Chaucer’s Prioress: Image Versus Idea

Chaucer’s excessively overt satire of the Prioress in the General Prologue is undeniable. With so much emphasis drawn to her misplaced ideals, the words scream of something terribly amiss. A cursory examination reveals a woman severely out of touch with reality and the faith she professes to represent. Keeping this powerful depiction in mind, her ensuing tale must be interpreted with character in mind. Based on this, I will attempt to argue that Chaucer deliberately used the tale as an extension of the Prioress. Her portrait defies the basis of her religious order and her tale ultimately represents a religion that defies its own principles. The subtlety involved in discerning the latter rises because it not only challenges the beliefs of the Prioress, but also extends to question the priorities of its audience’s faith.Standing alone, The Prioress’s Tale does not drastically differ from the standard miracle of the Virgin. But the reader must always be conscious of Chaucer–the author–and his attempts to expand the English language. For when her story is seen in correlation with her description, nearly every aspect of it assumes a new identity. And with graceful mockery towards her in the Prologue, Chaucer – the narrator – makes sure to plainly expose to superficiality of the exalted sister. The opening six lines mark the only time she in completely free from ironic undertones; the remaining majority advances her character through gentle satire.Chaucer’s delicate use of language only serves to heighten the reader’s understanding of the Prioress in this satire. For he elegantly builds up her persona then comically undermines it with a singular unbiased truth: “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,/ For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe” (ll. 124,126), “At mete wel ytaught was she with alle;/… In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest./…And peyned hire to countrefete cheere/ Of court, and to been estatlich of manere,…” (ll.127-141), “…She was so charitable and so pitous/ She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous/ Kaught in a trappe,…” (ll. 142-150). The letdown reinforces the notion that the Prioress is trying to be somebody she isn’t. Even her picturesque beauty is subject to flaw – she is “nat undergrowe”. While he never criticizes her, Chaucer makes it obvious that the Prioress is disillusioned by the dainty manners of the fashionably lady. Her exaggerated empathy and lust for social ascension mar her image as a server of God.Perhaps more influential to the connection more so than the mockery is the phrase with which Chaucer’s ends her sketch: “Amor vincit omnia”. By choosing this ambiguous Latin idiom to conclude his intriguingly imperfect portrait, he creates a lingering question mark that resonates through her tale. While the “amor” unlikely stands for sensuous love (brotherly or heavenly love seem more appropriate), the vague nature of the word allows the mind to wander until she is introduced in her tale. By the time this happens, the translation is insignificant, for the adage carries much more magnitude – it directly opposes the substance of her story.With the reader still mulling the Prioress’s depiction, Chaucer twice fortifies his portrait before her tale begins. The first instance spins out of Harry Bailly’s excessive patronizing:…and with that word he sayde,As curteisly as it had been a mayde,”My lady Prioresse, by your leve,So that I wiste I sholde yow nat greve,I wolde demen that ye tellen sholdeA tale next, if so were that ye wolde.Now wol ye voucke sauf, my lady deere?” (ll.445-451)The repetition of these submissive statements (by the Host of all people) is no doubt meant to poke fun at her supposed lofty stature and insistence on good manners. The other distinguishing trait emerges at the end of her invocation to Mary. Equating herself to “a child of twelf month oold, or lesse” she essentially states that her comprehension of the ensuing story is limited, if even present at all. And while she only prays for guidance from the “blisful Queene”, her aforementioned inability to perceive seemingly guarantees divine intervention upon her tale. Thus her song can presumably do no wrong.At this point in the argument the ubiquity of the author Chaucer must again be examined. Any yarn could have been chosen for The Prioress’s Tale. The fact that the miracles of the Virgin were popular at the time only reiterates why the story was chosen for her – she had a reputation to uphold. The concordance with its analogues further shifts the focus of the story. Chaucer didn’t have to modify the plot, for it coincides with the storyteller. This unmodified tale is precisely the model of story a character with such temperaments would relate. The meaning is now lodged in the voice and character of the Prioress.A reading of the story rapidly resolves two of the lingering questions that remain from beforehand. The assistance that the Prioress prayed for is nowhere to be found; her tale is littered with bigotry and would border on blasphemy were it not for her incredible ineptitude in understanding her own words. This blindness leads into another crucial flaw that again mocks her ignorance. “Amor vincit omnia”, which she so prominently displays, can be called nothing less than the antithesis of her moral. Love among men is nowhere and the scene of the sentencing acts as a complete exposure of the Prioress as a fraud:With torment and with shameful deeth echon,This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterveThat of this modre wiste, and that anon.He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.”Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”;Therefore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,And after that he heng hem by the lawe. (ll.628-634)This passage is so brutal and contrary to the doctrines of Christianity that one wonders how it was so widely accepted. Apparently Chaucer wondered too.With further scrutiny into the text, the last piece of the link is completed. The foundation of the analogous plot fits perfectly when put into the Prioress’s context. Given her affinity towards the courtly, the high rhyme scheme (seen elsewhere only in The Man of Law’s Tale) would indeed gratify the ears of her “lowly” companions. Likewise the collective association of Christians with exorbitant goodness and Jews with abominable baseness is explained by her overly emotional disposition. The selectivity of her language draws on the readers pathos and makes her truth even harder to resist. For the repetition of “litel” and “innocent” in describing the “clergeon” and exaggeration of the mother’s reaction when she cannot find her lost child naturally evoke sympathy. And in the one noticeable digression from the analogues, the Prioress’s child is seven and not ten or older. She carefully makes sure to emphasize this, as evidenced by use of commas: “a litel clergeon, seven yeer of age,” (l. 503). The allusions to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and mentioning of Hugh of Lincoln were sentiments most all of the listeners undoubtedly picked up on. When these stirring depictions are merged with the atrocious Satanic behavior of all the Jewish community (the entire text is example enough), the reaction of the pilgrims is certainly understandable: “Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man/ As sobre was that wonder was to se” (ll. 691-692). But the reader is armed with knowledge of the speaker and should have a remarkably different response.And in the end, Chaucer understandably questions the underlying motif of the tale – the importance of simple devotion. While laudable in a child, its suitability for an administer of God is horribly inappropriate. The Prioress’s heedless acceptance of this notion renders her very faith contradictory, so much so it borders on emptiness. Likewise, her story purports an idea that ignorantly opposes the dogmas of Christianity. Through this ingenious form, Chaucer asks the reader to see through the image of both teller and tale, in hope that their faith does not become blind.

The Pardoner’s Sin in The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” a relatively straightforward satirical and anti-capitalist view of the church, contrasts motifs of sin with the salvational properties of religion to draw out the complex self-loathing of the emasculated Pardoner. In particular, Chaucer concentrates on the Pardoner’s references to the evils of alcohol, gambling, blasphemy, and money, which aim not only to condemn his listeners and unbuckle their purses, but to elicit their wrath and expose his eunuchism.Chaucer’s depiction of the Pardoner in “The General Prologue” is unsparing in its effeteness; he has “heer as yelow as wax/ But smoothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex/ By ounces heenge his lokkes that he hadde…But thinne it lay, by colpons, oon by oon” (677-681). The pale, lanky qualities of his hair relate to his androgynous makeup, and the repetition of “heeng” ironically foreshadows his castration. Further hints of the Pardoner’s being a eunuch, such as “A vois he hadde as smal as hath a goot/ No beerd hadde he, ne never shold have,” are interspersed between description of his “feined flaterye and japes” that accompany his selling of false relics (707). The assumption can be drawn that the Pardoner’s status as a man is also one of “feined flaterye and japes,” that he relies on words to compensate for what he considers a body as fraudulent as his relics. In this sense, the relics become a substitute for the Pardoner’s loss of masculinity, yet also a symbol of his incompleteness. The Pardoner’s need to flaunt them corresponds with his desire to boast of his hypocrisy, a preemptive, self-deprecating strike that ensures future resentment from his audience: “Thus can I preche again that same vice/ Which that I use, and that is avarice./ But though myself be gilty in that sinne,/ Yit can I make other folks to twinne/ From avarice, and sore to repent‹/ But that is nat my principal entente/ I preche no thing but for coveitise” (139-45). The duality of his relics symmetrizes itself at the end of his tale, but not before he speaks of the oppositions of religion and sin that directly criticize his audience and, subconsciously, his own hypocrisy.The Pardoner consistently brings up the redemption of Christ and God throughout his tale. He polarizes original sin and Christ: “O glotonye, ful of cursednesse!/ O cause first of oure confusion!/ O original of oure dampnacioun,/ Til Christ hadde brought us with his blood again!” (210-3) He moves on to gluttony, and his nuanced technique of delivering subconscious critique becomes more apparent: “‘They been enemies of Cristes crois,/ Of which the ende is deeth‹wombe is hir god!/ O wombe, O bely, O stinking cod,/ Fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun!'” (244-7) His tale takes place while the Pilgrims (and the Pardoner) are drinking at an inn, and his further attacks on alcohol reveal his blatant hypocritical values: “A lecherous thing is win, and dronkenesse/ Is ful of striving and of wrecchednesse./ O dronke man, disfigured is thy face!/ Sour is thy breeth, foul artou to embrace!” (261-3) The Pardoner’s moralistic statement condemns himself more than his audience, as he is the “dronke man” of the group; he is the lecherous drunk who “wil drinke licour of the vine/ And have a joly wenche in every town” (164-5). Thus, the exclamations, “O dronke man, disfigured is thy face!…foul artou to embrace!” can be read as self-flagellating rather than moralistic.The Pardoner’s further examination of sin unveils more attempts to tear down the walls of his self-esteem. He connects gambling to blasphemy, and this presages his epilogue. He pronounces gambling’s dangers to one’s reputation: “Now wol I you defende hasardrye:/ Hasard is verray moder of lesinges,/ And of deceite and cursed forsweringes,/ Blasphemes of Crist, manslaughtre…/ It is repreve and contrarye of honour/ For to been holden a commune hasardour,/ And evere the hyer he is of estat/ The more he is holden desolat” (301-305, 307-10). When he delivers his con-man speech to the Pilgrims at the end of the tale, however, he warns them that chance may deal them a bad hand on the trip, and his relics metamorphose into gambling tools: “For aventures whiche that may betide:/ Paraventure ther may falle oon or two/ Down of his hors and breke his nekke atwo/ Looke which a suretee is it to you alle/ That I am in youre felaweshipe yfalle” (646-50). Even the story of king Demetrius and the King of Parthes reminds the Pardoner of his castration, as it relates the sin of gambling to the loss of one’s manhood as perceived by others: “The King of Parthes…/ Sente [Demetrius] a paire of dees of gold in scorn,/ For he hadde used hasard therbiforn,/ For which he heeld his glorye or his renown/ At no value or reputacioun” (335-8). This thrusts him into his attack on profanation, which he role-plays as a gambler: “‘By Goddes armes, if thou falsly playe/ This daggere shall thurghout thyn herte go!’/ This fruit cometh of the bicche bones two” (366-8). The coupling of an appendage with an accusation of fraudulence again recalls the image of castration, and provides further evidence of the Pardoner’s self-conscious and -deploring hypocrisy before he even begins the narrative portion of his tale.The description of the three “riotoures” borrows heavily from the Pardoner’s previous listings of sin, and point a finger at the Pilgrims. Placing the characters “in a taverne to drink” when they hear news about their slain friend who was also “[F]ordronke as he sat on his bench upright” forces the other travelers to consider their similarities to the fictional anti-heroes (375, 386). When one of the rioters decides to meet Death, he exclaims, “Ye, Goddes armes,” which repeats verbatim the Pardoner’s role-playing example. Clearly, they exhibit all the worst sins of which he spoke, and the Pardoner strains to divulge the root of their problems: money. From this point on in the narrative, “gold” is mentioned six times. Instead of finding death, they encounter gold under an Edenic tree, and the allusion to original sin crystallizes. Immediately, selfishness enters the rioters’ minds, as evidenced by the “worst of hem” who “spak the first word,” thereby connecting false words to sin in the Pardoner’s mind: “But might this gold be carried fro this place/ Hoom to myn hous‹or elles unto youres‹/ For wel ye woot that al this gold is oures” (488, 496-8). The pile of gold is itself gluttonous, as one rioter suggests: “And here is gold, and that ful greet plente” (523). The plan of the two rioters to kill the third, which will assure them of being able to “playe at dees right at [their] owene wille,” entails that one “rive him thurgh the sides twaye” (546, 536). This picture of deception resembles that of castration, and the Pardoner’s self-condemnation reaches its subtextual conclusion: he is as guilty of avarice as these alter-egos he has crafted.The Pardoner wraps up his tale by confiding to the Pilgrims what he normally tells his audience: that only Christ “is oure soules leeche” and that they should “offre nobles or sterlinges” for a pardon (628, 619). When he then offers to grant the Pilgrims absolution for their sins in the form of relics, it is clearly a self-defeating act that is intended to rouse this trenchant insult from the Host: “‘I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hond,/ In stede of relikes or of saintuarye./ Lat cutte hem of: I wol thee helpe hem carye./ They shal be shrined in an hogges tord” (664-7). The Pardoner is speechless, and his repressed motive to expose the direct connection between his relics and his testicles is finally made by someone else. After the knight restores tranquillity, it leads one to wonder whether the Pardoner’s underlying intent may have been to expiate his guilt and face his shame.

Playing With Plastic: An Exploration of Biblical Deconstruction in the Wife of Bath

The Bible is an infinitely plastic text. The Wife of Bath illustrates this plasticity by, in effect, reworking Scripture and molding it to fit her specific argument. In an exploration of both the Prologue to the Wife of Bath¹s Tale and the Tale itself, and through detailed references to the text as well as to Scripture, it will be argued that the Wife is using Old Testament and New Testament texts and values to, essentially, deconstruct the paternalistic Church. From the very first lines of the Prologue, the Wife of Bath establishes that she will speak from experience and not from authority. Indeed, she keeps her word, for she subsequently inverts, contradicts, and deconstructs established authority, first and foremost being St. Jerome and St. Paul. The Wife recounts St. Jerome¹s interpretation of the wedding feast Jesus attended in Cana, which he understood to imply, that since Jesus only went to one wedding, then it, surely, follows that, in following Jesus¹ example, women are only allowed to marry once. The Wife recognizes and adamantly declares the preposterousness of this claim, asserting that nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly stated that women may only marry once. As ridiculous as this argument may sound, it is no less ridiculous that some of the gloses the Wife herself makes on Scripture.The Wife of Bath is well-versed in Scripture and seems to rather enjoy deconstructing views found in St. Paul¹s Epistles, and, using them to her own advantage, she interprets St. Paul¹s advice that women should rule over their husbands¹ bodies as a way of extracting sexual favors and exercising sovereignty over her husbands. The Wife boldly asks where in the Bible does God forbid marriage or command virginity, knowing fully well that in Paul¹s First Letter to the Corinthians, he “held virginitee/ Moore parfit than wedding in freltee” (91-92). Yet the Wife goes on to say that Paul merely advised and did not command. The Wife believes that although virginity is more pure than marriage, she prefers marriage, and has a healthy, or perhaps, more than healthy appetite for sex. The Wife further deconstructs this traditional value by asserting the exuberant claim that Christ, too, preferred marriage to virginity by making a reference to the Gospel According to Mark, in which she likens the chaste to bread made of “pured white seed” and married wives like herself to “barly-bread,” which is coarser than refined white flour. Further deconstructing the Gospel, the Wife recounts that Christ chose the coarser bread over the refined bread to feed a crowd of five thousand people, or in her own words, “to [refresh] many a man, adding an element of sexual innuendo.” (146). What Christ truly believed on the issue of virginity versus marriage is unknown, and the Wife takes advantage of this unknowability to add her own spin to established values found in Scripture, after all, if others like St. Paul and St. Jerome can interpret the Bible, what is to stop the Wife from turning it on its head?The Wife also declares that “virginitee is greet perfeccioun,” but adds that Christ did not command perfection of everyone in all other regards, such as poverty, alluding to Matthew 19:21, in which Jesus warns of the danger of riches and says, “[i]f thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” However, the Wife is not shy about declaring that “He spak to hem that wol live parfitly, / And lordings, by your leve, that am not I!” (111-112).Nevertheless, the Wife accepts that marriage may be a less than perfect state, but this assertion does not prevent her from arguing the opposite. Later on, in the Prologue, the Wife employs yet another metaphor to aid in her deconstruction, and argues, For well ye know, a lord in his houshold,He hath not every vessel all of gold. Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise. (99-101)In likening the state of marriage to a wooden vessel as opposed to a golden vessel, which incorporates the ideal of chastity, the Wife asserts that although the vessel may, indeed, be “of tree” it is nonetheless useful.The wife again defends her marrying five men by recalling the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor.7:9). She declares at various instances throughout the Prologue that the Bible is open to interpretation because it is written, and that which is written needs to be interpreted. Who better to interpret the Bible than the Wife herself, for she claims she has considerable experience. In his writings, John Milton interprets this particular passage by St. Paul to imply a “rational burning” that is separate from desire and employs it to argue a case for divorce, thereby reversing the assumed purpose for which Paul wrote. Both Milton and the Wife of Bath are able to deconstruct Judeo-Christian Scripture, “playing” with words to suit their purposes, thereby implying that if anything can be interpreted in more than one way, then it is not authoritative and, in fact, plastic.Later in the Wife of Bath¹s Tale, the Wife recounts a tale that has universal applications because it is set “many hundred yeres ago” in a “land fulfild of fairye” (863, 859). By setting the Tale in “th¹olde dayes of king Arthour,” the Wife is embarking upon a story in which pagan elements are coupled with chivalry and virtuous deeds. In doing so, the Wife is departing from exegesis of Scripture and illustrates, in her Tale, universal truths which are not learned through means of religion, but, rather, through the expression of human nature. Thus, in her Tale, the Wife is diminishing the importance of Scripture and the interpretations of writings by the paternalistic Church by grounding her story not on religion, but on human nature and experience. The Wife of the Prologue can be argued to represent Fairy Wife of the Tale. In addition, the Tale can be seen as a revisioning of the latter part of the Prologue, in that it is once the men of the Prologue and the Tale confer sovereignty onto their wives that they encounter happiness in marriage. In the Tale, the Wife expounds upon the argument she began in the Prologue, and concludes that it is sovereignty that women most desire, both sovereignty over their husbands, over their bodies, and over themselves: a sovereignty which requires freedom from the authoritative and paternalistic decrees of the male-dominated Church.

The Characters Define the Setting for the Tales

The characters introduced in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales each represent a stereotype of a kind of person that Chaucer would have been familiar with in 14th Century England. Each character is unique, yet embodies many physical and behavioral traits that would have been common for someone in their profession. In preparing the reader for the tales, Chaucer first sets the mood by providing an overall idea of the type of character who is telling the tale, then allows that character to introduce themselves through a personal prologue and finally, the pilgrim tells their tale. Through providing the reader with insight about the physical and personal traits of the pilgrim and then allowing that person to come to life and tell an animated story, the reader is more prepared for the story as well as able to relate the physical description to the telling of the story. The physical and personal descriptions of the Miller, the Wife of Bath and the Merchant all aid in the telling of their tales. Chaucer was able to create tales that were perfectly suited for the characters that are presenting them. In having each tale told by someone who has a personal reason or motivation for telling that specific tale, Chaucer creates more of a reaction from the reader as well as provides the entire work with structure.The Miller is large and imposing person who personifies a crooked, but likeable businessman. In “The General Prologue,” Chaucer describes the Miller as having a “thombe of gold, (563)” which the footnote on page 32 of The Riverside Chaucer notes, “is an ironic reference to a proverb, with the implication that there are no honest millers.” The description and actions of the Miller support the idea of this proverb. Although the Miller is rude, speaks out of turn, acts inappropriately and tells a tale that is centered on deceit and betrayal, he is also jovial and entertaining. Despite this unflattering introduction, however, the Miller cannot be considered a loathsome person because his purpose is to provide comic relief. The Miller’s appearance after the more solemn Knight creates a contrast in mood and provides the reader with a more relaxed feeling going into the remainder of the tales.The Miller is described as a less than attractive man. His portrait is made in the following way:He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre, – His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,And therto brood, as though it were a spadeUpon the cop right of his nose he hadeA werte, and thereon stood a toft of heresReed as the brustles of a sowes eres;Hise nosethirles blake were and wyde.(“The General Prologue,” 551-559)These physical descriptions “were believed by the physiognomists to denote variously a shameless, talkative, lecherous, and quarrelsome character (Riverside Chaucer, 820: PMLA 35, 1920, 189-209).” Like his appearance, his personality is also depicted as being very loud and disturbing. He is depicted in the way that a young boy would be, only with the strength of a large adult. The Miller acts out and rams his head against doors, which is a common trait of a two year old, however, he is so big that it is said that: Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed. (“The General Prologue,” 552-553)Also, likening him to an adolescent he tells dirty jokes:He was a janglere and a goliardeys,And that was moost of synne and harlotries.(“The General Prologue,” 562-563) All of these are annoying, yet comical characteristics. Furthermore, the color red in his face and hair can be interpreted in two different ways. One interpretation given is that, “The redhead is a widespread figure of deceit and treachery. (Riverside Chaucer, 820)” The other interpretation of the use of the color red would imply that his personality is sanguine and that he is fun loving. His description supports both of these ideas, however, the importance of the red seems to be in its creation of a comical mood around the Miller that is carried by the reader into his tale. Overall, the introduction of the Miller in “The General Prologue,” leaves the reader with the picture of a loud, unattractive, red man, which seems appropriate given the Miller’s next appearance.After the Knight has concluded his tale, the Miller rudely interrupts the host, who is asking the Monk to take his turn. The Miller then insists that he be the next to tell a tale and “quite the Knights Tale. (“The Miller’s Prologue,” 319)” He is obviously drunk and even admits that his speech might be a little off because of his condition. The Miller tells the reader that he must keep this in mind before he begins to tell his tale:But first I make a protestaciounThat I am dronke; I know it by my soun.And therefore if that I mysspeke or seye,Wyte it the ale of Southwerk, I you preye.(“The Miller’s Prologue,” 3138-3141)The narrator then, before allowing the Miller to begin the telling of his tale, urges the reader to find another tale to read before they are offended and waste their time listening to the Miller:And therefore, whoso list it nay yheere,Turne over the leef and chese another tale,For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale, Of storial thing that toucheth gentillesse,And eek moralitee and holynesse.Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.The Millere is a cherl: ye knowe wel this.(“The Miller’s Prologue, ” 3176-3182)Through giving the reader the advice to turn away from the telling of this story, Chaucer is only enticing them and piquing their curiosity about the tale that the Miller is so eager to share. Although the Miller is vulgar and offensive, he is appealing. The likeability of the Miller and his tale is similar to his physical traits in that although they are unattractive on the surface and even in bad taste, overall, they are quite amusing.”The Miller’s Tale,” is an obvious parody of “The Knight’s Tale;” only it is in the form of a lower class Fabliau. Both stories contain a central love triangle, however, the progression of the stories and the mood of the stories differ greatly. Unlike “The Knight’s tale,” “the Miller’s tale,” is full of quick wit and at the end of the tale all of the characters get what they deserve and seem to be somewhat satisfied with the outcome. Like, the Miller’s character, his tale is lighthearted and very entertaining. While “The Knight’s Tale,” offers a lesson on courtly love and traditional marriages, the relationsip between Alisoun, John, Nicholas, and Absolon mocks the values that were expressed by the Knight. In the essay, “Personality and Styles of Affect,” Irma Taavititsainen explains the role of courtly love in “The Miller’s Tale,” in the following way:The reversal of courtly romance is explicit in the portraits of Alison and Absolon-No trace of the emotional loading of the contemplative monologue of the Knight’s Tale is present; the pace is quick enhancing the contrast- (229)Furthermore, the incorporation of a flood in the story alludes to a religious theme, however, the humorous role that the flood takes within the action of the story can be considered “blasphemous (Taavitsainen 230).” Considering the personality of the Miller that the reader has been exposed to, these themes seem appropriate and like his manner, the story is crude, but likeable. Taavitsainen notes that as a narrator, the Miller’s character plays a key role in creating the mood and evoking reactions from the reader in the tale:Readers are guided through the story, and are asked to pay attention to certain points, enjoy the apprehensions and sudden turning points of the plot and laugh at the characters. The Miller is in charge and controls the reader’s reactions, and he is extremely skillful in doing so. (“Personality and Styles of Affect,” 231)The Miller represents himself very truthfully in his tale and there is a definite consistency between the obnoxiousness of the Miller’s appearances within the dialogue of the “The Canterbury Tales,” and the type of tale that he tells.The description given to the Wife of Bath is very different from the one given to the Miller. She has been married five times and admits that she will “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall, (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 45).” Within these marriages, she is undoubtedly controlling and, as is demonstrated by her story, she believes that the woman should be in charge. Although The Wife of Bath seems to be the perfect example of a woman who would fit under the modern definition of being independent, Chaucer fails to describe her in a way that corresponds with a woman who is completely in control of her own life. She is presented as an aggressive, spirited, wealthy woman, whose entire life has revolved around the lives of her husbands. In her article “Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in, The Wife of Bath,” Annie White explains how the name Chaucer gave The Wife of Bath is representative of her dependence on men in the following way:Despite [her] talent and position as a business owner, Alison still relies on her husbands for wealth and status. While Alison in her own right is an accomplished artisan, she is rarely seen as her own person. Others on the voyage to Canterbury are referred to by their name and occupation, for example the Clerk and the Merchant, yet Alison is referred to as the wife of Bath. This shows that her importance lies within her sexuality or marital status. She is not a person or even an artisan; she is merely a wife. (No Page number given)Furthermore, her dress, personal prologue and tale, demonstrate the importance that she places on the men in her life. These descriptions only prove to make her seem to be less of a strong, independent woman, and more of “A good wif (“The General Prologue,” 447).” Her physical characteristics and tale express that not only is marriage and the woman’s role within the marriage important, but that until there is an understanding that the woman is in charge within the marriage, a man and a woman are unable to live in peace.The Wife of Bath is dressed in a fashionable, somewhat ostentatious wardrobe that is both meant to display her wealth as well as attract men. She is wearing a large hat and red stockings: Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound That on a sonday weren upon hir heed. Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed, Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe. (“The General Prologue,” 452-457)The color of her stockings, in particular, is significant, since, like the Miller, her face is also described as “reed of hewe (“The General Prologue: 460).” In this case, the color red strongly implies a sanguine personality, which is more than demonstrated by her flirtatious and playful tone as well as her sexuality, which defines her as the primary woman and sex object on the Pilgrimage. In his article “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-Mantel’ and her ‘Hipes Large,'” Peter G. Beidler focuses on a possible misinterpretation of lines 471-474 of “The General Prologue”:Upon an amblere esily she sat, Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat As brood as is a bokeler or a targe; A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large, Beidler asserts that the whole image of The Wife of Bath can be reevaluated if the word large can be interpreted as an adverb rather than an adjective:Most of us have imagined her as a big, strong woman who is fully capable of defending herself in the rough-and-tumble arenas of medieval business, pilgrimage and marriage. If those imaginings are not necessarily supported by Chaucer’s text, we should reconsider her possible physical vulnerability to her husbands. This interpretation suggests that the world large is describing her leggings or clothing being hung largely about her hips. This is possible, however, it seems more likely that the mention of hips, in and of itself, is meant to symbolize a woman’s fertility and that by making her hips large, Chaucer is only improving on her role as a good wife whose main purpose is to have children. Nevertheless, the physical description given to the Wife of Bath introduces her as a very feminine and outgoing woman, who through her own prologue and tale embodies parts of what a man would consider a threat as a wife as well as an ideal companion.As the Wife of Bath describes the story of her 5 marriages the reader is shown that she is a manipulative and conniving woman who uses her many marriages in order to gain a sense of empowerment. Within these marriages, she admits that she accuses her husbands of cheating on her in order to gain the upper hand in a situation. The Wife of Bath considers marriage a game and has profited greatly from most of her husbands. She even suggests that a wife uses strategies and manipulation in order to get the better of her husbands in the following way: Ye wise wyves, that kan understonde.Thus shul ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde;For half so boldely kan ther no manSwere and lyen, as a womman kanI sey nat this by wyves that been wyse,But if it be whan they hem mysavyse.(“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 225-230)The Wife of Bath insists on being in control and when she loses it, as she does with her fifth husband, Jankyn, it causes problems within the marriage. Jankyn had a favorite book that recalled the many vilified women in history and literature. This book, that the Wife of Bath referred to as a “book of wikiked wyves, (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 685)” was used by Jankyn to preach to her about how awful women are. After becoming fed up with Jankyn’s obsession with this book, the Wife of Bath decides to use it as a way of manipulating him into giving her back her property. She initiates a violent act, which prompts him to hit her on the ear, at which she takes advantage of her femininity by acting as though she has been seriously injured:Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyghtOut of his book, right as he radde, and ekeI with my fest so took hym on the cheke,That in oure fyr he ril bakward adoun.And he up-stirte as dootha wood leoun,And with his fest he smoot me on the heedThat in the floor I lay, as I were deed.(“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 790-796)This altercation, although resulting in her going deaf in one ear, ends the difficulties that the Wife of Bath was having getting along with her husband. The Wife of Bath becomes very emotional after Jankyn hits her and claims that she has been terribly hurt and that Jankyn has killed her for her money. When realizing that he might have hurt her he offers to give her back her money and property. This act restores order in the marriage. In her description of these events in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” she seems almost proud of how she has affected Jankyn:And whan he saugh how stille that I lay,He was agast, and wolde han fled his way, -But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,We fille acorded by us selven two.He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,To han the governance of hous and lond, (795-814)The Wife of Bath has been married since the age of twelve and has adapted herself to the role of being a wife. Throughout her many marriages she has learned how to take control of her situations and use her position as a woman to attain the upper hand in a marriage. Her tale, like her life, involves a woman who takes control of a man and uses her feminine powers in order to have an advantage over him.The Tale that the Wife of Bath tells seems to parallel the story that she tells in her prologue of her marriage to Jankyn. Similar to Jankyn, the Knight in her tale shows little respect for women in the beginning of the story. When alone in the forest he encounters a maiden and “By verray force, he rafte hire maidenhed.(“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”888)” In order to avoid being put to death he must discover “What thyng is it that women moost desiren, (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”905).” In order to save his life the Knight puts his trust into a strange woman who tells him the answer, which he trelays to the queen as:Wommen desiren to have sovereyneteeAs wel over hir housband as hir love,And for to been in maistrie hym above.(“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1037-1039)That the Knight is made aware of a woman’s desire being “to have sovereynetee, (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1037)” is the overall theme for not only the tale, but of the appearance of the Wife of Bath in her prologue. The Knight begins the story in a position of sexual dominance by committing a rape, and ends the tale by completely submitting to his wife (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1230-1232). This demonstrates that the purpose of the tale was to reveal that a man who submits to his wife could obtain a wife that is both “fair and good (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1241).”Like the Wife of Bath, the Merchant uses his tale and prologue in order to offer his opinion of love and marriage. His views, however, are strongly opposing marriage. The Merchant, also similar to the Wife of Bath, tells a story that is closely linked to a personal experience. He explains in his prologue that he has been married two months (“The Merchant’s Prologue,” 1234) and in these two months he has become quite opinionated on the subject. In the essay “For craft is al, whoso that do it kan”: The Genre of the Merchant’s Tale,” Leigh A. Arrathoon explains that:While the pretentious Merchant bitterly and somewhat squeamishly relates what he perceives as a story exemplifying the wickedness of wives, the statement Chaucer is making involves the responsibility of lecherous husbands for their own marital misery. (241)Furthermore, the character of the Merchant seems to be opposite to the Wife of Bath in every way. His description, personality and tale all embody the masculine traits that the Wife of Bath might try to oppress within a marriage. Nevertheless, the Merchant seems just as consumed by his disgust for marriage as the Wife of Bath seems to be dependent on it.In “The General Prologue,” the Merchant is described as a devilish man with a “forked berd (“The General Prologue,” 270).” Like his opinions that appear before and after his tale, the Merchant sits “hye on horse (“The General Prologue,”271).” He is obsessed with profit and is, as was typical of a merchant in the 14th century, described in a way that embodies such merchant-like traits as “avarice, deceit, and usury (Riverside Chaucer, 809).” The Merchant, like the Miller, is presented in a positive light. It is repeated several times that he is a “worthy man. (“The General Prologue,” 283).” Considering the length of his total description this seems to be a fairly important point that Chaucer was trying to make. His profession seems to be honorable and his character seems to be fairly typical of a Merchant. Nevertheless, the Merchant is distinguished by his views on marriage, which seem to compliment his business sense. He seems to think that women are a waste of time and create problems, and he would probably much rather study profits than be bothered with problems that arise in his marriage. These characteristics are very different from the Wife of Bath who, while in love with Jankyn, gave up all of the money that she had amassed from her four former husbands. The Merchant’s physical description seems simple, just as his mind seems simple and as is demonstrated by his tale, his message is very brutal and he makes his point very clearly.”The Merchants Tale,” is very sexual and humorous, like “The Miller’s Tale,” however, it is also like “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” because it provides a lesson to the reader about marriage. The main character, Januarie, is portrayed as a man who is blind to many aspects of what the Merchant feels are problems with women. This is first evident when Januarie, against his brother’s advice, believes that he can have a successful marriage with a much younger woman, May. Once Januarie loses his vision, he foolishly believes that if he is in constant contact with her, May will not find a way to be two-timing to him. Januarie’s blindness becomes most apparent, then, when he regains his sight and witnesses May having sex with her young lover, Damyan, in a tree. When he realizes what May is doing, Januarie demands that she answer for her deeds, to which she responds:-Sire, what eyleth yow?Have pacience and resoun in youre mynde.I have yow holpe on bothe youre eyen blynde.Up peril of my soule, I shal nat lyen,As me was taugh, to heele with youre eyen,Was no thing bet, to mke yow to see,Than struggle with a man upon a tree.God woot, I dide it in ful good entente. (“The Merchant’s Tale,”2368-2375)Januarie forgives May and proves that even though his physical blindness has been cured, he is still blind to the treacherousness of women. As the Merchant explains in his prologue he does not have a successful marriage. Arrathon suggests that although, like Januarie, the Merchant must have once been optimistic about his marriage and since then has gained the negative views that he presents in his prologue and tale:It is as though he [The Merchant] were painting an exageratdly hideous self portrait. -his spiritual falling away must be a recent development-one that has taken place since his marriage of two months ago. (281)The character of the Merchant presents a completely different view of marriage than the Wife of Bath, and as is expected, his physical appearance and mannerisms are likewise very different.The appearances of characters of the Wife of Bath, the Miller and the Merchant within The Canterbury Tales, represent a well thought out structure that Chaucer provides for the entire work. Each character serves a purpose as a character on pilgrimage as well as one who has a personal message to offer through the telling of their tale. Even though the characters of the Wife of Bath, Miller and Merchant are very different from each other and has very distinct messages to offer, each of these characters serve a similar function within the larger work. Through a thorough development of their personalities, Chaucer uses the pilgrims as instruments to illustrate a network of interlocking stories within a larger and equally entertaining story. Works CitedChaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1987. 3-328 SecondaryArrathoon, Leigh A. “For craft is al, whoso that do it kan: The Genre of the Merchant’s Tale,” Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon, Rochester, Michigan: Solaris Press, Inc. 1986. 241-318Beidler, Peter G. “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-Mantel’ and Her ‘Hipes Large'” Chaucer Review Vol: 34, Issue: 4. April 01, 2000. 388-397Taavitsainen, Irma. “Personality and styles of Affect in the Canterbury Tales” Chaucer in Perspective. Ed. Geoffrey Lester.Midsomer North, Bath: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. 1999. 218-232White, Annie “Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath,'” 20 Jan. 2001.

Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath”

Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” is a medieval legend that paints a portrait of strong women finding love and themselves in the direst of situations. It is presented to the modern day reader as an early tale of feminism showcasing the ways a female character gains power within a repressive, patriarchal society. Underneath the simplistic plot of female empowerment lies an underbelly of anti-feminism. Sometimes this is presented blatantly to the reader, such as the case of Janekin’s reading aloud from “The Book of Wikked Wives” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 691). However, there are many other instances of anti-feminism that may not scream so loudly to the reader. This is shown in the disappearance of the rape victim and the happy ending for the Knight. While the overall story is one of supposed feminism shown through women’s empowerment, there are many aspects of “The Wife of Bath” that are anti-feminist in nature.The main character, Alison, or the wife of Bath, is representative of most of the feminist ideals in the work. She is strong, independent, and to be respected as a woman of great courage. Alison has suffered a great deal in her lifetime, indicative of life for women at this time. She has survived five husbands; some of whom beat her, others were unfaithful. She was married off at an early age of twelve and from then on knew what marriage was about: money. “Marriage is the key to survival, and that is what Alisoun seeks and finds” (Carruthers 214), argues Mary Carruthers, justifying Alison’s five marriages. Alison equates money with power. With this power comes respect and honor.A more careful analysis of both the “General Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue,” however, suggest that perhaps the character of Alison is not as autonomous as the reader is led to believe. The General Prologue gives evidence of Alison’s prowess as a weaver: “of cloth-making she hadde swich an haunt/ She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt” (General Prologue 449-450). Despite this talent and position as a business owner, Alison still relies on her husbands for wealth and status. While Alison in her own right is an accomplished artisan, she is rarely seen as her own person. Others on the voyage to Canterbury are referred to by their name and occupation, for example the Clerk and the Merchant, yet Alison is referred to as the wife of Bath. This shows that her importance lies within her sexuality or marital status. She is not a person or even an artisan; she is merely a wife. Another criticism of Alison’s character as one representing feminist ideals is that she gains her power through acting out stereotypes of women as well as violence. The criticism of women began with Eve eating the apple, which caused the downfall of mankind (meaning solely men). Hereby, women were the downfall of men. Wives were thought to be nagging, vicious, and yet in complete subordination to their husbands. In the case of her first three husbands, Alison commands power by acting out these aged stereotypes. She tells the reader: I governed hem so wel after my lawe/ That eech of hem ful blissful was and fawe/ To bringe me gaye thinges fro the faire; They were ful glade whan I spak hem faire, For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 225-229)Alison also utilizes violence as a means of obtaining power. While her first three husbands are old, wealthy and easily tricked, her fifth husband is twenty years her junior and has many ideas of what a wife’s role is. He uses violence as a means to control her. Alison testifies to the reader, “that feele I on my ribbes al by rewe/ and evere shal unto myn ending day” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 513-514). She responds by using violence against him and in turn, he gives up some of his power. She claims, “he yaf me al the bridel in myn hand/ To han the governance of hous and land” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 819-820). Alison is portrayed as an anti-feminist in that she is unable to gain power through methods of intelligence and independence. She instead uses violence and acts out negative stereotypes of women. The ambiguity of the role of feminism in The Wife of Bath is complicated further in the casual manner in which the rape and the victim of rape are treated.And happed that, allone as he was borne/ he sawgh a maide walking him biforn/ of which maide anoon, maugree hir heed/ By verray force he rafte hir maidenheed. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 891-894) The language depicts the rape in almost romantic terms. The Knight is portrayed as a very romantic character, one full of charm and grace. He is cast in such a heroic light that it makes it difficult for the reader to perceive his encounter with the maiden as rape. Furthermore, the court treats the rape in the same casual manner as it happens. As one critic argues: Arthur’s ready handing over of the guilty knight to a non-governing court for a trivial sentence seems indicative of the exploitation of an excluded group, the uncompensated female victims of medieval patriarchal society. (Lee 17) As casually as the Knight and the act of rape are treated, so is the victim, the young maiden. After our initial encounter meeting her, she does not again show up in the text. The role of the maiden is encapsulated by one scholar: “the girl is not a member, or not a full member, of this society, and can be ignored until her body is wanted again” (Lee 17). The unnamed exploited woman disappears from the tale, showing the reader that she is not a subject worthy of study, nor does she have much to do with the overall plot.Some readers argue the tale is feminist in nature in part due to the quest of the Knight. While his quest may be interpreted as a lack of punishment, others contend that it is not meant to be a journey of punishment, but a journey of knowledge. He must not only speak with women, but listen to them. By doing so, for the first time in his life he is seeing women as people, not as mere objects. O’Brien argues that the Knight’s life is first in the hands of the female parliament and second in the hands of the loathly lady: “the rapist-knight must embark on a quest whose fundamental purposes are to acknowledge the autonomy of female desire and to learn what it feels like to owe his body to another” (O’Brien 377). In a very metaphorical sense, the Knight is raped through this justice. It is arguable that the Knight is punished and thereby, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” remains a feminist tale. However, I would assert that the rather happy ending assigned to the knight denotes the presence of anti-feminism. The end result is the Knight’s long life of happiness, “and thus they live unto hir lives ende/ in parfit joye” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 1263-1264). In this tale the rapist is freed from punishment and ultimately rewarded with a young, beautiful, and faithful wife. The tale of “The Wife of Bath” displayed both intriguingly feminist ideas for its time, and also subtle anti-feminist rhetoric. The main character, Alison, represents the empowered woman. Yet, the portrayal of the young maiden demonstrates the need in medieval times to place women into categories, thereby making it easier for them to be dominated. With the absence of the maiden, the knight is turned into the hero of the tale, with the reader hoping for a happy ending for him. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” can be seen as both a legend of women’s empowerment as well as a reminder of the struggles women encountered daily. Works CitedAbrams, M.H., ed. Norton Anthology of English Literature, v,1. W.N. Norton & Company: 1993Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions” The Geoffrey Chaucer Page. 30 June 2000 Chaucer, G. “General Prologue” 81-100. Chaucer, G. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” Abrams 117-144.Lee, Brian S. “Exploitation and Excommunication in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale.’ Philological Quarterly, v74. (1995): 17(19)O’Brien, Timothy D. “Troubling Waters: The Feminine and the Wife of Bath’s Performance” Modern Language Quarterly, v53. (1992): 377(15).

In Private: the Promise in The Franklin’s Tale

In the Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen’s hasty (and unserious) promise precipitates a crisis when Aurelius completes a task that Dorigen felt certain was impossible. Aurelius faces a similar problem when, consumed by his inordinate passion, he unthinkingly promises to pay a staggering sum to a magician in exchange for completion of Dorigen’s task. The power of the promise is apparent throughout this story‹between Dorigen and Arveragus, Dorigen and Aurelius, and Aurelius and the magician, three promises of great importance are made. These promises direct the action of the story. Examination of these promises reveals that in the Franklin’s Tale, the promise binds two people together into a relationship which is profoundly private; this private relationship functions on a mechanism of trust. Grounding promises firmly in the private world, the tale argues that privately oriented values (as opposed to publicly oriented values, like shame) are the guarantor of harmony in relationships.The first of these relationships is formed by the touching promise of equality made by Dorigen and Arveragus, establishing from the beginning of the story that a promise lies totally in the realm of the private. Arveragus gives his word:Of his free wyl he swoor hire as a knyghtThat nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in alAs any lovere to his lady shal,Save that the name of soveraynetee,That wolde he have for shame of his degree. (ll. 745-52).The phrase, “Of his free wyl” establishes that Arveragus did not make this promise because of social convention or custom. His promise to her is totally private, a secret between the two of them. Their arrangement actually flies in the face of social norms; word of their relationship’s equality would lead to a loss of face for the knight. The two will be equals, “Save that the name of soverayntee, / That wolde he have for shame of his degree.” Essentially, Arveragus and Dorigen are to have two marriages, one of which is public and one of which is private. The public marriage takes as its foundation the assumed sovereignty of husband over wife, while the private marriage is based on a promise of equality. This promise structures their private relationship; it is part of the reason for their strong affection and love for one another. The Franklin asserts that “When maistrie comth, the God of Love anon / Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!” (ll.765-6). By saying what some couples get wrong, the Franklin makes an argument for what this couple gets right. Nor does a promise need to stand in the light of social surveillance to be honored: Arveragus promises that he will “ne kithe hire jalousie.” True to his word, when he returns after two years’ absence, he does not worry about his wife’s faithfulness:No thyng list hym to been ymaginatyf,If any wight hadde spoke, while he was oute,To hire of love; he hadde of it no doute.He noght entendeth to no swich mateere . . . (ll. 1094-7).Arveragus not only keeps his promise not to show his wife jealousy‹it never occurs to him that his wife’s virtue has been compromised. He had no doubts, he gave no thought to it; such strong language suggests a man whose faith in his wife’s private conduct is unimpeachable. The Franklin’s long arguments about the need for equality in love argue for the basic correctness of the couple’s approach to marriage; the reader can infer from this argument that a promise of equality would lead to strengthened affection. Their exchange of promises, without external surveillance, leads to increased private happiness. The promise’s power extends into the most private of places: the interior self. Even Arveragus’ thoughts seem to be shaped by it‹so certain is he of his wife’s affection (strengthened by their promise of equality) and so in tune with his promise to eschew jealousy that he does not even consider the possibility of impropriety on Dorigen’s part. The promise creates a private relationship based on trust.Dorigen’s hastily conceived promise to Aurelius is also in the realm of the private. Not only are the two alone together when the promise is made‹the reader is assured that Dorigen’s friends “nothing wiste of this conclusioun” (l. 1014)‹but the promise occurs in a moment when very private thoughts are being revealed. Aurelius has long kept his infatuation secret. Dorigen has no idea of his feelings until their moment in the garden: “But nothyng wiste she of his entente” (l. 959). After he bares his soul and is unambiguously refused by Dorigen, she gives her conditions for love. Just as Aurelius reveals his private, secret feelings in the garden, Dorigen’s promise hints powerfully at her private mental state (Pearsall 2/22). The narrator leaves no room for doubt that her promise was not serious, made “in pley” (l. 988), but Dorigen is choosing a rather inappropriate time to be playful. No indication is made previously that she dislikes Aurelius, and yet here she makes a strange joke when he has just told her that his life is in her hands. The rocks have become a deep obsession for Dorigen, revealing itself in this moment through her odd behavior. Her promise is made in an intensely private moment in a garden where two people who are alone share a secret and reveal mental states. There is a strange kind of trust here, as well‹unspoken is the assumption, made on both sides, that no one is to know of their moment in the garden. After all, Dorigen does not even tell her husband about the situation until she is forced to by Aurelius’ completion of her task.Made in private, the promise is kept in private. Arvaragus keeps his promise not to show jealousy even to the point of mentally internalizing an attitude of non-jealousy, and he expects his wife to be faithful in the keeping of her promise to Aurelius: “Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!” (l. 1474). But fear of public dishonor is not the motivation for keeping her word‹although Aurelius claims to fear for Dorigen’s honor should she fail to keep her word (l. 1331), there is no indication that he is blackmailing her. “Honour” here is apparently not located in a public space. Why do Arvaragus and Dorigen choose to honor her promise? Her promise was made in jest and there is no real threat of public exposure. If anything, the threat of public shame hangs over the keeping of the promise: Arvaragus demands that “nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth, / To no wight telle thou of this aventure” (ll. 1482-3). He also says that they must avoid showing grief so that their friends will not ask about the cause of their sadness (ll. 1485-6). A similarly costly faithfulness brings Aurelius to the magician even though he knows that paying the magician’s price will bring poverty: “My trouthe wol I kepe, I wol nat lye” (l. 1570). Yet Aurelius makes no mention of any possible repercussions for not paying the magician’s money, save that it would mean breaking his promise. In both of these cases, then, the keeping of a promise is motivated not by the publicly oriented concept of shame but by the privately oriented concept of trust. Trust is the foundation of the three major promise-formed relationships of the story. The primacy of trust in the characters’ value systems is apparent in Arvaragus’ willingness to risk social disgrace and Aurelius’ willingness to face financial ruin, all to uphold a promise. Optimistically, upholding trust in this story is always reciprocated. Dorigen and Aurelius are released from their promises by the only person who can release them‹he to whom the promise was made. Through these acts of mercy, the story teaches that trust’s upholding will not be abused. The magician’s final act of mercy is preceded by a statement where the idea of trust is implicitly praised: “Everich of yow dide gentilly till oother” (l. 333). Although promises are the cause of the crises in the story, adapting a correct, privately-oriented attitude toward promises protects the stability of human relationships. Grounding promise-keeping firmly in the privately-oriented notion of trust, the tale argues that socially oriented values (like shame) need not be the guarantor of harmony in relationships. Trust and mutuality are enough. In the world of the Franklin’s Tale, privately oriented values ensure that those who make promises will keep them‹and those to whom promises are made will not abuse them.

Vision, Truth, and Genre in the Merchant’s Tale

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gives them greater powers of perception but also causes their expulsion from Paradise. The story creates a link between clear vision and the ability to perceive the truth‹which, in this case, causes mankind to fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of miserable knowledge. In the Merchant’s Tale, vision and truth do not enjoy such an easy relationship. Vision is obstructed at both the metaphorical and the literal level, and the subversion of the fabliau genre challenges the idea of truthful representation. The Merchant’s Tale destabilizes the notion of representation itself, problematizing man’s relation to truth. Chaucer uses a very strange metaphor to describe January’s quest for a wife. The teller likens the old knight’s mind to a mirror that has been set up in a common market, catching the image of every maiden who passes. January undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloguing of all eligible women:Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure paceBy his mirour; and in the same wyseGan January in with his thoght devyseOf maydens which that dwelten hym bisyde. (ll. 1584-7)The more familiar the reader is with the conventions of the fabliau genre, the more likely he is to feel that something is not quite right. First of all, the life of the married couple before marriage and the story of how that marriage took place is not properly the subject of fabliau at all‹and here Chaucer devotes considerable space to it (Pearsall 4/12). Second, there is something so discomforting about the old man’s search‹his mind becomes a surveying mirror, capturing these women with its gaze‹it is difficult to imagine a reader who would find this metaphor humorous. For modern readers, it is perhaps impossible to read this description without being reminded of video surveillance. By this point in the story, Chaucer had made the reader aware that the fabliau form will not be strictly followed: in addition to taking upper class people as characters and situating itself in a vice-ridden city (Pearsall 4/12), the tale deals with images‹like this mirror‹that are much more unsettling than standard fabliau fare. This destabilization of genre seems to call representation itself into question; the reader is not allowed the comfort of being firmly situated in a genre, and instead is made aware of Chaucer’s play with storytelling’s conventions. Such awareness of storytelling’s malleability should naturally make the reader more wary of any “truth” that might present itself.The mirror itself challenges the link between representation and truth‹the images January sees are reconstructions/reflections, rather than the women themselves. Furthermore, the mirror is not even real. It is the poet’s metaphor, itself another kind of reconstruction, and so the reader becomes twice removed from these women who are being represented. January bases his non-visual assessment of these women not on direct interaction but on hearsay; it is their reputation among the people that determines what he thinks of their characters (ll. 1591-2). The mirror becomes a metaphorical space in which January can appraise both physical beauty and reputation. As a series of images, these reconstructions are simultaneously physical, social, and metaphorical, and yet all fall short of giving January what he needs. The mirror presents no “truth” in a way that can save January from being cuckolded. The text forcibly makes the point in a line which is both metaphor and foreshadowing: “For love is blynd alday, and may nat see” (l. 1598). In addition to being a reference to January’s later literal blindness, the line calls the problem of the mirror to the reader’s attention. What good is a “mirror” for a man who is, metaphorically (and, later, literally) blind? The idea of seeing as the direct path to truth, as laid out in Genesis, becomes inapplicable here. Vision is no longer a clear window between the subject and the truth. Instead, it is a kind of reconstruction, as flawed as any kind of representation, especially considering the limitations of this particular subject.In addition to problematizing the relationship between vision and truth, January’s blindness challenges notions of representation by stretching the limits of the fabliau genre. First, his handicap makes him a victim in a way that invites more pity from the reader; pity inhibits the effectiveness of the humorous elements of the story, disqualifying one of the defining characteristics of what makes a fabliau. Second, his blindness makes the key fabliau element of clever trickery somewhat difficult. Although May and Damyan very cleverly trick January, this trick seems almost artificially inserted‹why such elaborate lengths to deceive a man who is blind? Like Damyan crouching in the garden (Pearsall 4/12), this trick seems excessive‹as if the characters knew they were in a fabliau story and had to fulfill their one requirement to make the cut. The story’s use of classical and Christian myth continues the problematizing of representation. Pluto and Prosperpyna arguing like medieval Christian scholastics in the middle of a fabliau carries the destabilization of genre to a new extreme. Vision and truth come into play here again: Pluto, in wishing to grant January his sight, seems to be operating from the basic assumption that vision is a clear window between a man and the truth: “Thanne shal he knowen al hire harlotrye” (l. 2262). Prosperpyna, rather than argue against giving January his sight back, insists that vision will not help the man, because “I shal yeven hire [Mayus] suffisant answere” (l. 2266). The intervention of language, May’s “suffisant answere,” creates a gap between sight and truth. The scene of discovery and un-discovery is rife with Biblical parallels: the act of adultery is taking place in a pear tree, which, in the Middle Ages, was represented as the type of tree that bore the forbidden fruit (Thompson 4/16). The beautiful garden parallels Paradise; the Augustinian interpretation of the forbidden fruit as sexual sin links the act of adultery in the story to the first sin of Adam and Eve. Yet despite all these parallels, the Merchant’s Tale’s climax inverts the relationship between truth and sight set down in the Eden story. The first couple’s eyes are opened; at great cost, they see the truth of their own nakedness. January’s eyes are opened, but his regained sight does not help him to see the truth of his wife’s adultery. May re-interprets the scene‹she constructs her own representation of what was happening in the pear tree and convinces her husband of a gap between sight and truth: “Til that youre sighte ysatled be a while, / Ther may ful many a sighte yow bigile” (ll. 2405-6). His readiness to believe her ensures his continued metaphorical blindness.The Merchant’s Tale problematizes man’s relationship to truth by destabilizing representation. Although at the end of the story the reader knows more than January about what has transpired in the garden, the tale does not allow the reader to sit comfortably with a secure grasp of the “truth.” Chaucer’s stretching of the fabliau genre and the role of stories in the text call attention to the malleability of representations‹Biblical imagery has been appropriated and inverted, and stories themselves (May’s lie is a skillfully told story with a strategic purpose) have been used to obscure the truth. And while May’s lie hides a truth to which the reader is privy, Chaucer leaves the reader with an image that reminds him of what he cannot know: “And on hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe” (l. 2414). Of course, this image brings up the unanswered question of whether or not May is pregnant, as well as a second question of the child’s fathering (Pearsall 4/12). The potential child becomes an opaque representation. Its existence represents a knowable fact; that is, a pregnancy reveals that there was an act of sexual intercourse between May and a man. But the child becomes an opaque sign because the true identity of the child’s father would be a mystery‹not only for the reader and January, but for the adulterers as well.

Chaucer’s Knight – Dichotomy and Contradiction

In the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the first character portrait presented is that of the Knight. Though the knights of Chaucer’s time were commonly perceived as upstanding, moral, Christian leaders in society, underlying Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s largely complimentary and respectful portrayal of the Knight is Chaucer-the-Poet’s slightly sarcastic and accusatory version of the depiction. By comparing and contrasting these two representations of the Knight, the reader realizes that the Knight is a character of dichotomy and contradiction, neither wholly “good”, nor wholly “bad”.While Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s portrayal of the Knight is one of a man with a high moral character, Chaucer-the-Poet subtly inserts hints that the Knight is not as respectable and honorable as he appears. Chaucer-the-Pilgrim relentlessly overpraises the Knight. He uses some form of the word “worthy” to describe him four times in the 36 lines of the Knight’s portrait (in lines 43, 47, 50, 68). The reader is told that the Knight “loved chivalrye/ Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye” (45-46). He was also “evere honoured for his worthinesse” (50) and had been “at many a noble armee”(60). Aside from being “a verray, parfit, gentil knight” (72), the Knight was a decent, nice person, in general. “He nevere yet no vileinye ne sayde/ In al his lyf, unto no maner wight” (70-71) and he was “meke as is a mayde” (69).Through Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s continually reiterating the Knight’s prowess in battle (he uses half of the lines in the Knight’s profile to discuss his battle resume), perhaps Chaucer-the-Poet is suggesting that the Knight is not as wonderful as Chaucer-the-Pilgrim believes. In striking contrast to The Pilgrim’s favorable portrayal of the Knight, The Poet depicts the Knight as an unnecessarily, overly violent person. In speaking of all the battles and wars the Knight had participated in, the reader learns that “thereto hadde he ridden, no man ferre” (48). It seems that the Knight had been at just about every major battle of his time, including the Crusades, but not limited to them, as “at mortal batailles hadde he been fifteen” (61). The Pilgrim’s comments that the Knight “was late y-come” (77) from war and still wore a tunic “bismotered with his habergeoun” (76) might be the Poet’s way of hinting that the Knight has something to confess, or get off of his proverbial and literal chest, something that couldn’t wait long enough for the Knight to change his clothes and rest a little while. That line may symbolize that the Knight has allowed his exploits on the battlefield to go beyond the exterior and affect him internally, perhaps within his soul, by fighting simply to fight. However, it was not uncommon in Chaucer’s time for men to fight for personal glory as well as for the Lord. Therefore, while Chaucer-the-Poet’s comments and excessive depictions of the Knight as bellicose do not necessarily mean that the Knight is a bloodthirsty maniac, they do cast some doubt on his “meke” personality.From Chaucer-the-Pilgrim’s perspective, the Knight is a shining example of a Christian. He fought in the Crusades. He dutifully is making the Christian pilgrimage to the place of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, and is by default fulfilling the role of the leader on the trip. He is so Christian that, in his hurry to fulfill his duty of going on the pilgrimage, he doesn’t even stop to change his tunic, “al bismotered with his habergeoun” (76).On the opposite end of the spectrum of spirituality, Chaucer-the-Poet’s diction clearly implies that the Knight is not a good Christian man. The Pilgrim casually mentions that the Knight had fought “as wel in Cristendom as in hethenesse” (49), “sometime with the lord of Palatye,/ Ageyn another heathen in Turkye” (65-66), establishing The Poet’s juxtaposition between Christianity and paganism. The Bible plainly states that man cannot serve two masters. However, Chaucer-the-Poet states just as plainly that the Knight had fought “in his lordes werre”(47). Thus, the Knight fought on both sides of the battlefield, for God as well as for heathens. Though fighting for God was widely accepted and excusable in Chaucer and the Knight’s time, and fighting for glory and prestige in honorable tournaments was also commonly accepted, there was no excuse for a man to be a traitor, to join the enemy’s side. Especially when that enemy is as hated as the “infidels” of Chaucer’s time were.It is difficult for the reader to reach a conclusive judgment on the Knight’s character. On one hand, the Knight appears to be an exemplary member of society, as knights of Chaucer’s time were expected to be. On the other, the Knight has committed questionable acts that cast doubt on his morality. However, the reader must take into account that the Knight, like the rest of Chaucer’s characters, is a human being, who makes mistakes and cannot be expected to be perfect all of the time. Thus, the best conclusion that the reader can come to is that the Knight, underneath his label as a wonderful man and a perfect knight, is a man who has made mistakes and is still attempting to live up to his society’s expectations of him. The Knight’s hypocrisy and hidden guilt serve Chaucer’s purpose of mocking societal values and class hierarchy. They also set the stage for the many more pages of dichotomous, hypocritical characters that the Pilgrim and Poet are about to introduce. However, unlike the Knight, some of Chaucer’s characters are, in fact, unquestionably wholly “bad” or wholly “good”.

Body and Soul: The Celestial Metaphor of Chaucer’s Physicians Tale

While critics and common readers alike have panned Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale as one of the more disconnected and weakly written of all the Canterbury Tales, recent thought, and certainly more abstract views, have worked ignorant of each other to provide us with a new perspective on what may be Chaucer’s most complex and metaphysical of stories. This tale is unlike Chaucer’s others not merely because it can be read from a variety of different perspectives (what tale can’t be?), but rather its vagueness, its lack of characterization, and its challenging and sometimes contradictory themes force the reader to view it from many different angles in order to gain a clear perspective. Thomas L. Kinney writes in Literature and Psychology that this tale is unsatisfying and “ineffective” due to its lack of clarity and overall confusion. He also claims that the tale muddles the reader’s values and perceptions (Kinney 79). In her Master’s Thesis titled “No Grace, No Remedye”: The Moral of the Physician’s Tale, Joanna Priest Simmers cites Donald Howard (The Idea of the Canterbury Tales) as claiming that “The Physician, in the manner of his profession, ends giving advice which sounds a little pat” (Howard 180). R. Howard Bloch points out continuity problems within the poem citing that the narrator is “so anxious to end the Physician’s Tale that the compressed resuming action is more postulated than shown” (Chaucer 145). Of course the criticisms don’t end here and just about every different reading, whether it be Freudian, Feminist, or Communist, agrees that the tale is either hurried, disjointed, or lacking any semblance of true morality. The views are much like pieces of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, when viewed individually each perspective does reflect seemingly disjointed ideas, but when viewed as a whole the tale grows into a full and complex reflection of Boethian philosophy.The story is below condensed, omitting stylistic references and highlighting important and essential facets:Straightaway the Physician tells his audience that his story is not original, but comes from one previously told by Livius Titus, the Roman historian. He introduces a knight named Virginius and speaks a great deal of this man’s virtue. “Fulfild of honour and of worthynesse,/ And strong of freendes, and of greet richesse/ This knyght a doghter hadde by his wyf;/ No children hadde he mo in al his lyf”(lines 3-6). This knyght’s daughter is by far the most beautiful of all the women mentioned in Canterbury Tales and Chaucer spends a good portion of the text describing not merely her physical beauty, but also her spiritual countenance. “And if excellent was hire beautee,/ A thousand foold moore vetruous was she./ In hire ne lakked no condicioun/ That is to preyse, as by discrecioun./ As wel in goost as body chast was she”(39-43). The story here digresses away from the main narrative and focuses instead on the goddess force of nature. Nature (in her most personified form) has truly delighted in Virginia’s formation. Indeed she challenges the greatest sculptors and painters of Grecian lore to copy her before definitively declaring that they cannot “countrefete” her creations, especially not this one. It is important to note that while nature almost boasts of her excellence, she openly admits to a connection and subservience to the One God, the “formere principal”(19). It’s also important to notice that Nature cannot claim anything beyond the perfect form she has bestowed upon Virginia. After extolling the virtues of Virginia, Chaucer’s narrator once again digresses and almost preaches to the “maistresses” (governesses) of the group to take their position seriously and work to teach those in their charge “vertu”(72-82). After apologizing for not staying on track with the narrative, the Physician takes up the story again. Whilst accompanying her mother to the town and the temple, Appius, the lecherous town magistrate or judge, sees the young girl. He remarks upon her beauty and claims “This mayde shal be myn, for any man”(129). This judge realizes that he will never be able to woo Virginia by normal means as even he can tell her virtue (simply by looking at her!). He recruits a local churl, Claudius, and hatches a villainous scheme to take Virginia as his own. A few days later Claudius appears before Apius in court and claims that Virginia is in actuality a slave, which Virginius stole from him as a small child. Upon this claim, Apius summons Virginius to court and without hearing his plea rules against the good knyght and orders him to return to the court with his daughter to turn her over to Claudius. Virginius returns home and tells his daughter the horrible news and that she has two options, “Ther been two weyes, outher deeth or shame”(214). Shame is not an option and so the good knyght must kill his daughter. Before he brings the sword to her neck she pleads for some time to mourn her lost life, but soon swoons and upon her recovery is decapitated by her father. Virginius then returns to court, lays his daughter’s head before Apius, and is subsequently sentenced to hang by the vile judge. Yet before he can be taken into custody members of the town, friends of Virginius rush the courtroom with news that they have uncovered the original plot. Apius is thrust into prison where he hangs himself and Claudius is saved from being mobbed to death by Virginius in his mercy. The tale ends with more of an epitaph for the dead Apius than a moral: “Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake.”It is quite easy to understand why Chaucer’s morals fall into question after the murder of Virginia by her father is treated with less pageantry (and lines) than the description of her virtues. To the modern reader there is almost no justice in this story as Virginia is treated with no more regard than a dearly beloved pet. We cry out for her father to defy the orders of the court, leave the city, hide his daughter, but what seems displaced honor, forces his hand and his sword. Where is the justice?At first glance this tale seems to be one of displaced morality, retold in order to present an easy backdrop for the final line urging an avoidance of sin. Yet, there are important stylistic changes Chaucer has made from the original versions of the story. Most certainly Chaucer did not actually take the whole of the story from Livy (Livius Titus), but probably obtained the story’s skeleton form from Le Roman de la Rose (Jean de Meun). Unlike Livy’s story, Virginia is not stabbed in the PhyTale, but beheaded as in Le Roman. Helen Corsa states “Whereas Livy and de Meun wish to emphasize an abuse of justice and thus give their initial focus to Appius, Chaucer wishes to emphasize the betrayal of innocence and thus focuses immediately upon Virginius and Virginia” (Corsa 6). Along with these changes, Chaucer lowers the age of Virginia from fourteen to twelve in an apparent attempt to heighten the tragic ending and emphasize the virtue that has been lost due to Apius’s lecherous treason of Virginius. By studying the subtle changes Chaucer has made to the text of the story, we begin to see an emphasis moving away from a wholly moral message and towards a much more human…and non-human tragedy. Yet, there is still the problem of Virginius murdering his daughter.When we are able to distance ourselves from the human aspect of the poem (which Chaucer brilliantly makes difficult), we begin to see a struggle of metaphysical proportions develop. Indeed, these characters are so non-characterized as to force the reader away from seeing them as merely people. “Chaucer creates Appius with broad resemblances to Fortuna. Appius is a governor, wielding absolute worldly power; he is a judge, ruling without regard for right or justice. The epithet which Chaucer most often uses for him is ‘false’, a stock epithet for Fortuna,” writes Barbara Bartholomew (Barth. 49). When viewed in this manner, the tale becomes easier to understand. Chaucer’s devotion of over 30 lines to Nature’s delight in Virginia and more than 40 lines extolling her spiritual purity cannot help but force the idea of Virginia as a metaphor for goodness and beauty in the world. Of course, Appius, or “Fortuna”, can also be viewed as that evil in the world bent on destroying beauty, and it is interesting to note that upon seeing Virginia’s glory that “Anon the feend into his herte ran”(130). When it comes to obeying the laws of the court, Virginius has no choice, even though he knows the charges against him are false and enforced by a false governor. Here is the divide between Virginius and his daughter, the older is borne not of Nature, but rather out of honor and dignity, pure virtue. “Virginius sees that submission to Appius’ verdict is out of the question. Even in the face of Natura’s hatred of death, he sees and accepts the alternative to submission…Since the mandates of Natura leave him trapped, he makes the only decision possible by exerting the agony of human will to transcend Natura and act in accord with a higher principle of love than that which demands life at all costs” (Bartholowmew 55). Virginius understands that virtue must be retained over beauty; honor over life, and so kills his daughter rather than allow her to live under the sinful dictum of Appius.As metaphors for forces beyond the scope of human understanding, this tale succeeds where many believe it fails. Like Boethius, Chaucer understands that Fortune frequently acts without regard to beauty or virtue. Virginia is a beautiful flower, the paragon of Nature’s creation and her most esteemed work of art, but still falls under the sway of Fortune. It was Fortune that allowed Nature to create such a flower and it is Fortune who dictates its destruction and defilement. Yet this story offers some hope in the character of Virginius. He will not allow Fortune to hold sway over his beautiful daughter and instead ends her life, effectively destroying Fortune’s ability to dictate fate. The true brilliance behind the story is the humanization of the characters over their incarnations in the past. Chaucer does not want this to be a merely metaphorical battle of wills, but rather acknowledges the human aspect. An aspect which is frequently caught up between these forces and suffers the consequences in pain and loss. When the tears run down Virginius’s face the reader understands the implications that the celestial has on the everyday. Body and soul this is one of Chaucer’s most ambitious and fulfilling poems, a bittersweet tale of love and loss.Annotated BibliographyBartholomew, Barbara. Fortuna and Natura. Mouton & Co. The Hague, Netherlands. 1966.Barbara Bartholomew’s text was fantastically helpful in developing the conclusion to my paper. Her text covers The Physician’s, Clerk’s, and Knight’s Tales, giving specific considerations to the singular text without relying on the surrounding tales to bolster her ideas. She references various Medieval texts and the book is itself interesting merely for these allusions.Simmers, Joanna Preast. “No Grace, No Remedye”: The Moral of the Physician’s Tale. University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Master’s Thesis. December, 1983.Who would have thought that one of our own at this University would come through with such an obscure topic? Mrs. Simmer’s thesis is pretty darn good. She covers most of the prevailing criticism against the Physician’s Tale and offers up the tale as an “anti-thesis” to its parts. To top it off, her style is rather pleasant to read.Kinney, Thomas L. “The Popular Meaning of Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale.” Literature and Psychology. 28, No. 2. 1978.This reference appeared in Mrs. Simmers Master’s Thesis. I could not find the actual publication and so I must trust the context wherein it appeared in the aforementioned text.Bloch, R. Howard. “Chaucer’s Maiden’s Head: the Physician’s Tale and the Poetics of Virginity”. Chaucer: New Casebooks. St. Martin’s Press, Inc. New York, NY. 1997.Bloch’s ideas gravitate towards feminism in this collection of articles concerning Chaucer’s tales. He seems to focus on the concept of Virginia’s “maidenhead” and concepts of virginity and loss. His article presents a very appropriate interpretation, but ultimately fails in its lack of scope.Corsa, Helen, ed. The Canterbury Tales: The Physician’s Tale. The Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Vol. II, Part 17. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK. 1987.A huge Volume of work which covers the history of the Physician’s Tale as well as influences of this tale on others and their relations to one another. Most of the information in this text was useful, but a lot of it was useless as the book devotes almost half its content to an investigation of Middle English.Scott, A.F. Who’s Who in Chaucer. New York: Tarplinger Publishing Co. Inc. 1974.No citations from this text, but it bears mentioning as a useful tool for deciphering the many characters that come into and go out of the many stories in Canterbury Tales.Wright, David, ed. The Canterbury Tales: A verse translation with an Introduction and Notes by David Wright. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.Not the best of translations, for instance Wright ages Virginia at 14 yrs old instead of 12 yrs., but good enough for me. When used in close conjunction with the text it allows for a quick referencing.

Sinful Citizens: Protestant Imagery in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

In 1381, John Wycliffe led a group of people disenchanted with the Catholic Church called the Lollards in an early Protestant movement. In this movement, he attacked the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, the excessive class hierarchy in the Church, and the low moral and intellectual standards of ordained priests. Although his movement in essence failed, it gave way to future movements by figures such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and even Henry VIII. It also influenced literature such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales themselves are an account of pilgrimage filled with the profane corruption that Wycliffe and others opposed. Through The Canterbury Tales, and in particular the General Prologue, Chaucer uses both the physical and personal traits of the characters, and especially their deficiencies, to support Wycliffe’s ideas regarding the corruption of the Catholic Church and to encourage future Protestant efforts.One of Chaucer’s and the Protestants’ biggest contentions with the Catholic Church was the sale of pardons and indulgences. The pardons excused people from sins on earth and the indulgences paid off some of the time they would have been required to spend post-mortem in purgatory. The Pardoner, the obvious reference to the corrupt and sacrilegious notion of selling redemption, is made into a disgusting character in addition to his sordid occupation. He is described as having hair “yelow as wex (677)” that droops onto his shoulders in stringy clumps. His face is shaven and smooth, and he is likened to “a gelding or a mare (693),” a subtle allusion to his effeminacy. His rather repulsive exterior is an accurate representation of the immorality that lies beneath his surface. The Pardoner would stoop to anything to make money. He sang loudly “to winne silver, as ful wel coude (715)” and sold counterfeit religious relics to innocent people. These depravities further Chaucer’s slander of the Pardoner himself and pardons in general. Portraying him as a very successful pardoner contrasts with his scummy appearance, and the two depict the treachery that blasphemy can affect on one’s life – an obvious refute to the benefits of pardons.Another purveyor of pardons, though not as overtly, is the Friar. In his representation of the Friar, Chaucer states that he would quickly give penance to his flock by insinuating that they would earn themselves favor in the next life if they showed charity to “poor freres (232)” in this life. Through his insinuation and its accompanying guarantee of a degree of exoneration, the friar manages to wheedle money out of unsuspecting Catholics. His theory was “Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce. For unto a povre ordre for to yive, Is signe that a man is wel yshryve (224-226).” In this case, he chose financial gain over the sacred duties he was sworn to as a member of the Church. Through this choice, Chaucer pokes fun at members of the clergy for their use of their position to further their own economic gain. Furthering that statement, the friar, although he technically was forced to beg for his daily bread, is dressed in attire of high quality, belying his status. “For ther he was nat lyk a cloistered, With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler, But he was lyk a maister or a pope. Of double worstede was his semycope, That rounded as a belle out of the presse (261-265).” The Friar, while a religious figure, obviously does not take the Biblical doctrines to heart.Though the Summoner is not a member of the clergy as is the Friar, he also exploited religious principles to suit his own needs. He terrorized random people he encountered with a summons to the ecclesiastical Church, and “of cursyng oghte ech gilty man him drede, For curs wol slee right as assoillyng savith (662-3).” He wielded this power as a sword, although few blows could be returned, as is evidenced by the “bokeleer he maad hym of a cake (670).” Chaucer uses the Summoner as a type of allegory for the fear that Catholics felt at the hands of the clergy and lay people and as another reference to the corruptness associated with the Church. He is a strong contrast to early Renaissance ideas about the value of human life. In fact, he used his concubine in trade for merely a “quart of win (651),” quite obviously viewing people, and especially lower class people, as a commodity. In this, the Summoner mirrors the Catholic Church as a whole in its use of people as goods to be dealt with in whichever way was most suitable. But his corrupt use of the power vested in him in the Catholic Church is not the end of the Summoner’s flaws. He is described as red and pimply with boils enveloping his entire face, boils so deeply entrenched in his face that no ointment can rid him of them. He has black, scabby brows resting on narrow, lecherous eyes and a scraggly beard, hairless in places. His breath reeks of garlic, onion and leeks and his pores seep out alcohol. His rather repulsive appearance, and especially his skin problems, show that as a result of the corruption of his occupation, he is seemingly rotting from the inside. This display and his refusal to speak anything but Latin when he is drunk seems to be an allegory for the ridiculousness of the Church practices and their eventually destructive end.Chaucer portrays most of the religious figures in this tale as having the underlying and consuming drive for financial success. In contrast to the statutes of the order of monks, our Monk owns property and prides himself on the finer things. One would imagine that the monks of the time were devoted to helping and educating those around them and working as hard as they could to attain the further goals of the Catholic Church as a whole. In contrast, the Monk disdains menial labor and prefers hunting and acquiring wealth to doing anything to benefit society. He shows the extravagance present in even the meanest branch of the Church. He is said to be a monk, but his dress of fine gray fur and puffy sleeves, his body and his property all tell him to be a lord. “He was a lord ful fat and in good point (200).” His abundance of horseflesh is nothing but the best and he uses a bridle that “men myghte … here, Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere, And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle (169-171).” By making the bridle metal and of high quality, Chaucer is again likening him to a lord, and the reference to its sounding like “the chapel belle” shows that the Monk’s loyalties revolve more around his horses than his Church. He represents the excess and personal gain present in the branches of the Catholic Church.As the Monk is likened to a lord, the Prioress tries to be seen as a lady. Her manners are beyond reproach, though almost meticulous to a fault; they reveal the effort behind them. She “peyned hire to countrefete cheere, Of court (139-140).” She sings beautifully, emulating one of the qualities that would have been well looked upon by higher classes. She is educated in French, as would be most ladies, but her education is from “the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe (125-126).” Through these attempts to “better” herself, Chaucer is commenting on the clergy’s quest for greater stature rather than greater faith or piety. However, despite these attempts, the Prioress fails in two ways. The first is something that no measure of training could change and that is her “fair ferhee: it was almost a spanne brood (154-155).” The broad and low forehead is an unmistakable sign of a lower class. The other is her true ruthlessness. Although she pretends to be affronted by even the merest spilling of blood by even the most paltry animal, she feeds flesh to her dogs. No amount of schooling can completely erase baser human instincts. Her base instincts are Chaucer’s way of deflating the infallibility of the Catholic clergy and bringing them down to a human level.Though there are other characters in the General Prologue that address the corrupting influence of the Catholic Church and the support of Wycliffe’s ideas, there are more significant inferences to be taken from the affirmative position of characters. It is of note that the characters involved in the Catholic system are the ones corrupted while men of faith that have remained outside the system remain pure.Although technically a man of God, the Parson is a man of the people. In contrast to the Friar’s position on absolution, the Parson pardons people of their sins because he feels strongly that their souls deserve it. He chooses his faith over money. “He sette nat his benefice to hyre, And leet his sheep encombred in the myre (509-510).” He is as well if not better educated than the other characters in the Tale, but he uses that power for good. He is poor, but he would rather give of his own money, than excommunicate one who would not tithe. He chooses to set a good example, rather than criticize people for the poor behavior just like his own. He thought, “if gold ruste, what shal iren do? For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lewed man to ruste; And shame it is, if a prest take keep, A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep. Wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive, By his clennesse, how that his sheep sholde lyve (502-508).” The piety of the Parson, a non-ordained priest, shows the purity that lies in religion outside the confines of the crooked Catholic institution. He is Chaucer’s ideal in a Protestant world; holy, yet not holier-than-thou, giving, responsible and moral. Through the Parson, Chaucer encourages readers to seek to better their souls, not their pocketbooks.The other moral fringe character is the Clerk. The Clerk was denied a bid from a parish and secular employment (293-294). The implied reason for that is that the Church is not interested in moral men. He was poor, which seems to be a Chaucerian statement of purity, and the little money that he did obtain he spent on books and learning instead of showy property. He voluntarily prayed and sought to better himself, not through the Church, but through his own mind. The Clerk is an antithesis to the pompous and ignorant clergy members. Through the Clerk, Chaucer is illustrating that one can reach higher intellectual and moral levels through introversion and thought.Through all these characters, Chaucer shows the do’s and do not’s of religious life. He criticizes the current institution of the Catholic Church and provides better examples of what moral purity is. Echoing many of the ideas of Wycliffe and his followers, Chaucer calls for reform in the commerciality of religion. In his description of the Webbe et al, he says “goon to vigilies all bifore, And have a mantel realities ybore (379-380).” Through this line he is censuring the practice of going to mass for the purpose of showing off one’s wealth or success as opposed to for the glory of serving God. Chaucer advocates the simplifying of religion, reverting to simple clergy, with individual education of the Bible.