Comprised of two dozen stories along with various prologues and epilogues, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales displays extraordinary diversity in genre, source materials, and themes. Although some critics have argued that the resultant text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, most would agree that there are unifying components and that these include certain thematic strands. At the very least, the specific tales told by the pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury generally reflect their respective positions within medieval society as well as their personal characteristics. The Knight's Tale, for example, is a high-toned chivalric romance appropriate to his station as a member of the nobility and to his character as a man of "troth and honor, freedom and courtesy" (I, A, l.46). As or more important, Chaucer employs the device of a narrative framework, the story of twenty-nine individuals committed to both a religious pilgrimage and to participation in a story-telling contest. Reinforced by exchanges between the contestants, shared motifs appear in their respective narrations. Of these running themes, relations between men and women (and, more specifically, the topic of marriage) is the most prominent topic, but additional motifs, such as financial duplicity, unite groups of characters and run through several of their tales.
In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the poet establishes a shared motivation for the pilgrims as a natural urge for spiritual renewal. He remarks that in England (as in all of European Christendom), when the "sweet showers of April fall . . . people long to go on pilgrimmages" (I, A, ll.1,12). Ostensibly, Chaucer's pilgrims are united by a religious objective, to visit and worship at the shrine of the saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Yet at the same time, the interaction among the pilgrims is animated by the far less serious impulse of playful social intercourse. At the suggestion of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, a story-telling contest is organized among the convivial assembly of wayfarers who stop at his tavern. The essential spirit behind The Canterbury Tales is social and playful. The pilgrims generally interact with each other in a light-hearted way as befits a group of people on a holiday or vacation excursion. Drawn from diverse vocations, each pilgrim has the opportunity to rub shoulders with those who are normally outside their particular sphere and rank. Under these circumstances, they are encouraged to talk freely about their own experiences and they assume considerable license in their choice of stories and the manner in which they are told. Parody flourishes, and Chaucer even introduces an element of self-parody by including a character named "Geffrey" ("Geoffrey the Pilgrim"). He turns out to be both a weak storyteller and an extremely poor judge of character, referring to the Shipman (who is basically a pirate) as "a good fellow" (I, A, l.395).
By contemporaneous standards, the group that gathers at Tabbard's Inn is a motley crew, a full cross-section of the fourteenth-century English middle-class, ranging in rank from the Knight to the Plowman while excluding members of the higher nobility and the lower rungs of the peasantry. People in Chaucer's England were keenly aware of vocation and rank, and viewed them as necessary to social order. They divided their fellows into three broad groups—those who fight, those who pray and those who labor—each of which is represented in Chaucer's cast. Among and within each group, moreover, vertical hierarchies discriminated between those of high and low estate. Individuals were expected to adhere to established roles and standards as expressed in both external behavior and their attitudes and values.
It is in this context that the outward attire of the characters as depicted in the General Prologue takes on significance as an emblematic theme. The clothes that each character wears are indicative of his conformity (or non-conformity) to the late medieval code that each person should dress according to his or her particular station in life. The Knight in his well-worn male, the Clerk of Oxford in his threadbare scholars robes, and the Parson in his simple vestments all display an adherence to regnant social mores. On the other hand, the Prioress and the Monk, who would be expected to wear the plain, conservative garb of their clerical professions adorn themselves with attractive cloaks and fur-trimmed robes, suggesting a certain non-conformity to official standards. Moreover,...
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Moreover, he has never said a rude thing to anyone in his entire life (cf., ll. 66-7). Clearly, the knight possesses an outstanding character. Chaucer gives to the knight one of the more flattering descriptions in the General Prologue. The knight can do no wrong: he is an outstanding warrior who has fought for the true faith–according to Chaucer–on three continents. In the midst of all this contention, however, the knight remains modest and polite. The knight is the embodiment of the chivalric code: he is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is bold and fearless on it. In twentieth century America, we would like to think that we have many people in our society who are like Chaucer’s knight. During this nation’s altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of the modest but effective soldier captured the imagination of the country. Indeed, the nation’s journalists in many ways attempted to make General H. Norman Schwarzkof a latter day knight. The general was made to appear as a fearless leader who really was a regular guy under the uniform. It would be nice to think that a person such as the knight could exist in the twentieth century. The fact of the matter is that it is unlikely that people such as the knight existed even in the fourteenth century. As he does with all of his characters, Chaucer is producing a stereotype in creating the knight. As noted above, Chaucer, in describing the knight, is describing a chivalric ideal. The history of the Middle Ages demonstrates that this ideal rarely was manifested in actual conduct. Nevertheless, in his description of the knight, Chaucer shows the reader the possibility of the chivalric way of life.