Are the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales stereotypes, or fully developed characters?

Discuss with reference to at least two tales.

Though the characters in the Canterbury Tales are described vividly and often comically, it is not
necessarily true that these characters are therefore stereotypes of The Middle ages. The intricate visual
descriptions and the tales the characters tell help to direct the reader in finding a more accurate and
realistic picture of the pilgrims, bringing into question the theory that Chaucer was just collating
stereotypes from his time.

The fact that there is one representative for each of the chief classes (under the higher nobility)
would suggest that this work is an attempt to provide a catalogue of characters from the middle ages,
and it can be assumed from this that this denotes a collection of stereotypes, although this is not
necessarily true. The format of The Canterbury Tales suggests a simplistic approach, a prologue and
epilogue and in between a collection of tales, The Miler's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and so on[1]. This
simplicity in structure may also suggest a simplicity in content and thus, convincing and challenging
characters are unlikely to be expected in a work of seemingly simple design. But, when looked at in
more detail, the tales are found to hold many details that contradict the bland stereotype expected, and
when the structure of the work is looked at in its context of 14th century literature, the Canterbury

Tales is found to be a work pioneering the form of the epic poem. The style in which Chaucer writes
may also initially seem to suggest that his characters are under-developed stereotypes, he uses the
language of his time vividly, although this does not therefore mean that his characters are two
dimensional, almost 'cartoon' characters. J.R. Hulbert in his essay Chaucer's Pilgrims explains, In
many instances there are exuberant lines which sharpen the effect desired. The Canterbury Tales
may, at first seem to be obtuse and unfocused through the use of lucid imagery and language,
although this language, when studied gives a more detailed and more deeply layered portrayal of the
pilgrims as well as giving them colourful characteristics.

Chaucer's description of the knight is a good example of his subversion of the classic Arthurian
image that existed in popular literature of the time[2]. In the General Prologue, Chaucer relays his
description of the knight:

A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the time that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrye,

Trouthe, and honour, freedom and curteisye.

This excerpt, the beginning of the description of the knight holds true to the classic representation
of the knight of valour and honour, but Chaucer goes on to pervert and pollute the fairytale image that
he has created:

And of his port as meeke as is a maide

His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

Of fustian he wered a gopoun,

Al bismothered with his haubergeoun.

In these few lines, Chaucer has destroyed the traditional stereotype of the knight and created a new
and almost comical figure. Our knight is not one 'in shining armour', but rather a 'knight in a rusted
chain-mail'. The knight does not even have a hyper-masculine representation here either. Chaucer
feminises the knight comparing him to a maid. At the end of the description of the knight in the
general prologue the only part of the knight that lives up to the readers expectations is his horse,
which apparently was in good condition. Although we have only been given a visual representation of
the knight, the reader can gather many things from this description, perhaps the knight is effeminate
or weak, and he shys away from battle, getting so little battlefield 'action' that his chainmail has begun
to rust.

It is a device used by Chaucer to convey the character of his pilgrims using their appearance. Thus
when the Wife of Bath is described as being gat-toothed, the reader can assume that she is lusty as it
was believed in the Middle ages that this particular physical attribute denoted that characteristic. In
medieval times, certain elements of a person's appearance intrinsically suggested something, if not
everything of their character. Indeed, this practice of identifying outward appearance with inward
attitudes and traits became an area of study known as 'physiognomy' and manuals on this subject were
produced[3]. In more recent times, critics have tried to unravel and understand the many tiny clues
hidden in the character descriptions to gain a sharper picture of these characters. In 1919 Water Clyde

Curry claimed to have