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Author's Style of Geoffrey Chaucer: Use of Physiognomy As a Path for Criticism and Mockery

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According to Chaucer, the question it is better ‘to be rather than to seem,’ is answered simply. To be is who you really are behind what is shown, while to seem is how you want to seem despite who you really are. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer depicts the character’s worthiness through their features and clothing. For him, each characters respect is earned through their charming style behind their face and value. As Chaucer introduces the characters in The Canterbury Tales the pilgrims descriptions are focused mainly on their physical features. Despite the rich characteristics of some characters many of them do not appear as they seem. In fact, according to Margreet Pieper, Chaucer disagrees greatly with many of the characters’ actions and uses their descriptions in a negative way to portray it. Their supposed purpose and profession sometimes create a false identity for who they really are. He uses physiognomy to express his dissatisfaction with many of the lifestyles and choices of the characters.

“According to the art of physiognomy the face is a signature of an individual in flesh and bone and it remains the frontline against imposture (Oommen A).” These words from Oommen express the idea that a persons face and their physical appearance is the most important and influential position regarding a human person. According to lecture notes from DiGeorgio, physiognomy is the idea that facial features and body type determine morals. Physiognomy looks past inner self and heart and focuses on the physical aspects of a person. This includes how a character or person portrays themselves, especially through the clothes they wear and how their face looks. The physical traits ascribed to characters in the Canterbury tales express the importance of physiognomy. George B Pace in “Physiognomy and Chaucer’s Summoner and Alisoun”, says that physiognomy studies the face and body for what they can reveal about a person’s character. This is seen mostly through descriptions of the characters, their clothing, and material things that belong to each of them.

The Prioress is introduced in the General Prologue in depth by her physical descriptions. Margreet Pieper in “Physiognomy and Humoral Theory: the Portrayal of the Clergy in The Canterbury Tales,” says that the prioress is depicted as a “worldly beauty, especially in her facial features.” Her physical features are what’s most important to Chaucer. He says this, “Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey; Her mouth was very small, but soft and red, Her forehead, certainly, was fair of spread, Almost a span across the brows, I own; She was indeed by no means undergrown (Chaucer 261).” He describes her well formed facial structure, her unique eyes, and the shape and size of the rest of her face. He even describes her voice as nasally, insulting the way she talks. Chaucer does not accept the prioress and uses the description of her voice to show disapproval. He also describes her eyes as a bad color, and the describes her forehead as too large. Margreet Pieper expresses that Chaucer used physiognomy to show his disapproval of the Prioress’ behavior.

The introduction of the Friar includes a description of his eyes, which helps show the readers the ugly side of the Friar. Chaucer says “His eyes would twinkle in his head as bright As any star upon a frosty night (Chaucer 266).” The friar is a fake, he abuses his power and lies continuously about his work. The description of his eyes helps show the dissatisfaction Chaucer having with the Friars actions. To aid the reader in seeing the bad side of the Friar he says “His neck was whiter than a lily-flower (Chaucer 265).” According to DiGeorgio the white neck explains his pale skin due to all his time spent indoors rather than where it should be asking for donations in the sunlight. He would kiss by the sun if he were doing his job. He is pale due to neglectfulness, as Oze E. Horton, author of “The Neck of Chaucer’s Friar,” says a smooth and soft neck was a disgrace, and clergy members often tried to hide it because “a soft neck is an indication of perversion” (33). Despite this, the Friar leaves his neck out in the open which proves his corrupt character. Chaucer uses physiognomy to show his immediate and constant displeasure with this character.

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Chaucer uses physiognomy in The Canterbury Tales to carry out his view and opinion of the characters in his story. According to Helen Lee Coleman, Chaucer uses these descriptions of his characters to express his dislike and disapproval of clergy members in fourteenth-century England. Coleman says that during Chaucer’s time, abuse from the church was a regular occurrence. This disturbance among the clergy was so frequent Chaucer used these instances to portray it in his most unworthy characters. Chaucer simply did not find the religious groups during this century worthy of any appreciation. He uses the characters physical description and features to examine and reveal the truth behind the church members in England.

It is clear through the General Prologue that Chaucer uses physiognomy to add insight among the characters, as well as to reinforce his criticism of the clergy during this time period. The information he presents, such as facial structure, eye color, hair, skin, voice, and clothing explore much of the characters’ personalities. The Friar, as expressed before, is seen as a sinful and disobedient man, which is expressed through his lips, his sparkly eyes, and white neck. The Friar does everything wrong as a man of the clergy by neglecting his duties completely and focusing on sinful actions associated with women and wealth. The Prioress’s profane behavior becomes apparent through the description of her physical features. For example, her nasally voice, gray eyes and huge forehead. These features represent a deceiving and mischievous woman (Mann 129). As a nun, she fails to respect her calling and is in no way interested to fulfill her duties. The descriptions associated with these characters carry out a much bigger issue according to Chaucer. The physiognomy is used as a source to provide readers with information involving mishaps between the church and the rest of the population.

As Jennifer Garrison puts it, ‘For Chaucer, this narcissistic masculine ideal is socially and politically disastrous.” To me this shows Chaucer’s wish for men to strive for who they really are rather than just focus on their inner self. To focus solely on oneself is ‘disastrous,’ it hurts society which helps no one. Society is made by many people and for it to work people must work together, scope out beyond themselves and be willing to do what is right. So many of the characters in The Canterbury Tales are representations of self centered people harming society. They were called to be faithful and trustworthy members of the church and community and they were some of the biggest liars and sinners in their society. Chaucer’s frustration for a selfish community was expressed through the development of these characters and used as a warning for what that kind of behavior it can lead to. His writing of The Canterbury Tales was an outcry in England to express the horrible actions among respected people of society. Chaucer has used writing and these specific descriptions to pour out his feelings about a serious matter and bring light to the good that can come from striving for greatness. These clergymen and these pilgrims are examples of what self centered behavior looks like. He believes in the true self worth and for people to strive to be who they really are beyond the good or bad they have already committed.

To Sum it up, Chaucer has used physiognomy as a path for criticism and mockery, as well as to convey the anti-clericalism in England around the fourteenth century. To depict his characters Chaucer used the idea that physical features and body type are more important than what’s within a person. These characters look helped paint a picture of who they really were and helped describe their horrible actions. Beyond physical features Chaucer used description of voices and clothing to show the negative connotation associated within each of them and to focus on their sinful and ridiculous behavior as people in the church. Physiognomy is a tool Chaucer used to bring to surface the problems going on during his life in England, problems most people did not even know about. He used this repeatedly to form a character and their value. Their looks decided what kind of person they were or who they would become. Through the writing of Chaucer we found out who the real identity of the characters and what hardships they represented. As a character was revealed their body was described, their eye color, skin color, and size and shape of their limbs helped us as readers determine whether they were good or bad. Chaucer believed you should strive to appear as truly are, your looks, actions, and descriptions can and will help shape you to become a great person. When you appear as one thing you should also be that thing.

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Author’s Style of Geoffrey Chaucer: Use of Physiognomy As a Path for Criticism and Mockery. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“Author’s Style of Geoffrey Chaucer: Use of Physiognomy As a Path for Criticism and Mockery.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Author’s Style of Geoffrey Chaucer: Use of Physiognomy As a Path for Criticism and Mockery. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Author’s Style of Geoffrey Chaucer: Use of Physiognomy As a Path for Criticism and Mockery [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from:
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