"Chaucer's portraits do not illustrate a moral or philosophical thesis."
Discuss this comment on the General Prologue
On first reading them, Chaucer's character sketches in the General Prologue certainly seem to serve as moral judgements on the portrayed individual. However, are these to be seen as functional as typifications of the entire social class that they represent or as portraits of contemporary individuals? I would argue that allegorist and literalist readings of the General Prologue are not mutually exclusive: that characters can exist for the reader on both levels. Insofar as they serve to illustrate an overall thesis, however, it seems sensible to concentrate of the characters as exemplars of their type and class.
Brewster states that "The only class system know to mediaeval theory" has "the familiar
Three-fold division... into Knights, Clergy, and Ploughmen... Knights defend society, and
maintain law and order; clergy defend men's souls and feed their minds; ploughmen provide
food to maintain men's bodies." Although Chaucer chooses not to order his characters appearance in the General Prologue according to the class to which they belong, presumably because doing so would result in less opportunity for comparison, he appears to be sympathetic to such divisions.
The Knight, who we are first introduced to, obviously falls into the first category. Although Terry Jones sees him as something of a bloodthirsty mercenary, I feel he is projecting his own presentist negative attitude towards warfare onto a character Chaucer himself seems to be very sympathetic to. Indeed the Knight embraces and stands for values which Chaucer seems to wholeheartedly support: "trouthe and honour, freedom and curteusie." The rest of his household, his son the squire and the yeoman, seem to be morally worthy by association. His son, for all his youthful faults, is imbued with the same 'curteusie', and it seems so inevitable to me that he is going to mature into the Knight, that I see him as an image of the Knight as he was, before being ennobled by age and experience. As a fellow upholder of the law, the Sergeant of the Lawe can also be placed in this class, and he too is presented in largely sympathetic terms.
Chaucer's treatment of the ecclesiastical class is far less homogenous, ranging from his irony-free beautification of the Parson, to the little satirised Prioress and Monk, to the pilloried figure of the Friar. In fact, some view Chaucer's unfinished Canterbury Tales as the smoking gun, which reveals that the Church has him murdered for publishing such negative views of the clergy. However, his treatment of the clergy is not in any real sense radical or subversive; it merely reflects charges commonly levelled at the orders at the time. The Prioress is the first member of the clergy to appear and through her association with the Benedictine order we are invited to examine the behaviour of these characters in light of their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Routine breaking of these supposedly sacred vows, along with the selling of indulgences and other such abuses are what eventually led to the Reformation.
The relative dearth of characters who can be considered ploughmen, figures who are directly concerned with the production of food, reflects the breakdown in feudal society and, more specifically, the breakdown in food supply due to the deaths of massive numbers of labourers at the hands of the Black Death. Although many contemporary figures attacked farm labourers of the day for demanding extortionate wages because of these conditions, Chaucer holds up his Ploughman as the epitome of simple, Christian living, "lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee". The Cook, with his very direct relationship to food production, is also characterised as an amenable fellow, but without the saintly virtues of the Ploughman However, the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 seems to have soured Chaucer's congeniality to the rural poor. This is evident in Chaucer's animalisation of the strong and brawny Miller. He compares his beard o the bristles on a sow. The fact that the Miller routinely breaks down doors with his head marks him out as a threshold-crosser, who does not respect the natural civic order. Chaucer time and time again employs physiognomy, the pop psychology of his day, in order to highlight the bestial and depraved side of his character. Similarly in the Pardoner physical and spiritual deformity go hand in hand.
The characters that do not fit in to this social framework are generally satirised as being overly concerned with the pursuit of profit or pleasure, the Merchant and Franklin being chief in each of these respective categories. The disinterested, asexual, and devoutly religious Clerk seems to be the moral example they should be following. In the five guildsmen, Chaucer mildly mocks middle-class self-importance, but neither holds them up as moral beacons or attacks them as degenerates.
As far as there is a philosophical thesis in The General Prologue, it centres on two qualities: caritas: charity and compassion, and cupiditas: greed and the inordinate desire for wealth. Chaucer seems to accept the cupiditas is a necessary evil insofar as it leads to a functional and productive society. For example, the Merchant's cupiditas is respected as it is honest and makes him a 'better' merchant. On the other hand, the Reeve's dishonest pilfering of his master's estate is seen as bestial, sub-human. His animal nature is reinforced by his association with his master's livestock: "His lordes sheep, his neet, his dayerye | His swyn, his hors, his stoor, and his pultrye." Little more than an animal, his fate is evinced by his constant position at the rear of the company of pilgrims: the furthest from salvation. This seems to recognise that there will be recompense paid in the afterlife for holding cupiditas as one's central tenet, and, conversely, reward for caritas.
It is important to note that Chaucer's characters are neither stereotypes nor, as DW Robertson puts it "elaborate iconographic figures designed to show the manifold implications of an attitude". They are not one-sided unequivocal creations and my own interpretation of what Chaucer saw as their moral virtues and vices is far from unequivocal. The General Prologue, and of course The Canterbury Tales itself, is a rich and complex text, often ambivalent and ironic. Although we are dealing with archetypal figures, we are dealing with them outside the moral boundaries and strictures of everyday life; pilgrims in amoral zone of 'pleye' and 'game'. In Malcolm Andrew's words,
"The poet creates a fiction with decontextualises his pilgrims: the commentators employ a
method which recontextualises them." In conclusion, Chaucer does not present us with a moral or philosophical thesis in these portraits. Nor does he provide an antithetical reaction against the hierarchal imposed moral and philosophical theses of church and feudal state. Instead, through his ambiguity and he offers us the opportunity to define and redefine the moral meaning of these brilliantly drawn portraits.
Chaucer, J. - The Riverside Chaucer / edited by Larry Benson. ' London : Oxford University Press, 1987
Andrew, Malcolm. - Context and judgement in the 'General Prologue'
Brewer, DS. - Class Distinction in Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales
General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales: Prologue
The Black Death