The Canterbury Tales Study: Character List and Analysis
In the General Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer introduces a total of 29 characters. This includes the 27 pilgrims who are on the journey to Canterbury, plus Chaucer himself as a character-narrator, and the Host of the inn, Harry Bailey, who proposes the storytelling contest.
However, if we include characters like Sir Thopas and Chanticleer, who are part of the tales narrated by the pilgrims, the total number of distinct characters in “The Canterbury Tales” increases. But, it’s important to note that Sir Thopas and Chanticleer are characters within the stories told by the pilgrims, and not pilgrims themselves. Counting all the pilgrims introduced in the General Prologue, along with Chaucer as the narrator and the Host, and adding these fictional characters from the tales, we reach a total of 32 distinct characters.
The characters introduced in the General Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales” are the same characters who appear in the tales themselves. Geoffrey Chaucer creatively uses the prologue to set the stage for the tales by giving each character a distinct personality and background. These characters then go on to tell their own stories in the subsequent tales. Each character’s tale often reflects their own personality and social standing, as initially outlined in the General Prologue. This structure allows Chaucer to explore a wide range of themes and societal issues through the diverse perspectives of his characters.
The Character List of The Canterbury Tales
- The Knight
- The Squire
- The Yeoman
- The Prioress
- The Second Nun
- The Nun’s Priest
- The Monk
- The Friar
- The Merchant
- The Clerk
- The Man of Law
- The Franklin
- The Haberdasher
- The Carpenter
- The Weaver
- The Dyer
- The Tapicer
- The Cook
- The Shipman
- The Physician
- The Wife of Bath
- The Parson
- The Plowman
- The Miller
- The Manciple
- The Reeve
- The Summoner
- The Pardoner
- Chaucer (the Narrator)
- The Host (Harry Bailey)
- Sir Thopas (a character in a tale told by Chaucer the Pilgrim)
- Chanticleer (the rooster in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”)
The Knight Analysis:
In The Canterbury Tales,” the Knight is the first pilgrim Geoffrey Chaucer introduces in the General Prologue. Chaucer presents the Knight as a distinguished and noble figure, highlighting his chivalry, honor, and distinguished service in numerous military campaigns. The Knight is described as a true, perfect, and gentle knight, having fought in many battles and always honored his obligations. He is depicted as modest and humble despite his achievements and high status. Chaucer notes that the Knight has participated in numerous crusades in various locations, including Alexandria, Prussia, Lithuania, Granada, North Africa, and Anatolia, showing his extensive experience and dedication.
The Knight is also portrayed by Geoffrey Chaucer as the ideal of a medieval Christian “man-at-arms.” He embodies the virtues of chivalry, honor, and courtly conduct, which were highly valued in medieval society. The Knight is depicted as not only a skilled warrior who has participated in numerous crusades and battles but also as a devout Christian who conducts himself with humility and courtesy.
Chaucer’s description of the Knight sets him up as a model of the chivalric code, which combined martial prowess with devout religious practice and adherence to a strict moral and ethical code. This portrayal reflects the idealized view of knighthood during the Middle Ages, where knights were expected to be both fierce warriors and pious Christians.
The Squire Analysis
In “The Canterbury Tales,” The Squire is introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer as the son of the Knight. He is portrayed as a young and energetic man, enthusiastic about both his duties as a squire and the pursuit of courtly love.
Chaucer describes the Squire as being about twenty years old, with curly hair, and handsome. He is depicted as lively, talented, and courteous. The Squire is a lover and cadet, a lad of fire, dressed in clothes embroidered like a meadow bright and full of fresh flowers, red and white. This vivid description emphasizes his youthfulness and his preoccupation with romance and chivalry.
The Squire is also noted for his skills in singing, playing the flute, drawing, writing, and riding horses. He has seen military service in Flanders, Artois, and Picardy, and he sleeps little at night, suggesting his dedication to his knightly duties as well as his romantic endeavors. Overall, Chaucer presents the Squire as a contrast to his father, the Knight: while the Knight is more about duty and honor, the Squire is more about youth, vitality, and the pursuit of love.
The Yeoman Analysis
In “The Canterbury Tales,” the Yeoman is introduced as the servant of the Knight. He is described as a forester and a skilled wood craftsman. Chaucer’s portrayal of the Yeoman gives attention to his appearance and his proficiency in his duties.
Physically, the Yeoman is described as wearing a coat and hood of green, indicating his role as a forester. He is equipped with a mighty bow in his hand, arrows sharp and feathered bright, a bracer (arm guard) to protect his arm, a sword, a buckler (a small shield), and a dagger as sharp as a spear. His gear and attire suggest that he is well-prepared and skilled in woodcraft and archery.
Chaucer also notes that the Yeoman’s face is brown, likely from spending a lot of time outdoors, which fits his role as a forester. His appearance is neat, and he takes care of his equipment, indicating his dedication and proficiency in his work.
The Yeoman is not as elaborately described as some of the other characters, but Chaucer’s portrayal is sufficient to give readers a clear picture of a competent and well-equipped servant, loyal to the Knight and skilled in his own right.
The Nun Analysis
The character of the Nun, also known as the Prioress, is introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer with the name Madame Eglantine. Chaucer portrays her as a delicate and sensitive woman who is more concerned with courtly manners and appearance than with the spiritual depth typically expected of her religious position.
The Prioress is described as being very genteel, well-mannered, and empathetic, especially in her tender feelings towards animals. Chaucer notes her impeccable table manners, her sensitivity (she would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap), and her refined tastes. She speaks French, though it’s the French of England, not Paris, and she sings the divine service well, showing her cultural and aesthetic inclinations.
Chaucer also pays attention to her physical appearance and attire, noting her graceful nose, gray eyes, and a small, soft, red mouth. She wears a cloak with a gracefully embroidered collar, a golden brooch with the inscription “Amor vincit omnia” (Love conquers all), and a set of prayer beads from which hangs a brooch of gold.
Through the Nun, Chaucer explores themes of religious hypocrisy and the blending of secular courtliness with religious life. While she is kind and seemingly devout, her preoccupations with social graces and her concern for outward appearances suggest a misalignment with the traditional expectations of a nun’s life, which would normally prioritize spiritual matters and simplicity over worldly manners and appearances.
The Monk Analysis
Geoffrey Chaucer portrays the Monk as a character who deviates from the traditional expectations of monastic life. Chaucer’s Monk is more interested in hunting and the pleasures of the secular world than in the strict religious devotion typically associated with monasticism.
The Monk is described as a man who cares little for the monastic rule that discourages hunting and outdoor activities. He loves to hunt and keep horses. He is handsomely dressed, with fur-lined robes, which suggests a certain degree of wealth and concern for material comforts, contrary to the typical vow of poverty in monastic life. Chaucer notes that the Monk’s bridle can be heard jingling in the wind as clear and loud as the chapel bell, indicating his penchant for riding and hunting.
Additionally, Chaucer describes the Monk as being fat and personable, with a shiny, bald head and a face that glows like it’s been anointed. This description further emphasizes his indulgence in worldly pleasures rather than leading an ascetic life of self-denial and religious contemplation.
Through the character of the Monk, Chaucer is commenting on the broader theme of ecclesiastical corruption and the departure of religious figures from their traditional roles and vows. The Monk, with his love for hunting and his luxurious lifestyle, serves as an example of how some religious figures of the time might have prioritized personal pleasure and luxury over their religious duties and vows of austerity.
The Friar Analysis
Geoffrey Chaucer presents the Friar as a character who significantly deviates from the expected norms of his religious vocation. Named Hubert, the Friar is portrayed as a merry, worldly, and somewhat unscrupulous man, more interested in profit and socializing than in living a life of poverty and piety as his role would traditionally dictate.
Chaucer describes the Friar as being particularly adept at arranging marriages, for which he receives gifts. He is well-acquainted with the taverns and barmaids in every town, more so than with the lepers and beggars. This indicates his preference for the company of a wealthier, secular society over the poor and needy, whom he is supposed to serve.
The Friar is also depicted as being very smooth-talking and persuasive, skilled in flattery and coaxing money from people. He is said to be the best beggar in his house; he manages to secure himself a comfortable life, which is a far cry from the traditional image of a friar living in humble circumstances.
Chaucer’s portrayal of the Friar is satirical and critical, highlighting the corruption and hypocrisy within the Church at that time. The Friar, with his focus on money, social pleasures, and his neglect of the poor, contrasts sharply with the ideal of a humble, devout religious figure dedicated to serving God and the needy. Through this character, Chaucer critiques the moral and ethical decay he perceives in the religious figures of his time.
The Wife of Bath “The City of Bath” Analysis
In “The Canterbury Tales,” the “Wife of Bath” is one of the most distinctive and memorable characters. Her real name is not given in the text, and she is known primarily by her place of residence, the city of Bath.
The Wife of Bath is a complex character, often viewed as an early feminist figure due to her bold and unconventional views on women’s roles and sexuality. She is a somewhat controversial figure, particularly for her time, as she is unabashed about her multiple marriages and her enjoyment of sex, having had five husbands.
Chaucer describes the Wife of Bath as somewhat deaf, which may be a metaphorical reference to her disregard for traditional social norms. She is also portrayed as a skilled cloth-maker, better than the weavers of Ypres and Ghent, indicating her business acumen and independence. Her attire is described as bold and extravagant, with red stockings, new shoes, and a hat as wide as a shield, reflecting her assertive personality.
In her prologue and tale, the Wife of Bath offers insights into her experiences and her rather progressive views on female independence and authority. Through this character, Chaucer explores themes of marriage, power dynamics between the sexes, and the societal expectations placed upon women. The Wife of Bath’s character serves as a vehicle for discussing these themes, which were quite advanced for the 14th-century setting of the tales.
The Parson Analysis
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” the Parson is depicted as a model of true religious devotion and moral integrity. He stands out among the pilgrims as one of the genuinely pious and virtuous characters, exemplifying the ideals expected of a medieval clergyman.
Chaucer describes the Parson as poor but rich in holy thought and work. He is diligent, patient, and steadfast in his duties, always willing to teach and guide his parishioners, regardless of the weather or the distance he has to travel. The Parson is not hypocritical or corrupt like some of the other religious figures depicted in the tales. He lives by the Gospel he preaches, showing genuine care for the souls in his charge.
The Parson’s moral integrity and dedication to his parishioners are further highlighted by his refusal to excommunicate those unable to pay their tithes, showing his understanding and compassion. Instead of seeking wealth or status, he focuses on the spiritual well-being of himself and those around him.
Through the character of the Parson, Chaucer provides a contrast to the more corrupt and worldly characters of the clergy presented in “The Canterbury Tales.” The Parson serves as an exemplar of what a religious figure should be, embodying the ideals of piety, humility, charity, and diligence. Chaucer uses the Parson to critique the corruption within the Church and to show that true religious virtue still exists.
The Summoner Analysis
In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the Summoner as a somewhat disreputable and unattractive character who works for the ecclesiastical court. The Summoner’s role is to summon people to the church court, typically for moral or religious offenses.
Chaucer’s description of the Summoner is unflattering. He is depicted as having a face scarred by leprosy (or similar skin disease), which makes him frightening to children. His physical appearance is used to symbolize his moral corruption. Chaucer also notes that the Summoner loves garlic, onions, leeks, and strong red wine, adding to the generally negative portrayal.
The Summoner is corrupt in his duties; he is known to be bribable, often accepting wine in exchange for settling a case. He is also depicted as having a limited knowledge of Latin, which he uses to impress people but usually ends up misquoting or speaking nonsense.
Through the character of the Summoner, Chaucer is critiquing the corruption and hypocrisy within the medieval Church. The Summoner’s moral failings and abuse of his ecclesiastical position reflect the broader theme of corruption that Chaucer explores in many of the religious characters in “The Canterbury Tales.” The Summoner’s interactions with other characters, particularly the Pardoner with whom he seems to have a dubious friendship, further emphasize the moral decay and venality that Chaucer is highlighting in the Church of his time.