Last Updated on January 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2124
Chaucer begins the Prologue with a beautiful announcement of spring. This introduction is the voice of the Poet, polished, elegant, and finished. He tells us that just as Nature has a predictable course through the seasons, so does human nature follow a seasonal pattern which causes people to want to...
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Chaucer begins the Prologue with a beautiful announcement of spring. This introduction is the voice of the Poet, polished, elegant, and finished. He tells us that just as Nature has a predictable course through the seasons, so does human nature follow a seasonal pattern which causes people to want to break out of winter’s confinement and go traveling in the spring.
Thus the stage is set for Chaucer, who is the Narrator of this poem. Twenty-nine travelers meet at the Tabard Inn in London before undertaking a journey to the Shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. The group is assembling as Chaucer arrives, and as he observes the group and interacts with some of them, he decides that he will join their party. From his vantage point as anonymous Narrator, Chaucer describes the scene and the pilgrims as they arrive.
The Knight is introduced first, which is appropriate, as he is the highest ranking character socially. This old soldier has spent a lifetime fighting battles for Christianity all over the world and has consistently distinguished himself. He is dedicated to the knightly ideal of chivalry, courtesy, truth, honor, and generosity.
Accompanying the Knight is his twenty-year-old son, the Squire, who is very much in contrast to his father. While he has been in a few skirmishes, “to impress his lady,” the Squire is obviously still young and inexperienced. He is dressed in the height of fashion with carefully arranged curls. Devoted to the rituals of courting, the Squire appears to be in love with love.
The Yeoman is a servant to the Knight. He is a forester, in charge of the Knight’s woodlands and appears to be the ideal simple, loyal peasant; yet he is so well-equipped with elaborate weapons and perfect arrows that his simplicity is suspect. When the Narrator adds that the forester understood all the tricks of woodcraft, he seems to be suggesting that the Yeoman is profiting in some way, as he manages forests which are not his.
The next group of pilgrims arrives with the Prioress, Madame Eglantine. While obviously intelligent and able, the Prioress is described as being very concerned that others view her as ladylike and refined. She is apparently tenderhearted to the point of sentimentality.
The Prioress is accompanied by the Nun, who is her chaplain. The reader is told nothing about the Nun or about the Priest who is also with the Prioress. Her estate manager, the Monk, however, is vividly described. He is very careless of his religious vows, devoting all of his time and energy to the management of the Prioress’s estates. He manages them to prosper, though, so that he himself may be denied none of the pleasures and luxuries of the hunt.
The third priest in company with the Prioress is the Friar: wanton, merry, and quite irreligious. Supposedly sworn to helping the poor, Hubert grants absolution to anyone who gives him money, much of which he pockets rather than distributing it to the poor.
Socially, the middle class ranked third behind the nobility and the clergy; thus, the third type of character Chaucer presents is a successful and very busy Merchant who is representative of the rather recent prosperity and importance of his class. The Merchant talks of nothing but business and thinks himself an expert on all matters related to trade.
Following the Merchant, the Cleric arrives. He is very, very poorly dressed and mounted in stark contrast to other members of the clergy previously introduced. Unlike them, he is completely devoted to scholarship and oblivious to material wealth. He speaks primarily on moral themes.
The Man of Law is another sterling representative of the middle class who comes next under the Narrator’s scrutiny. All of the Man of Law’s great skill in legal matters is detailed; his wealth is reported; yet the Narrator confides that although the man brags constantly about how busy he is with his cases, his “busy-ness” may be more imagined than real.
With the Man of Law is the Franklin, who is a wealthy landowner who lives for his own sensual pleasure. The delights of the table obsess this gentleman. As an aside, the reader is told that he has served as a justice of the peace and a member of Parliament, but these are only incidental as far as he is concerned.
Grouped together next are five wealthy and important craftsmen, all officials in their guilds. These include the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Tapestry-Maker. It is implied that all of these men curry favor with their wives, who would have been highly unpleasant had not their husbands prospered.
The guildsmen have brought their own Cook. Apparently, he is quite able and experienced, but repugnant to the Narrator because he has a large sore on his leg. To medieval observers, such an affliction rendered a person unclean and to be avoided.
The Sailor, or Shipman, is described next. He rides his horse so poorly that it is obvious the man is much more comfortable on the sea than on the land. On board ship, however, the Shipman is expert, knowledgeable, and successful. He has surmounted many storms on the sea, but at the same time he has taken advantage of the merchants who use his vessel to ship their goods. In fact, he is reported to have no scruples at all.
There is a Physician among the pilgrims. Chaucer tells the reader of his great learning yet holds him in contempt because this doctor loves gold so much and overcharges his patients for remedies that do them no good. For all his great learning, this Physician has not studied the Bible, the implication being that he lacks the concern and mercy of the true healer.
The Wife of Bath, the third of the female pilgrims, is introduced next. She is quite outrageous and is one of the most famous characters in all of literature. Slightly deaf and with gaps between her teeth, the Wife wears an incredible and ostentatious outfit. The Wife is skilled at weaving and is extremely prosperous. She has survived five husbands and is said to have great knowledge about love. Reportedly good-humored and full of life, the Wife of Bath is going to Canterbury to find her sixth husband.
Behind the raucous Wife of Bath comes the Parson, a poor and humble priest who is devoted to his parishioners and serves them faithfully and well. He teaches the Gospel by his example and is never severe with sinners. With the Parson is his brother, the Plowman, a decent and hardworking peasant, similar in nature and goodness to the Parson.
The burly, red-haired Miller is juxtaposed beside the two preceding, mild-mannered travelers. He is large and exceptionally strong with a bulbous nose and a generally ugly appearance. His manners and conversation are as coarse as his appearance; in addition, the Miller is none too honest with his customers.
The Manciple (Maunciple) is a friendly fellow whose job it is to do the purchasing and keep the accounts for a group of thirty lawyers. This friendly fellow has tricked his employers by embezzling profits in his shady deals for them, leaving them to live frugally as he spends the money he stole from them.
Next comes the Reeve, a comical-looking man who is very skinny with legs like long sticks. Like the Manciple, the Reeve manages the affairs of another man, a wealthy landowner in this case. The Reeve has grown so rich in this post that the owner of the estate has to come to his employee to borrow money.
The Summoner is another corrupt member of the clergy who is presented after the Reeve. He is an official of the Church courts who calls sinners to answer charges before it. For enough money, he will see that sins are not reported. The Summoner has an ugly, pimply face and is a drunk and a lecher.
The Pardoner is as unscrupulous as the Summoner. He is fresh from Rome with a bagful of indulgences (which are pardons from the punishment due to sin) which he will sell rather than grant to those who have done penance. He also has many outrageous fake relics which he will gladly sell. The Pardoner even sings loudly and well in church to get people to put more money in the offering, most of which he will retain.
After all these travelers have been described, the Narrator apologizes if any of his descriptions are so crude that they offend the reader but excuses himself by commenting that Christ himself was very plainspoken. Although the Narrator has joined the group, he tells us nothing of himself.
The final description in the Prologue is of Harry Bailley, the Host (innkeeper) who is very genial and sociable, fond of telling jokes. In the course of describing Bailley, the Narrator reports that the Host has offered to come along to Canterbury and to act as guide and leader of the party if they will all agree to be bound by his decisions. The pilgrims all agree and further assent to his idea that each of them tell four stories along the way, two on the road to Canterbury and two on the return trip. Thus organized, the group retires for the night.
The pilgrims assembling for Canterbury may be seen as a cross-section of medieval society, with all its richness and variety. Every strata of society is represented. The Knight and his son are members of the nobility, while the Plowman and the Yeoman are drawn from the peasant class. The majority of the travelers, however, represent the vigorous new middle class of England. Such characters as the Man of Law, the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, and the Shipman personify this group: energetic and prosperous, materialistic, and somewhat self-conscious as they display the trappings of their newly acquired wealth and status.
The clergy is also very much in evidence with the enormous wealth and power of the Catholic Church reflected in their holdings and their extensive authority. The Prioress, for example, is mistress of so large and rich an estate that she is able to travel with four retainers. The Pardoner and the Summoner have the authority to forgive sin and remit punishment, but at the same time, as they sell what they are supposed to give, both of these clergymen symbolize the widespread corruption rampant in the medieval Church.
The characters are far more than mere representative types, however. Chaucer describes each of them so graphically that each traveler becomes not only a stereotype, but also an individual. The Merchant, for example, has acquired wealth and prestige and pride typical of the successful middle-class businessman, but he is also described as a risk-taker. He plays the market, so to speak; and he never talks about his financial affairs. This small bit of extra information—the telling comment—supplied by Chaucer for nearly every character—adds the extra dimension to the character which individualizes them.
With the Cleric, is is the knowledge that “gladly would he learn and gladly teach”; with the Wife of Bath it is the information that she is gap-toothed and that she will allow no other woman to go ahead of her at the offeratory, which is most revealing. Setting each character apart in this manner is universally considered one of the most brilliant of Chaucer’s devices.
Later, the reader will observe that Chaucer amplifies each character further through the story that the character tells. The overly sensitive Prioress, for instance, will tell a highly sentimental miracle story, while the crude, dishonest Miller will tell a dirty tale involving trickery. In other words, Chaucer uses the story the character selects as a further means of describing and individualizing each pilgrim. The reader should be alert to this device, as it is one of The Canterbury Tales' most outstanding features.
In addressing characterization, it should further be noted that Chaucer creates no character who is either totally good or completely evil. While good or evil may dominate, each pilgrim is also given some redeeming qualities. This duplicity certainly parallels real-life people and accounts to a large degree for the continued popularity of the work.
Chaucer, in the person of the Narrator, appears to want to assume an almost journalistic stance, merely reporting what he observes and seeming to refrain from judgment, leaving that function to the reader. While he appears unable to keep from poking fun at his characters, he also refrains from meanness and bitterness in describing them. The overall effect of this deliberate detachment creates the jolly, playful mood appropriate as a group of Canterbury pilgrims sets off on their adventure.