Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales Though the characters in the Canterbury Tales are described vividly and often comically, it is not necessarily true that these characters are therefore stereotypes of The Middle ages. The intricate visual descriptions and the tales the characters tell help to direct the reader in finding a more accurate and realistic picture of the pilgrims, bringing into question the theory that Chaucer was just collating stereotypes from his time. The fact that there is one representative for each of the chief classes (under the higher nobility) would suggest that this work is an attempt to provide a catalogue of characters from the middle ages, and it can be assumed from this that this denotes a collection of stereotypes, although this is not necessarily true. The format of The Canterbury Tales suggests a simplistic approach, a prologue and epilogue and in between a collection of tales, The Miler’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale and so on[1]. This simplicity in structure may also suggest a simplicity in content and thus, convincing and challenging characters are unlikely to be expected in a work of seemingly simple design.

But, when looked at in more detail, the tales are found to hold many details that contradict the bland stereotype expected, and when the structure of the work is looked at in its context of 14th century literature, the Canterbury Tales is found to be a work pioneering the form of the epic poem. The style in which Chaucer writes may also initially seem to suggest that his characters are under-developed stereotypes, he uses the language of his time vividly, although this does not therefore mean that his characters are two dimensional, almost ‘cartoon’ characters. J.R. Hulbert in his essay Chaucer’s Pilgrims explains, “In many instances there are exuberant lines which sharpen the effect desired.” The Canterbury Tales may, at first seem to be obtuse and unfocused through the use of lucid imagery and language, although this language, when studied gives a more detailed and more deeply layered portrayal of the pilgrims as well as giving them colourful characteristics. Chaucer’s description of the knight is a good example of his subversion of the classic Arthurian image that existed in popular literature of the time[2]. In the General Prologue, Chaucer relays his description of the knight: ” A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the time that he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrye, Trouthe, and honour, freedom and curteisye.” This excerpt, the beginning of the description of the knight holds true to the classic representation of the knight of valour and honour, but Chaucer goes on to pervert and pollute the fairytale image that he has created: ” And of his port as meeke as is a maide” and, ” His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

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Of fustian he wered a gopoun, Al bismothered with his haubergeoun.” In these few lines, Chaucer has destroyed the traditional stereotype of the knight and created a new and almost comical figure. Our knight is not one ‘in shining armour’, but rather a ‘knight in a rusted chain-mail’. The knight does not even have a hyper-masculine representation here either. Chaucer feminises the knight comparing him to a maid. At the end of the description of the knight in the general prologue the only part of the knight that lives up to the readers expectations is his horse, which apparently was in good condition.

Although we have only been given a visual representation of the knight, the reader can gather many things from this description, perhaps the knight is effeminate or weak, and he shys away from battle, getting so little battlefield ‘action’ that his chainmail has begun to rust. It is a device used by Chaucer to convey the character of his pilgrims using their appearance. Thus when the Wife of Bath is described as being “gat-toothed”, the reader can assume that she is lusty as it was believed in the Middle ages that this particular physical attribute denoted that characteristic. In medieval times, certain elements of a person’s appearance intrinsically suggested something, if not everything of their character. Indeed, this practice of identifying outward appearance with inward attitudes and traits became an area of study known as ‘physiognomy’ and manuals on this subject were produced[3].

In more recent times, critics have tried to unravel and understand the many tiny clues hidden in the character descriptions to gain a sharper picture of these characters. In 1919 Water Clyde Curry claimed to have discovered the pardoner’s “secret” [that he was a eunuchus ex nativitate] using these manuals, and this discovery, after it’s initial acceptance has been questioned for it’s reliance on the physiognomy texts that are vague and overlapping anyway. Although we may not be able to assess the details of the characters in as much detail as Walter Clyde Curry attempted, we can still glean further insight into the pilgrims characters from their appearance. Chaucer describes the miller in a similar way to the knight, in that he creates a picture of the archetypal stereotype and then obliterates it with a parody of the traditional model. The miller is described as “braun”, “brood”, “short-shuldred” and “eek of bones”, this is a regular picture of a stocky, well-built, practical man.

Chaucer then describes how this man who seems fit and strong and therefore, presumably young, is actually old and is not as worldly wise as his age and his profession as a carpenter would suggest. The carpenter who is physically strong is, unfortunately for him, mentally weak. He is not suspecting of his young wife’s plot to have sex with Nicholas and he is completely taken in by the clerk’s claims of a flood on the scale of that of Noah’s time. Although the reader might presume the miller to be worldly wise, having a hard labour-intensive job bringing him into contact with other people and forcing him to travel far and wide, his worldly wisdom is mocked by the cunning and shrewd clerk and his own young wife, just as the hairy wart on his nose mocks his face and muscular complexion. In the prologue to the miler’s tale the narrator warns, “An housbonde shal nought been inquisitif Of Goddes privet …