Thursday, 21 May 2015

Canterbury Tales: Characters

Canterbury Tales: Characters

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Squire - Squires had an odd collection of duties. They attended on men of rank, up to and including the royalty. Often they were expected to wear the livery ot their superior. Squires acted as valets and served at their master's table. They were also expected to provide him and any distinguished guests with entertainment e.g. music, story-telling and singing. Thus the squire we meet here has the necessary accomplishments. However, he is also clearly meant to he compared with his rather whose courage and campaigning experience he is already showing. But where the old knight is simple in dress and apparently limited in artistic and social skills, the young squire combines these skills with military virtues and a fine taste in clothes.

Yeoman — Also belonging to the aristocracy, the yeoman was a farmer of modest position as compared with someone who owns an estate. He would generally be quietly prosperous and independent, though his close-cropped hair is the mark of a servant. He might have been the tenant of a farm on the knight's estate, where he also served as a forester, an important position in those times of strict preservation of game, when hunting was the chief outdoor activity of the aristocrat.

Prioress — She may have been of a minor aristocratic family, and such women were often a very real liability to their parents. If a good match could not be found, and this meant a handsome dowry had to go with the bride, there was really nothing for them to do. They could not work for a living. So they either lingered on as vaguely helpful spinsters in the households of their relations, or entered the Church as nuns. Some of the convents were quite small and not particularly pious, but probably pleasant enough places for such women to live in an atmosphere of chatter and rather lax observation of the official rules.

Monk — The first monastery had been founded by St Benedict over 900 years before the Prologue was written, and the code of practice which Benedict laid down, and which became the basis for monastic life generally as other Orders were founded, was to keep strictly to a fixed routine of prayer, praise and work to live an austere life and, in the case of the enclosed Orders, not to leave the monastery at all once you had taken your vows. (It should perhaps be explained that in Roman Catholic teaching we can all help to alleviate the suffering of souls in Purgatory by prayer, so a primary function of monks and nuns was regular worship on behalf of the people). Monasteries also become centers of learning, often acted as local dispensaries to sick people, gave shelter to poor travelers, and were, ideally, self-supporting by the labour of all the members. Over a millennium, however; a lot of monasteries had become prosperous, idle and corrupt, though perhaps a majority still carried on the good work. However, there was growing feeling that the cloistered life was all too comfortably remote from reality. The Monk himself certainly does not care for it and is thoroughly leading a worldly life.

Friar - While the Monk was essentially one who lived in a monastery a life of regular prayer, a friar went out in the world, as poorly clad as Christ's own disciples, and preached. The four Orders referred to are the Black Friars or Dominicans, the Franciscans Grey Friars, the Carmelites or White Friars, and the Augustinians or Austin Friars. St Francis, the most well known of the friars, is held to be the example of poverty, humility and simplicity. Poverty meant that they could beg—indeed often they had to. As they sometimes needed accommodation, they built friaries, which soon become large and wealthy. Friars were popular because they preached, and medieval folk enjoyed the spoken word, and because they would carry out many of the duties of priest as well. On the other hand they were unpopular, and the subject of many of the accusations which Chaucer makes, because they had easy access to all sorts of households in particular to women, and got a lot of free food and drink. To be a successful friar as distinct from a religious one, you had to be good at pleasing all sorts of people. Our Friar is smooth-
tongued rogue.

Clerk — He is one of Chaucer's gentlest and most effective portraits. He is humbly dressed, badly mounted, reticent in speech and very poor. His position is not easy to define. Most students who managed to go to the university would after a study of the standard subjects such as grammar and rhetoric, mathematics and astronomy, proceed to  theology and would probably enter at least the 'minor orders' of the Church. Many did, not go further and take steps to become priest but found work with their skills of literacy and numeric.

Man of Law — The Sergeant of the Law is a very superior member of the legal fraternity. He was a barrister of the highest rank, one of whose duties was to act as adviser to the Crown. From this level of hierarchy, judges were chosen. In Chaucer's day, men of this rank amassed substantial fortunes, and there were some areas of practice, particularly to do with property deals, where they could succeed in pleasing their client without being over-scrupulous. The wealthy and somewhat pompous lawyer is an echo of the merchant; both are men who have turned their wits to profit. Like the Franklin who follows, he is rich, and it was becoming possible to buy your way into higher level of society.

Franklyn — A Franklin, or 'freeman', meant someone who owned property in his own right. They were often very prosperous, undertook public duties and offices, and were respected. They did not however, have any aristocratic rank. Though our Franklin is no snob or social climber perhaps he would have liked to feel his family one day ennobled, and when he comes to tell his story he wishes his son would mingle more with the nobility. He is seen as an ideal type of country gentleman.

Doctor— In the age of Chaucer, medical advisers were expected to be experts in astrology, and they based their practice on writers of the fourth century BC, and upon the authority of Aesculapius, who left no written records at all and was probably mythical. It is necessary to emphasise two points here. First, medieval people believed implicitly in the influence of the stars, which governed not only our characters and destinies, but the different parts of our bodies. A doctor thus had to know how to calculate the most suitable time to administer a particular medicine, according to the position of the relevant planets. Second, the huge list of authors with which the doctor is familiar may not be satirical, as suggested by some commentators. In the Middle Ages, there was a great respect for authority. If it is Aristotle, it is true. The doctor is probably a good physician,  but an expensive one. In those times, no common man consulted a doctor. The doctors made their money from the rich. It is also true that they made their money at the misfortune of others, like the Man of Law. Perhaps it is this that tells us was rich, because he had saved up all the money made during the plague.

Miller – Millers were unpopular because they had a monopoly—a man with corn to grind had to take it to the local mill – and millers could very easily swindle, since the absence of exact weighing devices made it hard to know how much flour your corn would make, how much the miller had taken as his 'toll'. Chaucer's Miller is presented in a brutish way—animal imagery abounds—and as being thoroughly coarse-grained. He does tell a very rude story, though it is extremely well-told.

Maunciple – The Maunciple is responsible for the catering in one of the Inns of Court, the 'legal university' of the time, to which all barristers must belong. The portrait points to the cleverness of a servant in comparison with his employers, who are steeped in legal learning. He is probably a swindler, who makes a lot of money for himself out of his supposed masters by buying cheap and doctoring the accounts.

Reeve – The Reeve is extremely unpopular with everybody, both for himself and for his job. He, a ruthless demander of rents, acts as a sort of bailiff to a large estate and cannot be cheated, but is dishonest himself.

Summoner – The job of a summoner was to summon people to the ecclesiastical courts, which dealt with moral offences, such as adultery, and they were presided over by a bishop or an archdeacon. He also acted as a semi-official informer. Such a post was open to corruption, and Chaucer's Summoner is extremely corrupt, actually accepting bribes  and encouraging the very sins that he was supposed to report for examination .His ailment was probably leprosy, and his diet of garlic and onions would hardly help his inflamed face.

Pardoner – Like the Summoner, the Pardoner is presented in a thoroughly unpleasant light. The gross abuse of the sale of pardons was one of the reasons for Reformation. Pardoners sold what seemed to be Papal documents which gave absolution for sins; the original idea was that by giving a sum of money to the Church, as well as undergoing the essential act of contrition in yourself, you could be free of minor trespasses. their This led to serious abuses. Pardoners sold fake documents and relics, and claimed that the purchase of their documents could free men from greatest sins with no more trouble than simply praying for them. The Pardoner gives a more frank account of his swindles before he tells his story which turns out to be a prefect little sermon, a parable about greed of all things, told with great skill and economy. He has been suggested to be homosexual and effeminate.  Chaucer hints that he was not fully a man – hence the unbroken ‘goot-like’ voice and hairless face.


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