illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

Start Free Trial

Which pilgrims are idealized in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer?

Expert Answers

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

Chaucer is critical of most of the pilgrims introduced in "The General Prologue" to his Canterbury Tales. "Idealized" is a strong word, implying that Chaucer sees the character as the perfect embodiment of his or her role in society and maybe even exaggerates the goodness of the character. That said, only the Knight and the Parson are really "idealized" in the Prologue.

The Knight is the first character introduced and highest on the social ladder. He is described in exceedingly positive terms. Chaucer says the Knight is "a most distinguished man" who "followed chivalry / Truth, honor, generousness, and courtesy." The Knight "had done nobly" in battle and had even "jousted for our faith." The Knight "was a true, a perfect, gentle-knight." All of these phrases are complimentary and express Chaucer's belief that the Knight is basically a perfect specimen. He behaves according to chivalry, the code that knights are meant to follow, and embodies all of the characteristics that chivalry upholds.

He is also a skilled and experienced fighter, as knights should be, and he fought in the Crusades to defend Christianity. He is also described as humble in appearance, wearing "a fustian" and "not gaily dressed." Chaucer has nothing negative to say about the Knight and does not slyly criticize him at all, as he does with most other pilgrims. He even calls the Knight "perfect," so he is clearly idealizing this character.

The only other character so excessively praised is the Parson. He is described as "A holy-minded man of good renown...Who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it / Devoutly to parishioners, and teach it." The Parson is a poor country priest who is completely devoted to his congregation. He sees himself as their leader and as such must set a good example. He is reluctant to leave them and refuses offers to earn money to speak at rich men's funerals in favor of staying to guide his "flock." The Parson believes that "The true example that a priest should give / Is one of cleanness, how the sheep should live." He is the one religious figure on the pilgrimage who does his job as he should and is not corrupt. He actually practices what he preaches.

For that, Chaucer praises him and says he doesn't know of "a better priest." The Parson is even described as not "contemptuous of sinful men," so he is compassionate and understanding even to sinners. He models himself after Jesus, and Chaucer basically describes him as a saint.

There are other characters who are described positively—like the Plowman, who is the Parson's brother. However, the level of praise is not as extensive as that of the Knight or Parson, so those are the only characters I see Chaucer "idealizing."

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

The Knight, the Sergeant at the Law, the Parson, the Plowman, and the Manciple are idealized by the narrator in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

The Knight is described as the ideal of the medieval Christian man-at-arms. He is characterized as being a distinguished man who exhibits the virtues of "Truth, honor, generousness, and courtesy" (46). Honored for these noble "graces," the Knight has ridden in the Crusades and fought in many battles against the "heathens." Not only is he distinguished in his military and religious endeavors, but the Knight also adheres to the Chivalric code, as he is modest in his behavior and "a true, a perfect gentle-knight" (70).

The Sergeant at the Law is described in glowing terms. He is "wary and wise," "of noted excellence, discreet," and a "man of reverence" (320–321). He has a wide knowledge of the law, and the documents that he draws up for transferring ownership of property are precise because he is an expert in his field: "No one could pinch a comma from his screeds" (336). That is, no one could find even a comma misplaced in his documents.

The Parson is lauded because he is truly a holy man of the cloth. Described as a "holy-minded man of good renown" (488), the Parson is "rich" in both holy thoughts and learning. Unlike many of the clergy who collect tithes and sell indulgences, the Parson dislikes collecting fees. Instead, he prefers performing works of charity and

[G]iving to poor parishioners round about
From his own goods and Easter offerings. (499–500)

He always visits his parishioners, no matter how inclement the weather is or how far from him they live. "He was a shepherd and no mercenary" (524). He teaches the words of Christ and his Apostles, but not before he practices them himself.

The Plowman is a humble man and "an honest worker" who lives in "peace and perfect charity" (543). He follows the command to love God and his fellow man; he helps the poor "for love of Christ" and never takes any payment if he is not in need. "He paid his tithes in full when they were due" (553) on whatever he owned.

The Manciple is a medieval purchasing agent who is very frugal. Although he is an "illiterate fellow," he can "outpace the wisdom of a heap of learned men" (593-594). For no matter how clever or knowledgeable of laws or how frugal others of greater learning are, "this Manciple could wipe their eye" (604). In other words, he excels all in his abilities.

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

Chaucer idealizes the following pilgrims: the knight, the parson, and the plowman. The knight is idealized as a “true, a perfect gentle knight.” Chaucer lists his accomplishments for us, including a long list of all the military campaigns in which he has participated. He goes on to say, ”loved chivalry, truth and honor, liberality and courtesy.” The knight is an important man, but it would be hard to tell that from his clothing, which consists of a stained tunic he wears under his armor.

The parson is the ideal example of the religious class. In contrast to the friar, whom we meet earlier in the Prologue, he is a good shepherd to his flock. Chaucer says: “He was benign and wonderfully diligent, and most patient in adversity.” The parson is poor, but he refuses to go to London to earn money in the way the Friar does, or to beg from people. Instead, he stays at home “tending his flock.” Chaucer wants us to know he is the perfect example, and he says, “he was not scornful to sinful men,” and goes on to describe how the friar led his parishioners through “good example.”

The plowman is also an idealized pilgrim, a member of the peasant class. Chaucer tells us: “he was a good and faithful laborer.” The reader is meant to remember the miller, who is in the tavern having a good time. The plowman labors for others with no expectation of reward. “He would thresh….for every poor man without pay.” The plowman is also religious, faithful, and pays his tithes to the church on time.

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
Approved by eNotes Editorial