The audiences for which Chaucer wrote

Private and public reading

Chaucer used a great variety of genres, styles and subjects. These in turn could appeal to a wide range of audiences. Although we have no manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales which we can be certain were produced during Chaucer's lifetime, it is clear from the number of those that survive that the work became rapidly very popular. 

Although the ability to read was becoming more common among laymen and women, literature was still written to be performed aloud, as well as read privately. Chaucer's works would often have been read aloud to small groups, probably to royal household audiences, including nobles, intellectuals and clerics, and to his fellow civil servants. The fifteenth and sixteenth-century owners of Chaucer manuscripts show that his works were appreciated and purchased in manuscript form by nobles, gentry and also priests and merchants.

Writing for the aristocracy

One manuscript, that of Troilus and Criseyde, shows Chaucer reciting to the royal court. 

More on writing for the court: The image of Chaucer reading to the courtTroilus and Criseyde is an imagined scene and dates from the next century. The message it is designed to convey is that, grandly, Chaucer was writing for royalty. But though there are reasons to think his audiences (and the audiences he sought) at times included royalty, it is equally clear that intellectuals and highly-educated and sophisticated civil servants were also among the readership he hoped to please. It is not known for certain whether any particular works were commissioned by specific royal patrons, though The Book of the Duchess may have been written for John of Gaunt and The Legend of Good Women for Anne of Bohemia, Richard II's first queen.

So Chaucer was a man of middle-class origins providing literature for royal, aristocratic and learned or bureaucratic audiences. He wrote for people who, for the most part, had themselves enormous knowledge of the contemporary political and social world. Some of his works, notably The Parliament of Fowls or The Knight's Tale, reflect both chivalric values and also a vision of the supreme importance of the rule of order in the cosmos and social relationships, an aristocratic vision. Yet even within his writing about such subjects, Chaucer characteristically suggests the existence of counter-arguments and of challenges to aristocratic privilege and also to the imposition of political order.

Chaucer's fellow civil servants, the royal clerks and administrators, were highly educated and sophisticated men, though not for the most part aristocratic in origin. Chaucer's writings often also speak to a (fictional or real) female audience.

Philosophical debate

For all the humour and self-deprecation, Chaucer's poetry is also frequently profound:

  • In moral perspectives and questions
  • In religious and social matters
  • In raising deep philosophical questions
  • Chaucer dedicated his philosophical romance, Troilus and Criseyde, to Ralph Strode, a renowned Oxford philosopher
  • His writings always encourage readers to muse over philosophical and moral issues raised by his human dramas and his poetry.

The Canterbury Tales: speakers and narrator(s)

The Canterbury Tales are put into the mouths of fictional pilgrim characters, several of whom are, like real-life Chaucer, professional users of words: the Man of Law, for example, and the Parson. The Pardoner is another, and both The Pardoner's Prologue and his Tale have thought-provoking affinities with preaching. 

Chaucer displaces narration (fictionally) on to a variety of speakers in The Tales. He often chooses tellers and tales who contribute to an ongoing discussion about language and its use. In this way, Chaucer could be seen as offering reflections on his own work as a writer.

  • The Prioress and Second Nun preface their tales with prayers: prayer was considered to be humanity's highest use of language
  • The Parson's Tale is a treatise, a guide for Christians, using words skilfully to describe sin and virtues and to advise how the Christian soul may prepare itself for penitence, absolution and grace
  • On a more worldly level, The Manciple's Tale warns about not speaking out to a powerful man (relevant perhaps in a witty way to Chaucer's own position as a royal servant and a poet at court?)
  • The Pardoner's Prologue offers the horrifying – and, in an awful way, hilarious - spectacle of a man so absorbed in worldly gain, and in making money out of false relics, that he employs his undoubted gifts with words to cheat people into giving him money and neglecting the true state of their own souls.
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