The Canterbury Tales as a Satire

The Canterbury Tales is a satire, which is a genre of literature that uses humor—sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious—to ridicule foolish or corrupt people or parts of society. Satirists often avoid explicitly stating what about their target they find objectionable and instead rely on the ridiculousness of the scenarios they create to expose the issues. Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a widely popular Italian satire from 1353, almost certainly provided Chaucer with inspiration for the Tales.

Like The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron is a frame narrative involving a storytelling contest that mocks societal concerns of its day, including lascivious, sexually promiscuous religious leaders and laypeople’s gullible acceptance of miracles and magic. The Decameron also spoofs genres such as the spiritual pilgrimage, exemplified by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Similarly, Chaucer satirizes cultural norms in The Canterbury Tales, using humor to point out significant problems in medieval English culture. For example, his exaggerated praise of the Monk as “extremely fine” contrasts amusingly with the lengthy description of the Monk’s horses, greyhounds, and hunting gear. The foolishness of calling a man who cares more for hunting than religion a fine monk creates a humorous tone emblematic of satire.