s professions instead of upholding their image as officials of the church who were seen as morally upright.
Their characteristics have not died out but still can be seen in modern-day humans that are part of our society as we may have seen those who possess traits similar to the Friar and Summoner around us in our everyday lives. These characters are far from being ideal human beings and along with their titles that have them to be expected to act as such, it reminds the reader of how reality is where expectations can be dashed and the constant presence of those who are willing to step on others to lift themselves up.
Relevance to the modern-day society is kept through the usage of human emotions and reactions that can be seen in most human beings which are ingrained in our minds. This is because no one likes being attacked, directly or indirectly, such as both the Summoner and the Friar, and will most probably interrupt any unsavoury tales told about them as done by both characters. Having this in the Tales lets a wide variety of readers connect with the characters, as these emotions transcend wealth, status and level of education.
Written by Yap Hor Yee