Female Characters in Canterbury Tales: The Prioress and The Wife of Bath

Female Characters in Canterbury Tales

female characters in prologue to the Canterbury tales

Female Characters in Canterbury Tales: The Prioress and The Wife of Bath

Among Chaucer’s pilgrims, there were two female characters in Canterbury Tales, one from ecclesiastical class and second from common domestic society of females. Chaucer satirizes both characters for their non-feminist attitude towards life and one is religiously corrupt and second is morally corrupt. Let us analyze both female characters individually.

The Nun (Prioress): Female Character in Canterbury Tales

Like the other pilgrims of the Canterbury, the Prioress is one of the major pilgrims. She is the first female character among the pilgrims who is introduced as an ecclesiastical character. She is travelling with a nun and two priest. She is depicted as a dual face woman. In the general prologue, she is introduced as an aristocratic pious nun but she is raving bigot, because her narrated tail is of anti-Semitic attitude. She is running a small nunnery. She is quiet and simple in her ways. She knows how to sing the divine service well, beautifully intoned in a nasal voice.

She speaks French fluently and elegantly. Here Chaucer satirizes her for her manners in which she tries to show that she is from elite class because at that time elite class or kings and those in service to kings on major positions spoke French to show their authority. She acts like a court lady although she is a woman of faith. Her table manners are very gently that were depicted ironically by Chaucer. She knows how to eat without dropping a morsel of food from her mouth and she gently avoids her fingers by dipping them deeply in the sauce. She does not eat in a clumsy manner, in other words, but is graceful and fastidious in her table manners. She possesses a compassionate nature, which drives her to help people in need.

The Woman of Bath: Female Character In Canterbury Tales

An Attractive woman with a record of having five husbands and a lot of lovers. She lives in Bath, an English town. She is wearing a tight scarlet hose, shoes of new leather, a broad hat, and skirt with sharp spurs, which indicates that she rides astride like most women of her class. All these features, besides indicating a unique individuality are expressive also of her character. Her appearance demands attention and she wants people to know about her social status. It reflects her pride. Her wearing spurs and riding a horse show her lack of feminine shyness and male assertiveness as well as being choosy in the matter of horses and her “horse woman-ship.”

She is deaf from one ear and also a gap-toothed woman. This can be taken both as a sign of travel and good fortune. In the fourteenth century, a gap-toothed person was believed to be envious, irreverent, luxurious by nature, boldly deceitful and faithless.

 The last mentioned feature brings us to the most distinctive quality of the Wife of Bath; she had five husbands besides other company in youth. A wealthy woman who lost a husband is a temptation to adventurers and her finding a quick husband is natural. Moral judgments apart, the Wife of Bath is a gigantic figure following the warmth of her passion and regretting that love was ever a sin. The overall impression that emerges is that of a strong character, proud, self- assertive, individual and self-conscious. She is a church going woman but her consciousness of her own worth shows itself on religious occasions as well. She gives a lot of charity.

She is also shown as a wide traveler. That the Wife of Bath travelled widely shows both her prosperity and the desire to escape from the constraints of domestic life.

Religious/Ecclesiastical Characters in Canterbury Tales

Chaucer depicted a range of religious characters to portray the image of Christianity during that time. During Middle Age, church was in power and all the ecclesiastical characters were dominant in the society. At the same time, there was corruption in church where these ecclesiastical were involved, but few were struggling for the true image of the religion like the poor Parson. These religious characters include, The Nun, The Monk, The Friar, The Parson, The Summoner, and The Pardoner.

Religious/Ecclesiastical Characters in Canterbury Tales

The Nun (Prioress)

 Like the other pilgrims of the Canterbury, the Prioress is one of the major pilgrims. She is the head of a small nunnery. She is very quiet and simple in her ways. She knows how to sing the divine service well, beautifully intoned in a nasal voice. She speaks French fluently and elegantly. Her table manners are without fault. She knows how to eat without dropping a morsel of food from her lips and she never wets her fingers by dipping them deeply in the sauce. She does not eat in a clumsy manner, in other words, but is graceful and fastidious in her table manners. She possesses a compassionate nature, which drives her to help people in need.

The Monk

The portrait of the Monk is an ironic one. The Monk loves hunting and attaches no importance to religious injunctions, which strictly indicates that a monk should not leave his cloister or that a hunter could never become a holy man. He ignores all the rules and combines both lifestyles to make his life comfortable. The Monk is, therefore, rightly a hard rider. He wears furs and hunting boots. He has greyhounds as swift as birds in flight. His greatest pleasures lay in riding hard and hunting the hare, for which he spares no expenses.

The Friar

Chaucer draws the character of the Friar in a very realistic manner. The Friar is a very authoritative person. He has the authority to hear confessions.  He hears the confessions most courteously, and the absolution he grants is pleasant. He never misses a chance to marry young women and get their dowry. He is an easy man in enjoining penances when he knows that he would get a good allowance. He asserted that if a man gave liberally to the poor Friar, it was a sign of true penitence, and he would be fully absolved of his sins. Therefore, instead of weeping and praying, men may give silver to the poor friars as a sign of repentance.

The Parson

The Parson is popular because of his kind heart and love of charity. Even though he himself lives in poverty, he never misses a chance to help those in need. He is a devoted churchman unlike others. His preaching is about Gospel and he makes sure to adopt every rule and preach himself first so he can become an example for others.

The Summoner

He is a summoner of the church who collects fines or summons people to the church if they violate a law or commit any sin. His face is red, scarred heavily with sores and blemishes. It gives a frightening appearance to him. His taste in food is as bad as his appearance. He likes garlic, onions and loves wine. He is willing to do anything for wine. Where he should enforce law on people, he partakes in their sins and violation. He is easily bribed through money and wine to look the other way. Holding a lot of power over people, the summoner takes full advantage by forcing them to pay him in order to ignore their infractions.

The Pardoner

The Pardoner is a thin man with greasy and pale hair. He is completely beardless which shows his cleverness. Self-conscious in his appearance shows he is from the middle class. His position, to offer indulgences or pardons of the Pope to sinners, allows him to sell pardons, miracles and complete repentance from sins at handsome prices. He has a corrupt profession, giving people false hope and making money from it. It is a business to take money from people as donations who commit any sin in order to give them a clean sheet to go into heaven. He likes to sing and preach whenever he gets a chance.

 

Christianity in the Prologue: Chaucer’s Attitude towards Religion

How Chaucer depicted religion in Canterbury Tales?

Chaucer's attitude towards religion

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has pointed out the corruption, laxity of discipline, and love of luxurious life, which had crept into the ranks of the elegy. Except for the village Parson, having fallen from the high order, Chaucer satirizes all other pilgrims who are connected with the Church. There is, in fact, a discrepancy between the duties and actions of these ecclesiastics. The picture that he presents of the clergy of his day is not a flattering one. The monks had forgotten their original rule of poverty and labor: Chaucer’s monk is a fat, well-fed individual, who is more interested in hunting than in his religious duties. The Friar is a prosperous and clever beggar who, by means of his fine speeches, can hoodwink the innocent people and thus ensures for himself a merry life. The Prioress, though a tender and kind-hearted lady, cares more for her manners of dating etc., than for her religious ceremonies. Her chaplain believes in living a lusty life and tells broad stories with zest. The Pardoner is a great exploiter who turns the superstitions of the ignorant people to his advantage. The Somnour misuses powers conferred on him, and fools innocent village folk. The Canon’s main job is to extort money from the credulous pilgrims in order to use it for his foolish research in alchemy.

However, this criticism of the regular clergy does not seem to be the result of any deep-seated and deliberate hatred for them on the part of Chaucer. For a long time, writers of all shades, clerical or secular, pious or profane, had lashed at the laxity of discipline and the shortcomings of these people with abuse. Moreover, the people of Chaucer’s times had come to scoff and censure the clergy, for whom they had ceased to have much reverence. So in his criticism of the clergy, Chaucer was simply drawing a picture of his times, and like a free-spoken critic of life, he was exposing the actual state of affairs without any personal prejudices, because whereas he has assailed the false, he has likewise praised the true. He in fact, has, painted both sides of the picture. The portrait that he has drawn of the Poor Parson of the town possessing true Christian qualities, shows that Chaucer had not completely lost faith in the clergy.

Chaucer’s general attitude towards religion may be gathered with reasonable accuracy from his writings and from what we know of his career. He must have been a good church man, otherwise, he could not have maintained his position at court and in governmental affairs. He could not hold his appointments antagonizing the ruling powers. Of course, there were certain movements going on against the established Church, but to meddle with them was a risky business. Chaucer had the gift of a clear vision. He had acquired a wide experience of life. Chaucer could have been blind to the scandals in the church at the time when he wrote “The Canterbury Tales”. There were scandals regarding the corruption of the minor clergy and of ecclesiastical parasites, the indecent scramble in higher places for money, preferment, and power. The effect of all this upon the English people had been marked and bitter. It is a mistake to think of Chaucer as a Wicklifite or a Lolard, or as anticipating the ideas of the Reformation. In the Tales, he strikes at the corruption of typical individuals, never at doctrines. He does not show any moral indignation, nor does he question the fundamentals of dogma, while presenting the obvious abuses in his ironical portraits.

Short Introduction to 29 Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

Short Introduction to 29 Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

There are twenty-nine (29) pilgrims in Canterbury Tales. They all are the significant members of the party of those pilgrims who journeyed from London to the shrine of St. Thomas, which is a Becket in Canterbury. During a four-day’s journey, many stories are told which cleverly shows Chaucer’s life and depict the society of that time. Some important snippets are present from his life in those stories. Another most important part of the stories cover the description and glimpses of fourteenth-century England. It shows through Chaucer’s eyes as he is a realistic observer. below are the pilgrims in Canterbury tales.

29 Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

The Narrator

Chaucer himself is Narrator of the Canterbury Tales and considers himself as a character in his own book. At the very start, the narrator depicts himself as an amiable, an innocent, and a simple character. As the time passes, the Host accuses him of being surly and antisocial. The accusations of the host are true, as the narrator writes down his opinions and impressions about other characters on basis of what he prefers to like or dislike, and what he chooses and chooses not to remember about the pilgrims. There are clear sign of unrealistic attitude, ideas and opinions  of the narrator.

Chaucer’s Host

Harry Bailly is a host at Tabard Inn where all the pilgrims were gathered. He has outspoken, peaceful personality and his relationships with characters are polite and civil. Chaucer depicts him as a lower class commoner with short temper but Chaucer himself likes him. He is the only character among all the pilgrims who intervenes in a dispute whenever needed. He is the man who facilitates the flow of the tales.

The Knight

It is significant that Chaucer begins the account of the different pilgrims with the Knight in the General Prologue. The Knight is the most distinguished of the company. The portrait of the Knight is an idealized one. He loves truth, chivalry, liberality, honor and courtesy. He is also a devout man. The knight bravely fought in almost fifteen greatest wars on the lands of both Christian and heathen. Chaucer’s Knight is the personification of the ideals in which medieval man had a profound belief. At the same time, however, he is also a figure of flesh and blood. Chaucer’s Knight embodies the virtues and ethics, which the medieval concept of knighthood greatly demanded.

The Squire

Chaucer very successfully and beautifully, has drawn the character of the Squire. The Squire is the son of the Knight and also a great soldier. The Squire is a young and beautiful man, and his dress shows gaiety and color. His dress has embroidery of red and white flowers, and looks like a meadow as the month of May. His coat is short, with long, wide sleeves. He could sit well on a horse, and ride well. He could compose songs, fight in tournaments, dance and draw well. He could also write like a true author. He loves and courts so ardently that he sleeps no more at night than a nightingale. He is courteous, humble and helpful. He carves the meat at the table when dining.

The Yeoman

Looking more like a forester, he is the servant of the Knight and the Squire as it was the custom back then, to take servants along to show and keep up dignity. The Yeoman carries a sheaf of arrows plumed with peacock feathers. The arrows are bright and sharp, and he carries the sheaf carefully under his belt. He is capable of handling his equipment skillfully with the smoothness appropriate in a yeoman. His arrows did not droop with trailing feathers, (Low feathers supposedly droop and retard the flight of the arrow so that it falls short). The arrows of the Yeoman do not have such ‘low’ feathers. He holds a mighty bow in his hand. His haircut is short, and his face is brown in color. He understands all the usage of woodcrafts extremely well.

The Nun

 Like the other pilgrims of the Canterbury, the Prioress is one of the major pilgrims. She is the head of a small nunnery. She is very quiet and simple in her ways. She knows how to sing the divine service well, beautifully intoned in a nasal voice. She speaks French fluently and elegantly. Her table manners are without fault. She knows how to eat without dropping a morsel of food from her lips and she never wets her fingers by dipping them deeply in the sauce. She does not eat in a clumsy manner, in other words, but is graceful and fastidious in her table manners. She possesses a compassionate nature, which drives her to help people in need.

The Monk

The portrait of the Monk is an ironic one. The Monk loves hunting and attaches no importance to religious injunctions, which strictly indicates that a monk should not leave his cloister or that a hunter could never become a holy man. He ignores all the rules and combines both lifestyles to make his life comfortable. The Monk is, therefore, rightly a hard rider. He wears furs and hunting boots. He has greyhounds as swift as birds in flight. His greatest pleasures lay in riding hard and hunting the hare, for which he spares no expenses.

The Friar

Chaucer draws the character of the Friar in a very realistic manner. The Friar is a very authoritative person. He has the authority to hear confessions.  He hears the confessions most courteously, and the absolution he grants is pleasant. He never misses a chance to marry young women and get their dowry. He is an easy man in enjoining penances when he knows that he would get a good allowance. He asserted that if a man gave liberally to the poor Friar, it was a sign of true penitence, and he would be fully absolved of his sins. Therefore, instead of weeping and praying, men may give silver to the poor friars as a sign of repentance.

The Merchant

The merchant wears expensive clothes and leads a wealthy lifestyle. He is clever enough to put on an appearance of such dignity that he deceives people about the real state of affairs. No one realizes that he is in debt. He is clever in the management of his affairs. He bargains in a dignified manner and trades in furs. He conducts his practice of usury (chevyssaunce), i.e., the business of lending money at a very high rate of interest, in a cunning manner. The hypocrisy puts him on level with most of the other pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales.

The Oxford Clerk

Chaucer’s Clerk is a truly worthy man, offering a contrast to the corrupt, hypocritical, and affected personages from the religious orders described before him. Being a student, he has devoted himself to the pursuit of knowledge at the cost of his health and appearance. He would much rather have twenty books of philosophy than acquire rich garments. It is in contrast to the love of fine clothes shown by the Monk and the Friar. The Clerk pays a single-minded attention to his studies. Money means nothing to him except as far as it helps him to acquire more books. His speech is always to the point and full of moral gravity.

The Sergeant at the Law

The Sergeant of the Law is a man of purely material success. He is recruited by the King himself. There is deliberate exaggeration in the apparent praise that the Man of Law could remember all the cases and judgments of court from the time of William the Conqueror. It points out that the Man of Law speaks so impressively and pedantically in order to make his fellow pilgrims think that he knows all the cases. The self-importance of the character is acutely apparent. The pose of being extremely busy is to impress clients and enable the Man of Law to extract more in terms of robes and fees.

The Franklin

He is an old man with no rules and restrictions of society. He is a wealthy man with white beard and love of food and wine. His table is always full of goods and the best wine one could ever find. Franklin is also an honest person unlike other pilgrims. He is pure and enjoys his life to its fullest.

The Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet-maker (Guildsmen)

Chaucer do not include much detail about these five characters, all having different professions at different levels. They have their own community, travel together and help one another in need. They are well dressed with silver ornaments that show their self-importance..

The Cook

Other than a crusty sore in his leg, Cook’s character is not much described in the General Prologue. He is the servant of the five Guildsmen. He is popular for making the most delicious meals.

The Skipper

The Skipper is from a famous shipping town, Dartmouth, full of expert sailors. He owns a carthorse. He is wearing a wool garment that shows his economic condition as being not good. His weapons are hanging by a cord into his neck and his sunburnt face shows his tough life style. He drinks wine while the trader sleeps and steals the wine. He is a skilled in his job, being great with all sea craft. He has a good reputation from England to Carthage in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Doctor (Physician)

Physician is faithful to his profession, and he can cure almost every disease, but at the same time, he charges a good fee from patients. Chaucer satirizes his character for running after money, especially in the days of Black Death epidemic. He was also well versed in astronomy besides medicine and, uses this knowledge to heal his patients according to the movements of the planets. He is not a religious man, seldom consulting the Bible which is concerning.

The Woman of Bath

The Woman of Bath is an Attractive woman with a record of having five husbands and many lovers. She is wearing a tight scarlet hose, shoes of new leather, a broad hat, and skirt with sharp spurs, which indicates that she rides astride like most women of her class. Her appearance demands attention and she wants people to know about her social status. It reflects her pride. Her wearing spurs and riding a horse show her lack of feminine shyness and male assertiveness as well as being choosy in the matter of horses and her “horse woman-ship.” The overall impression that emerges is that of a strong character, proud, self- assertive, individual and self-conscious. She is a church going woman but her consciousness of her own worth shows itself on religious occasions as well.

The Parson

The Parson is popular because of his kind heart and love of charity. Even though he himself lives in poverty, he never misses a chance to help those in need. He is a devoted churchman unlike others. His preaching is about Gospel and he makes sure to adopt every rule and preach himself first so he can become an example for others.

The Plowman

Brother of the Parson, the plowman is equally honest and kind. He also loves charity and constantly practices it in his daily life. He is a good man who has strong faith in God and lives strictly by the rules.

The Miller

A big fellow with the record of wrestling, he has participated in many competitions, winning all of them. His character is an entertaining one. He is heavy set and muscular. His face is big and brawny with huge nostrils and a wart of hairs on his nose. He is not shy of anything and tells stories only suitable for adults. They are mostly ridiculous and based on imaginations. He carries a sword and a shield with him. He continuously tests the host’s patience by disturbing the pattern of his tales.

The Manciple

He is in charge of getting food for the lawyers in the court, a food buyer for them. The Manciple is not educated yet he cheats 30 lawyers by buying the food on discounted prices and keeping the leftover money to himself. Being able to trick them, he feels a sense of pride that even after he is an illiterate, he can easily cheat the educated lawyers.

The Reeve

The reeve handles the lands and accounts for the lord or a lady. This particular reeve has a sharp eye, which misses nothing. No one can cheat on him. His employees are impressed and scared of him at the same time. The reeve handles everything very smartly yet ironically, he is stealing the money from his own master. He lends it back to him to earn favors from the master. It shows how uncanny and unfaithful his nature is. He is a rich man with no conscience at all.

The Summoner

He is a summoner of the church who collects fines or summons people to the church if they violate a law or commit any sin. His face is red, scarred heavily with sores and blemishes. It gives a frightening appearance to him. His taste in food is as bad as his appearance. He likes garlic, onions and loves wine. He is willing to do anything for wine. Where he should enforce law on people, he partakes in their sins and violation. He is easily bribed through money and wine to look the other way. Holding a lot of power over people, the summoner takes full advantage by forcing them to pay him in order to ignore their infractions.

The Pardoner

The Pardoner is a thin man with greasy and pale hair. He is beardless which shows his cleverness. Self-conscious in his appearance shows he is from the middle class. His position, to offer indulgences or pardons of the Pope to sinners, allows him to sell pardons, miracles and complete repentance from sins at handsome prices. He has a corrupt profession, giving people false hope and making money from it. It is a business to take money from people as donations who commit any sin in order to give them a clean sheet to go into heaven. He likes to sing and preach whenever he gets a chance.

Summary of the General Prologue to Canterbury Tales

Summary of General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

People from throughout England set out on a pilgrimage in April every year to Canterbury. They first join in at the Tabard Inn to organize for the pilgrimage. This year Chaucer himself is the part of this pilgrimage. On the day, the host of the Inn puts out the idea that they all should tell each other stories to and from Canterbury so that they could enjoy and entertain themselves. The host announces that the best storyteller is going to get a reward in the form of a free and lavish dinner when their journey ends. He also nominates himself the judge of the contest.

All the pilgrims agree upon drawing straws at the beginning of their journey. The Knight draws the shortest straw so he has to be the first storyteller. His story consists of battles, knights, honor, and love. After the Knight completes his story, the Host asks the Monk to tell his tale. Before the Monk could proceed, the drunken Miller interrupts that he will go first. He tells the story of a carpenter and his stupidity. At the ending of his story, everyone laughs except the Reeve because he had once been a carpenter. Now, to get revenge on Miller, the Reeve tells a tale of a cheating miller. When he is done, the cook, Roger, ensures to tell a true story but leaves it incomplete.

The Host realizes that the first day of their journey is passing rapidly. He encourages all the pilgrims to hurry with their tales. Using the best order of ranks that he knows, he asks the Man of Law to tell the next tale. The Man of Law tells the story of Fidelity. The story pleases the Host and asks the Parson to tell another story as good as this one. The Parson is in no mood to do so. He refuses and reprimands the Host for swearing him. They get interrupted by the Shipman. He tells an interesting and true story to make up for so much preaching and moralizing.

Next turn is of The Wife of Bath. Her story revolves around marriage. She claims that marriages including wife’s supremacy are the only happy ones. When she is done telling her story, the Friar volunteers to tell a tale about a summoner. The Host is the peacekeeper among all the pilgrims so he advises the Frair to leave the Summoner tale. The Summoner says that he has no problem with the tale. He also adds that he will repay in the form of a tale about a Friar. However, the Friar tells an extremely insulting tale about a summoner. It makes the Summoner so indignant that he himself starts telling an indecent story about the fate of all friars. He does not stop there, continuing then with yet another indecent tale about that one friar in particular.

After witnessing the exchange of such stories between the Friar and Summoner, the Host gets exasperated and asks the Clerk to tell a good and lively tale. The Clerk tells a story about a strong woman (Griselda) and her quality of patience.

The story is a complete opposite of what The Wife of Bath told. The Merchant jumps in complaining that he got a sweet wife with these qualities. The Merchant then proceeds to tell a story about a very young woman who used to cheat on her old husband.

When the Merchant finishes his tale, the host turns towards the Squire. He requests a tale about love and kindness. In turn, the Squire starts telling a tale of supernatural beings and events. Before he could finish, the Franklin interrupts him. He criticizes the Squire on his eloquence and gentility.

The Host is only interested in getting the stories told and getting the competition done. He orders Franklin to tell his story. The Franklin story consists of a couple happily married.

Next in line is the Physician. He tells the story of a father and a daughter who have anguish for each other. The story is so dreadful that the Host becomes disturbed. He asks the Pardoner to tell a joyous tale to restore the mood back to happiness. The Pardoner, not being a man of many morals, tells a story full of morals. Then, finishing his tale, he asks the people around to get the pardons and relics from him. The Pardoner recommends the Host to initiate the buying of relics, as he is top sinner in the pilgrims. The Host gets enraged due to this remark. To settle down the matter, the Knight intervenes and brings back harmony.

A tale of a young martyr is told by the Prioress then. The story is a serious one, and to cheer up the mood again, the Host requests Chaucer to tell a happy story. Chaucer starts to tell a story regarding Sir Topas. Because the style of Chaucer’s storytelling includes rhymes, the Host interrupts him and asks him to tell the story in simple style. Chaucer settles down with the story of Melibee, which is uninteresting.

After Chaucer’s telling, the Host expects a joyous tale from the merry Monk. However, the Monk narrates some tales in which there are unfortunate events happening to everyone. The Host and the Knight call out on the unbearable tales and ask something consisting of joy. After the Monk declines to do so, the Host requests a tale from the Nun’s Priest. She narrates the story of the Chanticleer – a barnyard rooster, his lady, and a fox. Then the Second Nun settles with the story of the events that took place in St. Cecilia’s life.

At this point, there are two men, who come up to the people of pilgrimage, a master, and his servant. They are welcomed by the host and are asked if they would like to tell any stories. The servant says that he has tales full of amusement from his master’s life. However, when he starts to narrate them, the master creeps away humiliated.

 

After this, when the pilgrimage is approaching near their destination, the Manciple tells a tale in place of the Cook. He first makes fun of the Cook, who is too drunk that he cannot tell a tale. Then he narrates the tale of a crow, white coloured who has the abilities to talk and sing. Finally, it is time for the last person left, the Parson, to tell a tale. The Parson is a truly pious man. His tale is actually a sermon and is the longest one. After all the tales, “The Canterbury Tales” end with retraction from Chaucer. He apologizes for offensive words and parts in all of his works and repents from his sins.

Introduction to the General Prologue to Canterbury Tales

Introduction to the General Prologue to Canterbury Tales​

INTRODUCTION TO “THE GENERAL PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES”:

Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author. Considered among the greatest poets of English in the middle ages, his most celebrated work is “The Canterbury Tales”. He has been called as the “father of English Literature” and “father of English poetry”, alternatively. The Canterbury Tales is the collection of 24 stories based over 17,000 lines written by Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote Canterbury Tales in Middle English language. This is Chaucer’s most important book because it was one of the first books written in Middle English language. Chaucer also gained fame as a philosopher and an astronomer. In addition, he maintained his career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier, diplomat and a member of the parliament. Chaucer wrote many books like, “The Books of the Duchess”, “The House of Fame”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Troilus and Criseyde”, etc.

The Canterbury Tales is about gathering of people at the Tabard Inn in London. They were preparing for their journey as the pilgrims from Southwark, to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral. The people narrated the collection of the stories at the story-telling contest organized for pilgrims. The prize for the best storyteller was a free supper. These tales included various lessons on morality, human struggles and humorous fares. The characters in the Canterbury Tales are drawn from every rank of society, from clerks to knights, from towns and country. As Chaucer portrayed the characters unevenly, there were few characters from poor class; less inclined and firm, than the characters linked by knight, squire or certain other churchmen. He was inclined to describe these characters firmly. His characters are lively, complex, and fallible human beings, interacting with each other in some way.

The Canterbury tales also reveal Chaucer’s knowledge of astronomy, astrology and medicine. Chaucer opens the tales with the sun running its course through the zodiac sign of Aries. Venus and Saturn play major role in the Knight Tales.

In the tale, the pilgrims gathered by chance. Its characters seem to come from all over England, representing experiences of their lives. As Chaucer worked as a courtier as well, some people think that Chaucer based his characters on people who he really knew, and who were at the royal court.

Harry Bailey served as the organizer of the story competition for the pilgrims. In the general prologue, Chaucer presented the ambitious scheme of having each pilgrim tell four tales apiece, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return of Southwark. Chaucer expressed about different people discussing diverse stages they experienced. These tales have noble tales of the knights, love stories and real life incidents of the pilgrims.

Some people think that Chaucer copied ideas from other’s writings because some of the tales in Canterbury were similar to them. The characters however, are different. The characters have different occupations and personalities. They all tell different stories and in different ways. Chaucer’s main idea was to show how each person narrates a story to entertain the others as they travel along a very long journey. The Canterbury Tales is incomplete for no apparent or confirmed reason.

Geoffrey Chaucer as a Realist

Geoffrey Chaucer as a Realist

 1.    Chaucer’s World:

 Literature creates a world of its own, which goes parallel with the real world. As the world of literature is fictional and imaginative, its characters cannot be taken as the prototypes of the characters found on the real world. Now, it depends upon the skill of the writer to what extent he succeeds in resembling his imaginatively conceived characters to the characters of the real world. Chaucer is essentially a realist. He was the first English poet who revealed the truth about life as he saw it. Before him, the writers were dreaming dreams and weaving stories. However, Chaucer kept away from such artifices. He has taken the basic ideas of his characters from the real world and presented them clothed in imagination. Chaucer could have claimed like Fielding that he gave the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 2.    A mixture of qualities:

Chaucer mixed the general qualities of his characters with their individualistic, peculiar responses and reactions. He tells us what a character really is, what he could be and what he actually performs. All these ideas about a character have been well blended and well proportioned in each of his portraits very strongly what that particular character should be, and what he should not be. Chaucer has taken a few features from the real and a few from the ideal and blended them into a pattern, which makes his characters akin to the characters of the real world.

 3.    Not supernatural characters:

Chaucer does not attribute supernatural of superhuman qualities to his characters. These do not perform wonders, which are out of reach of the ordinary people. Even Chaucer’s ideal characters are not far from reality. Although the character of the Knight and the Parson are ideal, yet they closely resemble the characters of the real world. Such people are really found in every age or climate, as they did exist in his own age and climate.

 4.     Balanced characters:

Chaucer neither exaggerates his characters’ nor underestimates them. He strikes a balance in the portrayal of his characters. Chaucer’s Knight is a worthy man. He is proper presented as an ideal character but he is not free from weaknesses. His most obvious shortcoming is that he is negligent of his own son. He fulfils all the qualities of an ideal knight as laid down in the Code of Chivalry, but his son is representative of the degenerated ideals of Chivalry. He looks more like a modern young man than a squire, truly conforming the Code of Chivalry. There is an ideal discrepancy between the thoughts of the father and the son. The purpose of the life of the father is to spread Christianity throughout the world. However, on the contrary, the purpose of the life of the son is to win the love of a woman. This difference between the father and the son is the clear proof of Knight’s negligence towards his son. Chaucer’s one purpose of placing the Squire immediately after the Knight may be to throw light on the shortcomings of the Knight in that the contrast could become all the more obvious.

 5.     Exceptionally “real” Characters:

Similarly, we can take the example of the Parson. No doubt, he is an ideal for the priestly class, but he gives the impression of the Parson possessing superhuman qualities, nowhere. Any good person can be as honest, virtuous, and humble as the Parson can. Moreover, we can also note that Chaucer’s characters are seldom one-sided. For instance if, on the one hand, the Parson is an exceptionally sympathetic man, then on the other, he knows very well how to make the law-breakers obey the law. He is a very weak man but when situation demands stiffness, he demonstrates it. That is to say, he has the ability to adjust his conduct according to the need of the situation.

 6.     Keen observation:

Chaucer’s keen observation is also instrumental in making his characters appear as living characters. He has caught the psychological responses of each of his characters. These responses speak of the profession of a character. Each profession has its own peculiar responses, which are apparent in their dresses, conversations and thoughts. Those responses differentiate the person belonging to one profession from the person belonging to the other. The conduct of the knight is that of a gentleman, the Wife of Bath behaves in a boastful manner, which shows that she belongs to the newly rich class, the Clerk of Oxford who is a learned scholar, believes in a shy manner.

 7. Naturalism:

Chaucer’s description of each of his characters is so natural, so vivid and so realistic that we can very correctly know the profession of each of his characters. Chaucer’s characters are immersed in the affairs of daily life. The information given by Chaucer very clearly shows that all the characters are deeply interested in life. Every character is the best representative of his class. The fact that these characters have been taken from the real life and have interest in life make them appear as natural human beings with all their faults, foibles and peculiarities.

 8. Conclusion:

Hence, we may conclude that Chaucer’s characters are neither larger nor smaller than life but life-like. Chaucer has accomplished his task very eminently. First, he has not let even his most worthy characters become larger than life by exposing their weaknesses through little humorous and ironical remarks. Secondly, he has not let his characters become smaller than life but as real as it could possibly be.

Introduction to the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer

Introduction to the life of Geoffrey Chaucer

Introduction to the life of Geoffrey Chaucer

During 14th century, nearly 1340 or 1344, (the exact year is unknown), a renowned wine merchant called John Chaucer from London celebrated the birth of his first son whom he named Geoffrey. His grandfather, Robert de Dynyngton, moved from Ipswich to London and settled there. When they came to London, they changed the name of family to Chaucer a word that came from French word chauces associated with shoemaking. Robert Chaucer, Geoffrey’s grandfather, had flourished in London being a successful merchant. Robert Chaucer joined the king’s service in 1305, for supplying wine to the king’s table and for supervision of the taxes revenues collected from wine imports and exports, an activity in which Geoffrey would follow him.  John Chaucer followed his father’s courtly service and his business those in France and Italy and his wife Agnes de Compton, was also a member of the Court.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340. His father was a successful winemaker in London. Chaucer received an excellent education from Inner Court at St. Paul’s Almonry. Chaucer became page to the Countess of Ulster In 1357 where he met some of the greatest men in England like John of Gaunt and Duke of Lancaster.

In 1359, He went to France, as a soldier, on an invasion expedition that was resulted to failure. He was captured as a prisoner and after one year, he was successfully ransomed. No more information is available in documents about Chaucer for his next six years up to 1366.

After death of John Chaucer, father of Geoffrey Chaucer, his mother, Agnes de Compton, was married to another man, and Chaucer was married to Philippa de Roet. Historical documents do not reveal much about the marriage of the Chaucer whether this was an arranged marriage or based on love. Philippa was a woman of high rank and in the service of the queen like mother of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was in the service of the king and was granted with a life pension as a valet in 1367.

In 1370, king employed Chaucer for diplomatic errands, and during next decade he  made seven trips abroad. Next year, he was appointed customs controller in London. During that year, he quit the royal residence and leased a home in London city. In 1386, Chaucer received some other appointments from the king, the most important one is a Knight of the Shire.  That same year Chaucer’s lifelong benefactor, John of Gaunt, left England for a military incursion in Spain. King Richard II seized all customs appointments held by Chaucer promptly. In 1389, on returning of John of Gaunt, Chaucer was restored to his previous appointments.

Chaucer managed to hold courtly favors for the following eleven years and lived contentedly until his death on 25th of October 1400. His grave is in Westminster Abbey; known as the Poet’s Corner.

Some documents reveals that Chaucer started writing about 1360, and by 1372, he finished most of the work of translation of Roman de la Rose and wrote “The Book of the Duchess” and his the Legend of Good Women. He completed “The House of Fame” by 1380, the ‘Paliament of Fowls”, and some of the stories which appeared later in the Canterbury Tales. He translated Troilus and Criseyde By 1385 and during same time, he started the Canterbury Tales. In 1391, he completed Treatise on the Astrolabe and the next year, Envoy to Scogan. He wrote “Envoy to Bukton” and “To His Empty Purse”, just before his death.