illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

Start Free Trial

The Canterbury Tales Characters

The main characters in The Canterbury Tales include the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, and the Monk.

  • The Wife of Bath is a colorful, opinionated woman who has outlived five husbands. She tells a tale of a knight who must discover what women truly desire.
  • The Pardoner is a greedy, hypocritical clergyman who profits by taking donations for his spiritual services and fake holy relics.
  • The Monk is a supposedly religious man who prefers a life of luxury to one of poverty and prayer.

The Canterbury Tales Study Tools

Take a quiz Ask a question Start an essay


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath is arguably the most colorful, well-known character in The Canterbury Tales. She is almost larger than life with her bright red clothing and bright red face. This opinionated woman never hesitates to say exactly what she thinks. After all, she has manipulated five husbands (and outlived them) to become a successful, independent businesswoman. Yet the Wife asserts that she prefers to be married. In fact, she is ready to defend marriage if anyone contradicts her, and she has the proof for her position, too. She will have no virginity. Rather, she has made her husbands work long and hard to keep her satisfied. She would, however, agree with the conclusion of her story that what a woman wants most is to make her own choices in life.

The Pardoner

The Pardoner is a shyster extraordinaire, and he is proud of it. A pardoner is specially designated to offer the sacrament of confession to people in many locations, and this Pardoner does that, but for a price. He hypocritically preaches against greed while his whole focus is on obtaining donations through his fake relics and spiritual services that are meant to be freely given. The relics are nothing more than animal bones and random pieces of cloth. They have no legitimacy at all, and neither does the Pardoner. He does not care, however. He is living life on his own terms no matter what anyone thinks.

The Monk

Monks are supposed to be men of prayer who choose lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to save their souls and help save the souls of others. Chaucer’s Monk, however, is exactly the opposite of this ideal. He prefers hunting to prayer, fine clothing and horses to poverty, good food to self-denial, and entertainment to study. The Monk lives the life of a noble layman rather than a devout religious. Perhaps he should find a warning in his own tale of how those in high positions can easily fall far and lose everything.

The Friar

The Friar likes money and ladies. He enjoys singing in taverns and wearing nice clothing. These are not characteristics of a devout friar who, in imitation of founders like Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, seeks and even loves poverty. The Friar is also a man quick to fall into a rivalry with the Summoner, telling his tale out of spite and contention to deliberately insult his fellow pilgrim.

The Summoner

The Summoner is a lusty rascal who quickly enters into rivalry with the Friar and tells his tale specifically as an insult. He is a profane man in spite of his high position as court official for the church. A summoner is designated to call people to court to answer for their crimes, but this particular Summoner is more interested in earning a bribe. He puts on a show of knowing Latin and the law, but he is far more concerned with food and drink. His corrupt appearance with his blotchy face mirrors his corrupt nature.

The Knight

The Knight is a noble man and an example of chivalry and courage. He has fought victoriously in many wars, yet he shows no haughty pride. In fact, his clothing and armor are rather ragged. He is not the bright, polished knight in shining armor, for he has just come from the field, and he is more interested in making his pilgrimage than in presenting a fine form. His shabbiness may even be a type of penance. The Knight’s story is stately and chivalrous, matching his character and conduct with its high moral tone and reflective nature.

The Prioress

The Prioress is a dainty person, and she seems devout with her story of the young martyr and his song to the Virgin Mary. Yet the narrator suggests that the Prioress is often distracted from her religious life. She loves the courtly life and seeks to imitate its manners, conscientiously eating and drinking as a proper lady and putting on airs about her little dogs. Her sensitivity is somewhat overdone, for she cries even at seeing a mouse caught in a trap, and the state of her clothing and rosary beads hints at pretension to courtliness.

The Parson

Of all the pilgrims, the Parson may be the most truly devout. He is a simple priest determined to care for his flock to the best of his ability. He sacrifices himself to teach and care for the people, and he chooses mercy over harsh judgment. While he sometimes speaks many words, as his “tale” (or treatise) on penitence shows, he also teaches by his example. He is, the narrator asserts, someone who practices what he preaches.

The Clerk

The Clerk has the air of an absentminded scholar who focuses on his studies to the exclusion of just about everything else. He will not get a secular job, the narrator says, so he relies on his friends for his living. He does not, however, behave in any ostentatious manner. In fact, he is rather shabby and quiet, perhaps with his mind more on Aristotle than on the stories told.

The Franklin

The Franklin enjoys setting a good table and living life to the fullest. The narrator calls him an Epicurean, meaning that he puts sensory pleasure above all else. It is perhaps a good thing, then, that he is a fairly wealthy man. He also seems to appreciate the recognition that comes from holding various offices, and this could mean that part of the Franklin’s addiction to pleasure involves a thirst for honor.

The Miller

The Miller is a crude man with a rather bad temper. He has a passion for drink and a rivalry with the Reeve. The Miller is a rude fellow who cuts in front of the Monk to tell his story, arrogantly thinking that he can match the Knight’s noble tale. What he relates, however, is anything but noble, and it reveals his low, rough character.

The Reeve

The Reeve is a dishonest fellow who seems to delight in cheating his young lord and in provoking the Miller. His tale is geared specifically toward taunting his rival as he tries to get even for the Miller’s tale about the carpenter, who shares the Reeve’s profession. Interestingly, the Reeve wears a rusty sword, perhaps suggesting that his character is more than a little “rusty” (i.e., morally disfigured) as well.

The Host

The Host, Harry Bailey, is an innkeeper and the one who suggests the story contest. He is also the self-proclaimed judge of tales and mediator of disputes. The Host never hesitates to express his opinion, even stopping Chaucer himself in the midst of his story to complain about his horrible rhymes and telling the Monk that he is so bored by his tale that he might just fall off his horse. The Host is also quick to express approval and emotion, and he declares that he needs a stiff drink after the sadness of the girl’s fate in the Physician’s story.

Chaucer the Narrator

Chaucer himself appears as a character in The Canterbury Tales. He narrates the collection and even pokes some fun at himself with his failed rhyme of Sir Thopas, which is really quite bad. Chaucer the narrator is an observant fellow, who is quick to capture the characters of his fellow pilgrims.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access