Compare and contrast the presentation of three pilgrims from Chaucer’s General Prologue’ and show how their descriptions add to our understanding of his society ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is a group of tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in about 1387. Chaucer planned to write 24 tales but died before he could complete them, so, The Canterbury Tales consist of 22 verse tales and two long prose tales.
The ‘General Prologue’ gives a brief but vivid description of each pilgrim journeying to Canterbury before the pilgrims actually begin telling their tales. Most literature written in the medieval period was written in either French or Latin, especially poems or Holy Scriptures, so when Chaucer wrote ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in Middle English he was making a statement. Chaucer wanted to promote the vernacular language of England and so wrote ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in Middle English. Three of the best portraits of the pilgrims in the ‘General Prologue’ are of the Knight, the Wife of Bath and the Monk who all tell us a great deal about Chaucer’s society.
The Knight is a “verray, parfit, gentil knyght”, who earns his living by fighting for his faith and his king. He has high status in the feudal system and “Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre”. He is as meeke as a mayde”, and he is also worthy and humble. The way in which Chaucer writes ‘The Knight’ and the language he uses reinforces the point that the Knight is virtuous. The alliteration in “he were worthy, he was wys” draws attention to the praise that Chaucer is giving him. Also triple negatives are used to reinforce the point that he has no vices; “he nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde”.
The Knight is humble and not materialistic where the text reads; “His hors were goode, but he was nat gay Of fustian he wered a gypon Al bismotered with his habergeon” There is also an ironic simile in the verse about the Knight where the text says, “as meeke as a mayde” this describes him as calm and gentle whereas we expect a Knight to be violent and proud of himself. Finally, the rhyming couplets at the end of each line draw even more attention to his good qualities for example “…. prys” “…. wys” He does not care what people think of him, he uses his horse for its function, and he does not decorate it elaborately but just uses it for fighting. The clothes that he wears also tell the reader that he is not materialistic because he, “wered a gypon/Al bismotered with his habergeon”.
The Wife of Bath lives “biside Bathe” and likes to weave, she has been married five times and gives advice to people in love. “Thries hadde she been at Jerusalem”, which suggests that she is a holy woman who has been on a lot of pilgrimages. However she only wants to be seen as religious and holy person. Chaucer only pretends to give evidence of her devotion whereas he is really saying that she is not concerned about religion, but that she is more concerned with her reputation and how she looks to other people; Nobody “to the offrynge before hire sholde goon”.
Although she had been on a number of pilgrimages, especially to Jerusalem, Chaucer writes that she is often found “wandrynge by the weye” on them, passing “many a strange strem”. The alliteration here draws our attention to these details. Chaucer’s ambiguity towards some pilgrim’s motives for being on the pilgrimage is shown in this verse as he could be implying that the Wife of Bath strayed from the religious purpose of the trip. Chaucer uses euphemisms to hint at the Wife of Bath’s promiscuity; “gat-tothed”, “reed stockings”, “five husbands” and “oother compaigne in her youth” are all quotes to support this point. The five husbands could suggest that the Wife of Bath was an early feminist because she uses men to her own advantage and in her tale she claims women’s superiority over men.
Chaucer gently mocks the gregarious Wife of Bath by telling the reader in an exaggerated manner that on Sunday at Church the wimple that she wore “weyeden ten pound”, this also hints at her materialistic and vain nature, which is completely opposite to the Knight. The Wife of Bath had clothes such as; “hosen of fyn scarlet reed Ful streite yteyd and shoes ful moyste and new” That show that she is vain and materialistic because she has bought new shoes for a pilgrimage and red stockings which would be very expensive because to dye clothes bright colours was very expensive in those days. The Knight, however, “Of fustian he wered a gypon/Al bismotered with his habergeon” which is completely the opposite.
The Monk is “a lord ful fat and in good poynt”; he is indulgent; the fact that The Monk likes to eat swan also suggests that he is indulgent, not what a monk should be. The “sleves purfiled at the hond /with grys, and that the fyneste of a lond”. This suggests that he is extravagant and doesn’t really care about religious vows. The simile that says the Monk’s head “shoon as any glas”, could also suggest that he is vain. Like The Pardoner, The Monk is not a true clergyman; The Pardoner sells fake relics such as white sheets and says they are the Virgin Mary’s veil and The Monk goes on pilgrimages to get out of the monastery.
The Knight has many pastimes, but most are associated with war, such as training the Squire, his son, taking part in jousts, defending the faith, travelling abroad to battles. This suggests that in Chaucer’s society there were many wars and that in the feudal system; knights were expected to fight to defend their faith and country. The Wife of Bath, however, enjoys weaving which would be expected because Bath was famous for fine cloths. “Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce”, this means she helps people with love, which is ironic considering that she “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve”. She went on a lot of pilgrimages like the Knight, but she “koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye”, which could mean that she diverted from the religious purpose of the trip. Apart from this, though she has a lot of leisure time to enjoy her other pastimes. But unlike the Knight, the Wife of Bath enjoys things that will fulfil her needs and wants, whereas the Knight’s interests and pastimes directly benefit other people such as the Squire, his country or his King
The Monk enjoys hunting, which could imply that he doesn’t care about God’s creatures as a Monk should. The Monk and The Pardoner are both corrupt, which reinforces the popular view that the Church at the time was rich and corrupt; The Parson is the only good clergyman on the pilgrimage. The Friar knew a lot of the taverns in the country which suggests he has a lot of time for social time which a monk should not have. Christians go to Canterbury to worship the shrine of St Thomas Beckett who was murdered at Canterbury. In the General Prologue, the characters met up at the Tabard Inn and decided to tell their stories. The supposed reason these pilgrims are going to Canterbury is to “seek St. Thomas, holy martyr blessed”, but some have other ulterior motives for going there. The Knight, I think, is on the pilgrimage to give thanks to God and St. Thomas Beckett for bringing him back alive and well from battle.
The Wife of Bath likes to show off about being holy since “nobody to the offrynge before hire sholde goon.” She could be going to Canterbury for a holiday, to travel more, to find another husband, to show off how rich she is; compared with The Knight she is on the pilgrimage for materialistic reasons whereas the Knight, like the Parson, is on the pilgrimage for authentic religious reasons. The Monk could be on the pilgrimage to socialise or it could be a reason to get out of the cloistered of the monastery; neither of which are holy reasons.
In conclusion I believe that the Knight is the only person, along with the Parson, who is on the pilgrimage for the right reasons. The Knight is on the pilgrimage to give thanks to God and he dedicates his time to those who are in need. On the other hand The Monk is on the pilgrimage for one of two reasons, either to socialise with other people or just to get out of the monastery. This reflects the view at the time that the Church was corrupt and rich. The Wife of Bath is on the pilgrimage for vain and materialistic reasons the most likely reasons are either to show off her wealth or to find another husband. This reflects the position of women because could not go out and live on their own they needed the support of a husband or a father.