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

He is a "verray, parfit" practitioner of his art, but is he "true and perfect" in the same way that the Knight is? Certainly he is very learned, familiar with all the ancient and modern physicians (including some who, according to his time and place, he shouldn't have even heard of!). He knows astrology, which was considered a respectable science in Chaucer's day, although some conservatives were against it as anti-Christian. He knew every patient's "humor" and can help align the patient with favorable astrological signs.

NOTE:

The four humors-"hot" (choleric), "cold" (melancholy), "moiste" (sanguine, like the Franklin), and watery (phlegmatic)- were believed to rule the body, and an excess of one created illness.

The Doctor by medieval standards is no quack, but he is suspicious. He has arrangements with "apothecaries" (druggists) who help him make a profit. Some doctors and pharmacists, then as now, were accused of overcharging patients on prescriptions and then splitting the difference. The Doctor also knows "but litel on the Bible," a sure sign that his knowledge, even though it encompasses the stars, is restricted to the lower "physical" things in life, since it doesn't contain God.

Finally, Chaucer says sweetly, he's saved all the money he's made from the plagues that were common in the Middle Ages, "For gold in phisyk is a cordial [medicine]. Therefor he lovede gold in special" (lines 445-446). Is this the only reason he loves gold, because it's a good medicine? Look at the way he's dressed, in taffeta and "sendal" (silk); that should give you a clue. His tale, which he tells us deals with the price of sin, is of an unjust judge who has to get the woman he wants. The woman, Virginia, is so honorable, however, that she dies rather than submit to him. In keeping with the Doctor's profession, he gives a long hymn to nature for forming that perfect machine, the body.

THE WIFE OF BATH

She is one of Chaucer's most lively inventions. She thinks very highly of herself and her skill as a weaver (better even than the renowned Belgians). She lets us know she's entitled to make the first offering at church services, an honor carrying great social prestige. (But watch out if you cut in front of her, then she won't give a penny.) She shows off her Sunday clothes with evident pride, including "ten pounds" of "coverchiefs," finely textured veils arranged over her head. Her clothing tells us she is no shy, retiring wallflower.


But we're more interested in her famous love life than in her fashions. She's had five husbands-later, in her Prologue to the tale she tells, she gives the histories of all five-not to mention "other company in youth." (But, says Chaucer, we don't have to mention that. Is he perhaps embarrassed?) She's an old hand at pilgrimages, and, it's implied, the loose morals that sometimes go along; she knows, probably in both senses, "muche of wandring by the weye." She's gap-toothed, a medieval sign that some believe had to do with sexual accomplishment, or with a bold, faithless nature, or with traveling. The Wife of Bath, we find out, has plenty of all three.

Her tale deals not surprisingly with the upper hand a woman must maintain in marriage. She is "somdel [somewhat] deaf," but that doesn't stop her from amorous adventures; she also later gives more detail about her "other company" that Chaucer passes lightly over by saying,

Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce, For she koude [knew] of that art the olde daunce. (lines 475- 476)

The "remedies of love" implies she knows of Ovid's ancient work of the same name, which deals with all the rules of the love game. The idea of knowing the rules of the game, especially of a sexual nature, shows up often in reference to the Wife.

Is she meant to be purely ironic? It wouldn't be strange to Chaucer's audience to hear of five husbands, since no woman, especially one with property and one as willing as the Wife, would stay a widow for long. She uses all her "reson" for defending the delights of the lower regions of the body. But can you find anything in her portrait that cuts, for example, like the knife Chaucer uses against the Doctor? The Wife is teased, but is she judged? More than any other character, Chaucer lets her speak for herself.

THE PARSON

The poor Parson, like the Knight, is the ideal of what someone of his class ought to be. He is "lerned," "in adversitee ful [very] pacient," and is a "noble ensaumple" (example) to his parishioners. Given what we've already seen of learned men and their abuses, it's unusual that this one should possess such virtue-he is even "loath" to collect his "tithes" (income tax on which he lives). He practices what he preaches, knowing that he must set the example for the common people, "For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lewed [ignorant] man to ruste" (lines 503-504) like "iren." He doesn't, like some priests, run to London and rent out his parish to someone else. His ideal qualities make him ideal to tell the last tale of the trip, a sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins, which reminds us there is a serious spiritual purpose to the pilgrimage and to the Tales.

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