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The Canterbury Tales: A History of Humor

Updated September 22, 2022

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The Canterbury Tales: A History of Humor essay

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Humor was used in the medieval time period to express one’s ideas and thoughts. Geoffrey Chaucer also used humor in The Canterbury Tales in different instances. In The Nun’s Priest Tale and The Miller’s Tale I will show you how he uses humor to describe characters, his use of language and the actual events that take place. In the Nun’s Priest Tale there is a rooster named Chaunticleer.

His name suggests a fine knight or noble prince. The description of a rooster as a noble prince in courtly love romances is ridiculas and maybe this is what keeps us from taking him to seriously in this story. Nicholas, a clerk or scholar, from The Miller’s Tale also has a ironic name. His name suggests St. Nicholas from plays about a mysterious guest at the home of evil hosts.

In the story, however, it’s the other way around. In Chaunticleer’s description Chaucer uses a contrasting humor. The rooster acts as a noble knight or prince when in reality he is only a barnyard animal. The description of the barnyard animals brings an undercut from the courtly love that occurs throughout the tale. The reminds you to think that Chaunticleer and Pertelote are only animals which brings about a hilarious effect. With Nicholas, a lowly clerk, portraying a higher class gentleman when in essence he just wants a sexual pursuit and the meaning of his name uses an ironic humor to show he is an idiot.

With John, the carpenter, Alison, his wife, and Absalom, the priest, in The Miller’s Tale they also put on airs of being an upper class citizen. They also bring you back to the basic idea they are common people just putting on a show for each other. The humor in description is very plentiful and Chaucer uses it to interest you in the story. Another way Chaucer uses humor in these tales is his choice of language.

In The Miller’s Tale Chaucer uses the word pivetee for God’s secret affairs when John talks to Nicholas in his room. Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes privetee (Oxford, line 346). It appears again in reference not to God but to the affair of Nicholas and Alison. This is a very ironic and funny usage of the language since one is holy and the other is evil. Chaucer uses the language of courtly love and description to point out human desires and weakness. Weakness because the beloved lady has the power of life or death over the lovesick Chaunticleer and/or Nicholas.

Chaunticleer would have listened to his dream more if his beloved Pertelote hadn’t played down his dream. Nicholas wouldn’t have been speared if Alison wouldn’t have had teased Absalom at the window. One more way Chaucer uses humor is the actual events or situations themselves. John is easily doped by being naive which leads to his downfall. Nicholas being a scholar in astronomy tells john that he has seen the next Noah’s flood and should tie tubs to the roof of the house to beat this.

As well that John and Alison should not sleep together because they will be awaiting God’s grace. The joke here is we don’t know is Nicholas realizes that God sent Noah the flood because man became corrupt and lecherous. The same sins are causing the phony flood even though the plan this time isn’t God’s. Chanticleer is also easily doped by the fox.

The fox asks Chaunticleer if he could sing as well as his father did Let see conne ye you fader countirefete? (Oxford, line 166). It is ironic that his downfall is his very pride and joy – his voice. An instance where Nicholas tells Alison his plan will work because a clerk can fool a carpenter any day is funny because this class distinction is humorous in the circumstances since all the character are common people even though they are trying to be noble and courtly. The fox also believes that his plan will work and does, even though they are just plain animals in a barnyard, he believes he is superior in thought since he is sly and a sweet talker.

But trewely the cuase of my cominge/Was only for the herkne how that ye sings/ (Oxford, line 191) Until the fox falls for his own vanity of bragging. The Miller’s Tale ends with John as the laughing stock or joke of the town with Nicholas amply repaid for his deceit and Alison getting the plumbing she deserved. The Nun’s Priest Tale ends with Chaunticleer escaping the fox up a tree and learning his lesson of vanity. Undoubtedly, humor is used in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in all aspects of the story including character description, language and events. Even though The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the best works of this time, it fits into its era of medieval humor.

Bibliography Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Millers Tale. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1 Ed.

Frank Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973 159-176 Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1 Ed.

Frank Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973 179-195.

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