I will consider five different characters in this study of medieval life. These will be the Shipman who gives a view of the importance of shipping in medieval times, the Knight who is a good example of military life and its importance at the time, the Miller who gives a view of agriculture at the time which was very important because it was the main form of employment, the Parson who an the example of what the church was supposed to be like and the Pardoner who is a good representation of the corruptness in the church at the time. From these I hope to give a good slice of medieval life at the time of Chaucer.
“With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake” The Shipman like most of his fellow pilgrims is very skilled at his profession and has spent a long time in perfecting it. He is a master mariner, “woninge fer by weste” dwelling from the west of England, with a wide experience and ability. He comes from Dartmouth, “he was of Dertemouthe”, and has a ship called the Magdelene His understanding of coasts and tides is very good.
Chaucer suggests by the dagger hanging under his neck that he has an easy conscience towards pirates and theft, with no pity for his victims. When he is away in other provinces he depends on himself because there are no laws or any justice to protect him, he must enforce his own as he wishes. He chooses a very harsh and violent way. He is very self-sufficient, he uses no charts or maps because he navigates using his compass and knowledge of the stars and the moon. Chaucer makes us recognise the strength of his character, he is “tanned and hardened by exposure”, and deeply immersed in the craft of the sea. The Shipman is a coarsely dressed man who gives a glimpse of the medieval sea dog.
“A stout carl” The Miller is my next character, he isn’t really portrayed as a human but as a wild animal or a beast. He is quite a spectacle with his powerful muscular arms, frightening and ugly looks, black bristles protruding from his nose along with its wart, sly nature and his coarse brutality and insensitiveness. His face is more like that of a Gargoyle. He likes to sing a lot and play his bagpipes with an awful din; his voice isn’t pleasant either with its raucous sound and drone. His voice is propelled by his giant, cavernous mouth which is like a furnace “a great forneys” with his hot breath, like that of a dragon. He also has the unusual ability to knock down doors with his head, possibly for breaking in- is he a bit of a thief?
Chaucer mentions his “thumb of gold” which shows that he, like the Shipman, is skilled at his profession. It may have been have been a common and almost expected occurrence for a miller to take some of the grain to sell for himself. The Miller after all has a fiery red beard like that of a fox which is traditionally thought of as a sly and cunning animal. He is quite a source of entertainment for the other travelers because he is really full of himself, he is good at telling stories but as might be expected these are mainly of sin.
“a most distinguished man” The knight is a very noble man and is a good example of the importance of the military in medieval times. He spends much of his time going off to crusades in far of lands. He is very wealthy and a large ransom would be paid out for him if he were caught. He is in sharp contrast with many of the pilgrims as he is the only one of true noble birth and is very well off. At the time there was a big difference between the poor village folk and the nobles who had a lot of power over their land. A knights life was very much truth and chivalry, this was full of wars and conquest. Such knights as him would have been bringing in a lot of money into the country from pillaging in crusades. “a good man was ther of religioun”
The Parson is an example of what the church was supposed to stand for at the time. He is an embodiment of moral virtues which is what is missing in the church at the time which Chaucer expresses in the other pilgrims. With church being such a major part of everyday life compared to that of today so the corruptness is of major importance because a few people are making a lot of money from a lot of very poor people which is what the Pardoner is mainly about. He represents the truthful, patient faith that holds firm as standards collapse on all sides. There is a strong sense of personality that comes from the parson, what is a very humble person who is very kind and Chaucer acknowledges this”a gentle pardoner”
The Pardoner is the contrast of the Parson. It is ironic that he is a “gentle pardoner” because he very much the opposite. He is the crumbling exterior of the church as the Parson holds up the middle. The Pardoner claims to have just come from the Vatican with fresh pardons for people to buy, of course he hasn’t really but has just made them himself.He has yellow hair like wax which hangs straight down over his shoulders. He thinks he is in the height of fashion but is not.
He has a satchel at his side which he has all his pardons in which are selling like hot cakes- “al hoot”. Chaucer uses him as the typical person who uses the church as their chance to make lots of money. He is mainly a confidence trickster, he tricks “his apes”. He is probably though in quite good favour with the church because he can persuade people to give money to the church. He can get as much money of a poor person as they will earn in one month. But despite all of this he does have respect for the church and is very well behaved there, he is very good at singing hymns.
Life in Medieval times was very much based upon the Feudal system as demonstrated by the Knight. This consisted of the poor folk who owned land of the noble just like the humble ploughman who is the brother of the Parson. These nobles could gain knighthood that would involve doing and owning certain things and then proving devotedness to a lady. Chaucer gives a very strong contact with that of fourteenth-century England.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales certainly prove the extent of the churches’ influence in the medieval persons life. But it was rotting away, filled with priests who would sooner mover to London for a good life than help their people like the Parson. Of this group of supposedly dedicated men and women, only the Parson-in social status and appearance the least distinguished of them all-remains true to his ideals. The worldliness of contemporary outlook and the declining spiritual authority of the church are evident in the pilgrimage itself. There was also a strong running of profession and apprenticeship, in the case of the Squire.
The Shipman and the Miller are both very skilled at what they do, if not rather corrupt. There was a real need at the time to learn a skill because there was no real education and this could then be passed on to the next generation so they could continue the business. Times were very difficult then and the Shipman demonstrates how hardy these people were, with none of the basic technology we have today they had to cope without, just like the Shipman who is skilled at navigating without instruments and the Miller who can tell the quality of grain just by feeling it. These hard lives did lead some people to become thieves to make a living or just to have a better life; this had then spread to the church.
Despite this, though, the group of pilgrims whom Chaucer joins at southwark does not provide a complete cross-section of English society, but it is still very accurate. Their background of inns, farmyards, city streets and middle class houses has a very wide range. From the farms and benches of the poor to the walled gardens and banquets of the rich, Chaucer seems to have covered the whole texture of medieval life.
Maybe this was what he was trying to show, a sort of record of life in his time. It is evident that these men and women were very individual due to the social and economic pressures, which had warped and shaped them. They have great self-confidence, which suggests a society whose growing wealth was encouraging the middle classes to assert themselves. For instants the Wife of Baths red stockings which are very bold due to her expensive tastes. The Miller defrauds his customers by stealing part of the corn which he grinds, and the Shipman mixes piracy and theft with his lawful affairs at sea.