The narrator makes it quite clear that he is also a character in his book. Although he is called Chaucer, we should be wary of accepting his words and opinions as Chaucer’s own. In the General Prologue, the narrator presents himself as a gregarious and naïve character. Later on, the Host accuses him of being silent and sullen. Because the narrator writes down his impressions of the pilgrims from memory, whom he does and does not like, and what he chooses and chooses not to remember about the characters, tells us as much about the narrator’s own prejudices as it does about the characters themselves.
The first pilgrim Chaucer describes in the General Prologue, and the teller of the first tale. The Knight represents the ideal of a medieval Christian man-at-arms. He has participated in no less than fifteen of the great crusades of his era. Brave, experienced, and prudent, the narrator greatly admires him.
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The Wife of Bath
Bath is an English town on the Avon River, not the name of this woman’s husband. Though she is a seamstress by occupation, she seems to be a professional wife. She has been married five times and had many other affairs in her youth, making her well practiced in the art of love. She presents herself as someone who loves marriage and sex, but, from what we see of her, she also takes pleasure in rich attire, talking, and arguing. She is deaf in one ear and has a gap between her front teeth, which was considered attractive in Chaucer’s time. She has traveled on pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times and elsewhere in Europe as well.
Pardoners granted papal indulgences—reprieves from penance in exchange for charitable donations to the Church. Many pardoners, including this one, collected profits for themselves. In fact, Chaucer’s Pardoner excels in fraud, carrying a bag full of fake relics—for example, he claims to have the veil of the Virgin Mary. The Pardoner has long, greasy, yellow hair and is beardless. These characteristics were associated with shiftiness and gender ambiguity in Chaucer’s time. The Pardoner also has a gift for singing and preaching whenever he finds himself inside a church.
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Stout and brawny, the Miller has a wart on his nose and a big mouth, both literally and figuratively. He threatens the Host’s notion of propriety when he drunkenly insists on telling the second tale. Indeed, the Miller seems to enjoy overturning all conventions: he ruins the Host’s carefully planned storytelling order; he rips doors off hinges; and he tells a tale that is somewhat blasphemous, ridiculing religious clerks, scholarly clerks, carpenters, and women.
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Described as modest and quiet, this Prioress (a nun who is head of her convent) aspires to have exquisite taste. Her table manners are dainty, she knows French (though not the French of the court), she dresses well, and she is charitable and compassionate.
Most monks of the Middle Ages lived in monasteries according to the
Roaming priests with no ties to a monastery, friars were a great object of criticism in Chaucer’s time. Always ready to befriend young women or rich men who might need his services, the friar actively administers the sacraments in his town, especially those of marriage and confession. However, Chaucer’s worldly Friar has taken to accepting bribes.
The Summoner brings persons accused of violating Church law to ecclesiastical court. This Summoner is a lecherous man whose face is scarred by leprosy. He gets drunk frequently, is irritable, and is not particularly qualified for his position. He spouts the few words of Latin he knows in an attempt to sound educated.
The leader of the group, the Host is large, loud, and merry, although he possesses a quick temper. He mediates among the pilgrims and facilitates the flow of the tales. His title of “host” may be a pun, suggesting both an innkeeper and the Eucharist, or Holy Host.
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The only devout churchman in the company, the Parson lives in poverty, but is rich in holy thoughts and deeds. The pastor of a sizable town, he preaches the Gospel and makes sure to practice what he preaches. He is everything that the Monk, the Friar, and the Pardoner are not.
The Knight’s son and apprentice. The Squire is curly-haired, youthfully handsome, and loves dancing and courting.
The Clerk is a poor student of philosophy. Having spent his money on books and learning rather than on fine clothes, he is threadbare and wan. He speaks little, but when he does, his words are wise and full of moral virtue.
The Man of Law
A successful lawyer commissioned by the king. He upholds justice in matters large and small and knows every statute of England’s law by heart.
A manciple was in charge of getting provisions for a college or court. Despite his lack of education, this Manciple is smarter than the thirty lawyers he feeds.
The Merchant trades in furs and other cloths, mostly from Flanders. He is part of a powerful and wealthy class in Chaucer’s society.
Brown-skinned from years of sailing, the Shipman has seen every bay and river in England, and exotic ports in Spain and Carthage as well. He is a bit of a rascal, known for stealing wine while the ship’s captain sleeps.
The Physician is one of the best in his profession, for he knows the cause of every malady and can cure most of them. Though the Physician keeps himself in perfect physical health, the narrator calls into question the Physician’s spiritual health: he rarely consults the Bible and has an unhealthy love of financial gain.
The word “franklin” means “free man.” In Chaucer’s society, a franklin was neither a vassal serving a lord nor a member of the nobility. This particular franklin is a connoisseur of food and wine, so much so that his table remains laid and ready for food all day.
A reeve was similar to a steward of a manor, and this reeve performs his job shrewdly—his lord never loses so much as a ram to the other employees, and the vassals under his command are kept in line. However, he steals from his master.
The Plowman is the Parson’s brother and is equally good-hearted. A member of the peasant class, he pays his tithes to the Church and leads a good Christian life.
Listed together, the five Guildsmen appear as a unit. English guilds were a combination of labor unions and social fraternities: craftsmen of similar occupations joined together to increase their bargaining power and live communally. All five Guildsmen are clad in the livery of their brotherhood.
The Cook works for the Guildsmen. Chaucer gives little detail about him, although he mentions a crusty sore on the Cook’s leg.
The servant who accompanies the Knight and the Squire. The narrator mentions that his dress and weapons suggest he may be a forester.
The Second Nun
The Second Nun is not described in the General Prologue, but she tells a saint’s life for her tale.
The Nun’s Priest
Like the Second Nun, the Nun’s Priest is not described in the General Prologue. His story of Chanticleer, however, is well crafted and suggests that he is a witty, self-effacing preacher.
A great conqueror and the duke of Athens in the Knight’s Tale. The most powerful ruler in the story, he is often called upon to make the final judgment, but he listens to others’ pleas for help.
Palamon is one of the two imprisoned Theban soldier heroes in the Knight’s Tale. Brave, strong, and sworn to everlasting friendship with his cousin Arcite, Palamon falls in love with the fair maiden Emelye, which brings him into conflict with Arcite. Though he loses the tournament against Arcite, he gets Emelye in the end.
The sworn brother to Palamon, Arcite, imprisoned with Palamon in the tower in the Knight’s Tale, falls equally head over heels in love with Emelye. He gets released from the tower early and wins Emelye’s hand in a tournament, but then dies when a divinely fated earthquake causes his horse to throw him.
Emelye is the sister to Hippolyta, Theseus’s domesticated Amazon queen in the Knight’s Tale. Fair-haired and glowing, we first see Emelye as Palamon does, through a window. Although she is the object of both Palamon’s and Arcite’s desire, she would rather spend her life unmarried and childless. Nevertheless, when Arcite wins the tournament, she readily pledges herself to him.
Theseus’s father. Egeus gives Theseus the advice that helps him convince Palamon and Emelye to end their mourning of Arcite and get married.
The Miller's Tale
In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a poor astronomy student who boards with an elderly carpenter, John, and the carpenter’s too-young wife, Alisoun. Nicholas dupes John and sleeps with Alisoun right under John’s nose, but Absolon, the foppish parish clerk, gets Nicholas in the end.
Alisoun is the seductive young woman married to the carpenter in the Miller’s Tale. She is bright and sweet like a small bird, and dresses in a tantalizing style—her clothes are embroidered inside and outside, and she laces her boots high. She willingly goes to bed with Nicholas, but she has only harsh words and obscenities for Absolon.
The local parish clerk in the Miller’s Tale, Absolon is a little bit foolish and more than a little bit vain. He wears red stockings underneath his floor-length church gown, and his leather shoes are decorated like the fanciful stained-glass windows in a cathedral. He curls his hair, uses breath fresheners, and fancies Alisoun.
The dim-witted carpenter to whom Alisoun is married and with whom Nicholas boards. John is jealous and possessive of his wife. He constantly berates Nicholas for looking into God’s “pryvetee,” but when Nicholas offers John the chance to share his knowledge, John quickly accepts. He gullibly believes Nicholas’s pronouncement that a second flood is coming, which allows Nicholas to sleep with John’s wife.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
The First Three Husbands
The Wife of Bath says that her first three husbands were “good” because they were rich and old. She could order them around, use sex to get what she wanted, and trick them into believing lies.
The Fourth Husband
The Wife of Bath says comparatively little about her fourth husband. She loved him, but he was a reveler who had a mistress. She had fun singing and dancing with him, but tried her best to make him jealous. She fell in love with her fifth husband, Jankyn, while she was still married to her fourth.
The Wife of Bath’s fifth husband, Jankyn, was a twenty-year-old former student, with whom the Wife was madly in love. His stories of wicked wives frustrated her so much that one night she ripped a page out of his book, only to receive a deafening smack on her ear in return.
Arthur’s young knight rapes a maiden, and, to avoid the punishment of death, he is sent by the queen on a quest to learn about submission to women. Once he does so, and shows that he has learned his lesson by letting his old ugly wife make a decision, she rewards him by becoming beautiful and submissive.
The Old Woman
The old woman supplies the young knight with the answer to his question, in exchange for his promise to do whatever she wants. When she tells him he must marry her, the knight begrudgingly agrees, and when he allows her to choose whether she would like to be beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful, she rewards him by becoming both beautiful and faithful.
Arthur’s queen, presumably Guinevere, is interesting because she wields most of the power. When Arthur’s knight rapes a maiden, he turns the knight over to his queen allows her to decide what to do with him.
The Pardoner’s Tale
The Three Rioters
These are the three protagonists of the Pardoner’s Tale. All three indulge in and represent the vices against which the Pardoner has railed in his Prologue: Gluttony, Drunkeness, Gambling, and Swearing. These traits define the three and eventually lead to their downfall. The Rioters at first appear like personified vices, but it is their belief that a personified concept—in this case, Death—is a real person that becomes the root cause of their undoing.
The Old Man
In the Pardoner’s Tale, the three Rioters encounter a very old man whose body is completely covered except for his face. Before the old man tells the Rioters where they can find “Death,” one of the Rioters rashly demands why the old man is still alive. The old man answers that he is doomed to walk the earth for eternity. He has been interpreted as Death itself, or as Cain, punished for fratricide by walking the earth forever; or as the Wandering Jew, a man who refused to let Christ rest at his house when Christ proceeded to his crucifixion, and who was therefore doomed to roam the world, through the ages, never finding rest.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
The heroic rooster of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chanticleer has seven hen-wives and is the most handsome cock in the barnyard. One day, he has a prophetic dream of a fox that will carry him away. Chanticleer is also a bit vain about his clear and accurate crowing voice, and he unwittingly allows a fox to flatter him out of his liberty.
Chanticleer’s favorite wife in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. She is his equal in looks, manners, and talent. When Chanticleer dreams of the fox, he awakens her in the middle of the night, begging for an interpretation, but Pertelote will have none of it, calling him foolish. When the fox takes him away, she mourns him in classical Greek fashion, burning herself and wailing.
The orange fox, interpreted by some as an allegorical figure for the devil, catches Chanticleer the rooster through flattery. Eventually, Chanticleer outwits the fox by encouraging him to boast of his deceit to his pursuers. When the fox opens his mouth, Chanticleer escapes.