The Canterbury Tales

The Squire

Whereas his father is a colourless figure, the Squire is vibrant and lively. He is a “bachelor” [the first rank in knighthood] and a lover (an example of how Chaucer introduces details that he could not have known at that moment). His hair is curly as if set in a press and this shows a certain dandyism in the young man – here Chaucer states he knows so little that he has to guess at his age of twenty. The device whereby the narrator claims not to know a fact adds verisimilitude as if the person were real and the narrator were not his creator, who would know everything. He is of average height, “evene lengthe”, and strong and active, “delyvere”, so that he seems to fit the mood of the season. We thus have an impression of his stature and a detail about his hair which indicates a vain and frivolous aspect of character but the fact that he has been on serious military expeditions on horseback, “chivachye”, could not have been known by Chaucer at this point – and yet the sense is of an immediate reaction to the physical appearance of the man. He is of the younger generation but has learned good habits “as of so litel space” [considering his short term of service] so that he will impress his inamorata. Colour, freshness and liveliness are the keynotes as well as music as he sings and plays the flute all day. (We do not ask how he could have listened to any stories as he did this!) Talented, slightly foppish and yet hearty and healthy, he is individualised as well as being representative of this order of knighthood as he is wholesome and natural but with a slight artificialilty and definite artistic tendencies. Contradictions within a portrait add veracity.

Chaucer is strong on indicating vanity and we feel this young man thinks well of himself. There are details of his clothing and his seat on his horse and, at this point, the unschematic nature of the picture is demonstrated as Chaucer returns to his songs, which he was capable of composing, “endite”, an unexpected detail in a man of action as are his abilities in dancing, portrayal and writing, though we would expect his skill in jousting. His connection with the natural world is stressed when he, too, does not sleep more than a nightingale as he is occupied making love, being lustful and energetic. A sudden, unexpected note and change of angle is that he is both courteous and “servysable” and does the carving at table, which was part of a squire’s duty, an honourable and important function, stressing the idea that those who will rule should first serve. This is an appealing and affectionate portrait with little or no irony or criticism and the character fits the Springtime mood of optimism and vigour.

The Yeoman

This term was used as the title for an office of the next degree above a groom or, in lesser usage, to people of middling rank not in service. Here the Yeoman is the sole servant of the Knight, the “he” in 101, as Chaucer claims that the Knight preferred it that way. He is also colourful, wearing a coat and hood of Lincoln green and has efficient arrows stored neatly, “thriftily”, under his belt – peacock feathers were considered excellent for fighting arrows. He knows how to manage his archery tackle and we come to realise that Chaucer admires skill and knowledge in most trades. His arrows did not fall short or droop because of faulty or narrow feathers. Now Chaucer returns unschematically to his physical and personal appearance with a mention of his closely cropped head and brown face: green and brown are appropriate colours as he knows all the lore of woodcraft. He has a “bracer” [guard for the wrist in archery] on his arm and carries a sword and “bokeler” [shield] on one side and on the other a dagger which is well “Harneysed” [ornamented] and very sharp. These are described as “gay”, presumably meaning jaunty and bright. For good luck whilst travelling from the patron saint of voyagers, he wears a figure or brooch of St. Christopher, a saint admired by the middle and lower classes because it protected the wearer from hidden dangers. He carries a horn, his shoulder belt is also green and Chaucer guesses he is a forester, another example of the narrator abandoning omniscience for greater conviction of reality. The Yeoman is therefore a countryman, not aristocratic or polished like the Squire. There is nothing artificial about him or remote and he has an endearing interest in keeping his equipment in top condition.

The Prioress

This is a portrait of a fastidious woman whose feminity is a welcome change from the males who have preceded her. She is the first ecclesiastic in the Prologue and Chaucer seems to regard her rather secular concerns with a more affectionate eye than he has for the others, who follow each other in gradually more sinful fashion. At least she does not cheat people and her dainty habits are attractive, even if the vanity they display is far from religious. If she is a type, the Church is in a dangerous state but, if an individual, she might be an exception to a sterner mode of life. Her smiling is “coy” [quiet], presumably modest but we note that it is the first attribute mentioned on a solemn pilgrimage and would be a compliment to a romance lady. We are told her name, which is rare, and this might suggest that Chaucer is portraying an individual not a type. We are given many details about her abilities and habits before her appearance and these are, as a sideline for a modern reader, an interesting insight into medieval life. She has a slightly affected but pleasant habit of singing with a nasal tone in the divine service, a place where personal pride in accomplishments is inappropriate. Her French is spoken “faire and fetishly” [skilfully/prettily] but it is less standard than Parisian and probably less fahionable.

Her girlish accomplishments are viewed with tolerance and her cleaniliness at meals positively welcomed; (the account makes one wonder what the table manners of others were like!) She is so well-trained that she never lets a morsel fall from her lips nor does she dip her fingers into the sauce: a tiny detail where the camera seems to zoom in is where she carries a piece of food so carefully to her mouth that nothing falls on to her breast. Although it is a secular concern, she takes pleasure, “lest”, in “curtesye” and we are given another close-up when she wipes her presumably greasy upper lip so that her cup receives no “ferthing” [trace] of fat when she drinks her “draughte”, which we notice that she seems to do with gusto, according to the rhythms and rhyme. The observation of minute detail continues as she reaches “semely” [daintily, properly] for her food and one almost senses a gratitude in the narrator for these social graces in contrast to others with less agreeable habits. Chaucer, the pilgrim, apparently witnessed her eating, as his attention is microscopic and he finds her “of great disport” [entertaining].
Her “port” [bearing, way of behaviour] is pleasant but she is not a true aristocrat although she seems upwardly mobile and perhaps a social climber as she “peyned hire” [took pains] to “countrefete chere/Of court” [imitate courtly manners] and be “estatlich” [dignified]: these vain and wordly preoccupations should be despicable in a true Churchwoman but they make her so delicate and refined that we smile indulgently on her. So does Chaucer, although his eye has a critical direction for her little faults – or rather, he sees them as trivial whereas a more severe critic would be shocked as the Church is clearly in decline if these are allowed. She has unsuitable tender feelings, “conscience”, directed to unworthy subjects such as a mouse in a trap and she has an affected squeamishness about death or blood. One cannot imagine her comforting the sick or wounded. To keep pets was forbidden and, at this point, Chaucer becomes more critical as she feeds her little dogs on roast meat or milk and fine bread (possibly cake). Her finer feelings are somewhat cultivated as would be those of a romantic heroine who weeps for the death of a pet. In particular she hates cruelty but perhaps someone has hit one of the dogs with a “yerde smerte” [stick smartly] because they were ill-behaved. Her character is all fine feelings and tender-heartedness with none of the discipline or virtue of the true religious woman and no attention to vows of poverty or obedience, though chastity is not mentioned or hinted at.
She is quite vain and has her wimple neatly pleated but she has good looks to be vain about, if that were allowed. Her nose is “tretys” [long and well-shaped], her eyes are grey (which could be blue in the colour perception of the time) and her mouth is soft and red. Her fine forehead, almost a span across, gives an indication of her size as she is not undergrown – by litotes [understatement] this suggests she is plump but Chaucer would not be so unmannerly himself as to say so. There are several “fillers” [words and phrases which have no real meaning] in the description as though he does not want to be too direct: “as I was war”, “I trowe”, but he does become more explicit as the account proceeds and he mentions her graceful cloak, her arm decoration of corals and the green set of beads from which hang a gold brooch with an “A” and the motto: Love conquers all. This should refer to the love of God but we doubt that it does as the setting is so rich.  All these vanities and accessories were forbidden and the last suggests firmly that she is a secular figure, colourful, girlish, vain, affected, refined but not aristocratic, polished, civilised, interested in herself, over-sensitive and not a true nun.