Geoffrey Chaucers Canterbury Tales is a story of nine and twenty pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, England in order to visit the shrine of St. Thomas A. Becket. The General Prologue starts by describing the beauty of nature and of happy times, and then Chaucer begins to introduce the pilgrims. Most of Chaucers pilgrims are not the honorable pilgrims a reader would expect from the beautiful opening of the prologue, and instead they are pilgrims that illustrate moral lessons. In the descriptions of the pilgrims, Chaucers language 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 their trade in any possible way to benefit themselves. By using our notion of stereotypes, and counter stereotypes, Chaucer teaches us many moral lessons about religion and money. Chaucers moral lessons start while he is introducing the pilgrims. These pilgrims are not from the same social stations in life, and instead they range anywhere from a rich lady from Bath to a drunken miller.
It is nice to think twenty nine people with different social classes can all join together and go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but this is not likely in todays society. This idea helps not only to show Chaucers religious and platonic view, but also how society should be accepting and look at each other the way Chaucer does in the General Prologue. Each of the pilgrims Chaucer describes can be considered timeless characters with timeless moral problems, since people today still display these characteristics. Chaucer describes all of the pilgrims; however, some characters moral problems stand out more so than others 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 to teach us through their behavior and through Chaucers wit. The most obvious problem with these characters is that they are not at all who a reader would think they are. Chaucer shows the characters faults in a diplomatic way, and these faults are apparent through the description in the General Prologue. The Prioress, also known as Mme. Eglantine, is the mother superior at her nunnery.
By saying she is the superior at her nunnery, the impression is that she must be a devout lady who loves God, however, this is not the case. She is a very proper lady who sings through her nose, loves her lap dogs and eats with impeccable manners. As Chaucer describes, She was so charitable and so pitous, she even cried when she saw a dead mouse (p. 218). She had an impressive forehead and a gold broach which said Amor vincit omnia, which means love conquers all (p. 219). Her engraved broach seems to speaks more of secular love than of Godly love, (Godly love in Latin is Amour Dei) (class discussion).
This prioress is much more concerned with manners and demonstrating her demureness than showing her love for God. Her broach demonstrates what she thinks is most important. Chaucer ends with this, and the reader realizes that her love for God should be what is most important to her. The next character we learn from also holds 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. In this case, the reader usually pictures a monk as someone who really loves God and 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 churchs money for racing greyhounds. He has spared no expense for his clothes or his meals. Chaucer elegantly shows how materialistic this monk is; it seems he cares more for hunting and racing than he does for God. Another religious figure is the Friar, who is the one the most corrupt of the religious pilgrims.
A Friar is not high in the Church, but nonetheless they have 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 as Chaucer said ful wel biloved, liked by all (p. 220). He is very familiar with Franklins (who were rich landowners) and with the young women. In fact, he has found many young women husbands. This Friar hears confessions and is easy to give forgiveness if the confessor has money for penance, plus he figures that he does not need to be seen with leapers or poor people.
Penance is better than crying or weeping over the sin, and in his patrons eyes he was courteous and humble. There is no better a beggar in his entire house and he always left with a donation. The Friar is very clever at his trade. He deals only with the people who 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 to understand Chaucers use of wit with the Friar; it is obvious that he takes full advantage of his position and has no site of God in his mind. He does everything for himself, especially to get money or relations.
He takes no consideration that he should be helping people instead of taking advantage of them. The Friar dealt with many Franklins, and there is also a Franklin on this pilgrimage. The Franklin has a red face and this might be related to his love of wine. Here is a pilgrim who is not in the Church, however, he still can teach us a moral lesson. He is described to have a sanguine complexion, and in middle evil times people were described by four bodily humors (p. 225). Chaucer uses his wit here and says For he was Epicurus owene sone; Epicurus is a Greek philosopher who believed pleasure is the goal of life (p. 23).
This man loves to eat and his tastes change with the seasons, although his table was always set well. Food and wine were this mans vices as Chaucer shows, and the lesson this pilgrim shows us is that pleasure is not the main goal of life. In fact, this mans main goal in life should be to serve God. The Wife of Bath is the next pilgrim in mind, and she is not in the Church, however, she more than the stereotypical housewife. This lady is in a category of her own. She is a housewife and can be considered a professional pilgrim who has traveled to many destinations.
She also enjoys husbands, five to be exact. Chaucer says she has is respectable, not counting her youthful days. She is a bold, outspoken woman, and her clothes reflect her personality, especially her headdress that hangs to the floor. She is charitable if and only if she is the first to the altar. The Wife of Bath also rides well and is good company. She knows of many love remedies, because she knows about that old dance (p. 226). In the Wife of Baths description, Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to illustrate love, or lack of it. The Wife of Bath marries older rich men and when they die, she finds another.
This womans pilgrimaging might be to find rich husbands more than celebrating the holy destinations on the pilgrimage. Like other pilgrims, she knows how to work her station in life to her advantage. The Summoner and the Pardoner are two of the most corrupt pilgrims, and yet they have the jobs with the most power over peoples souls and lives. One would expect the two pilgrims who are high in the Church to be some pilgrims that really did care for God and truly are in this job to serve others and God, however, this is not true. The Summoner appearance scared children because he had a fire red face with sores all over it.
He, like the Friar, also likes female company. The Summoners job is to summon offenders to the ecclesiastical court, sometimes guilty or not depending on the persons purse. His position makes him powerful, and he used his rank in any way he could for money. The Pardoner also loved earning money; his appearance was frightening, but he believes he is following 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 until Jesus got it. The Pardoner also has other relics that he used to make money off of unsuspecting parsons.
Although, when in church, he is a noble ecclesiaste, teaching lessons, preaching and especially singing because he knows the money will follow. This pilgrim is high in the Church, yet he seems to have no respect for God; he only cares for money. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer creates timeless characters that we can still learn from today. The General Prologue starts with the idea of springtime and flowers blooming, and this may be Chaucers way of saying these characters, despite their moral afflictions, might be born again over the pilgrimage.
It is ironic how all of these morally corrupt people go on a religious pilgrimage, yet they do not seem to incorporate God in their everyday lives. Chaucers style of writing, his use of stereotypes and counter stereotypes really helps the reader to think and learn the moral lessons the characters have not quite mastered. There are many lessons learned here just by the description of the characters, and most of the moral lessons and wit stems from the pilgrims taking advantage of their trades whether it is a housewife or a pardoner.