Medieval Self-Fashioning: Identity Performances in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
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The fourteenth century was a period of transformation, in which the social, political, economic and cultural changes led to changes in the social hierarchy of medieval England. These changes also influenced the way medieval people conceived their identities and the people around them. Hence, medieval people started to question the limitations imposed on their identities by the three estate structure. The three estate structure, which dominated the structure of the medieval English society, required each person to behave in accordance with the requirements of her/his estate. Therefore, not only those who failed in conforming to the rules of her/his estate, but also those who transgressed their estate boundaries were severely criticised. However, due to certain reasons such as the decline in knighthood, the erosion in feudal values, the influences of the Hundred Years War, developments in trade, the Black Death and the rise of universities, people began rejecting the impositions on their identities. Thus, the control over identity became an important issue, not only for the nobility and clergy but also for the commoners. Making use of their daily life activities and their professional qualifications, these people performed their identities in accordance with their self-conceptions. Therefore, this dissertation analyses self-fashioning as a performance. Accordingly, this dissertation aims at examining the self-fashioning performances of the selected pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and claim that what Stephen Greenblatt identifies as self-fashioning in the Renaissance had already started in the late fourteenth century, and it can be observed in the Canterbury Tales, which is one of the most important works of this time. It is argued that the self-fashioning performances of the Canterbury pilgrims are both shaped and displayed by their material performances in the “General Prologue” and their rhetorical performances in their tales, prologues to their tales (if applicable) and the links between the tales in the Canterbury Tales. Chapter I analyses the self-fashioning of the Knight and the Squire through a discussion of nobility as performance. The self-fashioning of the Prioress, the Monk and the Pardoner through their performance of gendered religious identity is discussed in Chapter II. Chapter III examines the self-fashioning of the Clerk and the Doctor of Physic, and discusses their self-fashioning as a reflection of the performance of the learned self. Chapter IV analyses the self-fashioning of the Wife of Bath through her corporeal and discursive performance of femininity. As a conclusion, it is asserted that Chaucer creates these pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales as performing their identity performances, and the aim of this is not only to create characters influenced by the changes in society, but also to influence society and the changes in society.