English society of Chaucer's time

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Most people in the English society of Chaucer's time, about 600 years ago, viewed the world in a similar way and accepted the same beliefs. People then believed that behind the chaos and frustration of the day-to-day world there was a divine providence that gave a reason to everything, even though that reason wasn't always obvious. When you've got faith in an overall system like that, it's easier to accept and understand the world around you. People in Chaucer's society could feel, at least much of the time, a sense of security about the world, knowing that it was following a divine plan. They trusted the system they believed in; it was true, and they felt no need to question it.

So behind all of Chaucer's satire and social put-downs in the Canterbury Tales is an unshaken belief in a divine order. It's easier to make fun of something when, underneath, you know you take it seriously. Also, as Chaucer knew, it's easier to write for a group of people who at least roughly share the same set of values, whether they be a cook, a parson, or an upper-class prioress.

Those values were represented in the medieval world by two structures: the class system and the church. People believed both setups were established by God, and each went unchallenged. A peasant, like Chaucer's Plowman, wasn't "upwardly mobile" as in our society, and didn't aspire to become a knight. He may want to buy more horses or farm more land, but he wouldn't change his basic lifestyle or his station in life.

In the Middle Ages, each person was classified according to his or her "estate" or place on the social scale depending on birth, profession, and other factors (such as whether a woman was married--an important discussion of which is in the Wife of Bath's Tale as well as others). Each social grouping was like a symbol of the divine order, as immune to change as the hierarchy of angels. That's why a move from the peasant to the middle class, for example, was almost unheard of.

The middle class was in its infancy then. Chaucer himself was a member of what we'd call the upper middle class; he got jobs at court without actually being royalty. He started out as a page, serving meals and learning the ropes of becoming a courtly gentleman. He also quickly found out about the conflicting whims of human nature and the importance of the right appearances, both lessons he draws on in the Canterbury Tales. He evidently learned them well in real life, too, because he became a diplomat and traveled for the king to France and Italy, where he picked up plenty of literary influences that show up in the Canterbury Tales and other works.

Chaucer uses class structure very clearly in the Tales, presenting the Knight first and having him tell the first tale because he's the highest-ranking pilgrim present. The nobility, being at the top of the social scale, was responsible for cultivating virtue, keeping the peace by maintaining social order, and setting a moral example for the other classes to follow.

Apart from the worldly order but just as important was the church hierarchy. It, too, was a structure ordained by God (especially since everyone in the church was Roman Catholic in the hundreds of years before Martin Luther and the Reformation). Yet within the church ranks there was incredible in-fighting between the "regular" clergy (those in convents and monasteries, like the Monk, Prioress, and Friar in the Tales) and the "secular" clergy (parish priests like the Parson and eventually perhaps the Clerk). Each section was, in a sense, feuding with the other for "turf." Chaucer exemplifies this by showing an argument between the Pardoner (a church official of the secular variety) and the Friar, who is in direct competition with the Pardoner for money and religious influence over the parish villages they both travel through.

The regular clergy, in particular, had a reputation for corruption at that time. Monasteries, which were supposed to be apart from the world and whose inhabitants were to avoid worldly goods, were almost as lavish as castles by the 14th century, and most people assumed that friars (like Chaucer's picture of one) kept much of the money they were supposed to give to the poor. At one point in his life Chaucer lived in a part of London that was very near several large monastic orders, and he probably got to see a good deal of their life and work. He also, as we can see from his portraits, had little sympathy for cheating clerics. In fact, he was once fined for beating up a friar outside a courthouse!

Yet people still gave money to friars and pardoners because you could never be too sure. Even if the friar or pardoner were corrupt, giving to charity or buying a papal pardon could still help get you into heaven or at least knock a few thousand years off your stay in purgatory. Also, just because a friar or monk was a less-than-sterling example of his station, the social position itself still commanded respect.

What about the importance of pilgrimages, which certainly are important in Chaucer's Tales? You must realize, first of all, that pilgrims were ordinary people, not even necessarily very religious (as you can see from the Prologue), who visited religious shrines as much for a holiday as for the heavenly benefits. Such trips even took on the qualities of holidays at the shrines, with people like Chaucer's Pardoner selling holy "relics", and souvenir stands set up along the route. For some people, like the Wife of Bath, it was the only way to escape the pressures of home, especially for a woman. (We suspect that the Wife may be along for other reasons as well.) Spring was a particularly popular pilgrimage time in England, and Chaucer duly begins this report of a pilgrimage with a description of the spring.

It's also not unusual to have a large, oddly assorted mixture of people heading out on a pilgrimage together, sort of a medieval tour bus. Travel was slow, roads were rutted, and there were highway robbers, accidents, and illness. Then, as now, there's company and comfort in numbers, so why travel alone when you could travel with others, especially if they told such entertaining stories? Because of the festive atmosphere of many pilgrimages, some clerics frowned on them, but neither Chaucer nor his pilgrims cares about such matters.

By using the format of a pilgrimage, however, Chaucer reminds us that behind all the jokes are the serious truths that he and his pilgrims believed in. Amid the clamor of different characters and different points of view, he's reminding us that earthly truth has as many aspects as there are pilgrims, and that the pilgrims are trying to find a single truth that is impossible for mortals to find. It doesn't matter that the tales are chaotic and unfinished; what matters is that God's truth existed for Chaucer beyond the chaos of everyday lives and explanations.


Although Chaucer did not complete the Canterbury Tales, he managed to write 24 of them, plus the General Prologue and a Retraction. Not every character mentioned in the Prologue has a tale, and no character gets to tell the two tales that Chaucer intended each to deliver. Even so, most editions of the Canterbury Tales that you'll come across include a limited number of the 24 tales.

This guide presents and analyzes in depth the five tales most often read, plus the General Prologue. These are the five you are most likely to be reading and studying. They are representative of Chaucer's varied styles. The Knight's Tale is often considered to be Chaucer's best romance; the Miller's Tale, his funniest; the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, his best-drawn characterization; the Pardoner's Tale, an excellent allegory and study in contrast between pilgrim and tale; and the Nun's Priest's Tale, a clear philosophical statement and a wonderfully charming mock-heroic fable. As for the General Prologue, most students know that it's essential reading as an introduction to the Canterbury Tales.

The other tales--though not treated here in depth, and not read as often in the classroom--certainly have their merits.

These other tales are presented in summary, following the in-depth presentations, and for each, special elements are highlighted that deserve consideration when you read the stories.


The old saying goes, "In spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love." For Chaucer, who opens the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales with a wonderful description of spring, this was the time when people longed "to go on pilgrimages."

On that sunny April day, "Chaucer" (coincidentally the name Chaucer chose for his narrator) happens to be at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just south of London. He's going on his own pilgrimage to the cathedral at Canterbury where St. Thomas a Becket preached and was murdered. By chance, 29 other pilgrims come trooping into the tavern, also headed for Canterbury. Chaucer chats with all of them, becomes part of their group, and decides to leave with them early the next morning. Chaucer then tells us all about the group he's joined: who they are, what their station in life is, even what they're wearing. He proceeds to give us detailed descriptions of almost all of them, starting with the Knight, the highest-ranking member of the group.

The Host then feeds the pilgrims plenty of food and wine, and takes the floor. He knows that the holiday mood of a pilgrimage means people will laugh and joke along the way. He has a plan; how many people will agree to it? They cheerfully agree, and the Host proposes that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back. Whoever tells the best tale--the most morally instructive as well as the most amusing (see Note)--gets treated to dinner by the rest of the gang on the return trip (at the Host's inn, of course).

Early next morning, the group heads out and the Host has everyone draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight picks the shortest straw, and the Prologue ends as the Knight prepares to speak.

NOTE: The scheme of two stories out, two back was never completed by Chaucer. Instruction plus amusement were the criteria by which good stories were judged in Chaucer's day. Originality was not important, but embellishment, and how well a story was adapted, were highly valued.

It is fitting that the Knight, "by cas" (by chance) picks to go first, as he is the highest in the social hierarchy on the trip. Chaucer is saying the choice seems random, but is not. This idea resurfaces throughout the Tales.


The major characters in the General Prologue are the very people who soon will be telling their stories with other characters in them. So keep in mind that Chaucer's description of each character tells us something about the character's personality, but that we'll also learn something more about the character based on the story he or she tells. (After our picture of the Miller, for example, we're not surprised that he tells a dirty story.) We get further hints from the prologues to each person's story.

Chaucer tells us much about each pilgrim, not only by telling us what they do for a living, but also through description of their clothes, attitudes, even their bodies. His medieval audience would compare Chaucer's descriptions against the social stereotypes they knew already about each person's profession or "station." Chaucer's list of attributes often parodies the standards set for a given rank, turning some descriptions into great comedy.


The Knight is everything an archetypal medieval knight should be: "worthy" (distinguished), and loving chivalry, truth, honor, "freedom" (selflessness), and courtesy. There's no irony here. He is "ever honored" for his bravery. He's quite literally been through the wars; his tunic is still stained by his chain-mail armor because he's heading on his pilgrimage straight from his latest Crusade. He's "gentil" (well bred), "verray" (true), in short, "parfit" (perfect). Chaucer uses all the conventional descriptions because the Knight is what every knight should be, but usually isn't.

We hear more about the Knight's 15 "mortal battles" than about his appearance, since his actions are more important than his looks. (All we know besides his tunic is that he is not gaudily dressed and has "good" horses.) His actions are more important to his audience (who, like us, are excited by news of foreign wars and travel) and also to his own code of knightly behavior. Keep this in mind during his Tale, which deals with two other worthy knights whose behavior dictates who will win or lose the lady they both love.


The Squire is a young man of about 20, not yet as mature as his father. He is a "lover" and "lusty bachelor," which meant a young man aspiring to knighthood. His hair is curled as though it had been set--telling us he is more concerned than his father about appearances--and he places importance on fighting for his lady's honor, not, like his father, for abstract ideals or God. Squires were apprenticed to knights before they could become knights (even King Arthur was one), which is why this Squire is "courteous, humble," and carves meat at his father's table. He can sing and dance, joust, and write songs and poems--all important social accomplishments for a young man of his rank. He wears stylish but daring clothing--a short gown (equivalent in shock value to a mini-skirt)--which would not be viewed kindly by priests warning against stylish clothing.

It's been said that Chaucer didn't like the Squire because of the young man's emphasis on vanity and pretty things, but the description, even the curls, is the standard romance convention for young heroes. (Don't forget, the Squire also is very agile and "of great strength.") And the last couplet tells that he's courteous and well bred. True to his nature, his tale tells of Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's court, and the magical gifts he bestows in a foreign land. The tale may have gone on to speak of the Squire's other main interest, love, but we'll never know because Chaucer left it unfinished. (He does mention the love of a falcon for her lost mate, though.) We get another view of the Squire's good breeding in a compliment from the Franklin, who wishes his own son were more Squire-like.

NOTE: The Squire is intentionally compared to the description of spring at the beginning of the Prologue. His clothes are embroidered like a meadow, "al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and rede," and he is "fresh as is the month of May." Like the birds sleeping with open eyes, he sleeps "namore than dooth a nightingale" because of his high spirits and energy. He is of nature, rather than of the "higher" orders of reason and thought like the Knight, but there's hope. After all, he's still young.


The Knight's servant (or assistant) is dressed in green, has bright peacock-feather arrows in his belt, and a "mighty bow" in his hand, so Chaucer guesses he's a forester and hunter when not attending the Knight. He also wears a medal of St. Christopher, patron saint of foresters, around his neck. He's obviously proud of his abilities since he takes care not to let his arrow feathers droop.


Some believe the Prioress is a woman on whom Chaucer (or at least the narrator) had a crush. It certainly seems so from the description of her, which is more fitting to a beloved lady in a romance than to a nun. The description makes it seem that she's a gentlewoman, who possibly entered a convent because she had no marriage dowry. Her smile is "simple and coy" (modest and sweet), words that come straight out of a romance, as Chaucer's audience would instantly recognize. She doesn't curse (or at least, only slightly, by "St. Loy," who happens to have been a handsome courtier before he turned to religion). Even her name, "Madame Eglentyne," meaning "sweet briar," is a demure one that appears in several popular romances. Again, Chaucer refers to a beautiful worldly heroine, implying behavior that is far from nunlike. But is she evil, just because she speaks French very well, has perfect table manners, and likes being proper? She is "so charitable" that she would weep "if she saw a mouse caught in a trap." Some think this implies that she cares more about animals' suffering than people, especially in the fight of the tale she calmly tells about the way the Jews are punished for supposedly killing a Christian child. She also keeps small dogs as pets (strictly forbidden in a convent) and feeds them the finest meat, milk, and bread.

NOTE: Notice how here and elsewhere Chaucer shifts from describing the person to being inside his or her head. He hasn't seen Madame Eglentyne cry over a mouse, or feed her dogs, yet he describes exactly how she does it.

The description of her table manners comes straight from the French Romance of the Rose, which Chaucer translated and which his audience would have known. The joke here is that in the romance this description is from a scene on how women attract and keep lovers! In fact, it is ironic that the Prioress is along on a pilgrimage, since she should have remained inside the cloister walls.

Her physical description, too, comes straight from French romances. Chaucer uses every cliche in the book: her nose is "tretys" (shapely), her eyes "grey as glass," her mouth "small, soft and red." Her forehead, which technically shouldn't even be visible in a nun's habit, is fair and broad, a style so fashionable that women in Chaucer's day used to pluck their hairlines to make their foreheads larger. Perhaps most intriguing of all, she wears a large gold brooch (jewelry is forbidden in convents) that reads, Amor vincit omnia ("love conquers all"). It's not clear how Chaucer means us to interpret the phrase. The original motto (from Virgil) referred to earthly love, but it was used by the medieval church to mean God's love. How does the Prioress interpret it? It's possible that she would think only of the godly connotations, but some readers believe the double meaning is no accident. The Prioress retains some vanities of her preconvent days, but does Chaucer intend to show her as a hypocrite? Or, because of her lack of charity, as intentionally cruel? Certainly she is not everything a nun should be--compare her in idealism to the Knight--but you can also find a great deal of affection in Chaucer's picture of her. Isn't it understandable that a well-bred young woman should want to keep some of the innocent pleasures of worldly life in a convent? Reforming bishops often warned even heads of convents against keeping pets and wearing jewelry, but the frequency of the warnings indicates they were pretty much ignored.


The Monk's description is the first that is really noticeably sarcastic. Monks are supposed to stay apart from the world, not go out for "venery" (hunting)--a word that, along with Venus, carries sexual connotations, since it also means "hunting" women. All the comparisons are ironic: his bridle bells are as clear as the chapel bell he's supposed to be in charge of; his face seems "anointed" like one of the blessed, which he's clearly not; he's not "pale as a ghost" or spirit, which a monk should be. There's a "love knot" under his chin, which Chaucer, ever polite, merely calls "curious" (downright suspicious might be more like it).

The narrator naively agrees with the monk, or pretends to, that there's no earthly reason to sweat over books or manual labor as decreed by St. Augustine, founder of the Monk's order. The Monk, in saying this, knows (more than the Prioress does) he's going against his calling. Others know it, too, for the Host, in the Monk's Prologue, teases the Monk that he doesn't look like one, but more like someone in charge of the food and drink, or like a rooster with plenty of hens. This reinforces the piggish, selfish picture we have of him. The Monk takes it in stride and tells a tale, actually several, describing the ups and downs of fortune's wheel in the lives of Satan, Adam, Hercules, and others--so boringly that the Knight begs him to stop and the Host asks him to discuss hunting instead. Does the company and Chaucer see more about the Monk than he sees of himself? There is evidence in the way he talks, in the way he seems to believe it's pointless to follow his monastic duties. But you could also find ways of showing that while the Monk is stupid about his priorities, he is not truly evil, just misguided.


The Friar is "wanton and merry," but this pleasant-sounding description is dripping with sarcasm. By the 14th century, friars, who were supposed to give up all worldly things and live only by begging for food and alms, were almost totally corrupt. They were known for flattering the rich and deceiving the poor, and especially for seducing women in outright disregard for their vow of celibacy.

Chaucer's Friar, Hubert, is a "limitour," one who is licensed to beg in a certain area. If the Monk's portrait contains veiled sexual innuendoes, Hubert's are blatant. He is "ful solempne" (very impressive) because he knows so much about "daliaunce" (small talk or flirtation). He's married off women "at his owene cost"--implying that he seduced them first. He's "well beloved and familiar" with "worthy women" of his area. We can imagine what that means. He's allowed to hear confessions and give easy penances if he knows he'll get well paid. Chaucer comments here on the hypocrisy of society, too, in saying sarcastically that people can give money to "poor friars" to atone for their sins instead of "weeping and praying."

It gets worse. Hubert keeps trinkets to give pretty wives (like the present-day picture of a traveling salesman). He knows all the bars and is more familiar with barmaids and innkeepers than the lepers or beggars he's supposed to be soliciting for. (Ideally, after buying necessities, friars were supposed to donate to the poor and sick any leftover money from begging.) Sharpening the irony, Chaucer says it's not right for someone of Hubert's profession ("facultee") to be acquainted with lepers, since after all there's no money there. But when it comes to the rich and the food sellers, suddenly he's "curteis" and humble. So much for Christian charity. His "In principio" (Bible recitation) is so pleasant that he can always get a farthing (or "fair thing," another sexual reference); he gets more money from his illegal takings ("purchas") than his legal "rente." He wears clothes better suited to a pope than to the "poor scholar" he's supposed to be, and he meddles in "love-days," which were assigned for settling civil disputes out of court. Friars were allowed to represent the poor, otherwise they were under strict orders not to interfere. Hubert even lisps to make his English sound more appealing, presumably to women. Is he "worthy"--as Chaucer calls him (line 270)--in the same way the Knight is worthy, or is Chaucer's last line of description the final underlining irony? Obviously, Hubert is everything that a friar shouldn't be--corrupt, rich, greedy, and lecherous--and the tale he later tells reinforces this. He tells of a corrupt summoner (an officer who orders people to appear in court) whose behavior involves trickery, lies, and violence--strikingly similar to the Friar's own nature. The summoner gets dragged off by the Devil. Are we to believe that the Friar is headed the same way?


The Merchant's description is short but telling. You might recognize him: the wealthy businessman who puts up an impressive, expensive front but who is hiding the fact that he is in debt. With the Merchant, Chaucer begins reports of three men who live by "reson," even though the Merchant and Sergeant of Law's "resons" deal more with money than truth, as the Clerk does.

The Merchant wears a Flemish hat, a "motley" (variously colored) coat, and well-fastened boots. That he's an individual is clear even from so few lines: his hat is distinctive for his time and class, his remarks are solemn, and his "governaunce" (manner) dignified. But he is typical in scathing ways. He always talks about increasing his profits, a sin not only of greed but of pride, and worse, he deals in "chevyssaunce," moneylending for interest, which was illegal. He's concerned with protecting the ocean trade routes between Holland and England. You would be, too, if you staked your fortune as he does on the English wool you exported to the Continent. He also ignores the law against "eschaunge" (exchange). It was illegal for private citizens to buy and sell foreign currency (in this case, French gold coins)--out of fear of inflation, much like now--but unscrupulous merchants did it anyway. No wonder Chaucer said he didn't know the Merchant's name! If he based him on a real person, it probably wouldn't be a smart idea to poke public fun at a powerful man to whom many people owe money. We learn more about the Merchant in the Prologue to his tale. He's been married only two months, his tale therefore deals with the idea of a well-balanced marriage.


But if the Merchant's picture is somewhat tainted, we get a sense of great affection for the Clerk, a man after Chaucer's own heart who spends his money on books. He looks thin and studious, the way the Monk and Friar ought to look but don't. Even his horse is lean "as a rake." He is studying for the priesthood, but doesn't yet have a living (benefice) from it, and is too pious to take secular "office." He's a philosopher who borrows money for books.

NOTE: "Philosopher" also meant "alchemist," one who tries to make gold from lead. Some readers see parallels between this Clerk and the lecherous clerk Nicholas in the Miller's Tale, who also keeps books by his bed, whose interests are alchemy and lust. Decide for yourself whether the analogy is fair.

Some see a greediness in the Clerk's book buying because they are fine volumes with "blak and rede" bindings. (At least he remembers to pray for those he borrows from!) Unlike some of the other pilgrims, he never speaks "more than was nede," but when he does he speaks well, with "moral virtu." Before he tells his tale later, in fact, the Host teases him for being so quiet. His tale about the worthy Griselde, deals with the virtues of patience and "a stiff upper lip" in the face of disappointment.


A barrister of high standing appointed by the king, he somehow gets demoted to merely a Man of Law (plain lawyer) in the actual tale-telling. But in the Prologue he is "ful riche of excellence," discreet, and wise, or at least he seems to be because of his impressive style. Might this imply that like the Merchant he is less than he appears? There is evidence for this, since

Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

And yet he semed bisier than he was.

(lines 323-324)

He is able to purchase land "fee simple"--flat out--because of his insider's knowledge, and can find and close any loophole. He spends time at the "parvys," the portal of St. Paul's Cathedral in London where lawyers often met to discuss cases. His list of accomplishments reads like a resume, and he knows every case since William the Conqueror.

In making his material success so obvious and detailed, Chaucer implies that the man has little to show as a human being. But lawyers in the Middle Ages generally had reputations as poor as they do now, and preachers had a field day chewing out lawyers almost as much as friars for their price-gouging and attempts to increase their gains. Ironically, in introducing his tale, the Man of Law protests he will tell a story in prose because he's a plain-speaking man. (And after all that, it's not in prose!) He tells a tale of a Sultan's conversion to Christianity in order to marry, and the sufferings he and his wife undergo before they are reunited--a completed contract, as it were.


The wealthy landowner, the Franklin is one of Chaucer's most colorful characters, literally. His beard is white as a daisy, a symbol of earthly or heavenly love. Here, it's earthly all right. Earthy, too, as the Franklin delights in food and pleasure as "felicitee parfyt" (perfect happiness). But this portrait isn't sarcastic, as are the Monk's and Friar's, since the Franklin's station in life is to be a generous good neighbor. Elected a knight of the shire many times (Chaucer was one himself), the Franklin is "Seint Julien," patron saint of hospitality, in his neck of the woods. He's held other public offices as well, and he is almost the social equal of the Sergeant of the Law. A "sangwen" complexion (sanguine disposition) was one of the four "humors" believed to govern the body, in this case, outgoing and hearty. He carries out his part in life, "Epicurus [who personified pleasure] owene son." Even as he introduces his tale about "trouthe" in marriage, he notes that the only "colors" he knows are not descriptive, just the ones he sees in the meadow--such as daisies!


The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, and Tapestry Maker are doing well. Their wives wish they were aldermen; they would love to be called "madame" and be honored by entering the church first. This is a vivid picture of rather petty men, although the guilds to which they belonged were important union-type groups that supported restoration work on churches and other significant social functions. Guilds had enough political power so that their members could easily have had enough land to be elected aldermen.


The Cook is an excellent chef, but less excellent a human being. He "knowe a draughte of Londoun ale" perhaps too well, and the real giveaway is the "mormal" (open sore) on his shin, which is unappetizing and might be syphilitic. His evident bad habits are reinforced by the Tale he tells, unfinished, about an unsavory young cook who corrupts others with his bad habits.


The Shipman knows his seafaring business and tides and routes, inside and out. Chaucer admires his skills because England's strength as a medieval super-power depended on its navy. But "of nice conscience took he no keep," and he's not above watering down the wine he brings from Bordeaux for men like the Merchant and the Tradesmen. He's not averse to killing either, sending his prisoners "hoom to every lond" by water, i.e., overboard. His tale is of a monk who is as much of a pirate as he is himself, abusing the hospitality of a kindly merchant.


He is a "verray, parfit" practitioner of his art, but is he "true and perfect" in the same way that the Knight is? Certainly he is very learned, familiar with all the ancient and modern physicians (including some who, according to his time and place, he shouldn't have even heard of!). He knows astrology, which was considered a respectable science in Chaucer's day, although some conservatives were against it as anti-Christian. He knew every patient's "humor" and can help align the patient with favorable astrological signs.

NOTE: The four humors--"hot" (choleric), "cold" (melancholy), "moiste" (sanguine, like the Franklin), and watery (phlegmatic)--were believed to rule the body, and an excess of one created illness.

The Doctor by medieval standards is no quack, but he is suspicious. He has arrangements with "apothecaries" (druggists) who help him make a profit. Some doctors and pharmacists, then as now, were accused of overcharging patients on prescriptions and then splitting the difference. The Doctor also knows "but litel on the Bible," a sure sign that his knowledge, even though it encompasses the stars, is restricted to the lower "physical" things in life, since it doesn't contain God.

Finally, Chaucer says sweetly, he's saved all the money he's made from the plagues that were common in the Middle Ages, "For gold in phisyk is a cordial [medicine]. Therefor he lovede gold in special" (lines 445-446). Is this the only reason he loves gold, because it's a good medicine? Look at the way he's dressed, in taffeta and "sendal" (silk); that should give you a clue. His tale, which he tells us deals with the price of sin, is of an unjust judge who has to get the woman he wants. The woman, Virginia, is so honorable, however, that she dies rather than submit to him. In keeping with the Doctor's profession, he gives a long hymn to nature for forming that perfect machine, the body.


She is one of Chaucer's most lively inventions. She thinks very highly of herself and her skill as a weaver (better even than the renowned Belgians). She lets us know she's entitled to make the first offering at church services, an honor carrying great social prestige. (But watch out if you cut in front of her, then she won't give a penny.) She shows off her Sunday clothes with evident pride, including "ten pounds" of "coverchiefs," finely textured veils arranged over her head. Her clothing tells us she is no shy, retiring wallflower.

But we're more interested in her famous love life than in her fashions. She's had five husbands--later, in her Prologue to the tale she tells, she gives the histories of all five--not to mention "other company in youth." (But, says Chaucer, we don't have to mention that. Is he perhaps embarrassed?) She's an old hand at pilgrimages, and, it's implied, the loose morals that sometimes go along; she knows, probably in both senses, "muche of wandring by the weye." She's gap-toothed, a medieval sign that some believe had to do with sexual accomplishment, or with a bold, faithless nature, or with traveling. The Wife of Bath, we find out, has plenty of all three.

Her tale deals not surprisingly with the upper hand a woman must maintain in marriage. She is "somdel [somewhat] deaf," but that doesn't stop her from amorous adventures; she also later gives more detail about her "other company" that Chaucer passes lightly over by saying,

Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,

For she koude [knew] of that art the olde daunce.

(lines 475-476)

The "remedies of love" implies she knows of Ovid's ancient work of the same name, which deals with all the rules of the love game. The idea of knowing the rules of the game, especially of a sexual nature, shows up often in reference to the Wife.

Is she meant to be purely ironic? It wouldn't be strange to Chaucer's audience to hear of five husbands, since no woman, especially one with property and one as willing as the Wife, would stay a widow for long. She uses all her "reson" for defending the delights of the lower regions of the body. But can you find anything in her portrait that cuts, for example, like the knife Chaucer uses against the Doctor? The Wife is teased, but is she judged? More than any other character, Chaucer lets her speak for herself.


The poor Parson, like the Knight, is the ideal of what someone of his class ought to be. He is "lerned," "in adversitee ful [very] pacient," and is a "noble ensaumple" (example) to his parishioners. Given what we've already seen of learned men and their abuses, it's unusual that this one should possess such virtue--he is even "loath" to collect his "tithes" (income tax on which he lives). He practices what he preaches, knowing that he must set the example for the common people, "For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lewed [ignorant] man to ruste" (lines 503-504) like "iren." He doesn't, like some priests, run to London and rent out his parish to someone else. His ideal qualities make him ideal to tell the last tale of the trip, a sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins, which reminds us there is a serious spiritual purpose to the pilgrimage and to the Tales.

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The Parson's brother, in spirit as well as in blood, is the Plowman, who is also the perfect ideal, "living in pees and parfit charite." This portrait may well have amazed Chaucer's audience, just as we'd be surprised to hear of such a chivalrous workman. This Plowman would work for a poor person without pay; he pays all his church taxes on time; he loves his neighbor as himself. He rides a mare, a humble horse. This portrait is especially interesting because peasants in Chaucer's day rose up frequently against Chaucer's own middle class. ...

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