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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE SERGEANT OF THE LAW

A barrister of high standing appointed by the king, he somehow gets demoted to merely a Man of Law (plain lawyer) in the actual tale-telling. But in the Prologue he is "ful riche of excellence," discreet, and wise, or at least he seems to be because of his impressive style. Might this imply that like the Merchant he is less than he appears? There is evidence for this, since

Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas, And yet he semed bisier than he was. (lines 323-324)

He is able to purchase land "fee simple"- flat out-because of his insider's knowledge, and can find and close any loophole. He spends time at the "parvys," the portal of St. Paul's Cathedral in London where lawyers often met to discuss cases. His list of accomplishments reads like a resume, and he knows every case since William the Conqueror.

In making his material success so obvious and detailed, Chaucer implies that the man has little to show as a human being. But lawyers in the Middle Ages generally had reputations as poor as they do now, and preachers had a field day chewing out lawyers almost as much as friars for their price- gouging and attempts to increase their gains. Ironically, in introducing his tale, the Man of Law protests he will tell a story in prose because he's a plain-speaking man. (And after all that, it's not in prose!) He tells a tale of a Sultan's conversion to Christianity in order to marry, and the sufferings he and his wife undergo before they are reunited-a completed contract, as it were.

THE FRANKLIN

The wealthy landowner, the Franklin is one of Chaucer's most colorful characters, literally. His beard is white as a daisy, a symbol of earthly or heavenly love. Here, it's earthly all right. Earthy, too, as the Franklin delights in food and pleasure as "felicitee parfyt" (perfect happiness). But this portrait isn't sarcastic, as are the Monk's and Friar's, since the Franklin's station in life is to be a generous good neighbor. Elected a knight of the shire many times (Chaucer was one himself), the Franklin is "Seint Julien," patron saint of hospitality, in his neck of the woods. He's held other public offices as well, and he is almost the social equal of the Sergeant of the Law. A "sangwen" complexion (sanguine disposition) was one of the four "humors" believed to govern the body, in this case, outgoing and hearty. He carries out his part in life, "Epicurus [who personified pleasure] owene son." Even as he introduces his tale about "trouthe" in marriage, he notes that the only "colors" he knows are not descriptive, just the ones he sees in the meadow-such as daisies!


THE FIVE TRADESMEN

The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, and Tapestry Maker are doing well. Their wives wish they were aldermen; they would love to be called "madame" and be honored by entering the church first. This is a vivid picture of rather petty men, although the guilds to which they belonged were important union-type groups that supported restoration work on churches and other significant social functions. Guilds had enough political power so that their members could easily have had enough land to be elected aldermen.

THE COOK

The Cook is an excellent chef, but less excellent a human being. He "knowe a draughte of Londoun ale" perhaps too well, and the real giveaway is the "mormal" (open sore) on his shin, which is unappetizing and might be syphilitic. His evident bad habits are reinforced by the Tale he tells, unfinished, about an unsavory young cook who corrupts others with his bad habits.

THE SHIPMAN

The Shipman knows his seafaring business and tides and routes, inside and out. Chaucer admires his skills because England's strength as a medieval super-power depended on its navy. But "of nice conscience took he no keep," and he's not above watering down the wine he brings from Bordeaux for men like the Merchant and the Tradesmen. He's not averse to killing either, sending his prisoners "hoom to every lond" by water, i.e., overboard. His tale is of a monk who is as much of a pirate as he is himself, abusing the hospitality of a kindly merchant.

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