Disability and Morality in The Canterbury Tales Open Access

Jewell, Emily (Spring 2018)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/q524jn838?locale=en
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Abstract

By applying Disability Studies to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, this thesis examines the connection between disability and morality in the Middle Ages. Disability was frequently linked to sin in the Middle Ages as a way of explaining the presence of difference amongst people. This thesis considers how the perceived connection between physiological variations and moral transgressions led to discrimination against people with disabilities.

This project provides a short background on the history of Disability Studies and explains the adaptations needed in order to apply a relatively new theoretical framework to the medieval era. Through the explanation of key terms and models, I discuss the use of the word ‘disability’, which in this project refers to any bodily or behavioral difference amongst the pilgrims.

The pilgrimage to Canterbury focuses on physical, mental, and spiritual healing. I analyze five pilgrims: the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Wife of Bath, the Cook, and the Reeve. These five pilgrims all exhibit outward signs of internal corruption. Ranging from grotesque to subtle, the pilgrims’ bodies reflect the sins they have committed. Physiognomy, or the belief in the correlation between a person’s features, appearance, and abilities to their morality, was popular during the Middle Ages. I propose that the combination of physiognomy, the belief that one has control over their disability, and the highly religious society created stigmas towards people who had bodily variations.

The five pilgrims examined in this thesis face varying levels of discrimination. I argue that the level of discrimination corresponds to a ‘disability hierarchy’ that is portrayed in The Canterbury Tales. People whose disabilities were caused by particularly heinous misdeeds encountered more mistreatment than those whose sins were less egregious. Through my examination of the bodies and behaviors of the pilgrims and their interactions with their peers, this thesis demonstrates the social repercussions of the medieval belief in the connection between disability and morality.

Table of Contents

Introduction...............................................................................................Page 1

Chapter 1: Disability Studies and its Application to the Middle Ages.....Page 5

Section 1: Disability Studies.....................................................................Page 5

Section 2: Applying Disability Studies to the Middle Ages.....................Page 10

Chapter 2: Case Studies from The Canterbury Tales................................Page 15

Section 1: The Summoner.........................................................................Page 15

Section 2: The Pardoner............................................................................Page 24

Section 3: The Wife of Bath......................................................................Page 31

Section 4: The Cook..................................................................................Page 40

Section 5: The Reeve.................................................................................Page 49

Conclusion.................................................................................................Page 58

Works Cited...............................................................................................Page 62

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