The Canterbury Tales

by: Geoffrey Chaucer

General Prologue: The Franklin through the Pardoner

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.

Analysis

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.