General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does Chaucer use imagery of food, eating, and physical size in the "General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales"?

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Many of Chaucer's character sketches in the Prologue to Canterbury Tales use the diet and eating habits of the characters as symbols of their personalities.

The Prioress, for example, is depicted as a very dainty diner:

At table she had been well taught withal,
And never from her lips let morsels fall,
Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate(10)
With so much care the food upon her plate
That never driblet fell upon her breast.

This is part of her image as a person who "went to many pains to put on cheer / Of court, and very dignified appear."

Regarding the Monk, Chaucer writes: "A fat swan loved he best of any roast."  This is emblematic of this monk who "loved his venery" (hunting)  more than "the rule of Maurice or Saint Benedict," two of the fathers of European Christian monastacism.

The Clerk is described as being not "too fat," but rather "hollow."  His emaciated appearance is clearly a result of his poverty, which is a result of his dedication to "getting knowledge," rather than to acquiring "rich robes" and other material goods.  He is the epitome of the starving scholar.

The Reeve (a caretaker of an estate) is "a slender, choleric [irritable] man / Who shaved his beard as close as razor can"; "long were his legs, and they were very lean."  He is a slim, cunning man who was "was right rich...in his own private right," thanks to his shrewd business practices.  One imagines the Reeve skipping many a meal in order to have time to drive hard bargains.

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