This worthy Manciple (steward) of an Inn of Court might have served as an
example to the other stewards in the matter of buying provisions. He even
managed to outwit his masters who were learned lawyers and made money
on his purchase of food articles.
The Reeve was a slender, choleric man with a close shaven beard. His hair
was cut round by the ears and the top was tonsured like a priest's. He
had long lean stick-like legs. He was efficient in managing a granary
and a storage-bin. There was no accountant who could hoodwink him. He
could foretell the expected yield by taking drought and rainfall into
consideration. He had managed his lord's estate since his lord was 20
years old. He knew the petty secrets of every bailiff, shepherd and laborer
and was hence feared among them. His house was ideally located on a hearth
and shadowed by green trees. He had more spending power than his lord
did because of the wealth that he had privately accumulated. In his youth
he had learned carpentry. He rode upon a sturdy horse named Scot. He was
from Norfolk, near Bawdswell. He always rode last among the pilgrims.
The Summoner had a fiery-red, cherubic face, pimples, narrow eyes, black scabbed
eyebrows and a scraggy beard. He was as lecherous as a sparrow. It was
hardly surprising that children were afraid of his looks. He loved to
eat garlic, onions, leeks and to drink strong red wine. He would speak
only a few phrases of Latin, which he used to impress people. Chaucer
says that the Summoner was a friendly rascal and would allow a lecher
to have his mistress for a year for a bottle of wine. He would console
sinners and teach them to be unafraid of being excommunicated by the archdeacon
since money could buy absolution. He controlled the youth in his diocese
and was their sole adviser and confidante. He wore a garland on his head
that was large enough to decorate a pub signpost and carried a shield
The Summoner's gruesome and fearsome appearance is aptly suited to his character.
The Summoner's vocation was to summon or bring sinners to justice before
the ecclesiastical courts. This allowed great leeway for corruption and
bribery. His terrible outward appearance reflects the condition of his
soul. It is ironical that the Summoner who has no spiritual values is
entrusted with the task of bringing sinners to justice.
The peerless Pardoner had just come from Rome and loudly sang "Come to
me, love, hither!" The Summoner sang with him. The Pardoner had waxy
yellow hair, which hung sleekly like a hank of flax and he was clean shaven.
He spread out what little hair he had, thinly over his shoulders. He rode
in the new fashion without his hood and only wore a little cap. He had
hare-like glaring eyes and a small goat-like voice. His bag was stuffed
with pardons that he had brought from Rome. Chaucer thinks that the Pardoner
is a eunuch. Nobody could surpass the Pardoner in his profession. He carried
fake relics with him to cheat poor believing people out of their money.
Thus with false flattery and tricks he outwitted the parson and the parishioners.
But Chaucer says that the Pardoner was a noble ecclesiastic who could
read a parable well. However he was best at singing at the offertory since
he knew that he must sweeten his tongue and preach to extract the maximum
amount of money.
The Pardoner is a personification of unmitigated evil. He is the most corrupt
among the clergymen. He is aware of his own villainy and in the Prologue
to his Tale candidly acknowledges his hypocrisy. He has come straight
from Rome and has made the selling of indulgences a commercial enterprise.
He rides along with the Summoner, his partner in crime, singing a bawdy
love song. His thin goat-like voice and lack of facial hair suggests that
he is a eunuch. This is confirmed later when the Host taunts him after
he has finished telling his story.
The Host named Harry Bailey, was a handsome man and fit to serve as the master of ceremonies. He was a big man with protruding eyes. He was frank in his speech, wise and well schooled. He was a merry man and well liked among the pilgrims.
These are the 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. That evening after the Host had served an excellent dinner and made everybody feel comfortable, he proposes a scheme to make the journey a pleasant one. It was a common form of entertainment to tell stories during the journey therefore the Host suggests that each pilgrim should narrate two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more while returning. The person who tells the best tale - i.e. the tale that has the greatest moral as well as entertainment value - would be treated to a magnificent supper at the expense of the others. The Host offers to ride along to make the journey more enjoyable and to be the judge for what was best for the group. All the pilgrims gladly accepted the Host as the guide for their journey and immediately retire to bed.
They set out early at dawn the next morning and when they reached the Well
of St. Thomas the Host told the group to draw straws so as to decide who
would tell the first tale. By luck the Knight drew the shortest straw
and agreed to tell the first tale. The General Prologue ends here and
the Knight's tale begins.
The pilgrims described in the General Prologue' can be broadly divided into two types: the good and the bad. Thus he has drawn idealized portraits of the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman, the Clerk, the Parson, and the Plowman. This goodness is antithetically balanced by his portrayal of the bad' or evil characters and this includes the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner. Then there are the neutral objective portraits of the Merchant, the Sergeant at Law, the Franklin, the Sea captain, the Wife of Bath and the guild men.
The fact that the pilgrims are called by their professional titles rather
than personal names implies that Chaucer was portraying the stereotypes
of the various trades and occupations. By his brilliant use of the device
of pilgrimage as the narrative framework, Chaucer was able to represent
a microcosm of fourteenth century life in England.