Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Canterbury Tales General Prologue, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Part II)

I don't think today could have gone less to plan if I had tried. In short: failing technology. I have spent no less than eight hours trying to fix this computer, so another day of not much reading. Annoying especially because I thought there was an outside chance I'd complete Nicholas Nickleby, despite only being two hundred or so pages into it.

But such is life, and I thought I'd celebrate the woman vs. technology victory by actually using the computer and writing a little more on the General Prologue of Canterbury Tales. Part I is here, and Part II is here....

As it turns out, now is a very good time to be reading Canterbury Tales, because I found through a link Jean left me that on 18th April, a re-enactment of the Tales took place, six hundred and twenty five years to the day. Who said Chaucer wasn't still relevant?

I left off my last post having wrote a little about the first twelve pilgrims: The Knight, The Squire, The Yeoman, The Prioress, The Second Nun and Three Priests (only referred to in one line), The Monk, The Friar, The Merchant, and The Clerk. Left are the The Franklin, The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer and Weaver, The Cook, The Shipman, The Physician, The Wife of Bath, The Parson, The Plowman, The Miller, The Manciple, The Reeve, The Summoner, and The Pardoner. 

The Franklin, or Frankelain, is a land owner, so therefore high in social status. He is described to have a "sanguin" (sanguine) complexion, which in Medieval times was attributed to the dominance of blood over the over other three humours. This corresponds with air and spring, and gives a bold and outgoing personality. He is rich, and he is greedy. Chaucer writes,
His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon,
A bettre envyned man was nowher noon.
Withoute bake mete was nevere his hous
Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentevous,
It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke,
Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke. 
(His bread, his ale were always good and fine; /  No man had cellars better stocked with wine. / His house was never short of food and pies /  Of fish and flesh, and these in large supplies / It seemed to snow therein both food and drink / Of every dainty that a man could think). He was once a sheriff, and I think, a tax collector: "A shireve had he be, and a contour".

Next, the The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Webbe (Weaver), Dyer and Tapicer (tapestry-maker) are introduced, all wearing the same uniform. At this point, I think it's worth noting that the descriptions of each character or set of characters becomes a lot less. Not a great deal is said about The Haberdasher et. al., or indeed The Cook (who I can say had an open sore on his shin - "That on his shin a mormal hadde he", which is a little grim given his profession), or The Shipman (who, as you can expect, is well-travelled and known to enjoy more than a little wine - " Ful many a draughte of wyn had he ydrawe / Fro Burdeux-ward"). Whilst they are colourful characters, they're not terribly deep.

The Physician
The Physician, however, is a lot more descriptive, and is another one of my favourites. He is learned, and a good doctor -
 With us ther was a Doctour of Phisik;
In al this world ne was ther noon hym lik,
To speke of phisik and of surgerye,
For he was grounded in astronomye.
He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel
In houres, by his magyk natureel.
Wel koude he fortunen the ascendent
Of his ymages for his pacient.
He knew the cause of everich maladye,
Were it of hoot, or coold, or moyste, or drye,
And where they engendred, and of what humour.
He was a verray parfit praktisour:
The cause yknowe, and of his harm the roote,
Anon he yaf the sike man his boote.
He knows of physics, biology, astronomy, and "natural magic", and more importantly how to apply his knowledge to cure his patients. Unlike The Franklin, he is not greedy ("Of his diete mesurable was he"), has read little of the Bible ("His study was but litel on the Bible"), but he does love gold ("For gold in phisik is a cordial, / Therfore he lovede gold in special").

From the film Sylvia: Plath reciting Chaucer to cows.
The Wife of Bath follows The Physician, and I think she is one of the most loved of all the characters. There's a wonderful poem in Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes that describes Sylvia Plath reciting the Wife's Prologue to a herd of cows:
Chaucer, by Ted Hughes
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .”
At the top of your voice, where you swayed on the top of a stile,
Your arms raised—somewhat for balance, somewhat
To hold the reins of the straining attention
Of your imagined audience—you declaimed Chaucer
To a field of cows. And the Spring sky had done it
With its flying laundry, and the new emerald
Of the thorns, the hawthorn, the blackthorn,
And one of those bumpers of champagne
You snatched unpredictably from pure spirit.
Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester.
It must have sounded lost. But the cows
Watched, then approached: they appreciated Chaucer.
You went on and on. Here were reasons
To recite Chaucer. Then came the Wyf of Bath,
Your favorite character in all literature.
You were rapt. And the cows were enthralled.
They shoved and jostled shoulders, making a ring,
To gaze into your face, with occasional snorts
Of exclamation, renewed their astounded attention,
Ears angling to catch every inflection,
Keeping their awed six feet of reverence
Away from you. You just could not believe it...
The Wife of Bath is indeed larger than life in her head dresses weighing ten pounds, her scarlet tights, red face, gap tooth, large hips, and new shoes:
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
The Wife has been married five times (" Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve"), which was very controversial,and I remember this is looked at in more detail in her prologue. Like The Shipman, she too is well-travelled, and has been on many pilgrimages.

Once again, I'm aware of how long this post is getting! I've looked at The Franklin, The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer and Weaver, The Cook, The Shipman, The Physician, and The Wife of Bath, and I'm left with The Parson, The Plowman, The Miller, The Manciple, The Reeve, The Summoner, and The Pardoner. At this point, we're in about 477 lines, and have just under another 400 to go! So, I'll leave it here and return to Nicholas Nickleby. I'll write more in the week, hopefully just one more post on the Prologue. I hope everyone is interested in this. I know I did say part of the reasons for me posting in detail was so I could feel like I'd engaged more with the characters, and I do believe Chaucer demands a little more study than most books, but all the same I'm aware this might be a little tedious!


  1. I knew I should have added The Canterbury Tales to my Classics Club list. I've been meaning to read it for years.
    I'm enjoying reading your posts immensely so do keep them coming!

  2. Hope you're enjoying it! I've read Canterbury Tales so many times I think I have some passages memorized, somewhat nerdy I know. Anyway, I look forward to more thoughts!


  3. I've only read a limited bit of the CT -- back in high school -- so I really ought to pick this up. I'm enjoying your comments -- and will comment again with real content BUT I had to share this -- a perfumer has made a limited edition perfume line inspired by the Canterbury Tales!

  4. I just ordered a copy of this, but I have no idea when I'll read it. (I also ordered Ulysses.) :)

  5. Glad you're all liking these posts. Reckon I can do the final part in one post :)

    Cat - I will, don't worry! I love this book!

    Alyson of Bathe - I'm really impressed you've got some passages memorised! I want to memorise some now! :)

    Audra - That is so bizarre! Wish I could smell them. So tempting to try and order some...

    Jillian - Yay on both accounts!



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