Notes on Characters from The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales Major Characters

Host: The host is the manager of the Tabard Inn, the origination of the journey to Canterbury. He goes on the trip and is also somewhat the proprietor of the tales, for he suggests that each pilgrim tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. He mediates arguments between the pilgrims and interjects his comments throughout the different tales. It is the host who holds the group together during their journey.

Knight: As the first character mentioned in the prologue, the Knight is the epitome of nobility and honor on this pilgrimage. He is a strong and honorable fighter who was in the Crusades and fought for Christianity. He brings along his son, a Squire, to see Canterbury and tells the longest tale of Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye. It is a love triangle with a mixed ending, involving knights, battle, and chivalry.

Squire: The squire is repeatedly described as a lusty bachelor and has trouble competing the tale he begins. He is only twenty years old and does not possess the same vigor as his father. His incomplete tale is about gifts brought to court by a mysterious knight of Tartary.

Prioresse (Nun): The Prioress is an emotional and sentimental woman of God who lets her feelings and tears run loose for any and all small events of death. She is weak with her self-control. The prioress tries to give off a refined impression, while all the while she is crude. She tells a gruesome tale of Jews who murder a young boy for singing about his Christian faith.

Second Nonne (Nun): The Second Nun is simply the secretary of the first. Her short tale chronicles the history and life of Saint Cecilia.

Monk: The monk is described as masculine and robust and travels with the Prioress and her secretary. He tells an animal tale of a hen and her rooster husband who find out the truth behind dreams and prophesies.

Frere (Friar): As one of the few pilgrims given a name, Hubert, the friar is an immoral man constantly worried about making a profit rather than turning men away from sin and bringing them to heaven. His tale is an attack on the wickedness of summoners. The friar and the summoner have an ongoing battle in these tales that brings humor to the group.

Clerk: The Clerk is an impoverished, unemployed Oxford student who lacks a true profession. He is simply educated and has no skills to find a job. His tale is of a woman named Griselde who marries a man of grand status. The husband repeatedly tests her virtue and devotion to him through painful years of hardship.

Sergeant of the Law (Man of Law/Lawyer): The Man of Law appears to be much busier than he is in reality and claims to hold much respect. He is educated and holds to the letter of the law. His lengthy tale is of the young Roman Catholic, Constance, who endures years of pain and familial loss, but always remains true to her faith. She is a true Christian through her many exploits.

Franklin: The Franklin is the companion of the Man of Law and is a man of earthy pleasures. He delights especially in food, the culinary arts, and tells a tale of a woman who vows to follow through on her affair with another man if he can accomplish an impossible task to save her true love.

Haberdasshere, Carpenter, Webbe, Dyerf, Tapycer: These are five guildsman on the pilgrimage who never tell a single tale. They listen and enjoy the stories.

Shipman (Sailor): The shipman tells the story of a woman who becomes involved with a dishonest monk in order to aid her husband. The monk dupes the woman and her husband.

Doctour of Phisik (Physician): The Physician tells a tale about a father who murders his own daughters in an attempt to protect them from scandalous rapists.

Wife of Bath: The Wife of Bath is often thought of as a proto-feminist and is one of the most memorable of the pilgrims, for her prologue is longer than her tale. She has been married five times and uses her sexuality as manipulation with men to get what she wants. Her fifth young husband uses violence against her and made her deaf in one ear from a blow to the head. She is loud, opinionated, and uses the Bible to back up her supposed immoral actions. The Wife of Bath tells a story of a knight who must search for the answer to 'what women desire?'. The knight finds out that women simply wish to hold authority and control over their mates.

Parson: The Parson is a good man of the cloth who is devoted to God and his congregation. He is respected and blessed and tells a tale of sin existing in multiple faces. As one of the holy and moralistic men of the pilgrimage, the Parson represents the Church that is not completely dishonest.

Merchant: The Merchant is a wealthy pilgrim constantly talking of economics and profit. Concerned with making money, he is arrogant and vain and tells a humorous story about an unfortunate blind old man who marries a youthful woman who makes a cuckold of him in his presence.

Reeve: The Reeve is a thin man with a grand temper. He tells his story in retaliation to the miller's tale and it is about a Miller who is tricked by two Oxford students.

Miller: The Miller is very large in contrast to the Reeve. He is also rude to the other pilgrims, sharing a small quarrel with the Reeve on the journey. He tells a humorous tale of a student who manipulates an affair with the wife of a foolish Reeve.

Pardoner: The Pardoner is an immoral, slimy, and effeminate man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves out of avarice. As one of the self-loathing, yet memorable characters on the journey, the Pardoner returns to his fraudulent behavior at the conclusion of his allegorical tale, trying to sell fake relics to the other pilgrims.

Manciple: The Manciple was also educated in the field of the law and tells a tale about how appearances are often deceiving.

Summoner: The Summoner is another immoral pilgrim not true to his profession, for he does not truly summon impious people to church. He chooses whom to select and is often paid off by sinners. His tale is in reaction to the Friar's strong anti-summoner tale and is presented as a satirical parody.

Cook: The Cook is one of the vulgar pilgrims of the journey who becomes involved with violence and arguments along the way. He is a commoner who does not hide his class and behavior and tells a short, incomplete fabliau.

Canon and his Yeoman: The Canon and his Yeoman join the pilgrimage in the middle of its course and bring a sense of mystery to the group. They heard glorious tales of the stories told en route to Canterbury and craved to be a part of that excitement. The canon does not reveal his profession and leaves the group as his Yeoman gives clues. He does not want to be discovered by any soul, so the Canon's Yeoman remains with the pilgrimage and tells a tale about the fraud of a canon.

Minor Characters

Arcite: Arcite is one of the knights and royal cousins imprisoned by Theseus who falls in love with Emelye. He is pardoned by Theseus and assumes a new identity. He wins the battle at the end of the tale for Emelye's hand in marriage, but dies when thrown from his horse. He tells Emelye to marry the worthy Palamon and is buried by the kingdom.

Palamon: Palamon is the other royal cousin and knight imprisoned by Theseus who falls in love with Emelye. He remains in jail for seven years and escapes. He does not win the battle for Emelye's hand, but marries her after Arcite dies.

Emelye: Emelye is the sister of the Amazon queen Hippolyta and the object of Palamon and Arcite's affections. She does not want to marry at all and desires to remain a maid. She eventually marries Palamon.

Theseus: Theseus is the King of Athens who marries Hippolyta after conquering Scythia. He avenges the poor widow's husbands in Thebes and imprisons Palamon and Arcite. He builds the theater for the duel and orders the ultimate marriage between Palamon and Emelye.

Hippolyta: Hippolyta is the conquered queen of Amazons who marries Theseus and returns to Athens with him.

John: The old carpenter of Oxford who is tricked into believing that a flood the size of Noah's Flood is coming to town. He is cuckolded by his wife, Alison, and injured after falling down from the roof in a tub.

Alison: The young, sly, beautiful wife of John the carpenter who falls in love with Nicholas, the young student of Astronomy. She conspires with him to trick her husband and Absolon.

Nicholas: The young student of astronomy (or astrology) who initially befriends the old carpenter, John, and boards at his lodgings. He falls in love with John's wife, Alison, and tricks both Absolon and John about the flood. He ends up with a burned bottom.

Absolon: Absolon is the musician from Oxford who is in love with Alison. Nicholas and Alison play tricks on him when he serenades her and asks for kisses. He turns the chicanery around and winds up burning the two of them.

Symkyn: The flat-nosed, round-faced deceitful miller who lived near the brook near Cambridge. He has a wife and two children and steals from anyone he can. He is eventually beaten up by his own trickery.

Aleyn: Aleyn is one of the students from Cambridge who come to the Miller for ground corn for the steward. He seduces Symkyn's daughter Molly while everyone is sleeping.

John: John is the other student from Cambridge who comes to the miller for ground corn for the steward. He seduces the miller's wife and gets away with the corn.

Molly: Molly is Symkyn's eldest daughter and is seduced by Aleyn while her father is sleeping next to her.

The Miller's Wife: The miller's wife is a pretentious woman who is seduced by John, one of the students, in front of a sleeping Symkyn.

Constance: The beautiful Christian daughter of the Emperor of Rome, who is sent to Syria to marry the Sultan, and then returned on a boat to Rome after the massacre. She lives on the shores of Cumberland and marries King Alla. She gives birth to Mauritus while there, but is banished by his mother, Lady Donegild. She is reunited with her father and husband at the conclusion of the tale and returns to the shores.

The Sultan: The Sultan converts to Christianity to marry Constance, but unfortunately takes her to a foreign land that she does not like.

The Sultana: The Sultana is the Sultan's mother who devises the massacre that allows Constance to supposedly return home in lieu of marrying her son.

Dame Hermengild: Dame Hermengild is the Warden's wife of Northcumberland who befriends Constance. The Knight murders her and frames Constance for her death.

The Warden: The Warden finds Constance on the shores of Northcumberland and brings her to King Alla.

King Alla: Alla is the King of Northcumberland and is currently at war with the Scots. He marries Constance and has a child, Mauritius, with her.

Mauritius: Mauritius is the son of Alla and Constance and is banished by Lady Donegild with Constance soon after his birth. He later becomes emperor of Rome.

Lady Donegild: Lady Donegild is King Alla's mother and maliciously changes the letters of correspondence between the two. She sends Constance and Mauritius away from Northcumberland while Alla is away.

Jankin: Jankin is the Wife of Bath's fifth husband. He is half her age and violent. He struck her on the ear so hard that she is now deaf on that side.

The Knight: The Knight in King Arthur's palace raped a young maiden and was forced to discover the one thing that women desire in order to save his own life. He realizes that women want control over their husbands and is forced to decide between an older, ugly woman of devotion, or a young, beautiful woman of independence. He gets the young, beautiful devoted woman in the end and lives happily ever after.

The Old Woman: The old woman tells the knight what women truly desire and tells him that he must marry her. She turns into a beautiful woman upon a single kiss from the knight and lives happily ever after with the knight.

Satan (Yeoman): Satan, the devil, says that he is a yeoman initially upon meeting the summoner. Satan and the summoner travel together, conniving different people, and eventually wind up in hell together.

The Summoner: The summoner works for the archdeacon and attempts to trick people into going to hell. He meets the devil along his journeys and befriends him. The two travel together, tricking others into hell. He winds up in hell with Satan.

Thomas: Thomas is a wealthy resident of Yorkshire, from whom the friar requests money for the church. He has recently lost a child and is disturbed by the friar's chicanery. He farts on the friar's hand in lieu of giving up his riches.

The Friar: The friar preaches to local residents of Yorkshire for money. He visits Thomas and requests food and money. He is farted on and run out of the house.

Walter: Walter is the Marquis of Saluzzo who marries the virtuous commoner Griselde. He tests her extensively throughout the years by taking away their children, declaring them dead, and stripping her of her clothing and dignity. He eventually reclaims his family and lives with them in the palace.

Griselde: Griselde is a virtuous commoner and the subject of Walter's unending test of devotion. She always holds true to her love for him and eventually returns to the castle to live with her long-lost two children and husband.

January: January is the old knight who marries young May because he believes married life to be true happiness on earth. He is cuckolded by May and his squire Damian in front of his blind eyes. Foolishly in love, January believes his wife's false tale and continues to live in lies.

May: May is January's young, unfaithful wife, who sleeps with Damian the squire and lies to her husband.

Justinus: Justinus is January's married brother, who tries to convince him that marriage is not worth the pains. He claims that January's marriage to a young woman would not last three years.

Damian: Damian is January's young squire who sleeps with his wife, May, in front of his eyes.

Cambinskan: Cambinskan is the King of Tartary who befriends a mysterious knight who brings with him a magical horse.

Canacee: Canacee is the daughter of King Cambiskan who receives the magical gift from the knight of animal language and herbal healing codes.

Dorigen: Dorigen is the wife of knight Arviragus who falls into a deep depression upon his exodus from Britain. Because she loves him so dearly and fears for his life, she promises to have an affair with Aurelius in exchange for his possible actions that could save his life.

Arviragus: Arviragus is a devoted husband and strong knight in Britain, but must leave his wife and country for war. He eventually realizes through honor that he must give up his beloved Dorigen in order to save her name.

Aurelius: Aurelius is the youthful squire who falls in love with Dorigen and makes a deal with an Orleans student so that he can have an affair with her. He eventually rescinds his forced payment of Dorigen upon realization of the pain it causes her.

Virginius: Virginius, a well-respected knight, murders his daughter, Virginia, when he realizes that she has been dishonored and raped.

Appius: Appius is the judge who manipulates the tale with others. He allows Claudius to claim that Virginius stole a slave and furthermore claims that the slave is his daughter, Virginia. When his chicanery is revealed, he is put in jail where he commits suicide.

Virginia: Virginia is the maiden daughter of Virginius who allows her fairness and beauty to lead her to trouble. Appius lusts after her and schemes to have her raped.

The Three Rioters: The three rioters are drunk men who claim to find Death and slay him. Instead of killing Death, they kill one another out of avarice.

The Old Man: The old man clothed in robes directs the three rioters to the gold under the oak tree, which in turn leads the rioters into avarice and allows them to kill each other.

The Merchant: The Merchant is a stingy businessman who vehemently wants to reclaim money lent to his wife. She goes to their border Dan John for the money, but gets into other trouble doing so.

The Wife: The Merchant's wife is unfulfilled in her marriage and seeks companionship with Dan John. She agrees to have an affair with him for the money that she owes her husband, but eventually repays him through sexual means.

Dan John: Dan John is a monk who assumes the role of the merchant's cousin and lives in his house. He lends the Merchant's wife the money she owes her husband in exchange for an affair, but secretly gets that money to pay her from the merchant himself. His plan is revealed by the Merchant at the end of the tale.

Melibeus: Melibeus is a wealthy and powerful ruler who vows revenge on his enemies who raped and attacked his family. His wife pleas for mercy for others from his rage.

Prudence: Prudence is Melibeus' wife, who despite being victimized, still desires mercy upon her attackers.

Sophie: Sophie is the daughter of Prudence and Melebeus who is also raped and attacked by his enemies. She is left for dead, but ultimately survives.

Chanticleer: A rooster on the farm of the old lady who believed that dreams were a prediction of reality. Chanticleer is almost eaten by a fox, when Pertelote squawks out loud and everyone is saved.

Pertelote: Chanticleer's favorite hen who did not believe that dreams were a reflection of reality. Instead, Pertelote believed that they were signs of ill humor. Pertelote saves Chanticleer from getting eaten by a fox.

Canon: The Canon shows the priest how to fake silver from coal and gets away with his chicanery.

Priest: The priest is witness to the canon's false silver and is paid off to keep the secret.

Phoebus: Phoebus is a God who married a woman while on earth. She was disloyal and unfaithful, regardless of his incessant watching. Because of his experience, he teaches a white crow how to speak the language of people. When he learns of his wife's affairs through the white crow, he condemns the bird to perpetual blackness and depression.

The Crow: The white crow is able to speak the language of humans because Phoebus enabled him to do so through teaching. However, when he reveals valuable information that displeases Phoebus, he attacks and curses the crow, and condemns them to forever be black and harsh.

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