Chaucer The Canterbury Tales Notes for this section are synthesized primarily from David M. Zesmer’s Guide to English Literature (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961.) The Prologue to this wonderful piece of literature opens with what has come to be a somewhat conventional observation about the pleasures of spring, but as some critics have observed, Geoffrey Chaucer was the very first to make the observations about spring and its joys, at least in the English language, so somehow the idea seems fresh and new, as indeed it was in his day.  Spring was a popular season for pilgrimages, which in Chaucer’s day were the equivalent of “guided tours,” and what could be more high-minded than a journey to the shrine of a Christian martyr like St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury?  Some of you by this time may have watched the classic film “Becket,” so you know that he became a saint and martyr through his conflict with Henry II (father of Richard the Lion-hearted and of King John of Magna Carta fame, and husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine).  Chaucer’s pilgrimage is some 300 years later, to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in southeastern England.  Chaucer would surely have been aware of the popularity of collections of tales in other languages, most notably of the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which uses a frame tale of people escaping the city because of an onset of the plague, and going to the country for two weeks where they pass the time telling tales to each other, a hundred in all.  Nevertheless, Chaucer’s framing device surpasses Boccaccio’s, if only because of his delineation of personality and the broad range of 14th century English society he manages to cover in his characterizations.  In all, he seems to have planned to provide 120 tales. The plan of the tale-telling on the pilgrimage, as proposed by Harry Bailey, the host of the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims meet, is that each pilgrim is supposed to tell two tales each, both on the way to Canterbury and on the way back.  The winner of the tale-telling competition is to be rewarded at the end of the pilgrimage with a dinner at the Tabard provided by his fellow pilgrims.  If one counts the three priests that accompany the Prioress, there are 30 pilgrims; if one also counts Chaucer the pilgrim and Harry Bailey, there are 32 pilgrims.  The Canterbury Tales is unfinished, with only 24 tales having come down to us, but what exists is really the first great English masterpiece. And the personalities of the characters are so diversified, and so realistic, that it is clear Chaucer was a great student of humanity.  The General Prologue sets the scene and introduces the characters, but between many of the tales Chaucer provides links that enlarge on the previously defined personalities of the pilgrims and heighten the dramatic interest.  There is a difference between Chaucer the pilgrim, and Chaucer the poet.  By making himself an innocent observer as a character in the poem, Chaucer the poet is able to make ironic observations without having to be overt in his judgments of the characters on the journey.  It is also worth noting that Chaucer’s greatest theme is love, in all its many forms: love between men and women, love between friends, love of mothers for their children, love of country, love of God.  Of all the nouns he uses, the word “love” appears more often than any other, in both secular and spiritual contexts.  The first character to receive attention is the Knight, an idealized hero who has fought for Christianity in many major battles, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Yet he is “modest as a maid.”  He has never said a boorish thing to anyone, no matter what their social standing.  He is a “perfect gentle knight.”  His handsome son, the Squire, is an ardent young man, full of romantic excesses, i.e., “full of fire”;  he is a typical courtly lover, performing his knightly service in order “to win his lady’s grace.”  He wears an elaborately embroidered costume, plays the flute, and “slept as little as a nightingale.” Nevertheless, he is a dutiful son, and “carved to serve his father at the table”.  Besides his son, the Knight’s retinue consists of a single servant, the Yeoman, who wears the conventional green of his class.  As for the ecclesiastics in the crowd, they are all ironic masterpieces, for Chaucer the poet knows they distort the ideals they are supposed to uphold.  Nevertheless, the innocent Chaucer the pilgrim can admire them while pointing out their spiritual weaknesses.  The Prioress, Madame Eglentyne, whose very name suggests romance writing, is a feminine ideal.  Her smile is “very simple and coy,” her eyes are “greye as glas,” (i.e., blue), and her mouth is small, soft, and red.  This description was common to the heroines of medieval romances, but not appropriate to find in a nun.  She affects high manners, intoning the service through her nose, daintily speaking French, and boasting excellent table manners; with respect to the last, Chaucer has deliberately selected details of etiquette from a passage in Le Roman de la Rose in which an old woman instructs a young girl in romantic enticements.  The Prioress also keeps little dogs as pets, feeding them roast meat and bread of high quality, but nuns were expressly forbidden in that day to keep pets.  In fact, all the things the Prioress does so gracefully, and that Chaucer the pilgrim describes so admiringly, are things a woman in her position ought not to do.  Hence, the motto on her brooch, “Amor vincit omnia” or “Love conquers all,” may be taken ambiguously—does it refer to secular or spiritual love?  The Prioress boasts quite a retinue, being accompanied by a Nun and three Priests, who themselves are not described but who make up four more pilgrims on the journey.  Like the Prioress, the Monk, who comes from a monastery, violates the restrictions of the monastic order by owning horses, by hunting, and by dressing and eating richly and excessively. Chaucer’s question, “Was he to leave the world upon the shelf?” was in the original: “How shall the world be served?” This is itself tongue in cheek—for a monk should not be serving the world at all, but should be toiling for God and the church.  Far from retiring from the world, as would have been required by the orders of St. Benedict or St. Augustine, he is a worldly fashion plate, with costly fur trim and a gold pin on his clothing.  The Friar deliberately overturns the moral standards of his profession, particularly with respect to women. The order of St. Francis was established to serve the poor and the sick, but the friar avoids the sick and the poor and instead makes friends with franklins, tavern-owners, fair wives, and young women.  He is a “charming” confessor because he does not require contrition or prayer, being more interested in a fat fee for himself than in true penitance. Yet Chaucer the pilgrim is full of admiration for this “worthy limiter” (a phrase which means one who is licensed to beg within a certain limit, or district), as being the “finest beggar of his batch.”    The Merchant is involved in practices that apply to borrowing and moneylending, and also that imply usury.  He operates in illegal foreign exchange and speaks solemnly on increasing his “capital,” i.e., his profits, but has nothing to say about his debts.  Chaucer’s laughter at the Clerk (or Cleric) of Oxford, an unworldly scholar, is gentle.  Poor and underfed like his horse, the Clerk is unworldly, preferring books to rich clothing.  He is a philosopher, though Chaucer observes that the philosopher’s stone, an allusion to alchemy, seems not to have brought him much gold.  But the Clerk wins the poet’s respect because of his career as a student and teacher: “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”  The Sergeant of Law, though busy, “was less busy than he seemed to be.”  He has been schooled in the legal precedents from the time of King William I (i.e., the Conqueror), and directs his knowledge to successful real estate speculation.  An indictment of the legal profession, this portrait indicates that even when his title to a piece of land may be questionable, no one can find any loopholes in his claim.  The Franklin is the epitome of the good host and middle-class largesse; his delight is measured by the culinary goodies he is able to serve at his table. He is referred to as “sanguine,” a reference to his being ruled by the “humor” of blood (the other three humors being choler, black bile, and yellow bile). He also presides over the sessions of justices of the peace and frequently represents his county in Parliament as a knight of the shire, which was an office held by upper middle-class citizens.  The five guildsmen on the journey—a Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Weaver, and a Carpet-maker—all seem “trim and fresh” enough to be aldermen and to sit on a dais in the guildhall.  Chaucer notes that their wives, who are not with them on the pilgrimage, would certainly not object to attaining this prestige, nor to the other benefits of wives of such worthy men, such as being called “Madam,” or having their mantles carried “like a queen”.  They have brought with them a Cook, who has a distressing running sore or “ulcer” on his shin.  Still, he is a master in the kitchen, making a wonderful “blancmange” or creamed stew.  Chaucer notes he is also an expert on London ale, ambiguously suggesting either that he has good taste in ale or may simply be a drunkard.  The Shipman (or Skipper) rides a horse as well as he can for a sailor.  This good fellow, a term that implied rascality then as it sometimes does now (see, for example, the film Goodfellas), steals “many a draft of vintage” from aboard the ship from Bordeaux when the owner is asleep.  He is brave, but not very nice.  When he fights and wins, he sends his foes home by making them walk the plank, i.e., he drowns them.  The Doctor, like most medieval physicians, is “grounded in astronomy,” meaning astrology.  Again Chaucer refers to the disposition of the humors, i.e., whether dry, cold, moist, or hot. He has read all the medical authorities but has studied the Bible only a little, which may have been a complaint about doctors in the Middle Ages.  The plagues have made him rich, and he maintains a profitable friendship with apothecaries.  If gold is good medicine for the heart, the Doctor seems to have much of it, for he wears fine clothes lined with taffeta and silk.  But Chaucer notes he is slow to spend money: “Yet he was rather close as to expenses/ And kept the gold he won in pestilences.”  The Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s most original and complex personality on the journey.  She is both humorous and pathetic, for she combines intense sexuality with the desire for security and  the need for power. She has taken five husbands in her time, not to mention other company in her youth, but she is actively seeking husband number six.  She is somewhat deaf as a result of a domestic quarrel with husband number five, her favorite.  She loves going on pilgrimages, for social as well as religious reasons.  Though her religious sentiment is genuine, her egotism makes her want to be first to the altar at church.  We laugh at her as an object of comedy, but there are elements of tragedy in her story, which is revealed in her prologue to her own tale (unfortunately not in your text).  By contrast with many of the other ironic personalities on the journey, the Parson and the Plowman are both truly saintly.  The Parson may be poor in material goods, but he is “rich in holy thought and work.”  Unlike the other ecclesiastics, he takes his ministry seriously, for he feels that a good parson must teach by good example: “Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their lore/He taught, but followed it himself before.” The Plowman, “Living in peace and perfect charity,” is an honest worker in the image of Piers Plowman; he is willing to serve the poor with his activities: “and he would help the poor/ For love of Christ and never take a penny/ If he could help it . . . .”  In contrast to these two are a group of low-lifes, the Miller, the Manciple, the Reeve, the Summoner, and the Pardoner.  Through some of these characters we learn about the medieval science of physiognomy, or personality as determined by facial shape and expression.  The Miller is a “stout fellow big in brawn and bone” who can break a door with he head.  He has a wart on his nose capped by a tuft of hairs, “Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ear.”  With his red beard, he would have suggested to a medieval audience a man full of violence, lust, and dishonesty, and he knows all about sins and harlotries and is proud of his repertoire of filthy stories. (His is the naughtiest story of all those Chaucer tells.)  He has a “golden” thumb, and he manages to collect his fee three times over from those who come to grind their grain.  The Manciple was a caterer for a school of law, buying their supplies and apparently watching the sales closely so that he makes a good living in skimming the extra money.  Chaucer the pilgrim asks, is it not a marvel that God should grace so illiterate a fellow with the ability to cheat the learned men?  The Reeve, who is a manager for an absentee landlord, is so clever in his financial manipulations that “No auditor could gain a point on him,” i.e., catch him doing anything illegal.  The Summoner, a repulsive and lecherous servant of the ecclesiastical courts, has a countenance destroyed by carbuncles, whelks of knobby white, and pimples, probably the ravages of leprosy and venereal disease.  He is a kind of undersheriff empowered by the church to arrest those who are scheduled to be tried by the ecclesiastical courts. But he takes bribes, sometimes in the form of sexual favors, and is perfectly willing to engage in blackmail: “He knew their secrets, they did what he said.”  There is no need, he says, for a Christian to fear the archdeacon’s curse, for the soul of a man really resides in the purse.  At this cynical remark even Chaucer the pilgrim recoils in righteous indignation and lapses into a moral judgment: “A curse should put a guilty man in dread.” But then he quickly returns to his usual innocent self: “For curses kill, as shriving brings, salvation. We should beware of excommunication,” that is, being turned over to the courts.  The Pardoner is most disgusting of the pilgrims; he makes the most of his occupation as an agent empowered by the Church to grant temporal indulgences in exchange for donations to charity. There is a hint that he and the Summoner may have a homosexual relationship, singing, “Come hither, love, to me,” as they ride along. Chaucer’s Pardoner’s wallet is filled with pardons which he claims “come from Rome, all hot.”  Part of his income derives from a profitable business in “relics,” and he offers for sale a pillowcase as the veil of Our Lady, a fragment of cloth as a piece of St. Peter’s sail, and an assortment of rocks and pigs’ bones as the relics of saints.  (Martin Luther is quoted as having said of this business of trafficking in relics, “Jesus had 12 apostles, and 18 of them are buried in Germany!”  The selling relics was one of the many practices within the church that created the call for the Protestant Reformation.) The Pardoner’s outward disease may be the sign of inner spiritual decay.  But Chaucer gives him his due, for he says he can preach so movingly in church that the crowd would empty its pockets into the offertory plate, and indeed when it comes time for him to tell his tale, he does so first by admitting his own wickedness, then countering his confession with a most powerful sermon and a masterful moral tale against the sin of avarice. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily