Chaucer’s humor in the Canterbury Tales is contained in his ironic tone and satirical characters, as well as his lowbrow physical comedy.
Chaucer’s tone throughout the story is primarily ironic. Chaucer uses his distinct perspective as the narrator to commend facets of a character that generally would not be considered commendable, especially for their position. This allows him to ironically reveal the good and the bad about his characters. For example, in the general prologue, Chaucer praises the Prioress’ virtuous behavior, which in turn exposes her lack of commitment to religious duties. Instead of feeding and caring of the those in need, the Prioress enjoys a luxurious life, eating so well that she is fat.
We also see her hypocrisy, in that despite her whimpers at the sight of a trapped mouse, she feeds her hounds raw flesh. Like most of her mannerisms, her delicate constitution is most likely an affectation. Chaucer does the same thing with the Friar. The Friar is described as merry, with few negative comments made about him.
However, in reading the description of the Friar, we can see that he is willing to accept bribes, exhibiting a blatant disregard for the churches supposed values. He is also shown to known “the taverns well in every town/ And every innkeeper and barmaid too.”(Chaucer, 9) Despite the narrator’s lack of explicit judgement, the greed and corruptibility of the Friar are clearly conveyed.The Canterbury Tales is satirical by nature.
In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales each of the pilgrims are introduced with characteristics often associated with their respective social class, and the humor displays prejudices that the reader presumably agrees with. A prime example is the the common belief that doctors are not motivated to help those in need because of goodwill, but instead because of greed. This is exposed in the doctor’s introduction, where we are told that “gold stimulates the heart, or so we’re told.
/He therefore had a special love of gold”(Chaucer, 14). Like most of the characters from the clergy, the summoner’s character also reveals truths and stereotypes about the church. Unlike some of the other characters however, he is very explicit in his true beliefs. Like the monk, he is disdainful of the church’s teaching. He accepts bribes, drinks to excess, and tells others not to fear the “Archdeacon’s curse/(Unless the rascal’s soul were in his purse)”(Chaucer, 20), for they could always bribe their way out of it. Satire generally has definite moral purpose, however Chaucer does not insist judgement upon the characters’ amoral or dishonest nature. He instead reveals them with an ironic innocence and lets their actions speak for themselves. He approaches the pilgrims as a mere observer rather than a moralist.
This aids Chaucer’s primary purpose, that of amusing his audience, by not taking too much of a grave or bitter tone. Even so, it is clear, by the history and qualities that he bestows upon his characters, that Chaucer has no qualms about showing uncomfortable truths, and indeed seeks to make them known.The most blatant example of lowbrow humor in The Canterbury Tales is in The Miller’s Tale, a bawdy story with both adultery and physical comedy.
In this story a clerk named Absolon finds himself struck with jealousy for a woman that he cannot have. At each approach he is mockingly rejected. He is punished for this unsolicited lust in the scene where Alison, his love, “at the window out she put her hole, / And Absalon, so fortune framed the farce, / Put up his mouth and kissed her naked arse.”(Chaucer, 103) Other examples of such unsophisticated comedy appear in his descriptions of many of the characters’ cringe-inducing physical appearances. The cook, for example, is said to have an ulcerous sore on his leg, which leads the reader to question his hygienic practices.
The miller had a wart with tufts of hair on his nose, the summoner’s face frightened children due to the lumps and pimples that no ointment could cure, and the clerk and his horse were both thin as rakes. While Chaucer definitely has something to say in his writings, particularly about the state of the church, he is also writing this story to be consumed and enjoyed by the masses. His expert combination of ironic, political, and lowbrow comedy is accessible to anyone of any social class, and the truths he satirized are prevalent to this very day.