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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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OVERALL ANALYSIS

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Knight

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

The Squire


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

The Yeoman

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

The Prioress

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

The Monk

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


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