Bawdiness in The Canterbury Tales

I knew absolutely nothing about The Canterbury Tales before it was on my great books list and before I read it in the last two weeks. David and I decided to add it to “Reading The Greats” discussion series, and I’m sure I’ll have smarter things to write about it after Sunday’s session with the first group.

What’s this about?

The basic premise is that a group of people — high-born and low — come together as pilgrims on the way to Canterbury and tell stories to pass the time. These stories invariably shine light on the participants, either directly or via satire.


I know next to nothing about medieval culture and so can’t comment intelligently on, say, corruption in the church (this was around the time of Martin Luther and the abuse of indulgences — I do know that much), but what stood out to me was the sheer bawdiness of the tales. My mental model of the Middle Ages did not include the sort of lowest-common-denominator-fart-joke humor that The Canterbury Tales trades in. To be clear, I’m not a Puritan, just surprised! I just mean that if you had told me a year ago that “cuckolding is a major theme in many of the stories that make up The Canterbury Tales,” I’m not convinced I would’ve believed you.

All that said, the Wife of Bath’s tale, which seems to be the one that most people know, spends most of its time trying to answer the question of “What do women want?” It’s dressed up in a chivalrous knight’s tale and the trope of the old crone, but it’s a good example of how, beneath it all, I think Chaucer’s trying to do a social commentary. This is an ongoing question, I think, in the great books — you think they say one thing when they’re actually saying another.

Modern Tales

Reading on background, I learned that the BBC created a “modernized version” back in 2003 that I’m eager to check out. One of the questions that prompts a lot of discussion in “Reading the Greats” is around modern-day equivalents: who is most like Socrates in the 21st century? How do the events of Antigone reflect on contemporary society? Trying to recast these tales in the modern era could be a fun exercise: where there were indulgences, there are now…

(One of the pilgrims should definitely be a TikTok star, too.)

Thanks for reading a stream of consciousness on The Canterbury Tales. As always, feel free to comment below.

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