|THE CANTERBURY TALES|
The General Prologue
Here bygynneth the Boak of the Tales of Caunterbury
When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. The west wind blows away the stench of the city, and the crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of renewal, of general restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for the sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage. They journey to strange shores and cities, seeking solace among the shrines of the saints. Here in England many make their way to Canterbury, and to the tomb of the holy blissful martyr Thomas. They come from every shire to find a cure for infirmity and care.
It so happened that in April I was lodging at Southwark. I was staying at the Tabard Inn, ready to take the way to Canterbury and to venerate the saint. There arrived one evening at the inn twenty-nine other travellers and, much to my delight, I discovered that they were all Canterbury pilgrims. They came from various places, and from various walks of life, but they all had the same destination. The inn was spacious and comfortable enough to accommodate us all, and we were soon at ease one with another. We shared some ale and wine, and agreed among ourselves that we would ride together. It would
be a diversion, a merry journey made in good fellowship. Before the sun had gone down, we had determined to meet at dawn on the following day to make our way along the pilgrims' road.
Before we begin our travels, however, I want to introduce you to the men and women who made up our company. If I describe their rank, and their appearance, you may also acquire some inkling of their character. Dress, and degree, can be tokens of inward worth. I will begin with the Knight.
The KNIGHT, as you might expect, was a man of substance and of valour. From the start of his career as a warrior he had fought for truth and honour, for freedom and for dignity. He had proved himself in warfare in many lands; he had ridden through the territories of the Christians and the countries of the infidel, and had been universally praised for his military virtues. He had been present when Alexandria was won from the Turks; he had taken the palm of valour from all the knights of Prussia; he had mounted expeditions in Russia and Lithuania. He had proved himself in Granada and Morocco and Turkey. Where had he not travelled, and where had he not been victorious? He had fought fifteen battles, and taken part in three tournaments. These exploits were not for love of glory, however, but for love of Christ. Piety guided his sword. He considered himself no more than an instrument for God.
That is why he was, despite his reputation for bravery, modest and prudent. In appearance he was meek as any maid, and no oath or indecency ever passed his lips. He was never insolent or condescending. He was the very flower of chivalry, in this springtime of the year; he was a true and noble knight. Do you see him in front of you? He did not wear the robes of office but a tunic of coarse cloth that would have better suited a monk than a soldier; it was discoloured, too, by the rust from his coat of mail. He had a good horse but it was not festooned with bells or expensive cloths. It was the horse of a pilgrim. He told me that he had come from an expedition in order once more to pledge his faith. He asked me about myself then, where I had come from, where I had been - but I quickly turned the conversation to another course.
He was travelling with his son, a young SQUIRE, a lusty and lively young man who also aspired to knighthood. He was of moderate height, but he was strong and agile. It is said that the hair is a token of vitality; the more virile a man is, the more hair he will have. His was knit in tight blond curls that flowed down his neck and across his shoulders. He was about twenty years of age, and had already taken part in cavalry expeditions in northern France. In that short time he had made a good impression on his comrades, but the only person he really wished to impress was a certain lady of his acquaintance. I did not discover her name. His tunic was embroidered with flowers, white and red and blue; it was as if he had gathered up a sweet meadow and placed it upon his shoulders. He wore a short gown, with wide sleeves, as suited his rank. He rode well and easily with the grace of a natural horseman. He was always singing, or playing the flute. He wrote songs, too, and I learned that he could joust, and write, and draw, and dance. All the finer human accomplishments came naturally to him. In his company it was always May-time. He had good cause for high spirits. He was so passionately in love that he could scarcely sleep at night; he enjoyed no more rest than a nightingale. Yet he never forgot his manners. He had been instructed in all the arts of courtesy, and carved the meat for his father at the table. When he spoke to me, he took off his hat; he did not glance down at the ground, but looked at me steadfastly in the face without moving his hands or feet. These are good manners.
The Knight in fact had only one servant with him, a YEOMAN, who was dressed in the customary hood and coat of green cloth. Green is the colour of faithfulness and service. He carried under his belt a sheaf of dainty peacock arrows, keen and bright, while in his hand he carried a bow. He knew how to take good care of his equipment, because the feathers were upright and the arrows flew to their target. His hair
was closely cropped, and his visage was as brown as a smoked ham. On his arm he wore a glittering arm-guard, and by his right side hung a sword and small shield. On his left side was a dagger in its sheath, its handle richly ornamented and its blade exceedingly sharp. This was a young man ready for combat. Yet he had a silver badge of Saint Christopher, the saint of travellers as well as archers, shining on his tunic. I guessed that this Yeoman, when not dressed for battle, worked as a forester on the Knight's estates. He had a horn hanging at his hip from a broad belt of green. 'I have often seen such a horn,' I told him, 'in the woods and forests.' 'Yes,' he said, 'it rouses the buck.' Then he rode on. He was not a chatterer.
The PRIORESS, of course, rode before him. She was an exemplary nun who put on no airs of excessive piety. She was amiable and modest, and in the course of our pilgrimage she occasionally invoked the name of Saint Eligius; since he is the patron saint of horses and of smiths, she must have been wishing for good speed and a comfortable journey. I should have asked her. Her name was Madame Eglantine, and she was as fragrant as any sweetbriar or honeysuckle. She sang the divine service with perfect pitch, and intoned the sacred verses in a deft and sonorous manner. She spoke French elegantly enough, although her accent was closer to Bow than to Paris. What does it matter if we do not speak the exact language of the French? They are no longer our masters. English is even spoken in the parliament house now. The table manners of the Prioress were of the best. She never let any meat fall from her lips, and she did not dip her hands too deeply into the sauce; not a drop of it fell upon what I must call, if she will forgive me, her breasts. She wiped her lips so carefully that not one smudge of grease was to be found on the rim of her cup, after she had drunk from it, and she was careful never to grab at the food on the table. She knew that the manners of the table reflect the manner of a life. She deported herself very well, in other words, and was amiable and pleasant in all of her dealings. She tried very hard to imitate courtly manners, and remained very dignified on all occasions; she deemed herself to be worthy of respect and, as a result, came to deserve it.
Of her sensibility, there can be no doubt. She was so compassionate that she wept whenever she saw mouse caught in a trap; even the sight of its blood made her lament. Against the rules of her order she had some small dogs that she fed with roasted meat and milk and fine white bread. She never let them out of her sight, in case one of them was trampled beneath the hooves of the horses or perhaps kicked by a fellow pilgrim. Then there would have been tears galore. You can be sure of that. She was all sympathy and tender heart. You have seen a prioress before, no doubt, but she was a very model of her kind. Her wimple was carefully arranged to show her features to their best advantage - her well-formed nose, her eyes as bright as the glass that comes from Venice, her little mouth as soft and red as a cherry. She was also eager to display the beautiful span of her forehead, that token of truthfulness. Her cloak was well made and finely embroidered, and about her arm she carried a rosary of coral with green beads. That was not her only decoration. She sported a bracelet of gold that was surmounted by the letter 'A' and then, beneath, the legend 'Amor vincit omnia'. Love conquers everything. I presume that she was referring to divine love. I did not ask her about that, either. In fact she seemed a little cautious of me, and I would sometimes catch her staring at me with a perplexed expression. Riding beside her was a nun who performed the duties of a chaplain, together with three priests about whom I could gather very little information. They were just priests.
And then there was a MONK, and a handsome one at that. He was one of those monks who do much business outside the monastery, arranging sales and contracts with the lay people, and he had acquired lay tastes. He loved hunting, for example. He prided himself on being strong and firm of purpose; he would make a very good abbot. He had a stable of good horses as brown as autumn berries and, when
he rode, you could hear his bridle jingling as loudly as the bell calling his fellows to chapel. He was supposed to follow the rule of Saint Benedict, in the small monastery over which he had authority, but he found the precepts antiquated and altogether too strict; he preferred to follow the modern fashions of good living and good drinking. He loved a fat swan on his table. He paid no heed to the injunction that huntsmen can never be holy men, and scorned the old saying that a monk without rules is like a fish without water. Who needs water, in any case, when there is ale and wine? Why should he study in the book room off the cloister, and make his head spin with words and texts? Why should he labour and work with his own hands, as Saint Augustine ordained? What good is that to the world? Let Augustine do the work! No, this monk was a sportive horseman. He owned greyhounds that were as swift as any bird in flight. He loved tracking down and killing the hares on the lands of the monastery. He looked the part, too. His sleeves were lined and trimmed with soft squirrel fur, the most expensive of its kind. He had a great gold pin, to fasten his hood under his chin, which blossomed into an intricate knot at its head. That could not have been cheap. His head was bald, and shone as if it were made of glass; his face glowed, too, as if it had been anointed with oil. He was a fine plump specimen of a monk, in excellent condition. His eyes were very bright and mobile, gleaming like the sudden spark from a furnace under a cauldron. He was all fire and life, a sanguinary man. He was the best kind of prelate, to my thinking, and not a tormented ghost of a cleric. He seemed to enjoy my company or, rather, he seemed to enjoy himself in my company; he did not enquire about my life or my occupation. I liked that.
And then there rode a FRIAR. He loved pleasure and any kind of merriment but, since he was obliged to beg for alms, he was still very resourceful. He was not importunate, but he was imposing. Of all the four orders, however, his was the most inclined to gossip and to flattery. He had arranged many marriages and
sometimes, for reasons that I will not mention,he had to pay for them himself. Still, he was a pillar of the faith. He was well known to all the rich landowners of his neighbourhood and he was familiar, too, with the worthy women of his town. He had full power of confession, which, as he said himself, was superior to that of an ordinary curate; he could absolve the most awful sins. He heard the confessions very patiently, and pronounced the absolution very sweetly; he exacted the mildest of penances, especially if the penitent had something to give to his poor order. Bless me, father, for I have sinned and I have a large purse.That was the kind of thing he liked to hear. For, as he said, what is better proof of penitence than dispensing alms to the friars of God? There are many men who suffer from guilt and repentance, but are so hard of heart that they cannot weep for their sins. Therefore, instead of tears and prayers, these men must give silver to the friars. The tip of his hood, hanging down his back, was stuffed full of knives and pins which he gave away to pretty wives; whether he got anything in return, I could not say. I am only the narrator. I cannot be everywhere at once. I can say that the Friar had a very pleasant voice; he could sing well, and play on the gitern or lute. There was no one to beat him with a ballad. I heard him sing 'Grimalkin, our cat'. He was excellent. And when he played the harp, and sang an accompaniment, his eyes shone like the stars on a clear crisp night of frost. He had skin as white as a lily, but he was not lily-livered; he was as strong as a champion at the Shrovetide games. He knew the taverns in every town, as well as every landlord and barmaid; certainly he spent more time with them than with lepers or beggar-women. Who could blame him? 'My position as a confessor,' he told me, 'does not allow me to consort with the poorer sort. It would not be honourable. It would not be respectable. It would not be beneficial. I am more at my ease with the rich, and with the wealthier merchants. They are my congregation, sir.' So, wherever there was profit to be gained, he was modest and courteous and virtuous to a fault. No one was better at soliciting funds. Even a widow
with no shoes to her name would have given him something. When he greeted a poor householder with 'In principio', he would end up with a farthing at least. In the beginning was the coin. His total income was higher than his projected income. I will say no more. He could frolic like a puppy and, on love days when conflicts are resolved, he was always on hand to reconcile opposing parties. On those occasions he did not behave like a cloistered cleric, wearing a threadbare gown like some poor scholar, but rather like a master or a pope. His cloak was made of expensive cloth, and it encircled him as round as a bell just out of the mould. He affected a slight lisp, so that his enunciation seemed all the sweeter. So, as he said to me on the first evening, 'God keep you in hith care.' Oh, one thing I forgot - this worthy friar was called Hubert.
Among our merry company was a MERCHANT with a forked beard. He was dressed in an outfit of many colours, just like the players in the Mysteries, and rode on a high saddle from which he looked down at me. He wore a Flemish hat of beaver, in the latest style, and a pair of elegant as well as expensive boots. When he expressed an opinion, he did so carefully and solemnly; he was always trying to weigh the likely profit to be gained from it. He commented, for example, that the sea between Holland and England should be defended at all costs. He was good at exchange dealings, as you would expect, and in fact this worthy gentleman was canny in every respect. He was so dignified in his business, in his buyings and in his sellings, in his barterings and in his tradings, that no one would ever know if he was in debt or not. What a notable mari! Funnily enough, I did not discover his name. I never bothered to ask him.
A CLERK was there, from Oxford University. He was what you and I would describe as a scholar. He had studied logic for a long time, without progressing any further. He sat upon a withered horse that was almost as thin as its rider; he was grave and gaunt and hollow-cheeked. He had obtained no benefices, and he was too unworldly to seek for any profitable post; as a result his coat was as threadbare as his purse. He
would rather have at his bedside twenty books of Aristotle, bound in red or black leather, than any amount of rich clothes or expensive musical instruments. He was a philosopher but he had not yet found the philosopher's stone; there was precious little gold in his coffers. Any money he could beg or borrow from his friends was immediately spent upon books and learning. He was a bookworm. He went down on his knees to pray for those who had paid for his education, which was not cheap, and he took the demands of scholarship very seriously indeed. He never talked more than was strictly necessary and, when he did speak, it was in careful and measured tones· he was brief and to the point, but full of elevated sentiment.'
He loved to discourse on problems of moral virtue. Like the lawyers he would begin 'Put the case that ... '. But he learned from these debates, too, just as much as he contributed to them. 'A great friend is Aristotle,' he said to me, 'but a greater friend is truth.'
There was with us a SERGEANT OF THE LAW, as wise and as prudent as any in that exalted position. He consulted with his clients in the porch of Saint Paul's Cathedral, where he had acquired a reputation for judiciousness and discretion. No one was more revered than he. I am only reporting what I have heard, of course, but I do know that he often sat as a justice in the courts of assize that travelled around the country; he was appointed by the king, and in the letters patent he was granted full jurisdiction. He received an annual income, as well as private fees, for his exertions; his wealth allowed him to buy up land, and of course he purchased it on the principle of absolute possession or 'fee simple'. That is the lawyers' jargon. There was no one busier than this Man of Law, although in truth he seemed to be busier than he was. He was all bustle and hustle. He possessed all the yearbooks, in legal French, so that he could consult cases from the time of William the Conqueror. By careful study of the precedents he was expert at drawing up the appropriate writs for each case; if he made any mistake then the prosecution would be
deemed to be void. But he never made mistakes. He knew all the abridgements and statutes and registers of writs. How did he look? He looked the part, of course, as all men must. He wore a mantle of green cloth furred with black lamb and embroidered with stripes of mulberry and blue; he wore a round cap of white silk upon his head. He was dressed in the robes of authority. There is no more to say.
A FRANKLIN was in our company, a landowner free but not noble. The beard of this freeholder was as white as a daisy, and he was of red-cheeked sanguinary humour. That is to say, he was vigorous and cheerful. It was his custom, in the morning, to dip pieces of white bread into red wine; it may have been a tribute to his complexion. He was a true son of Epicurus, and thought no life more worthwhile than that of ease and pure delight. He held the opinion that sensual pleasure was the goal of every reasonable man. It was the secret of happiness itself. He was a lavish host in his neighbourhood, and worshipped at the shrine of Saint Julian, the patron saint of hospitality. His bread and his ale were always of the finest quality; he had a well-stocked wine-cellar, too. There was no shortage of roast meat at his table. There were baked pheasants, and geese, and wild fowl, and pullets, and pork. There was fish served in green sauce, partridges roasted in ginger, peacocks with pepper sauce, lobster in vinegar, fried eels in sugar and mackerel in mint sauce. The meals changed with the seasons, but they were always plentiful. The whole house snowed meat and drink. He even had a pen for his birds, and a pond for his fish. So the food was always fresh and always renewed. He would berate his cook if the sauces were not piquant and sharp and if the utensils-- the flesh. hooks, the skimmers and skillets, the ladles and pestles-- were not prepared. His table was always covered in the hall, ready for use. But he was not just a man of appetite. He presided at the sessions of the local court, and on many occasions represented the shire in the parliament house. He had been a sheriff,
and a county auditor. Upon his girdle there hung a dagger, and a silk purse as white as morning milk. There had never been such a worthy freeholder. I told him so, and he laughed. 'Well, sir,' he said, 'I walk in the open way.'
There were some worthy citizens among our company. I saw a HABERDASHER, a CARPENTER, a WEAVER, a DYER and a MAKER OF TAPESTRIES, all in the livery of their parish fraternity. They were good guild folk, with their robes freshly turned out. Their knives were made of silver, not of brass, while their belts and purses were of the best manufacture. These were the citizens you would see in the guildhall, sitting at the high table, greeting each other with 'God's speed' and 'God give you grace'. Any one of them could have been an alderman. Any one of them had the income, and the property, to attain civic office. Their wives would have agreed on that point, too, and would have blamed them if they failed to take advantage of the situation. These worthy women liked to be called 'madame'. They enjoyed leading the processions to the parish church, on festal days, bearing themselves with all the dignity of royalty.
These worthy citizens had hired a COOK for the journey. I tasted one of his meals, a pudding of chicken, marrow bones, milk, hard-boiled eggs, ginger and other spices that he kept secret. It was delicious. He knew all about London beer, too, and he could roast or broil or fry or simmer with the best of them. He could prepare a stew, and bake a pie, with the same alacrity. There was just one problem. He had a large ulcer on his lower leg, which wept and was unsightly. Still, his chicken mousse was perfect. You can't have everything.
There was a SHIPMAN with us, hailing from the west country. I imagine that he came from Devon, judging by his accent, but I cannot be sure. He rode upon a carthorse as best he could, not being used to land transport. And he wore a robe of coarse woollen cloth, not being used to land fashion. He had a dagger hanging from a cord around his neck, as if he were about to encounter pirates. The hot summers at sea
had weathered him. But he was a good enough fellow. He had tapped many barrels of fine Bordeaux wine, when the merchant was not looking, and had no scruples about it. A ship's cargo is not sacrosanct. The sea was the element in which he felt at home. He had acquired all the skills of observation and navigation; he had learned how to calculate the tides and the currents, and knew from long acquaintance the hidden perils of the deep. No one from Hull to Carthage knew more about natural harbours and anchorages; he could fix the position of the moon and the stars without the aid of an astrolabe. He knew all the havens, from Gotland to Cape Finistere, and every creek in Brittany and Spain. He told me of his voyages as far north as Iceland, and of his journeys to the Venetian colonies of Crete and of Corfu. He called his bed his 'berth' and his companions were his 'mates'. His beard had been shaken by many tempests, but he was a sturdy and courageous man. 'What is the broadest water,' he once asked me, 'and the least danger to walk over?' 'I have no notion.' 'The dew.' His boat, by the way, was called the Magdalene.
There was a DOCTOR OF PHYSIC also with us. No one on earth could have spoken more eloquently about medicine and surgery. He exemplified the old saying that a good physician is half an astronomer, and he could identify all the influences of the stars. He told me, for example, that Aries governs the head and all its contents; when the moon was in Aries, he felt able to operate upon the cheek or forehead. Taurus is the sign for neck and throat. The bollocks, or testicles, or cod, or yard, apparently lie in Scorpio. This was news to me. I thought that they lay in my mistress. But enough of that. I do not choose to display myself. Now this doctor knew the cause of every malady engendered in the bodily fluids. Some are hot, and some are cold; some are moist, and some are dry. But, alas, all things are mixed and mingled beneath the moon. And then he discoursed upon the humours. 'You,' he said to me, 'are melancolius. And a portion phlegmaticus.' I did not know whether to be alarmed or relieved. He was in any event an excellent physician. As soon as he
knew the root and cause of any ailment, he could apply the appropriate remedy. He had his own chosen apothecaries to send him drugs and other medicines, from which both he and they made a great deal of money. The dung of doves was an excellent cure for sore feet. And what was his remedy for convulsions? Sage well mixed with the excrements of a sparrow, of a child, and of a dog that eats only bones. He was well versed in Asclepius and the other ancient texts; he could quote to you from Galen and Averroes and Avicenna and a score of others. He was in fact better versed in Galen than in the Bible. But he practised what he preached. He led a very temperate life, and had a very moderate diet. He told me that milk was good for melancholy, for example, and that green ginger quickened the memory. He wore the furred hood and robe of his profession; the robe, lined with silk, had the vertical red and purple stripes that proclaim the man of physic. Yet despite appearances he was not a big spender. He saved most of what he earned from his practice. The good doctor loved gold. Gold is the sovereign remedy, after all. It is the best medicine.
Among our company was a good WIFE OF BATH. She had such skill in making cloth that she easily surpassed the weavers of Ypres and of Ghent. It was a pity that she was a little deaf. She was also, perhaps, a little proud. Woe betide any woman in the parish who went up to the offertory rail with charitable alms before she did; she became so angry that all thoughts of charity were instantly forgotten. The linen scarves she wore about her head, on her way to Sunday mass, were of very fine texture; I dare say that some of them weighed at least ten pounds. Her stockings were of a vivid red and tightly laced; her leather shoes were supple and of the newest cut. Her face was red, too, and she had a very bold look. No wonder. She had been married in church five times but, in her youth, she had enjoyed any number of liaisons. There is no need to mention them now. She was, and is, a respectable woman. Everyone says so. She had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times, after all, and had crossed many foreign seas in
pursuit of her devotion. She had travelled to Rome, and to Boulogne; she had journeyed to Saint James of Compostella, and also to Cologne where the eleven thousand virgins were martyred. There was no need for any more. Yes she had wandered, and strayed, far enough. It is said that gap-toothed women like her have a propensity for lust, but I cannot vouch for that. She sat very easily upon her horse. She wore an exquisite wimple and a hat as broad as a practice target; she had hitched an overskirt about her fat hips, and she wore a sharp pair of spurs in case her horse despaired of her weight. She had an easy laugh, and was affable with everyone. She seemed to take a liking to me in particular, and was very fond of discussing stories of lost love and of forlorn lovers. She reached over and pressed my hand during the course of one affecting tale. She had performed in that game before. She knew, as they say, the ways of the dance. That was the Wife of Bath.
There was also riding with us a good man of religion, the poor PARSON of a small town. He was poor in wealth, perhaps, but rich in thought and holy works. He was also a learned man, a clerk, who preached Christ's gospel in the most faithful fashion and who taught his parishioners the lessons of devotion. He was gracious, and diligent; in adversity, as he proved many times, he was patient. He refused to excommunicate any of his flock for their failure to pay tithes to him; indeed he would rather give what little he possessed to the poor people of the parish. He did not earn a large income, or collect much from the offering plate, but he was content with what he had. He had a large parish, with the houses set far apart, but neither rain nor thunder would prevent him from visiting his parishioners in times of grief or dearth. He would pick up his sturdy staff, and take off to the furthest reaches of his parish where he would bless both rich and poor. He gave the best possible example to his flock. Perform before you preach. Good deeds are more fruitful than good words. He took this message from the gospel, but he added his own gloss- if gold may rust, then
what will iron do? For if a priest be evil, what then might happen to the layman in his care? It would be a shame, as far as the priesthood is concerned, if the sheep were clean and the shepherd had the scab. A priest's life must be a sign, pointing the way to heaven. Only then will his parishioners follow his virtuous example. So he did not hire out his post as a benefice. He did not leave his sheep in the mire while he ran off to London, seeking sinecures in the guild or chantry business. No. He stayed at home, and protected his flock from the wolves of sin and greed that threatened it. He was a true shepherd, not a religious mercenary. But although he was a holy and virtuous man, he did not treat sinners with contempt or disgust; in conversation he was never disdainful ot haughty, but properly benevolent and courteous. He wanted to draw people to God with kind words and good deeds. Do you think, he used to say, that you can simply hop into heaven? He was not so benign with men and women who were obstinate in sin. He would rebuke them with stern words, whatever their standing in the world. 'Barren corn,' he said to one of them, 'is known as deaf corn. A rotten nut is known as a deaf nut. You are a deaf man.' I do not believe that a better priest could be found. He never expected deference or reverence from those he met, and he did not affect an over-refined conscience. He simply taught, and followed, the law of Christ and the gospel of the apostles. He was God's darling. I was in such awe of him that I scarcely talked to him.
He had brought with him on pilgrimage his brother, a PLOUGHMAN, who had carted many wagons of dung in his time. He was a good and faithful workman who lived in peace and charity with his neighbours. He loved God before all things, even though his own life was sometimes rough and painful, and he loved his neighbour as himself. For the love of Christ he would thresh the hay, or dig the ditches, for a poor man who could not even afford to pay him. He paid his tithes in full and on time, in regard both to his labour and to his possessions. He wore a coarse workman's tunic, and rode on a mare.
The other pilgrims were a REEVE and a MILLER, a SUMMONER and a PARDONER, a MANCIPLE and then MYSELF. You will be glad to hear that there were no others. Otherwise this story would become too long.
The MILLER was a burly man. He had strong muscles and strong bones. I would have said that he was bigger of brawn than of brain. He was a bruiser, too, who always won the prize of the ram at wrestling competitions. He was broad and squat, with a thick neck; he could knock any door off its hinges, and would no doubt have excelled at that game the London apprentices play, known as 'breaking doors with our heads'. His beard was as red as a sow's tit or a fox's tail; it was broad enough, too, to pass as a shovel. There was a great wart on the top right of his nose, with a tuft of hairs growing from it as thick as from a pig's ear; his nostrils were wide, like two great pits, and his mouth was as big as a cauldron. He carried a sword and a small shield by his side. He seemed to distrust or dislike me, and narrowed his eyes when he looked at me. This was a trifle disconcerting. In any case I considered him to be a buffoon. He was always telling dirty stories about whores and other sinners. I trust that I will never be accused of that. He knew how to steal grain from the sacks, and charge three times the amount he should. In truth I do not think I have ever met an honest miller. He wore a white coat and a blue hood. He got out his bagpipes, as we passed the boundary of the city, and played a tune.
There was on our pilgrimage a MANCIPLE, a business agent who worked for the Inner Temple. I had studied there, for a short time, and we exchanged anecdotes about the wild apprentices of law. I soon discovered his acumen, however, in the buying of stores and provisions. He told me that cash or credit was good enough, as long as the purchaser looked ahead and waited for the right moment. 'The blacksmith always strikes,' he said to me, 'when the iron is hot.' I thought this was an excellent saying. I must remember
it.Is it not an example of God's grace that such an unlearned man should outpace the wisdom of all the learned pates in the Inner Temple? He had thirty masters above him, all of them skilled in matters of law. More than a dozen of them had the expertise to run the lands and rents of any lord in England so that, unless they were out of their wits, they could live honourably and without debt. They had the knowledge to administer a whole shire, through any crisis or danger that might arise. But this was the funny thing. The unlearned manciple had always got the better of them. I will not say that he swindled them but many things, as they say, went under the thumb.
The REEVE was a slender and choleric man. His beard was closely shaved, and his hair was shorn around his ears like that of a priest. His legs were so long and so lean that he resembled a staff; you could not see his calves. But he was an excellent estate manager; he kept the granaries full, and the storage bins overflowing. No auditor could ever catch him out. He knew, from the intervals of rain and drought, how to calculate the harvests of seed and grain. This Reeve had complete control of the cattle and the sheep on his lord's estate, as well as the pigs, the horses, the livestock and the poultry. I dare say that he even managed the worms. He had kept the accounts, under the terms of his employment, since the time his lord turned twenty. He paid out promptly, too. He knew every trick used by the farm-managers, and every excuse offered by the herdsmen and the servants. They all feared him as they feared the plague. He had a pretty little house upon a heath, overshadowed by green trees. In fact he could probably have afforded to buy more property than his lord and master, for he had secretly amassed a lot of money. He had learned how to take his lord's possessions and then sell them back to him, so that he obtained both compliments and rewards equally. He could blear eyes better than any man in England. In his youth he had the sense to learn a good trade, and had become apprentice to a carpenter. Now he sat upon a sturdy horse. It was a dapple grey, and its name was Scot. He wore a long coat of dark blue cloth, which was hitched up around a girdle.
By his side he carried a rusty sword. But he had no need to fight anyone. He was at peace with the world. He came from Norfolk, he told me, near a town called Baldeswell. I had never heard of it. He said that it was close to Norwich. But this did not enlighten me much. There is one other thing I forgot to mention. He was always the last rider in our little group.
There was a SUMMONER with us, unfortunately. He had the face of a fiery cherub, covered with pimples. He had swollen eyelids, adding to the unfortunate impression. He was as hot and lecherous as the proverbial London sparrow. His eyebrows were scabby, and the hair was falling out of his beard. You could understand why children were afraid of him. There was no medicine or ointment, no quicksilver or brimstone, no sulphur or cream of tartar, no white lead or borax, that could remove those unsightly pustules. They were like oyster shells on his cheeks. His diet may have had some thing to do with it. He loved onions, garlic and leeks, which are well known to nourish bitter humours; he drank the strongest red wine he could find and, in his cups, he would talk and cry out as if he were mad. 'You are all janglers and clatterers!' he said. He was looking at me at the time. When he was completely drunk he would speak only in Latin, and one evening he sang out the old rhyme:
Nos vagabunduli Laeti, jucunduli,
Tara, tarantare, teino.
He knew two or three Latin terms that he had learned from some ecclesiastical law-book. 'I will give you,' he said, 'dispositio, expositio and conclusio.' This was the kind of language he used when he summoned the citizens to the Church courts and the local assize. He had learned it all by rote. But we all know that a parrot can say 'good-day' as well as any pope. If anyone ever tried to question him further, then his well of
learning suddenly dried up. He would cry out, 'Questio quid juris?', which is to say, 'What point of law are you trying to make?' And that was that. He was a bit of a buffoon, in other words, but some swore that he was kind-hearted. For the payment of a quart of wine, for example, he would allow some rascal to keep his mistress for a year; then he would excuse him completely. In secret he could pull a few swindles - and pull other things, too, if you know what I mean. If he came across any other scoundrel in flagrante he would counsel him to ignore any archdeacon's curse or threat of excommunication. If a man's soul was in his purse, only then would it be painful; only the purse was really punished. 'The purse,' he used to say, 'is the archdeacon's hell.' In that, of course, he was wholly wrong. Every guilty man should fear the consequences of excommunication, just as absolution is the only salvation for the human soul. The wicked man should beware, too, of the writ that consigns the excommunicated to the prison cell. This summoner had the young girls of his diocese under his control; he knew all their secrets, and he was their sole adviser. He had a green garland on his head, just like those you see outside taverns. And he had made himself a shield out of a loaf of bread. As I said, he was a buffoon.
Riding in company with him was a PARDONER, working for Saint Anthony's Hospital at Charing Cross. He had come straight from the papal court at Rome, where he had been granted his licence for the sale of pardons and indulgences. Now he could carry his staff wound with red cloth and sing out:
Oh one that is so fair and bright,
Velut maris stella
Brighter than the day is light
Parens et puella.
The Summoner joined in, with a strong bass voice, and their combined noise was louder than that of any trumpet. This Pardoner had hair as yellow as old wax, hanging down his back as limply as a bundle of flax and draped across his shoulders; it was very thin, and was gathered in tufts and clumps. He could have had rats' tails upon his head. They were all the more visible because he refused to wear any kind of hood. The hood was considered by him to be out of date, so he kept it in his knapsack. With head bare, except for a round felt hat, he considered himself to be in the height of fashion. He had the large and timid eyes of a hare. On his woollen robe he had sewn small wooden crosses as well as the image of the Saviour imprinted on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica. His knapsack, which he carried on his lap, was filled with papal pardons smoking hot from Rome. 'If any man full penitent come to me and pay for his sin,' he said to me, 'I will absolve him. If anyone gives seven shillings to Saint Anthony's, I will bestow on him an indulgence of seven hundred years.' I told him that I had scarcely enough money to pay my way. He had a voice as high as that of a nanny goat. He had no beard at all, nor was likely to grow one. His chin was as smooth as a girl's arse. He was either a eunuch or a homosexual, a nurrit or a will-jick, as the common people put it. I did not wish to investigate further. Yet, as pardoners go, he was effective enough. In his bag he had a pillowcase, which, he told us, was the veil of Our Lady. He had a piece of the sail from the boat of Saint Peter. He had a brass crucifix, set with pebbles, which he announced to be a precious ornament from Bruges. In a glass reliquary he carried pigs' bones, which, he claimed, were relics of the holy saints. If they were dipped into any well, the water from that well would cure all diseases. So he said. They did work in another sense. Whenever he came upon a foolish parson in the countryside, he would wheedle more money out of him than the priest himself earned in two whole months. So, with feigning and flattery and trickery, he made fools of the priest and the people. He had one virtue. It would be true to say that, in church, he was a notable performer. He was the very model of a modern ecclesiastic. He read out the liturgical texts during the mass and, best of
all, he sang the offertories with gusto. He knew that, when the song was sung, he would have to preach and so modulate his voice that he might win more silver from the congregation. Therefore he took care to sing merrily and loudly. He was called 'the devil's rattlebag'.
Now I have completed - truly and, I hope, briefly-- my description of the estate, rank and appearance of every pilgrim. You know how many there were. You know why they had come together in Southwark. You have been told that they all took lodgings for the night at that fine tavern known as the Tabard, which is close to the Bell. Every tavern in Southwark is close to another one. But now it is time for me to tell you how we all behaved that night, after we had arrived at the hostelry, and only after that will I describe to you the journey and the remainder of our pilgrimage. I will be your eyes and ears. I have no other purpose. But .first I must ask you, out of consideration for my feelings, not to impute any malice or villainy to me if I describe plainly how they spoke and how they looked. Do not hold it against me if I report their words in full. For you know this as well as I do-- if I intend to repeat the tale of another man, I must write it down precisely as I heard it word for word. I have a good example. Christ spoke out plainly in the gospels, and no one has ever accused him of rudeness. To the best of my ability I will record accurately all of the tales and conversations of the pilgrims, however obscene or absurd they may turn out to be. Otherwise my work will be inaccurate. It will be mere fiction. I will not spare my characters, even if one of them happens to be my brother. Characters? No. People. Living people. The words of living people will be preserved by me. I want you to hear their voices, just as if you were riding with us. Those who have read Plato will know well enough his apothegm, 'The word must be cousin to the deed.' I have another request to make. I hope you will forgive me if I do not introduce people precisely in their order of rank. Put it down to my general stupidity. Well. Enough of this rambling.
Our HOST gave us all good cheer, and set down a tasty supper for us on the table. In the tavern itself there were cries of 'Tapster, fill the bowl!' and 'One pot more!' He served us good fish and flesh; the wine was strong and potable. We all agreed, after our leather cups were filled, that the landlord was an attractive man. He could have acted as master of ceremonies at any public feast. He was a large fellow with bright eyes. You could not find a fairer citizen in the whole of Cheapside. He was forthright in speech, but he was also shrewd and apparently well educated. I did not find out what school he attended. Anyway, he possessed all the characteristics of a proper man. He was merry enough and, after supper, he began to amuse us with several stories. He trusted that we would enjoy ourselves on this journey and, after we had all paid our bills, he addressed us with these words. 'Now, good ladies and gentlemen, I would like to bid you all welcome to my inn. I must say that I have not come across a more joyful group of people under my roof. If I could entertain you more, then I would. Gladly. In fact I have hit upon one scheme to make your journey easier and more agreeable. Hear me out. It will cost you nothing. We all know that you are on your way to Canterbury where Saint Thomas, God bless him, will no doubt reward you for your devotion. And I fully expect that you will pass the time in telling stories and other amusements. That is only natural. There is no comfort or entertainment to be had in riding silently together, as dumb as any stone. That is why I have this plan of my own to put to you. It will keep you merry. So if you all agree to abide by my judgement, and play the game I have invented, I promise on my father's soul that you will be mightily entertained in the course of your journey tomorrow. Please, without more ado, hold up your hands in assent to my proposal!'
It did not take us long to decide. There was no point, in any case, in long deliberations. Without any real discussion, then, we all put up our hands in agreement with him. We had to ask, of course, what his actual plan was.
'Well, gentle ladies and gentle men,' he replied, 'I have a proposal. Take it in good spirit. Don't mock me. It is unusual, I admit, but it is not unprecedented.'
'Do tell us,' the Manciple said. 'We are on tenterhooks until we hear you.'
'Well, to be brief, I suggest this. On our way to Canterbury each of you will tell two stories. As every traveller knows, tales shorten journeys. Then on the way back to London, each pilgrim will tell two more.'
'Tales of what kind?' The Prioress was very demure.
'Anything you like, ma dame. Tales of saints. Tales of battles and adventures from long ago. And here comes my other proposal. The pilgrim who tells the best story, by common consent, will be awarded a free supper paid for by the rest. Here. In the Tabard on our return. What do you think?'
'What do you mean by best?' the Miller asked him. The Miller had a menacing face. I expected trouble from him in the future.
'It could be the most serious story. It could be the funniest. It could be the most pleasant. Let us see what happens. In fact the idea is such a good one that I can't resist coming along myself. I will ride with you tomorrow morning. I will make the journey at my own cost, and I will also be your guide. None of you are familiar with the way. Anyone who challenges, or disputes with, me will have to pay a penalty. He or she will be responsible for all the costs incurred on our travels. Is that reasonable? Let me know now. Then I can get ready for the feast of words.'
We agreed with his suggestion, and swore an oath that we would all perform as promised. Then we asked him if he would become our governor as well as our guide. He was the one who could best judge the quality of the stories, but he could also be the arbitrator in less important matters like the price of our suppers. We would all be ruled by his decisions. So by acclamation we decided to follow our leader. Then
the wine was brought out and, after a cup or two, we went off to bed without any prompting. We were cheerful, though. Tomorrow, as they say, was still untouched.
Then the morrow came. At the first stirring of dawn our Host sprang out of his chamber and awakened us all. He called us together in the yard of the inn, and led us at a slow pace out of Southwark; after a mile or two we reached the little brook known as Saint Thomas a Watering, which is the boundary of the City liberties. He reined in his horse here, and addressed us. 'Ladies and gentlemen, or should I say fellow pilgrims, I hope you all remember our agreement. I recall it vividly myself. I take it for granted that none of you have changed your minds. Is that not so? Good. Well, who do you think should tell the first story? We agreed that you would all be bound by my decision. Any man or woman who dissents will be obliged to pay all of our expenses. If I am mistaken, then I swear that I will never drink again. The best plan is to draw sticks, before we go any further, and he that picks the shortest will begin.' We got down from our horses and formed a circle. The Host stood in the middle, with the bundle of sticks in his hand. 'Sir Knight,' he said, 'my lord and master, you will be the first to draw the lot.' The Knight stepped forward, gracefully accepting his authority, and took a stick. 'Now, my lady Prioress,' the Host said, 'will it please you to come closer to me? And you, sir Clerk, put aside any embarrassment. You do not need to be learned to draw a stick. As for the rest of you, take it in turns.'
And so we all chose our stick. Whether it was by destiny, or providence, or just chance, it turned out that the Knight had chosen the shortest stick. We were all pleased with this piece of luck. It gave us more time to compose our own stories. The first must be the boldest. The Knight would have to tell his tale. That was the agreement. In any case he was not the kind of man to break a promise.
'So,' he said, 'I have been chosen to begin the game. I welcome the challenge, in God's name, as I welcome all noble challenges. Will it please you to ride forth, and listen to my story?'
So we mounted our horses and crossed the stream. It was called, in those parts, 'going over the water'. Then the Knight, with a steady and cheerful countenance, began to tell his tale. This is what he said.