Analyze characters in Canterbury Tales


The Age of Chaucer The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales Poem by Geoffrey Chaucer Translated by Nevill Coghill

did you know? Geoffrey Chaucer . . . • was captured and

held for ransom while fighting for England in the Hundred Years’ War.

• held various jobs, including royal messenger, justice of the peace, and forester.

• portrayed himself as a foolish character in a number of works.

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Chaucer made an enormous mark on the language and literature of England. Writing in an age when French was widely spoken in educated circles, Chaucer was among the first writers to show that English could be a respectable literary language. Today, his work is considered a cornerstone of English literature.

Befriended by Royalty Chaucer was born sometime between 1340 and 1343, probably in London, in an era when expanding commerce was helping to bring about growth in villages and cities. His family, though not noble, was well off, and his parents were able to place him in the household of the wife of Prince Lionel, a son of King Edward III, where he served as an attendant. Such a position was a vital means of advancement; the young Chaucer learned

the customs of upper-class life and came into contact with influential people. It may have been during this period that Chaucer met Lionel’s

younger brother, John of Gaunt, who would become Chaucer’s

lifelong patron and a leading political figure of the day.

A Knight and a Writer Although

Chaucer wrote his first

important work around 1370, writing was always a sideline; his primary career was in diplomacy. During Richard II’s troubled reign (1377 to 1399), Chaucer was appointed a member of Parliament and knight of the shire. When Richard II was overthrown in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke (who became King Henry IV), Chaucer managed to retain his political position, as Henry was the son of John of Gaunt.

Despite the turmoil of the 1380s and 1390s, the last two decades of Chaucer’s life saw his finest literary achievements— the brilliant verse romance Troilus and Criseyde and his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, a collection of verse and prose tales of many different kinds. At the time of his death, Chaucer had penned nearly 20,000 lines of The Canterbury Tales, but many more tales were planned.

Uncommon Honor When he died in 1400, Chaucer was accorded a rare honor for a commoner—burial in London’s Westminster Abbey. In 1556, an admirer erected an elaborate marble monument to his memory. This was the beginning of the Abbey’s famous Poets’ Corner, where many of England’s most distinguished writers have since been buried.

Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?– 1400


Go to KEYWORD: HML12-142B

Author Online

advancement; the the customs o

came into co people. It m period that

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READING 3 Evaluate the changes in sound, form, figurative language, and dramatic structure in poetry across literary time periods.

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What makes a great character? Creating a great character requires a sharp eye for detail, a keen understanding of people, and a brilliant imagination—all of which Chaucer possessed. Chaucer populated The Canterbury Tales with a colorful cast of characters whose virtues and flaws ring true even today, hundreds of years later.

QUICKWRITE Work with a partner to invent a character. Start with an intriguing name. Then come up with questions that will reveal basic information about the character, such as his or her age, physical appearance, family and friends, job, home, and personal tastes. Brainstorm possible answers for the questions. Then circle the responses that have the best potential for making a lively character.

literary analysis: characterization Characterization refers to the techniques a writer uses to develop characters. In “The Prologue,” the introduction to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer offers a vivid portrait of English society during the Middle Ages. Among his 30 characters are clergy, aristocrats, and commoners. Chaucer employs a dramatic structure similar to Boccaccio’s The Decameron—each pilgrim tells a tale. Some of the ways Chaucer characterizes the pilgrims include

• description of a character’s appearance • examples of a character’s speech, thoughts, and actions • the responses of others to a character • the narrator’s direct comments about a character

As you read, look for details that reveal the character traits, or consistent qualities, of each pilgrim.

reading strategy: paraphrase Reading medieval texts, such as The Canterbury Tales, can be challenging because they often contain unfamiliar words and complex sentences. One way that you can make sense of Chaucer’s work is to paraphrase, or restate information in your own words. A paraphrase is usually the same length as the original text but contains simpler language. As you read, paraphrase difficult passages. Here is an example.

Chaucer’s Words Paraphrase

“When in April the sweet showers

fall/And pierce the drought of

March to the root, . . . ” (lines 1–2)

When the April rains come and end

the dryness of March, . . .

vocabulary in context The following boldfaced words are critical to understanding Chaucer’s literary masterpiece. Try to figure out the meaning of each word from its context.

1. The refined gentleman always behaved with courtliness. 2. She remained calm and sedately finished her meal. 3. The popular politician was charming and personable. 4. When you save money in a bank, interest will accrue. 5. Does she suffer from heart disease or another malady? 6. She made an entreaty to the king, asking for a pardon.

Complete the ac tivities in your Reader/Writer Notebook.

Name: Bartholomew Throckmorton

1. What is his occupation? duke squire to a knight sea captain town doctor grave digger

2. Where does he live?




the canterbury tales 143

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144 unit 1: the anglo-saxon and medieval periods

When in April the sweet showers fall And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all The veins are bathed in liquor of such power As brings about the engendering of the flower, When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath Exhales an air in every grove and heath Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run, And the small fowl are making melody That sleep away the night with open eye (So nature pricks them and their heart engages) Then people long to go on pilgrimages And palmers long to seek the stranger strands Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands, And specially, from every shire’s end Of England, down to Canterbury they wend To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick To give his help to them when they were sick. a

It happened in that season that one day In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay





background In “The Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, a group gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a town just south of London, to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. At the suggestion of the innkeeper, the group decides to hold a storytelling competition to pass the time as they travel. “The Prologue” introduces the “sundry folk” who will tell the stories and is followed by the tales themselves—24 in all.

�he canterbury tales Geoffrey Chaucer

The prologue

5 Zephyrus (zDfPEr-Es): the Greek god of the west wind.

8 the Ram: Aries—the first sign of the zodiac. The time is mid-April.

13 palmers: people journeying to religious shrines; pilgrims; strands: shores. 14 sundry (sOnPdrC): various. 15 shire’s: county’s. 17 martyr: St. Thomas à Becket.


PA R A P H R A S E Restate lines 1–18. Why does the group make its pilgrimage in April?

Illustrations by Teresa Fasolino.

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146 unit 1: the anglo-saxon and medieval periods

Ready to go on pilgrimage and start For Canterbury, most devout at heart, At night there came into that hostelry Some nine and twenty in a company Of sundry folk happening then to fall In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all That towards Canterbury meant to ride. The rooms and stables of the inn were wide; They made us easy, all was of the best. And, briefly, when the sun had gone to rest, I’d spoken to them all upon the trip And was soon one with them in fellowship, Pledged to rise early and to take the way To Canterbury, as you heard me say.

But none the less, while I have time and space, Before my story takes a further pace, It seems a reasonable thing to say What their condition was, the full array Of each of them, as it appeared to me, According to profession and degree, And what apparel they were riding in; And at a Knight I therefore will begin. b There was a Knight, a most distinguished man, Who from the day on which he first began To ride abroad had followed chivalry, Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy. He had done nobly in his sovereign’s war And ridden into battle, no man more, As well in Christian as in heathen places, And ever honored for his noble graces.

When we took Alexandria, he was there. He often sat at table in the chair Of honor, above all nations, when in Prussia. In Lithuania he had ridden, and Russia, No Christian man so often, of his rank. When, in Granada, Algeciras sank Under assault, he had been there, and in North Africa, raiding Benamarin; In Anatolia he had been as well And fought when Ayas and Attalia fell, For all along the Mediterranean coast He had embarked with many a noble host. In fifteen mortal battles he had been And jousted for our faith at Tramissene









45 chivalry (shGvPEl-rC): the code of

behavior of medieval knights, which

stressed the values listed in line 46.

51 Alexandria: a city in Egypt,

captured by European Christians in

1365. All the places named in lines

51–64 were scenes of conflicts in

which medieval Christians battled

Muslims and other non-Christian


64 jousted: fought with a lance in

an arranged battle against another




Paraphrase lines 35–42. What does the narrator set out to accomplish in “The Prologue”?

23 hostelry (hJsPtEl-rC): inn.

Language Coach

Roots and Affixes The suffix -ship can mean “someone entitled to a specific rank of” (lordship), “art or skill of” (craftsmanship), or “state of” (friendship). Which meaning applies to fellowship? Give another example of each use of -ship.

the canterbury tales 147

Thrice in the lists, and always killed his man. This same distinguished knight had led the van Once with the Bey of Balat, doing work For him against another heathen Turk; He was of sovereign value in all eyes. And though so much distinguished, he was wise And in his bearing modest as a maid. He never yet a boorish thing had said In all his life to any, come what might; He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight. c

Speaking of his equipment, he possessed Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed. He wore a fustian tunic stained and dark With smudges where his armor had left mark; Just home from service, he had joined our ranks To do his pilgrimage and render thanks.

He had his son with him, a fine young Squire, A lover and cadet, a lad of fire With locks as curly as if they had been pressed. He was some twenty years of age, I guessed. In stature he was of a moderate length, With wonderful agility and strength. He’d seen some service with the cavalry In Flanders and Artois and Picardy And had done valiantly in little space Of time, in hope to win his lady’s grace. He was embroidered like a meadow bright And full of freshest flowers, red and white. Singing he was, or fluting all the day; He was as fresh as is the month of May. Short was his gown, the sleeves were long and wide; He knew the way to sit a horse and ride. He could make songs and poems and recite, Knew how to joust and dance, to draw and write. He loved so hotly that till dawn grew pale He slept as little as a nightingale. Courteous he was, lowly and serviceable, And carved to serve his father at the table.

There was a Yeoman with him at his side, No other servant; so he chose to ride. This Yeoman wore a coat and hood of green, And peacock-feathered arrows, bright and keen And neatly sheathed, hung at his belt the while










77 fustian (fOsPchEn): a strong cloth

made of linen and cotton.

81 Squire: a young man attending

on and receiving training from a


82 cadet: soldier in training.

88 Flanders and Artois (är-twäP) and

Picardy (pGkPEr-dC): areas in what is

now Belgium and northern France.

93 fluting: whistling.

103 Yeoman (yIPmEn): an attendant

in a noble household; him: the


65 thrice: three times; lists: fenced

areas for jousting.

66 van: vanguard—the troops

foremost in an attack.

67 Bey of Balat: a Turkish ruler.



Reread lines 43–74. What do

the Knight’s actions on and off

the battlefield reveal about his

character? Cite details to support

your answer.

148 unit 1: the anglo-saxon and medieval periods

—For he could dress his gear in yeoman style, His arrows never drooped their feathers low— And in his hand he bore a mighty bow. His head was like a nut, his face was brown. He knew the whole of woodcraft up and down. A saucy brace was on his arm to ward It from the bow-string, and a shield and sword Hung at one side, and at the other slipped A jaunty dirk, spear-sharp and well-equipped. A medal of St. Christopher he wore Of shining silver on his breast, and bore A hunting-horn, well slung and burnished clean, That dangled from a baldrick of bright green. He was a proper forester, I guess.

There also was a Nun, a Prioress, Her way of smiling very simple and coy. Her greatest oath was only “By St. Loy!” And she was known as Madam Eglantyne. And well she sang a service, with a fine Intoning through her nose, as was most seemly, And she spoke daintily in French, extremely, After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe; French in the Paris style she did not know. At meat her manners were well taught withal; No morsel from her lips did she let fall, Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep; But she could carry a morsel up and keep The smallest drop from falling on her breast. For courtliness she had a special zest, And she would wipe her upper lip so clean That not a trace of grease was to be seen Upon the cup when she had drunk; to eat, She reached a hand sedately for the meat. She certainly was very entertaining, Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace, A stately bearing fitting to her place, And to seem dignified in all her dealings. d As for her sympathies and tender feelings, She was so charitably solicitous She used to weep if she but saw a mouse Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding. And she had little dogs she would be feeding With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. And bitterly she wept if one were dead










122  Prioress: a nun ranking just below the abbess (head) of a convent.

116  dirk: small dagger.

117  St. Christopher: patron saint of travelers.

124  St. Loy: St. Eligius (known as St. Éloi in France).

129  Stratford-atte-Bowe: a town (now part of London) near the Prioress’s convent.

131  at meat: when dining; withal: moreover.

120  baldrick: shoulder strap.

143  counterfeit: imitate.

courtliness (kôrtPlC-nGs) n. polite, elegant manners; refined behavior

sedately (sG-dAtPlC) adv. in a composed, dignified manner; calmly

113  saucy: jaunty; stylish; brace: a leather arm-guard worn by archers.

d characterization

Reread lines 122–145. Which details suggest that the Prioress may be trying to appear more sophisticated than she really is?

the canterbury tales 149

Or someone took a stick and made it smart; She was all sentiment and tender heart. Her veil was gathered in a seemly way, Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey; Her mouth was very small, but soft and red, Her forehead, certainly, was fair of spread, Almost a span across the brows, I own; She was indeed by no means undergrown. Her cloak, I noticed, had a graceful charm. She wore a coral trinket on her arm, A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green, Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen On which there first was graven a crowned A, And lower, Amor vincit omnia.

Another Nun, the secretary at her cell, Was riding with her, and three Priests as well.

A Monk there was, one of the finest sort Who rode the country; hunting was his sport. A manly man, to be an Abbot able; Many a dainty horse he had in stable. His bridle, when he rode, a man might hear Jingling in a whistling wind as clear, Aye, and as loud as does the chapel bell Where my lord Monk was Prior of the cell. The Rule of good St. Benet or St. Maur As old and strict he tended to ignore; He let go by the things of yesterday And took the modern world’s more spacious way. He did not rate that text at a plucked hen Which says that hunters are not holy men And that a monk uncloistered is a mere Fish out of water, flapping on the pier, That is to say a monk out of his cloister. That was a text he held not worth an oyster; And I agreed and said his views were sound; Was he to study till his head went round Poring over books in cloisters? Must he toil As Austin bade and till the very soil? Was he to leave the world upon the shelf? Let Austin have his labor to himself.

This Monk was therefore a good man to horse; Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds, to course. Hunting a hare or riding at a fence










159  span: a unit of length equal

to nine inches. A broad forehead

was considered a sign of beauty in

Chaucer’s day.

171  Abbot: the head of a monastery.

172  dainty: excellent.

163  gaudies: the larger beads in a

set of prayer beads.

166  Amor vincit omnia (äPmôr

wGnPkGt ômPnC-E): Latin for “Love

conquers all things.”

176  Prior of the cell: head of a

subsidiary group of monks.

177  St. Benet . . . St. Maur: St.

Benedict, who established a strict set

of rules for monks’ behavior, and his

follower, St. Maurus, who introduced

those rules into France.

190  Austin: St. Augustine of Hippo,

who recommended that monks

engage in hard agricultural labor.

194  to course: for hunting.

150 unit 1: the anglo-saxon and medieval periods

Was all his fun, he spared for no expense. I saw his sleeves were garnished at the hand With fine grey fur, the finest in the land, And on his hood, to fasten it at his chin He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin; Into a lover’s knot it seemed to pass. His head was bald and shone like looking-glass; So did his face, as if it had been greased. He was a fat and personable priest; His prominent eyeballs never seemed to settle. e They glittered like the flames beneath a kettle; Supple his boots, his horse in fine condition. He was a prelate fit for exhibition, He was not pale like a tormented soul. He liked a fat swan best, and roasted whole. His palfrey was as brown as is a berry.

There was a Friar, a wanton one and merry, A Limiter, a very festive fellow. In all Four Orders there was none so mellow, So glib with gallant phrase and well-turned speech. He’d fixed up many a marriage, giving each Of his young women what he could afford her. He was a noble pillar to his Order. Highly beloved and intimate was he With County folk within his boundary, And city dames of honor and possessions; For he was qualified to hear confessions,





220 222  confessions: church rites in

which people confess their sins to

clergy members. Only certain friars

were licensed to hear confessions.

211  palfrey (pôlPfrC): saddle horse.

e characterization

List three character traits of the

Monk. In what ways does the

narrator appear to poke fun at


212  Friar: a member of a religious

group sworn to poverty and living

on charitable donations; wanton

(wJnPtEn): playful; jolly.

213  Limiter: a friar licensed to beg

for donations in a limited area.

214  Four Orders: the four groups

of friars—Dominican, Franciscan,

Carmelite, and Augustinian.

personable (pûrPsE-nE-bEl)

adj. pleasing in behavior and


the canterbury tales 151

Or so he said, with more than priestly scope; He had a special license from the Pope. Sweetly he heard his penitents at shrift With pleasant absolution, for a gift. He was an easy man in penance-giving Where he could hope to make a decent living; It’s a sure sign whenever gifts are given To a poor Order that a man’s well shriven, And should he give enough he knew in verity The penitent repented in sincerity. For many a fellow is so hard of heart He cannot weep, for all his inward smart. Therefore instead of weeping and of prayer One should give silver for a poor Friar’s care. He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls, And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls. And certainly his voice was gay and sturdy, For he sang well and played the hurdy-gurdy. At sing-songs he was champion of the hour. His neck was whiter than a lily-flower But strong enough to butt a bruiser down. He knew the taverns well in every town And every innkeeper and barmaid too Better than lepers, beggars and that crew, f For in so eminent a man as he It was not fitting with the dignity Of his position, dealing with a scum Of wretched lepers; nothing good can come Of commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers, But only with the rich and victual-sellers. But anywhere a profit might accrue Courteous he was and lowly of service too. Natural gifts like his were hard to match. He was the finest beggar of his batch, And, for his begging-district, paid a rent; His brethren did no poaching where he went. For though a widow mightn’t have a shoe, So pleasant was his holy how-d’ye-do He got his farthing from her just the same Before he left, and so his income came To more than he laid out. And how he romped, Just like a puppy! He was ever prompt To arbitrate disputes on settling days (For a small fee) in many helpful ways, Not then appearing as your cloistered scholar With threadbare habit hardly worth a dollar,










240  hurdy-gurdy: a stringed musical

instrument, similar to a lute, played

by turning a crank while pressing

down keys.

237  tippet: an extension of a hood or

sleeve, used as a pocket.

252  victual (vGtPl): food.

f paraphrase

Restate lines 237–246. How

does the Friar spend the money

he earns through hearing


accrue (E-krLP) v. to be added or

gained; to accumulate

261  farthing: a coin of small value

used in England until recent times.

265  settling days: days on which

disputes were settled out of court.

Friars often acted as arbiters in

the disputes and charged for their

services, though forbidden by the

church to do so.

230  well shriven: completely

forgiven through the rite of


231  verity: truth.

225  shrift: confession.

152 unit 1: the anglo-saxon and medieval periods

But much more like a Doctor or a Pope. Of double-worsted was the semi-cope Upon his shoulders, and the swelling fold About him, like a bell about its mold When it is casting, rounded out his dress. He lisped a little out of wantonness To make his English sweet upon his tongue. When he had played his harp, or having sung, His eyes would twinkle in his head as bright As any star upon a frosty night. This worthy’s name was Hubert, it appeared.

There was a Merchant with a forking beard And motley dress; high on his horse he sat, Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat And on his feet daintily buckled boots. He told of his opinions and pursuits In solemn tones, he harped on his increase Of capital; there should be sea-police (He thought) upon the Harwich-Holland ranges; He was expert at dabbling in exchanges. This estimable Merchant so had set His wits to work, none knew he was in debt, He was so stately in administration, In loans and bargains and negotiation. He was an excellent fellow all the same; To tell the truth I do not know his name. g

An Oxford Cleric, still a student though, One who had taken logic long ago, Was there; his horse was thinner than a rake, And he was not too fat, I undertake, But had a hollow look, a sober stare; The thread upon his overcoat was bare. He had found no preferment in the church And he was too unworldly to make search For secular employment. By his bed He preferred having twenty books in red And black, of Aristotle’s philosophy, Than costly clothes, fiddle or psaltery. Though a philosopher, as I have told, He had not found the stone for making gold. Whatever money from his friends he took He spent on learning or another book And prayed for them most earnestly, returning Thanks to them thus for paying for his learning.










281  motley: multicolored.

282  Flemish: from Flanders, an area

in what is now Belgium and northern


301  preferment: advancement.

287  Harwich-Holland ranges:

shipping routes between Harwich

(hBrPGj), a port on England’s east

coast, and the country of Holland.

288  exchanges: selling foreign

currency at a profit.

305  Aristotle’s philosophy: the

writings of Aristotle, a famous Greek

philosopher of the fourth century b.c.

306  psaltery (sôlPtE-rC): a stringed


307–308  Though a philosopher . . .

gold: The “philosopher’s stone”

supposedly turned metals into gold.

295  Cleric: a student preparing for

the priesthood.

g paraphrase

Paraphrase lines 284–294.

Is the Merchant a successful

businessman? Why or why not?

270  double-worsted (wMsPtGd): a

strong, fairly costly fabric made from

tightly twisted woolen yarn; semi-

cope: a short cloak.

the canterbury tales 153

His only care was study, and indeed He never spoke a word more than was need, Formal at that, respectful in the extreme, Short, to the point, and lofty in his theme. A tone of moral virtue filled his speech And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach. h

A Sergeant at the Law who paid his calls, Wary and wise, for clients at St. Paul’s There also was, of noted excellence. Discreet he was, a man to reverence, Or so he seemed, his sayings were so wise. He often had been Justice of Assize By letters patent, and in full commission. His fame and learning and his high position Had won him many a robe and many a fee. There was no such conveyancer as he; All was fee-simple to his strong digestion, Not one conveyance could be called in question. Though there was nowhere one so busy as he, He was less busy than he seemed to be. He knew of every judgment, case and crime Ever recorded since King William’s time. He could dictate defenses or draft deeds; No one could pinch a comma from his screeds And he knew every statute off by rote. He wore a homely parti-colored coat, Girt with a silken belt of pin-stripe stuff; Of his appearance I have said enough.

There was a Franklin with him, it appeared; White as a daisy-petal was his beard. A sanguine man, high-colored and benign, He loved a morning sop of cake in wine. He lived for pleasure and had always done, For he was Epicurus’ very son, In whose opinion sensual delight Was the one true felicity in sight. As noted as St. Julian was for bounty He made his household free to all the County. His bread, his ale were finest of the fine And no one had a better stock of wine. His house was never short of bake-meat pies, Of fish and flesh, and these in such supplies It positively snowed with meat and drink And all the dainties that a man could think. i










319  Sergeant at the Law: a lawyer

appointed by the monarch to serve

as a judge.

320  St. Paul’s: the cathedral of

London, outside which lawyers met

clients when the courts were closed.

324  Justice of Assize: a judge who

traveled about the country to hear


325  letters patent: royal documents

commissioning a judge.

328  conveyancer: a lawyer

specializing in conveyances (deeds)

and property disputes.

329  fee-simple: property owned

without restrictions.

334  King William’s time: the reign

of William the Conqueror.

336  screeds: documents.

341  Franklin: a wealthy landowner.