Introduction to Chaucer: 

The Medieval Worldview

The Divine Hierarchy: 

The universe was created by God. Its design and history had been determined by divine plan (ala Aristotle), from the creation to the Last Judgment. Nothing simply happens. God created the cosmos in the form of a giant ladder of ascending quality in which everything in the universe possesses its purpose and place; in the heavens above exists the realm of grace and spirit, below resides the earthly realm of base matter, and just below that realm is Hell. From God and the angels, the great chain of being descends through the heavenly bodies to the earth. On earth, humans are at the apex, next the animals, below them plants, and then inanimate matter. Each element's appropriate place is peculiar to its specific nature. God's revelation extends down to humanity through this hierarchical order.

The Geocentric Universe

From Aristotle and Ptolemy, medieval thinkers inherited the theory of an earth-centered universe which they then imbued with Christian symbolism. (see Britannica animation; animation) The firmament of stars enclose seven spheres; each sphere holds one of the planets; three heavenly spheres range above the firmament with the Empyrean, the realm of God and the heavenly angels, at the outermost. Humans are located at the center of everything, indicating God's focus upon his most beloved creation. Although located near the bottom of the hierarchy, only humans, of all the creatures, can ascend to heaven. Aristotle made a sharp distinction between the world above and below the moon. In the ethereal region above, celestial laws hold, while below earthly bodies are subject to mutability, the force of time. All matter seeks its proper place in the divine hierarchy: heavy bodies fall; light bodies rise.

The Great Chain of Being:

Greek philosophers elaborated on the four level structure of the macrocosm and microcosm, correlating the four elements of the world to the four temperaments of man, the four seasons of the year to the four ages of man.













Hot/ Wet







Yellow Bile

Hot/ Dry







Black Bile

Cold/ Dry








Cold/ Wet

Moon/ Venus


Old Age


Ptolomaic Cosmology/ Christian Theology/ Social Hierarchy






(pure Reason)






(Emotions, Reason)






(Appetite, Emotions, Reason)



(Appetite, Emotions)





(pure Appetite)


(black bile)


About the time of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), medieval scholastics tried to reconcile ancient science with church belief by adding Angels to the divine hierarchy. That choice conveniently puts men in the middle of the universe. Everything is ordered according to this type of hierarchy. The king is at the apex of the human order. Being centered! Heaven is up and hell is beneath the Earth. 

Artists of the Renaissance would diagram the four part structure of the macrocosm into their art and architecture:

Oronce Finé includes a very similar diagram in his Protomathesis, published in 1532

Renaissance architecture. For example, Bramante's plan for St. Peter's in the early 1500’s



Theology (Air)

Philosophy (Earth)

Justice (Fire)

Poetry (Water)

Raphael's conception of the ceiling in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican (1508)


Notre Dame Cathedral (13th Century France)

The most famous buildings of the Medieval era were cathedrals. 



The church with its towers rest on the top of the gargoyles, demons being pushed back down; the top half of the building leaps towards the sky. The bottom half falls back. And humans are at the center. 

St. Denis Cathedral (finished 1144 AD)

Social Hierarchy of Feudalism

God arranged society in a hierarchical order: the king the clergy the nobility the serfs. Every person's duties are defined by his or her divinely appointed place. These places are fixed. Society functions smoothly when each person accepts their status and performs their proper role. Inferiors obey superiors, and superiors lead society in accordance with divine teaching. Despite this hierarchy God has granted all the potential for grace.  (See St. Augustine on the Problem of Evil)

Even so, this hierarchical system held in place a terribly unbalanced social order:

- 2.5% elite educated
- 97.5% poor, illiterate, chronically ill, bound to the land, with a life expectancy of 29.6 years 


Between the time of Copernicus (mid 16th c.) and Galileo (early 17th c.), this whole grand scheme would fall to pieces. When Copernicus and Galileo started looking scientifically at the universe, the church's ideology started to crack. This destruction of the divine hierarchy and the church's domination of European thought happened very slowly. But you can see the beginnings of the Renaissance in motion by the 12th century, and the rise of a new society had begun to take shape by the time that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales near the end of the 14th century. We'll be studying the composition of this society in Chaucer's great poem. 

Geofferey Chaucer (1340-1400)


The Life of Chaucer: Chaucer's father was a wheeler and dealer of wine who earned a fortune despite being born in the peasant class. He was one of the people who typified the rise of the middle class during the late Middle Ages. He moved off the farm, into the city, and made an enormous amount of money in a short time. Their son became closely connected to the king and spent his whole life working at court. Yet Chaucer's grandfather had been a peasant. Chaucer served under three kings, and he managed to keep himself out of trouble even though his beliefs were often at odds with the king. The language he wrote in was one which every Englishman from peasant to king would have understood. He chose to write in Middle English because he knew that then his poem would reach every literate Englishman.

"The Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales

Thirty pilgrims have gathered in the south London neighborhood of Southwark at Harry Bailey's 'Taberd Inn'. They are about to embark upon a journey from London to St. Thomas Becket's tomb at the cathedral in Canterbury, a hundred miles to the east, at the mouth of the Thames River. The Prologue gives you an excellent portrait of each pilgrim. They range across the social hierarchy from noble to clergy to commoner. To pass the time en route to Canterbury, Harry Bailey sets a contest for the various pilgrims: whoever tells the best story on the trip wins a free dinner when they return home. Chaucer wrote twenty-four tales. Tonight you will be starting to read the frame story: