Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

We do not only hear the Pilgrims, we see them before us in their very habits as they lived, for Chaucer with the apparent simplicity of truly original genius paints their portraits for the general Prologue before he sets them on their way to Canterbury. For all its simplicity there seems to be nothing in European literature like it, before or since.

1. The Knight
Manly says that no picture in the wonderful gallery of portraits through which one passes to reach the Canterbury Tales has awakened more interest of fastened itself more firmly in the minds of men than that figure of the ‘verray, parfit, gentil knight’ which stands just at the entrance to the gallery.
His picturesque career, his devotion to the knightly ideals of ‘trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye.’ His simplicity and gentleness, his unfilling tenderness of the feeling of others ’he never yet no vileyne ne sayde in al his lif unto no maner wight,’ his eager haste to perform the pilgrimage he had vowed, which caused him on that unforgettable April morning to join Geoffrey Chaucer and his chance acquaintances despite his stained gipoun,—all these things live in our memories as the features of one whom we have seen and known.
The Knight had fought worthily for his king, and was renowned also for his prowess in distant lands, both Christian and heathen. He had made expeditions in Lithuania and in Russia, no knight of his degree so often; and many a time in Prussia he had sat at the head of the table above all the knights of other nations there. In Africa, in Turkey, and in Armenia he had harried the infidels; he had been at the sieges of Alexandria, of Granada and of Algezir and had taken part in fifteen deadly battles. Thrice he had fought for Christian faith in the lists at Tramyssene, and each time slain his foe. Everywhere he had won renown; and though he was so worthy yet he was modest, and as gentle in his manners as a maiden. Never in all his life had he spoken to anyone a discourteous or unseemly word. He was indeed a very perfect, gentle knight. For his equipment, his horses were good, but he himself was not gaily dressed. His doublet was of plain fustian, all blackened by the marks of his armour, for he had lately come back from the wars, and was making his pilgrimage in thanks-giving for his safe return.
Winny observes: The Knight ranks above the other pilgrims in the social scale. Chaucer begins appropriately by describing him, and later arranges that the Knight shall tell the first story. He has a more important reason for putting the Knight first. Although on the surface Chaucer seems not much concerned with moral issues, his examination of the pilgrims—and through them of his own society—is directed by a conscious sense of the standards which should determine private and professional behaviour. The Knight who loves 'trouthe and honour, fredom and Curteisie', and the Parson who spends himself tirelessly in the humble service of Christian ideals, and the Plowman who honours the same principles by his selfless labour in the fields, embody the moral order which holds society together. By beginning with the Knight, Chaucer opens his survey with an outstanding example of human goodness, by whom the moral worth of the other pilgrims can be measured.
The fact is that Chaucer has idealised the Knight and presented him as the quintessence of chivalry.
2. The Squire
The Squire was the son of the Knight. This handsome lad, twenty years of age, was curly-haired, wonderfully strong and active. He had seen service in Flanders and in France, and had acquitted himself well, hoping thereby to win his lady's love. His gown was short, with sleeves long and wide, broidered all over like a field of red and white flowers. He was as fresh as the month of May, singing and playing on the flute all day long ; a good rider, and an ardent lover, able to compose songs and to write poetry, to joust, to dance, and to draw. With all this he was courteous, humble, and serviceable, and carved before his father at table.
A critic remarks that Chaucer gives us a fuller picture of the Squire's clothing than he does of the clothing of the Knight, undoubtedly because the details stress the younger man's gaiety, youthful zest, and innocent carelessness. Here is one of the happy young squires whom the poet must have seen almost daily in London ; Westminster, the seat of the Court, was the municipality adjacent to the medieval City of London, and, usually, there was constant traffic between the two. We may also suppose that Chaucer is influenced in the Squire's portrait by the memory of the environment of Prince Lionel's household, when young Geoffrey may have been as carefree as the Squire of the General Prologue.
Chaucer's Squire is qualifying himself for knighthood as an attendant on his own father, and thus their relationship has a double significance. In human terms, it is an association of the carefree gaiety of a young man, still unmarked by experience, with the hardened maturity of middleage; the Knight's stained and battle-worn tunic offering an eloquent contrast with his son's embroidered finery.
3. The Yeoman
The Yeoman rode with the Knight and the Squire as their only servant. He was clad in a coat and hood of green. Under his belt he bore a sheaf of arrows, sharp and bright and plumed with peacock's feathers, well trimmed so that they did not droop in their flight; and in his hand he carried a mighty bow. Well practised he was in all wood-craft, a good forester, as we should guess. His face was brown, his hair was cropped. He wore a gay bracer on his arm; a sword and buckler hung at his side, and a dagger, sharp and well mounted. On his breast was a bright silver brooch with the figure of St. Christopher. He carried a horn slung to a green baldrick.
The Yeoman is not one of the important pilgrims, for no tale is allotted to him and Chaucer does not refer to him again ; but his fifteen-line portrait in the Prologue provides the first extended example of Chaucer's power of visual suggestion. Chaucer also says nothing about his moral character. However, as a man spending his life in close contact with the natural world, the Yeoman seems not to follow any consciously formulated code of behaviour, but to respect instinctive principles as simple and sturdily dependable as himself.
4. The Prioress
The Prioress, Madame Eglentyne—the name itself smacks of the romances—is all woman. Her smile is "ful (very) symple and coy," her eyes are "greye (blue) as glas," and her mouth is small, soft, and red. "Chaucer the Pilgrim" may be smitten, but "Chaucer the Poet" expects his readers to smile ; for these are the customary attributes of the beautiful heroines of medieval romance and are hardly what one should notice in a nun. Madame Eglentyne's greatest delight is to cultivate "curteisie":
And peyned hir (took pains) to countrefete cheere (behaviour)
Of court, and to been estatlich (dignified) of manere.
The Prioress boasts elegant table manners : never does she let a morsel of food drop from her lips, and she handles gravy with particular aplomb. Now there is nothing with good table manners, to be sure, but Chaucer has deliberately selected the details of the Prioress's decorous etiquette from a passage in Le Roman de la Rose in which an old woman, La Vieille, is tendering shrewd advice on how a girl can snare a man. The Prioress is very fond of her little dogs—she even feeds them roast meat and bread of the highest quality but prioresses were expressly forbidden to keep pets. Although she cuts a handsome figure on the pilgrimage, it would appear that she should not really be going on a pilgrimage in the first place. All the things, in short, that the Prioress does so gracefully and for which "Chaucer the Pilgrim" can express only unqualified admiration, she has no business doing at all. In view of the striking femininity Chaucer endows her with, the reader may take ambiguously the Amor vincit omnia (love conquers all things) inscribed on her brooch. The Prioress herself may be confused as to whether the motto refers to spiritual or secular love. True, the Prioress has found eloquent defenders, one of them an eminent twentieth-century scholar (Sister Mary Madeleva) who brings to hear her own rich experience as a nun. Nevertheless, one will always wonder just how gentle the satire really is in this unforgettable portrait.
M.W. Grose observes : Her name is Eglantyne, a name of the heroine of a romance ; but she is a nun. 'Symple and coy' have strong overtones of Courtly Love; but they can legitimately be used in a religious context. She sings attractively ; but it is the divine service she sings to the greater glory of God. She is tender-hearted; but her compassion seems to be directed more towards animals than her fellow men. Her wimple is smartly pleated; but it is the regulation dress. She carries a string of coral beads; but they are a rosary. Her badge reads, 'Love conquers all'; but this may be said of both secular and divine love.
5. The Monk
The Monk, a handsome man, was well fitted to be art abbot. He loved hunting, and had many a good horse in his stables. The bells on his bridle jingled in the wind as he rode, as clear and loud as the ringing of the chapal bell. The rule of St. Benedict was too old-fashioned and strict for him, and in the house where he was Prior he let old things go by, and held to the newer fashions of the world. It was little he cared for the saying that hunters are profane men, or that a monk out of his cloister is like a fish out of water. And Chaucer says that the Monk was right. Why should he lose his wits poring over a book in a cloister, or labour with his hands as Augustine bids ? Let Augustine work if he will; but it is not for such as these. Therefore this Monk was a hard rider, and kept swift greyhounds; for the hunting of the hare was his delight, and he would spare no cost for it. His sleeves were edged with fine and costly fur, and his hood was fastened with a gold pin adorned with a love-knot. His bald head shone like glass, and so too did his face, and his eyes were bright and roving. His boots were supple and his horse was in fine condition and as brown as a berry.
Ironically, Chaucer calls him a goodly prelate beyond all doubt, well-favoured and ruddy, whose favourite dish was a fat roasted swan.
A critic observes that Chaucer's Monk is a fashion plate, with costly gray fur to trim his sleeves and an expensive gold pin to fasten his hood. He certainly is no ascetic pining away in penitent fasting. Hens, oysters, hares, fat swans, roasts—it is scarcely an accident that so much of the imagery in this portrait echoes the animal world or the gourmet's table. Chaucer, in fact, describes his Monk as one would a substantial piece of livestock: 'He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt."
As a priest and a monastic recluse the Monk is, indeed, a complete failure. He is dominated by a love of luxury and pleasure, nevertheless Chaucer calls him 'a manly man', whose physical energy and liveliness are unmistakably shown by his shining complexion, bright eyes, and eagerness for open-air activities. Surely, Chaucer's moral disapproval of the Monk is tempered by the joyousness of his response to life.
6. The Friar
The jolly Friar, says Chaucer, had no equal in all the four orders, for his fair speech. He was a pillar of his order, well- known and well-beloved through all the countryside, and especially by the women; for by his licence he had greater power, he said, to hear confession and grant absolution than a parish priest ; and for those who paid liberally his penances were light; for, as he said if a man gives to a poor order it is a sign that he is a true penitent; many, though they repent, are unable to weep for their sins because their hearts are so hard, and these instead of tears and prayers may give silver to the poor friars. His tippet was always stored with knives and pins to give away to women. He could play upon the lute and sing a merry song, with a lisp that made his English sweet upon the tongue ; and when he played and sang, his eyes twinkled like stars on a frosty night. His neck was as white as a lily, and he was as strong as a champion wrestler. He was courteous and lowy in service when he saw a chance of gain, a man of wonderful powers and the best beggar of his house. So pleasant was his greeting to the ear, that even though a poor widow had not a shoe to her foot, he would contrive to get a farthing from her before he left. He was acquainted with the taverns in every town, and was more familiar with the inn-keepers than with the lepers and beggars. It was more fitting for a man of his worth to associate with the rich than with the poor; for what profit or advancement could the poor bring him? On love-days especially he was much in request, for then he was not like a poor scholar with a threadbare coat, but his cope was of double worsted, as round as a bell, and he bore himself like a learned doctor, or like the Pope himself. This worthy Friar was named Hubert.
Chaucer's Friar, it has been rightly commented, a plausible hypocrite, greedy, snobbish and sexually promiscuous, who misuses confession and neglects the needy for a more profitable association with an easy-living class of affluent merchants and 'worthy women'. By turning confession into a painless business arrangement—tacitly inviting the rich to buy absolution without the discomfort of doing penance—he weakens the authority of the local priest and corrupts one of the great sacraments of the Church.
It is obvious that the Friar rides triumphantly in the succession of the sins of the flesh and of avarice. His human relationships are determined not by his religious obligations, which would direct him to 'lazars' and 'beggesteres', but, like those of Fals-semblant, by his gluttony. His predatory covetousness exploits the charity of even those who are themselves in direst need of charity.
7. The Merchant
The Merchant, with a forked beard, rode in a motley suit, wore a Flemish beaver hat, and trimly buckled boots. He was another outwardly respectable pilgrim whose dignified solemnity covered a moral sham. His high saddle and imported beaver hat characterised not only his lofty condescension but also the shakiness of his financial position. Despite his pompous mode of address and his constant talk about business profits, he was a debtor, struggling to rescue himself from bankruptcy by illegal transactions in foreign exchange and other shady operations as a money-lender. As a critic remarks, Chaucer sees through his imposture, and puts down his self-important air very firmly, by failing to remember his name.
8. The Clerk of Oxford
The Clerk of Oxford was long given to the study of logic. His horse was as lean as a rake, and he himself was not fat, but had a gaunt and sober look. His short cloak was threadbare, for as yet he had no benefice, and he was too unworldly to seek after office. He loved better to have at his bed's head twenty books of Aristotle's philosophy bound in red or black, than rich clothes, a fiddle, or a lute. Yet, though he was a philosopher, he had but little gold in his coffers, and all that he could get from his friends he spent on books and on learning, praying diligently for the souls of those who gave him the means to study ; for that was what he loved best. He spoke no word more than was needful, and all that he said was formal, brief, and pithy. All his speech was full of virtue, and glad he was both to learn and to teach.
Chaucer's Clerk, says Winny, is one of the few pilgrims not affected by worldly or mercenary ambitions. He is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, indifferent to personal comfort and appearance and too deeply immersed in his studies to join the scramble for profitable appointments. Unlike the Monk, he ignores the world and its physical attractions, content to go threadbare and dependent upon the alms of his friends so long as he can remain at the university, and perhaps eventually possess a few books.
Chaucer acknowledges the Clerk's single-mindedness, his acute intellect and his high moral standards, but without overlooking the element of absurdity in such threadbare poverty and emaciation.
John Speirs says that the Clerk of Oxford is the unworldly scholar of all time. The comment is well-made and hardly disputable.
9. The Sergeant at Law
The sergeant at Law, was a shrewd and learned man, full of wise words. He had often sat as Justice of Assize, and many were the fees and the robes which he had received by reason of his knowledge and high repute. He was a great purchaser of land, no entail or mortgage gave him trouble, nor could any flaw be found in his deeds. Never was there a busier man than he, and yet he seemed even busier than he really was. He could quote every case and judgement from the time of William the Conqueror till now, and all the statutes he knew by heart. He was dressed but plainly, in a coat of two colours, and had a girdle of silk with small bars upon it.
Like the Merchant, the Sergeant at Law, too, keep up an elaborate pretence. He is busy about many vain things ; and again like the Merchant, he seems wiser than he is. His accumulated legal learning has only a cash value for him. In short, the Merchant and the Sergeant at Law are both wordly men in contrast to the Clerk of Oxford, the unworldly scholar of all time.
10. The Franklin
The Franklin had a ruddy face and a beard as white as a daisy. He was above all fond of good living, a true son of Epicurus, who held that perfect happiness consists in pleasure and of a morning he dearly loved a sop in wine. His house was large and his hospitality great, he was a very St. Julian in his own countryside. His bread and ale were always good, and better wine had no man than he. Baked fish and meats abounded in his house; and woe to the cook if the sauce was not well-seasoned or the cooking utensils ready. In his hall the table was spread all day, furnished according to the season. He was a chairman of the magistrates at session, and had been sheriff of the country, and more than a few times knight of the shire. At his girdle there hung a girdle, and a purse of milk-white silk.
The epitome of hospitality and middle-class respectability, the Franklin is a self-indulgent country gentleman in an environment of natural plenty.
11-15. The Five Guildsmen
The Five Guildsmen were a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer and an Upholsterer. They were all clothed alike in the livery of a noble guild. Their apparel was smart and new, and their knives were mounted with brass, but all with silver, finely wrought: each one seemed a fair burgess, fit both for wisdom and for wealth to sit as alderman at the high table in a Guildhall: and to this their wives too would make no objection; for it was pleasant to be called 'Madam', and to go before the rest in the religious services held on the eve of a patronal saint's day, with their mantles carried after them in royal fashion.
Companies or Guilds of Merchants were the most important organisations in the life of London in Chaucer's time, for only men who were full members of a guild were admitted to the full rights, privileges and duties of citizenship. On their shoulders fell the government of the City, and they had to bear their share of taxation and public duties; from among them were elected the Aldermen who formed the City Council (and still do). But on the other hand they were the only people with political rights, and furthermore only they could legally engage in retail trade.
Since none of the members of this little group of Guildsmen appears again, it has been supposed that Chaucer added them as an after-thought. By separating the Franklin and the Cook, they interrupt a long recital of culinary matters which otherwise might have become wearisome. The eighteen lines devoted to them show Chaucer being mischievously ironic at the expense of small-town vanity and self-importance. Seen from the court, the struggles of guildsmen's wives over precedence appear merely lilliputian, and their husbands' 'solempne and greet fraternitee' shrinks to a social guild that seems important only to their limited provincial outlook. Chaucer mocks indulgently, pretending to be impressed with them, but shows his valuation of this little cluster of slightly pompous figures by treating them not as individuals but collectively, as though they were all very much alike.
16. The Cook
The Cook was the servant of the five Guildsmen. They had brought him with them for their journey. He could roast, boil and fry, bake good pies, and make forced meat with the best. Well did he know the taste of London ale.
The Cook has been given no personal description apart from the mention of the ulcer on his leg, which makes Chaucer feel a little queasy. He is a drunkard, which perhaps is the reason for his blood-poisoning. He is evidently a Londoner, and may have been employed either by the Host at his inn, by the Maniciple to cook for the lawyers, or by one of the city companies. We are not told so, and he may just have been a casual pilgrim, anxious for a holiday to try to cure his blood-poisoning.
17. The Shipman
The Shipman was of the west country, from Dartmouth. He rode upon a pack-horse as best as he could, and his skin was burnt down by the summer sun. He wore a stuff gown reaching to his knee, and a dagger slung by a cord about his neck. He was a 'good' fellow who had stolen many a draught of wine from the cask on the voyage from Bordeaux, while the owner slept. His feelings were not over fine ; if he fought and gained the victory he threw his priosoners overboard, and sent them home by water. But for his skill in seamanship he had not his equal upon the seas. He knew well how to reckon his tides and his currents, and was acquainted with every haven from Gothland to Finisterre. Bold he was, and prudent too, and his beard had been shaken by many a storm. His ship was called the 'Maudelaine'.
It is evident that like most of his fellow-pilgrims, the Shipman is outstanding as a human being and as a member of his profession. He is a master-mariner of wide experience and ability, whose unrivalled knowledge of coasts and tides qualifies him for any undertaking by sea. He is the citizen of a touch, unsparing world outside the province of established law and order, and has to navigate without charts and defend his ship by his own force of arms. By mentioning that he was tanned and hardened by exposure, and deeply versed in the craft of the sea, Chaucer makes us recognise the force of his character.
It is probable that the Shipman was a real character, John Hawley, a well-known West Country semi-pirate from Dartmouth. Chaucer casually mentions Dartmouth, and says that his barge was called the Magdalen, thus giving the readers two important clues.
18. The Doctor of Physic
The Doctor of Physic was well-versed in astronomy, and skilful therefore in medicine and in surgery. In tending his patient he watched carefully for the right conjunction of the planets, and made images for him under a frotunate ascendant. A good practitioner he was and knew the cause and remedy of every sickness. He had his apothecaries always at hand to supply drugs and syrups, for each made gain for the other, and their friendship was of long standing. He knew all the writers of medicine, from Esculapius to Gatesden, though in the Bible he read but little. In his diet he was sparing, eating only what was digestible and nourishing. His clothing was somewhat costly, of scarlet and dark blue, with lining of silk ; but in his other expenses he was not lavish, and what he gained in time of pestilence he kept, for in physic gold is a cordial, and therefore he loved it well.
John Speirs remarks the learned and proficient Doctor of Physic is as conscienceless as some other money-making dishonest pilgrims. The key-note of this somewhat sinister figure is Avarice.
19. The Wife Of Bath
The Wife of Bath was somewhat deaf, which was a pity, but in cloth-making she surpassed weavers of Ypres and of Ghent. She would let no woman in the parish go up before her to the offering in church, if any did so, her wrath put her out of all charity. Her face was bold and red, her teeth set far apart, and she sat easily upon an ambling nag, a foot-mantle about her broad hips, and a pair of sharp spurs on her feet. Her shoes were new and supple, her hose of fine scarlet, closely tied, she wore a wimple, and a hat as a buckler. The kerchiefs which she carried as her headdress of a Sunday were of the finest, and weighed, I dare swear, ten pounds. Five husbands had she married at the church door, besides sweethearts in her youth, of whom we have not been told anything by Chaucer. She had made pilgrimages to many distant lands, to Rome and to Boulogne, to Cologne, and to Saint James in Galicia, and to Jerusalem three times. In company she laughed and talked with the best. She was well acquainted, too, with the remedies for love, for that dance none knew better than she.
Speirs rightly observes that the most vivid of all the secular figures is the Wife of Bath. The critical irony accompanying her presentation depends on the contrast, in relation to her, between formal religious observance and profane impulse. She is neither more nor less a profane figure than are the ecclesiastics of the company, in their differing degrees of delicacy, or indelicacy, the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar.
In al the parisshe wyf ne was ther noon
That to th'offring bifore hir sholde goon,
And if ther dide, certeyn, so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee.
'Charitee’ is the key word of the irony here, as 'conscience' is at one point in the presentation of the Prioresse, it reminds us of the obligation of Christian neighbourliness which she is forgetful of at a rather unexpected time and place. Her uncharitableness, in church proceeds from Pride which at this point, in her own unique way, she typifies. She must go before, in that respect have the 'maistrye', and it is specially on a Sunday of all days that her vanity flares out, is flaunted in flamboyant costume.
His coverchiefs ful fyne were of ground;
I dorste swere they weyden ten pound
That on a Sonday were upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite y-teyd, and shoos ful moiste and newe.
Within the Comedy of the Sins (later, that of the Humours. Jonsonian Comedy) there is here perceptible an element also of social comedy. The Wife is a new social type, an exuberant ensample of the newly opulent, ostentatious cloth-making bourgeoisie—though her costume is amusingly not quite the height of fashion. The social historians inform us that such head-dress was no longer the fashion among the ladies of the Court. But, of course, the Wife of Bath is neither merely a type of an emergent class nor is she one of those terrible Langlandian caricatures, the Deadly Sins. As a fully individual, whole person of the same Shakespearian order as Fal-staff, she has rich human value. In spite of (or even with the more force because of) her loud dress and manner, she is realised as a humanly attractive as well as a dazzling figure, a gay, talkative, formidable, dominating person. Parallel with her many amorous adventures are her many far pilgrimages; she is restless, adventurous, curious.
20. The Parson
The Parson was poor in worldly goods, but rich in holy thoughts and works; gentle, diligent, and patient in adversity; a learned man and a true preacher of the gospel of Christ. Full loath was he to lay a curse on those who failed to pay him their tithes; rather would he give to his poor parishioners out of the Church offerings and out of his own substance. A small pittance contented him; he was a true shepherd, and no hireling ; and what he preached he first practised himself, setting a noble example to his flock. If gold rust, he was wont to say, what will iron do? If a pirest be not virtuous, no wonder if the ignorant lay people should do ill. He did not let out his benefice to hire, leaving his sheep stuck fast in the mire while he ran to London to seek a chantry at St. Paul's and sing masses for souls, or to take service as the chaplain of a guild; but he dwelt at home, and guarded his flock against the wolf. His parish was wide, and the houses far apart, but he let no weather, neither rain nor thunder, keep him from visiting his parishioners, high or low; staff in hand, he would go to them on foot, however far away they lived. And though he was so good himself, yet he was not harsh to sinners, but taught them with wise and gentle words, and tried to draw them heavenwards by his example, though on occasion he could sharply rebuke one who was obstinate, whether of high or low estate. He claimed no reverence nor ceremony, but taught the doctrine of Christ and his Apostles, and followed it first himself.
To all intents and purposes, the Parson is an embodiment of strenuous moral virtue in a world corrupted by avarice and self-seeking. He is the one ecclesiastical figure who has not betrayed his Master for the sake of material profit or the good estimation of his fellows. He represents the trustful, patient faith that holds firm while standards are collapsing on all sides and weaker men in higher places their own eyes......coming to terms with the realities of a dissolute age.
Coming next to the Wife of Bath, the Parson contrasts with her as also with the profane ecclesiastics whose portraits follow.
21. The Plowman
The Plowman, riding in a smock frock upon a mare, was the brother of the Poor Parson. He was a good and true worker, who had carted many a load of manure ; he lived in peace and charity with all men, loved God with his whole heart, alike in good times and in bad, and his neighbour as himself. On occasion he was ready to dig or thresh for a poor man without hire ; and fully and fairly he paid his tithes.
Like the hero of Langland's religious poem, Piers Plowman, this pilgrim is an honest worker, a small tenant farmer serving God through his uncomplaining work and by his charity towards his fellow-men. Without disguising the lowly nature of his work, Chaucer allows him the simple dignity of an ancient and essential occupation and the strength of the creed which he honours through his daily life.
A critic poses the question: 'Is the character of the Plowman as "typical" as his work? 'and observes: 'It is impossible to give a definite answer to this question, for there are arguments on both sides. The social class to which Chaucer belonged, the upper-middle class, friendly to the Crown, were unsympathetic to the peasants and set the latter down as dishonest "sons of Cain," deserving ill treatment. Chaucer, however, never writes in dispraise of the peasant and he makes this particular peasant—the Plowman—brother to the beloved Parson. Since the Plowman does not tell a tale, we have no guide to interpretation there. Perhaps the Plowman of the General Prologue represents Chaucer's wish as to what peasants should be in actuality, or perhaps, like the poet's Clerk, we have an actual portrait of one whom the poet would believe to be exceptional.
22. The Miller
The Miller was a thick-set, short-necked, broad fellow, big in bone and muscle, who in wrestling matches always won the ram. He could break any door or lift it off its hinges by running at it with his head. His mouth was wide, his beard red as a fox and broad as a spade. He wore a white coat and a blue hood, and carried a sword and buckler by his side. He was a loud talker, and a teller of ribald tales; and clever at stealing corn, and taking three times his proper toll; but for all that he had a thumb of gold. He was a good performer, too, upon the bagpipes, and with these he played the pilgrims out of town.
A critic observes that in the Millet's character, Chaucer returns to farcical realism and the grotesque figures of a world remote from the moral ideal represented by the Parson and the Plowman. The Miller is more of an animal than of a human being : powerfully musuclar, frighteningly ugly, sly, coarse and brutally insensitive. His huge black nostrils and gaping mouth suggest the distorted expression of a gargoyle, and the din he creates with his bagpipe and his raucous conversation associate him with the howling demons of a medieval Last Judgement.
23. The Manciple
The Manciple was steward and caterer to one of the Inns of Court, and of him all purchasers of victuals might take example; for, whether he paid ready money or bought on credit, he always made a good bargain for himself. With all his lack of learning, his wit surpassed the learning of the lawyers who were his masters, and though a dozen of them at least were fit to be stewards to any lord in England, yet this Manciple made fools of them all. He was a shrewd man of business, clever enough to bilk even the lawyers.
24. The Reeve
The Reeve was a slender man of choleric complexion, close shaven, with cropped hair shorn like a priest's, and his legs long and lean like sticks. He was a shrewd farmer, and knew by the weather how his crops would yield. Since his lord was twenty years of age he had charge of all his stock, cattle, horses, sheep, swine, poultry, and dairy, and made a good profit for himself, though no auditor could prove his accounts at fault. He knew all the tricks of herdsmen, labourers, and bailiffs, so that they feared him like death. His house was in a pleasant position on a heath, surrounded by green trees. He had enriched himself secretly at his lord's expense, and was able now to earn his gratitude by lending to him on occasion out of what was in fact his own. In his youth he had learnt a good craft, and was a skilful carpenter. Baldesmwell in Norfolk was his native place. He wore a long blue surcoat, tucked up about him like a friar's; and he rode a dapple-grey called Scot, carrying a rusty blade at this side, and keeping himself always the hindmost of the company.
The Reeve who significantly comes at the very tail of the company is almost a withered man. He is old and emaciated in appearance. Though he has cunningly and secretly amassed quite a fortune and acquired a lovely place to dwell in, he seems to derive little pleasure from life. His dress gives him an ascetic and clerical appearance. He is tormented by his own sinful desires, and this drives him to preach of moral rectitude. There are several hints of frustrated or impotent lust : 'And by his syde he baar rusty blade.' He finds life bitter, and must hate and envy the Miller's gross exuberance.
25. The Summoner
The Summoner had a fiery face, with small eyes, black brows, and a scanty beard. Children were frightened at his face, which was so blotched and pimpled that no remedy could amend it. Of all food and drink he loved best garlic, leeks, onion, and strong red wine ; and when he was drunk, he would shout out like a mad man, repeating tags of Latin, which he had picked up out of some law decree. He knew all the secrets of the young people of the diocese, and had them at his mercy. But he was an easy-going knave, and for a quart of ale would wink at a good fellow's offences for a twelvemonth, and would bid him care nothing for the Archdeacon's curse, for it would touch his purse only, and not his soul. But in this one knows well that he lied, for a guilty man should fear the curse of the Church, which has power to slay the soul, even as absolution, saves it ; and a 'Significavit is a serious matter. On his head he had set a garland big enough for an ale-house sign, and by way of a buckler he carried a great cake.
The Summoner portrayed by Chaucer is one of the most degraded persons in the human scale. He scarcely belongs to the human community. He is a predatory rogue, a vagabond in ecclesiastical clothing and a corrupt hanger-on of the Church. His appearance is bestial. The scabs and white blotches on his 'cherubinnes face'—a face in itself roundly innocent and angelic—produce a grotesque, shocking effect converting the angelic image to that of some gargoyle or devil's mask. The Latin coming from his mouth intensifies, at the terrifying climax of his drunken madness, the effect of unnaturalness and blasphemy. The creature is aweless alike of ecclesiastical law and of divine law. 'Purse is the archedeknes helle,' seyde he. This awelessness, not only of man but of God, intensifies the wantonly fantastical value of the final figure he cuts as a revelling buffoon : ' A gerland hadde he set up-on his heed/As greet as it were for an ale-stake/A bokeler hadde he maad him of a cake.
26. The Pardoner
With the Summoner rode the Pardoner of Rouncival, his friend and comrade, newly come from Rome, who loudly sang the song, 'Come hither, love, to me : "The Summoner bearing company with a bass like the blast of a trumpet. This Pardoner thought that he rode in the height of fashion, his head bare save for his cap, his smooth yellow hair hanging loose about him like a hank of flex, spread out in thin locks over his shoulders. For greater freedom he wore no hood, but kept it packed up in his wallet, stuffed full of pardons, all hot from Rome, From Berwick to Ware there was no such pardoner. For among the relics in his wallet was a pillowcase, which he said was of Virgin Mary's veil, and a scrap , so he said, of the sail that St. Peter had on his ship at the time when he walked upon the sea. He had moreover a metal cross set with stones, and some pigs' bones in a glass box. But whatever they were, with these relics he could get more money in a country parish in the course of one day than the poor parson got in two months, and with his flattery and knavish tricks he fooled both priest and people. But for all that, to give him his due, he was a fine figure in church, and a good reader of lesson or story ; but best of all he sang an offertory, for when this was done, he knew that he must preach the sermon, and polish up his tongue to get silver from the people, as he right well could ; so he sang it out merrily and loud.
Speirs says that the Pardoner, an individualization of that familiar figure in mediaeval life and satiric art, is something more than another kind of ecclesiastic ; he is (particularly in his role as medicine man, self-exposed later in his Prologue to his Tale) a figure of anthropological interest. As first presented in the great Prologue, he is immediately a particular person—the companion of the Somnour—whom we vividly meet. The similies of the hare and the goat, besides defining eyes and voice, connect him with these old beasts. There is a suggestion of craziness, certainly of abnormality, in the creature which is not entirely the effect in him of drink. But it is by the junk which he draws from his pedlar's pack, his baits to dupe the ignorant and credulous, that he is recognised as the eternal cheapjack at the fair whose impudence and success never fail to fascinate and amaze. In Church he was a 'noble ecclesiaste', and his purpose was unscrupulously to profit from posturing as a preacher. His propelling motivation, even as a 'noble ecclesiaste' is avarice.
To be brief, the Pardoner is a complete scoundrel, perhaps the most vicious of all the pilgrims, and proud of it. In the Prologue to his tale, he boasts of his vices, and in his tale displays the cunning of his tongue :
Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe
Of hoolynesse, to semen hooly and trewe.
His hypocrisy masks a boundless contempt for those he dupes, and he exults in his own motives. For his contempt and pride he has ample justification: people are only too eager to swallow his medicine-man lies, and he earns a good living. The General Prologue tells us that in a day he could earn more money than a parson could get in two months from his own parishioners. In every way he is a successful trickster, and without doubt derives great pleasure from it.
27. The Host
According to Chaucer in the Prologue, the Host of the gentle hostelry called the Tabard, close to the Bell in South wark, made great cheer and entertainment for everyone, called them to supper, served them with victuals of the best, and strong wine. He was a seemly man, suitable to be a marshal in one of the City's company halls. He was a big man, with bright eyes, as fair a burgess as any in Cheapside—a very high compliment to pay a citizen in Southwark.
This inn, the Tabard, is recorded as a portion of the Southwark property of the Abbot of Hyde, near Winchester. It is mentioned in Stow's Survey of London (1598). Speght, who edited Chaucer in 1602, records that the inn in that year was managed by Master G. Preston, who had it newly fitted for the use of travellers. We do not yet know for certain if there was a Tabard Inn in 1388, when Chaucer's Pilgrimage probably took place; but it seems more than likely, and research is increasingly proving that Chaucer's facts are as frequent as are his fictions, and that his characters are real folk and not merely types.
Chaucer also tells us that the Host was bold of speech, and well-taught, lacking in no manly qualities. He was merry, and after supper and bill-paying, he talked of enjoyment and proposed a scheme for the morrow. He welcomed them as the best company that he had seen that year at one time in his inn. He would wish them to be happy and thought of a scheme to make them so without any cost. God speed he wished them on their journey to Canterbury, might the blissful martyr grant them what they deserved. He knew that they wanted to be merry and tell tales on the way and not ride along as dumb as stones.
A critic has rightly pointed out that the Host has several features in common with another pilgrim—the Monk. Both are genial, expansive, pleasure-loving men of the world with authority of character, and both have 'eyen stepe' and a robust physique. We learn later, however, that the Host goes in terror of his aggressive wife Godelief. She called him, "Milksop" and "Coward-ape." It seems that in proposing to accompany the pilgrims as judge of their stories the Host may be seeking a short respite from the trials of domestic life. Even the humours of the Wife of Bath would be a change from the rough bullying and angry jealousy of Godelief. Admitting that the Host is incapable of containing his wife's out-bursts of rage, he proves himself nonetheless to be a masterful yet considerate organiser of the very mixed party of pilgrims, using his authority wisely and humanely to hold them together during the various crises that arise, and infusing the whole pilgrimage with his good-natured generosity.
Kittredge says that Harry is the legitimate ancestor of many a jovial and autocratic innkeeper in English literature ; but he must not be confused with such roaring eccentrics as Blague the landlord of the George at Waltham in the Merry Devil of Edmonton, or even mine Host of the Garter in the Merry Wives. Blague, it appears, is “well ytaught," for he can quote, Virgil, with a prophecy, one is tempted to conjecture, of the Tityre-tu's of the next generation; but after all he is only a kind of substantial and well-esteemed buffoon. He is not Harry Baily ; for Harry has his own dignity : he knows the times and the manners. Here, as ever, Chaucer is quite specific. The landlord of the Tabard, so he tells us, was
a semely man...withalle
For to han been a marchal in an halle.
Such as had been master of ceremonies many a time when the Knight had "begun the board," or sat at the head of the table, at high chivalric festivals.
Yet, says Kittredge, despite the Host's autocracy, the ruler of the company is actually the Knight. It is he that asserts himself (i.e. in the Tales ) whenever the case requires an appeal to the controlling forces of the social world.
28. Chaucer
Chaucer himself is one of the greatest pilgrims. He joins the company with a devout heart and is as much influenced by the secular and spiritual stirrings of the month of April as other vigorous characters. His role in the company is that of an observer and reporter and for that matter he informs his readers that he will be as plain and true as Plato and Jesus were. He would not mind even using rude speech for the sake of verity and would reproduce each man's words seemly or unseemly, just as they were spoken, 'for you know as well as I do, that if a man undertakes to report a story, he must tell it as it was told, else he will be telling it untruly." Since Chaucer wanted to present his pageantry of characters in an interesting and impressive way, giving due consideration to variety and propriety, he does not arrange his dramatis personae in any conventional hierarchy. He says: "I crave your pardon also if I have not here set down the company in their proper order of rank. My wit, as you will perceive, is small." But going by the finished document of character-reporting that he has given us under the title of the Prologue, we cannot hesitate to express our spontaneous admiration for his power of words, verification and vivid portrayal of men and women of several hues, humours and callings. Though the characters are individual rather than typical, and though they are clad in medieval garb, they are faithful to the eternal traits of human nature. We hear of their peculiarities of taste, food, and dress; and each touch, jotted down seemingly at random, show us a fresh aspect of their character. The details are interpretations, and for the most part sympathetic. William Blake comments: 'Names are altered by time, but the characters remain for ever unaltered. As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linnaeus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men. The Knight is a true hero, a good solid and wise man. His whole-length portrail on horseback, as written by Chaucer, cannot be surpassed.
Chaucer the pilgrim is admirable enough a man without pretentions. He is plain, simple, common, fellowfeeling Chaucer, sharing the voice of the vicious as much as of the virtuous and looking upon both with a rare understanding, and unique humanism. He gives the world a microcosm of English life, noisy, arrestive, good-humoured, in which the dignified Knight risks cheek by jowl with the drunken Cook, and the poor Clerk of Oxford rubs shoulder with the handsome Squire and the spotted Summoner.

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Anonymous said...

i was wondering what critic stated that ' powerfully musuclar, frighteningly ugly, sly, coarse and brutally insensitive. His huge black nostrils and gaping mouth suggest the distorted expression of a gargoyle, and the din he creates with his bagpipe and his raucous conversation associate him with the howling demons of a medieval Last Judgement'?

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