Canterbury Tales Character Analysis Essay

Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer



The Knight

Chaucer describes an ideal Knight, a "verray parfit, gentil knyght", who conscientiously follows all the social, moral, chivalric, and religious codes of conduct. Chaucer does not have any particular individual in mind but casts the Knight as an idealistic representative of his profession. Although the institution of chivalry had become decadent in the fourteenth century Chaucer withholds his criticism and instead endows the Knight with all the gentlemanly qualities that are in keeping with his character. Thus the Knight possesses all the traditional chivalric virtues of politeness in speech, consideration for others, righteousness, generosity, helpfulness, and loyalty. He also loves truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy. Moreover he is not only brave and worthy but also wise. Although the Knight rides on a good horse, he isn’t ostentatiously dressed himself. He has come straight from his expedition and is still wearing his armor. His simple coarse sleeveless tunic made out of fustian bears the stains of his armor. This minute detail serves to impart a certain degree of realism to the portrait and also serves to underline the Knight’s religious devotion and his eagerness to go on the pilgrimage. The Knight’s ascetic clothing thus stands to his credit and highlights his integrity and honor. Chaucer also describes the Knight’s participation in several battles and campaigns. Scholars have pointed out that the majority of the Knight’s campaigns are religious in nature and are by and large crusades against the heathens.

The Squire

The young Squire with his fashionably curled locks and stylish short gown is the embodiment of the romantic chivalric tradition and provides a stark contrast to the religious chivalric tradition represented by his father, the Knight. His short coat with long wide sleeves is exquisitely embroidered with red and white flowers. This provides a stark contrast to the Knight’s ascetic clothing. In the medieval chivalric hierarchy a Squire ranked immediately below a Knight. A Squire had to serve as an attendant to several Knights and their ladies before he himself received Knighthood. Chaucer’s Squire possesses all the socially desirable accomplishments that were expected of young men in his position. He is an excellent horseman and also knows how to draw. Moreover he is fond of singing, dancing and composing lyrics. He also likes to joust. A joust was a trial of strength and expertise in which one individual fought another. This sport was strictly restricted to the nobility. Chaucer states that the Squire had been on cavalry expeditions to Flanders, Artois, and Picardy with the hope of winning his lady’s favor. The desire to win a lady’s favor is one of the main motivations for chivalric action in the tradition of courtly love. Thus unlike his father the Squire, he is not motivated by religious feelings but by love. The Squire is strong and extremely agile. Further he is courteous and considerate towards others. He willingly serves his lords and carves before his father at the table. Carving was considered to be a very strenuous task. Chaucer is indulgent of the Squire’s romantic fervor and carefree attitude. His singing and playing upon the flute all day long are perfectly in accordance with his cavalier sensibility. On the whole one is convinced that the Squire would make a worthy Knight like his father.

The Yeoman

A Yeoman was an attendant to an official and ranked above a ‘garson’ or groom in the medieval hierarchy. The modern meaning of a small landowner came about much later. Chaucer makes it clear that the Yeoman was also a ‘forester’ i.e. thoroughly proficient in hunting and woodcraft. He is a robust individual with closely cropped hair and tanned complexion that bear testimony to a hectic outdoor life. His apparel of a green hunting coat and hood is brightened by a sheaf of sharp peacock arrows that he carries carefully under his belt. He carries all the equipment necessary for his occupation as a Yeoman and a hunter: a mighty bow, a bracer, sword, buckler, a well - sharpened dagger and a hunting horn. A St. Christopher medal that dangles on his breast provides the finishing touch to his physical appearance. Chaucer indicates that the Yeoman is proficient in his work by his statement that he carried his equipment in true Yeomanly fashion. There are no ironic notes in the Yeoman’s portrait. Rather the gay and colorful Yeoman wins a positive response of unrestrained appreciation from Chaucer.

The Prioress

Chaucer has painted an utterly charming and elegant portrait of the Prioress. She is named Eglentyne or Sweetbriar. She has a broad forehead, perfect nose, blue-gray eyes, and thin red lips. Her smile is simple and coy. Her appearance conforms to the contemporary ideal of a beauty. She only swears by ‘St. Loy’ which is to say that she hardly swears at all. She sings the divine service very well with a pleasant nasal intonation and can speak French elegantly. She is obviously a lady who has not forgotten her past of extravagance and fine living. She strives to imitate courtly manners which is evident in her precise table manners where she even takes care not to wet her fingers too deeply in sauce. Her tender heart runs over with pity at the sight of dead or bleeding mice caught in a trap. She is fond of animals and feeds her three dogs with roasted meat and expensive fine bread. Chaucer criticizes the Prioress by praising her very faults. The Prioress’s kindness to her pet dogs is seen as a weakness. Her charity should extend towards needy people rather than animals. Moreover in the medieval world animals were not thought to possess souls and were as such outside the scheme of salvation. As a nun she cannot strictly follow the rules of simplicity and poverty. This is seen in her love of jewelry as she possesses a red-coral rosary and an elegant gold brooch with the vague motto ‘Amor vincit Omnia’ i.e. love conquers all. Keeping her ecclesiastical background in mind the inscription should rather have been ‘Amor Dei’, i.e. concerned with divine love instead of worldly profane love. She is elegantly dressed in a cloak and her wimple is neatly pleated. Thus Chaucer combines strokes of irony with unconcealed appreciation in his presentation of the gentle, demure, aristocratic and worldly Prioress.

The Monk

Chaucer presents a corrupt Monk who loves the good life and finds more pleasure in hunting than studying in the cloister. The Monk’s weakness for good food and expensive clothing and his love for hunting violate the monastic vows of poverty and simplicity. He is riding a sleek berry brown horse on his way to Canterbury. The bells attached to his horse’s bridle tinkle pleasantly with the wind. Chaucer ironically pronounces that the Monk is perfectly suitable for the office of abbot. The Monk, Daun Piers, is an outrider; i.e. he takes care of the monastery’s estates. He spends more time outside his cloister than he should. He does not care at all about the rules laid down by St. Benedict and bears no guilt about the fact that he rides out instead of devoting himself to his monastic duties. Chaucer ironically agrees with the Monk’s point of view and innocently asks why should the Monk make himself mad by pouring over a book in a cloister. The Monk’s pleasure in hunting is a fitting object of satire. In the Middle Ages Monks who took delight in hunting were severely condemned by the reformers. In fact hunting itself was considered an immoral activity. Chaucer’s Monk is a perfect hunter and one who takes extreme interest and pleasure in tracking and hunting wild rabbits. He thus keeps fine horses and well bred hunting hounds in his stable. The Monk is a worshipper of materialism. The sleeves of his coat are trimmed with the finest gray fur in the land. His hood is fastened under his chin with an exquisite gold love knot. His boots are supple and expensive. His bald - head and face shine radiantly as if anointed with oil. His large eyes roll in his head and gleam like a furnace under a cauldron. He is healthy and well fed and loves to eat a plump roasted swan. Chaucer ironically concludes that the Monk is certainly a "fair prelat". Chaucer’s subtle ironic portraiture of the ‘manly’ Monk and repeated approbation of the Monk’s abilities only arouses the reader’s derision.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Free BookNotes Online Book Summary

or "Harry Bailly": The proprietor of the Tabard Inn where the pilgrims to Canterbury stay before beginning their journey. He accompanies the pilgrims on their journey. It is the Host who devised the scheme of the tales, proposing that each tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and he frequently mediates arguments between pilgrims and suggests who shall tell the next story. He has a bit of a class complex, and can be seen regularly toadying up to the upper-class and higher-status characters.

A noble fighter who served in the Crusades. He travels with his son, the Squire. The Knight tells the first tale, a romantic tale of a love triangle between two knights and a woman they both love.

A "lusty bachelor" of twenty, the Squire is the son of the Knight, and the only pilgrim other than Chaucer stated as having literary ambitions: he can "wel endite". He tells an interrupted tale concerning the gifts that a mysterious knight brings to the court of Tartary.

The Yeoman is the second servant who travels with the Knight. He does not tell a tale.

A delicate, sentimental woman, the Prioress weeps over any small tragedy such as the death of a mouse. She attempts to appear refined, but her refinement is superficial. Her tale concerns the murder of a small child at the hands of Jews who loathe the child for singing about the Virgin Mary.

The secretary to the Prioress, the Second Nun tells as her tale the biography of Saint Cecilia.

A robust and masculine man, the Monk travels with the Prioress and Second Nun.

He is an immoral man concerned largely with profit rather than turning men away from sin. His tale is an attack on the wickedness of summoners.

He is an arrogant man obsessed with profit margins. His story is a comic tale concerning an elderly blind man who takes a young wife who proves unfaithful.

The Clerk is a student at Oxford, and his lack of an actual profession leaves him impoverished. Although educated, his intellectual pursuits have left him virtually unemployable. He tells a tale of the humble Griselde, who marries a man of high status who cruelly tests her devotion to him.

The lawyer tells a religiously inspired tale concerning Constance, a woman who suffers a number of tragedies but is at each turn saved by her devotion to her Christian beliefs.

He travels with the Man of Law. The Franklin is a man who takes delight in all simple pleasures, most prominently culinary ones. His story is that of a woman who promises to have an affair with a man if he can save her husband.

One of the five guildsmen who travel with the pilgrims to Canterbury, the Weaver does not tell a tale.

One of the five guildsmen who travel with the pilgrims to Canterbury, the Dyer does not tell a tale.

One of the five guildsmen who travel with the pilgrims to Canterbury, he does not tell a tale.

One of the five guildsmen who travel with the pilgrims to Canterbury, he does not tell a tale.

One of the five guildsmen who travel with the pilgrims to Canterbury, he does not tell a tale.

A lewd and vulgar man, the Cook often engages in violent and contentious behavior. He tells a tale that appears to be a fabliau. However, this tale does not exist in a completed form.

He tells the tale of a woman who agrees to have an affair with a monk who will pay her so that she can repay a debt to her husband, but this monk ultimately borrows this money from the husband himself.

The Physician tells a tale about a father who, in order to protect his daughter from scoundrels who contrive to rape her, murders his daughter.

The most ostentatious of the travelers, the Wife of Bath has been married five times and is currently searching for another man to marry. The Wife of Bath is opinionated and boisterous, and her tale, which centers around the question "what do women want?," promotes her view that women wish to have authority over men.

The Parson is a man devoted to his congregation, decent and principled. His tale is a long dissertation on the definition of sin and its various forms.

A large man with an imposing physique, the Miller is rude and contemptuous of his fellow travelers. His tale is a comic story of a devious student who contrives to have an affair with the wife of a dimwitted carpenter.

Also trained in the law, the Manciple tells a fable that attributes the dark appearance and unpleasant sound of crows to the actions of a white crow who told the god Phoebus of his wife's infidelity.

A slender man with a fiery temper, he tells a tale in response to the Miller's Tale. His tale concerns a villainous Miller who is humiliated by two Oxford students.

The profession of the summoner is to issue summons for people to appear in front of the Church court, and in this the Summoner is quite unfair. He tells a tale in response to the Friar's diatribe against summoners that parodies the Friar's profession.

An effeminate and shamelessly immoral man, the Pardoner is intensely self-loathing yet devoted to his task of defrauding people of their money by making them believe that they have sinned and need to buy pardons. His tale is an allegory about three rioters who find death through their avarice. The Pardoner uses this tale as an attempt to sell pardons to the company, but is silenced by the Host.

A mysterious and threatening figure, he and his Yeoman are not original travelers with the pilgrims to Canterbury. They seek out the party when they learn about the tales that they have been telling. When the Canon's Yeoman reveals too much about his master's profession, the Canon suddenly disappears.

The assistant to the Canon, he speaks openly about his master's tricks as an alchemist, prompting the Canon to leave the pilgrims. The Yeoman then admits that he regrets the deceptions of his master, and tells a tale that details the methods of a canon's fraud.

Theban knight who is imprisoned in Athens but released on the intervention of his friend Pirithous, he and his friend Palamon both fall in love with Emelye. He prays to Mars for aid in his duel with Palamon for Emelye, and although he wins the battle, he suddenly is killed in an earthquake upon his victory.

Theban knight who is imprisoned in Athens. Both he and Arcite fall in love with Emelye. Before the duel for her hand in marriage, Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, to win Emelye as a wife. Although he loses the battle, he wins Emelye as a wife when Arcite dies.

The sister of Hippolyta, she is a pawn within the struggle between Arcite and Palamon, both who have fallen in love with her. Although she wishes to remain chaste in honor of the goddess, Diana, she accepts that she must marry one of the two knights.

The King of Athens, he wages war upon Thebes in response to the injustice of the Theban king, and imprisons Arcite and Palamon. He sets the rules and regulations of their duel for Emelye.

The Queen of Scythia, she is the husband of Theseus, King of Athens, and the sister of Emelye.

A prince and childhood friend of Theseus, he intervenes to have Arcite released from prison on the condition that he never return to Athens.

The king of Thrace, he fights with Palamon during his duel with Arcite.

The king of India, he fights with Arcite during his duel with Palamon.

An oafish carpenter, he is an older man who marries the much younger Alison. He foolishly believes Nicholas' prediction that a second great flood is coming, and hides in a kneading bucket on his roof in preparation for it.

The crafty wife of John the carpenter, Alison is much younger than her husband. She has an affair with Nicholas, a boarder who stays with her and her husband.

An Oxford student who boards with John and Alison, Nicholas claims to study astronomy. He comes up with the fantastic fabliau "Noah's Ark" trick which makes up most of the plot of the tale.

A delicate, courtly lover who pursues Alison, he is a skilled musician and an unabashed romantic. He suffers humiliation at the hands of Alison, but gets revenge on Nicholas.

A vulgar, dishonest and foolish miller, Symkyn repeatedly cheats his customers out of grain. He receives his comeuppance when two Cambridge students that he has cheated seduce his wife and daughter then steal their grain back from him.

A Cambridge student who seduces the miller's daughter, Molly, when he and John stay at the miller's house.

A Cambridge student who seduces the miller's wife when he and Aleyn stay at the Miller's house.

The daughter of the Miller, she is a somewhat unattractive young woman, yet Aleyn nevertheless seduces her when the two students stay at the miller's home.

The daughter of the Roman emperor, she is given to be married to the Sultan of Syria after he agrees to convert to Christianity. But when his mother opposes this, she narrowly escapes an assassination attempt and ends up in England, where she marries King Alla. After escaping treachery once more, Constance is sent back to Rome. She is a devoted Christian whose faith aids her throughout all of her travails.

The King of Syria, he agrees to convert to Christianity to marry Constance, but his actions infuriate his mother, who has him assassinated.

Villainous mother of the Sultan, she refuses to convert from Islam on the orders of her son and plots his assassination.

The wife of the Warden of the Northumberland region where Constance lands in England, she converts to Christianity through the influence of Constance. A devious knight murders her in an attempt to frame Constance.

The husband of Dame Hermengild, he watches over the castle of Northumberland while King Alla is at war. He converts to Christianity along with his wife.

The English king of Northumberland, he marries Constance but is separated from her because of the machinations of his mother, Lady Donegild.

The treacherous mother of King Alla, she contrives to have Constance and her child banished from England. King Alla murders her for her evil actions.

The son of King Alla and Constance, he becomes the emperor of Rome when Constance's father realizes his royal lineage.

The fifth husband of the Wife of Bath, he was much younger than she and prone to reading misogynist religious texts that offended his wife. When he hurt her out of anger, he realized his error and submitted to her authority, after which he and his wife had a perfectly happy marriage.

After raping a young woman, the knight is sentenced to death, but spared by the queen, who decides that the knight will receive mercy if he can answer the question "what do women want?"

This elderly woman tells the Knight what women really desire on the condition that he will marry her. When he grants her the authority in marriage, the old woman transforms into a beautiful young woman.

The summoner, who is given no proper name, is a typical representation of his profession, according to the Friar. He meets the devil and shares trade secrets, and is cast into hell for his sinful behavior.

Introducing himself as a yeoman, he and the summoner become compatriots until he finally casts the summoner into hell.

This boorish friar is rude and presumptuous, oblivious to the conditions of Thomas and his wife, who take him in as a boarder. Although ostensibly polite and refined, the friar callously begs Thomas for money.

Owner of a home where the Friar stays, his infant child had recently died and he himself has taken ill. When the Friar begs him for money, Thomas pays him with the "gift" of a fart.

A woman of low status, she marries Walter, the marquis of Saluzzo, but is subjected to a number of trials that her husband devises to prove her worth. She handles each of these trials honorably, proving herself dedicated and steadfast in the face of any tragedy.

The marquis of Saluzzo, he is a dedicated bachelor until the people of his region insist that he takes a wife. When he marries Griselde, he subjects her to a number of trials meant to prove her worth, each of them cruel and heartless.

The father of Griselde. She returns to him after she has been cast out of her home by Walter.

A wealthy knight and perpetual bachelor, at the age of sixty this blind man decides to take a young wife. When he marries May, he bores her with his insistent sexual desire, leading her to have an affair. He regains his sight when Pluto and Proserpina find May having sex with Damian in his presence.

The young wife of January, she soon tires of his persistent and monotonous sexual desire and has an affair with January's squire, Damian. When January regains his sight and sees her engaged in a tryst with Damian, she insists that he should not believe his eyes.

January's squire, he has an affair with May.

A friend of January's who argues for the merits of marrying a young woman at such an elderly age.

The king of the fairies, he and his wife stumble upon January, May and Damian when the latter two have a sexual encounter. He restores January's sight.

She is the wife of Pluto.

The daughter of the King of Tartary, she receives the gift of knowing the language of animals and the healing properties of every herb.

The King of Tartary. A mysterious knight brings him a mechanical horse that can transport him anywhere across the globe.

A devoted knight and husband to Dorigen, he travels to Britain to engage in war, causing great grief to his wife. He gives up his wife so that she may preserve her honor.

The wife of Arviragus, she becomes intensely depressed when he leaves for Britain, fearing for his life. She promises to have an affair with Aurelius if he can make the rocks that obstruct the shore on which Arviragus will land disappear.

A young squire who falls in love with Dorigen, he pays the Orleans student to make the rocks off of the Brittany shore disappear so that Dorigen will have an affair with him. But he gives her up when he realizes the pain that it would cause her.

A law student skilled in creating apparitions, he contrives to have the rocks off of the Brittany shore disappear, but when Aurelius does not engage in an affair with Dorigen, he forgives Aurelius of his debt for creating the apparition.

An honorable and well-loved knight, he murders his daughter when Appius and Claudius scheme to have her raped.

The daughter of Virginius, her incomparable beauty leads Appius to lust after her and scheme to have her raped.

A corrupt judge who governs the town where Virginius resides, he contrives to have Claudius claim that Virginius had stolen his slave from him. When his scheme is revealed, he is taken to jail where he commits suicide.

A churl who schemes with Appius, he claims that Virginia is his slave and that Virginius stole her from him. When his treachery is revealed, he is banished.

Three indistinguishable troublemakers who engage in all sorts of lewd behavior, they go on a search for Death and end up finding it in the form of gold coins.

An aged man who cannot die, he wishes to trade his body with a younger man. He tells the three rioters where they may find Death.

A devoted entrepreneur, he is somewhat stingy but dedicated to his business and to thrifty behavior. He insists that his wife repay one hundred francs that he lent her, leading her to seek the sum from Dan John.

This monk claims to be a cousin of the merchant. He agrees to lend the merchant's life one hundred francs if she has an affair with him, then borrows the sum from the husband that she intends to repay.

A dissatisfied wife, she claims that her husband, the merchant, is a stingy man who does not satisfy her. Displeased that her husband wants her to repay a one hundred franc debt, she agrees to an affair with Dan John for that sum. When the merchant offers that he has been repaid in his own money, she tells him that she will repay him through sex.

A mighty and rich ruler, his enemies rape his wife and attack his daughter, leading him to strive for a war of retribution - yet his wife implores him to be merciful.

The wife of Melibee, she is raped by his enemies, but wishes to grant them mercy.

The young daughter of Melibee, she is left for dead by his enemies when they wound her in five places, but nevertheless barely survives.

This rooster, peerless in his crowing, has seven companions, the most honored of which is Pertelote. He dreams that he will be chased by a fox, a prophecy that comes true. He is also a strong believer in this prophetic power of dreams. Chaunticleer's name means clear-voiced, or bright-song.

The most favored of Chanticleer's companions, this hen is essentially his 'wife.' She dismisses his idea that dreams predict future events, claiming that his ill temper stems from stomach maladies. But her advice to find healing herbs ultimately leads to the fulfillment of his prophecy.

Devout elite Roman woman who dies for her adherence to Christianity.

Eventual husband of Cecilia who converts to Christianity upon the influence of Pope Urban. He is executed for his beliefs.

Christian leader who baptizes Valerian and Tibertius and claims that Cecilia is a saint.

The brother of Cecilia, he converts to Christianity, but is executed with Valerian for his Christian beliefs.

Roman prefect who ordered the deaths of Cecilia, Valerian and Tibertius for their Christian beliefs.

Roman sergeant who claimed to see the spirits of Valerian and Tibertius ascending to heaven when they are executed, prompting many to convert to Christianity.

Deity who, when he lived on earth, took a wife who was unfaithful to him, despite his insistence on watching her. He teaches his prized white crow to speak the language of humans.

This beautiful white crow can speak the language of humans, having been taught by Phoebus. But when he tells Phoebus that his wife had an affair, Phoebus plucks him and curses him, condemning all crows to be forever black and harsh of voice.

A friend of January's who argues against him taking a young wife.

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