Chaucer’s Use of Clothing: an Effective Rhetorical Device In Literature, as in real life, characters are sometimes judged by their appearance. The description of clothing provides detail and comment on those wearing them. Chaucer’s uses of artifice in The Canterbury Tales function as gauges of the social status and economic wealth, and emotional condition of each pilgrim. Artifice effectively provides a badge of humanity, symbolic of each character’s fallibility. Yet clothing simultaneously imposes upon the characters literary stereotypes, which they consequentially adopt. Unable to transcend these ascribed roles, the pilgrims sometimes find themselves bound by literary stereotypes and narrative function, which they tend to fulfill rather than reject.Order now
Although Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales transcend a Romantic stereotype, his characters often do not. They find themselves bound to the conventions of Romance, as they are bound by the clothes that define them. Chaucer’s materialistic focus enhances this metaphor and deconstructs the purism of Christianity throughout their physical journey. This aspect of characterization functions to illuminate the meanings inherent in the costumes of the secular pilgrims, revealing the extent of their conformity, through their dress, to 14th century social, political, and religious norms.
The General Prologue provides a great deal of information regarding the Knight’s appearance. The Knight entitled by rank to wear the finest of garments and clothes, is dressed in armor that is shabby, rusty, and possibly useless. The fact that he humbly adorns the uncomfortable suit, and even carries his bloodstained sword, indicates the knight’s sense of honor and tradition, but also shows the means by which his clothing serves to weigh him down.
The idea of an artifice, such as armor, that was designed to protect but later becomes a binding, and ultimately harmful, is a prominent theme throughout the tale. In the case of the Knight it can be inferred that his physical description directly represents his demeanor. He is completely sincere and chivalrous in all his deeds; Chaucer explicitly states that the Knight “that fro the tyme that he first bigan/ To ryden out, he loved chivalrye/ Trouthe and honour, freedom, and curteisye”
The tale told by the knight, reflective of his character and background, consequentially pays special attention to clothing as a means of status recognition. For example, after Theseus had conquered Thebes, his soldiers discovered the two Knights, Palamon and Arcite:
After the bataille and disconfiture.
And so bifel, that in the tas they founde,
Thurgh-girt with many a grievous blody wounde,
Two yonge Knigtes ligginge by and by,
bothe in oon armes, wrought ful richely,
f whiche two Arcite highte that oon,
and that oother Knyght highte Palamon.
Nat fully quike ne fully dede they were,
but by hir cote-armures and by hir gere
the heraudes knewe hem best in special
As they that, werein of blood royal
Or Thebes, and of sustren two y-born 150-161.
Arcite and Palamon are identified by their clothing: “but by hir cote armures,” which establishes their stature: “as they that were in blood royal,” and consequentially saves their ives. However, although they are allowed to live they must remain in the prison tower. The situation shows how the emblem of their clothing provided initial protection, yet alludes to the consequences of aesthetically justified decisions.
The use of costume is also commonly used as a means of disguise. Arcite escapes from prison by taking advantage of his drastically altered appearance. He realizes after looking at his face in the mirror, and “saugh that changed was al his colour, / and saugh his visage al in another kynde.” 1400-01, and could therefore enter Athens unrecognized; “and right anon he changed his array, / And cladde hym as a poure laborer,” 1408-09. Arcite becomes a squire for Theseus, and therefore must dress him in his armor or costume; which is slightly ironic in that Arcite himself, is also dressed deceivingly.
Eventually, Palamon escapes as well, and hides in the bushes to wait nightfall, disguised to look like his surroundings; “by aventure his wey he gan to holde/ to maken hym a gerland of the greves, / were it of wodebunde or hawthorne leaves,” 1506-08.
Both Palamon and Arcite’s means of disguise are significantly connected to the tale’s plot evolvement, thus furthering the metaphorical focus of Chaucer’s use of artifice.
The initial confrontation began when Arcite incidentally stumbled into the field where Palamon was hiding. The two cousins, after revealing their disguises, agree to fight, yet refrained from doing so immediately. The chivalric code by which they are both bound formalizes the need for proper attire. Arcite states that he will, “bryngen harneys right ynough for the; / And chese the beste, and leef the worste for me. / And mete drynke this nyghte wol I brynge/ Ynough for thee, and clothes for thy beddynge” 1613- 1616. Despite their immense hatred for each other, the fact that both are able to refrain from acting upon their anger until proper etiquette could be exercised reveals the extent to which Arcite and Palamon have conformed to the socially ascribed role of knighthood.
Yet as the two eventually dress each other for battle, although a bond of knighthood is felt momentarily when “everich of hem help for to armen the oother/ As friendly as he were his owne brother;” 1651-52, their new costumes initiate their emotional transformation. Palamon is described as a “wood leon” 1656 and Arcite as a “wild bores” 1657, once again revealing the parallels between outward appearances and emotionality. It was the implications of their clothing that had transformed them into uncivilized animals. Yet contrastingly, earlier in the tale, their clothing was also what had been used to identify them as civilized.
The relationship between artifices, conflicting chivalric code, and true honor is paradoxical in that none are inherently consequential of each other, though societal opinion at the time thought otherwise. Chaucer, paralleling the way he depicts conflicting definitions of civilization, also complicates the idea of ‘honor’ as it relates to the chivalric code. When Theseus catches the two cousins fighting, he surprisingly takes pity on them despite their savage behavior. Although Theseus himself proudly wears shiny, untainted armor, he commends Palamon and Arcite on their tattered appearance, thus insinuating that they are to be respected for their actions.
Theseus publicly announces his empathy, “Holde, for Goddes sake that sit above, / Se how they blede! Be they noght wel arrayed?” 1800-01. This compliment does not seem appropriate in that true honor and chivalry don’t connote adornments of blood. Yet Theseus, who truly is “wel arrayed,” compliments the cousins because they are covered in it. The way in which Chaucer relates these contrary ideas conveys the hypocrisy he attributed to them. Moreover, his cynical comment on the chivalric code challenges its true comparability with virtue, honor, and the true importance of ornamentation.
The use of artifice functions as much more than ornamentation in “The Knight’s Tale.” The respective roles ascribed by each costume produce behaviors inherent in each one. Unable to transcend these roles, Palamon and Arcite find themselves trapped by their own conformity. The final battle to take place between them reaffirms the means by which they are bound by chivalry. In traditional fighting ornamentation, Arcite and Palamon adorn their coats of armor, thus justifying their intentions to kill; yet are paradoxically said to be “trapped in steel” 2157.
It is ironic that the artifices that allow them to fight are the ones that simultaneously prohibit them from doing so. Only after Arcite has been declared victorious are their costumes removed, stripping away their armor and thus, their chivalric duty. “The Knight’s Tale,” portrays all clothing as that which can hide and conceal intention, and ultimately reveals that it is necessary to strip away superficial artifices in order to reach understanding.
Contrastingly, the tale of the Miller that follows uses frequent nakedness as a means to “quyte the knightes tale,” 19 by refuting all formality. But without any formal ornamentation, only pity or despair can be gained from nakedness. Whereas “The Knight’s Tale” embraces the formality of artifice to the point of absolute disdain and coldness, the Miller goes to the other extreme of shedding clothing, which ultimately reveals a path of conflict as well. The frequent theme of sexual and moral freedom produces a sense of naturalism, the very antithesis of chivalrous romanticism. In “The Miller’s Tale” Chaucer counters formality with the absence of artifices, which, in this tale, accurately parallels the absence of morality.
Another example of artifice as a binding contract, similar to that of knighthood, can be seen in the tale and character of the Prioress. Her appearance reveals the depths of her vanity and, consequentially, her despicable character. The nun is truly unsatisfied with her status in life- many women entered into the church out of necessity i.e. without dowry, widowed, orphaned etc.; and it is evident that she truly desires aristocracy.
Along with placing importance upon frivolous behaviors such as courtly manners and etiquette, the prioress is consumed with materialism, and lacks piety. Her clothing is far from simple, and indicates her ungodly ideals; “Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war/ Of small coral aboute hire arm she bar/ A peive of bedes, guaded al with grene/ And theron heng a broche of gord ful shene” 157-160. The brooch, however, is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the nun’s appearance with its inscription: “love conquers all,” ambiguously testing the boundaries of religious devotion. The questionable reference leaves debate as to whether she admires celestial or earthly love, but regardless of intention suggests that she isn’t what she seems.
In addition to wearing an elegant cloak and jewelry, she also pinned her veil so as to reveal her forehead, which symbolized good breeding, as opposed to just above the eyebrows as expected. The appearance of the Prioress similarly depicts the idea of clothing as a binding artifice, as her uniform perpetually binds her to a world she doesn’t want to be in. Additionally, the prioress reveals and solidifies Chaucer’s reoccurring comment on the changing of ideologies in his society, and especially the corruption of religious purism.
The prominence of clothing as a narrative function not only allows Chaucer to create a picture of Middle-Aged society, but also to subtlety voice his own disapproval. His criticism is apparent, yet he doesn’t make harsh or subjective judgments.
Instead, Chaucer simply describes what each character looks like physically and what they’re doing; and then leaves the reader to question what the character should be, compared to what they are. Chaucer explicitly chose to describe the pilgrims and make them the focal point of the entire pilgrimage, as opposed to the journey itself. Further, the minimal presence of beneficial divine intervention emphasizes the significance of each characters’ decisions as they apply to their own ascribed roles. Materialistic metaphor functions to convey these roles, and ultimately evaluates each pilgrim.
Consequentially, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides clarification of his sociological perspective on Romanticism, through the observation of humanity’s adherence to moral norms.