AD's English Literature : The Prologue To Canterbury Tales: A Picture Gallery of 14th Century

The Prologue To Canterbury Tales: A Picture Gallery of 14th Century



14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales" (probably written after 1387), the crowning achievement of Chaucer's life, is of perennial importance, invaluable alike to the student of poetry, to the historian who aspires to delineate the social life of the period, and to the philosopher. The Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury. The Host of the inn proposes a storytelling contest to pass the time; each of the 30 or so pilgrims (the exact number is unclear) is to tell four tales on the round trip. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a microcosm of 14th-century English society.  Chaucer completed less than a quarter of this plan. The work contains 22 verse tales (two unfinished) and two long prose tales; a few are thought to be pieces written earlier by Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, composed of more than 18,000 lines of poetry, is made up of separate blocks of one or more tales with links introducing and joining stories within a block.


In the "Prologue" he has hit off the points of the several characters with unrivaled grace and dexterity. By the degree physiognomy, dress, eccentricity they are the moving picture gallery of 14th century English Society virtually covering every contemporary English class except the very lowest.

 We see before us these major characters:





*    The Narrator is in the personae of Chaucer. A somewhat detached, ironic, self-deprecating bourgeois figure can be seen in him.


*    The chivalrous Knight; genteel man who loved truth, freedom, chivalry and honor, a truly distinguished idealized man. He battled Christians and non-Christians, (Crusades), his fighting spanned 40 years over three groups of people, over 15 battles covering the hundred years war, war in Prussia, Lithuania, and even Russia. He remained always victorious, plain and honest. He was going to Canterbury to thank the saints for preserving his life through his battles. He is the most prominent and respected character of the tales.


*      The young Squire," embroidered as a mead," and “as fresh as is the month of May;" the knight’s son, about 20 years old is ladies’ man, handsome (curly hair, strong and agile), singing, playing the flute; light-hearted, pleasant, talented, a fine horseman, knows how to joust, dance, write and draw. His character anticipates the type of the renaissance courtier. He is in the Canterbury party out of pleasure.


*    The Knight’s Yeoman, ranked in service just above the groom, is so careful of his accouterments; he is servant to the knight and squire. A game-keeper by profession he looks to be outdoorsman, talented wood carver like the image of St. Christopher. He always carried a bow, a shield, arm guard of archery, a sword and a dragger.

*    A Nun (Madam Eglantyne) or tenderhearted Prioress, spoke French (but very poorly) "after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;" bears an upper class social stand, eats in a refined manner. Physically – big forehead, sign of intelligence in her character, we find certain nobility but underscore there is vanities and foibles.


*    The Monk, Daun Piers, dressed in fine clothes, some even trimmed in fur, loved hunting, fine foods and had several good hunting dogs that he was very proud of. He was rather fat, very jolly, and bald, and was tended to ignore the rules of the monastery; everything he does is a violation of his monastic vows. Instead, he is wealthy, luxurious and pleasure-hunt.


*    The Friar, Hubert, is an example of absolute corruption who thought that instead of weeping and of prayers “men ought to give silver to the poor friars”. The white necked he was jolly, merry, very festive in dress with expensive fabrics but notoriously evil and cunning. He charged people to hear their confessions; the more you paid the more “repentant you were”. As he is licensed to beg, He even begged off of poor widows who had next to nothing.


*      The Merchant, who sedulously attended to his business, and “spoke his reasons full pompously;" He convinces everyone that he was an expert in finance (his secret – he was horribly indebt). Solemn, serious, intelligent and cunning, he sets up a safety patrol at the English Channel, safety for tradesmen. However, notably he commits two economic crimes—usury and illegal foreign exchange deal.


*      The Clerk of Oxford, a university student, who preferred books to any other earthly pleasure, and who would gladly learn and gladly teach; is very thin (almost under fed), threadbare clothing, but has 20 hand written books with him. He hasn’t sought secular employment yet, still studying logic. He did not talk often, but when he did it was with great dignity and moral virtue.


*      The Sergeant of Law, one of the king’s legal servants, “ever seemed busier than he was;" was dressed in “parti-colored coat, expensive silk.” “Sergeant” means that he had to practice law with distinction for at least 16 years. Widely experienced, he knew every law that ever existed, very judgment, every case, and every crime since the conquest.


*      The Franklin, or a free man, at whose house it "snowed of meat and drink;" is a wealthy landowner, but not of noble birth. His social position is a matter of disputes but as it is told he acted as Sheriff, checking and auditing each person’s property.


*    The Shipman, who is a master of his job, has all the ills of his times. Freely roving form south to north, from Spain to Sweden, he sometimes acts like cunning pirates.


*    The Doctor of Physic, whose" study was but little in the Bible;" used astronomy and astrology, used his patient’s horoscope for information on how to treat them. He is considered a perfectly practicing physician. In league with the druggist – worked with the pharmacist to make more money off of people. He is familiar with medical authorities and their works. He is not excessive in his own life, very healthy; not religious, materialistic; made a lot of money working during the Plague. The character is itself a vivid study of the then time medical profession.


*    The gaily attired buxom Wife of Bath; somewhat deaf, gap-teeth, large hips hidden by her clothing is an abiding interest among the pilgrims. She always wanted front row in church and to be first at any offering. She wore a heavy (10 lbs) head dress, red stockings, and new shoes. Being a impassioned traveler she went on other famous pilgrimages – Jerusalem, Rome, Boulogne, Compo Stella, and Cologne. Most interestingly she is a new kind of feminine identity where she is independent minded, opposed to patriarchal control. Her episode of pilgrimage also can be termed as husband hunting campaign.


*    The poor Parson, the ideal Christian parish priest, is very poor but rich in holy thoughts. Benign, patient, diligent, moral and humble was principle to live the perfect life first and then teach by example he cared for his parishioners; nothing could keep him from going to check on them.


*    The Parson’s brother, the ploughman, another ideal Christian man who, if it lay in his power, was always ready to work for the poor without hire; ideal Christian man. He followed the two greatest commandments unruffled by pleasure and pain, “love god and love your neighbour as yourself.”


*    The stout Miller, big and brawny man who could wrestle anyone, was not over honest, and carried with him a bagpipe which he could “blow and sound." Red beards, hairy wart on his nose, hair in his ears, black nostrils make this muscle man fiercer.

*    The Reeve," a slender, choleric man;" short haired, thin, lean legged, bad tempered manager of a large estate, was able and efficient. Outwitting auditors and even lords, he has accumulated huge fortune for himself.

*    The Summoner, a man paid to summon sinners to come to trial, with his "fire-red cherubim's face;’ red complexion, boils and lesions all over his face (nothing could cure them) speaks Latin. He is corrupt, easily bribed ecclesiastical post.


*    The Pardoner, with his wallet full “of pardons come from Rome all hot; "sold pardons and indulgences to those charged with sins. With Loud high-pitched voice, long flaxen hair, effeminate characteristics, he knew how to sing and preach to people to frighten them to buy the relics. He has made a lot of money selling his fake relics and obviously a corrupt ecclesiastical post.


*    The jovial Host of the Tabard, a fit predecessor to "mine host of the Garter" and to Boniface,” Harry Bailly is a jolly character who offers a feast to the best story teller as he is the judge of the stories. Again he is the coordinator of the heterogeneous company.



*    The Manciple a steward for a dormitory of law students, who are in charge of buying food for the lawyers, very frugal and shrewd, most times outwitted the lawyers and ended up with money in his own pocket. His cunningness is ironically described as wisdom of his. 



*    The five Guildsmen {a Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Carpet-Maker} belonged to a guild (associations of tradesmen, somewhat powerful in his time period).they are luxuriously dressed. Their wives are demanding and controlling, they want servants to carry their mantles and trains like a queen. They are the emerging social merchant group.



*    The Cook, Roger of Ware, servant to the Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet-maker is satirically drawn. He has an open sore on knee and is accused of selling stale, unhygienic and contaminated food.

Reference:  1.Canterbury Tales: A Selection of Critical Essays-- J.J.Anderson 
                 2. Chaucer The Maker---John Speirs.

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