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Are the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales stereotypes, or fully developed characters?

Are the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales stereotypes, or fully developed characters?

Discuss with reference to at least two tales.

Though the characters in the Canterbury Tales are described vividly and often comically, it is not
necessarily true that these characters are therefore stereotypes of The Middle ages. The intricate visual
descriptions and the tales the characters tell help to direct the reader in finding a more accurate and
realistic picture of the pilgrims, bringing into question the theory that Chaucer was just collating
stereotypes from his time.

The fact that there is one representative for each of the chief classes (under the higher nobility)
would suggest that this work is an attempt to provide a catalogue of characters from the middle ages,
and it can be assumed from this that this denotes a collection of stereotypes, although this is not
necessarily true. The format of The Canterbury Tales suggests a simplistic approach, a prologue and
epilogue and in between a collection of tales, The Miler’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale and so on[1]. This
simplicity in structure may also suggest a simplicity in content and thus, convincing and challenging
characters are unlikely to be expected in a work of seemingly simple design. But, when looked at in
more detail, the tales are found to hold many details that contradict the bland stereotype expected, and
when the structure of the work is looked at in its context of 14th century literature, the Canterbury

Tales is found to be a work pioneering the form of the epic poem. The style in which Chaucer writes
may also initially seem to suggest that his characters are under-developed stereotypes, he uses the
language of his time vividly, although this does not therefore mean that his characters are two
dimensional, almost ‘cartoon’ characters. J.R. Hulbert in his essay Chaucer’s Pilgrims explains, In
many instances there are exuberant lines which sharpen the effect desired. The Canterbury Tales
may, at first seem to be obtuse and unfocused through the use of lucid imagery and language,
although this language, when studied gives a more detailed and more deeply layered portrayal of the
pilgrims as well as giving them colourful characteristics.

Chaucer’s description of the knight is a good example of his subversion of the classic Arthurian
image that existed in popular literature of the time[2]. In the General Prologue, Chaucer relays his
description of the knight:

A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the time that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrye,

Trouthe, and honour, freedom and curteisye.

This excerpt, the beginning of the description of the knight holds true to the classic representation
of the knight of valour and honour, but Chaucer goes on to pervert and pollute the fairytale image that
he has created:

And of his port as meeke as is a maide

His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

Of fustian he wered a gopoun,

Al bismothered with his haubergeoun.

In these few lines, Chaucer has destroyed the traditional stereotype of the knight and created a new
and almost comical figure. Our knight is not one ‘in shining armour’, but rather a ‘knight in a rusted
chain-mail’. The knight does not even have a hyper-masculine representation here either. Chaucer
feminises the knight comparing him to a maid. At the end of the description of the knight in the
general prologue the only part of the knight that lives up to the readers expectations is his horse,
which apparently was in good condition. Although we have only been given a visual representation of
the knight, the reader can gather many things from this description, perhaps the knight is effeminate
or weak, and he shys away from battle, getting so little battlefield ‘action’ that his chainmail has begun
to rust.

It is a device used by Chaucer to convey the character of his pilgrims using their appearance. Thus
when the Wife of Bath is described as being gat-toothed, the reader can assume that she is lusty as it
was believed in the Middle ages that this particular physical attribute denoted that characteristic. In
medieval times, certain elements of a person’s appearance intrinsically suggested something, if not
everything of their character. Indeed, this practice of identifying outward appearance with inward
attitudes and traits became an area of study known as ‘physiognomy’ and manuals on this subject were
produced[3]. In more recent times, critics have tried to unravel and understand the many tiny clues
hidden in the character descriptions to gain a sharper picture of these characters. In 1919 Water Clyde

Curry claimed to have discovered the pardoner’s secret [that he was a eunuchus ex nativitate] using
these manuals, and this discovery, after it’s initial acceptance has been questioned for it’s reliance on
the physiognomy texts that are vague and overlapping anyway. Although we may not be able to assess
the details of the characters in as much detail as Walter Clyde Curry attempted, we can still glean
further insight into the pilgrims characters from their appearance.

Chaucer describes the miller in a similar way to the knight, in that he creates a picture of the
archetypal stereotype and then obliterates it with a parody of the traditional model. The miller is
described as braun, brood, short-shuldred and eek of bones, this is a regular picture of a
stocky, well-built, practical man. Chaucer then describes how this man who seems fit and strong and
therefore, presumably young, is actually old and is not as worldly wise as his age and his profession as
a carpenter would suggest. The carpenter who is physically strong is, unfortunately for him, mentally
weak. He is not suspecting of his young wife’s plot to have sex with Nicholas and he is completely
taken in by the clerk’s claims of a flood on the scale of that of Noah’s time. Although the reader might
presume the miller to be worldly wise, having a hard labour-intensive job bringing him into contact
with other people and forcing him to travel far and wide, his worldly wisdom is mocked by the
cunning and shrewd clerk and his own young wife, just as the hairy wart on his nose mocks his face
and muscular complexion. In the prologue to the miler’s tale the narrator warns,

An housbonde shal nought been inquisitif

Of Goddes privetee, nor of his wif. (55-56)
and the miller pays heed to this warning, suppressing curiosity of Goddes privetee as regards the
flood and trusting his wife so much as to leave her alone and independent while he travels on his
business. This blind acceptance of ‘Goddes’ mysteries and his wife’s deceit leads to his metaphoric and
literal downfall when the tale comes to it’s climax, as the miller falls from the roof, and again, literally
and metaphorically waking up to find his wife having had sex with another man.

The miller’s wife Alison is another character that is represented using this same process of creating
a stereotypical figure and then adding flaws and perversions. Alison is presented as a pure, innocent,
virginal youth in the tale,

Fair was this yonge wif and therwithal

As any wesele hir body gent and smal….

Ful smale ypulled were hir browes two,…..

Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth, (115-52)

Other youthful descriptions are given of Alison in the passage that runs from line 115 to 162. This
description seems like the stereotypical virginal newly-wed until the plot thickens and Alison becomes
less and less innocent. One instance when Alison’s loyalty and morality are tested is when Nicholas
accosts her, grabbing her by the queinte(168). Alison’s initial reaction is that of any loving wife, to
protest and try and escape, but she does not take much persuading to go to bed with the clerk. Chaucer
explains this by saying that he made such vigorous advances that she could not resist, but this scene
seems more like rape than a lover wooing his true love. Alison is instantly exposed to have the same
base and uncurbed desires as Nicholas, parodying the facade of the virginal young bride.

One character who openly reveals the facade which he hides behind is the pardoner. His description
in the general prologue tells of his trickery in using false relics and his use of his position as absolver
to make money. The pardoner himself, also openly admits his hypocritical practices to the other
pilgrims. He tells them that he is only concerned with money, and reveals the falsehood of his relics
(and even after this tries to trick them into giving him money for absolution). The pardoner is not
represented as a pious, humble and holy man as you would expect of a pardoner, but as a conniving,
money-grabbing hypocrite. This character itself is almost a stereotype, though Chaucer’s description of
the pardoner holds many quirky traits that take the pardoner from being a stereotype to being a
believable individual. The pardoner’s sexuality is a complex issue that has had critics such as Donald

Howard, G. L. Kiterridge and Paul Ruggiers debating. The pardoner is clearly not an open and shut
stereotype. What is unique about the pardoner is that he recognises his own hypocrisy. He admits that
he is guilty of the avarice that he preaches against but separates himself from those who he

Thus can I preche that same vice

Which that I use, and that is avarice.

But though myself be gilty in that sine,

Yit can I make other folk to twinne(139-142)

This recognition of his own hypocrisy takes the pardoner one stage further than a purely
hypocritical clergyman and makes his character more complex and interesting. The pardoner
recognises his own sins and fails to see this as a problem, creating a psychological profile that is much
too intricate to be brushed aside as a stereotype.

This use of the typical ‘types’ of people encountered in Chaucer’s era helps to give a vividness that
the reader can relate to and, quoting a stereotype initially (and then subsequently deconstructing it) as
he does with a number of the pilgrims such as Alison and the Knight, allows a lot of information to be
passed from the author to the reader with minimum communication. Quoting a stereotype saves

Chaucer having to explain what the character is like. Chaucer takes advantage of this fact, but does
not allow this to confine the scope his work has for realism. His genius in describing the pilgrims is
that he will use a stereotype and then add individual features (that more often than not contradict the
initial image), making the characters more intricate and interesting and above all ,more believable.

The eye for detail that Chaucer obviously possesses is put to good use here, these characters are not
broad, generalising stereotypes, rather he gives a detailed insight into the psyche of the pilgrims we

I believe that the pilgrims are believable and fully developed characters, that Chaucer has created
using typical stereotypes from the time and the people he saw around himself. He has combined this
with individual quirks and details that give further insight into the characters. Chaucer has not created
stereotypes, but has used stereotypes (and manipulated them) in order to create intricate and realistic
characters. This twinning of the typical and the atypical gives The Canterbury Tales a definite sense of
realism that reaches far beyond stereotypes.

2031 words


1. J.R. Hulbert, Chaucer’s Pilgrims p23 (from Essays in Modern Criticism-see

2. The Black book of Carmarthen (c. latter 14th century, author unknown)

Preidaeu Annun from The Book of Taliesin, poem 30 (c. 14th century author

3. C. D. Benson, Chaucer’s Pardoner: His sexuality and modern critics (from

Luminarium medieval literature website at www.luminarium.org)


Chaucer (modern essays in criticism), edited by E. Wagenknecht, OUP 1974

The Canterbury Tales, D. Pearsall, Unwin Critical Library 1985

Who’s Who in Chaucer, A.F. Scott, Elm Tree1974

The Canterbury Tales (casebook series), edited by J.J. Anderson, Anchor Press 1974

Chaucer’s Women, P. Martin, Macmillan 1990

Chaucer, a critical appreciation, P.F. Baum, Duke University Press 1958

Chaucer Langland and the Creative Imagination, D. Aers

Critical Essays on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, edited by M. Andrew

Open University Press 1991

Chaucer, D. Aers, Harvester 1986

Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by J.A. Burrow, Penguin 1969

Editions of Canterbury Tales used:

Penguin Classics 1960 edition

Excerpts contained in Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth edition, Volume 1

Norton 1993

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