The Simplest Way To Understand “Canterbury Tales” By Geoffrey Chaucer

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The opening part of Canterbury Tales

In the first section of Canterbury Tales, Chaucer expresses joy over the arrival of spring. The time of year when everything is in full bloom and the rain is much appreciated. Water from long-awaited showers revives both plants and humans after a dry winter.

New sensual lusts and a yearning for enlightenment appear with the arrival of spring. As a result, preparations for the pilgrimage to sacred sites are being made.

They are preparing to make the journey to the holy Canterbury Cathedral to pay their respects to the martyred St. Thomas Becket. They hail from all walks of English life and hope to receive the martyr’s blessings.

Chaucer takes on the role of narrator rather than writer and joins the group of travellers who have gathered in Southwark, London, at a watering hole known as “the Tabard Inn.”

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Along with 28 other countrymen, he is staying there before setting out for Canterbury. He accepts their invitation with enthusiasm and is overjoyed to be in their company. They plan to begin their journey toward enlightenment the following morning.

But before the journey begins, he makes it a point to study everyone he will encounter and construct a profile of them based on their outward look, behaviour, and preferences. He evaluates each individual and assigns them to one of several social classes based on the information he gathers.

Different characters in Canterbury Tales

By introducing the Knight and his son the Squire, Chaucer introduces the reader to the first of many people he would eventually detail.

An argument could be made that the descriptions are hierarchical, with “Knight” representing the highest social status in Medieval England. That meant the next in line had to be a member of the Church.

Canterbury Tales
Characters in Canterbury Tales

The next tier of English society consists of salaried workers such as professionals, tradespeople, and government personnel. When describing society, Chaucer stops at the lowest rung, occupied by unskilled labourers.

Based on Chaucer’s characterization, the pilgrims can be divided into several groups.

Honest and upright characters

The Knight enjoys a stellar reputation for being revered and polite. He dresses conservatively, opting for soiled garments made of coarse linen. He has won battles across the continent, yet he never boasts.

There is no hint of mockery in Chaucer’s statements, and he appears to be truly delighted. In contrast, his son is dressed more traditionally femininely, in pastels and floral patterns. He has a penchant for flirty behaviour and a love of songwriting. He has average stature and curly hair. He hopes to emulate his successful father and is working hard to do so.

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A Judge, sometimes known as the “Sergeant of the Law,” is introduced to us. The King has recognised his wisdom and bravery by bestowing upon him numerous grants and decorations. He seems to have achieved the summit of his profession without losing his sense of glorious modesty.

Now let us meet the Merchant, a man of bright attire and much more brash beliefs. He is exceptionally skilled at what he does, but beyond that, little is known about him.

Next, we have the office clerk who is also part of the Merchant’s crew. He has sharpened his mind at the illustrious University of Oxford, making him a man of the text and the written word. He wears understated clothing and would rather study Greek philosophy than give in to the allure of the stage. When it comes to his words, he is just as careful and restrained as he is with his wealth.

The narrator then gives us a brief background on the worldly Shipman. He was born in Dartmouth, but his travels have taken him to many other locations, including Cape Finisterre. He wears a woollen robe that reaches his knees and is browned from his extensive travels in the hot Sun. As attractive as he is, he has a serious drinking problem.

Then we learn about the religious guy known as the Parson. Although he lacks financial resources, he makes up for it with his kind heart and open spirit. He is devoted to his congregation and has a deep understanding of the Gospels and other parts of the Christian Bible. Because of his efforts to put his words into action, Chaucer praises him as “the noblest of the priests in the land,” likening him to a messianic leader.

Next up is the Parson’s brother, the Plowman, who works tirelessly. He is riding about on a mare while dressed casually. Peaceful and giving, he lives by the example set by Jesus Christ. The Parson is the antithesis of the friar, prioress, and monk who also appear in the story.

The Hypocritical characters

Next, we learn of the Prioress, Madame Eglantine, who sports a “Amor Vincit Omnia” (Love Triumphs Over All) brooch. As one might expect from a member of the Clergy, she is deeply pious, generous (to men and animals alike), and polite to a fault.

Additionally, she is a linguistic prodigy in French. There is another Nun with her. The Prioress employs her as her secretary.

The Monk is the next tier of the Clergy. He is not your typical minister; he enjoys hunting and is more libertarian in his outlook than most in his field. He is plump yet handsome, and rather than confine himself to only editing the Bible, he prefers to observe God’s benevolent nature. As a whole, there are two nuns, three priests, and a chaplain.

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The narrator then moves on to describe the Friar Hubert, a man of women’s desires and a favourite of the nobility. He is been granted exclusive permission to solicit charity, an endeavour at which he excels. Despite the fact that St. Francis’s father, the Friars, dedicated their lives to helping the poor and the leper, he treats them with disdain.

Chaucer makes it clear that he finds the Prioress, Monk, and Friar’s pretensions, hypocrisy, and artifice hilarious.

Next, Chaucer portrays the Reeve, a tall, slender man. He is quite good at his job, which involves taking measurements of fields and storing grains. He has a wide network of friends and acquaintances, including numerous useful men such as ranchers, farm labourers, etc.

Since he is privy to everyone’s dirty little secrets, he is not a person to mess with. In addition, he is skilled in carpentry.

The Summoner, who is next in line, is a traveller with spotty skin. He looks scruffy, with a scraggly beard and skinny, tiny eyes. He drinks way too much and is really offensive.

He is a con man and a really unpleasant person, it is said. In addition, he advises all of the young women in his area.

The subsequent story describes a doctor who is both articulate and knowledgeable. He is wearing blue and red garments. While the physician is well-versed in Greek and Anglican medical texts, Chaucer notes that he is not a student of the Bible.

When he practises medicine for the sake of amassing wealth rather than helping others, Chaucer mocks him for his obsession with gold.

The Wife of Bath serves as a foil to the Parson. She is a woman of luxury and is fond of dress and accessories. She claims to be an expert in love affairs because she has already been married five times. She is characterised as lusty with a penchant for men and travel. She has travelled to locations such as Rome, Jerusalem, and more.

The slightly effeminate Pardoner, who travels with the unpleasant Summoner, is the last pilgrim to be depicted. He has yellow-colored hair and a number of Rome pardons. He appears to also be lusty. He appears to be drawn to worldly wealth as well because he collects jewelry-encrusted crosses and other objects. He uses his talent for storytelling to plunder the underprivileged. He enjoys dancing and singing. One can wonder if Chaucer is gay based on his words.

The conclusion part of Canterbury Tales

Chaucer urges the readers to treat his reporting as closely to their honest accounts as possible, appearing to be aware of his own biases and preconceptions. Any mistakes or additions made by him would be unfair and would greatly distort the people being described.

He tells stories in a straightforward, linear manner with little surprises. The reporting is kept as authentic and unedited as feasible.

Naturally, he takes the luxury of employing their unique characteristics as guiding markers in the narration style when he begins to tell each person’s story.

In his new role as proprietor of the Tabard Inn, the innkeeper wins over his guests by treating them to a special dinner. Warm and friendly, he welcomes the pilgrims with open arms and calls them “the best bunch of pilgrims I have met,” before suggesting a new game for them to try.

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He elaborates that the pilgrims should play a round of story-telling instead of travelling to Canterbury as random, unrelated individuals. He recommends that they each tell four stories total—two on the trip to Canterbury and two on the way back.

This will boost their spirits and keep them alert throughout the trip. He offers himself as the ultimate story quality arbiter. He promises a free lunch to the finest talebearer on the return which the rest of the group will fund.

The Host has offered to foot the bill for his own travel, with the stipulation that anybody disputes his ultimate decision will be responsible for covering his transportation expenses. Each traveller enthusiastically supports the plan. The journey is no longer one of penance but of exhilarating adventure.

The following morning, they all set out on their journey. The order of the storytellers is determined by a coin toss. The Knight, who is held in high esteem by everyone, goes first.

He gets to share his story first because he drew the short straw. The rest of the poem is a recounting of the pilgrims’ various tales. Ultimately, not quite half of the gang makes it to Canterbury, and just two of them get to share their tales. Unfortunately, Chaucer never got around to completing his own masterpiece.

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