What is the rank of each of the characters in "The Canterbury Tales"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffery Chaucer presents a social commentary of society through his characters. Each character comes from a different part of England and travels to Canterbury to visit the site of Thomas Beckett's (the Archbishop of Canterbury) death. Throughout their trip, each pilgrim tells a tale. This allows the reader to learn more about who they are as a person. The Canterbury Tales takes place during the Middle Ages, so his characters embody the time and changes occurring during this time. His pilgrims represent the feudal system as well as the new merchant class, the lower and upper classes, and the church.

The Knight is in a high class. He is chivalrous and the image of what a true knight should be. While some of the other pilgrims may have less honorable reasons for traveling to Canterbury, he is going "to do his pilgrimage and render thanks” for all his victories in battle. He travels with his son, the Squire. The Squire is in training to be a knight, and he is well-dressed and talented in the arts. He survived the battles he fought in, but you should notice that all the battles he participated in were failures for the English during the Crusades.

Many of Chaucer's pilgrims are members of the church. The nun (some versions will call her the Prioress), monk, friar, cleric, parson, summoner, and pardoner are all involved with the church. Except for the cleric and parson, all of these pilgrims represent issues that Chaucer has with the church. They are not the typical religious characters you expect in a book; they all find ways to cheat their parishioners or abuse their power. The cleric is a poor student who spends all of his money on books instead of on food for himself (or even his horse). The parson is the most religious of the group. He is described as holy, virtuous, and hardworking. Unlike the others, he lives by example and is compared to a shepherd for his flock.

Chaucer has several working-class and wealthy pilgrims. The plowman (who just happens to be the parson's brother) and the Yeoman are both hardworking peasants. The merchant, skipper, and Miller are all workers; the cook, aside from a nasty ulcer, is quite talented; the merchant is in debt, but no one knows the amount of the debt; the Miller is talented at scamming extra grain from his customers. The Wife of Bath is a seamstress from the town of Bath who has made several pilgrimages and has been married several times. The lawyer, doctor, Franklin, Manciple, and Reeve are all wealthy because of their talents at cheating their employers or because they are good at pretending to do their job. You might not want the lawyer on your case; he pretends to be busier than he really is. The doctor is not much better; he is better equipped to read the stars than to address what ails you, and his love for gold outweighs his love for helping the sick. The guildsmen are five tradesmen who have climbed the ladder of their craft, and their wives expect to be treated well as a result.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

All of the characters are feudal because they live in a feudal society. However, each character represents a distinct social group within that society. You can read about the characters in the eNotes study. Briefly, the characters fall into four categories:

Ecclesiastical or church: Priests, Friar, Prioress, Pardoner, Summoner, Monk, Cleric, Canon's Yeoman, Nun, Parson

Government/military: Reeve, Knight, Manciple, Man of Law, Chaucer

Merchant: Miller, Franklin, Wife of Bath, Shipman, Merchant, Physician

Servant/Commoner: Cook, Squire

I hope this helps!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial