The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is the most famous and critically acclaimed work of Geoffrey Chaucer, a late fourteenth-century English poet. Little is known about Chaucer's personal life, and even less about his education, but a number of records exist that document his professional life. Chaucer was born in London in the early 1340s, the only son to his family. Originally a property-owning wine merchant, Chaucer's father's wealth grew tremendously from inheriting the property of relatives who had died in the Black Death of 1349. He was therefore able to send the young Geoffrey off as a page to the Countess of Ulster, which meant that Geoffrey was not required to follow in his ancestors' footsteps and become a merchant. Eventually, Chaucer began to serve the Countess's husband, Prince Lionel, son to king Edward III. For most of his life, Chaucer served in the Hundred Years War between England and France, both as a soldier and, since he was fluent in French and Italian and conversant in Latin and other tongues, a diplomat. His travels as a diplomat also brought him twice to Italy, where he could have had occasion to meet Boccaccio, whose writing was influential to Chaucer's work, and Petrarch.
In or around 1378, Chaucer began to develop his vision of an English poetry that would be linguistically accessible to all, and obedient neither to the court, whose official language was French, nor the church, whose official language was Latin. Instead, Chaucer wrote in the vernacular English that was spoken in and around London in his day. Undoubtably, he was influenced by the writings of the Florentines Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, writers who wrote in the Italian vernacular. Even in England, the practice was becoming increasingly common among poets, although many were still writing in French and Latin.
That the nobles and kings Chaucer served (Richard II until 1399, then Henry IV) were impressed with Chaucer's skills as a negotiator is obvious from the many rewards he received for his service. Money, provisions, higher appointments and property eventually allowed him to retire on a royal pension. In 1374, the king appointed Chaucer Controller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and Wools in the port of London, which meant that he was a government official who worked with cloth importers. His experience overseeing imported cloths might be why Chaucer frequently goes into exquisite detail describing the garments and fabric that attire his characters. Chaucer held the position at the customhouse for twelve years, after which he left London for Kent, the county in which Canterbury is located. He served as a Justice of the Peace for Kent, living in debt, and was then appointed Clerk of the Works at various holdings of the king, including Westminster and the Tower of London. He retired in the early 1390s, from which point on he seems to have been working primarily on The Canterbury Tales, which he began around 1387. By the time of his retirement, Chaucer had already written a substantial amount of narrative poetry, including the celebrated romance Troilus and Criseyde.
Chaucer's personal life is less documented than his 444h73e professional life. In the late 1360s, he married Philippa Roet, who served Edward III's queen. They had at least two sons together. Philippa was the sister to the mistress of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. For John of Gaunt, Chaucer wrote one of his first poems, The Book of the Duchess, which was a lament for the premature death of John's young wife Blanche. Whether or not Chaucer had an extramarital affair is a matter of some contention among historians. In a legal document that dates from 1380, a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from the accusation of seizing her (raptus), though whether the expression denotes that he raped her, committed adultery with her, or abducted her son is unclear. Chaucer's wife Philippa apparently died in 1387.
Chaucer lived through a time of incredible tension in the English social sphere. The Black Death, which ravaged England during Chaucer's childhood and remained widespread afterward, wiped out a large percentage [approximately what?] of the population. Consequently, the labor force gained increased leverage and was able to bargain for better wages, which led to resent from the nobles and propertied classes. These classes received another blow in 1381, when the peasantry, helped by the artisan class, revolted against them. The merchants were also wielding increasing power over the legal establishment, as the war created profit for England and, consequently, appetite for luxury was growing. The merchants capitalized on the demand for luxury goods, and when Chaucer was growing up, London was pretty much run by a merchant oligarchy, which attempted to control both the aristocracy and the lesser artisan classes. Chaucer's political sentiments are unclear, for although The Canterbury Tales documents the various social tensions in the manner of the popular genre of Estates Satire, the narrator refrains from making overt political statements, and what he does say is in no way thought to represent Chaucer's own sentiments.
Chaucer's original plan for The Canterbury Tales was for each character to tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. But, instead of 120 tales, the text ends after 24 tales, and the party is still on its way to Canterbury. Chaucer either planned to revise the structure to cap at 24 tales, or else left it incomplete when he died on October 25, 1400. Other writers and printers soon recognized The Canterbury Tales as a masterful and highly original work. Though Chaucer had been influenced by the great French and Italian writers of his age, to most English readers works like Boccaccio's Decameron [other influences from the continent?] were not accessible, so the format of the Tales, and the intense realism of its characters, were virtually unknown to readers in the 14th century before Chaucer. William Caxton, England's first printer, published The Canterbury Tales in the 1470s, and it continued to enjoy a rich printing history that never truly faded. By the English Renaissance, poetry critic George Puttenham had identified Chaucer as the father of the English literary canon. Chaucer's social project to create a literature and poetic language for all classes of society succeeded, and today Chaucer still stands as one of the great shapers of literary narrative and character.
At the Tabard Inn, a tavern in Southwark, near London, the narrator joins a company of twenty-nine pilgrims. The pilgrims, like the narrator, are traveling to the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket, in Canterbury. The narrator gives a descriptive account of twenty-seven of these pilgrims, including a Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapster, Cook, Shipman, Doctor of Physic, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host. (He does not describe the Second Nun or the Nun's Priest, although both characters appear later on in the book.) The Host, whose name, we find out in the Prologue to the Cook's Tale, is Harry Bailey, suggests that the group ride together and entertain one another with stories. He decides that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. To whomever he judges to be the best storyteller, Bailey will give a free meal at his tavern. The pilgrims draw lots and determine that the Knight will tell the first tale.
The Knight's Tale
Theseus, king of Athens, imprisons Arcite and Palamon, two knights from Thebes (another city in ancient Greece). From their prison, the knights see and fall in love with Theseus's sister-in-law, Emelye. Through the intervention of a friend, Arcite is freed, but banished from Athens. He returns in disguise and becomes a page in Emelye's chamber. Palamon escapes from prison and the two meet and fight over Emelye. Theseus apprehends them and arranges a tournament between the two knights and their allies, with Emelye as the prize. Arcite wins, but is accidentally thrown from his horse and dies. Palamon marries Emelye.
The Miller's Prologue and Tale
The Host asks the Monk to tell the next tale, but the drunken Miller butts in and insists that his tale should be the next. He tells the story of an impoverished student named Nicholas, who persuades his landlord's sexy young wife, named Alisoun, to spend the night with him. He convinces his landlord, a carpenter named John, that the second flood is coming, and tricks him into spending the night in a tub hanging from the ceiling of his barn. Absolon, a young parish clerk who is also in love with Alisoun, appears outside the window where Nicholas and Alisoun lie together. When Absolon begs Alisoun for a kiss, she sticks her rear end out the window in the dark and lets him kiss it. Absolon runs and gets a red-hot poker, returns to the window, asks for another kiss, and when Nicholas sticks his ass out the window and farts, Absolon brands him on the buttocks. Nicholas's cries for water make the carpenter think the flood is come, so the carpenter cuts the rope connecting his tub to the ceiling, falls down, and breaks his arm.
The Reeve's Prologue and Tale
Because he also does carpentry, the Reeve takes offense at the Miller's tale of a stupid carpenter, and counters with his own tale of a dishonest miller. The Reeve tells the story of two students, John and Alayn, who try to catch the miller in the act of stealing. But the miller unties their horse, and while they chase it he steals some of the flour he has just ground for them. By the time the students catch the horse, it is dark, so they spend the night in the miller's house. That night, Alayn seduces the miller's daughter, and John seduces his wife. When the miller wakes up and finds out what has happened, he tries to beat the students. His wife, thinking that her husband is actually one of the students, hits the miller over the head with a staff. The students take back their stolen goods and leave.
The Cook's Prologue and Tale
The Cook particularly enjoys the Reeve's tale, and offers to tell another funny tale. The tale concerns an apprentice named Perkyn who drinks and dances so much that he is called "Perkyn Reveler." Finally, Perkyn's master decides that he would rather his apprentice leave to revel than stay home and corrupt the other servants. Perkyn arranges to stay with a friend who loves drinking and gambling, and who has a wife who is a prostitute. The tale breaks off, unfinished, after fifty-six lines.
The Man of Law's Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
The Host reminds his fellow pilgrims to waste no time, because lost time cannot be regained. He asks the Man of Law to tell the next tale. The Man of Law agrees, apologizing that he cannot tell any suitable tale that Chaucer has not already told-Chaucer may be unskilled as a poet, says the Man of Law, but he has told more stories of lovers than Ovid, and he doesn't print tales of incest as John Gower does (Gower was a contemporary of Chaucer). In the prologue to his tale, the Man of Law laments the miseries of poverty. He then remarks how fortunate merchants are, and says that his tale is one told to him by a merchant.
In the tale, the Muslim sultan of Syria converts his entire sultanate (including himself) to Christianity in order to persuade the Emperor of Rome to give him his daughter, Custance, in marriage. The sultan's mother and her attendants remain secretly faithful to Islam. The mother tells her son she wishes to hold a banquet for him and all the Christians. At the banquet, she massacres her son and all the Christians except for Custance, whom she sets adrift in a rudderless ship. After years of floating, Custance runs ashore in Northumberland, where a constable and his wife, Hermengyld, offer her shelter. She converts them to Christianity.
One night, Satan makes a young knight sneak into Hermengyld's chamber and murder Hermengyld. He places the bloody knife next to Custance, who sleeps in the same chamber. When the constable returns home, accompanied by Alla, the king of Northumberland, he finds his slain wife. He tells Alla the story of how Custance was found, and Alla begins to pity the girl. He decides to look more deeply into the murder. Just as the knight who murdered Hermengyld is swearing that Custance is the true murderer, he is struck down and his eyes burst out of his face, proving his guilt to Alla and the crowd. The knight is executed, Alla and many others convert to Christianity, and Custance and Alla marry.
While Alla is away in Scotland, Custance gives birth to a boy named Mauricius. Alla's mother, Donegild, intercepts a letter from Custance to Alla and substitutes a counterfeit one that claims that the child is disfigured and bewitched. She then intercepts Alla's reply, which claims that the child should be kept and loved no matter how malformed. Donegild substitutes a letter saying that Custance and her son are banished and should be sent away on the same ship on which Custance arrived. Alla returns home, finds out what has happened, and kills Donegild.
After many adventures at sea, including an attempted rape, Custance ends up back in Rome, where she reunites with Alla when he makes a pilgrimage to Rome to atone for his mother's sin. She also reunites with her father, the Emperor. Alla and Custance return to England, but Alla dies after a year so Custance and Mauricius return, once more, to Rome. Mauricius becomes the next Roman Emperor.
Following the Man of Law's Tale, the Host asks the Parson to tell the next tale, but the Parson reproaches him for swearing, and they fall to bickering.
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
The Wife of Bath gives a lengthy account of her feelings about marriage. Quoting from the Bible, the wife argue against those who believe it is wrong to marry more than once, and she explains how she dominated and controlled each of her five husbands. She married her fifth husband, Jankyn, for love instead of money. After the Wife has rambled on for a while, the Friar butts in to complain that she is taking too long, and the Summoner retorts that Friars are like flies, always meddling. The Friar promises to tell a tale about a Summoner, and the Summoner promises to tell a tale about a Friar. The Host cries for everyone to quiet down and allow the Wife to commence her tale.
In her tale, a young knight of King Arthur's court rapes a maiden, and to atone for his crime Arthur's queen sends him on a quest to discover what women want most. An ugly old woman promises the knight that she will tell him the secret if he promises to do whatever she wants for saving his life. He agrees, and she tells him women want control of their husbands and lives. They go together to Arthur's queen, and the old woman's answer turns out to be correct. She tells the knight that he must marry her. When the knight confesses later that he is repulsed by her appearance, she gives him a choice: she can either be ugly and faithful, or beautiful and unfaithful. The knight tells her to make the choice herself, and she rewards him for giving her control of the marriage by rendering herself both beautiful and faithful.
The Friar's Prologue and Tale
The Friar speaks approvingly of the Wife's tale, and offers to lighten things up for the company by telling a funny story about a lecherous summoner. The Summoner does not object, but promises to pay the Friar back in his own tale. The Friar tells of an archdeacon who extorts money from people by issuing bogus warrants, especially for lechery. The archdeacon has a summoner who has a network of spies working for him, to let him know who has been lecherous. He tries to serve a summons on a yeoman who is actually a devil in disguise. After comparing notes on their treachery and extortion, the devil vanishes, but when the summoner tries to prosecute an old wealthy widow unfairly, the widow cries out that the summoner should be taken to hell. The devil follows the woman's instructions and drags the summoner off to hell.
The Summoner's Prologue and Tale
The Summoner is furious at the Friar's tale, and asks the company to let him tell the next tale. First, he tells the company that there is little difference between friars and fiends, and that when an angel took a friar down to hell to show him the torments there, the friar asked why there were no friars in hell, and the angel pulled up Satan's tale and 20,000 friars came out of his ass.
In the Summoner's Tale, a friar begs for money from a dying man named Thomas and his wife, who have recently lost their baby. The friar shamelessly exploits the couple's misfortunes to extract money from them, so Thomas tells the friar that he is sitting on something that he will bequeath to the friars. The friar reaches for his bequest, and Thomas lets out an enormous fart. The friar complains to the lord of the manor, whose squire promises to divide the fart evenly among all the friars.
The Clerk's Prologue and Tale
The Host asks the Clerk to cheer up and tell a merry tale, and the Clerk agrees to tell a tale by the Italian poet Petrarch. Griselde is a hard working peasant who marries into the aristocracy. Her husband tests her fortitude several ways, including pretending to kill her children and divorcing her. He punishes her one final time by forcing her to prepare for his wedding to a new wife. She does all this dutifully, and her husband remarries her and they live happily ever after.
The Merchant's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
The Merchant reflects on the great difference between the patient Griselde of the Clerks tale and the horrible shrew he has been married to for the past two months. The Host asks him to tell a story of the evils of marriage, and he complies. Against the advice of his friends, an old knight named January marries May, a beautiful young woman. She is less than impressed by his enthusiastic sexual efforts, and conspires to cheat on him with his squire, Damien. When blind January takes May into his garden to copulate with her, she tells him she wants to eat a pear, and he helps her up into the pear tree, where she has sex with Damien. Pluto, the king of the faeries, restores January's sight, but May, caught red-handed, assures him that he must still be blind. The Host prays to God to keep him from marrying a wife such as the Merchant describes.
The Squire's Introduction and Tale
The Host calls upon the Squire to say something about his favorite subject, love, and the Squire willingly complies. King Cambyuskan of the Mongol Empire is visited on his birthday by a knight bearing gifts from the king of Arabia and India. He gives Cambyuskan and his daughter Canacee a magic brass horse, a magic mirror, and a magic ring that gives Canacee the ability to understand the language of birds. She rescues a dying female falcon that narrates how her consort abandoned her for the love of another. The Squire's tale is either unfinished by Chaucer, or meant to be interrupted by the Franklin, who interjects that he wishes his own son were as eloquent as the Squire. The Host expresses annoyance at the Franklin's interruption, and orders him to begin the next tale.
The Franklin's Prologue and Tale
The Franklin says that his tale is a familiar Breton lay, a folk ballad of ancient Brittany. Dorigen, the heroine, awaits the return of her husband, Arveragus, who has gone to England to win honor in feats of arms. She worries that the ship bringing her husband home will wreck itself on the coastal rocks, and she promises Aurelius, a young man who falls in love with her, that she will give her body to him if he clears the rocks from the coast. Aurelius hires a student of magic to create the illusion that the rocks have disappeared. Arveragus returns home and tells his wife that she must keep her promise to Aurelius. Aurelius is so impressed by Arveragus's honorable act that he generously absolves her of the promise, and the magician, in turn, generously absolves Aurelius of the money he owes.
The Physician's Tale
Appius the judge lusts after Virginia, the beautiful daughter of Virginius. Appius persuades a churl named Claudius to declare her his slave, stolen from him by Virginius. Appius declares that Virginius must hand over his daughter to Claudius. Virginius tells his daughter that she must die rather than suffer dishonor, and she virtuously consents to her father's cutting her head off. Appius sentences Virginius to death, but the Roman people, aware of Appius's hijinks, throw him into prison, where he kills himself.
The Host is dismayed by the tragic injustice of the Physician's Tale, and tells the Pardoner to tell something merry. The other pilgrims contradict the Host, demanding a moral tale, which the Pardoner agrees to tell after he eats and drinks. The Pardoner tells the company how he cheats people out of their money by preaching that money is the root of all evil. His tale describes three riotous youths who go looking for Death, thinking that they can kill him. An old man tells them that they will find death under a tree. Instead, they find eight bags of gold, which they plot to sneak into town under cover of darkness. The youngest goes into town to fetch food and drink, but brings back poison, hoping to have the gold all to himself. His companions kill him to enrich their own shares, then drink the poison and die under the tree. His tale done, the Pardoner offers to sell the pilgrims pardons, and singles out the Host to come kiss his relics. The Host infuriates the Pardoner by accusing him of fraud, but the Knight persuades the two to kiss and bury their differences.
The Shipman's Tale
The Shipman's Tale features a monk who tricks a merchant's wife into having sex with him by borrowing money from the merchant, then giving it to the wife so she can repay her own debt to her husband, in exchange for sexual favors. When the monk sees the merchant next, he tells him that he returned the merchant's money to his wife. The wife realizes she has been duped, but boldly tells her husband to forgive her debt: she will repay it in bed. The Host praises the Shipman's story, and asks the Prioress for a tale.
The Prioress's Prologue and Tale
The Prioress calls on the Virgin Mary to guide her tale. In an Asian city, a Christian school is located at the edge of a Jewish ghetto. An angelic seven- year-old boy, a widow's son, attends the school. He is a devout Christian, and loves to sing "Alma Redemptoris" (Gracious Mother of the Redeemer). Singing the song on his way through the ghetto, some Jews slit his throat and throw him into a latrine. The Jews refuse to tell the widow where her son is, but he miraculously begins to sing Alma Redemptoris, so the Christian people recover his body, and the magistrate orders the murdering Jews to be drawn apart by wild horses and then hanged.
The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas
The Host teases Chaucer the narrator about his appearance, and asks him to tell a tale. Chaucer says that he only knows one tale, then launches into a parody of bad poetry-Sir Thopas. Sir Thopas rides about looking for an elf-queen to marry until he is confronted by a giant. The narrator's doggerel continues in this vein until the Host can bear no more, and interrupts him. Chaucer asks him why he can't tell his tale, since it is the best he knows, and the Host explains that his rhyme isn't worth a turd. He encourages Chaucer to tell a prose tale.
The Tale of Melibee
Chaucer's second tale is the long, moral prose story of Melibee. Melibee's house is raided by his foes, who beat his wife Prudence and severely wound his daughter Sophie in her feet, hands, ears, nose, and mouth. Prudence advises him not to rashly pursue vengeance on his enemies, and he follows her advice, putting his foes' punishment in her hands. She forgives them for the outrages done to her, in a model of Christian forbearance and forgiveness.
The Monk's Prologue and Tale
The Host wishes that his own wife was as patient as Melibee's, and calls upon the Monk to tell the next tale. First he teases the Monk, pointing out that the Monk is clearly no poor cloisterer. The Monk takes it all in stride and tells a series of tragic falls, in which noble figures are brought low: Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Pedro of Castile, and down through the ages.
The Nun's Priest's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
After seventeen noble "falls" narrated by the Monk, the Knight interrupts, and the Host calls upon the Nun's Priest to deliver something more lively. The Nun's Priest tells of Chanticleer the Rooster, who is carried off by a flattering fox who tricks him into closing his eyes and displaying his crowing abilities. Chanticleer turns the tables on the fox by persuading him to open his mouth and taunt the barnyard about his feat, upon which Chanticleer falls out of the fox's mouth and escapes. The Host praises the Nun's Priest's tale, adding that if the Priest wasn't in holy orders, he would be as sexually potent as Chanticleer.
The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale
[Check Prologue] The Second Nun tells the story of St. Cecilia's martyrdom. Before her new husband Valerian can take her virginity, Cecilia sends him on a pilgrimage to Pope Urban, who converts him to Christianity. An angel visits Valerian, who asks that his brother Tiburce be granted the grace of Christian conversion, as well. All three, Cecilia, Tiburce, and Valerian, are put to death by the Romans.
The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale
When the Second Nun's Tale is finished, the company is overtaken by a black-clad Canon and his Yeoman, who have heard of the pilgrims and their tales and wish to participate. The Yeoman brags to the company how he and the Canon create the illusion that they are alchemists, and the Canon departs in shame at having his secrets discovered. The Yeoman remains and tells a tale of how a canon defrauded a priest by creating the illusion of alchemy using sleight of hand.
The Manciple's Prologue and Tale
The Host pokes fun at the Cook, riding at the back of the company, blind drunk. The Cook is unable to honor the Host's request that he tell a tale, and the Manciple criticizes him for his drunkenness. The Manciple relates the legend of the Tell-Tale bird, taken from The Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses and one of the tales in The Arabian Nights. In it, Phoebus's talking white crow informs him that his wife is cheating on him. Phoebus kills the wife, pulls out the crow's white feathers, and curses it with blackness.
The Parson's Prologue and Tale
As the company enters a village in the late afternoon, the Host calls upon the Parson to give them a fable. Instead, the Parson delivers a lengthy treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Chaucer appeals to readers to credit Jesus Christ as the inspiration for anything in his book that they like, and to attribute what they don't like to his own ignorance and lack of abilities. He retracts and prays for forgiveness for all of his works dealing with secular and pagan subjects, asking only to be remembered for what he has written of saints' lives and homilies.
The Narrator - The narrator makes it quite clear that he is also a character in his book. Though he is called Chaucer, we should be wary of accepting his words and opinions as Chaucer's own. In the General Prologue, the narrator presents himself as a gregarious and naive character. Later on, the Host accuses him of being silent and sullen. Because the narrator writes down his impressions of the pilgrims from memory, whom he does and does not like, and what he chooses and chooses not to remember about the characters, tells us as much about the narrator's own prejudices as it does about the characters themselves.
The Knight -
The first pilgrim Chaucer describes in the General
Prologue, and the teller of the first tale. The Knight represents the ideal
of a medieval Christian man-at-arms. He has participated in no less than
fifteen of the great crusades of his era. Brave, experienced, and prudent, the
narrator greatly admires him.
The Wife of Bath -
Bath is an English town, not this woman's husband, and though her actual
occupation is seamstress, she seems to be a professional wife. She has been
married five times and had many other affairs in her youth-she is well-
practiced in the art of love. She presents herself as someone who loves
marriage and sex, but from what we see of her, she enjoys rich attire, talking,
and arguing. She is deaf in one ear, and has a gap between her front teeth,
which was considered attractive. She has traveled on pilgrimages to Jerusalem
three times, and elsewhere in Europe as well.
The Pardoner -
Pardoners granted papal indulgences-reprieves from penance in exchange for a
charitable donation to the Church. Many pardoners, including this one,
collected profits for themselves. In fact, Chaucer's Pardoner excels in fraud,
carrying a bag full of fake relics-for example, he claims to have the veil of
the Virgin Mary. Using these relics, he gets donations even from the poor:
"He made the person and the peple his apes" (General Prologue, 706). The Pardoner has long, greasy, yellow hair
and is beardless. These characteristics were associated with shiftiness and
gender ambiguity. Still, he has a gift for singing and preaching whenever he
finds himself inside a church.
The Miller - Short-shouldered, broad, and thick, the Miller has a wart on his nose and a big Mouth, both literally and figuratively. He threatens the Host's notion of propriety when he drunkenly insists on telling the second tale. Indeed, the Miller seems to enjoy overturning all conventions-he ruins the Host's carefully planned story-telling order, he rips doors off hinges, and he tells a tale that is somewhat blasphemous and ridicules religious clerks, scholarly clerks, carpenters, and women.
The Prioress - Described as modest and quiet, this Prioress (a nun who is head of her convent) aspires to have exquisite taste. Her table manners are dainty, she knows French (though not the French of the court), she dresses well, and she is charitable and compassionate.
The Monk - Most monks of the Middle Ages lived in a monastery according to the Rule of St. Benedict, which demanded that they devote their lives to "work and prayer." This Monk, cares little for the Rule-his devotion is to hunting and eating. He is large, loud, and well-clad in hunting boots and furs. Chaucer wryly defends the Monk's lifestyle by asking "How shal the world be served" by his slaving away in a monastery (187). The answer, of course, is that a monk ought to serve God and not the world or himself. The narrator may ask this question sincerely, but Chaucer asks it ironically.
The Friar - Roaming priests with no ties to a monastery, friars were a great source of criticism at the time. Always ready to befriend a young woman or a rich man who might need his services, he actively administers the sacraments in his town, especially marriage and confession. However, this worldly Friar has taken to accepting bribes.
The Summoner - The Summoner brings persons accused of violating church law to ecclesiastical court. This Summoner is a lecherous man whose face is scarred by leprosy. He gets drunk frequently, is irritable, and is not particularly qualified for his position. He spouts off the few words of Latin he knows in an attempt to sound educated.
The Host - The leader of the group, the Host is large, loud, and merry, although he possesses a temper along with his joviality. He mediates and facilitates the flow of the tales from one to another. His title as "host" may be a pun, suggesting both an innkeeper and the Eucharist, or holy host. Bread and wine were, after all, what one would eat at an inn.
The Parson - The only devout churchman in the company, the Parson lives in poverty, "but riche he was of hooly thoght and werk" (479). Pastor of a sizable town, he walks barefoot throughout the parish to minister to his parishioners personally. He preaches the Gospel and makes sure to practice what he preaches. He is everything that the Monk, the Friar, and the Pardoner are not.
The Squire - The Knight's son and apprentice. The Squire is curly-haired and youthfully handsome, loves dancing and courting, and is "as fressh as is the month of May" (General Prologue, 92).
The Clerk - The Clerk is a poor student of philosophy. Having spent his money on books and learning rather than fine clothes, he is threadbare and wan. He speaks little, but when he does, his words are wise and full of moral virtue.
The Man of Law - A successful lawyer commissioned by the king. He upholds justice in matters large and small and knows every statute of England's law by heart.
The Manciple - A manciple was in charge of getting provisions for a college or court. Despite his lack of education, this Manciple is smarter than the thirty lawyers he feeds.
The Merchant - The Merchant trades in furs and other cloths, mostly from Flanders. He is part of a powerful and wealthy class in Chaucer's society.
The Shipman - Brown-skinned from years of sailing, the Shipman has seen every bay and river in England and exotic ports in Spain and Carthage, as well. He is a bit of a rascal-he is known for stealing wine while the captain sleeps.
The Doctor of Physic - The Physician is one of the best in his profession, for he knows the cause of every malady, and can cure most of them. Though he keeps himself in perfect physical health, the narrator calls into question his spiritual health-he rarely consults the Bible and has an unhealthy love of financial gain.
The Franklin - The word Franklin means "free man"-in Chaucer's society, this was a person who was neither a vassal serving a lord, nor a member of the nobility. This particular Franklin is a connoisseur of food and wine, so much so that his table remains laid and ready for food all day.
The Reeve - A reeve was similar to a steward of a manor, and this Reeve performs his job shrewdly-his lord never loses so much as a ram to the other employees, and the vassals under his command are kept in line. However, he steals from his master.
The Plowman - The Plowman is the Parson's brother and is equally good-hearted. A member of the peasant class, he pays his tithes to the Church and leads a good Christian life.
The Guildsmen - Listed together, these are five Guildsmen. English Guilds were a combination of labor union and social fraternity: craftsmen of similar occupations joined together to increase their bargaining power, and live communally. These five are all clad in the livery of their brotherhood.
The Cook - The Cook works for the Guildsmen. Chaucer gives little detail about him, save a crusty sore on his leg.
The Yeoman - The servant who accompanies the Knight and the Squire. The narrator mentions that his dress and weapons suggest he may be a forester.
The Second Nun - The Second Nun is not described in the General Prologue, but she tells a saint's life for her tale.
The Nun's Priest - Like the Second Nun, the Nun's Priest is not described in the General Prologue. His story of Chanticleer, however, is well crafted and suggests that he is a witty, self-effacing preacher.
Characters Appearing in the Five Fully Analyzed Tales
The Knight's Tale
Theseus - A great conqueror and the duke of Athens in the Knight's Tale. The most powerful ruler in the story, he is often called upon to make the final judgment, but he listens to others' pleas for help.
Palamon - Palamon is one of the two imprisoned Theban soldier heroes in the Knight's tale. Brave, strong, and sworn to everlasting friendship with his cousin Arcite, Palamon falls in love with the fair maiden Emelye and this divides him from Arcite. Although he loses the tournament against Arcite, he gets the girl in the end.
Arcite - The sworn brother to Palamon, Arcite is also imprisoned with Palamon in the tower in the Knight's tale, and falls equally head over heels in love with Emelye. However, he gets released from the tower early, wins her hand in a tournament, but then dies when a divinely fated earthquake causes his horse to throw him.
Emelye - Emelye is the sister to Hippolyta, Theseus's domesticated Amazon queen in the Knight's tale. Fair-haired and glowing, we first see her as Palamon does, through a window, fashioning garlands of flowers, and singing like an angel. Although she is the object of both Palamon's and Arcite's desire, she would rather spend her life unmarried and childless. Nevertheless, when Arcite wins the tournament she readily pledges herself to him. It takes a long time after Arcite's death for Emelye to finally accept Palamon's hand.
Egeus - Theseus's father, who gives Theseus the advice that helps him convince Palamon and Emelye to end their mourning of Arcite and get married.
The Miller's Tale
Nicholas - In the Miller's Tale, Nicholas is a poor astronomy student who boards with an elderly carpenter and the carpenter's too-young wife. Nicholas' room is equally set up for studying and wooing ladies, and he himself is "as sweete as is the roote / Of lycorys" (3206-3207). Nicholas dupes John and sleeps with the carpenter's wife right under the carpenter's nose, but Absolon gets Nicholas in the end.
Alisoun - Alisoun is the sexy young thing married to the carpenter in the Miller's tale. She is bright and sweet like a small bird, and dresses in a tantalizing style-her clothes are embroidered inside and outside, and she laces her boots high. She goes willingly to bed with Nicholas, but has only harsh words and obscenities for Absolon.
Absolon - The local parish clerk in the Miller's tale, Absolon is a little bit foolish, and a little bit vain. He wears red stockings underneath his floor- length church gown, and his leather shoes are decorated like the fanciful stained glass windows in a cathedral. He curls his hair and uses breath- fresheners, and fancies Alisoun terribly.
John - The dim-witted carpenter to whom Alisoun is married and with whom Nicholas boards. John is jealous and possessive of his wife. He constantly berates Nicholas for looking into God's "pryvetee," but when Nicholas offers John the chance to share his knowledge John quickly accepts. He gullibly believes Nicholas's pronouncement that a second flood is coming, which allows Nicholas to sleep with John's wife.
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
The First Three Husbands - The Wife of Bath says that her first three husbands were "good" because they were rich and old. She could order them around, use sex to get what she wanted, and trick them into believing lies.
The Fourth Husband - The Wife of Bath says comparatively little about her fourth husband. She loved him, but he was a reveler who had a mistress. She had fun singing and dancing with him, but tried her best to make him jealous. She fell in love with her fifth husband, Jankyn, while she was still married to her fourth.
Jankyn - The Wife of Bath's fifth husband, Jankyn, was a twenty-year-old ex-student, with whom the Wife was madly in love. His stories of wicked wives frustrated her so much that one night she ripped a page out of his book, only to receive a deafening smack on her ear in return.
The Knight - Arthur's young knight rapes a young maiden, and is sent on a quest to learn about submission to women. Once he does so, and shows that he has learned his lesson by letting his ugly, old wife make a decision, she rewards him by becoming beautiful and submissive.
The Old Woman - The old woman supplies the young knight with the answer to his question, in exchange for his promise to do whatever she wants. When she tells him he must marry her, the knight begrudgingly agrees, and when he allows her to choose whether she would like to be beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful, she rewards him by becoming both beautiful and faithful.
Arthur's Queen - Arthur's Queen, presumably Guinevere, is interesting because she wields most of the power. When a Arthur's knight rapes a maiden, he turns the knight over to his Queen allows her to decide what to do with him.
The Pardoner's Tale
The Three Rioters - These are the three protagonists of the Pardoner's Tale. All three of them indulge in and represent the vices against which the Pardoner has railed in his Prologue: Gluttony, Drunkeness, Gambling and Swearing. These traits define the three, and these traits will eventually be their downfall. The Rioters at first appear like personified vices, but it is their belief that a personified concept (in this case, Death) is a real person, that becomes their undoing. The idea is that human beings are capable of vices, but also capable of avoiding them, whereas the actual vices themselves never change.
The Old Man - In the Pardoner's tale, the three Rioters encounter a very old man whose body is completely covered except for his face. The loudest rioter rashly demands why the old man is still alive. The old man is doomed to walk the earth for eternity. He has been interpreted as Death itself, since nothing can extinguish death, or Cain, punished for fratricide by walking the earth forever, or as the Wandering Jew, a myth about a man who refused to let Christ rest at his house when Christ proceeded to his crucifixion, and was doomed to roam the world, through the ages, never finding rest.
The Nun's Priest's Tale
Chanticleer - The heroic rooster of the Nun's Priest's Tale, Chanticleer is the most handsome cock in the barnyard, who has seven hens, and who has a prophetic dream of the fox that will carry him away. Chanticleer is also a bit vain about his clear and accurate crowing voice, and he unwittingly allows a fox to flatter him out of his liberty.
Pertelote - Chanticleer's favorite wife in the Nun's Priest's tale. She is his equal in looks, manners, and talent. When Chanticleer dreams of the fox, he awakens her in the middle of the night, begging for an interpretation, but Pertelote will have none of it, calling him foolish. When the fox takes him away, she mourns him in classical Greek fashion, burning herself and wailing.
The Fox - The orange fox, interpreted by some as an allegorical figure for the Devil, catches Chanticleer the rooster through flattery. Eventually, Chanticleer outwits the fox by encouraging him to boast of his deceit to his pursuers. When the fox opens his mouth, Chanticleer escapes.
Analysis of Major Characters
The Knight -
The Knight rides at the front of the procession described in the General
Prologue, and his story is the first in the sequence. The Host clearly admires
the Knight, as does the narrator. The narrator seems to remember four main
qualities of the Knight. The first is the Knight's love of
ideals-"chivalrie" (prowess), "trouthe" (fidelity),
"honour" (reputation), "fredom" (generosity) and
"curteisie" (refinement) (45-46). The second is the Knight's
impressive military career. The Knight has fought in the Crusades, wars in
which Europeans traveled by sea to non-Christian lands and attempted to convert
whole cultures by the force of their swords. By Chaucer's time, the frequency
and spirit for these wars were dying out. The Knight has battled the Muslims in
Egypt, Spain, and Turkey, and the Russian Orthodox in Lithuania and Russia. He
has also fought in formal duels. The third quality the narrator remembers about
the Knight is his meek, gentle, manner. And the fourth is his
"array," or dress. Neither the Knight nor his horse is particularly
well- attired. The Knight wears a tunic made of coarse cloth, and his coat of
mail is rust-stained, because he has recently returned from an expedition.
Perhaps the narrator's high opinion of the Knight is influenced by the tale the Knight tells. His story of Emelye, Palamon, Arcite, and Theseus is a romance, with many passages that meditate on the very ideals the narrator uses to characterize the Knight. The characters in the Knight's tale are not vivid creations but abstract, somewhat unrealistic figures, just as the Knight himself is not given much of a personality. The Knight's combination of religious virtue with polite, cultured, romantic behavior reveals him as a somewhat nostalgic figure. He, and his rust-stained armor, may be an attempt Chaucer's part to highlight the Crusades (and perhaps chivalry itself) as a somewhat pathetic relic from the past.
The Knight's interaction with other characters in the links tells us a few additional things about him. In the Prologue to the Nun's Priest's tale, he calls out to hear something more lighthearted, saying that it deeply upsets him to hear stories about tragic falls. He would rather hear about "joye and greet solas," about men who start off in poverty climbing in fortune and attaining wealth. The Host agrees with him, which is not surprising, since the Host's has mentioned that whoever tells the tale of "best sentence and moost solaas" will win (General Prologue, 798). And, at the end of the Pardoner's tale, the Knight breaks in to stop the squabbling between the Host and the Pardoner, ordering them to kiss and make up. Ironically, though a soldier, the romantic, idealistic Knight clearly holds an aversion to conflict or unhappiness of any sort.
Pardoner - It is no
coincidence that the Pardoner rides in the very back of the party in the General Prologue, since he is the most
marginalized character of the company. His profession is somewhat dubious-a
pardoner offered indulgences, or previously written pardons for particular
sins, to people who repented themselves of the particular sin they had
committed. Along with receiving the indulgence, the penitent would make a
donation to the church by giving money to the pardoner. Eventually, this
"charitable" donation became a necessary part of receiving an
indulgence. Paid by the church to offer these indulgences, the Pardoner was not
supposed to pocket the penitent's charitable donations. That said, the practice
of offering indulgences came under critique by quite a few churchmen, since
once the charitable donation became a practice allied to receiving an
indulgence, it began to look like you could cleanse yourself from sin by simply
buying off the church. Additionally, there existed widespread suspicion that
pardoners were counterfeiting the Pope's signature on illegitimate indulgences
and pocketing the "charitable donations" themselves.
Chaucer's Pardoner is a highly untrustworthy character. He sings a ballad-"Com hider, love, to me!" (672)-with the already hypocritical Summoner, undermining the already challenged virtue of his profession as one who works for the church. He presents himself as someone of ambiguous gender and sexual orientation, further challenging staid social norms. The narrator is not sure whether the Pardoner is an effeminate homosexual or a eunuch (castrated male). Like the other pilgrims, the Pardoner carries with him to Canterbury the tools of his trade, in his case freshly signed Papal indulgences and a sack full of false relics, including a brass cross full of stones to make it seem as heavy as gold, and a glass jar full of pig's bones, which he passes off as saint's relics. Since visiting relics on pilgrimage had become a tourist industry, the figure of the Pardoner wants to cash in on religion in any way he can, and he does this by selling tangible, material objects, whether slips of paper that forgive sins, or animal bones that people can string around their necks as charms against the devil. The Pardoner's tale is one of the most controversial, since after telling the group how he gulls people into indulging his own avarice through a sermon he preaches on greed, the Pardoner tells a tale that is clearly the moral example part of the sermon. Furthermore, he attempts to sell pardons to the group, in effect plying his trade in clear violation of the rules outlined by the host.
The Wife of Bath -
One of the two women storytellers (the other is the Prioress), the Wife has a
lot of experience under her belt. She has traveled all over the world on
pilgrimages, so Canterbury is a jaunt compared to the perilous journeys she has
endured. Not only has she seen many lands, she has lived with five husbands.
She is worldly in both senses of the word: she has seen the world, and has her
experience with the ways of the world, or love and sex.
Rich and tasteful, her clothes veer a bit to extravagance: her face is wreathed in heavy cloth, her stockings are a fine scarlet color, and the leather on her shoes is soft, fresh and brand new, all of which demonstrate how wealthy she has become. Scarlet was a particularly costly dye, since it was made from individual red beetles only found in some parts of the world. The fact that she hails from Bath, a major English cloth-making town in the Middle Ages, is reflected in both her talent as a seamstress and her stylish garments. Bath at this time was fighting for a place among the great European exporters of cloth, which were mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium. So the fact that the Wife's sewing surpasses that of the cloth makers of "Ipres and of Gaunt" (Ypres and Ghent), speaks well of Bath's (and England's) attempt to outdo its overseas competitors.
Although she is argumentative and enjoys talking, the Wife is intelligent in a common sense, rather than intellectual, way. Through her experiences with her husbands, she has learned how to provide for herself in a world where women had little independence or power. The chief manner in which she has gained control over her husbands has been in her control over their use of her body. The Wife uses her body as a bargaining tool, withholding sexual pleasure until her husbands give her what she demands.
Medieval society defined women based on the uses their bodies could be put to. They were either virgins, married women, old widows, or whores. Married women produced children and pleasured their husbands. Virgins eventually will do the same, if not corrupted before marriage. Widows and old women cannot use their bodies in these ways and therefore were usually the most poor and persecuted, unless they inherited their husbands' estates, like the Wife. Whores use their bodies to procure money on which to live. The Wife is fully aware of this physical economy. She uses and withholds her body to get a profit, but because she does it within sanctioned marriage, she cannot be condemned for it. The profit she makes from using her body in this way helps her avoid the poverty and exclusion that most widows suffered. This kind of empowerment was not a unique idea in the Fourteenth Century. The Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote about it soon after Canterbury Tales in her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, which itself bears some parallels with the Wife's prologue.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Courtly Love -
Many of the pilgrims tell love stories about the courtship of aristocratic
ladies by knights and lords. The Wife of Bath's tale, an Arthurian romance,
falls under this category, as does the Franklin's tale, about a knight who goes
to war and leaves his wife to be courted by another young man, and the Squire's
tale. But the character who most embodies the chivalric concepts defined by
these romances, and who tells a story about the conflicts between two knights
and their love for the same lady, is, fittingly, the Knight.
Courtly love was both a literary style and a social fashion in fourteenth- century Europe, and it lasted well into the Seventeenth Century. It involved a knight or lord pledging himself and his abilities to obeying the whims and desires of his beloved lady, who became his queen. The 1528 Italian book by Castiglione, The Courtier describes the more fully developed ideals of courtly love and courtly behavior at length. Although it was written a little over one hundred years after Chaucer's text, it contains a clear analysis of the courtly lover's duties: "He who begins to love must also begin to please his beloved and to comply entirely with her wishes, and by hers govern his own; and he must see to it that his own desires serve her, and that his soul is like an obedient handmaid, nor ever think of anything expect to transform himself into the soul of his beloved." (The Courtier, Anchor Books, p. 269). As Castiglione's comparison of the courtly lover to "an obedient handmaid" suggests, courtly love inverts the traditional hierarchy in which men are superior to women.
Many of Chaucer's characters end their stories by wishing the rest of the
"compaignye", or company, well. The Knight ends with "God save
al this faire compaignye" (3108), and the Reeve with "God, that
sitteth heighe in magestee, / Save al this compaignye, grete and smale!"
(4322-4323). Company literally signifies the entire group of people, but
Chaucer's deliberate choice of this word over other words for describing masses
of people, like the Middle English words for party, or mixture, or group,
points us to another major theme that runs throughout the Canterbury Tales. "Compaignye" derives from two Latin
words, Com, or with, and Pane, or bread. Quite literally, a
company is a group of people with whom one eats, or breaks bread. The word for
good friend, or "companion" also comes from these words. But in a
more abstract sense, "company" had an economic connotation. It was
the term designated to connote a group of people in a particular business, as
it is today.
Why is it so important to Chaucer to define that the group of travelers and storytellers as a group that eats together, and as a business? Medieval communities' functioning and well being, not to mention overall happiness, depended upon groups of socially bonded workers in towns and guilds, known informally as companies. If workers in a guild or on a feudal manor were not getting along well, they would not produce good work, and the economy would suffer. They would be unable to bargain, as a modern union does, for better working conditions and life benefits. Eating together was a way for guild members to cement friendships, creating a support structure for their working community. Guilds had their own special dining halls, where social groups got together to bond, be merry, and form supportive alliances. When the peasants revolted against their feudal lords in 1381, they were able to organize themselves so well precisely because they had formed these strong social ties through their companies.
More importantly, "compaignye" was a leveling concept, or an idea created by the working classes that gave them more power and took away some of the nobility's power and tyranny. It is no coincidence that the mythological figure of Robin Hood and his merry men, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, were described in medieval ballads as a company-not only did they eat and make merry together, they bonded under their social cause. The company of pilgrims on the way to Canterbury is not a typical example of a tightly networked "compaignye", although the Five Gildsmen together represent this kind of fraternal union. The pilgrims come from different parts of society-the court, the church, villages, the feudal manor system. To prevent discord among themselves, the pilgrims create an informal "compaignye," united together by their jobs as storytellers, and by the food and drink the host provides. As far as class distinction is concerned, they do form a company in the sense that none of them belongs to the nobility, and most have working professions, whether that work be sewing and marriage (the Wife of Bath), entertaining visitors with gourmet food (The Franklin), or tilling the earth (the Ploughman).
Religious Corruption - By
the late Fourteenth Century, the Catholic Church, which governed England,
Ireland, and the entire continent of Europe, had become extremely wealthy. The
cathedrals that grew up around shrines to saints' relics were incredibly
expensive to build, and the amount of gold that went into decorating them and
equipping them with candlesticks and reliquaries (boxes to hold relics that
were more jewel encrusted than kings' crowns) surpassed the gold in the nobles'
coffers. In a century of disease, plague, famine, and scarce labor, the sight
of a church ornamented with unused gold seemed unfair to some people, and the
church's preaching against greed suddenly seemed hypocritical, considering it's
great displays of material wealth. Distaste for the excesses of the church
triggered stories and anecdotes about greedy, irreligious churchmen who
accepted bribes, bribed others, and indulged themselves in sensual and
gastronomic luxuries, ignoring the poor famished peasants begging at their
The religious figures Chaucer represents in The Canterbury Tales all deviate in one way or another from what was traditionally expected of them. Generally, their conduct corresponds to common medieval stereotypes, but it is difficult to make any overall statement about Chaucer's position because his narrator is so clearly biased toward some characters-the Monk, for example-and so clearly biased against others, such as the Pardoner. Additionally, the characters are not simply satirical versions of their roles, they are individuals and cannot simply be taken as typical of their professions.
The Monk, Prioress, and Friar were all members of the clerical estate. The Monk and the Prioress live in a monastery and a convent, respectively. Both are characterized as figures who seem to prefer the aristocratic to the devotional life. The Prioress's bejeweled rosary seems more like a love token than something expressing her devotion to Christ, and her dainty mannerisms echo the advice given by Guillaume de Loris in the French Romance, the Roman de la Rose, on how women could make themselves attractive to men. The Monk enjoys hunting, a pastime of the nobility, while he disdains study and confinement. The Friar was a member of an order of mendicants, who made their living by traveling around and begging. Friars had been around for approximately 250 years by the time Chaucer was writing, but they had only recently been given the right to hear confession, which they did in exchange for money (charity). They were often seen as threats and had reputations of being lecherous, as the Wife of Bath describes in the opening of her tale. The reason for which the Summoner and the Friar are at each others throats so frequently in the work is because they were in fierce competition-Summoners, too, extorted money from people.
Overall, the narrator seems to harbor much more hostility for the ecclesiastical officials (the Summoner and the Pardoner) than he does for the clerics. For example, the Monk and the Pardoner possess several traits in common, but the narrator presents them in very different ways. The shiny baldness of the monk's head suggests that he may have ridden without a hood, but the narrator uses the fact that the Pardoner rides without a hood as proof of his shallow character. The Monk and the Pardoner both give their own opinions of themselves to the narrator, but whereas the narrator affirms the Monk's words by repeating them, and his own response, the narrator mocks the Pardoner for his opinion of himself.
Romance - The Romance, a tale about knights and ladies incorporating courtly love themes, was a popular literary genre in fourteenth-century literature. The genre included tales of knights rescuing maidens, embarking on quests, and forming bonds with other knights and rulers (kings and queens). In particular, the romances about King Arthur, his queen Guinevere, and his society of "knights of the round table" were very popular in England. In The Canterbury Tales, the Knight's tale incorporates romantic elements in an ancient classical setting, which is a somewhat unusual time and place to set a Romance. The Wife of Bath's tale is framed by Arthurian Romance, with an unnamed knight of the round table as its unlikely hero, but the tale itself becomes a proto-feminist's moral instruction for domestic behavior. The Miller's tale ridicules the traditional elements of Romance, by transforming the love between a young wooer and a willing maiden, into a boisterous and violent romp.
Fabliaux - Fabliaux were comical and often grotesque stories in which the characters most often succeed by means of their sharp wits. Such stories were popular in France and Italy in the Fourteenth Century. Grotesque here means more than simply disgusting; it suggests an interest in bodily functions such as peeing and farting. Frequently, the plot turns or climaxes around the most grotesque feature in the story, usually a bodily noise or function. The Miller's tale is a prime experiment with this motif: Nicholas's cleverly tricks the carpenter into spending the night in his barn so that Nicholas can sleep with the carpenter's wife, and the finale is that Nicholas farts in Absolon's face, only to receive a hot poker on his rear end. In the Summoner's tale, a wealthy man bequeaths a corrupt friar an enormous fart, which the friar divides twelve ways among his brethren. This demonstrates another invention around this motif-that of wittily expanding a grotesque image in an unconventional way. In the case of the Summoner's tale, the image is of flatulence, but the tale excels in discussing the division of the fart in a highly intellectual (and quite hilarious) manner.
Springtime - The Canterbury Tales opens in April, at the height of spring. The birds are chirping, the flowers blossoming, and people longing in their hearts for pilgrimages, which combine travel, vacation, and spiritual renewal. The springtime symbolizes rebirth and fresh beginnings, and is thus appropriate for the beginning of Chaucer's text. Springtime also evokes erotic love, as evidenced by the moment when Palamon first sees Emelye gathering fresh flowers to make garlands in honor of May. The Squire, too, participates in this symbolism. He is compared to the freshness of the month of May, in his devotion to courtly love.
Clothing - In the General Prologue, the garments each character wears are a second way that character is established, in addition to the narrator's own shaky recollections. In a sense, the clothes symbolize what lies beneath the surface of each personality. The Physician's love of wealth reveals itself most clearly to us in the rich silk and fur of his gown. The Squire's youthful vanity is symbolized by the excessive floral brocade on his tunic. The Merchant's forked beard could symbolize his duplicity, at which Chaucer only hints.
Physiognomy - Physiognomy was a science that judged a person's temperament and character based on his or her anatomy. For this reason, facial characteristics contained their own symbolic meaning in Chaucer's society, which meant that certain facial features were associated with particular behavioral propensities. Often people linked these characteristics to animal features. So, if someone had a long nose like a donkey, it was widely thought that he might behave stupidly, like a donkey. Physiognomy plays a large role in Chaucer's descriptions of the pilgrims in the General Prologue. The most exaggerated facial features are those of the peasants. The Miller represents the stereotypical peasant physiognomy most clearly: round and ruddy, with a wart on his nose, the Miller appears rough and therefore suited to rough, simple work. The Pardoner's glaring eyes and limp hair illustrate his fraudulence.
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