The Canterbury Tales

by: Geoffrey Chaucer

General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law

Fragment 1, lines 43–330

Summary

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.

Analysis

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.


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