narrator makes it quite clear that he is also a character in his
book. Although he is called Chaucer, we should be wary of accepting
his words and opinions as Chaucer’s own. In the General Prologue,
the narrator presents himself as a gregarious and naïve character.
Later on, the Host accuses him of being silent and sullen. Because
the narrator writes down his impressions of the pilgrims from memory,
whom he does and does not like, and what he chooses and chooses
not to remember about the characters, tells us as much about the
narrator’s own prejudices as it does about the characters themselves.
first pilgrim Chaucer describes in the General Prologue, and the
teller of the first tale. The Knight represents the ideal of a medieval
Christian man-at-arms. He has participated in no less than fifteen
of the great crusades of his era. Brave, experienced, and prudent,
the narrator greatly admires him.
in-depth analysis of The Knight.
The Wife of Bath
- Bath is an English town on the Avon River, not the
name of this woman’s husband. Though she is a seamstress by occupation,
she seems to be a professional wife. She has been married five times
and had many other affairs in her youth, making her well practiced
in the art of love. She presents herself as someone who loves marriage
and sex, but, from what we see of her, she also takes pleasure in
rich attire, talking, and arguing. She is deaf in one ear and has
a gap between her front teeth, which was considered attractive in
Chaucer’s time. She has traveled on pilgrimages to Jerusalem three
times and elsewhere in Europe as well.
in-depth analysis of The Wife of Bath.
granted papal indulgences—reprieves from penance in exchange for
charitable donations to the Church. Many pardoners, including this
one, collected profits for themselves. In fact, Chaucer’s Pardoner
excels in fraud, carrying a bag full of fake relics—for example,
he claims to have the veil of the Virgin Mary. The Pardoner has
long, greasy, yellow hair and is beardless. These characteristics
were associated with shiftiness and gender ambiguity in Chaucer’s
time. The Pardoner also has a gift for singing and preaching whenever
he finds himself inside a church.
in-depth analysis of The Pardoner.
and brawny, the Miller has a wart on his nose and a big mouth, both
literally and figuratively. He threatens the Host’s notion of propriety
when he drunkenly insists on telling the second tale. Indeed, the Miller
seems to enjoy overturning all conventions: he ruins the Host’s
carefully planned storytelling order; he rips doors off hinges;
and he tells a tale that is somewhat blasphemous, ridiculing religious
clerks, scholarly clerks, carpenters, and women.
as modest and quiet, this Prioress (a nun who is head of her convent)
aspires to have exquisite taste. Her table manners are dainty, she
knows French (though not the French of the court), she dresses well, and
she is charitable and compassionate.
monks of the Middle Ages lived in monasteries according to the Rule
of Saint Benedict,
which demanded that they devote their
lives to “work and prayer.” This Monk cares little for the Rule;
his devotion is to hunting and eating. He is large, loud, and well
clad in hunting boots and furs.
priests with no ties to a monastery, friars were a great object
of criticism in Chaucer’s time. Always ready to befriend young women
or rich men who might need his services, the friar actively administers
the sacraments in his town, especially those of marriage and confession.
However, Chaucer’s worldly Friar has taken to accepting bribes.
Summoner brings persons accused of violating Church law
to ecclesiastical court. This Summoner is a lecherous man whose
face is scarred by leprosy. He gets drunk frequently, is irritable,
and is not particularly qualified for his position. He spouts the
few words of Latin he knows in an attempt to sound educated.
leader of the group, the Host is large, loud, and merry, although
he possesses a quick temper. He mediates among the pilgrims and
facilitates the flow of the tales. His title of “host” may be a
pun, suggesting both an innkeeper and the Eucharist, or Holy Host.
only devout churchman in the company, the Parson lives in poverty,
but is rich in holy thoughts and deeds. The pastor of a sizable
town, he preaches the Gospel and makes sure to practice what he
preaches. He is everything that the Monk, the Friar, and the Pardoner
Knight’s son and apprentice. The Squire is
curly-haired, youthfully handsome, and loves dancing and courting.
Clerk is a poor student of philosophy. Having spent his money on
books and learning rather than on fine clothes, he is threadbare
and wan. He speaks little, but when he does, his words are wise
and full of moral virtue.
The Man of Law
successful lawyer commissioned by the king. He upholds justice in
matters large and small and knows every statute of England’s law
manciple was in charge of getting provisions for a college or court.
Despite his lack of education, this Manciple is smarter than the
thirty lawyers he feeds.
Merchant trades in furs and other cloths, mostly from Flanders.
He is part of a powerful and wealthy class in Chaucer’s society.
from years of sailing, the Shipman has seen every bay and river
in England, and exotic ports in Spain and Carthage as well. He is
a bit of a rascal, known for stealing wine while the ship’s captain sleeps.
Physician is one of the best in his profession, for he knows the
cause of every malady and can cure most of them. Though the Physician
keeps himself in perfect physical health, the narrator calls into
question the Physician’s spiritual health: he rarely consults the
Bible and has an unhealthy love of financial gain.
word “franklin” means “free man.” In Chaucer’s society, a franklin
was neither a vassal serving a lord nor a member of the nobility.
This particular franklin is a connoisseur of food and wine, so much
so that his table remains laid and ready for food all day.
reeve was similar to a steward of a manor, and this reeve performs
his job shrewdly—his lord never loses so much as a ram to the other
employees, and the vassals under his command are kept in line. However, he
steals from his master.
Plowman is the Parson’s brother and is equally good-hearted. A member
of the peasant class, he pays his tithes to the Church and leads
a good Christian life.
together, the five Guildsmen appear as a unit. English guilds were
a combination of labor unions and social fraternities: craftsmen
of similar occupations joined together to increase their bargaining
power and live communally. All five Guildsmen are clad in the livery
of their brotherhood.
Cook works for the Guildsmen. Chaucer gives little detail about
him, although he mentions a crusty sore on the Cook’s leg.
servant who accompanies the Knight and the Squire. The narrator
mentions that his dress and weapons suggest he may be a forester.
The Second Nun
Second Nun is not described in the General Prologue, but she tells
a saint’s life for her tale.
The Nun’s Priest
- Like the Second Nun, the Nun’s Priest is not described
in the General Prologue. His story of Chanticleer, however, is well
crafted and suggests that he is a witty, self-effacing preacher.
Characters from the Five Tales Analyzed in This
The Knight’s Tale
great conqueror and the duke of Athens in the Knight’s Tale. The
most powerful ruler in the story, he is often called upon to make
the final judgment, but he listens to others’ pleas for help.
is one of the two imprisoned Theban soldier heroes in the Knight’s
Tale. Brave, strong, and sworn to everlasting friendship with his
cousin Arcite, Palamon falls in love with the fair maiden Emelye,
which brings him into conflict with Arcite. Though he loses the tournament
against Arcite, he gets Emelye in the end.
sworn brother to Palamon, Arcite, imprisoned with Palamon in the
tower in the Knight’s Tale, falls equally head over heels in love
with Emelye. He gets released from the tower early and wins Emelye’s
hand in a tournament, but then dies when a divinely fated earthquake
causes his horse to throw him.
is the sister to Hippolyta, Theseus’s domesticated Amazon queen
in the Knight’s Tale. Fair-haired and glowing, we first see Emelye
as Palamon does, through a window. Although she is the object of both
Palamon’s and Arcite’s desire, she would rather spend her life unmarried
and childless. Nevertheless, when Arcite wins the tournament, she
readily pledges herself to him.
father. Egeus gives Theseus the advice that helps him convince Palamon
and Emelye to end their mourning of Arcite and get married.
The Miller’s Tale
the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a poor astronomy student who boards
with an elderly carpenter, John, and the carpenter’s too-young wife,
Alisoun. Nicholas dupes John and sleeps with Alisoun right under
John’s nose, but Absolon, the foppish parish clerk, gets Nicholas
in the end.
is the sexy young woman married to the carpenter in the Miller’s
Tale. She is bright and sweet like a small bird, and dresses in
a tantalizing style—her clothes are embroidered inside and outside,
and she laces her boots high. She willingly goes to bed with Nicholas,
but she has only harsh words and obscenities for Absolon.
local parish clerk in the Miller’s Tale, Absolon is a little bit
foolish and more than a little bit vain. He wears red stockings
underneath his floor-length church gown, and his leather shoes are
decorated like the fanciful stained-glass windows in a cathedral.
He curls his hair, uses breath fresheners, and fancies Alisoun.
dim-witted carpenter to whom Alisoun is married and with whom Nicholas
boards. John is jealous and possessive of his wife. He constantly
berates Nicholas for looking into God’s “pryvetee,” but when Nicholas offers
John the chance to share his knowledge, John quickly accepts. He
gullibly believes Nicholas’s pronouncement that a second flood is
coming, which allows Nicholas to sleep with John’s wife.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
The First Three Husbands
- The Wife of Bath says that her first three husbands
were “good” because they were rich and old. She could order them
around, use sex to get what she wanted, and trick them into believing
The Fourth Husband
- The Wife of Bath says comparatively little about
her fourth husband. She loved him, but he was a reveler who had
a mistress. She had fun singing and dancing with him, but tried
her best to make him jealous. She fell in love with her fifth husband,
Jankyn, while she was still married to her fourth.
Wife of Bath’s fifth husband, Jankyn, was a twenty-year-old former
student, with whom the Wife was madly in love. His stories of wicked
wives frustrated her so much that one night she ripped a page out
of his book, only to receive a deafening smack on her ear in return.
young knight rapes a maiden, and, to avoid the punishment of death,
he is sent by the queen on a quest to learn about submission to
women. Once he does so, and shows that he has learned his lesson
by letting his old ugly wife make a decision, she rewards him by
becoming beautiful and submissive.
in-depth analysis of The Knight.
The Old Woman
old woman supplies the young knight with the answer to his question,
in exchange for his promise to do whatever she wants. When she tells
him he must marry her, the knight begrudgingly agrees, and when
he allows her to choose whether she would like to be beautiful and
unfaithful or ugly and faithful, she rewards him by becoming both
beautiful and faithful.
queen, presumably Guinevere, is interesting because she wields most
of the power. When Arthur’s knight rapes a maiden, he turns the
knight over to his queen allows her to decide what to do with him.
The Pardoner’s Tale
The Three Rioters
- These are the three protagonists of the Pardoner’s
Tale. All three indulge in and represent the vices against which
the Pardoner has railed in his Prologue: Gluttony, Drunkeness, Gambling,
and Swearing. These traits define the three and eventually lead
to their downfall. The Rioters at first appear like personified
vices, but it is their belief that a personified concept—in this
case, Death—is a real person that becomes the root cause of their
The Old Man
the Pardoner’s Tale, the three Rioters encounter a very old man
whose body is completely covered except for his face. Before the
old man tells the Rioters where they can find “Death,” one of the
Rioters rashly demands why the old man is still alive. The old man answers
that he is doomed to walk the earth for eternity. He has been interpreted
as Death itself, or as Cain, punished for fratricide by walking
the earth forever; or as the Wandering Jew, a man who refused to let
Christ rest at his house when Christ proceeded to his crucifixion,
and who was therefore doomed to roam the world, through the ages,
never finding rest.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
heroic rooster of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chanticleer has seven
hen-wives and is the most handsome cock in the barnyard. One day,
he has a prophetic dream of a fox that will carry him away. Chanticleer
is also a bit vain about his clear and accurate crowing voice, and
he unwittingly allows a fox to flatter him out of his liberty.
favorite wife in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. She is his equal in looks,
manners, and talent. When Chanticleer dreams of the fox, he awakens
her in the middle of the night, begging for an interpretation, but Pertelote
will have none of it, calling him foolish. When the fox takes him
away, she mourns him in classical Greek fashion, burning herself
orange fox, interpreted by some as an
allegorical figure for the devil, catches Chanticleer
the rooster through flattery. Eventually, Chanticleer outwits the
fox by encouraging him to boast of his deceit to his pursuers. When
the fox opens his mouth, Chanticleer escapes.