Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet in the 14th century. He represents his own age and holds the mirror to his time. His poetry reflects the 14th century not in fragments but as a whole. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales forms a wonderful commentary upon English life in the Middle Ages.
The group of pilgrims described in the Prologue is itself an unequaled picture of the society of Chaucer’s time. Here are some thirty persons belonging to the most different classes. The Knight is the picture of a professional soldier, coming straight from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armour. The variety of lords for whom he has fought suggest that he is some kind of mercenary but it seems that Chaucer may have known people at the English court with similar records.
Medieval social theory divided the English king’s subjects into three estates-the Military, the Clergy and Laity. Chaucer observes this division. The Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman belong to the Military estate. As knights dominated English society since the Norman conquest, Chaucer begins his catalogue with the Knight.
The clerical estates present a much less worthy trio-the Prioress, the Monk and the Friar. Like most Prioresses in the Middle Ages, she has the manners of the upper class. Her tenderness to her dogs and the ambiguous motto on her rosary amuse the readers.
The shortcomings of the l4th century monks and nuns are amusingly displayed in the General Prologue.
The Clerk and the Parson were members the secular clergy. Chaucer’s Clerk is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Chaucer’s Parson is the ideal parish priest, free from the faults both of the regular clergy and some parish priests.
Chaucer also portrays two church officials-the Summoner and the Pardoner. He was aware of the weaknesses of the church officials-their love of money, corruption and materialism. The Pardoner is a despicable parasite trading in letters of pardons with the sinners.
Among the poor pilgrims, the Ploughman is a good person. He is a virtuous man. He is a hard worker who loves God and his neighbor, serves other and pay his tither.
In the Doctor of Physic, we have a vivid picture of the medieval medicine man, with his herbal remedies and his knowledge of astronomy as well as astrology. Chaucer indicates that his medical studies had drawn him away from his study of the Bible:
“His study was but litel on the Bible.”
In order to give us a realistic picture of contemporary society. Chaucer also draws the characters of miller, a Maunciple, sergeant-at-law, Franklin, Reeve, Shipman and cook. All of them are distinguished from each other. Most of them are clearer and materialistic.
Chaucer’s Sergeant-at-law was discreet and worthy of great reverence. He was an eminent and efficient lawyer. Nobody could find any defect in his writing.
Chaucer’s Franklin was one who kept open table and was the genius of eating and drinking He was a substantial person in every way, He presided at sessions of justices of the peace. He had been Member of Parliament and had functioned as a sheriff and a treasurer.
The Wife of Bath represents the class of woman who, having an amorous nature, cared little for chastity. She was fond of merry making and fun. The Prologue tells us a lot about 'the food, the hobbies and the mode of the dress of the times. It also makes us acquainted with the clothes worn by persons of different ranks, positions and professions.
Though Chaucer holds the mirror to his times, his picture of society is incomplete in one respect. Chaucer’s group of pilgrims constitutes a picture of the society of his times which has no parallel in any country.