Introduction to Characters in Canterbury Tales

List of 29 Characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

There are twenty-nine main pilgrims in Chaucer’s 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.

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.