Thomas A. Becket. The General Prologue starts by describing the beauty of nature and ofhappy times, and then Chaucer begins to introduce the pilgrims. Most ofChaucer’s pilgrims are not the honorable pilgrims a reader would expect fromthe beautiful opening of the prologue, and instead they are pilgrims thatillustrate moral lessons. In the descriptions of the pilgrims, Chaucer’slanguage and wit helps to show the reader how timeless these character are. Chaucer describes his pilgrims in a very kind way, and he is not judgmental.
Each of these pilgrims has a trade, and in most cases, the pilgrims use theirtrade in any possible way to benefit themselves. By using our notion ofstereotypes, and counter stereotypes, Chaucer teaches us many moral lessonsabout religion and money. Chaucer’s moral lessons start while he isintroducing the pilgrims. These pilgrims are not from the same social stationsin life, and instead they range anywhere from a rich lady from Bath to a drunkenmiller. It is nice to think twenty nine people with different social classes canall join together and go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but this is not likelyin today?s society.
This idea helps not only to show Chaucer’s religious andplatonic view, but also how society should be accepting and look at each otherthe way Chaucer does in the General Prologue. Each of the pilgrims Chaucerdescribes can be considered timeless characters with timeless moral problems,since people today still display these characteristics. Chaucer describes all ofthe pilgrims; however, some character’s moral problems stand out more so thanothers do. The Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath,the Summoner and the Pardoner are all characters that have valuable lessons toteach us through their behavior and through Chaucer’s wit.
The most obviousproblem with these characters is that they are not at all who a reader wouldthink they are. Chaucer shows the characters faults in a diplomatic way, andthese faults are apparent through the description in the General Prologue. ThePrioress, also known as Mme. Eglantine, is the mother superior at her nunnery. Bysaying she is the superior at her nunnery, the impression is that she must be adevout lady who loves God, however, this is not the case.
She is a very properlady who sings through her nose, loves her lap dogs and eats with impeccablemanners. As Chaucer describes, “She was so charitable and so pitous,” sheeven cried when she saw a dead mouse (p. 218). She had an impressive foreheadand a gold broach which said “Amor vincit omnia,” which means love conquersall (p. 219).
Her engraved broach seems to speaks more of secular love than ofGodly love, (Godly love in Latin is Amour Dei) (class discussion). This prioressis much more concerned with manners and demonstrating her demureness thanshowing her love for God. Her broach demonstrates what she thinks is mostimportant. Chaucer ends with this, and the reader realizes that her love for Godshould be what is most important to her.
The next character we learn from alsoholds a position in the Church, the Monk. This religious servant, like the nun,also loves something before God; this man loves the outdoors and hunting. Inthis case, the reader usually pictures a monk as someone who really loves Godand devout in his religious studies, but the monk is a very different case. Studying inside the cloister or working with his hands was out of the question;riding is much more his style. He has the finest horses with decorated saddles,and he also uses the church’s money for racing greyhounds. He has spared noexpense for his clothes or his meals.
Chaucer elegantly shows how materialisticthis monk is; it seems he cares more for hunting and racing than he does forGod. Another religious figure is the Friar, who is the one the most corrupt ofthe religious pilgrims. A Friar is not high in the Church, but nonetheless theyhave a duty to be of good moral standards and help anyone who comes to them;this Friar is not the typical stereotype. Today, He is of good nature and asChaucer said “ful wel biloved,” liked by all (p. 220). He is very familiarwith Franklins (who were rich landowners) and with the young women.
In fact, hehas found many young women husbands. This Friar hears confessions and is easy togive forgiveness if the confessor has money for penance, plus he figures that hedoes not need to be seen with leapers or poor people. Penance is better thancrying or weeping over the sin, and in his patrons eyes he was courteous andhumble. There is no better a beggar in his entire house and he always left witha donation. The Friar is very clever at his trade. He deals only with the peoplewho would reward him handsomely and did not even bother with the poor or sick;although, he does take time to talk to all of the young women.
It is not hard tounderstand Chaucer’s use of wit with the Friar; it is obvious that he takesfull advantage of his position and has no site of God in his mind. He doeseverything for himself, especially to get money or “relations. ” He takes noconsideration that he should be helping people instead of taking advantage ofthem. The Friar dealt with many Franklins, and there is also a Franklin on thispilgrimage. The Franklin has a red face and this might be related to his love ofwine. Here is a pilgrim who is not in the Church, however, he still can teach usa moral lesson.
He is described to have a sanguine complexion, and in middleevil times people were described by four bodily humors (p. 225). Chaucer useshis wit here and says “For he was Epicurus owene sone;” Epicurus is a Greekphilosopher who believed pleasure is the goal of life (p. 223).
This man loves toeat and his tastes change with the seasons, although his table was always setwell. Food and wine were this man’s vices as Chaucer shows, and the lessonthis pilgrim shows us is that pleasure is not the main goal of life. In fact,this man’s main goal in life should be to serve God. The Wife of Bath is thenext pilgrim in mind, and she is not in the Church, however, she more than thestereotypical housewife. This lady is in a category of her own. She is ahousewife and can be considered a professional pilgrim who has traveled to manydestinations.
She also enjoys husbands, five to be exact. Chaucer says she hasis respectable, not counting her youthful days. She is a bold, outspoken woman,and her clothes reflect her personality, especially her headdress that hangs tothe floor. She is charitable if and only if she is the first to the altar.
TheWife of Bath also rides well and is good company. She knows of many loveremedies, because she knows about “that old dance” (p. 226). In the Wife ofBath’s description, Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to illustrate love, or lackof it. The Wife of Bath marries older rich men and when they die, she findsanother.
This woman’s pilgrimaging might be to find rich husbands more thancelebrating the holy destinations on the pilgrimage. Like other pilgrims, sheknows how to work her station in life to her advantage. The Summoner and thePardoner are two of the most corrupt pilgrims, and yet they have the jobs withthe most power over people’s souls and lives. One would expect the twopilgrims who are high in the Church to be some pilgrims that really did care forGod and truly are in this job to serve others and God, however, this is nottrue. The Summoner appearance scared children because he had a fire red facewith sores all over it. He, like the Friar, also likes female “company.
” TheSummoner’s job is to summon offenders to the ecclesiastical court, sometimesguilty or not depending on the person’s purse. His position makes himpowerful, and he used his rank in any way he could for money. The Pardoner alsoloved “earning” money; his appearance was frightening, but he believes he isfollowing the latest fashion. His wallet is full and hot of pardons and money,and in his bag he claimed to have part of the sail that St. Peter had untilJesus got it.
The Pardoner also has other relics that he used to make money offof unsuspecting parsons. Although, when in church, he is a “noble ecclesiaste,”teaching lessons, preaching and especially singing because he knows the moneywill follow. This pilgrim is high in the Church, yet he seems to have no respectfor God; he only cares for money. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer createstimeless characters that we can still learn from today. The General Prologuestarts with the idea of springtime and flowers blooming, and this may beChaucer’s way of saying these characters, despite their moral afflictions,might be born again over the pilgrimage.
It is ironic how all of these morallycorrupt people go on a religious pilgrimage, yet they do not seem to incorporateGod in their everyday lives. Chaucer’s style of writing, his use ofstereotypes and counter stereotypes really helps the reader to think and learnthe moral lessons the characters have not quite mastered. There are many lessonslearned here just by the description of the characters, and most of the morallessons and wit stems from the pilgrim’s taking advantage of their tradeswhether it is a housewife or a pardoner.