Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 30

02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 285


by Gerald Morgan

Quel ch’avarizia fa, qui si dichiara

in purgazion de l’anime converse;
e nulla pena il monte ha più amara.
(Dante, Purgatorio)1
The Kyng and Knyghthod and Clergie bothe
Casten that the Commune sholde hem communes fynde.
(Langland, Piers Plowman)2
I woot wel ther is degree above degree, as reson is, and skile is that men
do hir devoir ther as it is due, but certes, extorcions and despit of youre
underlynges is dampnable.
(Chaucer, Parson’s Tale)3

John Dryden found in the diverse company of Canterbury pilgrims evi-

dence that Geoffrey Chaucer himself “must have been a Man of a most
wonderful comprehensive Nature,”4 but sets this judgment in the context
of Chaucer’s use of “the Poet’s Lash” against “the Vices of the Clergy in
his Age: Their Pride, their Ambition, their Pomp, their Avarice, their
Worldly Interest.”5 The recognition of the moral structure on which
Chaucer’s human comedy rests (and indeed relies) has often been over-
looked in the enthusiastic acceptance of the generous and humane view
of life that it also makes possible. Chaucer cannot be removed from the
social, moral, and spiritual values of his age without violence to the fab-
ric and harmony of his poetry. We ought not to be disappointed (from

THE CHAUCER REVIEW, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2003.

Copyright © 2003 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 286


the historical point of view) not to find in his poetry any overt criticism
of the knightly class in the “verray, parfit gentil knyght” (I 72) or any sym-
pathy or even much concern for “Jakke Straw and his meynee” (VII
3394). If we look at the circumstances of Chaucer’s life and poetic career,
we shall see that liberal and democratic points of view, congenial as they
may be to us, are not possible for him.
There is no obvious lack of continuity between Chaucer’s experience
of life and the poetry that he writes, and it is not unreasonable to see life
and poetry as of a piece. He shares the hardships and dangers as well as
the pleasures of the military caste on Edward III’s campaign in France in
1359–60, when he was captured by the enemy at Réthel near Rheims,
surely a formative experience for one of some sixteen or seventeen years
of age.6 He begins to fulfil his training and education at court in the
ways of the best French poetry by writing in 1368 a poem celebrating
the life of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, the daughter of Henry of
Grosmont and first wife of John of Gaunt. Such a man is unlikely to have
viewed the destruction of the Savoy (the palace of John of Gaunt and
formerly the ancestral home of Blanche herself) by the rebels in 1381
with anything other than sadness and alarm, and something of his dis-
taste is reflected in his reference to “the cherles rebellyng” as part of the
malign influence of Saturn in worldly affairs (I 2459).7 We do not have
to go so far as a recent commentator on the General Prologue in describ-
ing him as a “reactionary,”8 for that is to judge him by a political agenda
of which he may be entirely innocent, but we do have to recognize and
come to terms with the settled aristocratic assumptions and perspectives
out of which he writes.
On the evidence of his poetry Chaucer is an urbane and reflective man
able to pursue a successful diplomatic as well as poetic career at court
and in the outward ambience of courts. The political convulsions of the
reigns of Edward III, Richard II, and (at the very end of his life) Henry
IV, the son of Blanche and John of Gaunt, seem to have left him largely
untouched. We have no reason to regard him as a player of any great con-
sequence on the political stage, but he must have been shrewd enough
not to have placed himself at the hazard of political upheaval. He has a
definite position in the social order of his time and no special incentive
to subvert it. Perhaps he is even a principled upholder of the social order.
But he can hardly be set aside as a special case and isolated from the prej-
udices of his age as if unmoved by them. Chaucer’s poetic career could
not have existed without the patronage of kings, princes, and noblemen
and the audience for poetry that courts make possible. Chaucer’s aristo-
cratic perspective is evident in the narrator of the General Prologue. He is
no obtuse bourgeois as E. Talbot Donaldson infers in his famous essay,9
but is inspired by a simple piety or “ful devout corage” (I 22) that is char-
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 287


acteristic of the great lords of the age such as the Black Prince and John
of Gaunt and displayed to such advantage in the figure of Sir Gawain in
the medieval romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.10 He is a pol-
ished speaker of French and thus somewhat amused by the Prioress’s
French, good for an English nunnery, perhaps, if not for a French court
(I 124–26). As the son of a vintner he has no difficulty in recognizing the
Guildsmen for the social upstarts that they are (I 361–64). These are atti-
tudes he has no great wish or need to conceal. His liking for the Prioress
and contempt for the Guildsmen proceed from an unruffled sense of
superiority in performance and in status. Such attitudes do not sit well
with modern egalitarian values, but they can be comfortably shared with
his own equals, lawyers like the distinguished Serjeant and country gen-
tlemen like the affable Franklin. There is a compatibility or harmony
here between sophisticated poet and narrator and also the implied
reader or audience (in ironic and unironic moments alike) that is essen-
tially quite different from the gap (indeed gulf) that exists between
author and narrator in a great American novel like Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn and that is unmistakeably announced in that novel’s
opening lines:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the
name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but that ain’t no matter.
That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth,
mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told
the truth.11

Such a self-conscious distinction between author and narrator is alien

to Chaucer’s own narrating methods. The only time that Chaucer
resorts to the use of a “Pike-County” dialect of his own (and he does so
with a systematic precision that Twain himself would have admired) is
in the Reeve’s Tale, and here not in respect of the Reeve (a Norfolk man)
as narrator but in respect of the northernisms in the speech of the
clerks Aleyn and John, that is, of characters within the fiction. 12 The
reader of the General Prologue is unchallenged by distinctions of class,
literacy, and comprehension between poet and pilgrim narrator but
invited to share in a common but sophisticated perspective as a fellow
observer of the human scene.
The effect of insisting upon a Twain-like distinction between the poet
Chaucer and the pilgrim Chaucer is to dilute the presence of the poet’s
own generosity of spirit, and indeed in the pages of academic criticism
of recent years the companionship of the pilgrims to Canterbury has
become increasingly less congenial. The chivalrous Knight, the admired
defender of the Christian faith, turns out to be no more than “a shabby
mercenary without morals or scruples.”13 The embroidery on the gown
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 288


of his son, the Squire, by way of contrast, serves “to label him allegori-
cally as Youth as well as Lecher, Pride, and Vainglory, in the same man-
ner as an armorial device would identify him socially as belonging to a
family or household.”14 The distinguished if self-important lawyer is mod-
estly and correctly dressed in “a medlee cote” (I 328), and yet we are to
suppose that the implication here is not of Justice upheld, but of Justice
“betrayed.”15 This is to extend to the legal profession itself a presump-
tion of guilt and not of innocence. The hospitable Franklin, like the poet
Chaucer a Justice of the Peace and a Member of Parliament, is “simply a
showoff.”16 The pilgrims in the highest ranks of society, old and young,
are no longer to be seen as “gentil” or noble but as corrupt and disrep-
utable. Their moral depravity, however, is exceeded if anything by their
lack of intelligence and wit in the telling of tales. The Knight repeatedly
praises Theseus as “this worthy duc” (I 1001, 1025, 1742) and “this duc,
this worthy knyght” (I 2190), and yet we are to believe that he has mis-
read the character of a tyrant.17 The Prioress “fails to comprehend either
the horror or the meaning of her own story,” whilst the Merchant
“intending to tell one kind of tale, unwittingly tells another.”18 The Clerk
of Oxenford may be at home with Aristotle’s collected works (I 293–96),
but “perhaps . . . does not understand the revisions Chaucer made in
Petrarch’s version” of the tale he tells since “some of his comments run
counter to the main thrust.”19 The disturbing questions of providential
justice raised in the Man of Law’s Tale are treated “with all the armchair
complacency of a man who has never himself suffered.”20 The Squire and
the Franklin are simply “beyond their depth,” so that in Arveragus, for
example, who “was of chivalrie the flour,” we have yet another unworthy
“worthy knyght” (V 1088, 1460) for whom “all is for show” and whose wife
is no more than “a piece of property.”21 All such interpretations place an
unsupportable burden upon the theory of the obtuse narrator.22 But it is
no more than a theory, and there is no reason why we should persist in
the face of one improbability after another in believing that the narra-
tor is a dull, un-English man, incapable of irony.
The systematic diminishing of the moral worth and discernment of
individual pilgrims in this way does more than alter our perception of
the tales they tell but effectively destroys the social fabric of the world to
which they belong. The pilgrimage to Canterbury and the hierarchy of
the pilgrims by class and rank attest to a singleness of purpose and belief.
Such a pilgrimage is justified (if at all) by the presence of God in his cre-
ation and the social manifestation of such a presence is the stable hier-
archies of social groups. On this view of the world even knights and
squires, merchants and scholars, lawyers and gentlemen, must be given
their due. Indeed, we may suppose in the terms of the medieval pil-
grimage that God in his inscrutable wisdom has chosen to set worthy
knights above learned parsons and honest plowmen.
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 289



The General Prologue is a small masterpiece of medieval art set at the begin-
ning of a huge, fragmentary masterpiece that can only have been the
product of a monumental poetic ambition, understandable in one who
has achieved the finished perfection of Troilus and Criseyde. Had he lived
to complete his design, Chaucer may have set before us in the manner
of his contemporary John Gower a finished work of one hundred and
twenty tales told by thirty pilgrims drawn from the whole range of con-
temporary English society. As Edmund Spenser was set on “overgoing
Ariosto” in a later age so Chaucer may be seen to overgo his admired
Boccaccio whose Decameron (ca. 1337) consists of a hundred tales told by
ten tellers. In the depth and range of the completed tales and in the vari-
ety and interaction of his pilgrim narrators and poetic styles, it may be
said that even in the fragmentary Canterbury Tales Chaucer has gone
beyond the achievement of his Italian precursor. But what is most evident
in the very formation of the idea of the Canterbury Tales is a characteris-
tic medieval love of order and regularity to the point of schematism. The
Summa Theologiae of Aquinas, the Commedia of Dante (an ever-present
influence in the composition of the Troilus), and (less perfectly) the
Confessio Amantis of Gower all testify to the same principle of ordered
composition on a grand or monumental scale. What is true of the
Canterbury Tales in the greatness of its design (an argument for justice in
the face of an inscrutable Providence) is true also of the General Prologue
itself on a smaller scale in the setting of a conspectus of post-feudal
medieval society23 on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket
and hence subject in varying degrees of explicitness to the judgment and
mercy of God. The idea of pilgrimage thus contains in itself judgments
more profound than any merely human or transitory judgments so that
perceptions of human society by Chaucer continually take us beyond par-
ticularized social distinctions to universalized notions of moral judgments
and ultimately to the great questions of spiritual belief. An understand-
ing of the General Prologue requires, therefore, a sense of the interpene-
tration of social, moral, and spiritual values within a specific historical
context. Unsurprisingly, this understanding remains elusive in the
absence of the moral and spiritual consensus (at once English and
Catholic) taken for granted by Chaucer himself.
The structuring of the General Prologue in terms of portraits in a regu-
lar series from the worthy Knight to the hypocritical Pardoner is not in
itself innovative but a product of rhetorical training and artistic emula-
tion.24 Guillaume de Lorris at the beginning of his Roman de la Rose (ca.
1237) presents a series of portraits or figures painted in gold and azure
along the length of the crenellated wall of an enclosed garden. These
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 290


portraits are in order—Haïne flanked by Felonie and Vilanie, Covoitise,

Avarice, Envie, Tri[s]tesce, Vielleice, Papelardie (Hypocrisy), and Povreté
(RR, 129–468)—and they stand for the qualities and conditions that
effectively bar entrance to such a garden. In consequence one will never
find a shepherd (or, say, a plowman) within that garden; it is “uns vergiers
/ ou onc n’avoit esté bergiers” (RR, 467–68).25 Correspondingly within
the garden are to be found a series of couples in a courtly dance: Deduiz
(Pleasure), the lord of the garden, and Leesce (Delight), li dex d’Amors
and Biautez, Richece, Largesce, Franchise, Cortoisie, Oiseuse (Leisure),
Joinece, and their partners (RR, 799–1276). In a similar although briefer
compass Dante describes the carvings (intagli) of three great examples
of humility in Mary, David, and Trajan on the white marble wall or encir-
cling banks of the first terrace of pride on the entry into purgatory
proper (Purg., X.28–99). Much briefer still is Boccaccio’s description of
the paintings of the stories of Ninus’s wife (Semiramis), Pyramus and
Thisbe, Hercules and Iole, Byblis and Caunus on the walls of the temple
of Venus in the Teseida (VII.62).26 All these examples will be familiar to
Chaucer. He is himself in all likelihood the translator of Fragment A of
the Romaunt of the Rose, that part of the Middle English translation of de
Lorris’s seminal poem that includes the two series of portraitures, and
he adapted Boccaccio’s stanza in his own distinctive way and for his own
special purpose as the concluding stanza of the description of the tem-
ple of Venus in the Parliament of Fowls (228–94).
The ordered sequence of portraits in the General Prologue thus satisfies
a medieval not a modern set of aesthetic expectations and is fitly com-
pared to wall paintings and to carvings or statues set in niches on the out-
side of great buildings. The comparison at once suggests the ornate and
decorative skills of medieval craftsmen and the appreciation of such
craftsmanship is an explicit element in the three literary examples just
considered. The garden of the rose is “portrait dehors et entaillié / a
maintes riches escritures” (RR, 132–33) or, in the Middle English trans-
lation, “Portraied without and wel entailled / With many riche portrai-
tures” (Rom, 140–41); the carvings on the terrace of pride are such that
“non pur Policleto, / ma la natura lì avrebbe scorno” (not only Polycletus
but nature would be put to shame there) (Purg., X.32–33), and the deeds
of the wife of Ninus are “con più alto lavoro / . . . distinte” (portrayed
with the finest craftsmanship) (Tes., VII.62:2–3). The only appropriate
response on the part of the beholder or reader is one of awe or delight
in the presence of great art, and this is duly acknowledged by Dante him-
self on the terrace of pride:

Mentr’ io mi dilettava di guardare

l’imagini di tante umilitadi,
e per lo fabbro loro a veder care.
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 291


While I was taking delight in gazing at the images of so great

humilities, dear to sight, too, for their Craftsman’s sake.
(Purg., X.97–99)
The consummate artistry of Chaucer in the General Prologue also awakens
at once delight in the reader, and such a sense of delight does not sort well
with and leaves little room for the sense of superiority occasioned by a nar-
rating voice that is not merely not sublime but is naive and obtuse.
The characteristic gaze of the medieval artist is outward to the created
world (of which works of art come to form a part) and not inward to the
individual psyche. Such a premise is in itself difficult for many modern
readers to accept, and hence as often as not scholarly investigation has
been directed to the supposed limitations of the narrator or Chaucer the
pilgrim rather than to the gallery or company of the pilgrims themselves.
It is as if we cannot see the pilgrims for ourselves but need a mediator
(other than the poet Chaucer) to speak for them on our behalf. Our
sense of the General Prologue has been so colored by Donaldson’s con-
ception of the narrator that we have lost sight of the prologue as a whole.
The unity of the General Prologue is built upon the assembled company
of thirty pilgrims and indeed is supported by the very roundness of that
number. In fact, the calculation of such a number of people gathered
together for a common purpose is not in practice without difficulty. But
the method of counting in a work of art is not a matter of mere arith-
metic. We are certain that there are thirty pilgrims all told since at the
beginning the narrator (an infallible reckoner) assures us that the com-
pany of pilgrims is twenty-nine strong when he joins it:

At nyght was come into that hostelrye

Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle.
(I 23–26)
No one reading or, more especially, listening to the General Prologue for
the first time will want to challenge that number or be distracted from
the descriptions that follow by embarking on an independent count. He
or she will confidently add one to twenty-nine to reach the desired con-
clusion. Scholars and academics on the other hand with more leisure for
reflection (and perhaps other purposes in mind than mere literary enjoy-
ment) will note an odd discrepancy.27 Let us then consider the list of pil-
grims in its schematic outline.
The portraits are disposed into two large social groupings, namely, to
use Chaucer’s own language, “gentils” (I 3113, VI 323) and “commune”
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 292


(IV 70) or even “cherles” (I 2459, X 761). 28 The identification of the

churls among the pilgrims may be difficult for us at this distance in time,
but was evidently not so for Chaucer and his contemporaries, as we learn
from the Miller’s Prologue:

The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this.

So was the Reve eek and othere mo.
(I 3182–83)
The company of gentles comprises fourteen pilgrims of whom ten are
given full-length portraits in 318 lines of text (I 43–360) and that of the
commons sixteen pilgrims disposed into twelve portraits in 354 lines of
text (I 361–714).
The gentles themselves are subdivided into three groups:

1. Three fighters (Knight, Squire, Yeoman).

2. Three prayers corresponding to the fighters in terms of the weight
and impact of their portraits (Prioress, Monk, Friar), but accom-
panied also by the Prioress’s chaplain (a nun) and three priests.
3. Four socially distinguished pilgrims, classifiable alike “as . . . pere-
galle to a squyere of honoure” in John Russell’s Book of Nurture
(1066),29 and united by status, wealth, education, and moral aspi-
ration (Merchant, Clerk, Serjeant of Law, and Franklin).

The focus on the military and religious orders in the first two groups is
an indication on Chaucer’s part that the traditional division of medieval
society into three estates remains as the basis of his own perception of
the social classes, and the fact that he gives priority to those who fight is
a sympathetic reflection of his own courtly background.30 The claim of
the Prioress to the status of a great lady is evident in her entourage of
four, precisely twice the number of that of the worthy Knight. The limits
of gentility are no less precisely articulated in the use of the word vava-
sour as the final word in the portrait of the Franklin (I 360), for the word
is the marker of an ancient and settled gentility, albeit of a secondary and
perhaps also provincial character.31
The commoners are similarly subdivided by Chaucer into three groups:

1. The first group of five portraits is largely a grouping of prosperous

members of the growing bourgeoisie (five Guildsmen, their Cook,
the Shipman, the Physician, and the Wife of Bath).
2. The second grouping is of the Parson and his brother the Plowman.
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 293


3. The third group of five portraits is, as “ye knowe wel,” a grouping
of churls.
The traditional medieval classification of the estates is evident here also
in the linking of the Parson, a “good man . . . of religioun” (I 477), and
the Plowman, “A trewe swynkere and a good was he” (I 531), and in the
placing of them in the midst of the higher and lower groups. The iden-
tification of the Guildsmen as haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, and
weaver of tapestries sets a limit to their social status, since for all their
material prosperity they belong to guilds of the second rank. 32 In the
grouping of five figures in a single portrait there is perhaps a suggestion
that the commoners are to be defined as much by their weight of num-
bers as by their status as individuals. There are in the Middle Ages, as at
all periods, many more of them than there are gentles, although the com-
position of Chaucer’s pilgrims is determined by social significance rather
than by numerical proportions.
There are, then, no fewer than twenty-two full-length portraits of the
Canterbury pilgrims. We may well believe that there are twenty-nine of
them in total, although there are in fact thirty. The narrator or pilgrim
Chaucer is indeed a distinct addition to that number. He is fittingly a ret-
icent member of the company and places himself with due courtesy and
without evident fear of misconstruction at the end of the list of churls (I
542–44), thus promoting a sense of the inclusiveness of the society of pil-
grims as a whole in the sight of God. Indeed, only a man without affec-
tation and of ease of manner could so readily have insinuated himself
among so diverse a band of people. Unobtrusive courtesy is the secret of
such social success, and such unobtrusiveness is the mark of the poet’s
art no less than of the character of the pilgrim narrator.33
Although it is possible to make too much of Chaucer the pilgrim as an
artistic medium, we are given sufficient indications of his nature as to
harmonize him with the pilgrimage of which he himself comes to form
a part. There are three related ideas that are introduced with the narra-
tor into the narrative of the pilgrimage and that permanently shape our
sense of his presence. The first is the established fact of his religious devo-
tion, for he is already determined upon a pilgrimage of his own before
he meets his fellow pilgrims, and is ensconced in the Tabard Inn when
they arrive and join him there (I 19–27). All the pilgrims, indeed, have
come together by the accident of their common purpose (“by aventure,”
I 25). The pilgrim Chaucer, then, is properly one of the fellowship who
shares the aspirations, values, and beliefs of a true pilgrim, and not
merely a reporter or interested spectator. The proper outcome of the pil-
grimage matters to him and is of direct, personal concern. At the same
time he is fully appreciative of the material comforts of the hostelry (I
28–29) and makes no pretence of holiness in the manner of a Papelardie,
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 294


or “Poope-Holy,” holding a “sauter . . . in honde” (Rom, 415, 431). It is

unnecessary for him in such a company to make claims to an extraordinary
devotion that would be more fitting in a hermit or an anchorite.
Indeed, his devotion is the more convincing in that he does not dress
it up in the forms of austerity, and in such a place and at such a time
we have no cause to doubt his Christian convictions. It is Chaucer the
pilgrim’s sociability, then, that impresses us along with his simple piety.
He is at ease in the company of the pilgrims and they with him, so that
he “was of hir felaweshipe anon” (I 32). Such ready acceptance into any
group of people is hardly possible for one who is either credulous or
The narrator of the General Prologue is both actually and fictionally a
part of the social order that he describes and a means for us of entry into
it (for it has passed irrecoverably away). Sincerity of religious belief, assur-
ance of social status, and a love of the society of one’s fellow men and
women are all to be cultivated in order to experience the unity of
Chaucer’s real and imagined worlds. Sincerity requires a lack of cynicism
in the object of belief, social ease requires tolerance as well as success,
and the love of human society a generous estimate of the possibilities of
human nature.34 This is indeed the spirit of the Canterbury pilgrimage
so memorably described by Dryden, but such freedom of the spirit flour-
ishes only in a society that is stable and secure, and thus makes room for
and is reflected by the orderliness and rationality of art. It is in this light
that we must understand the schematic completeness and poetic mastery
of the General Prologue. In his sequence of portraits Chaucer has suc-
ceeded in keeping before us the social, moral, and spiritual dimensions
of human life, not only in themselves but also in their relation to one
another. It is indeed the very setting of the pilgrimage that makes possi-
ble this threefold pattern of human experience. In a way the very trans-
parency of his design has been too subtle for us. To appreciate it,
therefore, we need to consider the elements of the Chaucerian universe
in their due order—social, moral, and spiritual.


It is hard to understand why the social organization of the General Prologue

in terms of class or “estaat” (I 716) and rank or “degree” (I 40) is so per-
sistently misinterpreted in terms of the class distinctions of a later age.
Even a scholar such as Laura Hodges who has done so much to clarify
the details of costume in the General Prologue, and not least their social
implications, is apt to invoke “the middle range of society” and even
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 295


“upper middle-class commoners and gentles.”35 It is as if, in social terms

at any rate, our thinking is still fixed in the structures of later Victorian
and Edwardian society. Worse still, the perspective of the middle class has
been privileged by being imposed on the narrator himself and so has jus-
tified a reading of the text that is thoroughly anachronistic. Urban life
may be in the process of expansion in the fourteenth century, but it is as
nothing compared to the industrial societies of Europe and America in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The dominant values for
Chaucer remain those of the country and not of the town, and of the old
feudal nobility rather than emergent mercantile interests. Chaucer has
no vision of industrialized society and its concomitant middle classes to
offer, but he is an acute observer and member of his own society. In this
sense he and his art are timebound.
The middle class as a cohesive social group with distinct values and
aspirations that set it apart from the upper (or aristocratic) class and
lower (or working) class is absent from Chaucer’s world and in conse-
quence absent from the fiction of the pilgrimage. The distinction that
matters in the medieval world is that which separates the gentle or noble
from the rest, and there is no doubt that in the fiction of the Canterbury
pilgrimage the “gentils” are recognized as a coherent social grouping.
They are the ones best able to judge the worth of the Knight’s Tale as “a
noble storie” (I 3111), and they are the ones to sound the note of alarm
at the prospect of a ribald tale from the Pardoner (VI 323–24), for they
know him to be a persuasive hypocrite and as such (unlike the Miller and
the Reeve, for example) a threat to social well-being. It is, as here, the
perception of class that counts, whether of inclusion or exclusion. The
Franklin’s Tale itself is an argument for the inclusiveness of class, the inclu-
siveness, that is, of Knights, Squires, and Clerks, but not of Guildsmen,
Millers, and Reeves.
In any society, and certainly in medieval society, the number of gen-
tles is small. All who are not gentle (and that is the overwhelming mass
of the population) constitute the commons. The commoners thus
include people of varying degrees of wealth and even of some material
prosperity. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the very poor could afford to
be in such a company of pilgrims as Chaucer describes on a pilgrimage
to Canterbury. None of the pilgrims is in rags and tatters, or in clothes
that are soiled and stained like the coat of Langland’s “Haukyn the actif
man” (PPl, B.13.458)36 save for the tunic of the worthy Knight (a sober
comment on the limits of human virtue). A certain material respectabil-
ity is not sufficient to confer on one the status of a gentleman or of true
gentility. There may not have been any gentleman or gentlewoman with
Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise, but Chaucer is not apt to confuse
the pilgrim route to Canterbury with the Garden of Eden.
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 296


Thus Chaucer as an artist works within the accepted social boundaries

of his age, although as in all ages the boundaries are challenged by some
and unacceptable to others. Hence social distinctions are reinforced at
every point in the General Prologue by the dress or “array” of the pilgrims,
and the narrator draws the fact explicitly to our attention at the begin-
ning and end of the sequence of portraits (I 41, 716). Thus the all-impor-
tant distinction between the classes of gentle and non-gentle that comes
between the Franklin and the upstart Guildsmen is underlined by the
contrast between the Franklin’s “anlaas” or dagger and “gipser” or silk
purse (I 357) and the Guildsmen’s “knyves” and “pouches” (I 366, 368).
The difference in linguistic register is a precise marker of difference in
social status. The word pouch is used also by Chaucer in the context of
the peacock-like ostentation of the miller in the Reeve’s Tale who bore a
“joly poppere . . . in his pouche” (I 3931), whereas the word gipser is not
otherwise found in his works and signifies rather ‘the expensive purse of
a gentleman of refined tastes.’37 Similarly, anlaas, a rare word like gipser
of French derivation, is not elsewhere used by Chaucer and signifies ‘a
two-edged stiletto or dagger’ (MED), the kind of weapon that is not for
show but for use in battle. Arthur delivers the deathblow “with ane
anlace” in the alliterative Morte Arthure (1148) as he is wrestled to the
ground by the giant of Saint Michael’s Mount.38 The Franklin’s dress and
no less significantly the distinctive vocabulary identifying that dress link
him to that world of chivalry and gentilesse of which he speaks so feelingly
when it comes to the telling of his tale. The Franklin stands on one side
of the social division and the Guildsmen for all their ambitions on the
other. Indeed, the very ambitions of the Guildsmen tell us that material
prosperity in itself does not suffice to make a gentleman.
Among both gentles and commoners details of dress serve to define
both function and status. The Knight’s tunic may be stained by his coat
of mail (I 75–76), but we may be certain that his sword, like the Yeoman’s
dagger, is “sharp as point of spere” (I 114) and not “rusty” like that of the
Reeve (I 618). He does not after all, like Chrétien’s Chevalier de la
Charrete (Lancelot), fail through impetuosity to ensure the good con-
dition of his horses (I 74).39 The Squire, his son, like any passionate
young man seeking the love of his lady, is dressed in the height of fash-
ion, “Embrouded . . . as it were a meede / Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte
and reede” (I 89–90), and yet his manliness has already been proved in
battles “In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie” (I 86), the blood-soaked
fields of European conflict down through the centuries that have parted
many a young lover from his sweetheart. The Yeoman is “clad in cote and
hood of grene” (I 103), in all likelihood Lincoln green rather than the
coarse Kendal green.40 He is dressed for war and not for show (I 104–14),
and in his care to “dresse his takel yemanly” (I 106) announces himself
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 297


as an obedient and faithful servant of his lord, the worthy Knight. The
class of gentles as a whole is unified by the subtle discrimination of dress,
and even embraces in this way the Clerk of Oxenford who has higher
things on his mind than the propriety of appearance.
When we turn to the commons, we find by contrast a certain vulgarity
in the flaunting of material prosperity, most notably perhaps in the osten-
tatious headgear of the Wife of Bath (I 453–55). Elegant coverchiefs, so
beruffled as to suggest heaviness of weight, were fashionable in the 1380s,
and are at once a statement of the Wife of Bath’s marital and legal status
and of her economic status and wealth.41 At the same time the foot-man-
tle, a kind of petticoat or overskirt tied about the hips, that she wears to
protect her gown when on horseback (I 472), is eminently practical but
not the kind of thing that a lady would wear.42 The Wife of Bath clearly
belongs to the same world of trade as the Guildsmen and is at one with
them in her vanity and desire to be taken note of in company. She is eager
to be first in the procession to the altar to make offerings at Mass (I
449–52), for a procession, an important part of medieval social display, is
precisely the place where one’s consequence in society will be formally
The contrast between the material preoccupations of the prosperous
bourgeois and the simplicity of life of the humble Parson could hardly
be more marked or more profound. Indeed, the lengthy portrait of the
Parson that runs to fifty-two lines (I 477–528) has no reference to dress
or equipment whatsoever save for the staff in his hand on his visits by
foot to his flock in the remotest parts of his parish (I 491–95). It is a
“noble ensample” (I 496) of holiness of living that is emphatically stated
at the beginning of the portrait (I 477–79), in the middle (I 505–506),
and at the end (I 525–28). Such holiness is entirely expressed by
Chaucer in terms of the inwardness of virtue and its corresponding out-
ward acts, and it leaves no space for the mere appearance of virtue. We
are left with the impression that the Parson has no time for the niceties
of dress, but less obviously so than the Clerk of Oxenford in whom it is
possible to imagine a kind of academic affectation in the threadbare
coat. The portrait of the Plowman in its briefer compass (I 529–41) is in
a way a pendant to that of the Parson and shows the example of a life of
“parfit charitee” (I 532) in the laboring estate as well as in the religious
estate, and is surely reinforced in the mind of a contemporary audience
by the example of honest labor in Langland’s representation of Piers
the Plowman. The sobriety and humility of the Plowman’s lifestyle is
identified by the simple reference to the “tabard” (I 541) that he wears
without specification of its color. Although the low social status of the
Plowman is thus unambiguously identified, there are in him none of the
marks of destitution or extreme poverty. He is both a humble and a pros-
perous peasant.43
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 298


Even among the peasants or churls (as anyone from a working-class

background will still testify) there are distinctions of rank to be observed,
and these too are formulated by reference to dress. The sumptuary leg-
islation of 1363 classifies three groups among the lowest ranks of com-
moners in terms of the price range of clothing that is allowable to
members of each group, as follows:

1. Artisans or craftsmen and yeomen, including millers and carpen-

ters, up to forty shillings.
2. Servants, including cooks and manciples, up to two marks (26s 8d).
3. Husbandmen, including carters, plowmen, cowherds, and shep-
herds, up to twelve pence.44

Thus we can place the Miller, Reeve, Manciple, Cook, and Plowman in
due order, although it is not an order precisely followed in the General
Prologue. The portrait of the Cook is set directly after that of his masters
the Guildsmen (I 379–87) so as to emphasize and at the same time sub-
vert their social aspirations, but the true social level of the Cook is seen
in the dramatic interchange with the Manciple in the Manciple’s Prologue
(IX 1–104). The Plowman is promoted above his rank so that Chaucer
can draw attention to the ideal harmony between the clerical and labor-
ing estates in much the same fashion as Langland focuses on the social
contract between plowman, lady, and knight in Piers Plowman, B.6.3–58
(the plowing of the half acre). The Miller possesses a certain eminence
within his social class and takes precedence over a college servant like
the Manciple. Such a status seems to be confirmed by the wearing of the
blue hood,45 and also perhaps by the miller of the Reeve’s Tale who is inor-
dinately proud of “his estaat of yomanrye” (I 3949) and eager to preserve
it. The portrait of the Manciple is placed between that of the Miller and
the Reeve (I 567–86), although in the list of names at lines 542–44 that
of the Manciple is placed fifth and last. The order in the list of names
seems to be exact in terms of social precedence, and the setting of the
portrait of the Manciple between those of Miller and Reeve is to be
explained by some other principle of social organization. The explana-
tion is perhaps that the interest of social harmony requires that such pro-
fessional antagonists as miller and carpenter be kept apart in the same
way as it requires a parson and a plowman to be brought together.
Indeed, when it comes to the journey itself, the Miller and the Reeve are
at the furthest possible remove, the loud-mouthed Miller leading the way
with his “baggepipe” (I 565–66) and the watchful and suspicious Reeve
“evere . . . the hyndreste of oure route” (I 622).
Departures from the social classification of the pilgrims, although few,
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 299


are acknowledged by Chaucer with a characteristic rhetorical flourish.

We are hardly to suppose that he is ignorant of the norms of polite
speech when he puts coarse language into the mouths of his churls (I
725–42), and in the same way we are not to suppose him ignorant of the
vital distinction of rank if at times he has “nat set folk in hir degree /
Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde” (I 744–45).46 The use of
the rhetorical figure of diminutio at this point—”My wit is short, ye may
wel understonde” (I 746)—discourages any such assumption of igno-
rance and directs attention to considerations more important than those
of social status, namely moral and spiritual considerations. Here indeed
we shall find persuasive reasons for the placing of the portraits of the
Summoner and the Pardoner at the very end, although not at the end of
the list at lines 542–44. These are matters of supreme importance to such
a pilgrim as the Clerk of Oxenford, for the Clerk’s love of learning (per-
haps like that of Chaucer himself) is manifest above all in his love of
virtue (I 307–308). This relation of learning and virtue is built into the
structure of Piers Plowman, for the acquisition of knowledge of the good
in the first vision of Dowel (Passus 8–12) precedes the doing of good in
the second vision of Dowel (Passus 13–14), whilst the inner vision of the
first vision of Dowel stresses through the example of Trajan the profun-
dity of the truth that justice and love are superior to learning (PPl,
B.11.4–404). In a later age Samuel Johnson was to insist that learning is
not to be valued for its own sake but only insofar as it is allied to virtuous
action in the world.47


There is usually not much choice as to the social class to which one
belongs, and as often as not the accident of birth is apt to be decisive.
Hence a humane and generous view of life will look to matters of pro-
founder import than those of social class. Human beings are distin-
guished among other living species by the possession of a rational soul,
and hence are what they are by the choices they make. As the Clerk of
Oxenford will understand from his reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean
Ethics, moral virtue is a habit or state of character concerned with choice,
lying in a mean in regard to us as determined by reason and as under-
stood by a wise man.48 A human identity is thus more truly moral than
social, and in consequence Chaucer attaches a greater significance to the
moral identity than to the social identity of his pilgrims. Hence the first
in the list of pilgrims is the Knight, a man of proven moral excellence
and most worthy of admiration, and the last is the Pardoner, a hypocrite
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 300


who is worthy only of detestation. The Knight as an exemplar of chivalry

is indeed inspired by the love of virtue whereas the Pardoner is consumed
by the love of money, the root, as he tells us so eloquently, of all evils,
Radix malorum est Cupiditas (VI 334, 426). These moral polarities are not
to be mistaken, and they are set out by Chaucer with a degree of explicit-
ness at the beginning and end of the series of portraits. The Knight
“loved chivalrie, / Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie” (I 45–46)
whereas the Pardoner with his relics:

Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;
And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,
He made the person and the peple his apes.
(I 703–706)
It is to be noted that the Knight is not simply brave, faithful, honorable,
generous, and courteous, but that he loves these things. Thus Aristotle
explains that to be just is not simply to do what the just man does but to
do it in the way that the just man does it, namely promptly and with plea-
sure.49 The claim that the Knight is a mercenary without morals or scru-
ples is a contradiction of all the explicit assurances of the text and also
of the very structure of the General Prologue as a whole. It is as if we were
to put Piccarda in the second circle of hell with Semiramis and Dido (Inf.,
V) and elevate Francesca da Rimini to the sphere of Venus to join the
company of Cunizza and Folco (Par., IX). To set money in the place of
virtue is indeed to be deplored, and not least when it is done by a knight
(as no doubt it was done by many knights) when the grave consequences
of life and death are at stake. It is a perversion of the order of justice, and
when it is found in a figure such as the Pardoner it is a perversion of the
very purposes of pilgrimage itself.
The love of virtue as distinct from the love of money, or as medievals
put it, cupiditas, is the differentiating characteristic of all the Canterbury
pilgrims who are considered to be most worthy of admiration. The Clerk
of Oxenford is not to be found in “robes riche” but in a “thredbare . . .
courtepy” (I 296, 290), and is not bloated by feasting like Langland’s
Doctor of Divinity, “Goddes gloton . . . with hise grete chekes” (PPl,
B.13.78), but emaciated by the long and patient discipline of learning (I
287–89). He is rather like Langland’s lunatic, “a leene thyng withalle,”
who speaks “clergially” (PPl, B.Prol.123–24) on the subject of justice. One
must be mad, Langland suggests with ironic gravity, to put the love of
truth and justice before material advancement. But it is the very rigor of
his life that lends authenticity to the Clerk’s speech, “[s]ownynge,” as it
does, “in moral vertu” (I 307). There is nothing of political correctness
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 301


or the desire to please in the Clerk of Oxenford’s utterances. His words

have been weighed by careful thought and a persistent study of the best
texts, including no doubt Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the com-
mentary on it of Aquinas. The Parson, too, practices what he preaches.
He does not desert his own parishioners to seek out a more lucrative liv-
ing for himself as a chantry priest at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, for “He was
a shepherde and noght a mercenarie” (I 514). It is this exemplary pat-
tern of living that gives him the right and alone gives him the right
(indeed it becomes in him a sacred duty) to rebuke wrongdoing in oth-
ers irrespective of class or status (I 521–23). Such devotion in a parish
priest cannot be improved upon, and it is duly acknowledged by the nar-
rator: “A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys” (I 524). Indeed,
Langland’s Clergy defines Dobest in just these terms as the just censure
of the wicked by those who are pure in spirit:

“Thanne is Dobest to be boold to blame the gilty,

Sythenes thow seest thiself as in soule clene;
Ac blame thow nevere body and thow be blameworthy.”
(PPl, B.10.258–60)
The Parson’s brother, the Plowman, like Piers the Plowman himself,
brings this idea of Christian devotion to fruition in the life of the honest
laborer. He is able to see that there is more to life than the acquisition
of material goods by hard work. He sets “his hoole herte” first and fore-
most on the love of God “[a]t alle tymes” (I 533–34) and is prepared to
work for the poor “Withouten hire, if it lay in his myght” (I 538). This
ideal pattern of living in which material goods are subordinated to spir-
itual goods is easy to enunciate but hard to realize, as Piers the Plowman
comes to recognize in his quarrel with the priest over the pardon sent by
Truth. Even the righteous laborer has to learn to “swynke noght so harde”
and to turn to the plow “Of preieres and of penaunce” (PPl, B.7.118,
120). The presence of the Plowman among the pilgrims to Canterbury
is evidence that he shares the hard-won conviction of Piers, and lends
credibility to the idea of pilgrimage in itself.
It is possible to believe, therefore, that human beings can choose the
ends of moral virtue in much the way that they are set out philosophi-
cally in the Nicomachean Ethics, and that they are perfected by the habit
of virtuous living. This philosophical notion of moral virtue is given a
human identity and a poetic substance by Chaucer in the portraits of the
Knight, the Clerk of Oxenford, the Parson, and the Plowman. There is
nothing to prevent our acceptance of these portraits at face value. No
presumption of naivete is required, unless we wish to say that Aristotle’s
account of moral virtue is incredible and that the Clerk is unwise in
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 302


investing so much of his intellectual effort in studying Aristotle. Moreover,

by setting two of the portraits of moral virtue among the gentles and two
among the commoners, Chaucer seems to be asserting the possibility of
a virtuous life at any level of society.
When we turn to the commons, we find that the pursuit of material
wealth is less subtle, indeed, not subtle at all. The Guildsmen are the very
picture of robust affluence with their equipment “Ful fressh and newe .
. . apiked” (I 365). If money is all that counts, their claims for social
advancement and respect will be hard to resist, “For catel hadde they
ynogh and rente” (I 373). Here we are reminded that money is not (or
ought not) to be everything. In the case of the Merchant, the situation
is somewhat different, for the huge sums at his disposal are impossible
in practice for influential people to ignore. But then the Merchant will
be obliged to conform at least outwardly to the standards of gentility by
the avoidance of extravagant display. The Physician does not come high
in Chaucer’s estimation for all his medical learning, and correspondingly
is dressed colorfully or even loudly but not with any great refinement or
elegance. His gaudy appearance reminds us uncomfortably of the fact
that physicians still make money even as the health of their patients
declines. Indeed the Physician’s love of money, verging perhaps on char-
latanism, is too transparent to be disguised, “For gold in phisik is a cor-
dial, / Therefore he lovede gold in special” (I 443–44). Excessive profits
from the needy sick make for an unhealthiness in the pursuit of health
and arouse indignation rather than respect. The nexus of learning and
profit is distasteful, and it is surely significant that the Physician relies on
many authorities (no fewer than fifteen are specified at I 429–34),
whereas the Clerk of Oxenford relies on only one. It is the appearance
of authority in the face of error that is so vital to the Physician if he is to
win money, and in the case of the failure of one remedy, there is always
another authority to consult and another remedy to propose. No physi-
cian will want to rely on payment by result, for, as Aristotle says, not health
but the promotion of health is the object of medical science.50 The moral
(not to say spiritual) shortcomings of the Physician are the object of a
straightforward denunciation of a kind that is nowadays reserved for the
profits of pharmaceutical companies. The Physician deserves his place
between the Guildsmen and the Wife of Bath and is fittingly linked with
the Pardoner in the telling of tales (Fragment VI). In a way, too, the
Shipman deserves to precede him in the sequence of portraits. We do
not expect a “nyce conscience” (I 398) among pirates, but at least we can
admire the courage of those who venture their lives upon the sea (I
405–9). The portrait of the Wife of Bath completes this upper group of
commoners and fittingly so, perhaps, in the sense that her pride, vanity,
and ostentatious wealth (I 449–57) are characteristic of them all. In the
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 303


midst of the commons we find the true man of religion and the honest
laborer, and an optimistic view of the soundness of society as a whole if
not of the entirety of its constituent parts. But when we come to the lower
group of commoners, we have crossed the line that divides honesty or
perhaps mere obedience to the law from material acquisitiveness. The
Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve have long since learned the tricks of
their trade and are experts in sharp practice; the Miller “Wel koude . . .
stelen corn and tollen thries” (I 562), the Manciple “Algate . . . wayted
so in his achaat / That he was ay biforn and in good staat” (I 571–72),
and the Reeve is far too clever in his accounting to be detected in his
fraudulence by any accountant: “Ther was noon auditour koude on him
wynne” (I 594). In life’s battle of wits, the lawyer and the gentleman must
often yield the victory to their servants. Thus the Manciple’s “lewed
mannes wit” surpasses “The wisdom of an heep of lerned men” (I
574–75), and the Reeve can satisfy himself and his lord at the same time
(I 610–12). There is a kind of complicity here between lord and servant,
for the one can hardly function without the help of the other. It does not
pay to inquire too closely into deals that work, and the well-being of soci-
ety depends upon a measure of acquiescence. The world is unlikely to
be changed or improved by too strict a reckoning of material accounts.
The poet Chaucer is amused rather than indignant at this state of affairs.
Thus the superior cunning of the Manciple to his learned masters is “of
God a ful fair grace” (I 573). On the other hand there is an unhealthy
moral gap separating the Miller and the Reeve as we discover from their
respective tales; the one is crude and bawdy, but also transparent and at
times exceedingly funny, whereas the other is vengeful and malignant.
The Miller, Manciple, and Reeve are rightly placed in the lowest ranks of
the pilgrims, but we are reminded also that there is more than one order
of classification that operates in life.

If moral values and judgments are to have any bearing upon reality or
claim upon us, it is necessary that they be metaphysically grounded,
whether in a Platonic Idea of the Good or an Aristotelian First Mover or
a Christian God. Chaucer—the master poet, that is, not the surrogate
narrator—begins the General Prologue not with a set of moral precepts but
with the setting of a pilgrimage linked to the cyclical pattern of the nat-
ural world. In these celebrated opening lines Chaucer writes with all the
assurance of a European maestro at the height of his powers. The open-
ing verse paragraph moves with clarity and ease from the showers of April
to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. In the smooth but varied flow of
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 304


the iambic pentameters we see why it is that Matthew Arnold was so

enraptured by the “liquid diction” and the “fluid movement” of
Chaucer’s verse.51 The heroic couplets are mostly end-stopped and yet
allow for the variation of enjambment and strong caesura in the sixth
and seventh lines: “Inspired hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre
croppes. . . .” The clarity of the verse paragraph as a whole is signalled by
the temporal conjunctions leading to a concluding temporal adverb—
”Whan that Aprill . . . Whan Zephirus eek . . . Thanne longen folk . . .”
(I 1, 5, 12)—and yet allowance is made for a complication in this pro-
gressive movement by a parenthetical aside—”(So priketh hem Nature
in hir corages)” (I 11). The paragraph is brought to a definitive closure
by the rime riche or identical rhyme (an exact rhyme) of the final couplet:
“The hooly blisful martir for to seke, / That hem hath holpen whan that
they were seeke” (I 17–18). These are the lines of the master craftsman
and inspired poet, and no one has yet felt the need to invoke the pres-
ence of a narrating voice distinct from the poet to explain them. It is the
poet Chaucer who has set his account of human nature in the context of
created nature at large and of the need for pilgrimage. Human nature
is apprehended at once as something God-given and part of a divinely
created universe and also as something that imperfectly fulfils its pur-
poses in the divine scheme of things.
One would hesitate, however, to describe the opening description of
an English spring as naturalistic in its primary inspiration. At the very
least the juxtaposition of April’s “shoures soote” and “the droghte of
March” (I 1–2) is problematic, for we (the English, at any rate) are not
apt to associate London and Kent in March with an absence of rain. In
failing to do so, we are at least partly in error, and fittingly it has taken
a scholar from Texas to explain our error to us.52 Chaucer has seized
upon the characteristic dryness of March and made it perfectly or poet-
ically dry so as to emphasize the contrast in nature between the dead-
ness of winter and the new life of spring. Thus March is described in
Wynnere and Wastoure as “the dede monethe” (276).53 The passage from
death to life in nature is emphasized by Chaucer at the beginning of his
poetic career in the Book of the Duchess in the contrast between the earth
adorned with flowers where “Flora and Zephirus / . . . / Had mad her
dwellynge” and “the povertee / That wynter, thorgh hys colde morwes,
/ Had mad hyt suffre” (BD, 402–404, 410–12). In the same way we are
introduced in the General Prologue to an earth cured of its suffering or
“bathed . . . in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour” (I
3–4) as a background to the presentation of pilgrims “holpen” by Saint
Thomas à Becket “whan that they were seeke” (I 18). Thus the simple
and assured, clear and varied, opening verse paragraph testifies, above
all, not to a description of the natural world but to the very idea of pil-
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 305


grimage itself. Donaldson was right, therefore, to point to the non-

naturalistic character of Chaucer’s poetic art, but wrong to look for a con-
tinental rather than an English source of inspiration for the drought of
March.54 It is only in England that a dry March is followed by a wet April.
On the continent of Europe, a dry March is followed by an even drier
April. By the same token, the company of English pilgrims seek their sal-
vation at the shrine of an English saint in those old days of pre-
Reformation English Catholicism. They do not set out for Saint James of
Compostella or saints at Rome, sites of pilgrimage familiar to a seasoned
traveller such as the Wife of Bath (I 463–66), and they seem to have taken
to heart the teaching of Langland’s Reason (that is, prudence) that God
is to be found nearer home:

And til Seint James be sought there I shal assigne—

That no man go to Galis but if he go for evere.
(PPl, B.4.126–27)
The setting of the pilgrimage impresses on us at the outset the ineradi-
cable fact of human sinfulness, for pilgrimage is satisfaction for sin. No
praise that can be accorded any of the pilgrims suffices to contradict this
view. A neglect of this simple but central proposition may explain why
some readers can regard praise of the Knight’s moral excellence as bland
or insipid.55 Pilgrimage is properly reserved for the end of one’s days in
this world as moral effort yields to a final judgment. It is this sense, in
Dante’s words, of “lo cammin corto / di quella vita ch’al termine vola”
(the short road of that life which flies to its end) (Purg., XX.38–39) that
fills the minds and souls of Chaucer’s pilgrims, and is shared perhaps
even by a young man like the Squire who has already had to confront the
possibility of his own imminent death in battle. The Knight himself has
labored on the field of battle for some forty years (from the siege of
Algeçiras in 1342–44 to the crusade in Prussia, Lithuania, and Russia with
the Teutonic knights in 1385) and in this respect resembles Langland’s
Piers the Plowman who has himself fought the good fight for forty years
in following Truth:

I have ben his folwere al this fourty wynter—

Bothe ysowen his seed and suwed hise beestes,
Withinne and withouten waited his profit.
I dyke and I delve, I do that he hoteth.
(PPl, B.5.542–45)56
As the time has come for the Knight “to doon his pilgrymage” (I 78), so also
is it time for Piers to answer to God for what he has done with his life:
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 306


“For now I am old and hoor and have of myn owene,

To penaunce and to pilgrimage I wol passe with thise othere.”
(PPl, B.6.83–84)
Praise of the one as of the other is morally realistic and by no means naive
or superficial. The honest laborer has on one occasion “manged over
muche” and so has been unable to work for a whole week (PPl,
B.6.252–57), and the worthy Knight cannot remain long on campaign
before his tunic becomes stained with rust from his coat of mail (I
75–76). Chaucer’s praise of the Knight (the very best of men) does not
overlook but is set within the context of his human imperfection, as is
the praise of Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its relation to
a pentangle and not a circle. Chaucer does not wish to elaborate upon
the faults and shortcomings of so excellent a man (surely it would be
churlish of him to do so), but gently reminds us of them in the reference
to his presence on the pilgrimage in the final lines of the portrait (I
77–78). The life of the Knight, hazarded yet one more time on the field
of battle, is again spared so that he is enabled to make peace with his
Maker. In this sense the military campaigns and the pilgrimage to
Canterbury are complementary activities.
The end of pilgrimage is satisfaction for sin, and it is carried out in the
certain knowledge of a final reckoning by God for one’s freely chosen
acts. This is the insistent message of Everyman, “a moral play” (3), writ-
ten a century or so after the General Prologue, in which “our Heaven King
/ Calleth Everyman to a general reckoning” (19–20).57 It is a reckoning
that must be, unlike that of the Reeve to his lord and master, both “strait,”
that is, precise and exact, and “crystal-clear” (Everyman, 333, 898).
Chaucer is less explicit and more sophisticated, but such a reckoning is
also at the moral center of his pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrims in
their different fashions and at their various social levels set out on pil-
grimage in the knowledge of God’s all-seeing judgment and in the hope
of his grace. The idea of pilgrimage thus incorporates ideas of judgment
and of pardon, and it is for this reason that the portraits of the
Summoner and the Pardoner (I 623–68, 669–714) come at the end of
the series of portraits and are given such extended treatment. At the end
of the General Prologue as at the beginning, it is the idea of pilgrimage that
is paramount. As the Summoner calls offenders to the ecclesiastical court,
so God summons creatures to answer for their lives, and as the Pardoner
dispenses papal indulgences to sinners willing and gullible enough to
believe in them and pay for them, so God dispenses his indulgence to
sinners who put their faith in him and seek his mercy. Thus Langland’s
Truthe or God “[p]ardon with Piers the Plowman . . . hath ygraunted”
(PPl, B.7.8). In the characters of the Summoner and the Pardoner we
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 307


witness the corruption of these spiritual values. It is the worst kind of cor-
ruption when spiritual goods are bought and sold, a sin of irreligion that
treats God and divine things with irreverence and contempt.58 Thus the
Summoner is ignorant of more than the Latin that he repeats in parrot-
like fashion (I 637–46) but knows well enough that “Purs is the
ercedekenes helle” (I 658), and the Pardoner is at his best when it comes
to the singing of “an offertorie” (I 710) and to the prospect of winning
money. Indeed, the portrait of the Pardoner and the sequence of portraits
as a whole conclude on this sustained note of ecclesiastical corruption (I
711–14). Chaucer speaks plainly and at length here since he has no inten-
tion that hypocrisy be mistaken for holiness. In the same way and for the
same reason, he does not allow the last word to the Summoner:

But wel I woot he lyed right in dede;

Of cursyng oghte ech gilty man him drede,
For curs wol slee right as assoillyng savith.
(I 659–61)
Reprobation for sin and absolution from sin are not matters to be trifled
with. We may not be comfortable in an age like our own with such out-
right protestations of belief, but then we have to reckon with the fact that
the pilgrimage to Canterbury did not survive the Reformation. The set-
ting of the pilgrimage is imaginatively convincing because it is a part of
the very fabric of the society to which Chaucer belongs. Many things that
we now take for granted would seem strange to him. But the need for pil-
grimage is not strange, and that need must be affirmed above all at the
point of its greatest corruption.
The implication of the ordering of the portraits is that the Summoner’s
“freend and . . . compeer” (I 670) is equally mired in the corruption of
the Church. If anything, the Pardoner is worse than the Summoner
because he actively exploits the penitential procedures of the Church for
personal gain. In the figure of the Pardoner we see the corruption of the
very idea of pilgrimage, for that which is designed for the redemption of
sin becomes the occasion of sin. Indeed, the Pardoner’s exploitation of
religious relics for gain is irreligious. And as religion or piety is the high-
est of the moral virtues,59 so irreligion stands among the gravest of vices.
Thus the sin of simony, for example, is worse than murder or theft. 60
Dante follows this Thomistic logic of defining the gravity of sin by refer-
ence to the object in his organization of the sins of violence in the sev-
enth circle of hell. Thus, in the order of an increasing gravity of sin, we
encounter those guilty of violence against others, that is, tyrants, mur-
derers, and robbers, in the first round (girone) of the circle (cerchio) of
the violent (Inf., XI.34–39, XII.1–139); those guilty of violence against
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 308


the self, that is, suicides and spendthrifts, in the second round (Inf.,
XI.40–45, XIII.1–XIV.3); and those guilty of violence against God, nature,
and art, that is, blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers, in the third round
(Inf., XI.46–51, 94–111, XIV.4–XVII.78). Such an order of priorities is
hard for a secular world like ours to grasp, but it is shared by Chaucer
and, no less significantly, understood by the Pardoner, who explains in
his impassioned (if hypocritical) denunciation of sins that God’s law in
the Ten Commandments sets false swearing above murder:

Lo, rather he forbedeth swich sweryng

Than homycide or many a cursed thyng.
(VI 643–44)
Here the great issues of justice or greed and truth or falsehood come
together, and in respect of them, human beings make the choice that
determines their characters and the destinies of their souls. It is a choice,
as Langland expresses it, between the “tour on a toft” and the “dongeon”
in “[a] deep dale bynethe” (PPl, B.Prol.14–15), or between the teaching
of Lady Holy Church and the reward of Meed the Maid. For Langland,
Meed is unequivocally the object of covetousness (PPl, B.2.51). It is
impossible to have both the spiritual reward of the life directed towards
God and the temporal rewards of life on earth. Even in the established
Church itself, the choice is often made for temporal rather than spiritual
goods. Thus Langland’s Lady Holy Church (the divine spokesperson, not
the ecclesiastical institution) observes that “In the Popes paleis” Meed “is
pryvee as myselve” (PPl, B.2.23).
There is thus, as Dryden observed, some severity in Chaucer’s treat-
ment of the religious figures on the pilgrimage, and it must be related
(if not to anticlericalism) to the devotional purpose of the pilgrimage
itself. Such religious laxity, neglect of duty, and covetousness as we find
in the Prioress, Monk, and Friar, respectively, are subversive in different
degrees of the very purposes of pilgrimage. In a similar but more apoc-
alyptic fashion, Piers Plowman ends with Unity or Holy Church under
assault from hypocrisy (PPl, B.20.301–304) and the efficacy of confession
and contrition undermined by the flattery of friars (PPl, B.20.280–85,
305–80). By way of contrast, the lifestyle of the Franklin with which the
Friar likes to associate himself is less to be condemned (if condemned at
all) since it is conducive to his function as a landowner and parliamen-
tarian, and expresses itself in terms of lavish hospitality towards others
rather than acquisitiveness on his own behalf (I 334–54). We are not
much surprised at the grasping nature of the Physician, but at least his
devotion to money does not disguise itself in the outward forms of reli-
gious belief, for “His studie was but litel on the Bible” (I 438).
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 309


The strong sense of Chaucer’s humanity that readers of all generations

have derived from the General Prologue does not require us to suppose a
laxity in moral judgment or an indifference to the effects of sin. There
is much in life that is unpalatable for those who are moved to look on
the human scene, that “fair feeld ful of folk” (PPl, B.Prol.17) as Langland
so eloquently characterizes it, with justice and compassion. A generous
outlook is one that not only gives to people the benefit of the doubt but
is also moved to indignation by the lack of generosity in others, and espe-
cially by that cupidity that results not only in the destruction of one’s own
soul but more culpably in the destruction (or at least the imperiling) of
the souls committed to one’s charge. As a judge of his fellow men and
women, Chaucer is like the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, that is, tolerant in his understanding of human limitation but
exacting in his discrimination of good and evil (SGGK, 2331–68). If we
read the General Prologue with any care, we must add to the tolerance of
ordinary human foibles and follies an admiration for extraordinary or
heroic virtue and a detestation of fraudulence and corruption. The les-
son of the first vision of Piers Plowman or of the Pardoner’s Tale is also writ
large in the General Prologue, namely that radix malorum est cupiditas. In
opposition to such cupidity can only be set a belief in other, more altru-
istic values. We ought not to doubt the profundity of Chaucer’s own reli-
gious beliefs. As a poet he is reticent in obtruding them, but artistic
restraint does not imply a lack of religious conviction. The ending of
Troilus and Criseyde is moving in its urgent desire to protect “yonge, fresshe
folkes” (V, 1835) from the idolatries (and unbearable pain) of merely
human loves, and in the strength of the religious convictions that can
call to mind (indeed impress on the mind) in the final stanza of that
poem (V, 1863–69) the union of love and wisdom expressed by the fic-
tional Aquinas in the sphere of the Sun (or of justice) in Dante’s Paradiso
X–XIV. The importance of the sacrament of penance with its three parts
of contrition, confession, and satisfaction is central to the logic of salva-
tion that depends on free human choices and, at the same time, takes
seriously the radical imperfection of human nature and hence the impos-
sibility for any single individual of making choices that are always of
unblemished goodness. Chaucer, then, has not only taken the time to
translate the treatise on penance, the Summa de Poenitentia (1222/29) of
Raymund of Pennaforte, combined with the treatise on the seven deadly
sins, the Summa Vitiorum (1236) of William Peraldus, but has incorpo-
rated them in the Canterbury Tales as the Parson’s Tale where it still stands
(not inappropriately) as the last of the tales.61 The Parson’s Tale may not
be greatly valued by modern readers and in our literary judgment unwor-
thy of the prize at the end of the storytelling, but we can hardly deny its
supreme relevance to the idea of pilgrimage. If the pilgrim Chaucer does
indeed set out to Canterbury “with ful devout corage” (I 22), then he will
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 310


be preoccupied at the end of the pilgrimage with the questions that are
raised in systematic form in the Parson’s Tale.62
Perhaps in the final analysis Chaucer’s humanity derives from his
awareness that it is not he who makes the judgments that count, but God.
Thus he withholds judgment on the final destiny of Troilus at the end of
Troilus and Criseyde: “And forth he wente, shortly for to telle, / Ther as
Mercurye sorted hym to dwelle” (V, 1826–27). The younger Chaucer (the
author of the Parliament of Fowls) would no doubt (along with Dante)
have set Troilus in the second circle of hell.63 The mature Chaucer has
learned enough about human judgments to withhold judgment. Chaucer
is neither a preacher nor a prophet (far less is he a social or political com-
mentator). He is a great poet who knows that each individual human
being must find his or her own way to God or, as we might say, to justice
and peace. For whatever reason, all the people assembled at the Tabard
in Southwark are bound on pilgrimage to Canterbury. When all uncer-
tainties and failings have been allowed for, allowance has also to be made
for that salient fact. We have no sense that any of the pilgrims have
embarked on pilgrimage through compulsion, although no doubt the
pressures of conformity in medieval society will encourage rather than
discourage the making of pilgrimages. Perhaps the experience of pil-
grimage will prove to be a transforming experience in the lives of at least
some Canterbury pilgrims. Not even the Pardoner, unlike Langland’s
Pardoner (PPl, B.5.639–42), is a lost soul, for even when his hypocrisy
has been exposed by the Host, he is restored to the fellowship of the pil-
grims through the intervention of the Knight (VI 960–68). It would be
strange indeed if the creator of the fictional pilgrimage to Canterbury
were himself to think that pilgrimages were either unnecessary or inef-
ficacious. The pilgrimage remains a pregnant image of the life of indi-
viduals in the world, whatever utopian aspirations we may possess for
human society. The present world is indeed “a thurghfare ful of wo, /
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro” (I 2847–48).

Trinity College, Dublin


I am indebted to Kenneth Clarke for his bibliographical assistance in the revision of

this article.
1. What avarice does is here declared for the purging of the converted souls, and the
mountain has no bitterer pain (Purg., XIX.115–17; The Divine Comedy, trans. J. D. Sinclair,
3 vols. [London, 1971], 2:251). References to Dante’s Commedia are from Dante Alighieri,
La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi, 4 vols. (Milan, 1966–67), with
translations drawn from Sinclair.
2. PPl, B.Prol.116–17. References to Langland’s Piers Plowman are from William
Langland: The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt, 2nd edn. (London, 1995).
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 311


3. ParsT, X 764. References to Chaucer’s texts are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry
D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
4. John Dryden, “Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern,” in The Poems of John Dryden, ed.
James Kinsley, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1958), 4:1444–63, at 1455 (line 422).
5. Dryden, Preface, 4:1454 (line 394), and 4:1453 (lines 373–75).
6. See Sydney Armitage-Smith, John of Gaunt (London, 1904), 16–18, and Martin M.
Crow and Clair C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records (Oxford, 1966), 23–28.
7. For an account of the systematic spoliation of the splendid tapestries, furnishings,
plate, and ornaments of the Savoy in the late afternoon of Thursday, June 13, 1381, see
Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381, reissued with a new introduction and notes by
Edmund B. Fryde (Oxford, 1969), 57–58, 194–95 (translation of the “Anonimalle
8. Alcuin Blamires, “Chaucer the Reactionary: Ideology and the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 51 (2000): 523–39.
9. E. Talbot Donaldson, “Chaucer the Pilgrim,” PMLA 69 (1954): 928–36, reprinted
in his Speaking of Chaucer (London, 1970), 1–12.
10. For the piety of the Black Prince, see the Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince:
“La Vie du Prince Noir” by Chandos Herald, ed. Diana B. Tyson (Tübingen, 1975), 85–92,
1260–73, 1427–32, 3172–87, 3502–508, and 4176–78. The piety of his younger brother, John
of Gaunt, is evidenced in his will of 1398, in which he provides for a period of forty days
unburied and unembalmed before burial; see Anthony Goodman, John of Gaunt: The Exercise
of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe (Harlow, 1992), 366–67. Sir Gawain’s quest of
the Green Chapel is above all a vindication of the “pité þat passez alle poyntez” (line 654),
that is, the piety that stands as part of justice as the highest of the moral virtues and there-
fore specified by the Gawain-poet as the fifth and concluding virtue of the fifth and con-
cluding group of virtues. All references to SGGK are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd edn. rev. Norman Davis (Oxford, 1967).
11. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Emory Elliott (Oxford, 1999), 3.
12. See J. R. R. Tolkien, “Chaucer as Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale,” Transactions of the
Philological Society (1934): 1–70.
13. Terry Jones, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (London, 1980),
14. Laura F. Hodges, Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue
(Cambridge, 2000), 57. Despite such reservations, I consider this to be a groundbreaking
study worthy of close attention.
15. Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 121.
16. Edward I. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and Organization
of the Canterbury Tales (Gainesville, Fla., 1999), 152.
17. Jones, Chaucer’s Knight, 175, 192–202.
18. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation, 125, 219.
19. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation, 124–25.
20. Helen Cooper, The Canterbury Tales, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1996), 132.
21. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation, 125, 163.
22. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation, refers to the “wide-eyed credulity of the
Narrator” (185) and describes him as “perhaps the least knowledgeable” of all the pilgrims
23. On the modification of feudal society known as bastard feudalism, see the seminal
article by K. B. McFarlane, “Bastard Feudalism,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
20 (1945): 161–80.
24. See J. V. Cunningham, “Convention as Structure: The Prologue to the Canterbury
Tales,” Tradition and Poetic Structure (1960): 59–75, repr. in Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. J. A. Burrow
(Harmondsworth, 1969), 218–32; and also his article “The Literary Form of the Prologue
to the Canterbury Tales,” Modern Philology 49 (1951–52): 172–81.
25. Reference is to Guillaume de Lorris, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Félix Lecoy, 3 vols.
(Paris, 1965–70).
26. See Boccaccio, Teseida, ed. A. Limentani, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed.
Vittore Branca, 12 vols. incomplete (Verona, 1964–), 2:229–664, at 475; and trans. N. R.
Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio (Cambridge, 1980), 103–52, at 130.
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 312


27. On the number of Chaucer’s pilgrims, see Caroline D. Eckhardt, “The Number
of Chaucer’s Pilgrims: A Review and Reappraisal,” Yearbook of English Studies 5 (1975):
1–18, and Leger Brosnahan, “The Authenticity of And Preestes Thre,” Chaucer Review 16
(1982): 293–310. Brosnahan observes that “[t]he number twenty-nine . . . is also con-
firmed by being a precise number just one short of a round thirty to be completed by
Chaucer the Pilgrim, just as the nineteen ladies of the Legend of Good Women are
rounded out to twenty by Alceste” (294) (see LGW, Prol. F 241–46, 282–90, 300–307; G
173–93, 224–33). I do not accept the argument, however, that “and preestes thre” (I
164) is inauthentic.
28. See MED, s.vv. gentil n. 1. (a) and (b), communes n. 1a. (a), and cherl n. 1. (a).
29. See John Russell, Book of Nurture, lines 1025–40, 1065–72, in Manners and Meals in
Olden Time, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, EETS os 32 (London, 1868), 115–239.
30. See Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge, 1973), and my arti-
cle, “The Universality of the Portraits in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,” English
Studies 58 (1977): 481–93.
31. See MED, s.v. vavasour n. (a) ‘a feudal tenant holding land of some other vassal, a
sub-vassal, a liegeman; also, a member of the land-holding nobility, presumably ranking
below a baron,’ and Roy J. Pearcy, “Chaucer’s Franklin and the Literary Vavasour,” Chaucer
Review 8 (1973): 33–59.
32. On the relative status of the craft guilds in the fourteenth century, see my article,
“The Design of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,” English Studies 59 (1978):
481–98, at 492–94.
33. Cp. Donaldson, “Chaucer the Pilgrim”: “To have got on so well in so changeable a
world Chaucer must have got on well with the people in it, and it is doubtful that one may
get on with people merely by pretending to like them: one’s heart has to be in it” (Speaking
of Chaucer, 11).
34. Here it may be noted that Donaldson’s interpretation of the pilgrim as an obtuse
bourgeois has by no means won universal acceptance. It is challenged by H. Marshall
Leicester, Jr., “The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,”
PMLA 95 (1980): 213–24, and reexamined by Barbara Nolan, “‘A Poet Ther Was’:
Chaucer’s Voices in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales,” PMLA 101 (1986):
154–69. Leicester’s argument is restated and to some extent developed in his The
Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley, 1990); 1–13,
35. Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 111, 235.
36. On the influence of Langland on GP, see Nevill Coghill, “Two Notes on Piers
Plowman: II: Chaucer’s Debt to Langland,” Medium Ævum 4 (1935): 89–94, and Helen
Cooper, “Langland’s and Chaucer’s Prologues,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987):
37. See MED, s.v. gipsere n.: ‘a pouch, often richly ornamented, which hangs from a gir-
dle or sash’; OF gibeciere, gipsiere; and Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 143.
38. See MED, s.v. anelas n. (a); OF alenaz; The Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Valerie
Krishna (New York, 1976), 179; and Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 150–51.
39. See Chrétien de Troyes, Le Chevalier de la Charrete, ed. M. Roques (Paris, 1972), lines
40. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 152–55.
41. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 168–72, and Color Plate VII.
42. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 178–79.
43. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 218–24.
44. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 204–205.
45. See Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 205.
46. The word tale here may have the sense of ‘an ordered list,’ as in Pearl: “As John þise
stone in writ con nemme, / I knew þe name after his tale” (lines 997–98; Pearl, ed. E. V.
Gordon [Oxford, 1953], 36); see MED, s.v. tale n. 7. (g).
47. See, for example, The Rambler 180 (Saturday, 7 December 1751), 5:186: “If, instead
of wandering after the meteors of philosophy which fill the world with splendour for a
while, and then sink and are forgotten, the candidates of learning fixed their eyes upon
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 313


the permanent lustre of moral and religious truth, they would find a more certain direc-
tion to happiness” (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Walter Jackson Bate
and A. B. Strauss, vols. 3–5 [New Haven, 1969]).
48. Aristotle, Ethics, II 6 1106b 36–1107a 2. Reference to the Ethica Nicomachea is to the
translation of W. D. Ross, rev. J. O. Urmson, in vol. 9 of The Works of Aristotle, 12
vols.(London, 1975). See also Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,
trans. C. I. Litzinger (Notre Dame, Ind., 1993), 322–23.
49. See Aristotle, Ethics, V 8 1135a 15–23, V 8 1136a 1–5, V 9 1137a 4–9; and Aquinas,
Commentary, 1035–36, 1048, 1074. See also Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae 107.4, ed. T.
Gilby et al., 61 vols. (London, 1964–81).
50. Aristotle, Rhetoric, I 1 1355b 12–14: “it is not the function of medicine simply to
make a man quite healthy, but to put him as far as may be on the road to health; it is pos-
sible to give excellent treatment even to those who can never enjoy sound health.”
Reference is to Rhetorica, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, vol. 11 in The Works of Aristotle (Oxford,
51. Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry” (1880), repr. in Essays in Criticism (London,
1908), 1–55, at 29.
52. See James A. Hart, “‘The Droghte of March’: A Common Misunderstanding,” Texas
Studies in Literature and Language 4 (1962–63): 525–29. The pattern of a cold, dry March
and a warm, wet April is a classic English pattern, and a poet like Spenser (Chaucer’s suc-
cessor in many ways) has grasped the essence of it in markedly similar terms; see The
Shepheardes Calender, Aprill (lines 5–8), in Spenser’s Minor Poems, ed. E. de Sélincourt
(Oxford, 1910), 36, 42. If there is a drought in England, we expect it in the autumn, not
the spring, a medieval expectation confirmed for us by Chaucer’s Staffordshire contem-
porary, the poet of SGGK (lines 521–24).
53. Wynnere and Wastoure, ed. Stephanie Trigg, EETS os 297 (Oxford, 1990).
54. E. Talbot Donaldson, Chaucer’s Poetry (New York, 1958), 876: “It is a comment on
Chaucer’s ‘naturalism’ that England suffers no drought in March; Chaucer’s drought is a
metaphorical one, taken from a rhetorical tradition that goes back to classic literature, and
to the Mediterranean countries where March is a dry month.”
55. Thus in his review of Jones’s Chaucer’s Knight, J. A. Burrow writes: “Yet Mr Jones is
absolutely right, I think, to reject as too bland and insipid the conventional account of the
Knight” (“The Imparfit Knight,” TLS [February 15, 1980], 163).
56. The attribution by Chaucer to the Knight as teller of his tale of a metaphor drawn
from plowing may not in such circumstances seem incongruous: “I have, God woot, a large
feeld to ere, / And wayke been the oxen in my plough” (I 886–87).
57. Reference is to Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, ed. A. C. Cawley (London,
1974). For other but by no means all references to “reckoning,” see Everyman, lines 45–46,
66–71, 99–100, 331–35, 864–66, 895–98, and 914–17.
58. See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 40, trans. Thomas F. O’Meara and Michael J.
Duffy (London, 1968), 2a 2ae 100.1: “Et ideo aliquis, vendendo vel emendo rem spiri-
tualem, irreverentiam exhibet Deo et rebus divinis. Propter quod, peccat peccato irreli-
giositatis.” (And so, by buying or selling a spiritual thing a man treats God and divine
matters with irreverence, and consequently commits a sin of irreligion.)
59. See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae 81.6.
60. Aquinas is characteristically clear on this point: “Unde peccatum quod est circa ipsam
substantiam hominis, sicut homicidium est gravius peccato quod est circa res exteriores, sicut
furtum; et adhuc est gravius peccatum quod immediate contra Deum committitur, sicut infi-
delitas, blasphemia et hujusmodi.” (Hence, sins which affect the very being of a man such as
homicide are worse than sins which affect an exterior good, e.g. theft; and more serious still
are those sins which are immediately against God, as infidelity, blasphemy, etc.) (Summa
Theologiae, vol. 25, trans. John Fearon [London, 1969], 1a 2ae 73.3).
61. The matter on the seven deadly sins, abbreviated and adapted, is inserted in the
second section of the treatise on penance, that is, on confession. ParsT is a treatise or man-
ual on penance, not a sermon, and it is described as “this tretice” (X 957) and “this litel
tretys” (X 1081).
02_37_4_Final PROOF 5/8/03 8:17 PM Page 314


62. On the relationship between GP and ParsT, see the article by David Raybin, “‘Manye
been the weyes’: The Flower, Its Roots, and the Ending of The Canterbury Tales,” in Closure
in The Canterbury Tales: The Role of The Parson’s Tale, ed. David Raybin and Linda Tarte
Holley (Kalamazoo, Mich., 2000), 11–43.
63. Chaucer places Troilus in the temple of Venus in a list of lovers ruined by love that
includes the names of six of the damned in the second circle of hell, namely, Dido,
Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan, in addition to the names mentioned in his
principal source, Boccaccio’s Teseida. See PF 288–94, Dante’s Inf., V.61–67, and Tes., VII.62.