4 of which vertu engendred is the flour whose creative intluence brings
flowers into blossom'.
5 Zephirus The warm west wind; here a generative force.
8 the Ram Technically, the zodiacal sign of Aries, through whose 'house '--
a twelfth part of the heavens--the sun passes between the middle of March
and the middle of April. In the piologue to The Man of Law's Tale the
narrator gives the date at 1 8 April. The ram, a symbol of sexual potency,
adds to the we of a vital process at work in the countryside.
10 that slepen al the night with open ye Probably referring to the nightingale,
which during the mating season was supposed to song without
interruption for fifteen days. Compare line 98 below.
11 priketh hem nature in hir corages so strongly are they moved by natural
12 thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages The long opening sentence
reaches its deliberately withheld climax--a satirical suggestion that
religious pilgrimages are one of the rites of spring, the result of sap
rising in the human plant.
17 the hooly blisful martir Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Attterbury,
who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170 at the instigation of Henry II,
and canonized three years later. In 1220 his tomb was opened, and the
relics of the martyred Archbishop were placed in a coffer overlaid with
plates of gold, and set at the base of a shrine in one of the chapels of
she cathedral. One end of the coffer was glazed, to allow the faithful to
glimpse the relics on the great religious occasions when the canopy
covering the feretrum, or chest, was raised. The circumstances of the
martyrdom made the shrine of St Thomas one of the most famous centres
of Christian pilgrimage. At the jubilee of 1420, according to report,
the cathedral was visited by over a hundred thousand pilgrims. Among the
other relics offered to view were the bed of the Virgin Mary, fragments of
Christ's manger, a piece of rock from Calvary, said Aaron's rod.
18 that hem hath holpen 'who has cured them'. The base of the shrine,
about six feet high, had three arched ru, each of its four sides, in
which the sick could crouch of being miraculously cured.
20 in Southwerk at the Tabard Southwark is a so, London immediately
south of London Bridge. In Ci lifetime there was no other city bridge
across the 'I and all southbound traffic passed through Southwat
Tabard was an actual inn, which continued to do until it was destroyed
by fire in 1676. A tabard was a less jacket or coat, open on both
sides, commonly NA,11, heralds and by noblemen during military campaigns.
22 with ful devout corage 'in great piety of spirit'.
24 wel nine and twenty 'exactly twenty-nine'. The company actually
29 esed atte beste made very comfortable'.
32 of hir felaweship 'accepted as a member of their company. Numbers
strengthened a body of pilgrims against an,p robbers.
33 made forward 'agreed'.
37 me thinketh it acordaunt to resoun it seems to me a logical arrangement'.
39 so as it semed me 'as it appeared to me '.
40 of what degree 'of what social rank'.
45 to riden out `to take part in military campaigns'.
45-6 chivalrie, trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie prowess as a
fighting-man respecting the decencies of warfare; steadfastness,
loyalty, constancy to his undertakiiu honourable behaviour and speech;
magnanimity, generosity of mind and purse; gentle manners and unselfish
concern for others. The five terms are too complex to be closely defined.
in a general context such as this. Together they provide a moral touchstone
by which the failings of other pilgrims--shiftiness, hypocrisy, self-interest,
meanness, vulgarity--are silently measured.
47 his lordes werre 'his lord's wars'. Under the feudal system, a knight was
bound to render service upon demand to his magnate or overlord. The phrase
his lordes werre' can have a second sense, since the Knight had been fighting
on behalf of his Christian faith.
51, 58. Alisaundre, Lyeys, Satalie Chaucer must be referring to the crusading
activities of King Peter of Cyprus, who led an expedition against the infidels
in 1365 and sacked Alexandria. He had previously harried the Turks in Anatolia,
capturing Attalia (Satalie) in 1361, and was subsequently to make raids on the
Armenian coast, during one of which he reduced the city of Lyas. In the
summer of 1363 he spent about a month in London, gathering support for the
coming crusade, and was generously treated by Edward III. Chaucer was in the
service either of Lionel or of the king at that time, and so probably saw the
royal visitor. There is a reference to 'worthy Petro, king of Cipre... .That
Alisaundre wan by heigh maistrie', in The Monk's Tale.
52. he hadde the bard bigonne 'he had presided at table'
54. Lettow, Ruce 'Lithuania, Russia'.
55 no Cristen man so ofte The reference to religion is explained by the fact
that these were wars against heathen peoples. Lithuania became Christian in
56. Gernade Granada in Spain. Algezir was captured in 1344. From Spain the
Knight seems to have gone south to Benmarin (Belmarie) in Morocco, and then
to Tlemcen (Tramissene, line 62) in Algeria.
58 Lyeys Lyas in Armenia; attacked by Peter of Cyprus in 1367 after capturing
Attalia (Satalie) in 1361.
59 the Grete See The Mediterranean.
63 in listes 'in the lists ', an enclosure designed for knightly tournaments and
65 the Lord of Palatie The ruler of Balat in Turkey, who although heathen was
allied by treaty to Peter of Cyprus.
68 wys ' prudent' ; brave, but not a mere hothead.
69 of his port as meeke as is a maide 'behaving himself modestly, not forcing
himself upon attention'.
70 nevere yet no vileynie ne saide 'he had never spoken evil', either gossip
or foul language. The term comes from villein, a low-born or ignoble person.
Compare this aspect of the Knight's character with the Miller's conversation,
which was 'moost of sinne and harlotries '. Several of the pilgrims are strongly
characterized by their habits of speech: the Merchant, who is sowninge alwey
th'encrees of his winning'; the Friar, who affected a lisp to make his Englissh
sweete upon his lunge; and the Wife, who wel koude laughe and carpe'. Chaucer
seems to feel most respect for those who speak sparingly and to the point, like
the Clerk-'Noght o word spak he moore than was neede '-and the Host, or who
discipline their tongues, like the Parson and the Knight. The uncommunicative
Reeve, isolated and mistrustful, is repellent in his cold silence.
71 no maner wight 'not to any kind or class of person'.
72 a verray, parfit gentil knight 'a true and perfect knightly gentleman'.
The term 'gentil' implies the noble, generous and courteous qualities appropriate
to high birth; honourable and distinguished. Like the less emphatic term 'worthy',
it is later applied ironically to pilgrims who have none of these characteristics:
the Manciple, the Summoner and the Pardoner. The adjective verray is from the
French vrai, true, and does not correspond with the modern very', whose sense
is supplied by ful.
73 for to tellen `to tell'.
74 his hors were goode The Knight had fine horses, but was himself a sombre
figure. 'Hors' is the Old English plural form.
75-7. The Knight's fustian tunic is marked with grease and rust from the coat of
mail which, until recently, he had worn over it. This graphic touch of description
suggests that the Knight had sworn to go on pilgrimage if he returned safely
from his last campaign, and that he honours his oath so promptly that he is still
in his campaigning dress.
80. bacheler Not in a matrimonial sense, though the Squire is unmarried, but-
like a Bachelor of Arts-a probationer it final degree or honour; perhaps that of
courtesy as well as of knighthood.
81 as they were leyd in presse "as if artificially curled".
83. of evene lengthe 'moderately tall '.
86 Flaundres, Artois, Picardie Districts of northern France. As a young
man, Chaucer himself had seen military service in this area. The Squire
might have taken part in the so-called crusade led by the Bishop of
Norwich to this region in 1383.
87. as of so litel space "n such a comparatively short while"
88. in hope to stonden in his lady grace 'in the hope of winning the
favour or respect of his lady ', who might then consent to accept him
as her servant. The noun 'lady' belongs to an Old English weak declen-
sion whose genitive form is unchanged.
89. embrouded was he, as it were a meede his clothes were embroidered
like a meadow'. Chaucer appears to have bor-rowed several ideas for the
Squire from the portrait of Mirth in the Roman de la Rose, part of which
he translated. Like the Squire, Mirthe is delyver, smert (agile), and of
gret myght ' (compare line 84), is young, tall and handsome, and richly
dressed,' in samet, with briddes wrought'. The Squire's gaiety, described
in line 91, brings to life a comment in the Roman,' Ne sawe thou nevere
man so lyght'. Both figures have curly hair and express a taste for showy
dress, Mirthe wearing a robe al toslytered for queyntise '; slashed in
fashionable style. Unlike /Viirthe, the Squire is more than a symbolic
figure of youthful vigour and lightheartedness; but the particular char-
acter which Chaucer gives him?and perhaps his technique of character-
drawing generally?owes a good deal to suggestions developed from the much
earlier French poem.
93. short was his gowne A fashion designed to show the elegance of a
young man's legs. The 'sieves longe and wide ', on the other hand, might
reach nearly to the floor.
95-6. he koude songes make. . . and zveel purtreye and write "he was adept
at composing songs and verses, at jousting and dancing, and could draw and
99. lowely and servisable `modest and selfless in carrying out his duties'.
These two qualities set the stamp of moral approval upon the Squire. They
are shared by the Knight, the Parson and the Plowman, each of whom dis-
regards personal comfort in serving an ideal. Most of the other pilgrims
think only of enriching themselves, or of enjoying the material pleasures
of the world.
100. and carf bzforn his fader Like the squire in The Merchant's Tale, who
carf bifom the knight ful many a day ' ; line 528. Carving formed one of
the regular duties of a squire, probably as a means of assuring that his
master was served with food befitting his rank.
The group is completed by THE YEOMAN, who acts as personal bodyguard to his
master the Knight. He is a countryman, whit when not serving his feudal lord
as now, would be carrying out the duties of a forester, preserving vert and
venison?the der/ and the green vegetation which provides cover for them--in
one of the royal forests. The Yeoman is not one of the important pilgrims,
for no tale is allotted to him and Chaucer does not refer to him again; but
these fifteen lines provide the first extended example of Chaucer's power of
visual suggestion. The single comment, 'A not heed hadde he, with a broun
visage', brings the man graphically before us, three successive aspirates,
'heed hadde he', suggesting an oak-like toughness of physique and of spirit.
Characteristic touches of emphasis, 'bright and kene', 'a mighty bowe',
'sharp as point of spere and the flashes of colour and polished metal about
the Yeoman complete an impression of lively vigour and alertness. Chaucer
says nothing about his moral character. As a man spending his life in close
contact with the natural world, the Yeoman seems not to follow any consciously
formulated code of behaviour, but tit respect instinctive principles as simple
and sturdily dependabli as himself. He is revealed by his loyal service and
the fighting trim of his professional equipment; a man unaffected by thr
ambition and greed of urban society and humanly fulfilled in thr conscientious
performance of his duties.
102. for him liste 'since it pleased him'. The Knight is being referred to.
His willingness to travel with a single attendant is another mark of his modesty.
104. pecok arwes 'arrows feathered with peacock plumage'.
106. wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly 'he knew how to look after his
equipment very capably'.
107. his arwes drouped noght Feathers should stand out stiffly from the shaft.
If they do not, the arrow will not fly true, and will drop short of the target.
109. a broun visage The effect of his open-air life, like the Shipman whom 'the
hoote somer hadde maad.. . al broun ? (line 396).
110 of wodecrafte wel koude he al the usage 'he knew all there was to know about
the customs and practices of woodcraft' in particular, probably, those relating
to the chase.
115. a Christopher A medallion of St Christopher, patron saint of foresters and
116. an horn Used to signal stages in the progress of a hunt.
THE PRIORESS. The ruminative final line of the Yeoman's description lowers the
intensity of the writing and provides a quiet transition to the first of the
female pilgrims. Almost immediately, with the innocent disclosure that the
Prioress had taken the name not of a saint but of a heroine of courtly romance,
the seriously respectful attitude which Chaucer has maintained so far dissolves,
and reveals the impish satirical purpose beneath. etending not to realize the
significance of what he observes, c shows us a woman whose real interests lie
not with her religious vocation but in the fashionable world, which she knows
only by hearsay. She tries to adopt the manners of a courtly lady but succeeds
only in appearing genteel and overü╩refined among the other pilgrims, who are,
perhaps, rather awed by her delicate behaviour. Chaucer sees the nun in Madame
Eglentine as a charming imposture, imperfectly conü╩cealing a woman whose social
ambitions lead her into an absurd confusion of purposes?a mimicking of courtly
mannerisms that are completely inappropriate to her calling. Whether the por-
trait directs any deliberate satire against the Church is not certain. The Pri-
oress was violating an ecclesiastical edict by going on pilgrimage. Her pet dogs
were also forbidden, her fine forehead should have been veiled, and probably her
wimple should have been not fluted but plain. This disregard for the rules of
'her order is matched by the Monk's open contempt in fines 175-87 for the edicts
of St Augustine, and may represent O conscious criticism of the corrupt state of
the Church at the time. But perhaps the rules which the Prioress violates were
so frequently ignored that Chaucer felt less concern for her actual misdeeds than
for the comic incongruity which they reveal. In common with other poets--
Shakespeare conspicuous among them?Chaucer shows himself to be fascinated by the
disparity between what is and what seems to be. His irony exploits this kind of
disparity by putting forward disrespectful comments in the disguise of approving
119. hir smiling was ful simple and coy Chaucer begins by referring to the least
expected attribute of a nun. Her expression should have been sober and withdrawn,
perhaps even for bidding. The phrase ful simple' suggests cultivated artlessness
rather than unaffected simplicity.
120. Seinte Loy St Eligius or Eloi, who had a reputation for personal beauty and
courtesy. It was contrary to the rules of the Prioress's order to swear at all,
but as St Eloi himself refused to swear, to swear by him was considered a' white
121.Eglentine A nun usually adopts the name of a female saint or for a virtue.
The Prioress takes the name of a wild rose, also used of a heroine of a romance
123. entuned in hir nose ful semely 'intoned through her nose most attractively'.
The habit was fashionable at the time, but semely' is ironic. The term also means
fitting, appropriate, and in the nunnery such fashionable behaviour is badly out
124. and Frenssh she spak Here again Chaucer is praising the Prioress for an accom-
plishment which might distinguish a courtly lady, but which has no place in the
cloister. The admiring tone of the remark encourages us to overlook the irrelevance
of the Prioress's talent.
125. after the scale of Stratford atte Bowe 'according to the fashion of the Bene-
dictine nunnery at Bromley in Middlesex', whose inmates appear to have been re-
cruited from the less distinguished ranks of society. The Prioress airs her French
in order to suggest that she has an aristocratic background, and--without realizing
it--gives herself away by that very device. French had been the language of the
court since thr Norman Conquest.
127. at mete wel ytaught was she the observations which follow show that the Pri-
oress had made a careful study of table-manners and etiquette in contemporary writ-
ings, and that she is carrying out their instructions to the letter. Chaucer is
continuing to admire her for qualities which have no bearing on her religious
129. ne wette hir fingres table-forks were not introduced until the end of the
sixteenth century. In Chaucer's lifetime food was carried to the mouth in the
132. in curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest 'she had the greatest regard for
politeness and good manners '.
134-5. ther was no ferthing sene of grece 'she left no spot of grease from her
lips floating in the cup '.
136. ful semely after hir mete she raughte 'she reached for NV food decorously',
without straining or grabbing. The main dishes stood in the centre of the table,
the guests helping themselves to portions. The adverb ' semely ' is used three
times in the description of the Prioress (lines 123, 136 and 151); a keyword to
character which Chaucer is building up.
137. of greet desport 'very merry'; recalling the 'smiling' of line 119.
138. amiable of port 'friendly': again hardly suitable to her calling.
139-40. peyned hire to countrefete cheere of court 'was at pains to imitate
courtly manners and appearance'.
141. to ben holden digne of reverence 'to be considered worthy of respect'.
In her friendliness and readiness to be amused, the Prioress does not unbend
far enough to lose sight of her dignity, whether as mother-superior or as a
142. conscience Besides having its modern sense, the term meant tender-heart-
edness and sensitive feeling. The immediate context, 'so charitable and so
pitous', suggests that Chaucer intends the first meaning, but the examples
of 'conscience' which follow in lines 144-9 disclose his ironic purpose.
The delicate feelings and sympathies of a would-be courtly lady replace the
spiritual consciousness that would be expected of a Prioress.
147. rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed The ' povre widwe' of the Nun's
Priest's Tale subsists on a much more frugal diet. This pampering of lapdogs
shows how badly the Prioress's charity and pity are misdirected.
154. a fair forheed Like the small red mouth and grey-blue eyes which the
Prioress is fortunate to possess, a broad forehead was much esteemed as a
mark of beauty. Immodestly, the Prioress lets it be seen.
156. nat undergrowe 'not under-developed', but a well-shaped woman whose
behaviour allows Chaucer to become aware of her physical attractiveness.
159. a peire of bedes 'a rosary'; a string of beads used in reciting prayers,
whose larger beads--representing Paternosters and Glorias--separated runs of
ten smaller beads representing Ayes, prayers to the Virgin Mary. The ' gauds'
or Paternoster beads in this particular rosary are green, the Ave beads of red
coral. The effect would be highly decorative, and not immediately suggestive
of piety. Rosaries are usually black.
160. ful sheene 'bright and shining', as metallic objects invariably are for
162. amor vincit omnia 'love conquers all things'. The motto applies ambiguously
to sacred and to profane love.
163. another Nonne she subsequently tells the tale of 'the lyf of Seinte Cecile'
without herself being described.
164. hir chapeleyne or capellana, a kind of private secretary and assistant.
and preestes thre only one of these, the Nun's Priest, is subsequently heard of.
It has been objected that the Prioress would not need more than one such attendant,
and that tin inclusion of two superfluous priests could explain why Chaucer's
nine-and-twenty does not tally with the count of heads. One suggestion is that
Chaucer left the line un. finished, intending to insert a description of the
second Nun, and that the phrase 'and preestes thre ' was added by anothey hand.
If so, the Nun's Priest was not to be mentioned at all in the General Prologue.
The phrase has to be accepted as it stands, as a point which Chaucer had not
The Prioress is followed by a second ecclesiastical pilgrim, Tits MONK. Monks
were members of a religious community. vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience,
and living apart from the world. The monastery with its adjoining fields and
garden supplied all the material wants of its inmates, who were able ni serve
God and sanctify themselves in a life uninterrupted by 1st cares of normal human
existence. The monastic day, spent fat the most part in silence, was divided
between prayer, meditatile and study, and in manual labour or some simple craft.
'no portrait of Chaucer's Monk suggests how far this unworldly ideal had become
lost by the end of the fourteenth centiny Like the Prioress, he is out of sympathy
with the ascetic rule his monastic order. He declares himself uncompromisingly
Im 'the newe world' and dismisses the edicts of its founder mi contempt: 'He yaf
nat of that text a pulled hen', and, Thilbüe text heeld he nat worth an oystre '.
From first to last he prowls himself a man of the world, relishing the pleasures
of good lima& expensive clothing, recreation and freedom, and argwoo vigorously
that the restrictions of monastic life are now ow* moded. 'How shal the world be
served?' he demands, meaning that secular affairs cannot be carried on without
the help of ths educated and capable men who are bottled up inside iin cloister.
The point escapes him that monasteries were built toprotect their inmates from
the distracting affairs outside, and with the object of serving not the world
but God. Chaucer lakes up the point quietly, pretending to be impressed by the
Monk's loquacity as by his splendid clothes and mount. His admiration is not
entirely insincere. As a priest and a monastic recluse the Monk is a complete
failure, dominated by a love of luxury and pleasure, but Chaucer recognizes that
he is 'a manly man', whose physical energy and liveliness are unmistakably
own by his shining complexion, bright eyes, and eagerness for open-air activities.
The poet's moral disapproval is tempered by Ibis proof of the Monk's sparkling
vitality, and the joyousness his response to life.
165. a fair for the maistrie 'surpassing all others'.
166. an outridere A monk entrusted with the care of monastic estates, which took
him outside the cloister.
167. an abbot The head of an abbey, as a prior or prioress is head of a priory,
the subordinate house of an abbey.
169. his bridel . . ginglen Bells were commonly fixed to medieval bridles or
harness. Chaucer's simile is wryly ironic, for the Monk's chapel-bell is not
loud enough to make itself heard through this jingling.
172. ther as this lord was kepere of the celle 'in the subordinate monastic
house where this Monk was in charge'.
173. the reule of seint Maure St Maurus, a disciple of St Benedict--` seint
Beneit '--established monasticism in Europe in 529, by founding the order of
Benedictines at Monte Cassino. The Rule of St Benedict was the code of monastic
life whose main points are summarized in the head-note above. It was adopted
by all the subsequent monastic orders. 76. heeld after the newe world the space
'followed the new fashion'; the pleasure-seeking and self-interest which had
replaced the dedicated religious life of the past. The exact tense of 'the
space' is uncertain, but appears to be 'for the time being', or 'meanwhile'.
180. is likned til 'is comparable with'.
182. not worth an ovstre Chaucer uses many similar expressions,
which were plentiful in Middle English: the 'pulled hen' of
line 177 above, 'nat worth a boterflye', rekke nat a bene',
nat an hawe'.
183. And I seyde his opinion was good Which clearly it isn't. his irony makes
Chaucer appear as impious as the Monk, but his pretence of approval is a straight-
faced joke which the outrageousness of the Monk's argument.
184. what sholde he 'why should he'.
185. upon a book in cloistre alwey to poure As mentioned above, study formed part
of the Benedictine rule. The Benedictines have always been a learned order. The
Monk is scornful of this distinction, sharing the Host's lack of respect for
187. as Austin bit 'as St Augustine commands '.
how shal the world be served? 'how will essential secular duties and offices be
performed if the clergy confine themselves to religious observation and manual
188. to him reserved 'kept for himself'.
192. for no cost wolde he spare 'he would not give up hunting any price'.
193-4. purfiled at the hond with gris 'trimmed at the wrist w costly grey fur'.
The rule of his order permitted the Monk only a plain habit and cowl.
194. of a lond 'in the land'.
196. a ful curious pin 'a pin very skilfully made'.
197. a love-knotte A device in the form of a knot or bow supposed to be a love-
token. Like the Prioress's engrav brooch, this personal adornment--forbidden by
the rule--casts some doubt upon the chastity which the Monk has sworn to
observe. All the ecclesiastical pilgrims fall under this suspicion except the
Parson, who has accepted celibacy like the others.
199. as he hadde been enoint 'as though he had been anointed' with an ironic
allusion to the religious rite which confers sanctity upon a chosen person.
200. in good point = embonpoint, ' stout '.
202. that stemed as a forneys of a leed 'that gleamed like a under a cauldron'.
203. in greet estaat 'in splendid condition'.
205. a forpined goost 'the ghost of a man wasted by suffering'
The four orders of mendicant friars were founded during thirteenth and four-
teenth centuries. Unlike monks, who were supposed to remain within the cloister,
friars were licensed to wander about the country preaching and begging money
for the support of their friary. Their life was open to obvious abuses. Chaucer's
FRIAR is a plausible hypocrite, greedy, snobbishs and sexually promiscuous, who
misuses confession and neglects the needy for a more profitable association with
an easy-living class of affluent merchants and 'worthy women'. By turning con-
fession into a painless business arrangement--tacitly inviting the rich to buy
absolution without the discomfort of doing penance--he weakens the authority of
the local priest and corrupts one of the great sacraments of the Church. Chaucer
treats the Monk and the Prioress with some amused indulgence, recognizing that
they do not actively harm the religion whose principles they regard so lightly.
But the Friar seems to evoke a sense of outrage which Chaucer voices through a
sarcastic commentary on the Friar's cynical exploitation of his faith. It is
greed which makes him so successful a beggar, not religious zeal, and his own
purse and belly which he is most concerned to fill.
209. a limitour A friar licensed to beg within a specified district or limit.
ful solempne 'dignified and impressive'. The tone of Chaucer's remark, itself
ful solempne', warns us to handle the comment cautiously.
210. the ordres foure Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Austin Friars, in
order of precedence.
211. daliaunce and fair langage 'gossip and elegant manner of speech'; see lines
266-7. But the phrase can also mean love-making and persuasive argument, empty
promises. The next remark confirms the double entendre.
213. at his owene cost 'out of his own pocket'. The comment suggests that this
kind man found husbands for poor girls, either paying the expenses of the wedding
or himself providing the bride's dowry, or both. In fact these are girls whom
the Friar has seduced, and whom he is marrying off with a bribe to the husband,
to avoid open scandal. The sexual laxity of friars is referred to again by the
Wife of Bath : see her Prologue and Tale, lines 873-81.
214. he was a noble post An entirely ironic remark; ' noble ' being as inappro-
priate as the ' worthy ' of line 271.
216. with frankeleyns Who, as Chaucer indicates later, enjoyed is reputation for
218. he hadde power of confessioun The Friar was licensed to hear confession.
This privilege enabled him to attract the parishioners of the local priest--the
curat of line 219--by offering easier terms of absolution.
224. ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce Where he knew he could expect a
generous gift from the penitent. The modern sense of pittanc--a bare sufficiency--
represents a consido able change of meaning.
225-32. The whole passage is scathingly ironic. Chaucer repeats with apparent
approval the Friar's argument that a generous tip to the confessor-a much more
convincing sign of sincere repentance than weeping and praying--proves that the
penitent has been truly shriven.
227. if he yaf, he dorste make avaunt If a man offered such io gift after con-
fession, the Friar was ready to declare him truly penitent.
234. pinnes, for to yeven faire wives In the fourteenth centuy pins were not
always easy to come by.
237. of yeddinges he baar outrely the prys `as a ballad-singer Ili, Friar was
quite outstanding'. From lines 236 and 268 it appears that he accompanied himself
on the rote, a small harp. His accomplishment would be more praiseworthy in a
layman than in a priest.
238. his nekke whit This lily-white neck contrasts unfavourably with the healthy
tan of the Yeoman and the Shipman. 242. bet than a lazar or a beggestere 'he was
better acquainted with innkeepers and barmaids than with lepers and female
244. acorded nat, as by his facultee 'did not befit the dignity of his profess-
ional status'. Chaucer sarcastically pretends to agree.
246. nat honest 'not respectable or fitting'.
it may nat avaunce 'there's no profit in it'.
247. for to deelen with no swich poraille 'to associate with such poverty-stricken
wretches'. The stinging contempt of thc remark reveals the uncharitable nature
which the Friar conceals from the rich: compare line 250.
248. selleres of vitaille 'provision merchants ', at whose tables, as at those
of franldins, good food could be expected.
249-50. ther as profit sholde arise, curteis he was and lowely of service Wherever there
was a chance of personal gain, the Friar put on ingratiating and courteous
manners. The comment invites comparison with the Squire, who is curteis, lowely,
and servisable', and with the 'noble ensample' of the Parson's way of life. But
these are men of genuine humility, serving without expectation or hope of personal
251. ther nas no man nowher so vertuous 'no one could have been more gentlemanly
and obliging'. Chaucer is playing on two senses of vertuous'.
252. his hous 'his friary'. Friars spent most of their time in the world, and used
the friary only as an occasional hostel.
253-4. The Friar paid rent--'a certeyn ferme'--for the district in which he was
limiter, so obtaining exclusive rights to operate there. These two lines figure in
only one manuscript, but their authenticity is not disputed.
255. hadde noght a sho was extremely poor': compare the modern phrase, without a
shirt to his back'.
256. 'In principio' In the beginning': the opening words of St John's gospel, which
were regarded with special reverence and even held to possess magical power.
258. his purchas was wel bettre than his rente Either (i) 'the income of his begging
far exceeded the rent which he paid for his exclusive rights' (lines 253-4 above) or
(ii) ` he made much more money than he declared to his friary'.
259. rage he koude, as it were right a whelp 'he knew how to frolic like a puppy'.
260. love-dayes Days appointed for the friendly solution of quarrels. The Friar's
buffoonery helps to put the disputants in good humour. Chaucer is probably referring
equivocally to this and to the private 'love-days' hinted at in line 211 above.
262. a povre scaler Compare the dress of the Clerk (line 292 below).
263. a maister Having a Master's degree, which conferred great dignity upon its
264. double worstede A heavier and more expensive form of worsted, a woollen fabric
originally made at Worstead in Norfolk.
semicope Short cope or cape.
265. rounded as a belle out of the presse 'shaped as though it came out of a bell-
266. for his wantownesse 'out of affectation'.
267. sweete upon his tonge Chaucer's fourth reference to the charming manner of
speech which the Friar adopts when it suits his purpose, though not when referring to
268. harping A much smaller instrument than the modern harp is intended, such as the
rote or crowd of line 237.
269. his eyen twinkled The simile which follows restores the amiable tone of Chaucer's
With THE MERCHANT, Chaucer breaks the sequence of ecclesiastical figures, by presenting
a secular counterpart of the Friar. He is another outwardly respectable pilgrim, styl-
ishly dressed and mounted, whose dignified solemnity covers a moral sham. The Merchant's
high saddle and imported beaver hat characterize his lofty condescension, and also the
shakiness of his financial position. Despite his pompous mode of address and his constant
talk about business profits, the Merchant is a debtor, struggling to rescue himself from
bankruptcy by illegal transactions in foreign exchange and shady operations as a usurer.
Chaucer sees through the imposture, and puts down the Merchant's self-important air very
firmly, by failing to remember his name. The effortlessness of the exposure leaves Chaucer
unruffled, and the Merchant unaware that his pretence of business integrity has been
penetrated and laid bare in a few almost casual comments.
273. in mottelee 'dressed in motley', a cloth of mixed colour, such as tweed or homespun.
274. a Flaundrissh bever hat An imported fur hat of the most expensive kind, worn by the
Merchant as a prestige symbol.
276. his resons he spak ful solempnely 'he expressed his opinions gravely and seriously'.
277. sowninge alwey th'encrees of his winning 'repeatedly men-tioning his increasing
278. he wolde the see were kept for any thing 'he wished the sea passage between Middel-
burg and Orwell to be protected against pirates at all costs'.
279. Middelburgh A port on the island of Walcheren, off the coast of Holland, where the
Merchant Adventurers were established for some years from 1384.
Orewelle, Orwell, a port on the river between Ipswich and Harwich, now defunct. Evidently
the Merchant was engaged in exporting English cloth to the Low Countries. This was the
principal activity of the Merchant Venturers, a rich and powerful class in fourteenth-
280. wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle The remark sounds complimentary. In fact
the Merchant's dealing in foreign exchange--selling French ecus at a profit--was illegal.
281. ful wel his wit bisette 'made good use of his cunning'.
283. estatly. . .of his gouvernaunce 'dignified in his behaviour'.
284. with his bargaines and with his chevissaunce 'in his business deals and monetary
transactions'. Both terms are ambiguous, financial operations of the kind they describe
carrying a strong hint of dishonesty.
285. A worthy man Again using the description ironically, as in line 271. The Merchant
may be worthy in the sense of being socially eminent, but not in respect of moral char-
286. I noot how men him calle I don't know his name': as suggested in the head-note above,
a calculated snub to the Merchant's haughty self-evaluation. There remains a possibility
that Chaucer is playing the innocent by pretending not to recognise the man he has described.
Such a convention existed in medieval German poetry, where the formula 'me weiz ' (I don't
know) allowed the poet to profess his ignorance of matters familiar to himself and his
readers, but better left unsaid. Such a device would certainly have suited Chaucer's comic
THE CLERK. During the Middle Ages, scholarship--and indeed education--was a virtual monopoly of the Church, and the laity were for the most part illiterate. Most clerks, whom we
should call scholars, entered the Church and became clerks in holy orders'; still a synonym
for priests today. Chaucer's Clerk is one of the few pilgrims not affected by worldly or mer-
cenary ambitions. He is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, indifferent to personal
comfort and appearance, and too deeply immersed in his studies to join in the scramble for
profitable appointments. Unlike the Monk, he ignores the world and its physical attractions,
content to go threadbare and dependent upon the alms of his friends so long as he can remain
at the university, and perhaps eventually possess a few books. Chaucer acknowledges the
Clerk's single-mindedness, his acute intellect and his high moral standards, but without
overlooking the element of absurdity in such threadbare poverty and emaciation. In respect
of his unworldliness the Clerk might stand beside the Parson, yet the joke,
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre (299-300)
hints at the fruitlessness of the Clerk's passionate absorption in books. The Parson is
poor, and content with limited means, but he does not take poverty to such extremes as this.
More important, he spends himself actively for others, where the Clerk is shut up in a
private world of study which takes no account of his fellow-men. His underfed horse, and
his own scarecrow appearü╩ance, reveal a man starved of contact with the great concourse of
everyday human affairs from which Chaucer brings such rich harvest.
287. a clerk. . .of Oxenford 'a scholar studying for a degree at Oxford'.
288. that unto logik hadde longe ygo 'who had proceeded to logic a long while before'. The
medieval study of the arts wail divided into two courses; the trivium, consisting of grammar.
logic and rhetoric, and the quadriviunz, consisting of arith metic, geometry, astronomy and
290. he nas nat right fat 'the Clerk himself was not at all well-nourished'.
291. and therto sobrely 'and grave in addition'.
292. his overeste courtepy 'his outermost garment', a short coat.
293. he hadde geten him yet no benefice As yet the Clerk had not been appointed to an
ecclesiastical living, such as a chaplaincy or the cure of a parish.
294. for to have office 'to accept secular employment', as a civil servant or diplomat.
295. him was levere 'he would rather'. Levere ' is the comparative of 'leef, meaning dear:
thus the literal meaning ot the phrase is 'it was more dear to him'.
296. twenty bookes Such a private library would represent a considerable outlay of money.
Books were at this time manuscript works, as the invention of printing lay still more than
half a century ahead.
297. Aristotle The greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, 384 to 322 B.C., whose works
on metaphysics, natural science, politics, ethics and religion provided the basis of medieval
thought. All Oxford curricula included his study.
299. but al be that he was a philosophre 'although he was a philosopher '--that is, a lover
of wisdom and truth. The term could be applied to any serious student of the arts. Here there
is a play on a second sense of philosophe--an alchemist. The search for the 'philosopher's
stone' that would transmute base metals to gold continued throughout the later Middle Ages
and beyond. 'Although he loved knowledge he had little money', is sardonic: one would expect
303. and bisily gan . . preye and prayed earnestly '. The auxiliary gan ' has the same fun-
ction as 'did'.
305. of studie took he moost cure and moost heede `he devoted himself entirely to his
307. in forme and reverence 'with proper formality and respect'.
308. ful of hy sentence 'full of meat ' ; of moral observation, wise judgement and pithy say-
ings. 'Sentence' is one of the conditions which the Host requires of the tales to be recounted
309. sowninge in moral vertu 'always inclining towards virtuousness'.
THE MAN OF LAW. The Man of Law exists as an impression of character without realized
form. Chaucer describes his proü╩fessional abilities in some detail but says nothing about his
personal appearance, and after only two lines given to the Man of Law's attire breaks off as
though he had lost interest in the subject. If, as seems likely, the description is based on the
character of a particular Judge of Assize, there would have been good reason for Chaucer's
reticence. But this lack of human detail denies the Man of Law the lively individuality given
to the Piioress and the Monk by close observation of personal habits or by indirect reporting
of speech; and the satirical comment, 'he semed bisier than he was', exposes a private
weakness with no attempt at subtlety.
311. war and wys 'discreet and discerning'.
312. at the Parvis The reference has not been satisfactorily explained. It evidently refers to
a meeting-place, either in the porch of St Paul's or at Westminster, where lawyers consulted
withü@their clients in the afternoon, when the courts were closed.
313. ful riche of excellence 'a man of exceptional talent and ability'. Effusive praise of this
kind in Chaucer generally conceals an ironic purpose.
315. he semed swich 'or so it appeared'. Chaucer's dis-respectful remark at line 324 admits
the irony half-hidden in this remark.
316. justice he was ful often in assise 'he frequently acted as judge in the Assize Courts',
where criminal cases were heard.
317. by patente and by pleyn commissioun 'by letters-patent from the king appointing him
judge, and by personal commission indulgence. Chaucer's seeming approval of the Franklin
creed is open to doubt.
341. an housholdere The owner, as distinct from the tenant of a house, and the family head.
343. Seint Julian Patron saint of hospitality.
344. after oon uniformly good'.
345. a bettre envined man was nowher noon nowhere was there a man who kept a better-stocked
346. bake meat. . . of fissh and flessh 'meat pie, or fish pie'.
347. it snewed in his hous of mete and drinke Snowing suggests winter and scarcity, but in
the Franklin's house it is a season of abundance.
349. after the sondry sesons of the yeer 'in accordance with the time of year'.
352. luce in stuwe 'pike in his pond'. Castles and great houses had fishponds in which fish
could be kept alive until required for eating.
353. wo was his cook but if 'his cook was in serious trouble unless...'
354. redy al his geere 'all his cooking utensils ready for use'.
355. table dormant A table fixed to the floor, and so permanent, Trestle tables, dismantled
after meals, were much more usual in medieval houses.
in his halle The main room of the house, in which--as in the colleges of Oxford and Cam-
bridge--the communal meal was served.
356. redy covered with cloth spread', ready for a meal.
357. at sessiouns ther was he lord and sire 'he presided over sessions of magistrates ', at
which petty offenders were tried.
358. knight of the shire member of Parliament for his county'. Chaucer was appointed Knight
of the Shire for Kent in 1386.
360. whit as morne milk Before the cream has risen to the top. The Franklin is associated
with this colour three times.
361. shirreve . . . and countour 'sheriff and county auditor'. The sheriff represented royal author-
ity in his shire, and wa3 responsible for law and order.
THE FIVE GILDSMEN. None of the members of this little group appears again, and it has been
supposed that Chaucer added them as an afterthought. By separating the Franklin and the
Cook, they interrupt a long recital of culinary matters which .,therwise might have become
wearisome. These eighteen lines 'how Chaucer being mischievously ironic at the expense of
small-town vanity and self-importance. Seen from the court, the struggles of gildsmen's wives
over precedence appear merely lilliputian, and their husbands' 'solempne and greet traternitee'
shrinks to a social gild that seems important only to their limited provincial outlook. Chaucer
mocks indulgently, pretending to be impressed with them, but shows his valuation of this little
cluster of slightly pompous figures by treating them not as individuals but collectively, as
though they were all very much alike. Medieval merchant or trade gilds were associations of
men following the same craft or business. Their function was protective, giving their members
exclusive trading rights within a town or area. The social gilds, to which these Five Gildsmen
appear to belong, acted rather like mutual insurance societies, providing for their members a
form of sickness benefit, a private chaplain and burial rites, and sometimes a school for their
children. The pilgrimage gives Chaucer's gildsmen an oppornity of airing the distinctive cos-
tume or livery which each of the gilds adopted for ceremonial occasions.
365. alle in o liveree 'all dressed in the same livery', although they belong to five different
trades. This suggests that the 'greet fraternitee ' of line 366 is one of the social and religious
gilds, like that of the Ludlow Palmers. 368. chaped noght with bras 'not encased in brass
scabbards.' Chaucer ironically adopts the Gildsmen's sense of pride in their superior equipment.
371-2. 'each of them had the air of a dignified burgess seated on the raised platform of a
gildhall', or meeting-place of the gild. This often was, or became, synonymous with a town hall
A burgess was a member of the governing body of a town or borough.
373. for the wisdom that he kan 'in respect of the knowledge and experience which he
374. shaply for to been 'likely to be'.
375. catel hadde they ynogh and rente 'they had enough both of property (chattels) and of
income to qualify as aldermen'.
376. hir wives wolde it wel assente 'their wives would certainly approve of their becoming
aldermen, for their social prestige.'
377. were they to blame 'they deserved to be censured'.
378. to been ycleped 'madame' In Chaucer's lifetime the social rank of alderman was apparently
the lowest which qualified s wife for this form of address. It seems to have been coveted by
women with social pretensions, like the wife of the millet in The Reeve's Tale, whom no one
dared address in any other fashion.
379. goon to vigilies al bifore 'to have precedence in the civic. procession to vigils', the
religious services held on the eve of a patronal saint's day. The Wife of Bath shares this
feminine love of precedence: see lines 451-2.
380. a mantel roialliche ybore To have one's cloak borne up a queen.
THE COOK. This is the shortest of the individual portraits, supported by a fragmentary tale
which breaks off after some sixty lines. There is no personal description apart from the
mention of the ulcer on the Cook's leg which makes Chaucer feel a little queasy, and a dry
int that he is a drunkard--a weakness possibly encouraged by the heat of the kitchen. The
rest is an account of his accomplishment as chef, given with the characteristic energy and
assertiveness of Chaucer's mature style, and completing the evidence of the poet's close
familiarity with one more aspect of medieval life, begun in the portrait of the Franklin.
382. to boille the chiknes with the marybones One of the most splendidly expressive lines in
Chaucer, its rich variety of consonants and vowel-sounds amplifying the description of an
383. poudre-marchant tart A sharp-flavoured spice.
galingale An aromatic root used as flavouring.
384. wel koude he knowe `he was an expert judge of'; with a suggestion that he drank a good
deal. Later, the Cook 1% found to be too drunk to tell his tale.
386 a pie Meaning a pie containing meat. Fruit pies seem nut to have made their appearance
until the sixteenth century.
387. as it thoughte me 'as it seemed to me'.
389. blankmanger Not the insipid blancmange known to us, but a rich confection containing
pounded chicken, rice, almonds, eggs and cream.
THE SHIPMAN. Like most of his fellow-pilgrims, the Ship-man is outstanding as a human being
and as a member of his profession: a master-mariner of wide experience and ability, whose
unrivalled knowledge of coasts and tides qualifies him for any undertaking by sea. The com-
ment, 'With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake', gives us a glimpse of a medieval
sea-dog from a county that, two centuries later, would produce the most daring and intrepid
of English sailors. Like them, as Chaucer suggests by showing us the dagger hanging under
his arm, the Shipman has an easy conscience towards piracy and theft, and no pity for his
victims. He is the citizen of a tough, unsparing world outside the province of established law
and order, where there can be no appeal to justice and where a man must depend upon
himself; navigating without charts and defending his ship by his own force of arms. Ashore,
awkwardly riding a horse as powerful as himself, the Shipman is temü╩porarily less impressive;
but Chaucer makes us recognize the force of his character: a man tanned and hardened by
exposure, and deeply versed in the craft of the sea.
390. woninge fer by weste 'dwelling in the far west of England'.
391. he was of Dertemouthe 'he came from Dartmouth', in South Devon; a port notorious for
its rough characters.
392. as he kouthe 'as best he knew'. Sailors are not usually good horsemen. His rouncy--a
powerful carthorse--has features in common with the Shipman.
395. under his arm adoun 'hanging at his side beneath his arm'. Unlike the Yeoman, the Ship-
man does not openly display his weapon, though he keeps it ready for instant use.
399. fro Burdeux-ward 'during the voyage from Bordeaux', a port at the centre of the great
wine-growing district of France.
whil that the chapman sleep 'while the winemerchant was asleep '. Presumably he spent most
of the voyage with his cargo.
400. of nice conscience took he no keep 'he wasn't troubled by tender feelings or regard for
moral law': 'nice' meaning scrupulous.
401-2. If he fought with other ships and won the battle, he drowned his prisoners. The jocular
expression suits the Ship-man's unfeeling outlook: 'he sent them home by sea, wherever they
403. of his crafte to rekene wel his tides 'of his ability to predict the tides'. Modern seamen
can look them up in a nautical almanac, but the Shipman had to be self-reliant.
404. his stremes, and his daungers him bisides 'the river-currents and the other hazards to
navigation '. The possessive is here used to signify things which the Shipman has to deal with.
405. his herberwe, and his moone, his lodenzenage 'his knowledge of harbours, of the moon
[which causes tides and supposedly influences the weather] and of navigation'.
406. Cartage Cartagena in Spain.
407. wys to undertake 'reliable as master of an enterprise '.
409. as they were 'in successive order'.
410. fro Gootlond to the cape of Finistere 'from Gotland, an island off the coast of Sweden, to
Finisterre in Brittany '. Alternatively, Gootlond ' may mean Jutland.
411. Britaigne Bretagne or Brittany, a province on the north west coast of France.
412. his barge Not of course a lighter, but a sea-going vessel with sails.
the Maudelaine The Magdalene; representing the medieval pronunciation still preserved in the
colleges of that name at Oxford and at Cambridge. A Dartmouth vessel called the Magdalene
paid customs duties in 1391, when her master was one Peter Risshenden. There are reasons
for believing that Chaucer had this man in mind when he described the Shipman.
The Shipman, physically tough and coarsely dressed, is followed by a strangely contrasting
figure. THE DOCTOR OF PHYSIC, in clothes lined with taffeta and sendal, is one of the most
richly dressed of the pilgrims, and an outstanding member of a much respected profession. He
is well-read in the Greek, Roman, Arab and more recent English medical authorities, and expert
in diagnosing and treating sickness, both by drugs and by the use of natural magic, which
required a considerable knowledge of astrology. It is only when Chaucer fills out the picture
by supplying some details of the pilgrim's private character that he begins to reveal a simi-
larity of outlook and way of life between the Physician and the piratical Shipman. One is
openly lawless, robbing by physical violence and disü╩posing of his victims with cold-blooded
amusement; the other a more plausible thief, enriching himself under cover of professional
ethics. Like the Shipman, the Physician has no feelings for others, and no regard for moral
principle: 'his studie was but litel on the Bible', Chaucer remarks. Thanks partly to a se-
cret agreement with his druggist, by which each increases the other's turnover, the Physician
makes a good deal of money but hangs on to it like a miser, refusing to distribute alms. His
principal object in life is not to bring health to his patients but to prolong his own exist-
ence by cautious habits and a moderate diet; and his consuming passion is gold. Under a
veneer of respectability and wealth he passes for a learned and praiseworthy member of soci-
ety, but his code of behaviour is based on avarice and self-regard, and unaffected by compas-
415. to speke of 'in respect of'.
416. grounded in astronomye 'thoroughly instructed in astroü╩logy'. Before treating or opera-
ting upon his patient, a medieval doctor would take into consideration the aspects of the pla-
nets, in order to calculate the most favourable moment to begin his treatment.
417-18. The Physician kept close watch over his patient during the hours most auspicious for
his recovery. There may be a suggestion in 'a ful greet deel ' that the Physician assured his
patient that the moment was favourable when in fact it was not, in order to obtain the fee for
special treatment. Natural magic, as distinct from black magic or sorcery, made use of proce-
sses not understood in medieval times and now regarded as natural and not magic. The popular
remedy of applying a piece of mouldy leather to a wound could appear magically effective
through the presence of penicillin in the mould. The simply magical aspects of the Physici-
an's practice might include treating a weapon instead of the wound it had made, or creating
a wax image of his patient, under certain astroü╩logical conditions, in order to benefit his
health. See Chaucer's Hous of Fame, III, 175 ff.
419. wel koude he fortunen the ascendent 'he was adept at engraving lucky charms with the
astrological symbols most favourable to his patient'. The ascendant is the part of the zodiac
just rising above the eastern horizon.
422. hoot, or coold, or moist, or drie The four conditions, two of which are combined in
each of the four elements of fire, air, water and earth, and also in the four humours or
natural juices of the body--blood, choler, phlegm and black bile. An excess or lack of any
one condition upset the balance of natural juices and produced a disease which the physic
Ia. attempted to cure by restoring the balance of humours.
424. verray, parfit praktisour 'truly perfect practitioner'.
4.25. the cause yknowe, and of his harm the roote 'having die covered the cause of the
disease and the source of its effects'.
429. ech of hem made oother for to winne 'each of them--It physician and the apothecary or
druggist--provided the other with profitable business ': the apothecary sending patients to
the physician, and receiving prescriptions for drugs at medicines in return.
430. nas nat newe to biginne 'was of long standing'.
431-6. Of the eminent medical authorities cited here, the moss famous are Aesculapius, the
legendary god of medicine, ' old Ypocras ' or Hippocrates, of the fifth century B.C., and
the Roman physician Galen who lived in the first century A.D. The last names in the list are
those of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century authorities, two of them English and the third,
Bernard Gordon, a Scot.
439. of greet norissing and digestible He ate sparingly, choosing what was most nutritious
and easily digested. Evidently Ills Physician is more concerned to preserve his own health
than to cure his patients.
440. his studie was but litel on the Bible The popular belief that doctors were atheists--
encouraged probably by their study of Arab authors such as Avicenna, Hali and Averroes, who
are included in the list above--persisted until the seventeenth century.
442. lined with taffata and with sendal Taffeta was a plain. woven glossy silk, sendal another
form of silk material, Evidently the Physician spends lavishly upon his dress.
443. esy of dispence 'slow to spend money'.
444. that he wan in pestilence 'the fees he took during epidemics of plague'. By saying that
he kept them, Chaucer implies that the Physician did not give away part of them as alms to
445. gold in phisik is a cordial A medical preparation of gold called aurum potabile was pre-
scribed as an infallible remedy. The fact invites the satirical remark of the next line.
THE WIFE OF BATH. Like all the great characters of litera-ture, the Wife belongs to her own
age without being limited to any historical epoch. In her brazen red stockings, her vast hat
and wimple, she conforms with the standards of popular medieval life; noisy, assertive and
robust. Her ruddy complexion, her deafness and her widely spaced teeth give her an emphatic
personality such as few of the Pilgrims can rival. But the Wife also embodies certain time-
less aspects of human character in general; in particular, the self-confident energy which
has carried her through five marriages and three pilgrimages to the Holy Land. As the opening
sentence of the General Prologue reveals, a pilgrimage was often an excuse for indulging a
love of adventure and uninterrupted gossip, and it is hard to see her as devout. Her impulses
are as overwhelmingly physical as the cushioning hips which seat her firmly upon her horse,
or as the ten-pound coverchiefs which she wears on Sundays. She represents mankind's
uninhibited enjoyment of its natural appetites, of raucous companionship, of adventurous
curiosity and of pride in its exploits and achievements. She boasts no fastidious manners, has
few social pretensions, and needs no more protection than the Shipman. A raw spirit of life
bears her forward, jaunty and indestructible, like a cork on a stream.
ü@ü@ü@ü@Partly because it is so detailed, this is one of the most completely realized of the
portraits. Chaucer describes the Wife's physical appearance and peculiarities, her conspicuous
clothing and her mount, her emotional temper and her social manner. He outlines her matrimon-
ial history and mentions some of the long pilgrimages which she has undertaken. But the por-
trait comes to life so vividly because all these points cohere, as parts of a single individ-
uality. The fact that the Wife has thries been at Jerusalem' is not an isolated part of her
personal record, but proof of the vitality and boundless self-confidence that are implicit
in her scarlet stockings. The references to her hips, legs and spurs?none of which the Pri-
oress appears to possess?and the admission that the Wife is ' gat-tothed', all emphasize the
physical nature of a woman whose clamorous impulses have driven her five times to the
church door. We do not need the evidence of the Wife's prologue, where for eight hundred
and fifty lines she talks about herself almost without drawi. breath, to realize that Chaucer
was fascinated by her. This introductory portrait, as sharp-edged and brilliant as a manuscript
illumination, shows how closely his imagination was held by a figure whose vitality and appetite
for experience rivalled own.
447. a good Wif 'a goodwife', the mistress of a house or other establishment.
448. somdel deef somewhat deaf': the result of a domestic battle recounted in her prologue,
lines 788-96, when her fifth husband strikes her after she has torn three pages out of his
book against women.
449. swich an haunt 'such skill '.
450. Ypres and. . . Gaunt Or Ghent, rich and important Flemish cloth-weaving cities from which
many weavers emigrated to England during the fourteenth century.
451. wif ne was ther noon there was no woman whatever 'wife' being a term for a mature
woman of the poorer clam not necessarily married.
452. bifore hire sholde goon 'who was permitted to make hro offering before the Wife'. The
congregation went up to Ow altar-steps in order of social precedence. Cf. line 379.
454. out of alle charitee enraged'; with word-play on the charitable purpose of the offering.
People out of charity with others were supposed not to make an offering: see Matt V. 23, 24.
455. coverchiefs Cloths used as covering for the head or neck, chief being Old French for
head. They were arranged on elaborate wire structures, which gave the head a grotesquely
ful fine weren of ground 'were of finest texture'.
459. ful streite yteyd 'stretched tightly over the leg'.
462. housbondes at chirche dore Until the sixteenth century, wedding ceremony took place at
the door of the church, a !hi was followed by nuptial mass at the altar.
463. withouten 'not to speak of'.
464. therof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe 'we don't have to talk about that at this moment '.
Perhaps Chaucer was planning to say more about the Wife's youthful indiscretions at some
later stage, or had already written the prologue to her tale, where she herself describes
her gay life as a young woman. His remark draws attention to her sins under the pretext of
trying to dismiss the subject, as though saying, 'I'm sure we don't want to hear about that'.
466 passed many a straunge strem 'crossed many foreign rivers '.
467-8. Rome, Boloigne, Galice, Coloigne Four of the most famous centres of pilgrimage: the
Holy City, Boulogne, St James of Compostella in Galicia, and Cologne.
469. she koude muchel 'she knew much'.
wandringe by the weye seems deliberately ambiguous, with a covert allusion to the Wife's
moral swervings--perhaps on a pilgrimage.
470. gat-tothed 'with widely spaced teeth'. In her prologue the Wife asserts that this
feature ' bicam me weel'--suited her. It was taken to be a sign of wantonness.
471. upon an amblere 'on an ambling horse', allowing her to ride along in untroubled comfort.
esily she sat, since it came naturally to her to dominate calmly: but she chooses a docile
472. ywimpled wel 'her wimple gracefully arranged', or--perhaps more probably--wearing a
fine wimple (a garment wrapped about the head and neck to frame the face).
473. a bokeler or a targe The comparison with pieces of military equipment helps to suggest
the Wife's boldly aggressive character. Like the spurs mentioned later, they denote her love
of dominating the male.
474. afoot-mantel An outer garment worn to protect the dress. The Wife rode astride like a
man. The feminine custom of riding side-saddle was introduced into England by Anne of
Bohemia, Richard II's first queen, but was evidently not adopted outside the court.
475. a paire of spores sharpe Another pointed indication of the Wife's domineering character,
and readiness to tyrannize.
476. carpe 'talk, chatter'; without the sense of cavilling or criticizing which the term has
since acquired. The Wife comes naturally to the fore as a gossip, not attempting to imitate
the ladylike coyness of the Prioress.
477. per chaunce 'it is possible'.
remedies of love Probably meaning love-potions or aphrodisiacs rather than ways of mending a
478. she koude of that art the olde daunce 'she knew all the ins and outs of that game'.
THE PARSON. This is the second longest of the portraits, and the most serious. The Parson is
an embodiment of strenuous moral virtue in a world corrupted by avarice and self-seeking,
the one ecclesiastical figure among the Pilgrims who has i? betrayed his Master for the sake
of material profit or the good estimation of his fellows. He represents the trustful, patient
faith that holds firm while standards are collapsing on all sides and weaker men in higher
places are--in their own eye--coming to terms with the realities of a dissolute age. Here,
at the centre of the General Prologue, for fifty lines Chancres irony is silent as he re-
veals his respect for the integrity of the good shepherd of a country parish, who tends his
human flock while more ambitious priests desert their congregations for a more agreeable
way of life in London. There is no physical description, no reference to the Parson's indi-
vidual habits or his private history; yet a strong sense of personality emerges from this
detailed account of fidelity to a religious calling. If the portrait has any satirical pur-
pose, it must work outwards from the Parson; showing that the sense of mission crushed by
the accumulated wealth of the Church survives where it is least regarded, among the country
clergy who devote their lives to the care of their humble and ignorant parishioners.
480. persoun of a toun 'priest of a hamlet or country parish's see line 493.
482. a clerk A learned man like the Clerk of Oxenford, though now living actively for the
good of others.
487. ypreved ofte sithes 'proved many times'.
488. to cursen for his tithes A parishioner who did not pay his annual tithe--a tenth part
of his income--to the priest might be excommunicated. The Parson was unwilling to call for
such punishment. 'Rather wolde he yeven'; in marked contrast to the close-fisted Physician.
489. out of doute 'it is certain'.
491. offring, substaunce. The Easter offering is presented to the priest. The Parson uses this,
and also his own possessions, to relieve the needs of his parishioners.
492. he koude in litel thing have suffisaunce 'he knew how t content with a modest sufficiency'.
493. wyd was his parisshe 'his parish was extensive'.
495. in meschief 'those in trouble or misfortune'.
496. muche and lite 'rich and poor alike '.
497. upon his feet, and in his hand a staf The image specifically associates the Parson with
Christ's apostles, who travelled in the same fashion to spread the gospel. The Parson evidently
cannot afford a horse, and does his pastoral work the hard way.
498. his sheep 'his parishioners', with allusion to the figure of Christ the good shepherd.
499. first he wroghte 'first he did charitable deeds ', giving himself the right to preach
Christ's doctrine to others.
500. out of the gospel Matt. v. 19: Whoso shall do and teach them [the commandments of Christ],
the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.'
501. this figure 'figure of speech', proverbial saying.
502. If gold ruste, what shal iren do? If the priest cannot resist temptation, how should his
flock do better?
504. no wonder is a lewed man to ruste 'it isn't surprising if a layman, usually an unlearned
person, becomes morally corrupt'.
505. take keep 'take note'.
509. he sette nat his benefice to hire He didn't leave his parish in charge of a curate, paying
him part of the stipend which he continued to draw as priest.
512. to seken him a chaunterie for soules To try to obtain a chantry at St Paul's, where he would
be paid to sing daily masses for the repose of a rich man's soul.
513. or with a bretherhed to been withholde 'or to be retained as chaplain to a fraternity or
514. kepte wel his folde 'watched over his flock, his parish, conscientiously'.
515. ne made it nat miscarie 'did not bring it to harm': the double negative being used as a more
emphatic form of negative construction, as at lines 430, 451, 494 and passim.
516. noght a mercenarie 'not a hireling'. The reference is to John x.12: He that is an hireling,
and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the
sheep, and fleeth.'
519. ne . . . daungerous ne digne 'neither arrogant nor haughty'.
521. by fairnesse `by gentle means'.
523. but it were 'unless it were'.
525. for the nonis 'immediately' .
527. he waited after 'he expected'.
528. a spiced conscience 'a dainty or over scrupulous sense of moral duty'. Spices are added
to things which have gone bad, to disguise the corruption. The phrase recurs in The Wife of
Bath's Prologue, line 435.
529. Cristes bore and his apostles twelve 'the teaching of Christ and of the apostles '.
THE PLOWMAN. As we see from Chaucer's fabliaux, characters from the lower classes of
society were usually brought into medieval literature to provide grotesque and farcical figures.
But Chaucer's presentation of the Plowman is entirely respectful. Like the hero of Langland's
religious poem. Piers Plowman, this pilgrim is an honest worker, a small tenant farmer serving
God through his uncomplaining work and by his charity towards his fellow-men, paying his debts
and living in peace with his neighbours. Without disguising the lowly nature of his work, Chau-
cer allows the Plowman the simple dignity of an ancient and essential occupation and the
strength of the creed which he honours through his daily life. He is respected as one of the
small number of pilgrims whose motives in undertaking this springtime excursion are above
531. plowman Used generically of workers on the land.
532. that hadde ylad of dong ful many a fother 'who had carried many a cartload of manure';
doing the 'dirty work' of enrichü╩ing the soil for the general good of society. Despite his
lowliness, the plowman is an indispensable figure of the social system.
536. thogh him gamed or smerte 'whether in pleasure or in pain'; in all circumstances.
537. and thanne his neighebor right as himselve 'next after loving God he loved his fellow-men
as himself'; see Matt. xxii 37-9.
538. therto dike and delve 'also make ditches and dig'. 540. withouten hire 'without asking pay-
ment'; again in marked contrast to the professional classes.
542. his propre swink and his catel He paid his tithes partly by working on the priest's land and
partly in kind, by the produce of his own holding.
543. a mere 'a mare '; a humble mount, probably his own carthorse.
544-6. This preliminary list of six pilgrims, five of whom at r then described in detail, has the
appearance of a summat which Chaucer expanded later. It serves to remind the reader how far
the cataloguing of the company has progressed, and shows that the list is nearly complete.
546. and myself Modesty prevents Chaucer from offering any account of his own life-history
and personal appearance. As the observer of the other pilgrims rather than a fully integrated
member of their company he keeps in the background of the General Prologue. As noticed
above in the Introduction, he brings himself shyly into the picture later, when the Host calls
him forward. He also includes a reference to himself as an over-prolific writer by making the
Man of Law complain that thogh he kan but lewedly on metres', Chaucer has already told every
story, in one book or another. (Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale, lines 46-52.)
THE MILLER. Here Chaucer returns to farcical realism and the grotesque figures of a world
remote from the moral ideal represented by the Parson and the Plowman. The Miller is more of
an animal than of a human being: powerfully muscular, frighteningly ugly, sly, coarse and brutally
insensitive. His huge black nostrils and gaping mouth suggest the distorted expression of a
gargoyle, and the din he creates with his bagpipe and his raucous conversation associate him
with the howling demons of a medieval Last Judgement. Chaucer may have had this comparison
in mind when he gave the Miller a mouth like 'a greet forneys'. It is a brief but completely
integrated portrait; features, physique, habits and dress all combining to embody human
beastliness, with a dangerous violence of temper lurking beneath the surface of the man's
rowdy good-fellowship. This is the nature which breaks out when the Knight comes to the
end of his tale and the Miller insists, with drunken oaths, upon telling his tale next in contempt
547. a stout carl 'a powerfully-built churl' or low-class person.
for the nones ' extremely' .
548. ful big he was of brawn 'with great muscles'.
549. over al ther he cam 'wherever he went'. Chaucer may have intended a grotesque parallel
with the prowess of the Knight, who always won 'a sovereyn prys
550. the ram The champion's prize. In Switzerland, where wrestling is still a national sport, the
champion is awarded a young bul