A Journey through The Canterbury Tales
There are three characters that I feel stick out the most in “the General Prologue” of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. They are the Knyght, the Persoun, and the Plowman. The reason why I have chosen these three and why they stick out the most to me is that they are the representation of St. Benedict of Nursia’s three estates of those who fight, those who pray, and those who work.
The Knyght is a representative of those who fight. Chaucer describes him by writing, “…to riden out, he loved chivalrie, trouthe and honour, fredom and curtesie. Ful worthy was he in his lords werre, and therto hadde he riden, no man ferre, as wel in cristendom as in hethenesse, and evere honoured for his worthyness” (lines 45-50). Chaucer goes on to write about the many wars that the Knyght had been a part of, and how he had attained victory throughout all of them. He fought for faith and “he nevere yet no vileyne ne sayde in al his lyf unto no maner wight. He was a verray, parfit gentil Knyght” (lines 70-72). The Knyght was a noble man that knew the role in which a knyght should play. By that I mean, he lived for serving or in this case fighting for a cause, and being the best Knyght that he could be.
“A good man was ther of religioun, and was a povre Persoun OF A TOUN, but riche he was of hooly thought and werk” (lines 479-481). The Persoun is the representative of those who pray. This Persoun may be poor, but he is constantly giving to others. He is the type of person that rarely thinks of himself and is very honest in contrast to some of Chaucer’s other characters. The Persoun is a good priest learning the rules and then teaching them to others. He never leaves his church, nor does he ever get greedy with power. “To drawen folk to hevene by fairness, by good ensample, this was his business” (lines 521-522). The Persoun is an honest man, while the Pardoner is not. He is a hard worker that never takes a day off come rain or shine he always makes a point to visit the people of his village. Chaucer adds, “a better preest I trowe, that nowher noon ys” (line 526).
Along with the Persoun is the Plowman who is a representative for those who work. He, much like his brother, is an honest man. “God loved he best with all his hole herte at alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte, and thane his neighebor right as hym-selve” (Lines 535-537). The Plowman loved God and worked hard just like his brother. He worshiped God through the good days and the bad days.
I believe that Chaucer was very fond of these three characters, because he only has good things to write about them. I do believe that they were meant to represent St. Benedict’s three estates of those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. Whereas the other characters of the General Prologue, to me, represent a social satire, because Chaucer either pokes fun at them and their social ranking in a negative fashion or the character is just there, and he doesn’t have much to say about them. Examples of this would be the Chaucer’s depiction of the Monk and the Yeman.
It is through satire and sarcasm that Chaucer describes the Monk. He writes that the Monk does not follow the rules of old, “the reule of Seint Maure, or of Seint Beneit, by cause that it was old and samdel streit this ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace, and heeld after the newe world the space” (173-176). The Monk also didn’t read the holy texts, because the texts said that hunters were unholy men, and the Monk enjoyed hunting. It is in this line that I feel Chaucer uses a sarcastic tone, “And I seyde his opinion was good. What sholde he studie, and make hymselven wood, upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure, or swynken with his hands and lboure, as Austyn bit? How shal the world be served? (lines 183-187). I feel that Chaucer is saying this in a sarcastic tone, much like the way a parent would say, “Of course, you’re right, you shouldn’t have to do all homework for class. You’re right it’s too stressful.” That is the tone that I feel Chaucer is using in this line.
The Monk is supposed to spend his life studying the texts and living as simple man, but this monk spends his time ignoring the texts and doing as he pleases instead of what he is supposed to be doing. He doesn’t act the way a monk is supposed to act, and I feel that Chaucer doesn’t care for him what-so-ever.
There are other characters like the Yeman that Chaucer neither likes nor dislikes. They are just simply there to accompany the other characters. With some characters Chaucer just lays it all out on the line, but with others I feel that through his satire and sarcasm that he’s trying to convey some sort of moral lesson. The Knyght, the Persoun, and the Plowman are three characters that are very honest simple men. While the other characters are used as some sort of moral lesson, because they are so different than the three honorable characters in that they are not honorable people. The moral lesson that I believe Chaucer is trying to convey with the other characters is that it is important to be real and follow a moral code instead of doing as you please. It is possible to be yourself and still follow a set of rules, being a noble and honorable person shouldn’t have to be such a chore.
It’s hard to say whether or not Chaucer is contrasting an “old” vision with a contemporary one, for, I believe that The Canterbury Tales is a classic in that while it was written in the fourteenth century audiences today can still find it relevant even now in the twenty-first century. What Chaucer has done with the “General Prologue” had been so incredibly unique during that time, and the story is a classic in the sense that it is still very much relatable with audiences today. All of the characters were representatives of the people of that time period, and still those same characters still exist even in today’s society. Perhaps, Chaucer was trying to convey an old vision with a more contemporary one, but I feel that if that was the case, then he did it to show how time changes, but people tend to stay the same. The troubles that occurred then can still be applied to the troubles of today.
I think there were no people in particular that Chaucer aimed for, however, since he does tend to poke fun at some of the clergymen and everyday workers that perhaps he was aiming to a particular crowd, but I’m not quite sure who that audience would be. It’s hard to say, because I’m still stuck on the fact that this story from centuries ago is still very relevant today. I find that to be truly remarkable. If I had to relate it to today, then I would say that it would be intended for everyone. It’s a story about people on a spiritual journey and the demands of the physical being.
For the Knyght, the Persoun, and the Plowman they all represent the purest of all men. They are all very spiritual and pure for their journey, because they are truly there for the spiritual aspect of the journey unlike characters such as the Pardoner. Also, their physical being is very strong, meaning that even by temptation they still do the right thing.
Their physical beings are simple and they are not too obsessed with their physical characteristics. The Plowman, although poor, he works his fingers to the bone and always puts his faith in God. The three wear simple clothing and nothing too extravagant or outlandish. Their main goals in life are to live an honorable one. The other characters don’t possess the same qualities that these three have.
In conclusion I believe that the “General Prologue” of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was meant to be reads as a satire, and that there is a moral lesson to the story. The three characters that represent St. Benedict’s three estates of those who fight, those who pray, and those who work are portrayed by the Knyght, the Persoun, and the Plowman, they are all honorable men. The other characters are either regular average Joes, while the others like the Monk are used in contrast to the three honorable characters. Unlike the three honorable characters the others tend to live by their own rules and follow no moral conduct. They often abuse their social standings to their advantage and trick others around them.
From “The Canterbury Tales”: General Prologue (modern English and Middle English).” Georffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) – “The Canterbury Tales” (in middle English and Modern English). Web. 14 Nov. 2001. <http://www.librarius.com/canttran/gptrfs.htm>