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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE PLOWMAN

The Parson's brother, in spirit as well as in blood, is the Plowman, who is also the perfect ideal, "living in pees and parfit charite." This portrait may well have amazed Chaucer's audience, just as we'd be surprised to hear of such a chivalrous workman. This Plowman would work for a poor person without pay; he pays all his church taxes on time; he loves his neighbor as himself. He rides a mare, a humble horse. This portrait is especially interesting because peasants in Chaucer's day rose up frequently against Chaucer's own middle class. Some think Chaucer may have presented an ideal plowman because he had such a low opinion of the real ones. But do you think Chaucer would have linked him with the Parson if he meant the picture to be ironic? Even if he is not as rowdy and fully human as some of the others, he is genuine.

THE MILLER

The Miller certainly is vivid: he's brawny, big-boned, a good wrestler, thick-set. He can rip a door off its hinges. His red beard matches the red bristles that stick out of the wart on his nose. There's no subtle irony here. Chaucer tells us point-blank, "Wel coude he stelen [steal] corn," and charge three times the price. This matches the medieval conception of a miller as the most important, and the most dishonest, tenant on a manor farm. His physical description shows him as shameless, easily angered, and lecherous, according to medieval standards. He leads the group out of town with a bagpipe-which probably has a sexual reference-and uses his big lungs to play it. Later, in his prologue to his raunchy tale about a cuckolded (cheated-on) husband, he cries in "pilate's voice," loud and ranting.

THE MANCIPLE

He buys provisions for the "temple," the courts of law, and is shrewd in his buying. Chaucer asks innocently, Isn't it wonderful that such a simple man can outsmart all the learned ones? This idea shows up again and again throughout the Tales, with varying results. The Manciple's tale deals with a crow's black feathers (like his own evil ways?) and the necessity for keeping one's mouth shut, which we can therefore assume he is very good at doing!

THE REEVE

There's obviously long-standing enmity between the Miller and the Reeve, an official on a farm who would be responsible for keeping tabs on the dishonest Miller. He does well at guarding his lord's seed, poultry, dairy, etc. No one can "bring him in arrerage" (arrears); in fact, sheriffs, shepherds, and workers are scared to death of him-not a sign of goodness in Chaucer's book. The satire is that he gets rich by "lending" his master the master's own money and goods, a common charge against reeves. His description shows him "choleric" in humor, with calfless legs indicating sexual desire. He's trained as a carpenter, which is who the Miller's Tale makes fun of. The fact that he and the Miller ride so far apart, with the Reeve last, shows how badly they get along. We might wonder why they are even on the same pilgrimage. Maybe it's to keep an eye on each other. The Reeve's Tale, to get his own back, is about a miller who tricks a pair of students who then sleep with his wife and daughter.


THE SUMMONER

The Reeve is a model of virtue compared to the Summoner and the Pardoner. Chaucer has saved the worst for last. We can instantly tell that the Summoner is grossly debauched: he has a "fyr-red" face, he is "sawce- fleem" (pimply), and loves garlic, onions, leeks, and wine "red as blood."

NOTE:

His skin disease has been shown to be a kind of leprosy, which could come from unclean women or strong foods. Of course, as a church official, he should be avoiding both.

He's stupid, knowing only how to parrot the Latin he's learned from the decrees he hands out. He has all the young girls in the diocese under his control, and is a "good fellow" because he would lend you his mistress for a year for a quart of wine. He can find his own "finch" (quite literally, a chick) in the meantime. The Summoner even wears a "garland," like Bacchus, the god of wine.

He tells good people not to be afraid of the "arch-deacon's curse" (excommunication); like a gangster, he can offer "protection" against it if people pay enough. This is a low-down trick that even Chaucer the narrator can't stomach, and he warns that this is the sort of thing that can get you a writ of "significavit" (thrown in jail).

The profession of summoner had reached such depths by Chaucer's day that Chaucer doesn't even need to go into detail on the abuses. A summoner is supposed to deliver a summons to the person charged. But many collected money under the table for extortion and some were even convicted. Not surprising for his personality, the Summoner tells a vulgar tale to get back at the Friar's nasty tale about a summoner. The Summoner tells of a corrupt friar who tricks a rich man and is in turn paid back.

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