The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales part 4

The Merchant

I shall deal with the Merchant in detail later when I analyse his Tale but his is a short portrait, rather casually ended with Chaucer the pilgrim’s saying he does not know how what he is called although an omniscient narrator must be able to name him. The physical characteristics come first with the fashionably forked beard and his clothing, including his beaver hat and his neatly fastened boots: he is serious and always out for profit in his trading although he covers up his borrowings, debt and possibly illegal dealings. He is a self-made man and has a dignified manner of bearing. As usual the observer’s eye roves over him as well as the narrator’s giving us details of a background that a fellow-pilgrim could not have known at that point.
For more on the Merchant and his Tale click here

The Clerk of Oxford

Here is a portrait of a poor scholar, probably studying for an M.A. in divinity. He forms a contrast to the opulent figures of the Monk and Friar but is closer to the ideal of the religiously inclined, learned man and cleric that they should be, even though he is not a priest. He has devoted himself “longe y-go [for a long time]” to the study of logic and, by juxtaposition, this is connected to the very thin state of his horse, described with a simile we still recognise: “leene … as a rake”. Logic does not bring in food for horse or man. Metonymy [connection between the person’s attributes and an appendage] suggests that the man is as undernourished as his mount and Chaucer also uses litotes [understatement] to be more explicit about that: “He was nat right [exactly] fat, I undertake [declare].” The details become more direct as the adjectives “holwe [possibly hollow-eyed]” and “sobrely [solemnly]” are used along with a reference to his threadbare topmost short cloak. This outer garment recalls the richer clothing of the Monk and Friar and, whilst we admire the Clerk morally, we might prefer their exuberance and cheery sociable image as reading matter. There is also something self-concerned about his obsessions.

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His poverty stems from the fact that he has not yet attained a “benefice [a position in the Church]” and he is insufficiently wordly to have secular employment, an “office.” Rather than rich clothes or a “fithele [fiddle]” he would prefer twenty books bound in black or red at his bed-head but such a collection would cost a great deal of money, although the figure is probably the round number of guesswork. The books would deal with Aristotle and his philosophy but the word is ambiguous and a pun as it could refer to alchemy. Despite this he has “but litel gold” in his coffer, probably none at all by litotes, although alchemists tried to create the substance. He obtains money from his friends (scholars were accustomed to beg to support their studies) and spends it on books and further learning. He is focused and devoted to his work. “He bisliy [diligently] gan for the soules to preye” means that he did pray (not began to) for those who helped him “to scoleye [study]” and in that he is more conscientious than the Monk or Friar. This occupation of student is his entire objective and care, “cure”, and he is economical of speech, saying no more than is necessary. What he does speak is “in form and reverence” [correct and serious], brief and succinct and full of “high sentence” [lofty meaning]. All his discourse tends to the moral and he is summarised: “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” His pleasures are entirely academic.

He is admirable in many ways but cold, worn and cheerless for the lay audience or reader. His habits and preoccupations demonstrate rigour and asceticism and he is sparse and meagre rather than expansive. Set against the season and situation in the fresh air of April, he seems an indoor, musty figure and, in the context of a changing and blossoming period in history, he is of an earlier and more severe age. Most readers look forward to descriptions of more outgoing and life-enhancing characters even though they may be less worthy morally.

The Sergeant-at-Law.

This portrait lacks the vigour and interest of most of the others as if Chaucer himself were not engaged with the man. He is decribed largely in terms of his profession rather than being individualised as a person. He would have been a legal adviser to the King, chosen from barristers and is therefore distinguished in rank: “at the Parvys” is probably not the porch of St Paul’s where consultations took place but a venue in Westminster used for the Court of the Exchequer, a more honourable connection. He is “war [prudent]” and “wys [cautious]”, discreet and very respectable and his wise words give such an impression. He is often a Justice at the assizes, bearing the King’s letters patent making the appointment and having a full commission. This makes him one of the few characters in the Prologue not using a position for underhand personal gain and having the authority he claims. Respected for his “science [knowledge]” and reputation, he is imposing but distant to the reader.

The fees and robes would be gifts from clients but there is no suggestion they were improperly obtained: he is a “purchasour” [this could mean merely “lawyer”] who buys all the land he can and is clever enough to get it with “fee simple” [straight possession with no restrictions] so that nothing in his entitlement is open to question, “nat … infect.” He does benefit from his learning and skill but not illicitly and this lack of complication might explain why Chaucer seems more dismissive of him as a personality. The impression of extreme busyness he clearly affects is more than the true needs of his occupation but he knows all the cases and judgements, “doomes”, since the time of the Conquest; he knows the courts as well as the statutes. These claims seem to be in the voice of the Sergeant himself and we might expect them to be an exaggeration as that would imply knowledge of over a hundred large volumes but Chaucer does not develop this point. He is also an expert in that he knew how to create and write out, “endite”, documents of law so carefully that no-one could “pinche [cavil at or pick holes in]” them. After telling us that he knows fully by heart all the statutes, Chaucer gives a few personal details but these only emphasise the profession of the man as his simple clothes of “medlee” [striped cloth, probably in brown and green], are his dress as a Sergeant not as an individual, which is tied with a “ceint [girdle]” of silk with small cross stripes. Now Chaucer seems to weary of him and refuses to go into more detail although we might expect and even hope for some human imperfections. Yet this abnegation does add realism as if the observer could give more of an actual character that he is looking at if he chose to do so.

The Franklin

The Franklin rides in the company of the Sergeant of the Law which gives him added status. He is an untitled landowner and, from the first, is described colourfully in white and red, giving him a wholesome image and suggesting a robust temperament as one of sanguine disposition. His white beard is compared to a daisy, a natural image, and his cheeks are probably rosy as accords with his cheery outlook. Of the four medieval humours (blood, phlegm, choler and black choler) his is the most appealing. Loving his food, he particularly likes a morning treat of a rich sauce made of drinks and spices poured over cakes – this is not a routine breakfast but something special. His custom is to live pleasurably and he is an Epicurean who believes that good living equals perfect happiness. He is thought of in his area as a St Julian, who is the patron saint of hospitality. Liberal and generous, he serves good quality food and is so well supplied with wine that no-one is better than he in this respect: his establishment always has baked meats, fish and flesh, and his house is described as snowing – another natural comparison – meat and drink and all the dainty titbits one could imagine. He eats seasonally and keeps plump partridges in coops and bream and pike in ponds.

The cook will be scolded if the sauce is not tasty and piquant: he is a gourmet not a glutton. The necessary items for meals and his fixed table must be ready for entertaining all day long but he also performs civic duties at court sessions and is often Member of Parliament for his county. His clothing includes a dagger and a white silk pouch as a mark of status: this detail interrupts the list of duties as we are then told he has been a sheriff [King’s administrator/officer] and a county auditor. The portrait concludes with telling us he is the most worthy landholder anywhere and we feel that Chaucer admires him even though he may feel the luxury a little overdone.
There is little or no irony in this account and no satire as the man is not a ecclesiastic nor a hypocrite and has every right to enjoy himself with his affluent way of life. His characteristics of abundance, generosity, hospitality and respectability combined with civic responsibility and an attractive appearance make him one of the most likeable of the pilgrims – and the opposite of the Clerk. He is busy, cleanly and healthy, although a more indoors figure than the Monk, but is clearly popular and cheerful. The portrait is written in a sympathetic manner and Chaucer seems to enjoy this character with his domesticity and public responsibilities: he is a local figure and somewhat old-fashioned, representing the best of secular life.

The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer and Tapestry Maker

Here Chaucer brings together several portraits under one heading as he presumably believes that many characteristics make them resemble each other so closely that it is not possible or worthwhile trying to distinguish between them: in particular they all wear the same livery even though they have separate trades and this would probably be that of one of the many social guilds who did charitable works such as building necessary local constructions and helping poverty-stricken students like the Clerk. Their guild is described as “a solempne and greet fraternitee” [a great and dignified guild]. They therefore do more good for the community than the selfish ecclesiastics. Their fresh and new clothing is “apiked [trimmed]”, a sign of affluence, their knives are mounted, “chaped”, entirely with silver not brass and their girdles and pouches, which are probably status symbols, fit their dignity. Each of them seems a good burgess, worthy to sit on a raised platform in a Guildhall and each has the wisdom and substance to be fit to be elected an alderman or head of the Guild. They have plenty of goods, “catel”, and “rente [income]” and their wives would certainly agree with that. If the wives did not accept this is the case (either that they were affluent or that they were electable) there would be something wrong with them: there are other interpretations of these lines but they must finally mean that the wives enjoyed their privileges. As usual Chaucer has a keen eye for little vanities and sees that the women like to be called Madame and go “al bifore” [first in order] in ceremonies on eves of festivals, having a cloak royally carried. This is another example of a detail that he could not know for certain as a pilgim at this moment but allows himself to claim as omniscient narrator. We note that the men themselves are not over-conscious of status even if they are proud of their positions.

They are the products of a blossoming, burgeoning society, a new middle class, not aristocratic but affluent and dignified. Chaucer normally satirises hypocrisy but these wholly secular men are exempt as they honourably perform useful and charitable functions and keep the processes of communal life running smoothly. They are active and deserve their status and we see, through them, how the Middle Ages is a period of growth and prosperity by means of unions of workers. Chaucer admires those who are good in their trades but he does not here give details of their main occupations, restricting himself to their positions and accoutrements.

The Cook

This is quite a short picture of the cook who accompanies them “for the nones” [for this occasion] who would boil chickens with marrow bones and add “poudre-marchant and galingale” [a sharp flavouring powder and root of sweet cyprus] although there is no mention of how he achieved this whilst travelling. Such realism is not a constraint on Chaucer’s imagination. He can also distinguish a drink of the more expensive and preferable London ale and sups a little too much as the journey progresses. He knows how to perform all the processes of cooking: roasting, “seithe [boiling]”, broiling and frying and also how to make “mortreux [stews]” and bake good pies. This appealing list of accomplishments is undermined by juxtaposition as Chaucer tells us he has a “mormal [ulcer]” on his shin and the food suddenly seems much less appetising: Chaucer the narrator is intent on slight disparagement whilst Chaucer the pilgrim merely comments innocently: “greet harm [misfortune] was it, as it thoughte me” [as it seemed to me] as though no disgust at possible lack of hygiene would be caused by this. A further line to end the portrait tells us that his “blankmanger [capon stew]” was amongst the best but by now this does not tempt the taste buds. The tone is not critical overall as there is frequently praise for those who know their trade and perform it conscientiously and the portrait tells us more about those employing him and their gourmet desires to ensure the best quality food than it does about him.