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The Use of Satire in Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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One significant author who demonstrates natural and effortless use of humorous satire is Geoffrey Chaucer as evident in his “Canterbury Tales.” As one reads along it becomes obvious that Chaucer is a great humorist who utilizes humor to confront the vices in the society in a refined manner and the stories remain vivid in the reader’s memory. Overall, humor is prevalent in “Canterbury Tales” through which Chaucer effectively discusses the serious subject of religious corruption and greed without being too uptight.

Chaucer uses humor in the Canterbury Tales to unmask the religious corruption that was prevalent among members of the clergy. Chaucer depicts the clergy as preoccupied with greed for money such that they give a backseat to their faith. Money matters to all groups of people in society so Chaucer uses the concept of greed in his satire through which he ridicules the hypocrisy of the clergy as evident in the “Prologue”, “Friar’s Tale”, “and Summoner’s Tale”. Religion was a critical aspect of the society as Chaucer was writing and thus religious corruption is a very serious subject for Chaucer. By infusing humorous satire in the narrations, he hopes to call for social change. For example, in the “Prologue,” Friars were members of a clergy expected to swear to live in poverty for charitable donations. Thus, humor emerges when the reader realizes the Friar’s gluttonous nature whereby money has to change hands before he could pray for people to be pardoned. Chaucer infuses humor when he says, “He was a lenient man in giving penance/Where he knew he would have a good gift” (Chaucer Lines 227-8). The fact that the friar cannot offer his services without money is a reflection of his greed.

Even while tackling the serious subjects of religious corruption, Chaucer’s use of humor also manages to entertain. For instance, in the “Friar’s Tale” when the Summoner and the Yeoman meet a farmer stuck in mud, the farmer proclaims, “the devil take all, horses, and cart, and hay (Line 283).” The Summoner says to the Yeoman, ‘Here shall we have a prey,’ (Line 284).’ The Summoner thinks that the farmer is serious, and the Yeoman can take all of his belongings, but the Yeoman explains that the farmer did not mean it literally. Such humor illustrates the Summoner’s greed whereby he is ready to take any form of gift from others even if he leaves them disadvantaged. Moreover, in “Summoner’s Tale,” Chaucer begins the story by saying that the Friars are only worthy to live in Satan’s butt since they are so greedy and exploitative. A story is then given whereby friar goes to the house of Thomas who is significantly ill to ask for gifts with the promise that he would become better. However, Thomas, aware of the friars’ greed and extortion, maintains that he has already donated much to other friars. When the friar attempts to manipulate Thomas to change his mind, he agrees albeit on condition that the friar would divide the gift equally with fellow friars. Thomas urges the friar to reach around to his bottom and he releases a monstrous fart into the friar’s hands (Lines 2130-2151). The Friar gets mad because he expected to find some gifts, yet he gets a smelly fart. Chaucer uses this humor to discuss a serious subject because Thomas is on his death bed. Chaucer unmasks the friars’ obsession with material gains rather than saving souls which is the essence of their calling.

Just like “Canterbury Tales”, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” also utilizes humorous satire to discuss serious subjects. Knights were noblemen expected to uphold a code of honor and failure to which would result in public humiliation. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” illustrates that upholding the code of honor is not easy as it might appear since even knights are vulnerable to outside forces that can undermine their loyalty. Compared to the humor in “Canterbury Tales” stories that generously uses humor not just to inform but also to entertain, the humor in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is not that profound since it merely informs without going much into entertaining. The humor in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” successfully counterbalances the serious subject of upholding respect and reputation among Knights by recognizing their human limitations.

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In this tale, the author employs humor even as he discusses the serious subject of upholding respect and reputation which is actually a matter of life and death for the knights. For example, the author elicits humor when he gives an exaggerated description of events when Sir Gawain first beheads the Green Knight whereby “The fair head to the floor fell from the shoulders…/ he reached out among the rows that stood there, caught up his comely head and quickly upraised it (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Lines 426-432).” The fact that the Green Knight must uphold his respect and reputation becomes evident when he gracefully picks up and replaces his head and rides away on his horse. The reader finds it funny that everyone is confused yet they continue to party. Through this humorous depiction, the author demonstrates how much respect and reputation matters for the Knights.

Humor is also used in this story to illustrate human limitations. Sir Gawain plays a game with the Lord for three days whereby they exchange their findings each day. During the three days, the host gives Gawain his captures including a herd of does, wild boars and a fox respectively. In turn Gawain gives the host kisses including one on the first day, two on the second day, and three on the third day in line with what he receives from Lady Bertilak. On the first day, Gawain “kissed him with all the kindness that his courtesy knew/‘There take you my gains, sir! I got nothing more (1389-90).” The situation evokes humor as the reader realizes that Gawain tries to uphold the code of honor by not lying yet he cheats by not giving the host the green belt he is given by the lady on the third day and that highlights that after all he is a human being with limitations. In fact, the Green knight forgives Gawain and acknowledges that despite his shortcoming Gawain is a worthy opponent since he overcomes their traps to uphold his respect and reputation.

The use of humor to highlight the issue of human limitation emerges in another instance. During the three days that Gawain spends in their house, the lady tries to tempt him into intimacy. One dawn while Sir Gawain is still sleeping, the Lady comes into Sir Gawain’s room and tells him “‘You are a careless sleeper, if one can creep on you so! /Now quickly you are caught! If we come not to terms/I shall bind you in your bed… (Lines 1209-11).” Though such humor the lady hints that she wants to sleep with him. On his part, Gawain begs the fair lady ‘But if you would, lady gracious, then leave grant me, and release your prisoner and pray him to rise/I would abandon this bed… (Lines 1218-20).” On his side Gawain uses humor to jokingly play along by asking for mock forgiveness and by so doing he downplays her intentions. Gawain recognizes that giving in to her advances would culminate in him breaking the code of knightly honor by betraying Lord Bertilak thereby undermining his respect and reputation.

In conclusion, both “Canterbury Tales” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” utilize humorous satire to discuss serious topics. Chaucer employs satire to discuss the serious subject of religious corruption and greed that was prevalent among the clergy. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” employs humor to recognize the human limitations while discussing the serious subject of upholding respect and reputation among Knights. Chaucer’s use of humor is profound since he goes the extra mile to utilize humor to entertain unlike “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” where the humor is not as profound since it merely informs without going much into entertaining. Still, one cannot help but appreciate both authors’ efforts to utilize satire to enlighten and impact change in the society.

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The Use of Satire in Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“The Use of Satire in Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
The Use of Satire in Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Sept. 2023].
The Use of Satire in Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Sept 27]. Available from:
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