The Canterbury Tales
General Prologue: The Franklin through the Pardoner
Fragment 1, lines 331–714
The white-bearded Franklin is a wealthy gentleman farmer, possessed of lands but not of noble birth. His chief attribute is his preoccupation with food, which is so plenteous in his house that his house seemed to snow meat and drink (344–345). The narrator next describes the five Guildsmen, all artisans. They are dressed in the livery, or uniform, of their guild. The narrator compliments their shiny dress and mentions that each was fit to be a city official. With them is their skillful Cook, whom Chaucer would praise fully were it not for the ulcer on his shin. The hardy Shipman wears a dagger on a cord around his neck. When he is on his ship, he steals wine from the merchant he is transporting while he sleeps.
The taffeta-clad Physician bases his practice of medicine and surgery on a thorough knowledge of astronomy and the four humors. He has a good setup with his apothecaries, because they make each other money. He is well acquainted with ancient and modern medical authorities, but reads little Scripture. He is somewhat frugal, and the narrator jokes that the doctor’s favorite medicine is gold.
Next, the narrator describes the slightly deaf Wife of Bath. This keen seamstress is always first to the offering at Mass, and if someone goes ahead of her she gets upset. She wears head coverings to Mass that the narrator guesses must weigh ten pounds. She has had five husbands and has taken three pilgrimages to Jerusalem. She has also been to Rome, Cologne, and other exotic pilgrimage sites. Her teeth have gaps between them, and she sits comfortably astride her horse. The Wife is jolly and talkative, and she gives good love advice because she has had lots of experience.
A gentle and poor village Parson is described next. Pure of conscience and true to the teachings of Christ, the Parson enjoys preaching and instructing his parishioners, but he hates excommunicating those who cannot pay their tithes. He walks with his staff to visit all his parishioners, no matter how far away. He believes that a priest must be pure, because he serves as an example for his congregation, his flock. The Parson is dedicated to his parish and does not seek a better appointment. He is even kind to sinners, preferring to teach them by example rather than scorn. The parson is accompanied by his brother, a Plowman, who works hard, loves God and his neighbor, labors “for Christ’s sake” (537), and pays his tithes on time.
The red-haired Miller loves crude, bawdy jokes and drinking. He is immensely stout and strong, able to lift doors off their hinges or knock them down by running at them with his head. He has a wart on his nose with bright red hairs sticking out of it like bristles, black nostrils, and a mouth like a furnace. He wears a sword and buckler, and loves to joke around and tell dirty stories. He steals from his customers, and plays the bagpipes.
The Manciple stocks an Inn of Court (school of law) with provisions. Uneducated though he is, this manciple is smarter than most of the lawyers he serves. The spindly, angry Reeve has hair so short that he reminds the narrator of a priest. He manages his lord’s estate so well that he is able to hoard his own money and property in a miserly fashion. The Reeve is also a good carpenter, and he always rides behind everybody else.
The Summoner arraigns those accused of violating Church law. When drunk, he ostentatiously spouts the few Latin phrases he knows. His face is bright red from an unspecified disease. He uses his power corruptly for his own gain. He is extremely lecherous, and uses his position to dominate the young women in his jurisdiction. In exchange for a quart of wine, he would let another man sleep with his girlfriend for a year and then pardon the man completely.
The Pardoner, who had just been in the court of Rome, rides with the Summoner. He sings with his companion, and has long, flowing, yellow hair. The narrator mentions that the Pardoner thinks he rides very fashionably, with nothing covering his head. He has brought back many souvenirs from his trip to Rome. The narrator compares the Pardoner’s high voice to that of a goat, and mentions that he thinks the Pardoner might have been a homosexual. The narrator mocks the Pardoner for his disrespectful manipulation of the poor for his own material gain. In charge of selling papal indulgences, he is despised by the Church and most churchgoers for counterfeiting pardons and pocketing the money. The Pardoner is a good preacher, storyteller, and singer, the narrator admits, although he argues it is only because he cheats people of their money in that way.
Again, the narrator describes many of the characters as though he had actually witnessed them doing things he has only heard them talk about. Other portraits, such as that of the Miller, are clearly shaped by class stereotypes.
The Franklin, the Guildsmen, and the Cook
The Franklin and the five Guildsmen share with the Merchant and the Man of Law a devotion to material wealth, and the narrator praises them in terms of their possessions. The description of the Franklin’s table is a lavish poetic tribute to hospitality and luxury. The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, and Tapestry-Weaver are not individualized, and they don’t tell their own tales. The narrator’s approval of their pride in material displays of wealth is clearly satirical. The Cook, with his disgusting physical defect, is himself a display of the Guildsmen’s material worth and prosperity.
The Shipman and the Physician
The descriptions of the Shipman and the Physician are both barbed with keenly satiric turns of phrase implying dishonesty and avarice. The Shipman’s theft of wine is slipped in among descriptions of his professional skills, and his brutality in battle is briefly noted in the midst of his other nautical achievements. The narrator gives an impressive catalog of the Physician’s learning, but then interjects the startling comment that he neglects the Bible, implying that his care for the body comes at the expense of the soul. Moreover, the narrator’s remarks about the Doctor’s love of gold suggest that he is out to make money rather than to help others.
The Wife of Bath
According to whether they infer Chaucer’s implied attitude toward this fearless and outspoken woman as admiring or satirical, readers have interpreted the Wife of Bath as an expression either of Chaucer’s proto-feminism or of his misogyny. Certainly, she embodies many of the traits that woman-hating writers of Chaucer’s time attacked: she is vain, domineering, and lustful. But, at the same time, Chaucer portrays the Wife of Bath in such realistic and humane detail that it is hard to see her simply as a satire of an awful woman. Minor facets of her description, such as the gap between her teeth and her deafness, are expanded upon in the long prologue to her tale.
The Parson and the Plowman
Coming after a catalog of very worldly characters, these two brothers stand out as rare examples of Christian ideals. The Plowman follows the Gospel, loving God and his neighbor, working for Christ’s sake, and faithfully paying tithes to the Church. Their “worth” is thus of a completely different kind from that assigned to the valorous Knight or to the skilled and wealthy characters. The Parson has a more complicated role than the Plowman, and a more sophisticated awareness of his importance.
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve are all stewards, in the sense that other people entrust them with their property. All three of them abuse that trust. Stewardship plays an important symbolic role in The Canterbury Tales, just as it does in the Gospels. In his parables, Jesus used stewardship as a metaphor for Christian life, since God calls the individual to account for his or her actions on the Day of Judgment, just as a steward must show whether he has made a profitable use of his master’s property.
The Miller seems more demonic than Christian, with his violent and brutal habits, his mouth like a furnace, the angry red hairs sprouting from his wart, and his black nostrils. His “golden thumb” alludes to his practice of cheating his customers. The narrator ironically upholds the Manciple as a model of a good steward. The Manciple’s employers are all lawyers, trained to help others to live within their means, but the Manciple is even shrewder than they are. The Reeve is depicted as a very skilled thief—one who can fool his own auditors, and who knows all the tricks of managers, servants, herdsmen, and millers because he is dishonest himself. Worst of all, he enjoys his master’s thanks for lending his master the things he has stolen from him.
The Summoner and the Pardoner
The Summoner and Pardoner, who travel together, are the most corrupt and debased of all the pilgrims. They are not members of holy orders but rather lay officers of the Church. Neither believes in what he does for the Church; instead, they both pervert their functions for their own gain and the corruption of others. The Summoner is a lecher and a drunk, always looking for a bribe. His diseased face suggests a diseased soul. The Pardoner is a more complicated figure. He sings beautifully in church and has a talent for beguiling his somewhat horrified audience. Longhaired and beardless, the Pardoner’s sexuality is ambiguous. The narrator remarks that he thought the Pardoner to be a gelding or a mare, possibly suggesting that he is either a eunuch or a homosexual. His homosexuality is further suggested by his harmonizing with the Summoner’s “stif burdoun,” which means the bass line of a melody but also hints at the male genitalia (673). The Pardoner will further disrupt the agreed-upon structure of the journey (friendly tale-telling) by launching into his indulgence-selling routine, turning his tale into a sermon he frequently uses to con people into feeding his greed. The narrator’s disdain of the Pardoner may in part owe to his jealousy of the Pardoner’s skill at mesmerizing an audience for financial gain—after all, this is a poet’s goal as well.
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