The Canterbury Tales
General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law
Fragment 1, lines 43–330
The narrator begins his character portraits with the Knight. In the narrator’s eyes, the Knight is the noblest of the pilgrims, embodying military prowess, loyalty, honor, generosity, and good manners. The Knight conducts himself in a polite and mild fashion, never saying an unkind word about anyone. The Knight’s son, who is about twenty years old, acts as his father’s squire, or apprentice. Though the Squire has fought in battles with great strength and agility, like his father, he is also devoted to love. A strong, beautiful, curly-haired young man dressed in clothes embroidered with dainty flowers, the Squire fights in the hope of winning favor with his “lady.” His talents are those of the courtly lover—singing, playing the flute, drawing, writing, and riding—and he loves so passionately that he gets little sleep at night. He is a dutiful son, and fulfills his responsibilities toward his father, such as carving his meat. Accompanying the Knight and Squire is the Knight’s Yeoman, or freeborn servant. The Yeoman wears green from head to toe and carries an enormous bow and beautifully feathered arrows, as well as a sword and small shield. His gear and attire suggest that he is a forester.
Next, the narrator describes the Prioress, named Madame Eglentyne. Although the Prioress is not part of the royal court, she does her best to imitate its manners. She takes great care to eat her food daintily, to reach for food on the table delicately, and to wipe her lip clean of grease before drinking from her cup. She speaks French, but with a provincial English accent. She is compassionate toward animals, weeping when she sees a mouse caught in a trap, and feeding her dogs roasted meat and milk. The narrator says that her features are pretty, even her enormous forehead. On her arm she wears a set of prayer beads, from which hangs a gold brooch that features the Latin words for “Love Conquers All.” Another nun and three priests accompany her.
The Monk is the next pilgrim the narrator describes. Extremely handsome, he loves hunting and keeps many horses. He is an outrider at his monastery (he looks after the monastery’s business with the external world), and his horse’s bridle can be heard jingling in the wind as clear and loud as a church bell. The Monk is aware that the rule of his monastic order discourages monks from engaging in activities like hunting, but he dismisses such strictures as worthless. The narrator says that he agrees with the Monk: why should the Monk drive himself crazy with study or manual labor? The fat, bald, and well-dressed Monk resembles a prosperous lord.
The next member of the company is the Friar—a member of a religious order who lives entirely by begging. This friar is jovial, pleasure-loving, well-spoken, and socially agreeable. He hears confessions, and assigns very easy penance to people who donate money. For this reason, he is very popular with wealthy landowners throughout the country. He justifies his leniency by arguing that donating money to friars is a sign of true repentance, even if the penitent is incapable of shedding tears. He also makes himself popular with innkeepers and barmaids, who can give him food and drink. He pays no attention to beggars and lepers because they can’t help him or his fraternal order. Despite his vow of poverty, the donations he extracts allow him to dress richly and live quite merrily.
Tastefully attired in nice boots and an imported fur hat, the Merchant speaks constantly of his profits. The merchant is good at borrowing money, but clever enough to keep anyone from knowing that he is in debt. The narrator does not know his name. After the Merchant comes the Clerk, a thin and threadbare student of philosophy at Oxford, who devours books instead of food. The Man of Law, an influential lawyer, follows next. He is a wise character, capable of preparing flawless legal documents. The Man of Law is a very busy man, but he takes care to appear even busier than he actually is.
The Canterbury Tales is more than an estates satire because the characters are fully individualized creations rather than simple good or bad examples of some ideal type. Many of them seem aware that they inhabit a socially defined role and seem to have made a conscious effort to redefine their prescribed role on their own terms. For instance, the Squire is training to occupy the same social role as his father, the Knight, but unlike his father he defines this role in terms of the ideals of courtly love rather than crusading. The Prioress is a nun, but she aspires to the manners and behavior of a lady of the court, and, like the Squire, incorporates the motifs of courtly love into her Christian vocation. Characters such as the Monk and the Friar, who more obviously corrupt or pervert their social roles, are able to offer a justification and a rationale for their behavior, demonstrating that they have carefully considered how to go about occupying their professions.
Within each portrait, the narrator praises the character being described in superlative terms, promoting him or her as an outstanding example of his or her type. At the same time, the narrator points out things about many of the characters that the reader would be likely to view as flawed or corrupt, to varying degrees. The narrator’s naïve stance introduces many different ironies into the General Prologue. Though it is not always clear exactly how ironic the narrator is being, the reader can perceive a difference between what each character should be and what he or she is.
The narrator is also a character, and an incredibly complex one at that. Examination of the narrator’s presentation of the pilgrims reveals some of his prejudices. The Monk’s portrait, in which the narrator inserts his own judgment of the Monk into the actual portrait, is the clearest example of this. But most of the time, the narrator’s opinions are more subtly present. What he does and doesn’t discuss, the order in which he presents or recalls details, and the extent to which he records objective characteristics of the pilgrims are all crucial to our own ironic understanding of the narrator.
The Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman
The Knight has fought in crusades the world over, and comes as close as any of the characters to embodying the ideals of his vocation. But even in his case, the narrator suggests a slight separation between the individual and the role: the Knight doesn’t simply exemplify chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy; he “loves” them. His virtues are due to his self-conscious pursuit of clearly conceived ideals. Moreover, the Knight’s comportment is significant. Not only is he a worthy warrior, he is prudent in the image of himself that he projects. His appearance is calculated to express humility rather than vainglory.
Whereas the narrator describes the Knight in terms of abstract ideals and battles, he describes the Knight’s son, the Squire, mostly in terms of his aesthetic attractiveness. The Squire prepares to occupy the same role as his father, but he envisions that role differently, supplementing his father’s devotion to military prowess and the Christian cause with the ideals of courtly love (see discussion of courtly love under “Themes, Motifs, and Symbols”). He displays all of the accomplishments and behaviors prescribed for the courtly lover: he grooms and dresses himself carefully, he plays and sings, he tries to win favor with his “lady,” and he doesn’t sleep at night because of his overwhelming love. It is important to recognize, however, that the Squire isn’t simply in love because he is young and handsome; he has picked up all of his behaviors and poses from his culture.
The description of the Knight’s servant, the Yeoman, is limited to an account of his physical appearance, leaving us with little upon which to base an inference about him as an individual. He is, however, quite well attired for someone of his station, possibly suggesting a self-conscious attempt to look the part of a forester.
The Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar
With the descriptions of the Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar, the level of irony with which each character is presented gradually increases. Like the Squire, the Prioress seems to have redefined her own role, imitating the behavior of a woman of the royal court and supplementing her religious garb with a courtly love motto: Love Conquers All. This does not necessarily imply that she is corrupt: Chaucer’s satire of her is subtle rather than scathing. More than a personal culpability, the Prioress’s devotion to courtly love demonstrates the universal appeal and influence of the courtly love tradition in Chaucer’s time. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer seems to question the popularity of courtly love in his own culture, and to highlight the contradictions between courtly love and Christianity.
The narrator focuses on the Prioress’s table manners in minute detail, openly admiring her courtly manners. He seems mesmerized by her mouth, as he mentions her smiling, her singing, her French speaking, her eating, and her drinking. As if to apologize for dwelling so long on what he seems to see as her erotic manner, he moves to a consideration of her “conscience,” but his decision to illustrate her great compassion by focusing on the way she treats her pets and reacts to a mouse is probably tongue-in-cheek. The Prioress emerges as a very realistically portrayed human being, but she seems somewhat lacking as a religious figure.
The narrator’s admiring description of the Monk is more conspicuously satirical than that of the Prioress. The narrator zeroes in on the Monk with a vivid image: his bridle jingles as loud and clear as a chapel bell. This image is pointedly ironic, since the chapel is where the Monk should be but isn’t. To a greater degree than the Squire or the Prioress, the Monk has departed from his prescribed role as defined by the founders of his order. He lives like a lord rather than a cleric. Hunting is an extremely expensive form of leisure, the pursuit of the upper classes. The narrator takes pains to point out that the Monk is aware of the rules of his order but scorns them.
Like the Monk, the Friar does not perform his function as it was originally conceived. Saint Francis, the prototype for begging friars, ministered specifically to beggars and lepers, the very people the Friar disdains. Moreover, the Friar doesn’t just neglect his spiritual duties; he actually abuses them for his own profit. The description of his activities implies that he gives easy penance in order to get extra money, so that he can live well. Like the Monk, the Friar is ready with arguments justifying his reinterpretation of his role: beggars and lepers cannot help the Church, and giving money is a sure sign of penitence. The narrator strongly hints that the Friar is lecherous as well as greedy. The statement that he made many marriages at his own cost suggests that he found husbands for young women he had made pregnant. His white neck is a conventional sign of lecherousness.
The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law
The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law represent three professional types. Though the narrator valiantly keeps up the pretense of praising everybody, the Merchant evidently taxes his ability to do so. The Merchant is in debt, apparently a regular occurrence, and his supposed cleverness at hiding his indebtedness is undermined by the fact that even the naïve narrator knows about it. Though the narrator would like to praise him, the Merchant hasn’t even told the company his name.
Sandwiched between two characters who are clearly devoted to money, the threadbare Clerk appears strikingly oblivious to worldly concerns. However, the ultimate purpose of his study is unclear. The Man of Law contrasts sharply with the Clerk in that he has used his studies for monetary gain.
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