The Knight has been a controversial figure; though long assumed to be simply a goodly knight and man, his reputation was challenged in (Monty Python alum) Terry Jones's book Chaucer's Knight. Jones pointed out that many of the campaigns the Knight listed on his resumé were actually disasters -- the siege of Alexandria, for instance, where "crusader" knights looted and pillaged the city, then abandoned it to return home with their booty -- and his adventures in Lithuania and Russia, where mercenary knights similarly came, and went, just long enough to collect their fees and bolster their reputations. Chaucer uses the word "worthy" many times, with the subtle implication that the Knight was more a hired hand than a noble ideal. With the Crusades suddenly in the news again, it's worth noting that, from the very first Crusade to the last, they were, despite their purportedly high ideals, often marked by looting, pillaging, and mass killings of civilians.
The Wife of Bath may be Chaucer's most beloved character -- and she was, in the Tales themselves, the only pilgrim interrupted -- twice -- by admirers praising her "preaching." Of course it was illegal for women to actually preach at the time, and with the Bible in English not yet readily available, it's not clear where the Wife has acquired her extensive knowledge of Scripture. We may assume that it's mostly from her husbands, but if so she was far from a passive recipient of learning; she was eager to interpret the text, and take her place in opposition to men who "gloss up and down" and use the Bible to justify their misogyny. As with the Knight, we may find support for our admiration of her wit, but also -- if we shift our reading just slightly -- a condemnation of her for reading every text to suit her own ends. She remains, in either case, a lively, lovely, sensual, sexual being, one whose frankness still has the power to startle after all these centuries.
The Nun's Priest gets one of Chaucer's best tales, one with its own barnyard brand of sexual politics, as Chauntecleer and his wife Dame Pertelote enact their own domestic disputes. We see the role that Latin plays as a boundary discourse, open to men but closed to women, as Chauntecleer mistranslates Mulier est hominis confusio ("Woman is the confusion of man") as "Woman is man's joy and all his bliss." There's even a glimpse of contemporary politics, as the noise in the barnyard when the fox enters is compared to that made by "Jack Straw and his many men" during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It's a noise Chaucer would have heard firsthand, as his apartments were in Aldgate, the very gateway through which the peasants entered London.
We haven't time to read all the tales -- and some, to be frank, have stood the test of time less well than others. Some of the "best" pilgrims, such as the Parson, get the "worst" tales -- in his case, a long and tedious sermon. Just for fun, Chaucer gives himself a sing-song ballad, the "Tale of Sir Thopas" -- which is so bad that eventually the Knight commands him to stop, declaring that his "drafty rhyming" is "not worth a turd." It's the contestatory nature of the Tales as a whole, the way they jostle against one another as the pilgrims vie for each other's attention, that in the end endears them to us. We've been there, and done that -- whether in person, on a blog, or Facebook -- so keep those cute cat videos coming.