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Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer's Groupings

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Chaucer himself says as much towards the beginning and end of the poem that he tells us that he is looking at each of the pilgrims in terms of rank, clothing, physical and moral state and the person’s actual reason for being on thepilgrimage (‘estaat’, ‘array’ and ’cause’). “A Knight there was, and that a worthy man”. (…) “And wente for to doon his pilgrymage”. The detail in this portrait is the same with all characters. For example, there is a whole host of terms such as ‘sworthy’, ‘trouthe’ and ‘honour’. And there is also a great list of names relating to the battles and tournaments the Knight fought (‘Alisaundre’, ‘Pruce’, ‘Lettow’). After that we are given more personal and maybe surprising traits to consider. His speech is ‘as meeke as is a mayde’, he never spoke rudely (‘no vileynye ne sayde’), his horse is fine but not flashy, and most particularly, we are told that he has come straight from his sea voyage to be on this pilgrimage. All these characteristics summed up make him an individual and coupled with the fact that all the places mentioned were real and historical, they even suggest that the Knight may be modelled on a real figure. The point is that some aspects of him seem to be real, for there is just enough variety and complexity in the surface detail to suggest that he could have existed – even if in fact he did not. All those terms used to introduce the Knight are really of one sort: ‘worthy’, ‘trouthe’ and ‘honour’ are all highly abstract terms and all express chivalric ideals.

The Knight starts off as a highly idealized and crusading knight. Meek in bearing, restrained in speech, so eager to go on the pilgrimage that he did not change his clothes. He is an ideally modest and pious crusading knight. He is as much a ‘type’ of knight as an individual, a simplified ‘caricature’ as much as a complex character. As Chaucer develops him he is also an ideal figure: ‘a verray, parfit gentil knyght’. He is both ‘real’ and ‘ideal’. This applies to all the pilgrims. They are not all equally ‘individual’ or equally ‘typical’, and us as readers need to judge them according to the contribution these elements of the characterization. The Knight is a representative figure in a larger social and divine scheme of things, but that he is also individual and a human being in his own right.

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Sometimes Chaucer will start with the character’s appearance and then move on to the moral qualities whereas sometimes he starts with the moral qualities and then moves on to past exploits, with perhaps only a brief mention of physical appearance. ‘Rank’, ‘clothing’, ‘physical and moral state’ and ‘motive’ fit together to produce a harmonious or conflicting view of the character. Understanding the Knight or any other character is to place him or her on a scale running from ‘love of the world’ to ‘love of God’. In the case of the Knight, he is an idealized crusading knight fighting for the ‘love of God’. However, he only appears to be fighting from money and booty as well.

Chaucer presents the pilgrims in a number of loose yet plausible groupings. The first is the Noble Knight, his son the Squire, and the Yeoman, a servant. The second comprises the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, a nun and three priests, and they are nearly all members of fixed religious communities. The third and largest group are nearly all ‘middle class’: the Merchant, the Clerk, the Lawyer, the Franklin, the five guilds men and their cook, the Shipman, the Doctor, and Wife of Bath. The fourth are two brothers from the ‘lower orders’: the Parson and the Ploughman. And the fifth and last us a more or less motley collection ofrogues: ‘a Reve and a Millere,/ A Somnour and a Pardoner also,/ A Mauncipe, and myself – ther were namo’. A rough social hierarchy, the noble Knight and his entourage, move onto the senior Church figures (the Prioress and others) and then the through the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ classes. They are also compared with one another in their basic attitudes. The Prioress, for instance, is that she is far more concerned with dainty eating for herself and her dogs than with charity for the starving poor. Comparison with Monk helps point up this ‘food issue’ even more. He is much keener on hunting and feasting than he is on the rigours of the monastic life. Meanwhile, turning to the Friar, he is a stylish father confessor for the rich and pretty, but he has precious little to do with genuinely needy. In the case of the Prioress there is criticism, but it is ironic. With the Monk the criticism is more openly satirical. However, when we get to the Friar, the criticism becomes moral censure: he is a smooth, sly and selfish, rogue. The Monk is lusty and there is a strong suggestion that he is active sexually as well as an active huntsman. The point would be clinched if you referred to the ‘love-knotte’ which the Monk uses to fasten his hood. Like the Prioress’s brooch, which carries the ambiguous inscription Amor vincit omni’. The ‘variations’ are what distinguish the pilgrims within each group, what makes them in some way particular and individual In principle it is as simple as that ‘variations on a theme’. The Knight and the Squire are variations on the theme of ‘chivalry’. The Knight expresses the older, more traditional crusading ideals, while his son is younger and attracted by more fashionably romantic ideals.

Chaucer’s groupings have contrasts and comparisons between groups, as well as within them, might focus on such matters as the presentations on rich and poor, or women and men, as well as a whole range of related contrast between the learned and the ignorant.

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Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Groupings. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucers-groupings/
“Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Groupings.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucers-groupings/
Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Groupings. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucers-groupings/> [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].
Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Groupings [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Feb 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucers-groupings/
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