Category Archives: chaucer

Like Puzzle Pieces

Who wrote the Canterbury Tales? Of course Chaucer did, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply being ridiculous (and here I am not in any way referring to the many attempts after his death at continuing or finishing the Tales, but solely the unfinished ones that are undoubtedly attributed to him), but I mean, who actually did the physical writing, and more importantly, what role did they play in the final arrangements of the Tales?

Once the hand written Tales left Chaucer’s desk, during his final days, or shortly after his death, they were left to interpretation and editing. Most scholars working with the manuscripts will be faced with the challenge of tale ordering, as all extant manuscripts, even Ellesmere (most anthologized and found in the Riverside Chaucer and the Norton that every student uses), is fragmentary. The problem, however, goes beyond simple tale ordering into the actual fragments, that through the numerous transcripts (84 known) become practically untraceable.

There is little question in regards to Fragment I, consisting of the General Prologue, and Fragment X with the Retraction, but the middle has yet to be indisputably defined. While different manuscripts rearrange the tales in accordance to theories formed on how the tales should interact, it is important to note who wrote these manuscripts. What evidence is there that any one manuscript accurately replicates authorial intent? As will be noted throughout my exercise here, and what was once noted after reading the Manly-Rickert volumes, analyzing the manuscripts and digging up information leads to more questions than answers.

Not only are some individual tales left unfinished, but the entire work as we have it, even when conflating different versions, is not even remotely complete, and is a small part of a much larger work. So the puzzle is not simply to decipher which works went where, but to anticipate/guess/conclude/(include several more adjective here) what might have been included in between.

The focus can become contextual, in which the relationship between pilgrims establishes the order, in accordance to several factors, including estate, proximity, or personal knowledge based on what is already written. Or the focus may become geographical, insinuating that different tales take their order from the cues of their surroundings (promulgated by Bradshaw and brilliantly and wittily disproved by Donaldson). Others focus on a timeline of when each manuscript could have possibly been written. However, each of these theories has its flaws that impede the assertion of any one dominant ordering to end all further discussion.

The idea that the tales proceed down a narrative arc built on spirituality falls short when considering that there is no definite structure that leads to spirituality from beginning to end, meaning that the tales waiver along a line that approximates spirituality, but not quite. The idea that the tales trace the relationships between pilgrims is questionable in light of the fact that not many are actually made, and the pilgrims spend the majority of their time telling tales or talking about themselves as opposed to actually interacting with each other. The Bradshaw Shift rearranges the entire work in light of a few geographical references. If such a far fetched theory could exist, then it is important to note that it does not take into account that in the General Prologue (which almost doesn’t vary at all throughout the manuscripts) it is stated that there would be a return trip – geographically this should be taken into consideration, ultimately serving to reverse the tales altogether. As Donaldson states, the Bradshaw Shift is “a desperate remedy, a huge conjectural emendation involving the transfer of some 3450 lines over an area of 7326 lines in order to correct the reading of a single word.” In other words, if the tales did follow a geographical pattern as they are, it would be the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with a stop in San Jose only to back track to Santa Barbara before resuming the northern route.  Not to mention that, again, the Tales are not complete, meaning that further changes could have been made, and more importantly, if topography was so important to Chaucer, then why are there so few references to it? Sittingbourne and Rochester constitute almost half the geographical mentions made.

This leaves two ways of analyzing the manuscripts, contextually, and physically.

To more or less paraphrase Helen Cooper, since theories based on identifiable connecting ideas are subject to interpretation, editors generally take a more technical, or textual, approach that is based on physical evidence within the manuscripts, helping to deduce the hands which actually wrote the Tales, and bringing the work closer to the nature of how Chaucer left it.

Arguably (although no one argues against this), one of the most important texts in Chaucer scholarship is the 1940 Manly-Rickert eight volume set that analyzed all extant manuscripts at the time, line for line, noting all discrepancies, and forming decisions which would sway scholarship for decades into the present. Unlike the majority of scholars, they did not believe Chaucer had a set idea before death, and that the manuscripts were all inferences of his work. I personally believe much the same, and have quite a hunch that authorship was greatly represented by scribal authority, especially when scribes of myriad notable texts (noted for their penmanship and ink preferences) had their hand in completing manuscripts.

The Manly-Rickert text asserts that upon Chaucer’s death scribes acquired the Tales from his desk, and from circulation among acquaintances, referring to these pieces as “corrupt” due to previous handling. However, what this suggests is that scribes received the Tales piecemeal, and therefore not in any intelligible order. The main problem with this is that a large number of manuscripts do preserve a certain order. Granted several of the same scribes worked on several of the same manuscripts, meaning that they would have preserved the order among themselves, this does not account for the overall consensus on certain groupings. Over 50 manuscripts maintain the marriage group, as it is modernly called. And even more convene on the primary tales. It would have been impossible for only a handful of scribes to have completed these works in a life-time, not to mention the disparity of libraries in which they were found makes it unlikely that communication happened, implying that there was in fact some sort of predetermined order that all were following, with only slight divergence, making the problem somewhat easier to solve – the tales are typically found in groupings, so it is not the original tales that must be placed in order, and not even the fragments, but rather the groupings. This same argument will again become important shortly.

All of the manuscripts that contain a full set of fragments (ten), are dated after 1400, meaning nothing was written during Chaucer’s life, and thus he had no hand in scribal orchestration. More recent studies, notably those of Vance Ramsey, speculate that the Hengwrt manuscript was in fact produced before Chaucer’s death, circa 1395. The significance is within the implication that if Hengwrt was produced directly under Chaucer’s guidance, or at least with his general approval, then the tale orderings in Hengwrt hold more authority than previously conceived. Manly and Rickert were of this view before Ramsey made the argument, however, they did not acknowledge any claims of Hengwrt being produced prior to 1400, but rather that it “represents the earliest attempt after Chaucer’s death to arrange in a single manuscript the tales and links left unarranged by him.” Yet, according to the ordering that Manly and Rickert devised, Hengwrt is lacking passages, and reverses several folios later found in other manuscripts. Yes, Hengwrt is indeed lacking passages, especially in light of the Lansdowne and Ellesmere manuscripts. Yet regardless of whether Hengwrt was written before or shortly after Chaucer’s death, to refer to it as one of the closest manuscripts to Chaucer’s desk implies that anything outside Hengwrt was perhaps a scribal embellishment to fill in numerous gaps of plot. Considering who is thought to have been the principle scribe on the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts, it does not seem impossible, but considering that even the Ellesmere remained incomplete it begs the question as to how much involvement there really was. Depending on which passages are thought to have been fabricated for plot continuation, and the amount of added material, readings could most certainly be altered.

Cooper has thoroughly discussed the absurdity of trying to reassemble what may at one point have been on Chaucer’s desk in an attempt to reconstruct the original intentions for the manuscripts. Aside from that information being unavailable, it generally leads to a circular argument where people will find on the hypothetical desk whatever it is they wish to find there, then use their hypothetical answers to argue their interpretations of the text, and use the text as proof for their assumptions.
In most simplistic terms, the textual problem faced is akin to the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

Since tale ordering is apparently important enough for so many scholars to have been discussing it for nearly the past century, it only follows that most would want to know how the selection process was made for the Tales. The individual tales were obviously not written in the order in which we have them, regardless of manuscript, otherwise we would have one long line of tales, with nothing to debate. This is not the case, meaning the they were written individually, separately, meant to be later assembled like puzzle pieces.

The puzzle, however, lacks an unbelievable amount of pieces, not just in unfinished tales, but further in the discrepancy between what is stated as the goal of the journey in the General Prologue, versus what is actually had. Was there supposed to be even more in the middle?

The Tales were largely influenced by the Decameron, contextually, like the Clerk’s Tale that is pretty much a verbatim retelling of Petrarch’s translation of one of the stories from Book X, and more importantly, stylistically. However, Chaucer complicated the concept. Whereas the narrative of the Decameron, and pretext of the black plague is present only to loosely tie the stories together, in the Canterbury Tales the interlinking monologues, discussions, and character sketches are formed to be just as, if not more important than some of the tales. Thus a reading of the Canterbury Tales and subsequent discourse on tale ordering must take into consideration the implications of narrative when moving the tales around (i.e. the Clerk’s Tale can never precede the Wife as the tale responds to the Wife’s Prologue, or the Reve must follow the Miller since the Reve’s Tale responds to the Miller’s). However, it is not always certain how closely they must follow one another. Can several tales intervene between? According to most manuscripts, the answer to this is yes. Are there other prologues that also make mention of these tales which will indicate an even more complicated ordering? Sometimes. And most importantly, who made the final decision?

As mentioned before, there is a thread of scholarship that believes the Hengwrt manuscript to be the most authentic, as in closest to Chaucer’s intentions since it was produced closest to his death. Some more extreme scholars believe that the manuscript was found in his desk at time of death, which is not as well accepted, mainly because most proof they provide is largely unacceptable.

It is, nevertheless, widely accepted (with valid proof provided), that the same scribe who created Hengwrt was also responsible for the Ellesmere, which places the Hengwrt manuscript as a prototype for the Ellesmere, making the latter into a “new and improved” version. Thus it can be inferred that what is in Hengwrt was whatever was found or already acquired from Chaucer at his death, while the Ellesmere may either provide new materials that came to light after the fact, or scribal interpretation of ordering and tale finalization for continuity – either theories are feasible, and both just as likely. M. C. Seymour explores and refutes both of these, focusing on the work of N. F. Blake, discussing three underlying premises of Blake’s original argument that were never overtly stated, but which Seymour believes were the crux of Blake’s argument.

First Seymour explains the implications of Blake’s argument that the poem was not simply unfinished and abandoned, but that Chaucer was still working on it until his death. The main point relies on the Retraction attached to the Parson’s Tale. Seymour argues that since the Retraction exists, Chaucer had a plan for how the Tales would proceed to the end. However, having written the Retraction does not necessarily preclude him from having (at least temporarily) abandoned the Tales. Then Seymour addresses the ongoing debate about the unfinished Squire’s Tale, which in his opinion is indefensible; it is not unfinished, but was meant to be interrupted by the next story teller (in most manuscripts, by the Franklin). Lastly, Seymour analyzes why certain tales (Cook’s Tale, Merchant’s Tale, Monk’s Tale, etc.) were thought to be unfinished, having to do with the spacing on the manuscripts, missing leaves, and later additions in different inks. The manuscripts which are thought to have been created the earliest have spacing that later manuscripts do not have, meaning that during the scribal process of the “prototype” manuscripts the scribes may have been waiting to either find or receive the missing pieces. Once enough time passed to where it was no longer feasible that they would turn up, the subsequent manuscripts omitted the spacing altogether. Or, as in a few cases, there were parts written in to fill the spaces that were obviously added later either in different inks, or by a completely different hand. Some are strictly Chaucerian, and have for the most part been authenticated, while others, like Gamelyn are often questioned and not included in most compilations, although some manuscripts have it following the unfinished Cook’s Tale.

All three of Blake’s premises, as Seymour outlines them, rely on the concept of the contents within Chaucer desk. Again, trying to ascertain what was there leads nowhere, so even though the Hengwrt may have been the earliest manuscript of the Canterbury Tales created, it is not necessarily the most authoritarian.

Returning to the contextual argument, and revisiting the idea that there were in fact two trips planed (to and from Canterbury), it is difficult to decipher which tales were meant for which trip. In fact, it is impossible to make any concrete decisions on this. Thus it is best to focus on the tales existing within a single trip. This is not to say that that is how Chaucer intended it, however trying to figure out his intentions would be as lucrative as unearthing what may have been on his desk.

It has been argued that the way the tales are now is due to scribal attempts at organizing the few tales that were found. Yet the very fact that all manuscripts arrange the tales in a single journey out suggests that their orderings are related. There are different fragments which are consistent throughout the manuscripts, once again indicating that if all the scribes had acquired the tales individually and no evidence existed for an ordering, then the consistencies would not exist. In other words, as logical as some fragments may appear, for all the manuscripts to reach the same conclusion independently, without previous instruction, in unlikely.

To get a better sense of the process of tale ordering, the logistics of it can be traced between the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts (and in future revisions of this I will expand on several other manuscripts, including Lansdowne, Harley, and Corpus Christi). The Hengwrt allows for a mixture of scribal and authorial intents to be measured – it appears that in the Hengwrt manuscript the scribe copied the pieces he had without making connections between the tales. They were separate pieces simply written to be later assembled. These same pieces were recopied in the Ellesmere manuscript, somewhat rearranged, and polished. Something happened in between the creation of these manuscripts that prompted the changes, and finding that information would elucidate the extant of scribal intervention within manuscript creation.

I was currently in the middle of outlining some clearer distinctions between the manuscripts with a breakdown of scholarship in existence along with my own commentary, however, I will have to stop here for tonight. I would have had a bit more, except my Hengwrt/Ellesmere digital facsimiles were not cooperating with me last night. The CD Rom was being finicky, and the Aberystwyth Library site was not linking properly. So basically I spent most of last night staring blankly at my laptop. I will consider this Part I, and will have Part II up at some point this week.

Read Him As A Scientist

The Tale is adapted from Petrarch’s Latin translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Tale follows Petrarch’s version closely, but the main issue stems from the disconnect between how it was originally written and what the Clerk does with it at the end. Is it meant as a didactic piece to inform wives of how they should behave? Does it reach even further to instruct all men how to behave towards God? Is it a cautionary tale against being too dutiful of a wife?

As we looked at when reading the General Prologue, a large part of the Canterbury Tales is concerned with depicting what happens when an idealized situation becomes reality. In a patriarchal society an obedient wife is thought to be a treasure, and there is no wife more obedient than Griselde. She is not simply obedient, but her unrealistic exaggeration of subservience escalates to the point of madness, not for her, but for the reader.

In Part I we have the set up for the story in which Walter is first introduced. Interestingly, the portrait of him given is not one of a tyrant, but rather a well-intentioned ruler who is held in high esteem by his people, and most importantly responds to their desires, and not just for show, as the people come to him with their grievances. Had he been a malicious despot they would be far too afraid to do so. By the end of the first part Walter appears to be the perfect man and ruler.

In fact, he is such a great ruler the people want him to have an heir for their land, which he cannot do unless he marries, and that is what they ask of him. Despite that he does not wish to marry, he concedes in order to make his people happy, offering further proof of his charity. However he shall do so in his own way, meaning he will pick his own bride as opposed to having court officials find one for him.

In Part II he continues winning the audience over with his reasonable way of thinking, and when he decides to take a peasant girl as his bride, he displays unbelievable humility and magnanimity. Up until this point it seems like Prince Charming has come to rescue Cinderella; it is hard to believe that there are still three more parts to the story. Griselde is everything he could have wanted, her continence is to his liking, and the people adore her. At the end of the second part she has a child, and even though it is a girl (not the male heir everyone wanted), it shows she is not barren and thus can still produce a baby boy.

As with most five part plots, it is in the third part that the problem presents itself. From the beginning lines it is made clear that Walter plans to test Griselde’s patience, goodness, and loyalty to him, “needless, God woot.” Recall in the second part as he asked her to marry him, he included that he “frely may, as [he] best thinketh, do [her] laughe or smerte.” In the middle of the joyous event those few lines are easily overlooked, and appear no more than a formality, especially considering the fairness he had until that point exemplified. We spend two sections of this story really liking Walter, and loving Griselde. The idea that he would now test her, for apparently no other reason than his own curiosity, is completely surprising. This is also what causes numerous critics to align Walter with God(s) testing the loyalty of humans (i.e. Abraham, Job, etc), or toying with them for their own amusement (i.e. most Classical myths), which is in line with what Petrarch also took away from Boccaccio’s version.

Yet, consider who is telling the story. The Clerk is a scholar, and while this story may have had a different significance in the original format, or through other translations, here it is used to exemplify what happens when knowledge is pursued aimlessly. In the General Prologue when we looked at the various character descriptions the Clerk was next to the Man of Law to contrast using scholarly knowledge in a meaningful way, as in a professional pursuit, and listlessly studying without ever using your knowledge – essentially hoarding it for one’s self, and wasting it away. If we bring that meaning here, Walter is a manifestation of a clerk, or more specifically, a scientist who is running an experiment on Griselde just to see what happens, without the possibility of his findings serving for the betterment of humanity in any way. He has a hypothesis in mind, which he iterated in the beginning as he told the townspeople he does not plan on taking a wife as he does not feel there are any women suitable to his needs. We later find his needs encompass a woman who will never, under any circumstances, deny him anything, or show anger towards him. He does not believe such a woman exists. Thus when he tests Griselde he does so in order to prove that no woman will ever hold true to this. He is not only expecting her to fail, but hopes she does so that he may be right.

He does not simply pick a fight with her, or make her relinquish her favorite trinket or dress. Instead he humiliates her and takes away her newborn baby, making her believe her child will be murdered in the woods. This is a complete turn from the fair Walter we had until now encountered, providing even more drama through contrast. Yet even here he is slightly redeemed because he does not actually have the baby killed, but rather has her taken to live with relatives, softening the illusion of infanticide.

It is difficult at this point to discern who is most unlikable in this scene. Walter is losing his luster rather quickly, but what about Griselde? There is no question that she loves her child, and more than likely she had absolutely no say in the matter one way or another, but to simply allow this to happen without a single plea? Not even one endearment to Walter? A submissive wife may be an ideal, but at what cost?

This perceived sacrifice pacifies Walter for six years, during which Griselde gives birth to a male child, and Walter once again needs to test his hypothesis. In Part IV he again humiliates her and then takes her son away in the same fashion as her daughter. Griselde says nothing. Walter’s experiment is both failing and succeeding. It appears he has successfully found a wife that will not change towards him no matter what he inflicts upon her, and will not question his will. However, his original hypothesis was that no such woman exists, thus to test it further, he ups the ante.

By this point his people were outraged at his deeds; he is neither loved, nor feared, only loathed – the worst trait for a ruler to bear. Yet he perseveres in testing his wife, like a mad scientist out to prove a theory at all costs. The previous private humiliations and murder of her children were not enough, and in Part V he decides to make her humiliation public. He tells her and his people that he has procured permission from Rome to leave her and take another wife, and thus she must leave his house immediately with nothing more than what she came with, which as we remember, was nothing. She asks if, as his once wife and mother of his children, she may at least wear a shift to cover herself as she walks back to her father’s house. That is the only thing she says to him before dutifully obeying. Since the readers know Walter has not really slaughtered his children or obtained an actual document from Rome it almost seems that this is where he will stop her from leaving. In a strange twist,one would assume the readers want her away from this horribly cruel man, but since she is genuinely in love with him and inwardly tormented by the idea of no longer being with him,  out of pity for her the reader cannot help but hope he puts an end to his tests and takes her back.

Instead he is going to further experiment on her, in search for her breaking point. He calls for her and tells her that in order to properly receive his new young, noble wife he would like it if Griselde oversaw the preparations; after all no one knows what he likes better than her. Basically he literally threw her out into the street and is now asking her to play chambermaid to his new bride. This is unbelievably infuriating to everyone except Griselde who is able to hold steadfast to her outward display of nonchalance. After the charade continues for a bit (and he passes off his daughter as his new bride), in the denouement Walter is all of a sudden taken in by her faithful goodness and confesses everything to her, welcoming her back as his loving wife with their two children to live happily ever after.

Griselde passes the test, at which point Walter realizes he has to stop his experiment because proving his hypothesis would destroy everything. He wanted to assay her until “I thy purpos knewe and al thy wille,” but unfortunately that is an endless quest since one can never fully know another. And if he continues pressuring her, should she finally break, what would he do? At this point he still holds the upper hand, able to correct everything by simply divulging the truth because in the world of fiction that is enough for forgiveness and a happy ending. However, if Griselde should push back and finally fail one of her many trials, he would be unable to renege and everything would basically blow up in his face. As the narrator of the story states, he needlessly tested her over the years, solely for his own curiosity, and knowledge without purpose benefits no one. Arguably his first test to her (albeit still unjustly cruel) should have satisfied him – she passed, and his hypothesis was wrong. Anything after that was absolutely aimless, and counterproductive.

The Envoy serves to solidify this idea in the beginning lines, but then moves into a diatribe much like the Wife of Bath’s instructing women to never be subservient to their husbands. Certainly after reading about Griselde for several sections the Envoy is practically refreshing, yet Griselde was an extreme, and here is the opposite extreme, evincing that neither are appropriate or favorable.

Also, to note, it has been disputed whether the Envoy belongs to Chaucer the author, Chaucer the pilgrim, or the Clerk. I myself believe it belongs to Chaucer the pilgrim, with a heavier than usual hand from Chaucer the author. I hear very little from the Clerk in there. The dispute mainly comes from the last paragraph in the Envoy where it is clearly Chaucer the pilgrim taking over from the Clerk. However, this stanza does not appear in all manuscripts, and seems to have been deleted from others, implying Chaucer changed his mind. I am not going to go into detail because it really doesn’t serve a purpose for this lecture, but manuscript studies on tale orderings help to sway this debate. To condense 70+ years of academic research into a few sentences, if you are using only the Ellesmere manuscript then that stanza is not there, and the Envoy more than likely belongs to Chaucer the author. Otherwise, there are numerous other combinations and reasons to take into account.

Nevertheless, regardless of codicological studies, the Clerk’s Tale serves as another example of the ways in which various aspects of the Canterbury Tales undermine the portrayal of an ideal (and often extremely exaggerated) situation.

The General Prologue

This is the most basic post on the General Prologue, intended for introducing first year undergrads to the Canterbury Tales.

As we go through it I will mainly be explaining the language and outlining the characters with a brief discussion on the medieval class system (nobility, clergy, laymen) since this is an Estates Satire. Chaucer uses the pilgrimage, a very common concept during the Middle Ages, as a method of bringing together a group of people who would not otherwise interact. Essentially he takes the rather simple concept in the Decameron, adds extra characters, and a twist.

When we get into the character portraits we will look at what is *not* being said, noting that each character is an exaggeration, a caricature, of a specific part of society in order to undoubtedly make a series of comments on not just how people behaved, but more importantly about the unrealistic expectations in place. These expectations, when held under close scrutiny, elucidate that when what is perceived as an ideal, actually happens, the outcome is severely flawed, and highly undesirable.

We start off with the Knight:

He is the epitome of chivalry, a “verray, parfit, gentil knight.” It is immediately apparent that he is artificially created, as his track record would be physically impossible to attain, but his description is genuinely pleasing, and he represents the ideal. It is not until he tells his tale that the flaws within chivalry are exposed, in which Arcite and Palamon, also exemplary figures of knighthood, swear brotherly love to each other until a woman becomes involved, testing their ability to operate within the constraints of courtly love and knightly honor.

They spend their days spiting each other to win her over, culminating in a Colosseum-like death match over her hand in marriage. No one bothers to ask the woman who she wants, and the reader doesn’t even know until she goes to the temple of Diana and begs to be won not by the one who loves her most, but by the one who will cause her the least grief. Unlike the Wife of Bath, she has no experience, and even less authority, and hence nothing to say in the matter. Since both Arcite and Palamon are reputable knights from good families, it would make the most sense to allow Emelye to choose. Yet what becomes apparent is that the code of knighthood is highly stylized, so much so that normal human actions become stifled, and in following the idealized version of chivalry, the knight becomes so consumed with the code as to forfeit personal tastes and emotions- those closest to a man become objectified as either hindrances or aides towards a goal. The entire ordeal turns into a parody of knighthood and chivalry, with Emelye forced to play the damsel in distress (who’s existence is demanded), despite the fact that before either of these two saw her she was happily picking flowers and minding her own business. So even if knighthood, especially the knight here, is not depicted as morally corrupt like some of the other characters we will encounter (although there is quite a discourse on the kind of military/mercenary activities he was actually involved with), the fact is, the ideal is corrupt in multiple other ways, producing a devalued idea.

The Squire:

If the Knight seemed too perfect, the Squire portrays the other parts of knighthood and chivalry that are slightly hinted at in the Knight’s Tale. The squire, a knight in training, plays his part by the book. However his interests are not in line with what is expected of him. From his speech it appears chivalry and knightly duty are solely a means for him to attain fame, love, and fortune, and not a reward onto themselves. In fact, he uses his knightly status to that end, portraying a different kind of corruption within the system.

The Yeoman:

While this character is never directly touched on, the 17 lines dedicated to his appearance speak volumes. Why is a servant so well dressed? In other words, attention is drawn to the means by which he obtains enough wealth for such an upkeep. Further, Chaucer goes to great length to describe this man’s wardrobe as that of a potential forester and/or woodsman. In medieval times woodsmen were charged with the upkeep of a lord’s lands to protect said lands from poachers. His fine dress and accessories would here imply that he may in fact be poaching and then selling the very wood and animals he is hired to keep safe. Keep this in mind when we get to the Reeve.

The Prioresse:

First of all, her position in the introduction of the pilgrims is rather telling of itself. Returning to the medieval class system (nobility, clergy, and laymen), Chaucer positions the pilgrims in the General Prologue in accordance to which class they belong. He stars with the closest ones to nobility (Knight and Squire), and includes the Yeoman due to his being in service to the Knight (or Squire – a point that is never fully clarified), and thus would probably be riding along with him. The Prioresse begins the procession of clergy while her description is closer to a member of the aristocracy, with her elegant speech, and the great pains she takes to imitate court manners and behavior. She is simultaneously described as an ideal woman, but not one for a church setting. So if we were to remove her title, and the paraphernalia that goes with it (wimple, rosary, etc), she would seem quite lovely, dainty, and well mannered. Once she is identified as a prioress all of these positive attributes become fodder for judgement, illuminating the ridiculousness of the rules and expectations imposed on the clergy by the church, and society.

There is also the unstated commentary on who becomes a nun, and then a prioress. When we see a nun we do no look beyond the cloak, or consciously acknowledge her past (as is true with most clergy). However it is important to note that no one is born into the clergy. Chaucer draws inspiration from several works, and the idea of describing portraits through words comes from the Romaunt. Just like we will find that the Clerk’s Tale is a retelling of a story in the Decameron, the Prioresse closely resembles a character from the Romaunt – a prostitute. This has numerous implications, but the point here is that before donning a habit it is unknown what she may have been doing, thus absolute expectations of her piety would then seem unreasonable.

The Monk:

The Monk follows the Prioresse’s example of clergy that is more akin to the upper class. To better understand why this was so common at the time it would be helpful to know how the three class system first developed in England; it was devised by the church (not in England), where the clergy still operated in ways remnant of  the Caesarian Clergy that was for the most part ruling Rome. High ranking church officials typically came from noble families, and continued to behave that way within their roles in the church. The lower ranking church officials while emulating nobility, were specifically imitating nobility found within their own upper ranks.

When the three class system first began being used it was implied that the clergy, and not the nobility, were the first/highest estate. As the clergy became diluted with nobility and spirituality was on the decline, the estates became inverted to reflect the ways in which society really worked – instead of the nobility striving for piety and salvation (although they all wanted salvation), the clergy was working towards appearing more noble.

Here the monk who skips church to go hunting is not only not condemned, but the narrator actually seems rather in accordance with this type of behavior. Without so much as saying it, the narrator makes the same comment as with the Prioresse: how is it that hunting, an honorable activity among the nobility all of a sudden becomes a source of disapproval for the Monk? Obviously there is something wrong with our expectations of certain titles and/or roles in life. Further, the narrator does not judge because he can’t; all of the nobles and higher clergy members are doing it, so parsing out judgment towards the Monk would seem like nit picking. The narrator’s nonchalance caters to the notion that this is a commonplace occurrence, which consequently then lets the reader judge for themselves.

The Friar:

By now it should be obvious that the clergy thus far is far from pious, and once again we get the narrator describing a corrupt friar without as much as batting a lash at his long list of misdeeds. The Friar, like the ones before, is “worthy,” but of what remains unsaid, with the expectation that the audience would make the connection between a friar who acts in accordance with the rules, and how the rules are then not bent, but misused. He is “licentiat,” meaning licensed to hear confession, after which he takes advantage of those who confessed, followed by a string of other such abuses.

The Merchant:

The Merchant appropriately follows the Friar in the same way the Prioresse followed the nobility. However, unlike the Friar who was a business man in every sense, the Merchant is not judged in the same way for his conduct. Why is it appropriate for the Merchant to behave shrewdly in business but not for the Friar? It has more to do with our expectations of them, then their actual behavior, which is arguably in line with human nature. This is not to say that he is not judged for his financial handling, but in a different manner; he is expected to not just make money, but maintain a steady profit, and currently he is in debt. Again, while a poor clergyman is pious, a poor merchant is morally weak. Then he attempts to hide his debt by overcompensating with fine clothes, and even the absolutely naive narrator is picking up on the Merchant’s inefficiency – or better stated, lack of common sense.

The Merchant’s Tale is rather indicative of his inability to grasp reality. On the surface he tells a tale denouncing marriage considering his own where he is married to a rather shrewish woman. However, once the story is dissected it becomes evident that the Merchant’s grasp of how others work is really at fault. Briefly, his tale is about January and his lovely wife May. While it appears January found an amazing wife, both young and beautiful, he is paranoid about her probability of infidelity, and rightfully so, as she is unfaithful every chance she gets. To curtail her behavior he places her on a leash so he may never lose sight of her. Ironically, this is when he actually loses his sight, and relies more and more on the leash to gauge the whereabouts of his wife. Since he is blind, he must rely on her to tell him what she is doing, even while on the leash, and to make matters more ridiculous, she finds a means of engaging in an affair even under these conditions. At one point, during her walk in the garden with her husband, her and her lover climb into a tree in order to be together. Of course this is completely unbelievable, and to further add to this, at this very moment, as May and her lover are in the middle of things, Apollo restores January’s sight. He looks up, and finds his wife in a most compromising position (nevermind that she is in a tree). Without missing a beat, May thanks the Gods for January’s sight, as she claims she had heard that if she were to engage in extramarital sex, in a tree, his sight would be restored. Thus, according to her she was doing it for January’s sake. January then thanks the Gods and thanks May for being such a good wife as to sacrifice herself for his benefit. Again, as with everything else in the Tales, it is important to note what is not being said. Is January that naive? No. Just as May improvised on the spot, he played along. The alternative would be to acknowledge her infidelity, be shamed by it, and in the process shame her, which would mean he would have to renounce her as a wife, and he would have nothing left. Arguably he could use his power, influence and money to obtain another young and pretty wife just as he had obtained May. And chances are she will be just as unfaithful, so basically, why bother? He has what he has, she makes him happy (to whatever extent that may be), and the status quo is maintained. While the Merchant may believe he is telling a tale about a terrible wife and the woes of marriage, the true lesson will be better understood once we look at the Wife’s Prologue.

The Clerk:

The Clerk appears out of place between the Merchant and the Man of Law, but nevertheless he belongs to the same social class as these two. He is the embodies the starving student concept, where he spends every penny given to him on books and scholarly materials, to the point where he is in threadbare clothes, and his horse appears to be starving (as well as he). He is the epitome of the scholar, and the commentary here is perhaps several hundred years before its time, but has to do with the detriments of absolute pursuit of knowledge, especially when it is for its own sake. While knowledge and scholarship are good, they are best in combination with some worldly knowledge as well (as the Host will later tell the Clerk). It is unclear what the Clerk from Oxford is studying, but it is clearly knowledge for its own sake, in the most philosophical sense, which will be evinced by his story. In the Clerk’s Tale, Walter attempts to test his wife, Griselde, using reason, while trying her emotions beyond what any feeling person may bear. Yet her patience is her greatest virtue to the end (this is very clearly drawn from Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy, while the tale itself is from the Decameron).

The Man of Law:

Once we get the Man of Law’s introduction it becomes clear why the Clerk was placed right before, with the Merchant before that. The Man of Law contrasts both of these figures. Unlike the Merchant who uses his monetary gain (whatever there may be of it) to become part of the rising middle class, the Man of Law is using his money to buy land, and win favors at court, meaning he is looking to becoming nobility or to assure nobility for his offspring. Further, unlike the Clerk, the Man of Law has used his education and knowledge to raise himself up, become financially stable, and study for a purpose as opposed to simply study for its own sake. The Man of Law is not so much placed within the characters as a satire himself since very little is spoken poorly of him, but rather as a direct comparison to the above characters, and to make their ideals and traits stand out even more.

The Franklin:

The Franklin juxtaposes another of the Man of Law’s traits, land ownership. Unlike the Man of Law who looks both at land (material possessions) and knowledge as a means to betterment in every way, the Franklin is a wealthy landowner, and a complete hedonist. The most indicative of this is his meat consumption. While meat was prized during the Middle Ages, it was also a rarity, and his abundance of it, which he enjoys and shares with ever guest, demonstrates his monetary value, along with his other less explicit values of life. While the Man of Law practiced balance, the Franklin’s scale is heavily tipped to one side.

A Haberdassher and a Carpenter, a Webbe, a Dyere, and Tapicer:

These five guildsmen are in the same class as the Merchant, but obviously better off financially than he is. While the praise they receive from the Host for their devotion to material goods is clearly satirical, it is more an unfavorable commentary on the rising middle class of the day.

The Cook:

The Cook, much like his tale, is incomplete. He is a character thrown in to serve a narrative purpose for others. He is the embodiment of the material wealth the five guildsmen possess, and as dubious as the money that pays him. They may have the wealth to pay a personal cook, but in his description here and his later prologue, he is far from a private chef. Money does not breed discernment.

The Shipman:

The Shipman is yet another product of the rising middle class, and thus new economy. The merchants and guildsmen of England now require commercial shipmen to export their goods. Yet what has the new economy brought about? The Shipman, while skilled and good at what he does, is more akin to a pirate. As he performs his duties he also steals and commits murder (should the need arise and if he “hadde the hyer hond”). Much like the cook, he is the physical embodiment of the consequences of a rising middle class.

The irony, however, is that Chaucer himself was a part of this class, a writer for several members of the court, but also a businessman on the side. Thus his constant jabs at the very class system to which he belongs is indicative of two things: his tongue in cheek approach to narrative that will become apparent in his Retraction (and which was also rather visible in his previous work, The Book of Good Women), and the fact that, while he may get away with plenty in between the lines, this adds to the evidence that the Canterbury Tales was very much written under patronage, catering to the idiosyncrasies of those who commissioned it.

The Doctor:

He is a pirate of a different kind. While he, too, is very good at what he does, his motives for healing are not entirely altruistic. Not only must he charge a fortune for his skills since he “lovede gold in special,” he practiced some questionable behavior with apothecaries, often profiting from prescribing their drugs. Which of course is not at all what can be expected from real doctors, then and now. Even though the Doctor is on a pilgrimage, he does not invest any of his money/gold into a bible, which many interpret to be a commentary against him treating the body at the expense of the soul. However, this can hardly be considered hypocritical. It may be strange that he does not have a bible with him on a holy pilgrimage, but as for his profession, he never pretended to be clergy. He is a physical doctor, concerned with the body, not the soul. In this regard it makes perfect sense that he should be concerned with physical possessions (gold) above anything else.

The Wife of Bath:

She may just be the most interesting character in the Tales with an odd mix of desirable and undesirable traits, both physical and intangible. She is certainly entertaining, and appears to be better suited as a character on Sex and the City rather than a medieval traveler on pilgrimage.

Recall at the beginning this section I wanted to focus not just on caricature aspects of each character, but also on the consequences of idealized expectations, when fulfilled. The Wife is hardly any man’s ideal. Even scholars who don’t see her creation as a misogynistic plot on Chaucer’s part cannot argue that she is anyone’s dream come true. Except that she kind of is. When we meet her she is a fun-loving, lively character. Despite her multiple faults and physical shortcomings she is colorful, and in her way, alluring. What possessed five men to marry her?

As the tales are told we get several portrayals of marriage, many of which focus on what appears to be the ideal union, with the idealized wife, and despite that they miraculously work, they are lacking in many ways. The Wife’s Tale also focuses on marriage where she concludes that what women want is sovereignty. However, it is her person that is of more interest with her apparently no-nonsense stance on unions. After we hear her Prologue, her commentary remains with us as we read the Clerk’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale. The Wife is no Griseld, and while she may align herself more closely with May, she would not stoop to May’s petty trickeries. The idea of January placing a leash on her is laughable at best.

Her tale speaks of female sovereignty, but if we learn from her personal practices that she outlines in her prologue, the biggest lesson to be learned is of mutuality. Her numerous marriages were all trials and errors towards finding a kind of harmony that forgives her complete want of decorum (from the sheer volume of her clothes to the that of her voice).

When we looked at the Merchant’s Tale, the reasoning for January’s acceptance of May’s blatant lie was glossed over in order to better look at it in light of the Wife’s Prologue. January realized the alternatives of not accepting May’s lie, and chose to take it as it is, because, as the Wife states, “he is to greet a nigard that wol werne / A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne; / He shal have never the lasse light, pardee. / Have thou ynough, thee thar nat pleyne thee.” While the Merchant’s January learns this, the Clerk’s Walter does not.

Her introduction in the General Prologue leads to her long harangue in her own prologue. The narrator ends her description outlining her qualifications for speaking about love and marriage, which “she knew per chaunce, / For she coude of that art the olde daunce.” She picks it up from there in her prologue outlining those very qualifications of “experience, though noon auctoritee,” that give her license to “speke of wo that is in marriage.” However, what she describes is not necessarily woe, but rather as she later states “tribulacioun in mariage.” Tribulacioun is typically translated as “suffering” of some kind. However, a closer meaning would be a “trial” or “hardship.” These are not the same thing. Marriage is a process, often difficult, potentially unpleasant at times, and definitely a journey. The Wife’s Prologue outlines this journey as she discusses each husband, and in the process she does not omit the good and/or happiness each union brought her. In fact, as her tirade claims to discuss her terrible husbands, she actually mentions quite a bit of joy she obtained from each one. Her real marriages, unlike all the constructed ones within the Tales, depict the topography of marriage, with the peaks and valleys intact. The result is an arguably insane, yet surprisingly well balanced woman.

The Parson:

The Parson, just like the Man of Law earlier, is here for comparison purposes. As mentioned, it is obvious that that Monk, Friar, and Prioress are not the most pious. They are either fully corrupt, or simply unable to live up to the standards set upon the clergy. The Parson is the epitome of piety and self sacrifice, and a firm practitioner of what he preaches. By comparison, the rest of the clergy on this trip look absolutely decrepit. Chaucer will make an interesting commentary about this through the Parson’s Tale that we will look at later with the Retraction.

The Plowman:

What the Parson is for the clergy, the Plowman is for the laymen, especially the Miller and Reeve who are to follow in description right after. The Plowman doesn’t tell a tale, and not much is dedicated to him in terms of description, insinuating that his only importance is to showcase the other characters through comparison. He is low class, but doesn’t mind it, and unlike others is not attempting to better his physical lot in life. He is content to do his work and live a virtuous life.  Some believe Chaucer at this point may have read a copy of Piers Plowman which served as an inspiration for this character. Maybe. The figure of the plowman as a virtuous man was not uncommon at that time, and plowmen in general were typically hard working considering the jobs they were expected to do.

The Miller:

The Miller, by himself, is boorish, but following the Plowman he becomes an abhorrent specimen of man. The hard working Plowman makes the Miller’s work ethic appear even worse. And while both use their large physique to perform their respective duties, the Plowman’s job benefits society, whereas the Miller’s tournaments and other physical feats he performs for money, only benefit him.

It is important to mention that the Miller is the character who brings the pilgrims out of town. The Miller, along with the next few characters, are part of a class structure that is entrusted to temporarily take care of other’s possessions, and all of them abuse this privilege. The idea of stewardship is intrinsically tied with Christianity, appropriate for a pilgrimage. Considering the types of stewards present, speaks to the kind of journey the pilgrims will have.

The Manciple:

In the same tone that the narrator described the worthy Friar, here he talks about the “gentil Maunciple.” He is the purchaser for a group of well off, well educated men, and the discrepancy between academic knowledge and non academic smarts is once again visible, just as it was between the Clerk and the Man of Law. Except the Man of Law possessed both, while the Manciple has only street smarts to rely on. Nevertheless, he “sette hir aller cappe.” He is entrusted with property, or maintenance of property, and much like the Miller, he skims off the top.

The Reeve:

The Reeve is another unsavory character who uses his position to steal from those who entrust him with their property. The joke here is that he steals from his landlord, and then lends him back his own money. When we get to the actual tales it is interesting to note that the Reeve’s appearance is rather reminiscent of the Carpenter in the Miller’s Tale. Coincidentally the Reeve is also a carpenter by profession, aside from his stewardship job. Keeping in mind that at this end of the line of pilgrims we do not have well bred (or seemingly well bred) characters, the Reeve takes offense of the inept Carpenter in the Miller’s Tale and tells one of his own about what befalls a rather stupid Miller, outdoing the Miller’s Tale in accuracy – while the carpenter in the first tale was not terribly sharp, the Reeve is rather cunning, but the Miller as both pilgrim and character in the Reeve’s Tale, is not.

The Summoner:

He is as lecherous as he appears, and interestingly the General Prologue ends with him and the Pardoner, the worst of the characters. While the slew of pilgrims are arranged according to class and estate, the fact that they are introduced in descending order is once again telling of the type of pilgrimage this is, with a commentary on the process of pilgrimage, and what it essentially has become – a glorified vacation. The Summoner steals, takes bribes, and uses his (albeit meager) position in the court/church system for personal gain. And much like the Pardoner, does not take what he does seriously.

The Pardoner:

He takes the idea of using his post within the church for personal gain the furthest of all the characters in this position. His job entitles him to travel the country selling official pardons for sins, or indulgences. He takes advantage of others’ guilt, making them feel even worse for their sins as to sell further pardons. On the side, he also peddles “relics” which appear to be rather suspicious at best. Not only are they so rare that if they were real he should be making a fortune, but the idea of relics at the time was already being questioned, and falling out of popularity. However, he does not need the majority of people believing in his perceived powers of forgiveness and idols of good luck, only a few. This pilgrimage is no different for him than his various stops, and instead of a prologue, he does not introduce himself but rather takes the opportunity to sell his wares, putting on his sing-song voice that convinces each time.

The last two characters to be discussed are the Host and Chaucer the pilgrim, who do not have a set place along with the line of pilgrims. The Host is interwoven throughout the General Prologue and the stories themselves. He is in charge of general merriment, maintaining his position as Host until the end. To better enjoy the trip he suggests the tales, with each pilgrim telling two tales on the way there, and two tales back (which obviously didn’t happen). He is the peace keeper between the pilgrims and one that progresses the tales and pilgrimage forward. While Chaucer the pilgrim is the narrator, in a sense the Host is a facilitator. However, the most important role he plays is that of audience member. Unlike the other pilgrims who may or may not have a vested interest in the tales, the Host has impartial reactions (for the most part). And unlike Chaucer the pilgrim who seems altogether too naive, the Host puts together a much more in depth commentary of each tale. Even though he is usually wrong in his analysis (comically so), presenting us with his opinion on what we read makes us think about it by questioning him, and applying our own take to it. In a sense we engage with the Host more than anyone else on the pilgrimage for this reason – even the most boisterous characters fade from view as the narrative progresses, but the Host is never too far from the forefront of a prologue or tale.

Lastly there is the narrator who is just as present as the Host, and serves in a similar fashion. Chaucer the pilgrim vows to narrate and describe everything exactly as it is, essentially distancing Chaucer the author from the entire work, and giving it a sense of autonomy. The narrator’s observations are naive and childlike, starkly contrasting with the truth, and consequently drawing attention to it.

Little is known about Chaucer the pilgrim physically, a little is said about his profession or personal business, but he tells two tales, more than any other pilgrim, and if these are indicative of his success as a writer, then it is no wonder that he does best transcribing others’ stories rather than creating his own.

As the General Prologue ends we get a sense of each character, and begin the Tales, starting with the Knight’s all the way until the Parson’s (the tales are not told in the order in which the pilgrims were first presented). Though not everyone tells a tale, we get subjects ranging in every genre, with the Host’s preference for comedy definitely guiding a large part of the work. Most of the tales are didactic in that they wish to instruct morally, spiritually, or simply about everyday life (even as they fall very short). As we see when we get to the Merchant’s Tale or the Wife of Bath’s Tale, both indirectly outline the solution for a successful marriage.

Yet what starts as a journey full of fun and games ends with the Parson’s Tale that is not a tale, but a sermon on moral behavior, almost a commentary against everything that had previously been told on the pilgrimage. The Parson’s treatise on morality is directly contrasting all of the tales thus far that were concerned with worldly affairs, petty possessions, or physical relationships. Even the Nun’s Tale cannot be looked at too much as a religious tract (her tale is a common anecdote of her time). Yet this is keeping in line with the characters, as we have met them thus far. They are all flawed, some more than others, and even those who have righteous/pious roles in the community  are depicted as corrupt, or if not corrupt, questionable at best. Much like the Parson’s description was placed within the General Prologue as a means of making the other clergy members look worse, his tale achieves the same end for everyone.

In class I will go over the Tale in its entirety, outlining the various points he makes about the seven deadly sins and the three parts of penitence (contrition, confession and satisfaction). Basically, according to the Parson’s Tale, every single pilgrim on the trail, along with the readers who relate to them, is a sinner, headed straight to Hell. In the beginning of this post I argued that the commentary Chaucer as author makes when creating the characters is illustrating what happens when societal expectations are actually lived out. The Parson is the epitome of what a parson should be, and how any moral person *should* behave. His prologue and tale are a result of this, and it appears that what he is preaching is impossible to practice (even though the Parson himself does just that). The Parson is an unrealistic caricature of piety that cannot be reasonably upheld. As we look at a seemingly never ending list of sins and the ways of avoiding them, we realize that that could only work in theory, and even then it sounds most unappealing. The best evidence to link this reading to Chaucer’s intention of commentary is the positioning of the Retraction directly following the Parson’s Tale. The fact that over seventy manuscripts have this as a single unit means that it was created that way, with the cheeky Retraction undoing the message the Parson’s Tale sends out, bringing the audience back to a state of reality where neither the exaggerated world of the other characters, nor the Parson, can feasibly exist. Thus the microcosm of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, of every “degree” and “array,” falls apart when extrapolated into the macrocosm of everyday life. Chaucer the author and the pilgrim outline each character as society sees fit, only to retract. Reality is found somewhere in between.