Unlike many authors of his era, Chaucer was a well known and respected author during his lifetime. Moreover, portions of The Canterbury Tales were independently published while he was alive, despite being part of a larger anthology, so the public was familiar with this work even though it was unfinished.
Chaucer, as narrator, states that he will describe the pilgrims “According to… degree” (their social rank), but then immediately lists them within companion groups instead of their literal rank within society. Example: The Knight, the only aristocracy in attendance, is listed first, followed by his son, The Squire. However, the yeoman traveling with them is listed next, despite being of the lowest class. This structure continues throughout, listing the nun and priest with The Prioress before The Monk, who would be her equal in rank.
Medieval audiences would have recognized the inconsistency from Chaucer’s stated intentions, but modern readers are often confused because they take him at his word. This may be a reflection of the fact that the medieval social structure was in flux – the concept of a “middle class” was newly developing as more men of “common” lineage were becoming land and business owners. Chaucer was born into this middle class, but married a woman of high birth. After her death, he died bankrupt and in debt, surviving by the good graces of his aristocratic benefactor. Therefore, he would have had close ties to all social classes of his day.
The Knight begins the journey in the lead, riding with The Squire and The Yeoman. Some critics argue that this represents a change in society as well: The Knight represents past ideals of chivalry and courtly love The Squire represents the present – he is in training but more interested in court life The Yeoman represents the future – he is a foot soldier of common blood, but he is resourceful and in the future most of the military will likely resemble him.
The Prioress is next, accompanied by her nun (2 nd Nun) and The Nun’s Priest They are followed by The Monk and The Friar. These two pilgrims are at opposite ends of the social extreme. The Monk is the head of a monastery, while The Friar essentially lives as legal beggar among the common people. It is suggested that both men live better than they should at the expense of those they are supposed to be helping.
The Merchant follows the religious figures. The Cleric (student) comes next. Although these pilgrims are not traveling together, they are similar in that both are in debt. The Merchant is a man of the world, while The Cleric is more interested in his books than people. The Man-of-Law and the Franklin are traveling companions. Both are land owners, but while the Man-of-Law focuses on the legal aspects of purchasing and keeping property, The Franklin emphasizes enjoying the wealth and prosperity his land gives him.
The Guildsmen (The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer & Tapestry- Maker) are all recent additions to the middle class. They share a group identity and none of them tell a tale. However, the cook, who has been hired to serve them on the trip, does have a story of his own. The Guildsmen are only discussed as a group, with the focus primarily on their possessions. The Cook gets more individual detail.
The Shipman comes from a questionable background. He is described as a capable and knowledgeable businessman, but it is suggested he might be a pirate. The Physician is also praised for his skill in his profession, although it is also hinted that he manipulates his patients for profit. In other words, both these men have questionable morals.
The Wife of Bath is the only character who seems to have no fitting company. She is an unchaperoned woman with no apparent social circle represented among the pilgrims. A great deal of detail is given regarding her appearance and dress, but it is also stated that she is a skilled weaver. Everything about her is exaggerated or emphasized. Chaucer intermittently praises and mocks her with his choice of description. The Wife of Bath follows the Shipman and the Physician – two unseemly characters – but preceeds the Parson and the Plowman – two apparently righteous men.
The Parson is described in one of the longest passages in The General Prologue, although the only physical description given is that he walks with a staff. Chaucer has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING sarcastic or critical to say about him. The Plowman is the Parson’s brother. He is a simple farmer. Again, the only physical description is that he wears a “laborer’s coat” and rides a mare. His passage is very brief. Chaucer does not seem to criticize this pilgrim either, although the first line states that he had much experience with hauling manure.
The Christian brothers are followed by The Miller, The Manciple, and The Reeve. The Miller and The Reeve, who dislike each other, are originally separated by The Manciple. The Reeve is technically of a higher class than The Miller, but it is mentioned in the prologue that he has chosen to travel with those from his original class (that of a tradesman) out of respect for the high class pilgrims. This is likely an attempt to ingratiate himself to them.
Later, The Miller rudely cuts The Knight off and takes over leadership of the procession. The Reeve is disgusted by this action and purposely moves to the back of the caravan in protest and to be as far from The Miller as possible. These three men seem to share character traits as well, although there is no definitive link between them. (It does seem, though, that The Miller and The Reeve may know each other before the journey.) The Miller is crooked and greedy, The Manciple knows how to get what he wants at all costs, and The Reeve is a snob.
The Summoner and the Pardoner are friends traveling together. These two men hold the lowest positions in the church. Their connections to the church afford them power, but they are not respected Both Summoner and Pardoner are admittedly deceitful. Both prey on the weak and desperate in order to gain wealth for themselves.
The Host and Chaucer are hardly mentioned in the prologue. Both seem to be observant and capable of interacting comfortably with all the members of the group. At one point in the text, someone asks Chaucer if he is “that Chaucer” of fame, and Chaucer the narrator is amused and complimented by the “mistake” His inability to tell a good story or compose poetry is later made clear when he tells the worst tales offered by any pilgrim.
The Canon’s Yeoman arrives late Originally he is accompanied by a Canon (church official), but the two have a falling out and the Canon rides off alone. The last pilgrim in the procession, he is of lower class, but also apparently associated with the church.
The Knight tells his tale first, which is appropriate due to his station in society. However, he is not elected due to his social class, but by chance when he draws the “winning” straw. The Knight’s tale is one of many in the collection adapted from the work of Giovanni Boccaccio. Others include The Franklin’s tale and The Cleric’s tale.