History Of Burlesque: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Yes, we know what you are all thinking: Chaucer – yawn! For most of us who did English at A Level, Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic work The Canterbury Tales brings a dark cloud of boredom overhead… I (Lilly Laudanum) was one of those annoying classmates who actually enjoyed his works! And looking through the Middle English of his prose at his characters of ‘virtue’ we find all manner of dodgy goings on, loaded with parody, salaciousness and dark wit.

Geoffrey Chaucer is actually an interesting guy. Born around the 1340s, his interests were alchemy, astronomy and philosophy – which made his studies of people rich with observational humor and loaded with detail. Through his literature, he pretty much styled the Middle English language at a time where Latin and French were the most common written and spoken word. One of his best known works, aside from the Tales is his Legend Of Good Women, widely recognised as the first to use iambic pentameter as the  poem’s ‘rhythm’. It’s also a good start when looking at characters from history, myth and legend that he mocks via ‘flattery’, satirising the historical facts of women including Thisbie, Dido and Hypermnestra. For instance, in reality, Cleopatra was an audacious woman who presented herself to the Egyptian people (who she ruled over, refusing to speak their language, only Greek) as their Goddess Isis. Not that bad, you may think, but in order to clear a path to the throne, she ordered the murder of her own siblings, most famously her sister Arsinoe and was well known for plotting, scheming and manipulating the opposite sex to keep the power – think: the famous carpet delivery to Caesar, out of which she was rolled, and the calculated spectacle where Cleopatra dressed as Aphrodite the goddess of love, sailing on a boat with silver oars and purple sails, surrounded by handmaids fanning her to grab the attentions of Mark Antony. This calculating queen is presented by Chaucer as virtuous, admirable and even saintly. Another famous situation, given the dark humor treatment is Lucretia, whose rape and suicide in 510BC ‘historically’ caused a revolution in ancient Rome. In her suicide scene, Lucretia is portrayed by Chaucer as ensuring her death fall is ladylike. On the surface, it seems that Chaucer is making a sweeping anti-feminist comment on women, but looking deeper he is actually making fun of the way people of the time viewed women by taking their viewpoint and pretending its his own.

Moving on to The Canterbury Tales, and here we find a collection of characters, again, all virtuous, making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas A Becket. The Tales are basically a collection of stories each traveler relates for the entertainment of their fellow pilgrims, and although quite revealing and usually at odds with who they are (eg The Prioress’ tale is loaded with antisemitic references), it’s in Chaucer’s prologues (before each tells their tale, Chaucer introduces them, their profession and their character traits in a caricature-like observation) that we find the most satire. Here he inspects the storyteller and when reading deeper into the flattery, exposes character traits which are usually at odds with how society suggests a person in that profession should behave – basically, a burlesque of stereotypes. My favourite character is the Friar. In the prologue he is presented as good at his job, travelling around spreading the word of god and taking money. A generous man who ‘shares’ himself. In Chaucer’s hidden meaning, the burlesque of the friar is a man with a sharp tongue, not afraid of gossip and not too unfamiliar with brothels and loose women, selling pins to gain access to women (remember, friars are not meant to come into contact with the opposite sex!). Elsewhere, again in gushing tones, the Prioress is described as genteel and as having a broad forehead, wearing a brooch with the motto ‘Love conquers all’ and accompanied by lap dogs and enjoying fine meats at the table – totally at odds with a prioress’s life of piety. The need to show off her forehead (wide foreheads were considered beautiful in Medieval England) when her faith requires her to wear a forehead cloth to cover this, suggests she places her looks and love over religion and her attitude of an unchristian bigot. One of the most famous tales is that of the Wife Of Bath. In her glowing prologue she is presented as an expert on marriage (which reads as she has been married a number of times!) who takes the lord’s word to the letter (“God bade us to wax fruitful and multiply”) and that is exactly what she does, basically taking a number of lovers, reasoning that if virgins are sacred, then someone has to multiply to create the virgins. She is also painted an arch manipulator who uses sexual power and words (she accuses one of her husbands of having an affair just to make him feel guilty) to give her money and manipulate the men in her life.

Further reading: 

Definitely The Prologue To The Canterbury Tales, published by Penguin, gives the Middle English and translation. 

The Canterbury Tales

Legend Of Good Women

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