Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
European Humanities
Fall 2018

Chaucer’s Pilgrims and The Late Medieval World (c. 1397)

Here is the essay question:

How does Chaucer’s portrait of English society at the end of the 14th century reveal changes for good and evil overtaking Medieval Europe as it enters the Renaissance?

Group One:

The Knight, The Squier, and The Yeoman

Group Two:

The Prioresse, The Monk, and The Friar

Group Three:

The Merchant, The Clerk, The Sergeant at Law, The Franklin, The Shipman, The Doctor of Physik, The Wife of Bath,

Group Four:

The Parson and The Ploughman

Group Five:

The Miller, The Maunciple, The Reeve, The Summoner, The Pardoner

The Proem

                      Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

                      The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

                      And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

                      Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

5                    Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

                      Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

                      The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

                      Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

                      And smale foweles maken melodye,

10                  That slepen al the nyght with open eye-

                      (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);

                      Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

                      And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

                      To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

15                  And specially from every shires ende

                      Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

                      The hooly blisful martir for the seke

                      That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.


Amor v. Amor Dei

Chaucer describes the impregnation of March by April’s sweet showers and the subsequent birth of virtue.

He inverts traditional Church teaching about the nature of Earthly Love and Divine Love. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin had deemed the earthly realm to be corrupt and utterly separate from the transcendent City of God.

Chaucer suggests that God’s heaven can be found on Earth: in Love. The most perfect expression of God’s love may be in earthly happiness, particularly the passionate love between man and woman best expressed in Holy Matrimony. Chaucer’s God is immanent. Chaucer’s God gives us permission to enjoy life and to revel in our humanity.

 However, Chaucer is not suggesting that all human behavior inspired by Spring is Holy. Rather, the impulse itself is holy- although it can be perverted by man.

 So our task in reading The Canterbury Tales is to use our own critical imagination to play God: we must determine which of the pilgrims will make it into heaven and which will not. And our job is not made easy by Chaucer: he has upset the dogmatic judgments of the Church; instead, we must use our own imagination and determine if the pilgrim is misusing the gifts God has given them or is he or she being true to oneself and thus natural and holy.


Group One: The Nobility

The Knight 

                      A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,

                      That fro the tyme that he first bigan

45                  To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

                      Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

                      Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,

                      And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,

                      As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,

50                  And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

                      At Alisaundre he was, whan it was wonne.

                      Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne

                      Aboven alle nacions in Pruce;

                      In Lettow hadde he reysed, and in Ruce,

55                  No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.

                      In Gernade at the seege eek hadde he be

                      Of Algezir, and riden in Belmarye.

                      At Lyeys was he and at Satalye,

                      Whan they were wonne; and in the Grete See

60                  At many a noble armee hadde he be.

                      At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,

                      And foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene

                      In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.

                      This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also

65                  Somtyme with the lord of Palatye

                      Agayn another hethen in Turkye.

                      And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys;

                      And though that he were worthy, he was wys,

                      And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.

70                  He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

                      In al his lyf unto no maner wight.

                      He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.

                      But, for to tellen yow of his array,

                      His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

75                  Of fustian he wered a gypon

                      Al bismotered with his habergeoun,

                      For he was late ycome from his viage,

                      And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.

The Knight

How has Chaucer brought this idealized portrait of a type to full life?

Is Chaucer sad that the Knight's days are drawing to a close, or might he be secretly happy?

‘he loved chivalrie, trouthe, honour, fredom and courtesie’ (l.45)

"He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght." (l.72)

A Crusader:

The Knight is an exceptional warrior: a killer who has trained in fighting in armor, with horses, lances, swords and shields. He has fought in fifteen ‘mortal battailles’, an extraordinary number, against infidels (ie Islam) on the Northern, Southern and Eastern borders of Christendom. He has been at Alexandria, Prussia, Lithuania and in Russia, in Grenada at the siege of Algeciras, in Morocco at Ayash and at Atalia, and in the Grete Sea, and at Tlemcen against the heathen in Turkey.

The Crusades: Wars to hold back the Islamic hordes, and hopefully, to spread Christianity… but also to maintain peace at home by sending armed threats overseas.

The Knight has been in ‘lystes thries’: formal duels in which champions of opposing armies fight to the death in lieu of a full scale battle.

This Knight is a superman!


no vileynye ne sayde/ in al his lyf unto no maner wight.’(70)

He treats all members of society with respect, even those from classes beneath his own. “Villain”: fighting words during the Renaissance.

Chaucer's special touch: The Knight's Costume: his horses are of high quality, but he wears a ‘bismotered habergeoun’: a spotted, grimy, possibly even bloody coat of mail- indicating that he has only lately returned from his most recent battles. He has gone immediately on pilgrimage after battle to give thanks for the preservation of his life and to purge his sins. He cares more for his horses than he does for his appearance.

Code of Chivalry:

The Church needed a defender of the Faith. They wanted to justify the war so they created a chivalric code: an ideal that justifies violence against the infidel: prowess at arms, courage, honesty. loyalty, generosity, faith, courtesy.

The Knight subscribes to a moral, religious and social code of conduct which emphasized duty to country, to God, and to the service of a lady. The story he tells his fellow pilgrims is about two best friends who both fall in love with the same lady (who is married).

Courtly Love: 

Unrequited Love Sublimated into Violence. In feudal society, wealth was based on land, and land was primarily transferred through marriage. Therefore, most upper class marriages were arranged. They were not based on love. The Cult of Courtly Love glorified love OUTSIDE of marriage as more virtuous than a married relationship without love. Is Chaucer really celebrating Courtly Love?

Ironically, the code of chivalry developed from Arab origins!  Medieval Spain was the "cradle of chivalry", for the European fostering of chivalric tradition began in al-Andalus. (Wikipedia)

Chaucer’s Knight exemplifies the ideals of chivalry, but he does so in a realistic way. He is no knight in shining armor but a real, living breathing person with the qualities of humility, faith, and courage that make him fit to be a king, the leader of Medieval society.

vs. Sir Galahad's Grail Quest, Sir Lancelot's love for Queen Guinevere , or Sir Tristan's love for Iseult


To what degree does the Knight help hold in place a social system which is fundamentally unjust? The idealization of his character may not conform to the real social practice which held 97% of the population in serfdom, condemned to short, impoverished existences.

The Squier

                      With hym ther was his sone, a yong SQUIER,

80                  A lovyere and a lusty bacheler;

                      With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in presse.

                      Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.

                      Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,

                      And wonderly delyvere, and of greet strengthe.

85                  And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie

                      In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,

                      And born hym weel, as of so litel space,

                      In hope to stonden in his lady grace.

                      Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,

90                  Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;

                      Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,

                      He was as fressh as is the monthe of May.

                      Short was his gowne, with sleves longe and wyde.

                      Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde.

95                  He koude songes make, and wel endite,

                      Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write.

                      So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale

                      He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale.

                      Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,

100                And carf biforn his fader at the table.


The Squier:

How did the chivalric tradition transform the conception of Romantic Love? How has Chaucer taken the stereotype of the medieval troubadour and brought him to full life?

‘a lovyere and lusty bacheler’ (80)

A Troubadour Bachelor:


One of a class of lyric poets, wandering minstrels and jongleurs, who lived from the 11th to the 13th centuries and helped invent the notion of romantic love.


A bachelor in Chaucer’s time referred to not only an unmarried man, but a young man who has worked his way up to the first degree of knighthood… To move up this ladder, he must do grace to a lady faire by distinguishing himself in battle. He has ‘born hym weel’ in a calvalry expedition against the French in Flanders (100 Years War) ‘in hope to stonden in his lady grace’

The Squier's Costume:

an expensive embroidered tunic; his hair is worn in ‘lokkes crulle’. He is the height of fashion, youth and gaiety. He is a singer, a poet, a dancer and a troubadour. He loves to play the flute, and he is irresistable to the ladies! 

So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale
He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale.
Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,
And carf biforn his fader at the table. (l. 97-100)

The most perfect expression of God’s Love is the love between a man and a woman in marriage. This Squire goes off at night to sing for his girl. He loves her passionately. He hopes that his songs, his poetry, his looks, his dress and his tales of valor in France will win her to be his wife.

Marriage for LOVE, not MONEY or LAND

His desire for love could easily be corrupted into an appetite for sensual gratification. Chaucer's Special Touch is that the Squier honors his father by carving before him at the table. Does this detail indicate to you that the Squier has enough respect for doing the right thing that he will fulfill Chaucer's model of the lover in a healthy way?

The Trouvères and the Troubadours

Popular music, usually in the form of secular songs, existed during the Middle Ages. This music was not bound by the traditions of the Church, nor was it even written down for the first time until sometime after the tenth century.  The subject of the overwhelming majority of these songs is love, in all its permutations of joy and pain. One of the most famous of these trouvères known to us (the great bulk of these melodies are by the ubiquitous "Anonymous") is Adam de la Halle (ca. 1237-ca. 1286). Adam is the composer of one of the oldest secular music theater pieces known in the West, Jeu de Robin et de Marion (1284)

The Yeoman

                      A YEMAN hadde he and servantz namo

                      At that tyme, for hym liste ride soo;

                      And he was clad in cote and hood of grene.

                      A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene

105                Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,

                      (Wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:

                      Hise arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)

                      And in his hand he baar a myghty bowe.

                      A not heed hadde he, with a broun visage,

110                Of woodecraft wel koude he al the usage.

                      Upon his arm he baar a gay bracer,

                      And by his syde a swerd and a bokeler,

                      And on that oother syde a gay daggere

                      Harneised wel and sharpe as point of spere.

115                A Cristopher on his brest of silver sheene.

                      An horn he bar, the bawdryk was of grene;

                      A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.


The Yeoman

'A Cristopher on his brest of silver sheene.’ (115)

Traveling by road during the Middle Ages was dangerous. Highwaymen and thieves waylaid unprotected travelers, so a party of armed men accompanied most nobles. The Knight travels with only one servant: no ostentatious show, just what is necessary. And he has no reason to fear: he has a killing machine at his side.

The knight's sidekick is a yeoman, a free born servant, not a serf tied to the land. The yeoman is armed to the teeth: he carries a longbow, a sheaf of arrows, a sword and buckler, and a dagger and horn.

The 100 Years War

This yeoman has fought beside the Knight in all his battles, and he shares in the Knight's glory. He carries the English longbow, a weapon which changed the strategy of warfare during the 100 Year War. (A series of wars between England and France fought over claims to French territory by the descendants of William the Conqueror. 

The famous Battle of Crécy was a complete disaster for the French, largely due to English longbowmen. A vastly superior French force had trapped the English army against the sea, but the strategy they used to attack was outmoded. In medieval wars, the knights in armor would fight each other with lances on horseback and then hand to hand.with swords. The French nobles leading the charge at Crecy were repelled by English longbowmen firing arrows over long distances with bows like the one the Yeoman carries. These arrows were capapble of penetrating the knight's armor and killing their horses. The French forces were decimated by this new weapon, and after the battle of Crecy, the warfare at which Chaucer's Knight excelled ended forever, replaced by contending armies of commoners armed with the Yeoman's longbow and supported by cavalry charges.

Stories told about the great heroes of the fighting in the 100 Year War became legend for both the English and the French. The exploits of the Black Prince and later of Henry V served later leaders who used their popularity as a foundation for English nationalism. The French as well turned the story of Joan of Arc into a founding myth of their own nation state.

This yeoman, though, may be weary of battle, yearning to return to his life as a forester and hunter: he wears a St. Christopher medal, which protects travelers from sudden death. The detail humanizes Chaucer's portrait of this killing machine. Here is a soldier who longs for home, the woods, where his talents can be put to their best use, as a hunter and craftsman.


Group Two: The Clergy

The Prioresse

                     Ther was also a Nonne, a PRIORESSE,                

                     That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;

120                Hir gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy;

                      And she was cleped Madame Eglentyne.

                      Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,

                      Entuned in hir nose ful semely,

                      And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,

125                After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,

                      For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.

                      At mete wel ytaught was she with alle:

                      She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

                      Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;

130                Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe

                      That no drope ne fille upon hir brist.

                      In curteisie was set ful muche hir list.

                      Hire over-lippe wyped she so clene

                      That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene

135                Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.

                      Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.

                      And sikerly, she was of greet desport,

                      And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,

                      And peyned hir to countrefete cheere

140                Of court, and been estatlich of manere,

                      And to ben holden digne of reverence.

                      But, for to speken of hir conscience,

                      She was so charitable and so pitous

                      She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous

145                Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

                      Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde

                      With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.

                      But soore weep she if oon of hem were deed,

                      Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;

150                And al was conscience, and tendre herte.

                      Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was,

                      Hire nose tretys, hir eyen greye as glas,

                      Hir mouth ful smal, and therto softe and reed;

                      But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;

155                It was almoost a spanne brood, I trowe;

                      For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.

                      Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war;

                      Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar

                      A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,

160                An theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,

                      On which ther was first write a crowned A,

                      And after Amor vincit omnia.


The Prioresse:

‘a prioresse/that of her smylyng was ful symple and coy’ (l.118-19)

‘[M]adam Eglentye’ is the head of a priory, a nunnery attached to an abbey of the Benedictine order. Her responsibility is to help arrange the choral music for the nunnery’s divine services (which she does so ‘entuned in her nose ful semely’). These services punctuate the day from early morning until nightfall. She must also preside at the priory’s meals, maintaining order and the priory’s sacred decorum.

Yet Chaucer focuses upon the Prioresse's physical beauty, her refined manners and sophisticated sensibility: characteristics of of her upper class status. Her name, Eglentyne, is borrowed from the realm of romance stories popular at the time. Chaucer's narrator describes her a face with ‘nose tretys. Her 'eyen greye as glas,/ her mouth ful smal, and thereto soft and redde/ But sikerly she hadde a fair foreheed' (152-54) This face was the model of beauty in Chaucer’s society (and a nun’s forehead was never supposed to be visible beneath her habit!)

She travels with her pets: a brood of ‘smale houndes’ that ‘she fedde/ With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.’ (Her dogs are better fed than most peasants would have been!) Eglentyne is fluent in the French learned in Stratford, England (which is very classy but her French would have been incomprehensible in Paris!) She is very aristocratic and sophisticated. This style probably would have grated against the English commoner, and Chaucer is writing a poem celebrating a patriotic national identity!

Her table manners are impeccable! Chaucer's Narrator spends ten lines describing the way she eats! (He is clearly smitten! Not a crumb falls from her lip, she doesn’t wet her fingers in gravy, doesn’t slobber, or reach across the table-- she makes every effort to use good ‘curtesie’. Compared with the typical table manners of a medieval man, her style is remarkable! (Remember that this was a time before the fork had become a standard utensil. People ate with their hands.)

Eglentyne possesses a delicately refined conscience: ‘she wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe’ (144-45) What form of conscience should we expect from a nun who has devoted her life to a sacred purpose?

Her Costume: her nun’s habit is ‘ful fetys’, very elegant; The perfect touch: she wears a bejewelled, coral string of rosary beads from which hangs a gold brooch engraved with the letter ‘A’ and the maxim, “Love conquers all.” Who gave that to her? Such jewelry is hardly appropriate to a nun and is certainly a decoration that would have been out of dress code! As a matter of fact, what is she doing on this trip!

Yet the narrator is obviously charmed by Eglentyne's whole manner. She is indeed made for love. What has Chaucer done to our stock expectations of the leader of a nunnery in the midst of a holy era? What is Eglentyne's great talent? Will she realize it in a nunnery? Can you infer the type of reforms that Chaucer would like to see in the medieval church?

The Monk

                      A MONK ther was, a fair for the maistrie,

                      An outridere, that lovede venerie,

                      A manly man, to been an abbot able.

                      Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable,

                      And whan he rood, men myghte his brydel heere

170                Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere

                      And eek as loude, as dooth the chapel belle.

                      Ther as this lord was keper of the celle,

                      The reule of Seint Maure, or of Seint Beneit,

                      By cause that it was old and somdel streit

175                This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace,

                      And heeld after the newe world the space.

                      He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,

                      That seith that hunters beth nat hooly men,

                      Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees,

180                Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees,-

                      This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre

                      But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre;

                      And I seyde his opinioun was good.

                      What sholde he studie, and make hymselven wood,

185                Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,

                      Or swynken with his handes and laboure,

                      As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?

                      Lat Austyn have his swynk to him reserved!

                      Therfore he was a prikasour aright:

190                Grehoundes he hadde, as swift as fowel in flight;

                      Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare

                      Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.

                      I seigh his sleves purfiled at the hond

                      With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;

195                And, for to festne his hood under his chyn,

                      He hadde of gold ywroght a curious pyn;

                      A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was.

                      His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas,

                      And eek his face, as it hadde been enoynt.

200                He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt,

                      Hise eyen stepe, and rollynge in his heed,

                      That stemed as a forneys of a leed;

                      His bootes souple, his hors in greet estaat.

                      Now certeinly he was a fair prelaat;

205                He was nat pale as a forpyned goost.

                      A fat swan loved he best of any roost.

                      His palfrey was as broun as is a berye,


The Monk:

  ‘a manly man… an outridere that loved venerie’ (166)

The Monk is another senior cleric with the Benedictine order, but he clearly does not follow type. Instead of withdrawing from the busy world into a monastery where he should be living a quiet life of prayer, study, and manual labor, this monk embraces the world and revels in its pleasures!

He’s a big enough man to be an abbot! He owns many horses and rides with a bridle  'Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere And eek as loude, as dooth the chapel belle.' .So you can hear him coming from a mile away! 

How religious is the Monk? He has let the old habits pass and ‘heeld after the newe world the space’ (176): a very modern monk indeed! He thinks little of the monastic rules laid out a thousand years before by St. Augustine. ‘He yaf not of that text a pulled hen.’ (177) ‘Let Austyn have his swynk to him reserved!’ (188)

The Monk and Love: He instead spends most of his time hunting the 'hare' (double entendre?) Instead this monk is a ‘prikasour aright’: a hunter of hares He spares no price to own a pack of the best greyhounds.

Primogeniture: One reason why people like this Monk wound up in the clerical estate was because of the law of primogeniture. To keep the land and property of noble families together, the oldest son would inherit everything. Younger sons were offered lucrative positions in the church to placate them. So high church positions, such as the one this rich monk possesses, frequently went to people who had little interest in the church’s religious mission.

His Costume: The Monk’s cloak is hardly the appropriate garb for a devout Benedictine monk. It is finely sewn: his sleeves are trimmed with grey squirrel fur, and his hood is fastened with a gold pin shaped like a ‘love-knotte’! Who gave him that gift? His bald head shines as if ‘enoynt’ with holy oil (it is really perspiration!) He wears supple leather boots and rides a beautiful berry colored  horse. He must have cut a dashing figure!

Chaucer’s final touch? The monk loves to eat roasted swan-- hardly the typical fare of an ascetic who should deny himself the pleasures of the flesh! What is Chaucer doing to our typical notions of this holy stereotype? What vision of the medieval world in 1380 is emerging?

What is this Monk's great talent? How can he realize it?

The Friar

                      A FRERE ther was, a wantowne and a merye,

                      A lymytour, a ful solempne man.

210                In alle the ordres foure is noon that kan

                      So muchel of daliaunce and fair langage.

                      He hadde maad ful many a mariage

                      Of yonge wommen at his owene cost.

                      Unto his ordre he was a noble post,

215                And wel biloved and famulier was he

                      With frankeleyns overal in his contree,

                      And eek with worthy wommen of the toun;

                      For he hadde power of confessioun,

                      As seyde hymself, moore than a curat,

220                For of his ordre he was licenciat.

                      Ful swetely herde he confessioun,

                      And plesaunt was his absolucioun:

                      He was an esy man to yeve penaunce,

                      Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce.

225                For unto a povre ordre for to yive

                      Is signe that a man is wel yshryve;

                      For, if he yaf, he dorste make avaunt,

                      He wiste that a man was repentaunt;

                      For many a man so harde is of his herte,

230                He may nat wepe, al thogh hym soore smerte;

                      Therfore in stede of wepynge and preyeres

                      Men moote yeve silver to the povre freres.

                      His typet was ay farsed ful of knyves

                      And pynnes, for to yeven yonge wyves.

235                And certeinly he hadde a murye note:

                      Wel koude he synge, and pleyen on a rote;

                      Of yeddynges he baar outrely the pris.

                      His nekke whit was as the flour-de-lys;

                      Therto he strong was as a champioun.

240                He knew the tavernes wel in every toun

                      And everich hostiler and tappestere

                      Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;

                      For unto swich a worthy man as he

                      Acorded nat, as by his facultee,

245                To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce.

                      It is nat honeste, it may nat avaunce,

                      For to deelen with no swich poraille,

                      But al with riche and selleres of vitaille.

                      And over al, ther as profit sholde arise,

250                Curteis he was, and lowely of servyse.

                      Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous.

                      He was the beste beggere in his hous;

                      (And yaf a certeyn ferme for the graunt

                      Noon of his brethren cam ther in his haunt;)

255                For thogh a wydwe hadde noght a sho,

                      So plesaunt was his "In principio"

                      Yet wolde he have a ferthyng, er he wente;

                      His purchas was wel bettre than his rente.

                      And rage he koude, as it were right a whelp.

260                In love-dayes ther koude he muchel help,

                      For there he was nat lyk a cloysterer

                      With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler,

                      But he was lyk a maister or a pope;

                      Of double worstede was his semycope,

265                That rounded as a belle out of the presse.

                      Somwhat he lipsed for his wantownesse

                      To make his Englissh sweete upon his tonge;

                      And in his harpyng, whan that he hadde songe,

                      Hise eyen twynkled in his heed aryght

270                As doon the sterres in the frosty nyght.

                      This worthy lymytour was cleped Huberd


The Friar:

a lymytour, a ful solempne man… So muchel of daliaunce and fair langage’ (211)

The Franciscan Order: The Friar is, supposedly, a member of the Franciscan order, missionaries who have taken a vow of poverty and chosen to live humbly, begging money in the streets to aid the poorest of the poor. Friars imitate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th century Italian nobleman who gave up all his wealth to serve lepers and ease the suffering of the homeless. He is one of the most venerated saints in Christian history. The one rule of the Order was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” St. Francis took that to mean living a life of complete humility: wearing a simple grey habit, embracing poverty, and begging for money to fund services for the poorest of the poor.

The Franciscan Order in London called themselves the Greyfriars and the church they established in the shambles of the meatpacking district eventually had become by Chaucer's time  a leading religious and philanthropic organization. raising money for hospitals and schools. Christ's Hospital was founded by the Franciscans, and eventually evolved into one of Gilman's partner schools in England!

Chaucer's Friar could hardly be more different from St. Francis. He is a South London street hustler! This guy is one sweet talker, an expert at ‘daliaunce and fair langage’. Under his expert influence, he has arranged the ‘marriages’ of many of the impoverished girls living in his begging district for his friends and aquaintances. Frequently, the Friar's customers are franklins: free born commoners who have become wealthy landowners and fequent visitors to London.

It sounds good, but the fact of the matter is that The Friar is a pimp, and he uses the power of the confessional booth to befriend homeless women in his district… and he gives each and everyone an easy absolution for the sins they commit, particularly those who are ‘penitent’. What is this rogue’s scam? ‘in stedye of wepynge and preyeres/ Men moote yeve silver to the povre freres.’ (231-32) Hard cash earns repentance as well as tears! And the girls? What must they give in return?

His cloak is stuffed with knives and pins which he peddles on the street to ‘faire wyves’. He knows the bartenders and waitresses in his district better than he knows the lepers and beggars. (According to him it would not be right to be seen with such riff-raff!)  He’d rather spend his time partying with rich merchants, victuallers, and tourists. He also loves to sing songs at the bar! Don't under estimate him though. The Friar is a good fighter who holds on to his begging territory aggressively! This is one talented beggar! He can even get a farthing out of a shoeless widow!

What does the Franciscan order think of this behavior? Chaucer's narrator emphasizes twice that they will look away as long as the Friar keeps raising so much money. ‘Unto his ordre he was a noble post.’ (214) (a bit of Chaucerian bawdry?) ‘He was the beste beggar in his hous’ (251) Don't ask; don't tell. The Franciscan elders of the late 14th c. are happy as long as they receive their cut of his profits.

'Love-Days': Chaucer's Friar is also a great expert on ‘love-days’, those special legal holidays when poor disputants without the money to afford an attorney can resolve financial suits in impromptu street courts. (ala Judge Judy) There he holds forth like the pope!

The Friar's Costume:: a double woven cloak, round as a bell from the mold of his belly; The Friar purposely lisps when he talks, to sweeten his speech, and his eyes twinkle like stars! His name is “Huberd”!

Wow! How does Chaucer portray these representatives of the organized Church? What has happened to the franciscan order? What is this guy's talent? How could it be used properly?

Group Three: The Middle Class

The Merchant

                      A MARCHANT was ther with a forked berd,

                      In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;

                      Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,

275                His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.

                      His resons he spak ful solempnely,

                      Sownynge alway th'encrees of his wynnyng.

                      He wolde the see were kept for any thyng

                      Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.

280                Wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle.

                      This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette;

                      Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette,

                      So estatly was he of his governaunce

                      With his bargaynes and with his chevyssaunce.

285                For sothe, he was a worthy man with-alle,

                      But, sooth to seyn, I noot how men hym calle.


Chaucer's Merchant Family: Feudal social theory had no room for non-military laymen who were neither manual laborers nor skilled tradesmen. However, merchants were increasingly visible, asserting a powerful influence on the London economy. Bankers alone had enough money to finance the king’s ambitious foreign wars. Chaucer’s father had been a wine merchant who made a fortune selling foreign vintages to the upper class. Chaucer himself was employed as the comptroller of customs in 1370, responsible for regulating trade and collecting excise taxes on wool, furs and hides. (A highly lucrative position!)

Usury: The merchant in Chaucer’s day was often satirized for his secrecy in business deals and for his dubious financial dealings. The Catholic Church regarded usury as blasphemous. (Usury is the lending of capital at an interest. As we discovered in the 2008 financial meltdown, without credit our whole economy came to a standstill.)

The Merchant's Costume: He wears motley (the fool's garb at court), a fashionable, very expensive beaver fur hat, and good boots. The narrator can not tell us much about this man because the merchant doesn’t have much to say. When he does speak, he only refers to matters pertaining to business: ‘th’encrees of his wynning’, the safety of the seas between England and Holland, the current value of currency, and his upstanding reputation as a businessman free from debt. 

Can you put together the various hints Chaucer gives us and explain why this merchant has gone on a pilgrimage at this particular moment?

The narrator thinks back, and come to think of it, no one remembers his name! Why not?

How does Chaucer portray the emerging merchant class in England at the end of the 14th century? Can you draw conclusions about his moral judgment of capitalism? 

The Clerk

                      A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,

                      That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.

                      As leene was his hors as is a rake,

290                And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,

                      But looked holwe and therto sobrely.

                      Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;

                      For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,

                      Ne was so worldly for to have office.

295                For hym was levere have at his beddes heed

                      Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,

                      Of Aristotle and his philosophie,

                      Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.

                      But al be that he was a philosophre,

300                Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;

                      But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,

                      On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,

                      And bisily gan for the soules preye

                      Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.

305                Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.

                      Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,

                      And that was seyd in forme and reverence,

                      And short and quyk, and ful of hy sentence;

                      Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,

310                And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.


The Clerk:

'ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy’

The Clerk is a college student at Oxford, reading for religious orders: the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.) Oxford University is now the oldest college in the English speaking world and remains one of Europe's most distinguished universities.

Humanism: In Chaucer's day Oxford had become a center of Humanism, an emerging intellectual movement which would play a huge role in re-introducing classical learning to Europe during the Renaissance. Humanism stressed the dignity of humanity and shifted intellectual emphasis from theology and logic to the study of human wisdom. 

The clerk's curricuulm included the 'studia humanitatis': educational disciplines outside of theology and natural science. Students had to master both Latin and Greek to acquire a thorough grounding in the works of Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. (Cicero was considered the model citizen: eloquent, wise and committed to the service of the state. All students carefully studied his speeches and imitated his style.)

Humanism was opposed to the particular brand of logic known as Scholasticism, whose intent was to reconcile the revealed truth of Christianity with Greek reason.

The Clerks' Dilemma: The Clerk has not yet been granted his benefice: the ecclesiastical position that will enable him to earn a living ala the Monk or the Friar. He has not yet taken his vows of chastity. However, he’d really rather study Aristotle than read the Bible. He wants to become a teacher, not a priest: his twenty books are more valuable to him than rich robes, music or a ‘psalterie’ (An ancient and medieval stringed instrument, more or less resembling the dulcimer).

The Clerk is a philosopher, but he cannot earn any money at such a profession. He only prays for the souls of those who contribute to his education. The Clerk speaks no more than necessary and when he does, his speech is ‘short and quyk and full of hy sentence’. He loves learning and wants to teach, but the teaching profession had not yet sepated itself from the church.

The Clerk's Costume: Devoted to his studies, the Clerk rides a lean horse and wears a threadbare cape. He looks ‘holwe’ to the narrator. 

What vision of the changing place of education and classical learning is suggested by Chaucer’s depiction of the Clerk? Why isn’t there a job for him in this society?  What kind of priest would he make?


The Sergeant of Law

                      A SERGEANT OF THE LAWE, war and wys,

                      That often hadde been at the Parvys,

                      Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.

                      Discreet he was, and of greet reverence-

315                He semed swich, hise wordes weren so wise.

                      Justice he was ful often in assise,

                      By patente, and by pleyn commissioun.

                      For his science, and for his heigh renoun,

                      Of fees and robes hadde he many oon.

320                So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:

                      Al was fee symple to hym in effect,

                      His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.

                      Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

                      And yet he semed bisier than he was.

325                In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle

                      That from the tyme of Kyng William were falle.

                      Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,

                      Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng;

                      And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.

330                He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote

                      Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;

                      Of his array telle I no lenger tale.


Sergeant of Law

‘Nowher so bisy a man as he there was,/ And yet he semed bisier than he was.”

The Legal System in Chaucer's Time: A lawyer for the crown, the Sergeant at Law possesses the highest legal rank in society. In this position, he serves as a circuit judge and barrister on the porches of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the location of the king’s legal court. As justice at the court of assizes, he would issue patents with the full authority of the crown. He is therefore in a position to rake in a lot of bribes on top of his percentage of the fees assessed on business dealing.

Common Law had become the highest authority in England after King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta in 1215. He acknowledged that even a King was not above the law. Feudal Law: Prior to the establishment of this legal tradition, nobles ruled arbitrarily in the criminal cases and business disputes that came before them. In those days trial by jury did not exist. Citizens could request a trial by ordeal to appeal the decision of a noble, but most people elected not to, as this sort of trial involved holding a smoking hot iron bar with your bare hands or being dunked in a pond for minutes at a time! The rise of English Common Law ranks as one of the most important social achievements in our history because judges and juries had to be bound by the legal precedents established over time. In this way a fairer legal process could be guaranteed any citizen…. As long as the system avoided corruption.

Chaucer’s Seargeant of Law exercises the full power of the crown. His word has become law. No one can say anything about his judgments…because he knows inside out all the legal precedents and statutes established since the time of William the Conqueror. He seems busier than he really is. Why?

The Seargeant at Law's Costume: This guy is rich but he is not ostentatious. He wears simple cloth of dyed wool, (but it is lined with silk!)

What point is Chaucer making about the law and the legal profession of his time?


The Franklin

                      A FRANKELEYN was in his compaignye.

                      Whit was his berd as is a dayesye;

335                Of his complexioun he was sangwyn.

                      Wel loved he by the morwe a sope in wyn,;

                      To lyven in delit was evere his wone,

                      For he was Epicurus owene sone,

                      That heeld opinioun that pleyn delit

340                Was verray felicitee parfit.

                      An housholdere, and that a greet, was he;

                      Seint Julian was he in his contree.

                      His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon,

                      A bettre envyned man was nowher noon.

345                Withoute bake mete was nevere his hous

                      Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentevous,

                      It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke,

                      Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke.

                      After the sondry sesons of the yeer,

350                So chaunged he his mete and his soper.

                      Ful many a fat partrich hadde he in muwe,

                      And many a breem and many a luce in stuwe.

                      Wo was his cook, but if his sauce were

                      Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his geere.

355                His table dormant in his halle alway

                      Stood redy covered al the longe day.

                      At sessiouns ther was he lord and sire;

                      Ful ofte tyme he was knyght of the shire.

                      An anlaas and a gipser al of silk

360                Heeng at his girdel, whit as morne milk.

                      A shirreve hadde he been, and a countour.

                      Was nowher swich a worthy vavasour.


The Franklin

‘Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn’

Traveling with the Sergeant of Lawe is his good friend the Franklin. A franklin was a free born provincial land holder, yet he was born as a commoner. He is a provincial country squire, but he is friendly with this wealthy and influential nobleman. Chaucer’s point?

Chaucer describes the Franklin as of ‘sangwyn complexioun’. According to the medieval medical theory of the humours, a sanguine temperament is caused by the suffusion of blood in the body. Psychologically, a sanguine man possesses great optimism and good humor. Chaucer depicts the Franklin as ruddy of face, of good digestion and as ‘Epicurus’ owne sone’. An Epicurean lives for nothing but pleasure. (Bring on wine, women and song, for tomorrow we die!) This franklin lives for pleasure, particularly in food. Like St Julian, he is a great patron of hospitality. At his dinners, ‘it snewed of mete and drinke’. In his house he always keeps the traditional hospitality table (from which all visitors can help themselves) full of roast birds, meat and fish.

The Franklin's Political Career: The Franklin serves as the district judge ‘at sessiouns’ in his neighborhood. He has also been elected the ‘knight of the shire’ or member of Parliament for his region. Since the days of the Magna Carta, English kings had been forced to rely upon the compliance of a council of nobles whenever they wanted to raise taxes. During the reign of Edward I in the century prior to Chaucer’s birth, Parliament had begun admitting elected representatives from citizens around the country. These electors exercised considerable influence over land policy.

How did Chaucer’s Franklin become so rich?

The Franklin's Costume: He wears a dagger and carries a silk purse ('gipser')-- just like a nobleman.

What point is Chaucer making about the changing composition of medieval society? How is society also becoming more secular in its focus?

The Shipman

                      A SHIPMAN was ther, wonynge fer by weste;

                      For aught I woot, he was of Dertemouthe.

                      He rood upon a rouncy, as he kouthe,

                      In a gowne of faldyng to the knee.

                      A daggere hangynge on a laas hadde he

395                Aboute his nekke, under his arm adoun.

                      The hoote somer hadde maad his hewe al broun,

                      And certeinly he was a good felawe.

                      Ful many a draughte of wyn had he ydrawe

                      Fro Burdeux-ward, whil that the chapman sleep.

400                Of nyce conscience took he no keep.

                      If that he faught, and hadde the hyer hond,

                      By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.

                      But of his craft, to rekene wel his tydes,

                      His stremes, and his daungers hym bisides,

405                His herberwe and his moone, his lodemenage,

                      Ther nas noon swich from Hulle to Cartage.

                      Hardy he was, and wys to undertake;

                      With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.

                      He knew alle the havenes as they were,

410                From Gootlond to the Cape of Fynystere,

                      And every cryke in Britaigne and in Spayne.

                      His barge ycleped was the Maudelayne.


The Doctor of Physik

                     With us ther was a DOCTOUR OF PHISIK;

                      In al this world ne was ther noon hym lik,

415                To speke of phisik and of surgerye,

                      For he was grounded in astronomye.

                      He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel

                      In houres, by his magyk natureel.

                      Wel koude he fortunen the ascendent

420                Of his ymages for his pacient.

                      He knew the cause of everich maladye,

                      Were it of hoot, or coold, or moyste, or drye,

                      And where they engendred, and of what humour.

                      He was a verray parfit praktisour:

425                The cause yknowe, and of his harm the roote,

                      Anon he yaf the sike man his boote.

                      Ful redy hadde he hise apothecaries

                      To sende him drogges and his letuaries,

                      For ech of hem made oother for to wynne-

430                Hir frendshipe nas nat newe to bigynne.

                      Wel knew he the olde Esculapius,

                      And Deyscorides and eek Rufus,

                      Olde Ypocras, Haly, and Galyen,

                      Serapioun, Razis, and Avycen,

435                Averrois, Damascien, and Constantyn,

                      Bernard, and Gatesden, and Gilbertyn.

                      Of his diete mesurable was he,

                      For it was of no superfluitee,

                      But of greet norissyng, and digestible.

440                His studie was but litel on the Bible.

                      In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al,

                      Lyned with taffata and with sendal;

                      And yet he was but esy of dispence;

                      He kepte that he wan in pestilence.

445                For gold in phisik is a cordial,

                      Therfore he lovede gold in special.


The Wife of Bath

                      A good WIF was ther, OF biside BATHE,

                      But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.

                      Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt,

450                She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.

                      In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon

                      That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;

                      And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,

                      That she was out of alle charitee.

455                Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;

                      I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound

                      That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.

                      Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,

                      Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

460                Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.

                      She was a worthy womman al hir lyve:

                      Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,

                      Withouthen oother compaignye in youthe, -

                      But therof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe.

465                And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

                      She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

                      At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,

                      In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne.

                      She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.

470                Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye.

                      Upon an amblere esily she sat,

                      Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat

                      As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;

                      A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,

475                And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.

                      In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.

                      Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,

                      For she koude of that art the olde daunce.


The Wife of Bath

“She was a worthy womman al hir lyve:/ Housbandes at chirche she hadde fyve.”

The Town of Bath: This merry widow comes from Bath, a town founded by the Romans to take advantage of the hot springs in the area. By Chaucer's time Bath was renowned throughout England as a center for the production of finely woven fabrics. On the Wife's head she displays delicately woven cloth (covering a metal rig that must weigh ten pounds!) She is a walking advertisement for her weaving business and her widowhood (which may be one and the same). The Wife of Bath is filthy rich! At church on Sundays she is furious if someone else deigns to approach the offertory before she does!

Church Marriage Law: Chaucer mentions that she has had five husbands at church. (That doesn’t count the ‘oother compaignye’ she had in her youth.) St. Paul had taught that the sacrament of marriage bound husband and wife together for eternity.  The Wife of Bath's Prologue is one of the great sections of The Canterbury Tales! In it the Wife defends her right to remarry no matter what St. Paul might have said! She holds forth about her relationships with her several husbands and how she taught them to respect her and enjoy life!

World Traveller: “She koulde muchel of wandyrnyge by the weighe.” She has been to Jerusalem three times! (A journey of several months in Chaucer’s day!) She’s been on many pilgrimages to shrines in Rome, Bologna, Cologne, and even Saint James at Compastella (in Spain), the most famous shrine in Christendom outside Jerusalem. This list is fabulous, possibly unbelievable! She may be stretching the truth a bit. How many of these pilgrimages has she made out of holy devotion to God

How has the Wife of Bath built such a highly lucrative living? Where does she meet her prospective husbands? ‘Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to sey.’ What did medieval superstition say about gap-toothed women? She loves to laugh and talk and have fun, (and she knows many remedies for venereal diseases!) Very funny! The Wife of Bath with all of her bawdy, good humor and love of life has also become a completely independent woman. She may just be Chaucer's vision of a religious ideal, certainly the first liberated woman in the history of English literature. 

Why is she on this pilgrimage?

The Wife's Costume: Beneath her fine mourning garments, she wears fine scarlet stockings! She has a bold red face and reddish hair.  She wears a huge hat, a huge overskirt, and on her supple boots she wears ‘sharpe spurs’!  

What is Chaucer’s purpose in his depiction of the Wife of Bath? How does this outrageous, larger than life character seem to jump off the page and into our lives directly from the Middle Ages? What is the measure of Chaucer’s genius as an artist?


Group Four: The Foundation of the Medieval Order


The Parson

                      A good man was ther of religioun,

480                And was a povre PERSOUN OF A TOUN,

                      But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.

                      He was also a lerned man, a clerk,

                      That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;

                      His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

485                Benynge he was, and wonder diligent,

                      And in adversitee ful pacient,

                      And swich he was ypreved ofte sithes.

                      Ful looth were hym to cursen for his tithes,

                      But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute,

490                Unto his povre parisshens aboute

                      Of his offryng and eek of his substaunce.

                      He koude in litel thyng have suffisaunce.

                      Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer asonder,

                      But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,

495                In siknesse nor in meschief to visite

                      The ferreste in his parisshe, muche and lite,

                      Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.

                      This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,

                      That first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte.

500                Out of the gosple he tho wordes caughte,

                      And this figure he added eek therto,

                      That if gold ruste, what shal iren do?

                      For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,

                      No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;

505                And shame it is, if a prest take keep,

                      A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

                      Wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive,

                      By his clennesse, how that his sheep sholde lyve.

                      He sette nat his benefice to hyre

510                And leet his sheep encombred in the myre

                      And ran to Londoun unto Seinte Poules

                      To seken hym a chaunterie for soules,

                      Or with a bretherhed to been witholde;

                      But dwelt at hoom, and kepte wel his folde,

515                So that the wolf ne made it nat myscarie;

                      He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie.

                      And though he hooly were and vertuous,

                      He was to synful men nat despitous,

                      Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,

520                But in his techyng discreet and benygne;

                      To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,

                      By good ensample, this was his bisynesse.

                      But it were any persone obstinat,

                      What so he were, of heigh or lough estat,

525                Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys.

                      A bettre preest I trowe, that nowher noon ys.

                      He waited after no pompe and reverence,

                      Ne maked him a spiced conscience,

                      But Cristes loore, and Hise apostles twelve

530                He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.


The Parson

‘But Christes loore and his apostles twelve/ He taughte; but first he folwed it hymselfe.’ 

Before we conclude that Chaucer’s vision of his age is completely cynical, let us consider his portraits of the village parson and his brother, the plowman. These idealized portraits epitomize the principles of church and society that had held civilization together for a millennium. 

An Idealized Village Parson

Chaucer’s Parson is a poor village priest: learned, happy with few possessions and patient in adversity. He is loath to punish his parishioners for not paying their tithes to the Church, as is required. Instead he will give what little he has to them! He doesn’t neglect his people despite the wide size of his parish, despite rain, sickness or the mischief of the road.

He carries a staff, like a good shepherd, and catches his sheep with the good words of the gospel. He regards his example as essential to the well being of his parishioners. What can they believe in if their priest be foul?

The Business of Benefice

He does not rent out his benefice, as many parish priests do, or leave his flock to run to St. Paul’s in London where he can use his license to collect funds from rich patrons if he pomises to pray for their souls. He does not join a wealthy guild in town and earn a fee praying for them. Instead he remains a shepherd, not a mercenary.

He treats the sinful with compassion, not contempt. He draws his country folk to heaven by fairness and his good example, but if a sinner is not penitent, he will shun him as wicked even if he comes from high estate.

In short, he strives to follow Christ’s laws as best he can and teach his flock the pathway to a better life in heaven. For what purpose is he taking his pilgrimage to Canterbury? 

But why does Chaucer place this wonderful parson so low on the social hierarchy?


The Ploughman

                      With hym ther was a PLOWMAN, was his brother,

                      That hadde ylad of dong ful many a fother;

                      A trewe swynkere and a good was he,

                      Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.

535                God loved he best with al his hoole herte

                      At alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte,

                      And thanne his neighebor right as hym-selve.

                      He wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve,

                      For Cristes sake, for every povre wight

540                Withouten hire, if it lay in his myght.

                      Hise tithes payed he ful faire and wel,

                      Bothe of his propre swynk and his catel.

                      In a tabard he rood, upon a mere.


The Ploughman 

‘God loved he best with al his hoole herte’

Travelling with the Parson is his brother, the Plowman, another idealized portrait of a social type that preserved the stability of the medieval hierarchy for centuries.

The Plowman is a freeman, not a bonded laborer like the serfs, but he is a willing servant. He accepts his humble place in society and recognizes that to work hard is to serve God. He threshes the crops, digs the ditches, and builds the dykes that preserve us from the flood. He asks for no profit for his labor. He accepts instead the meager allowance which feeds and houses him. He pays his tithe not just on his produce but on the full value of his cattle.

Were these portraits of the Parson and the Plowman nostalgic glances back at a world fast receding into the past, or were they emblematic of the ideal world towards which the pilgrims need to rededicate themselves? 

What is Chaucer’s purpose? 

The Great Plague of 1348-50

The social situation in Chaucer’s time had been transformed by the virulence of the Black Plague which struck most terribly in the years 1348-50 killing nearly a third of the population and recurred throughout the century. The resulting huge population decline devastated the labor supply and, ironically, gave peasants the political weapon they needed to demand reforms to the feudal economic system. Historian Lee Patterson described the situation:

The plague shifted the balance of power dramatically and hastened the end of feudalism as a social and economic system. Before the plague land and food were scarce while labor was abundant and demand was voracious; after the plague the situation was exactly the opposite: there was lots of land, far fewer mouths to feed with a now plentiful agricultural crop, and a severe shortage of labor. (Patterson) (See  The Great Plague of 1348-50)

Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt (1381)

Parliament sought to maintain the status quo in a series of statutes which restricted the rights of peasants to work for the highest bidder and led eventually to a peasant uprising in 1381 which thoroughly terrified the ruling class. (See Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt 1381)


The Miller


                     The MILLERE was a stout carl for the nones;

                      Ful byg he was of brawn and eek of bones-

                      That proved wel, for over al ther he cam

550                At wrastlynge he wolde have alwey the ram.

                      He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre,

                      Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,

                      Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.

                      His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,

555                And therto brood, as though it were a spade.

                      Upon the cop right of his nose he hade

                      A werte, and thereon stood a toft of herys,

                      Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys;

                      Hise nosethirles blake were and wyde.

560                A swerd and bokeler bar he by his syde.

                      His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.

                      He was a janglere and a goliardeys,

                      And that was moost of synne and harlotries.

                      Wel koude he stelen corn, and tollen thries;

565                And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee.

                      A whit cote and a blew hood wered he.

                      A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne,

                      And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.



The Miller

‘He was a jaglere and a goliardyeys/ Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries’

The Miller is a bully, brute and thief; he is like an animal, but he is also powerful-- like his watermill.

The Profit Principle:

Millers performed essential occupation in village communities. They not only ground the corn and wheat into flour for bread, but they doled out the grain according to the market price using a scale. Millers were disliked for their dishonesty and thievery: manipulating prices to cheat farmers and tampering with scales to take inordinate profits from hungry people who depended on them to provide the most basic item in their diet: the flour ground from grain. Particularly during times of famine (frequent during the Middle Ages), the Miller was hated and feared because he dispensed life and death through his willingness to sell or give grain to starving people. 

(See St. Albans Rising)  (Millstone) (Millstone in Pavement) (The Miller's Tale) and (The Mystery Plays) (The Bleak Conclusion of the Hundred Years War)

The Miller's Physical Description:

This Miller is ‘ful byg of brawn and eek of bones’; he always wins the prize ram in the local wrestling tournament. No door can hold him: he’ll use his knot head to ‘breke it at a rennyng with his heed’.

On his nose is a huge wart with a ‘toft of heyrs/ Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys’.

The narrator calls the Miller a thief, mentioning that he has a ‘thombe of gold’.

His mouth is like 'a greet forneys' from which comes obscene stories and ribald jokes. He pipes the company of pilgrims out of Southwark, playing a march tune on his bagpipes. (See Dooms and the Mouth of Hell in Late Medieval Period.) 

What is Chaucer saying about the Profit Principle?

                      A gentil MAUNCIPLE was ther of a temple,

570                Of which achatours myghte take exemple

                      For to be wise in byynge of vitaille;

                      For wheither that he payde or took by taille,

                      Algate he wayted so in his achaat

                      That he was ay biforn, and in good staat.

575                Now is nat that of God a ful fair grace,

                      That swich a lewed mannes wit shal pace

                      The wisdom of an heep of lerned men?

                      Of maistres hadde he mo than thries ten,

                      That weren of lawe expert and curious,

580                Of whiche ther weren a duszeyne in that hous

                      Worthy to been stywardes of rente and lond

                      Of any lord that is in Engelond,

                      To maken hym lyve by his propre good,

                      In honour dettelees (but if he were wood),

585                Or lyve as scarsly as hym list desire,

                      And able for to helpen al a shire

                      In any caas that myghte falle or happe-

                      And yet this Manciple sette hir aller cappe.



The Reeve

                      The REVE was a sclendre colerik man.

590                His berd was shave as ny as ever he kan;

                      His heer was by his erys ful round yshorn;

                      His top was dokked lyk a preest biforn.

                      Ful longe were his legges, and ful lene,

                      Ylyk a staf, ther was no calf ysene.

595                Wel koude he kepe a gerner and a bynne;

                      Ther was noon auditour koude on him wynne.

                      Wel wiste he by the droghte and by the reyn,

                      The yeldynge of his seed and of his greyn.

                      His lordes sheep, his neet, his dayerye,

600                His swyn, his hors, his stoor, and his pultrye,

                      Was hoolly in this Reves governynge,

                      And by his covenant yaf the rekenynge,

                      Syn that his lord was twenty yeer of age,

                      Ther koude no man brynge hym in arrerage.

605                Ther nas baillif, ne hierde, nor oother hyne,

                      That he ne knew his sleighte and his covyne;

                      They were adrad of hym as of the deeth.

                      His wonyng was ful faire upon an heeth;

                      With grene trees shadwed was his place.

610                He koude bettre than his lord purchace.

                      Ful riche he was astored pryvely:

                      His lord wel koude he plesen subtilly,

                      To yeve and lene hym of his owene good,

                      And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood.

615                In youthe he hadde lerned a good myster;

                      He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter.

                      This Reve sat upon a ful good stot,

                      That was al pomely grey, and highte Scot.

                      A long surcote of pers upon he hade,

620                And by his syde he baar a rusty blade.

                      Of Northfolk was this Reve, of which I telle,

                      Bisyde a toun men clepen Baldeswelle.

                      Tukked he was as is a frere aboute,

                      And evere he rood the hyndreste of oure route.


 The Reeve


a slender, coleryk man’…

‘They were adrad of hym as of the deeth./ His wonyng was ful faire upoin an heeth.’

The Reeve is the general manager on his estate, responsible for the land and its crops, the stock animals, the working of the farm, and the accounting of its funds. He is crafty and sly, dominated by the humour of bile: an angry, choleric, frightening man!

 He wears a thin close-cropped beard, short cut hair, and he has long, thin calf-less legs. Despite his power and wealth, he seems pinched and sickly.


He knows every detail of the functioning of his farm: he knows the exact contents of the granary and corn bin; no auditor can cheat him; as a matter of fact, no one on the farm dares to cheat him. He knows all the tricks of the trade (and is certain to have run into a fair number of cheating millers in his time.) He knows farming so well that simply from gauging the rain or drought, he can tell to the pound the yield of a particular piece of land.

This Reeve is taking advantage of a common legal loophole to reap in added gains. The owner of his farm is not yet of legal age and therefore cannot be sued for arrears of bills. The reeve is secretly taking advantage of this situation by racking up as much debt as possible on the farm and siphoning the proceeds to his own use. He gives and lends his lord’s property. His house on the farm is larger than the owner’s!

He even has a fall back profession if he ever gets fired! He is a skilled carpenter.

He wears his coat like a friar; his hair is cut like a friar, but this reeve clearly has dedicated his life to a different religion than Christianity.

Why do you think he takes the ‘hyndereste’ place on the route?


The Summoner

                      A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,

                      That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,

                      For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.

                      As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,

                      With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,

630                Of his visage children were aferd.

                      Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,

                      Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,

                      Ne oynement, that wolde clense and byte,

                      That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,

635                Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.

                      Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,

                      And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;

                      Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.

                      And whan that he wel dronken hadde the wyn,

640                Than wolde he speke no word but Latyn.

                      A fewe termes hadde he, two or thre,

                      That he had lerned out of som decree-

                      No wonder is, he herde it al the day,

                      And eek ye knowen wel how that a jay

645                Kan clepen "Watte" as wel as kan the pope.

                      But whoso koude in oother thyng hym grope,

                      Thanne hadde he spent al his philosophie;

                      Ay "Questio quid iuris" wolde he crie.

                      He was a gentil harlot and a kynde;

650                A bettre felawe sholde men noght fynde;

                      He wolde suffre, for a quart of wyn,

                      A good felawe to have his concubyn

                      A twelf-monthe, and excuse hym atte fulle;

                      Ful prively a fynch eek koude he pulle.

655                And if he foond owher a good felawe,

                      He wolde techen him to have noon awe,

                      In swich caas, of the ercedekenes curs,

                      But if a mannes soule were in his purs;

                      For in his purs he sholde ypunysshed be.

660                "Purs is the erchedekenes helle," seyde he.

                      But wel I woot he lyed right in dede;

                      Of cursyng oghte ech gilty man him drede,

                      For curs wol slee, right as assoillyng savith,

                      And also war him of a Significavit.

665                In daunger hadde he at his owene gise

                      The yonge girles of the diocise,

                      And knew hir conseil, and was al hir reed.

                      A gerland hadde he set upon his heed

                      As greet as it were for an ale-stake;

670                A bokeleer hadde he maad him of a cake.



The Summoner:

Wel loved he garleek, oynons and eke lekes,/ And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood/…/And whan that he wel dronken hadde the wyn,/ Than wolde he speke no word but Latyne.”

A summoner is a minor, non-clerical officer of the archdeacon’s ecclesiastical court. There were many different types of court in the middle ages. The king exercised his power through a legal system which regulated business and criminal behavior, but the church itself had a court which prosecuted moral crimes: violations of the ten commandments. The church could not sentence a person to jail or force him to pay a fine, but the church could excommunicate a sinner, and that action would not only condemn the person to damnation, but it would also force the community to ostracize the sinner.

The summoner serves as the beadle or policeman for this morals court. This position offers him ample opportunity to practice extortion and exercise his depravity in the community.

He is not only morally unattractive; he is physically repugnant: ‘a fyr-reed cherubynnes face… with scalled browes blake and piled berd...’ On his cheek are ‘whelkes white’ and ‘knobbes’ which no ointment can heal. He loves to eat garlic, onions and leeks and drink strong wine. The children of the neighborhood run from his fearful visage.

That’s all disgusting enough, but why then is he described as possessing a ‘cherubynne’s face’?  In our imagination a cherub is one of those flying infants like Cupid who flutter about shooting arrows of love into the hearts of the unsuspecting on Valentine’s Day. But if you look in the Bible, the cherubim served a different purpose altogether: In Genesis when Adam and Eve are driven from paradise, God places cherubim at the gate with flaming swords to prevent their return and guard the path to the Tree of Life. In Ezekiel, cherubim are described as mythological creatures with four wings and four faces which emerge from the north wind to protect the path to Eden. In Solomon’s Temple cherubim protect the Ark of the Covenenant. They accompany Jesus on the Day of Judgment. If you recall the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc, these cherubim possess the power to render you unto dust quite rapidly.

What is Chaucer’s purpose? The Summoner, as the beadle for the ecclesiastical court,  represents the terrible power of God on the Day of Judgment. It is he who will summon both the quick and the dead on that fateful day so that justice can be rendered. In perverting this fundamental aspect of God’s justice, the Summoner has brought a terrible sentence upon himself. He is the living embodiment of the punishment that awaits us all if we do not heed God’s laws.

When he gets drunk, he screams in Latin like he is mad! He knows a few legal terms from hanging around the church court, and he will toss the language of decrees about, terrifying the people. To Chaucer’s superstitious contemporaries, words from the actual decree of excommunication carried the power of a magical spell, banishing all in hearing to perdition. With such magic power at his disposal, the Summoner can circumvent the archdeacon’s writ for a price, but woe be unto those who are in his purse (ie. debt). The Summoner is just as liable to damn them with a ‘Significat’: the order to expel an excommunicated sinner. Even the youngest girls of the diocese are in danger around him because, like the Friar, he has extorted from them their secret sins and uses this knowledge to corrupt them all! Hell, he’ll even share one of his concubines with you for a pitcher of blood red wine!

The Summoner truly is damned: he is a ‘gentil harlot’.  He knows how to ‘pulle a finche’: ie he knows how to hunt down young prey in his amorous pursuits.

Costume: On his head he wears a huge red hat as big as the sign outside an alehouse. He carries a buckler made of cake. This guy can control neither his eating nor his drinking.

Why is he on this pilgrimage?

The Pardoner

                      With hym ther rood a gentil PARDONER

                      Of Rouncivale, his freend and his compeer,

                      That streight was comen fro the court of Rome.

                      Ful loude he soong "Com hider, love, to me!"

675                This Somonour bar to hym a stif burdoun;

                      Was nevere trompe of half so greet a soun.

                      This Pardoner hadde heer as yelow as wex,

                      But smothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex;

                      By ounces henge his lokkes that he hadde,

680                And therwith he hise shuldres overspradde;

                      But thynne it lay by colpons oon and oon.

                      But hood, for jolitee, wered he noon,

                      For it was trussed up in his walet.

                      Hym thoughte he rood al of the newe jet;

685                Dischevelee, save his cappe, he rood al bare.

                      Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare.

                      A vernycle hadde he sowed upon his cappe.

                      His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe

                      Bretful of pardoun come from Rome al hoot.

690                A voys he hadde as smal as hath a goot,

                      No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have;

                      As smothe it was as it were late shave,

                      I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare.

                      But of his craft, from Berwyk into Ware,

695                Ne was ther swich another pardoner;

                      For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer,

                      Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl:

                      He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl

                      That Seint Peter hadde, whan that he wente

700                Upon the see, til Jesu Crist hym hente.

                      He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,

                      And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

                      But with thise relikes, whan that he fond

                      A povre persoun dwellyng upon lond,

705                Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye

                      Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

                      And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

                      He made the persoun and the peple his apes.

                      But trewely to tellen atte laste,

710                He was in chirche a noble ecclesiaste.

                      Wel koude he rede a lessoun or a storie,

                      But alderbest he song an offertorie;

                      For wel he wiste, whan that song was songe,

                      He moste preche, and wel affile his tonge

715                To wynne silver, as he ful wel koude;

                      Therfore he song the murierly and loude.



The Pardoner

‘His walet, biforn hym in his lappe,/ Bretful of pardoun comen from Rome al hoot.’

The Summoner’s good buddy is his traveling companion, the Pardoner. Together they are merrily singing “Come hither love to me!” as they pass their way to Canterbury.

A pardoner was a seller of indulgences. The church actually sold writs which offered official absolution of punishment for sins committed by those on earth or now in purgatory. In return for this writ, the pardoner could impose penance in the form of prayers, a pilgrimage, or more likely alms given directly to him. Furthermore, this pardoner carries a pillowcase full of holy relics with him which possess medicinal qualities: he has part of the veil of the Virgin herself, a scrap of the sail from St. Peter’s fishing boat, even a glass full of the bones of Jesus Christ himself (which look remarkably like pig’s bones)! By Chaucer’s time these practicies, designed to raise funds for church projects (like hospitals and other charities), had gotten completely out of hand. The opportunites for graft and corruption in a credulous era were limitless. Not only did the sick and the poor seek magic remedies for ailments, but the wealthy figured that a good investment might reduce the time they spent in Purgatory, the cosmic waiting house where the saved burn away their sins before entering heaven.(Nice touch! You cannot purchase salvation, but you can certainly reduce time spent in Purgatory with a handsome gift to the church.) Church officials had discovered easy ways to enrich the papacy and themselves. A hundred years after Chaucer, the rebellion against these practices would split the Church forever during the Reformation.

This Pardoner works for the Hospital of St Mary of Rouncivale, located in the village of Charing Cross between London and Westminster.  He ‘streight has comen fro the court of Rome’ or so he says in his sales pitch. He possesses a strong bass voice, like a trumpet, which he uses to hawk his wares and to deliver impromptu sermons.

For ‘jolitee’, he wears his long yellow hair without a hood, ‘Dischevelee’, a bold fashion choice for this age! He has bold, staring eyes like a hare, his chin is smooth and beardless, he speaks in a small goat’s voice, and he wears a copy of the veil of St. Veronica on his hat. All these details suggest an effeminate appearance despite his deep bass singing voice. A gelding? Even in the middle ages, homosexuals were clearly among this party of English citizens enroute to Canterbury!

The narrator says that this pardoner has no equal from Berwyck to Ware, or literally across the breadth of England! He can make more money in a day than the parson will earn in a month.

In church he preaches beautifully (even if he is not an ordained priest). He has a beautiful bass voice (even if he dresses like a woman). He has a silver tongue! Even so, he might represent the most damnable behavior among this whole company of sinners: he trades upon the faith of the people in the mercy of God and his love for humankind.

Chaucer's Apology

                      Now have I toold you shortly in a clause,

                      Th'estaat, th'array, the nombre, and eek the cause

                      Why that assembled was this compaignye

720                In Southwerk, at this gentil hostelrye

                      That highte the Tabard, faste by the Belle.

                      But now is tyme to yow for to telle

                      How that we baren us that ilke nyght,

                      Whan we were in that hostelrie alyght;

725                And after wol I telle of our viage

                      And all the remenaunt of oure pilgrimage.

                      But first I pray yow, of youre curteisye,

                      That ye n'arette it nat my vileynye,

                      Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere,

730                To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere,

                      Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely.

                      For this ye knowen also wel as I,

                      Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,

                      He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan

735                Everich a word, if it be in his charge,

                      Al speke he never so rudeliche or large,

                      Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,

                      Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe.

                      He may nat spare, al thogh he were his brother;

740                He moot as wel seye o word as another.

                      Crist spak hymself ful brode in hooly writ,

                      And, wel ye woot, no vileynye is it.

                      Eek Plato seith, whoso kan hym rede,

                      The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede.

745                Also I prey yow to foryeve it me,

                      Al have I nat set folk in hir degree

                      Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde.

                      My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.