Canterbury Tales Essay Research Paper Though the

Canterbury Tales Essay, Research Paper

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. 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 privetee, nor of his wif."

(55-56) and the miller pays heed to this warning, suppressing curiosity of

"Goddes privetee" as regards the flood and trusting his wife so much

as to leave her alone and independent while he travels on his business. This

blind acceptance of ‘Goddes’ mysteries and his wife’s deceit leads to his

metaphoric and literal downfall when the tale comes to it’s climax, as the

miller falls from the roof, and again, literally and metaphorically waking up to

find his wife having had sex with another man. The miller’s wife Alison is

another character that is represented using this same process of creating a

stereotypical figure and then adding flaws and perversions. Alison is presented

as a pure, innocent, virginal youth in the tale, "Fair was this yonge wif

and therwithal As any wesele hir body gent and smal…. Ful smale ypulled were

hir browes two,….. Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth," (115-52)

Other youthful descriptions are given of Alison in the passage that runs from

line 115 to 162. This description seems like the stereotypical virginal

newly-wed until the plot thickens and Alison becomes less and less innocent. One

instance when Alison’s loyalty and morality are tested is when Nicholas accosts

her, grabbing her "by the queinte"(168). Alison’s initial reaction is

that of any loving wife, to protest and try and escape, but she does not take

much persuading to go to bed with the clerk. Chaucer explains this by saying

that he made such vigorous advances that she could not resist, but this scene

seems more like rape than a lover wooing his true love. Alison is instantly

exposed to have the same base and uncurbed desires as Nicholas, parodying the

facade of the virginal young bride. One character who openly reveals the facade

which he hides behind is the pardoner. His description in the general prologue

tells of his trickery in using false relics and his use of his position as

absolver to make money. The pardoner himself, also openly admits his

hypocritical practices to the other pilgrims. He tells them that he is only

concerned with money, and reveals the falsehood of his relics (and even after

this tries to trick them into giving him money for absolution). The pardoner is

not represented as a pious, humble and holy man as you would expect of a

pardoner, but as a conniving, money-grabbing hypocrite. This character itself is

almost a stereotype, though Chaucer’s description of the pardoner holds many

quirky traits that take the pardoner from being a stereotype to being a

believable individual. The pardoner’s sexuality is a complex issue that has had

critics such as Donald Howard, G. L. Kiterridge and Paul Ruggiers debating. The

pardoner is clearly not an open and shut stereotype. What is unique about the

pardoner is that he recognises his own hypocrisy. He admits that he is guilty of

the "avarice" that he preaches against but separates himself from

those who he condemns, "Thus can I preche that same vice Which that I use,

and that is avarice. But though myself be gilty in that sine, Yit can I make

other folk to twinne"(139-142) This recognition of his own hypocrisy takes

the pardoner one stage further than a purely hypocritical clergyman and makes

his character more complex and interesting. The pardoner recognises his own sins

and fails to see this as a problem, creating a psychological profile that is

much too intricate to be brushed aside as a stereotype. This use of the typical

‘types’ of people encountered in Chaucer’s era helps to give a vividness that

the reader can relate to and, quoting a stereotype initially (and then

subsequently deconstructing it) as he does with a number of the pilgrims such as

Alison and the Knight, allows a lot of information to be passed from the author

to the reader with minimum communication. Quoting a stereotype saves Chaucer

having to explain what the character is like. Chaucer takes advantage of this

fact, but does not allow this to confine the scope his work has for realism. His

genius in describing the pilgrims is that he will use a stereotype and then add

individual features (that more often than not contradict the initial image),

making the characters more intricate and interesting and above all ,more

believable. The eye for detail that Chaucer obviously possesses is put to good

use here, these characters are not broad, generalising stereotypes, rather he

gives a detailed insight into the psyche of the pilgrims we encounter. I believe

that the pilgrims are believable and fully developed characters, that Chaucer

has created using typical stereotypes from the time and the people he saw around

himself. He has combined this with individual quirks and details that give

further insight into the characters. Chaucer has not created stereotypes, but

has used stereotypes (and manipulated them) in order to create intricate and

realistic characters. This twinning of the typical and the atypical gives The

Canterbury Tales a definite sense of realism that reaches far beyond


1. J.R. Hulbert, Chaucer’s Pilgrims p23 (from Essays in Modern Criticism-see

bibliography) 2. The Black book of Carmarthen (c. latter 14th century, author

unknown) Preidaeu Annun from The Book of Taliesin, poem 30 (c. 14th century

author unknown) 3. C. D. Benson, "Chaucer’s Pardoner: His sexuality and

modern critics" (from Luminarium medieval literature website at Bibliography Chaucer (modern essays in criticism), edited by

E. Wagenknecht, OUP 1974 The Canterbury Tales, D. Pearsall, Unwin Critical

Library 1985 Who’s Who in Chaucer, A.F. Scott, Elm Tree1974 The Canterbury Tales

(casebook series), edited by J.J. Anderson, Anchor Press 1974 Chaucer’s Women,

P. Martin, Macmillan 1990 Chaucer, a critical appreciation, P.F. Baum, Duke

University Press 1958 Chaucer Langland and the Creative Imagination, D. Aers

Critical Essays on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, edited by M. Andrew Open

University Press 1991 Chaucer, D. Aers, Harvester 1986 Geoffrey Chaucer, edited

by J.A. Burrow, Penguin 1969 Editions of Canterbury Tales used: Penguin Classics

1960 edition Excerpts contained in Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth

edition, Volume 1 Norton 1993


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