A. C. Ward says that Chaucer's characters are types as well as individuals, not mere phantoms of the brain, but real human beings and types true to the whole classes of men and women. Much earlier than Ward. Dryden had said : All his characters are severally distinguished from each other ; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons.The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity, their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling and their breeding ; such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous, some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different. The Reeve, the Miller and the Cook are several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as the mincing lady Prioress and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed Wife of Bath.
Hulbert's view is that the portraits in the Prologue were devised to provide representatives of the chief classes of English society under the higher nobility. No one ever supposed it chanced that there are one knight, one lawyer, one monk, etc. Moreover the sketches not only give typical traits of temperament, appearance, and manners but incorporate the essentials of medicine, law, scholarship, religion, the theory of knighthood, and also satire on faults in social life. They summarise the noblest ideals of the time and the basest practices. The result therefore is a conspectus of medieval English society.
Hulbert adds that the effectiveness of the sketches is enormously enhanced by the fact that they are not mere assemblages of general traits, composite photographs, types in the Theophrastian sense, but contain many individual details. This has long been recognised. Thus more than forty years ago Professor Root wrote : It is by their successful blending of the individual with the typical that the portraits of Chaucer's Prologue attain so high a degree of effectiveness. The Wife of Bath is typical of certain primary instincts of woman, but she is given local habitation 'bisyde Bathe,' and is still further individualised by her partial deafness and the peculiar setting of her teeth. A wholly different type of womanhood, the conventional as opposed to the natural, is furnished by the Prioress. The description of the gentle lady abounds in minute personal, individual characteristics, physical and moral; yet all these individualising traits are at the same time suggestive of that type which finds fullest realisation in the head of a young lady's school. What is true of these two is true of all the personages of the Prologue. The details enumerated nearly always suggest at once the individual and the type.
In 1907 and more extensively in 1925 Professor Manly presented specific evidence of the individual elements in the sketches. It had long been recognised that Harry Bailey was an actual inn-keeper but it could be alleged that he is outside the series of pilgrims. In 1933, however, it was proved, as Root had surmised in 1907, that there was a cook of
named Roger de Ware. Manly's data showed a great likelihood that other characterisations include details derived from actual people. The two pilgrims who are named are quasi-public figures—a hotel-keeper and a restaurateur. The others whose connections with actual people Manly pointed out are not. Perhaps Chaucer aimed at a kind of actuality in the former (to give verisimilitude, as in his mention of a real inn and real places en route), but in the latter, though willing that his readers should perceive allusions to actual persons, felt that the effect would be less typical and less artistic if the figures were positively identified. London
Naturally in presenting his material Manly emphasised individual traits rather than typical ones, but of course he did not mean to imply that the pilgrims were not presented as types of medieval society. He understood quite well the significance of what he was to point out—i.e., in large part of Chaucer's Success in these sketches, the difference between his characterisations and those of Overbury and Earle, was due to the fact that, whether by conscious intent or happy inspiration, he combined individual features with typical ones in such a way as to gain vividness and realism, not to be found in type delineations before him. As far as one can see, it may be that Chaucer introduced the references to Baldeswelle, the good ship Mandelayne of Dertemouthe, and the
merely to entertain his friends with 'hits' on current scandals. Certainly they must have produced such an affect on Bukton and the others. But no doubt most readers will suppose that he used the references to gain the effect of realism that they produce on us. Temple
Before proceeding further, it would be well to point out that probably we shall never know the full extent of Chaucer's individual references. Mention of particular places, such as Baldeswelle, beside Bathe, the scenes of the Knight's engagements,
, certainly are individual details. Perhaps the proper names, Hubert, Eglantine, Oswald, Dartmouth , have the same significance. The physical details such as the Miller's wart and black nostrils, the Alice 's forked beard, the Monk's protruding eyes, are derived from specific observation. But can one be sure that Chaucer had seen a Miller, who had such a wart and nostrils, and a Monk with 'eyen stepe'? Perhaps so; surely he could not have ascribed to Roger of Ware a mormal unless the Cook had one. It may be that in all such cases except the Cook Chaucer used such details for suggestion of character, as Professor Curry has shown to be likely in the case of the Miller. At any rate there is bound to be uncertainty as to the significance of this type of descriptive detail. Franklin
Yet more difficult to interpret is a third form of descriptive matter. Had Chaucer encountered a Pardoner who was a eunuchus ex natura, a Summoner who suffered from alopicia or salt phlegm? If he had, no doubt he expected some of his readers to recognise those pilgrims as actual persons. But it is quite possible that in characterising two types whom he wished to seem disgusting, he aimed to strengthen the effect by ascribing to one an unpleasant disease and to the other an unhappy physical constitution. On readers after Chaucer's day, the impression produced is certainly as if he had worked in the way just mentioned. But we can never be sure that even when he is writing most typically he had not individuals in mind, and was not expecting his contemporary readers to recognise them. For example, though the Squire seems merely a type, there may have been one young dandy whom all the details fitted so perfectly that he would have come instantly to the mind of any persons familiar with the gentry about the royal court.
The typicality of the sketches in the Prologue is not difficult to discover. The Knight is the image of a gentleman or worthy person fashioned in virtuous and gentle discipline. The young squire is the incarnation of the courtly breeding. The yeoman belongs to the same group as the knight and the squire. He represents the faithful follower and servant of expiring feudalism.
It this group of three stands for the last manifestation of feudal England, the Monk, the Friar and the Pardoner symbolise the corrupt clergy of the time. The poor Parson and the Clerk of Oxford are the faithful members of the original, undegenerate Church. The Plowman, the brother of the Poor Parson, also belongs to the selfless order of the priestly class of good old days. The Merchant stands for the commerical spirit of his day. For him, and for the Shipman, the 'silver sea' is a highway for commerce, nothing more. The Miller does not pretend to be better than his fellows. He is honest if too rigid a definition of honesty is not insisted upon. The Reeve and the Maniciple are specimens of such servants as respect their masters' interests provided their own interests are not affected while doing so. The ambitions of middle-class respectability have nowhere been more aptly portrayed than in the respirations of the 'rude mechanicals' wives. Harry Daily, the host, is the master of the ceremonies, the common bond of union begween the heterogeneous members of the company. He is a detached yet interested critic of each man's character and actions. He is Chaucer himself soliloquising on the lives of the pilgrims. Chaucer himself is his persiflage (light raillery) of the rhymesters of the day.
Thus we see that the men and women of the Prologue are at once individuals as well as types. They have particularity as well as representative character. To quote Dryden again : We have our forefathers and great-grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days. Their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in
, though they are called by other names than those of monks and friars and canons and lady abesses and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of Nature, though everyting is altered. England
Though Chaucer's characters in the Prologue are individual rather than typical, and though they are clad in medieval garb, they are faithful to the eternal traits of human character. We still meet with knights who have had years of hard righting and are simple, gentle and courteous. The young soldiers still dress smartly and right bravely to stand well in their lady's eyes. The merchants are still anxious that their own trade routes should be carefully preserved. One meets old sea captains today, who, inspite of courage and capacity are not slow to gain an advantage over an unsuspecting client. We still meet hospitable travellers who keep open house and are themselves, as they wish their guest to be, good trenchermen ; like the jovial Franklin. The city fathers, who aspire to be sheriffs and aldermen, still work strenuously at their business, and on their guilds, and when they are offered titles still profess to accept them in order to please their wives. The Wife of Bath, with her catalogue of husbands, would no doubt be outdone in her record by quite a number of modern film stars, and her description sums up all the tiresome qualities in woman that men have noted since Eve.
William Blake on the Universality of Chaucer's Characters
The characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations. As one age falls, another rises different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men. Nothing new occurs in identical existence: Accident ever varies, substance can never suffer change nor decay.
Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered; and consequently they are the physiognomies or linements of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have known multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of monkery, who in this deistical age are deists. As
numbered the stars, and as Linnaeus numbered the planets, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men. Newton
The Painter has consequently varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature's varieties ; the horses he has also varied to accord to their riders ; the costume is correct according to authentic monuments.
The Knight and the Squire with the Squire's Yeoman lead the procession, as Chaucer has also placed them first in his Prologue. The Knight is a true Hero, a good, great and wise man; his whole-length portrait on horseback as written by Chaucer, cannot be surpassed. He has spent his life in the field, has ever been a conqueror, and is that species of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against the oppressor. His son is like him, with the germ of perhaps greater perfection still, as he blends literature and the arts with his war-like studies...The Squire's Yeoman is also a great character, a man perfectly knowing in his profession.
And in his hand he bore a mighty bow. Chaucer describes here a mighty man, one who in war is the worthy attendant on noble heroes.
The Prioress follows there with her female Chaplain...This lady is described also as of the first rank, rich and honoured. She has certain peculiarities and little delicate affectations, not unbecoming in her, being accompanied with what is truly grand and really polite, her person and face Chaucer has described with minuteness, it is very elegant, and was the beauty of our ancestors till after Elizabeth's time, when voluptuousness and folly began to be accounted beautiful....
For the Monk is described by Chaucer, as a man of the first rank in society, noble, rich, and expensively attended; he is a leader of the age, with certain humorous accompaniments in his character, that do not degrade, but render him as object of dignified mirth, but also with other accompaniments not so respectable.
The Friar is a character of a mixed kind : A friar there was, a wanton and a merry ; but in his office he is said to be a 'full solemn man', eloquent, amorous, witty and satirical young handsome and rich; he is a complete rogue, with constitutional gaiety enough to make him a master of all the pleasures of the world...
It is necessary here to speak of Chaucer's own character, that I may set certain mistaken critics right in their conception of the humour and fun that occur on the journey. Chaucer is himself the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts. This he does as a master, as a father and superior, who looks down on their little follies from the Emperor to the Miller, sometimes with severity, oftener with joke and sport.
Accordingly Chaucer has made his Monk a great tragedian, one who studied poetical art...
Though a man of luxury, pride and pleasure, he is a master of art and learning, though affecting to despise it. Those who can think that the proud huntsman and noble housekeeper Chaucer's Monk, is intended for a buffoon or burlesque character, know little of Chaucer.
For the Host who follows this group, and holds the Centre of the cavaclade, is a first-rate character, and his jokes are no trifles, they are always, though uttered with audacity, and equally free with the Lord and the Peasant—they are always substantially and weightily expressive of knowledge and experience...
But I have omitted to speak of a very prominent Character, the Pardoner, the Age's Knave, who always commands and domineers over the high and low vulgar. This man is sent in every age, for a rod and scourge, and for a blight, for a trial of men, to divide the classes of men; he is in the most holy sanctuary, and he is suffered by Providence for wise ends and has also his great use, and his grand leading destiny...
His companion the Summoner is also a Devil of the first magnitude, grand, terrific, rich and honoured in the rank of which he holds the destiny...
The principal figure in the next group is the Good Parson, an Apostle, a real Messenger of Heaven, sent in every age for its light and its warmth. This man is beloved and venerated by all, and neglected by all, he serves all, and is served by none. He is, according to Christ's definition, the greatest of his age, yet he is poor Parson of a town...
The doctor of Physic is in this group , and the Franklin, the voluptuous country gentleman, contrasted with the Physician, and, on his other hand with two citizens of London.
Chaucer's characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury pilgrimage ; we all pass on, each sustaining one of these characters ; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer. The Doctor of Physic is described as the first of his profession, perfect, learned, completely Master and Doctor in his art. Thus the reader will observe that Chaucer makes every one of his characters, perfect in his kind ; every one is an Antique Statue, the image of a class and not of an imperfect individual.
...Chaucer's characters are a description of the eternal principles that exist in all ages. The Franklin is voluptuousness itself, most nobly portrayed.
It snewed in his house of meat and drink.
The Ploughman is simplicity itself, with wisdom and strength for its stamina...Benevolence is the Ploughman's great characteristic, he is thin with excessive labour, and not with old age as some have supposed...
Visions of these eternal principles of characters of human life appeal to poets in all ages.
The characters of women, Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady Prioress and the Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of men? The Lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the Wife of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact; because she is also a scourge and a blight. I shall say no more of her, nor expose what Chaucer has left hidden; let the young reader study what he has said of her: it is useful as a scarecrow. There are of such characters born too many for the peace of the world.
I come at length to the Clerk of Oxenford. This character varies from that of Chaucer, as the contemplative philosopher varies from the poetical genius. There are always these two classes of learned sages, the political and the philosophical. The Painter has put them side by side, as if the youthful clerk had put himself under the tuition of the mature poet. Let the Philosopher always be the servant and scholar of Inspiration, and all will be happy.