The Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales introduces us to a group of twenty-nine (29) pilgrims who embark on a significant journey from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Over the course of a four-day expedition, these pilgrims share captivating stories that cleverly reflect Chaucer's own life experiences while offering a profound depiction of the society of that time. Within these tales, fragments of Chaucer's personal history are interwoven, adding depth and authenticity to the narratives. Moreover, the stories provide a captivating glimpse into the fabric of fourteenth-century England, as perceived through the discerning eyes of Chaucer, a keen and realistic observer.
Chaucer himself assumes the role of the narrator in the Canterbury Tales, portraying himself as a character within his own literary work. Initially presented as an amiable, innocent, and unassuming figure, the narrator gradually reveals a more complex persona. The Host, a fellow pilgrim, accuses him of being surly and antisocial, and indeed, there are instances where the narrator displays a tendency to impose his subjective opinions and selective memory upon the portrayal of other characters. This introduces an intriguing element of unreality to the narrator's perspectives, ideas, and judgments.
Harry Bailly, the host at the Tabard Inn where the pilgrims gather, possesses an outspoken yet amiable personality, maintaining polite and civil relationships with the other characters. Chaucer presents him as a commoner of lower social status, known for his occasional bouts of short temper. However, Chaucer himself holds a favorable view of the Host, appreciating his intervention whenever disputes arise and acknowledging his pivotal role in facilitating the flow of the tales.
Notably, Chaucer commences the account of the diverse pilgrims with the Knight in the General Prologue, highlighting his distinguished stature among the company. The Knight's portrayal is idealized, emphasizing his unwavering commitment to truth, chivalry, liberality, honor, and courtesy. Additionally, he is depicted as a devout man, having valiantly fought in nearly fifteen monumental wars against both Christian and heathen forces. Chaucer's Knight serves as the embodiment of the virtues and ethical standards highly esteemed in medieval knighthood, a figure who exemplifies both the romanticized ideals and the human imperfections of his time.
Chaucer skillfully paints a captivating portrait of the Squire, who is the Knight's son and an accomplished soldier in his own right. The Squire is a young and handsome man, his attire exuding vivacity and vibrancy reminiscent of a blooming meadow in the month of May. Adorned with intricate embroidery of red and white flowers, his short coat boasts long, wide sleeves. A skilled equestrian, the Squire possesses the prowess to compose songs, excel in tournaments, dance gracefully, and exhibit talent in drawing and writing. He is driven by ardent passions, courting with fervor that rivals the sleepless nights of a nightingale. Yet, despite his talents and pursuits, he remains courteous, humble, and ever ready to assist others, even taking up the role of carving meat at the dining table.
Sporting the appearance of a seasoned forester, the Yeoman serves as a loyal attendant to both the Knight and the Squire, as was customary during that era to maintain dignity and display social status. Adorned with a meticulously arranged quiver, plumed with resplendent peacock feathers, the Yeoman expertly carries his bright and keen arrows secured at his side. His proficient handling of his equipment mirrors the finesse expected of a yeoman. Notably, his arrows eschew the drooping presence of inferior plumage, for feathers of such kind are said to impede the arrow's flight, causing it to fall short of its mark. Holding a formidable bow in his grip, his cropped hair and sun-kissed complexion bespeak a deep understanding of woodland craftsmanship.
Among the esteemed pilgrims of Canterbury, the Prioress, known as the Nun, holds a prominent position. As the head of a modest nunnery, she exudes an aura of serenity and simplicity. With a melodious nasal intonation, she skillfully chants the divine service, displaying her proficiency in French, which she articulates with elegance. Her dining etiquette is impeccable, as she partakes in meals without a single morsel escaping her lips, delicately refraining from dipping her fingers too deeply into the sauce. Her graceful and fastidious manners at the table leave no room for clumsiness. Compassion emanates from her being, motivating her to extend aid to those in need.
The portrayal of the Monk carries an unmistakable sense of irony. Unabashedly devoted to the pursuit of hunting, he pays little heed to religious injunctions that strictly require a monk to remain confined within the cloistered walls. Embracing a lifestyle that defies convention, the Monk effortlessly combines the pursuits of both the ecclesiastical and the avid huntsman, fashioning a life of comfort and convenience. A true embodiment of an equestrian enthusiast, he adorns himself in luxurious furs and sturdy hunting boots. Accompanied by agile greyhounds that rival the swiftness of birds in flight, his greatest pleasures lie in relentless gallops and the chase of hares, sparing no expense to indulge in his preferred pastime.
Chaucer masterfully crafts a vivid and realistic portrayal of the Friar. Possessing an air of authority, he holds the power to hear confessions, executing this task with utmost courtesy. The absolutions he grants are delivered with a pleasing disposition. Ever the opportunist, he eagerly pursues matrimonial alliances with young women, driven by the allure of their dowries. When it comes to assigning penance, his leniency knows no bounds, particularly when he anticipates a generous stipend in return. He boldly asserts that generous alms given to the impoverished Friar serve as an unmistakable sign of true repentance, absolving the giver of all sins. Thus, instead of shedding tears and offering prayers, men may bestow silver upon the destitute friars as a tangible expression of contrition.
The Merchant, bedecked in opulent attire, leads a life of affluence and splendor. Skillfully concealing his true financial woes, he presents an image of dignity that deceives onlookers regarding his actual circumstances. Few are aware of his crippling debts. Astute in the management of his affairs, he engages in trade with an air of refinement, specializing in the commerce of luxurious furs. His shrewd practice of usury, wherein exorbitant interest rates are exacted, showcases his cunning business acumen. Such duplicity places him on par with many of the other pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, each harboring their own brand of hypocrisy.
The Oxford Clerk
Chaucer's Clerk stands as a paragon of virtue, offering a stark contrast to the corrupt, hypocritical personages from the religious orders who preceded him. Devoted solely to the pursuit of knowledge, this studious scholar has sacrificed his well-being and personal appearance in its relentless pursuit. He values twenty volumes of philosophy far more than the acquisition of sumptuous garments, distinguishing himself from the Monk and the Friar, who hold a penchant for fine attire. The Clerk exhibits unwavering dedication to his studies, viewing money as inconsequential except insofar as it aids him in amassing more books. His words are always weighty and morally grave, bearing an unwavering sense of purpose.
The Sergeant at the Law
The Sergeant at the Law represents a man of resounding material success, garnering recognition even from the esteemed King himself. Though deliberate exaggeration colors the apparent praise surrounding his ability to recall every case and judgment since the time of William the Conqueror, this serves as a means for the Man of Law to impress his fellow pilgrims and engender the perception that he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of legal matters. Self-importance radiates from his character, epitomized by his ostentatious display of busyness, cleverly employed to impress clients and extract greater remuneration in the form of robes and fees.
An elderly gentleman unburdened by the constraints of societal norms, the Franklin revels in his wealth, his snow-white beard serving as a testament to his years. A connoisseur of fine cuisine and wine, his table perpetually overflows with delectable provisions and the finest vintages known to man. The Franklin distinguishes himself as an honest soul amidst a sea of deceitful pilgrims, his purity of heart enabling him to embrace life's pleasures without reservation.
The Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet-maker (Guildsmen)
Chaucer bestows minimal attention upon these five individuals, all belonging to distinct professions and varying echelons of society. United by their common trades, they journey together as a close-knit community, providing mutual assistance in times of need. Clad in resplendent attire embellished with glistening silver ornaments, they exude an air of self-importance, reflecting their collective stature within their respective crafts.
Aside from a festering sore upon his leg, the Cook's characterization remains relatively scant in the General Prologue. As a servant to the five Guildsmen, he garners acclaim for his culinary prowess, renowned for crafting the most delectable feasts.
Hailing from the illustrious maritime town of Dartmouth, renowned for its skilled sailors, the Skipper commands his own carthorse. His modest economic circumstances are evident from his woolen garment. Weapons dangle from a cord around his neck, while his sunburnt countenance betrays a life lived amidst the rigors of the sea. Known for his nautical expertise, he enjoys a stellar reputation stretching from England to Carthage in the Mediterranean Sea. Taking advantage of sleeping traders, he slyly indulges in wine pilfered from their supplies, displaying his resourcefulness and cunning in his profession.