Medieval literary conventions


Chaucer, like many other authors in all periods, prefaces many of his tales with prologues. These are introductions of various kinds to the material in the tale. A prologue may take the form of:

  • Information about the background or the source (some of the tales are taken from earlier texts)
  • An elegant passage on a theme relevant to the tale
  • A prayer.

The Wife of Bath's and Pardoner's prologues

The Wife of Bath's Prologue is far longer than the average in The Canterbury Tales. The only other prologue as extensive is that of the Pardoner. Chaucer designs each of these as a sort of confession by a first-person speaker, revealing attitudes and behaviour which is, from several points of view questionable:

  • The Wife is presented as a woman who is both disobedient to her husbands and prepared to get what she wants out of them financially. This was the opposite of contemporary expectations that wives were obedient and that, during marriage, all the money — hers as well as his — was at the husband's disposal. (That said, in her fifth marriage the Wife freely gives to Jankin the legal titles to her property.)
  • The Pardoner's Prologue exposes his methods of preaching in such a way that he makes people part with their money because they believe in the power of alleged relics which are complete fakes.

For more information about the Wife's Prologue, go to Structure > Chaucer's shaping of the prologue genre.


Satire is mockery that has a moral purpose. It shows up folly and wickedness by wit and caricature. As a literary form, satire is not just comedy or an attack on abuses. Ever since classical times it has claimed to have a basically didactic, social and moral purpose.

The Wife and Pardoner each represent groups about whom there was much satire in the Middle Ages: women and clerics:

  • Anti-feminist satires often presented women as disobedient, too talkative, rebellious, lustful and prone to evil. Marriage, therefore, was a state which men would do well to avoid!
  • Anticlerical satires (satires against the clergy) often focused on the alleged financial abuses of the Church. 


Sermons would have been heard every week by Chaucer's church-going audience, and so be a very familiar format. The medieval sermon was central in teaching Christians about:

  • Their faith
  • The Bible
  • Christian doctrines and practices
  • Saints
  • Morality. 

They were of enormous importance in a society where most people had little or no ability to read, and little access to books even if they were literate. In addition, few people knew enough Latin necessary to read the Bible for themselves. 

Sermons aroused interest and good preachers were appreciated, both for their skills in presentation and the content of what they taught. A sermon from a lively or controversial preacher would be a popular, thought-provoking occasion. Sermons were preached on many topics but always took their starting point from what is called the ‘text' or ‘theme', in the form of a short statement from the Bible.

Typical sermon elements in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Chaucer uses familiar aspects of contemporary sermons:

  • Medieval preachers often included stories in their sermons, to illustrate points. The Wife of Bath's Tale could be seen as a very long and elaborate version of the kind of story often included in a sermon
  • These stories were called exempla. The word means ‘examples' and has this specialised meaning (tales illustrating a moral point) when used about sermon stories. The singular form is exemplum.

The Wife of Bath's Tale is like an exemplum, though much longer than the real ones were. It is a highly elaborate version of the sort of story that sermons used as illustrations of Christian truths. It is a fable-like illustration of:

  • The idea that God examines the heart, not a person's outward appearance
  • The truth that a person's deeds reflect on their nature (‘By their fruit you shall know them')
  • The virtue of submission (the knight's to his wife!)
  • The belief that age and wisdom should be respected.

In his Prologue the Friar, acknowledges that the Wife has spoken well of many things. He recognises that she has touched on difficult scholastic matters but then warns her to leave the citing of authorities to learned scholars and clergy. The woman ‘preacher' is thus given a firm put down. The Wife has in a sense attempted to preach in her Prologue. She has both used and attacked ‘auctoritee' (authority) in the light of her ‘experience' and brought forward stories (exempla) from her own marriage to prove her points.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.