The Canterbury Tales
By Geoffrey ChaucerAP English III/Edwards
The Prologue lines 1-18
The first 18 lines are some of the most famous in all literature. Why?This passage is in thereverdietradition; literally “re-greening,” which is a mode in medieval lyric poetry celebrating the revival of spring and all that that entails.Thisreverdiepassage presents a unified and ideal organichierarchy: agreat chainofawakeningsfrom the rain, to the roots of the plants, to the flowers, the sun to the fields, and the birds growing musical and waking the day, to humans who maybe sublimate the same impulses into pilgrimages to holy shrines of martyrs. In other words, the humans are channeling these stirrings of spring into the urge to go on pilgrimage.So we progress from the natural to the divine, or from the natural/divine to the anthropomorphic/sacred.Note the assonance associated with the “western wind” which brings soft rains in England “Western wind when wilt thou blow?”
The Prologue lines 19-42
Suddenly, after the unified structure of the first 18 lines, we find ourselves in the realm of chance, offhandedness, subjectivity, (“I” ; “so it seemed to me”) randomness, the casual.It seems a bit arbitrary that we get 29 in the company of pilgrims; there seems to be no special significance to the numberWe need to distinguish here between Chaucer-poet and Chaucer-pilgrim. It’s the pilgrim giving us the Prologue.The point of view is through this persona’s eyes. So the often ironic poet is using a narrator, a persona, through which to speak.
The knight is traditionally seen as one of the few idealized characters among the pilgrims, representing the chivalric ideal and seeming to be a peacemaker when he can.He hasn’t changed gear from battle, indicating that he has immediately committed himself to the pilgrimage.The knight’s duties are to serve his lord and God
The young son of the knight, he is the other component of the chivalric ideal: the young, courtly gentleman who serves his lady (and his lady is not Mary) and is educated in the manners of the aristocracy and the courtHe has fought in battle and “has wonderful agility and strength” but he fights “in hopes to win his lady’s grace.”He can also sing, dance, read, write, play the flute, joust, draw, and he’s a really snappy dresser.He is also in love: “he loved so hotly that till dawn grew pale /he slept as little as a nightingale.”
He completes the first three secular pilgrimsThe first three pilgrims show 3 ranks in the secular classes; a yeoman serves the knightly class as a kind of forest policeman.He is not really mentioned much other than to say that he is good at his job, and that he is wearing a St. Christopher medalSt. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, so it makes sense that the Yeoman would try to protect himself this way on his pilgrimage
The Nun (Prioress)
This is “MadameEglentyne” or Sweetbriar, a peculiar name for someone in a nunneryAre her airs and graces for real, because she is high born, or is she just acting the way she does because she wants everyone to think she is high born?Chaucer seems to be implying that she is not of the rank she wants people to think she is.Obviously, she is being satirized as someone who is not acting as a nun should. Even if she were from the nobility, once she entered the convent she was supposed to act like a nun, which meant no rich foods, little dogs for pets, and jewelry. She is living a completely secular life, but she is taking advantage of the protection of the Church to let her get away with a lifestyle to which she probably does not belong.
He is a “man’s man” and his favorite sport is hunting. Since only the nobility hunted for sport, we again have someone from the Church who is not living the kind of life he should be.Monks and nuns were cloistered orders supposed to be dedicated to the contemplative life. That is why many of the monasteries were located in the countryside.This monk is living the life of the landed gentry; he lives like a lord. He has all kinds of luxuries, he is fat, he has a fine stable of horses, he eats roasted meat, and is altogether a perfect example of the corruption that had seeped into the Church by the 14thcentury.
The nun and monk might be affected, spoiled, and worldly people, but the friar is a sleazebag.The mendicant (begging) orders of Friars were created to combat the corruption that had already seeped into the monastic system by the 13thcentury;Dominicans(theBlack Friars-a preaching order) started in 1221;Franciscans(theGrey Friars—a begging order) started in 1224;Carmelites(theWhite Friars—a penitential order) in 1240, and theAugustinianFriars in 1248.
The Friar (continued)
The friar is “so glib with gallant phrase and well-turned speech; he’d fixed up many a marriage, giving each of his young women what he could afford her.” The implication is obvious; he has a group of “young women” that are either his personally or work for him (or both) who, when they get pregnant or otherwise are of no more use to him are found a husband and married off.The line “He was a noble pillar to his Order” is an example of sarcasm through understatement.He charges people to hear their confessions, he will give absolution for anything without any contrition on the part of the sinner, he hangs around rich people so he can get money from them, he charges money for every service he can think ofHe refuses to help the poor or the sick because they cannot offer him anythingHe knows all the bars and the barmaids, and keeps presents on hand at all times: “he kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls, and pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls.”He is well-dressed, well-fed, and a complete scoundrel.He is the last of the first group of church folk, who all get progressively worse as we read along.
The merchant is the first representative of the townspeople.In the late Middle Ages, the rise of this new class, which they called “merchant class” and we would call “middle class” threw society into a very panicked and confused state.What standards apply to these new people? It’s obvious what makes a good knight or a good monk, but what makes a good merchant? Is it only money?That is why Chaucer is so vague about exactly who this man is; he could be any wealthy “new money” merchant who is trying to climb the social ladder; that is probably the point of the last line: “To tell the truth I do not know his name.”His clothes are obviously new and expensive; everything about this man says “look at me!” He wants to be given the same respect as the higher orders, but he doesn’t know how to command it.We also find out that he has been speculating a bit and is in debt, but it is not generally known: “This estimable Merchant so had set his wits to work, none knew he was in debt, he was so stately in administration, in loans and bargains and negotiation.”
The Oxford Cleric
As an Oxford scholar of the 14thcentury, this man would have studied theMedievalTrivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; theQuadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)He is a graduate student, but as a clerk he has taken holy orders. He has not been given a parish, though.Like every other student he is poor, skinny, and drives a crappy car (skinny horse)He is an admirable character; he would rather study and teach than spend money on any other thing; he often has to borrow money but always offers to pray for the people who lend money to him.The last line sums him up: “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”
TheSerjeantat the Law
He is one of about 20 sergeants of this time period who were roughly equivalent to Supreme Court Justices.He is mildly satirized; “discreet he was, a man to reverence, or so he seemed”He is well educated and well respected, much more so than the doctor
Afranklinis a landowner of free but not noble birthHe is very successful and wants everyone to know it; he is the example of the climbing middle classEverything he has he displays very ostentatiously; he wants everyone to see that he’s richHe has branched out into local politics; he has been a “Justice at the Sessions, none stood higher; he often had been Member for the Shire.”He has also been the sheriff, and is called “a model among landed gentry.”“It positively snowed with meat and drink and all the dainties that a man could think” shows the middle class extravagance
The Guild Members
The Haberdasher, the Dyer, the Carpenter, the Weaver, and the Carpet-Maker are all craftsmen and businessmenThey are all members of one guild-fraternity and are wearing the livery of their guildTheir knives are “wrought with purest silver”; they are “worthy burgesses”They are each smart enough to be an Alderman; they also have the money to be one, and their wives really want them to be even more important so they can lord it over their friends: “to be called “Madam” is a glorious thought, and so is going to church and being seen having your mantle carried like a queen”
This is very short, and mostly there’s not much information.However, after Chaucer lists all of the things the cook could make, he writes, “but what a pity—so it seemed to me, that he should have an ulcer on his knee.” The implication is that this ulcer seeps into the food.“As for blancmange, he made it with the best:” Blancmange was a sweet, creamy dish made with chicken. It has a gummy sort of sauce. The implication is plain, if disgusting.
He comes from DartmouthHe smuggles wine into England that he steals from the wine merchants in Bordeaux when he sails to FranceWhen he fights with his ship he makes the prisoners walk the plankHe is an excellent sailor and pilot, though
Much more heavily satirized than the lawyerHis medicine is based on astrology and the elements: dry, cold, moist, and hotHe is a charlatan; however, he is financially very successfulHe has a deal with the apothecaries and gets a kick back from them for sending his patients to themChaucer also mentions that he’s cheap
The Wife of Bath
She is a successful cloth merchant in her own right, and a widowShe has been married 5 times as well as “other company in her youth; no need just now to speak of that, forsooth.”She is very conscious of her own importance in the community and insists that she be the first of the ladies of the town to enter churchShe has been on many pilgrimages, including Jerusalem three timesShe is a very modern woman and one that we don’t see for many centuries
This is an excellent manHe is the model of what a parish priest should be; he “truly knew Christ’s gospel and would preach devoutly to parishioners, and teach it.”But Chaucer makes the point: “if gold rust, what then will iron do?” If the parish priest is corrupt and “rusts;” then how can anyone expect that the parishioners wouldn’t?Chaucer also gets a dig in at the absent priests, the ones who live off their parishes and don’t do any work, and the ones who take money for masses for the dead, etc.
The plowman, to emphasize brotherhood with the Parson, is also an ideal like the ParsonBecause of the labor shortage after the Black Plague, workers like the plowman could have left the manors they worked on and accept better offers, but that signaled more chaos to the medieval mind.After this pilgrim they quickly degenerate into totally scummy pilgrims.
What is there to say about this guy? He’s a big, loud-mouthed, profane, working man who is oftendrunk, and he tells the dirtiest story of all the pilgrimsHis ability to cheat customers is his defining characteristicHis fame rests in his ability to knock doors off their hinges with his headHe has red hair and plays the bagpipes; suggests Scottish ancestry
He comes from the “Inner Temple” which were and are the law courts and residences for lawyers in LondonHe is the caterer, the person in charge of food and purchasing for the more than 30 lawyers who live thereHe is intelligent—not educated—and unscrupulous. He cheats the lawyers there because they fail to notice anyone “beneath” them.
A reeve is a steward of an estate.This guy is very sharp; “no auditor could gain a point on him.”He is also excellent at his job, but he is feared by the rest of the people on the estate: “No bailiff, serf, or herdsman dared to kick/feared like the plague he was, by those beneath.”He has a beautiful house on the estate, and has grown rich because “a better hand at bargains than his lord/he had grown rich and had a store of treasure/well tucked away, yet out it came to pleasure/his lord with subtle loans or gifts of goods, to earn his thanks and even coats and hoods.” He has managed to put money aside, and lends it to his lord, who rewards the Reeve with gifts and eventually the money.He rides last on the pilgrimage, away from his enemy the Miller. It also allows him to watch the other pilgrims.
Wow. This is just an absolutely horrible person. A realsummonerdelivers citations for individuals to appear in the ecclesiastical court. This guy says he is the real thing, but the evidence does not support this.He has a horrible appearance, so much so that he frightens children.His outward appearance obviously matches the horrible person inside; he drinks too much, and when drunk shouts the same Latin phrase over and over again (it is the only Latin he knows) “Questioquidjuris” which means, “The question is, what is the law?” It’s a good question, since it’s a safe bet he doesn’t know it.He allowed himself to ignore prostitution when he saw it if the man bribed him with “a quart of wine,” especially since “he had finches of his own to feather,” meaning he was guilty of the same sins.He also told sinners not to be afraid of hell or excommunication, since they could buy their way out of both.He also, since he knew the secrets of the young fellows in the diocese, blackmailed them: “Thus as he pleased the man could bring duress/on any young fellow in the diocese. He knew their secrets, they did what he said.”He and the Pardoner are “birds of a feather.”
At last we come to the worst of the bunch.He and theSummonerare singing a song: “Come hither, love, come home!” TheSummoneris essentially his partner in crime, and possibly more; Chaucer isn’t really clearHe is described as having hair “as yellow as wax/hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax.”He is wearing a “holy relic” in his cap to advertise his “trade” in a way, because he has a business in fake relics. He makes the objects himself, then passes them off as real relics to gullible people and pockets their money.Chaucer suggests that he is less than masculine; in fact, he goes so far as to suggest that he is a eunuch: “I judge he was a gelding, or a mare.” This of course is also a metaphor for his barren spiritual state.He sells indulgences; he offers people pardon for their sins for a fee.He also preaches very well, and uses his real rhetorical gifts to “stir the people to devotion,” so that they will give their pennies “namely unto me.”He is just an absolutely horrible human being; totally corrupt and evil; a classic villain.Ironically, the greediest of all the pilgrims tells a story whose moral is “avarice is the root of all evil,” and he is the worst of the lot.It is really blasphemous that a person like this is on a pilgrimage at all.
HarryBaillyand The Tabard
The prologue opens in the Tabard Inn inSouthwarkChaucer the narrator tells us that he is going to report everything to us faithfully: “Then I’ll report our journey, stage by stage, all the remainder of our pilgrimage.”He says that this will mean he will sometimes have to speak in a very earthy, coarse wayThe host is the one who proposes the story-telling contest. They will each tell two stories on the way out, and two stories on the way back. The winner gets a dinner, paid by all the rest of the pilgrims, when they return to the Tabard Inn.He volunteers to go along himself at his own expense to be their guide and keep them “merry.” He also says he will be the judge of the best story.All the pilgrims agree, and the next morning they set off.It is April 11, 1387