Howdy, Pilgrim: Geoffrey Chaucer, Human Nature, and The Canterbury Tales When Geoffrey Chaucer undertook the writing of The Canterbury Tales, he had a long road ahead of him. He intended to tell two stories from each of thirty pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, and then two more from each pilgrim on the way back from Canterbury. Of these, he completed only twenty-four. However, in these tales, Chaucer depicts both the pilgrims and their stories with striking realism. In "The Nun's Priest's Tale," "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale," "The Friar's Tale," "The Reeve's Tale," and "The Cleric's Tale," Chaucer demonstrates his remarkable insight into human nature. By comparing and contrasting these tales, one can see the universality of human nature as shown by Chaucer. One human trait apparent in these selections is greed. Avarice drives the hearts of many men, whether they may be a common miller or a summoner or a supposedly religious canon, and Chaucer was aware of this. In the tales which contain these three characters, Chaucer depicts the greed of these characters. The Reeve tells his fellow pilgrims in his tale of a miller who "was a thief ... of corn and meal, and sly at that; his habit was to steal" (Chaucer 125). The summoner in "The Friar's Tale" "drew large profits to himself thereby," and as the devil observes of him in this tale, "You're out for wealth, acquired no matter how" (Chaucer 312, 315). The canon in Part 1 of "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale," as well as the Yeoman himself, had been driven by the goal of converting base metals into gold, and "though we never realized the wished conclusion we still went on raving in our illusion" (Chaucer 478). The second canon of which the Yeoman speaks is many times worse than his own canon and master, using his trickery not merely in pursuit of making gold but also of stealing it. The Yeoman explains that this greed, "the single minded pursuit of a trivial object can destroy a man," as it did to himself and his master (Whittock 262). But the second canon is well beyond this point. "In all this world he has no peer for falsehood;" so selfish is he that he "infects" whole towns and robs them; so horrible is his greed that he can only compare with the traitor Judas who betrayed Christ (Whittock 270). However bad a picture the Yeoman paints of this canon, the Friar creates this canon's near-equal in his own tale. This time the character is a summoner. The summoner is unswerving in his greed even in the face of the devil, and as the Dictionary of Literary Biography says, "[he] tells the devil he may be good at what he does in his neck of the woods, but if he wants to see how it is done, he should watch the summoner at work" (140). The devil of course does watch, and because the summoner will not repent for his lies and stealing, the devil proceeds to carry him off to Hell. Condemnation does not come in such a dramatic fashion for the miller in "The Reeve's Tale." His trickery against the clerks is repaid by the clerks' sleeping with his wife and daughter, as well as by being clubbed by his wife in the confusion the morning after. His wife clubs him deliberately, not by accident. She is tired of having a "husband who has been a cheat to his customers and is unworthy of her," and she is seeking a long-desired retribution upon her husband" (Balliet 2). These reasons are added to the fact that "she knows that she has cuckolded him" and by 2 knocking him out she may be able to hide her unfaithfulness (Balliet 3). Through these tales Chaucer shows the universality of greed in human nature. While in respect to greed these tales may agree, that greed is universal among humans contrasts with the widow of the "Nun's Priest's Tale." She is described as poor and aged, and is "living a simple life on her small landholding" (Whittock 230). She is not caught up in the race for wealth; she is not influenced by greed, but instead lives "an idealization of honest and contented poverty" (Fehrenbacher 138). Chaucer shows that it is not just in human nature to be greedy in this tale. Human nature as depicted in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" contrasts not only with the greed in some of the tales but also with what is depicted in "The Cleric's Tale." In the former tale, Chanticleer, a rooster, is arguing with his wife Pertelote over the meaning of dreams, and in this argument one sees the all-to-real battle of the sexes. In "The Cleric's Tale," however, Griselda, the wife of the lord Walter, is patient and tolerant to the extreme of everything her husband does. This does not necessarily imply that wives should accept whatever treatment their husbands give, but that "Griselda's patient acceptance of the inscrutable will of her earthly husband may be taken as a moving example of how the Christian should submit to the Divine will," whatever may befall him in his life (Edden 370). "If Griselda showed such patience to the will of a flawed earthly husband, then what patient submission ought the faithful Christian to show to the will of a loving and omnipotent God?" (Edden 370). This seems to be a fitting argument, since this tale is told by the Cleric. While the Cleric's intelligence may have brought such a moral to his tale, intelligence is misused or even unused in "The Reeve's Tale" and "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale." In the first, the two clerks have come to the miller intent on outwitting him using their superior intellect, so that "the miller couldn't rob them of half a peck of corn by trickery" (Chaucer 127). The miller however frees one of their horses and having outwitted them instead, steals from their grain. As Jeffrey Baylor observes: But while the two students do manage to regain their grain, their horse, and have the sexual favors of the miller's wife and daughter ... the clerks, who were overconfident of their ability to outwit the miller, find it necessary to 'lower' themselves to the level of the miller's crude nature (17). In the tale told by the Yeoman, the canon has much intelligence and knowledge, just as the clerics do. However, he chooses not to put it to good use, instead wasting it on the vain search for easy riches, to satisfy his greed. In these two tales Chaucer shows the failure of learning and knowledge. While many of these tales do show facets of human nature, it is not just the tales but the purpose of the tales which shows human nature. Many of the individual tales within The Canterbury Tales are not just told by their respective narrators to entertain the group of pilgrims but also in response to or in attack of the tales of other pilgrims or to provoke a response from another. This shows the tendency of human 3 nature for one to desire to have 'the last word.' For instance, "The Reeve's Tale" is aimed directly at the Miller, who had told a vulgar tale of a carpenter, which offended the Reeve, a carpenter by trade. "The Cleric's Tale" is a response to the tale of the Wife of Bath, who had spoken of her ideal that women should be in control in a marriage; the Cleric tells a tale of a woman who accepts anything her husband says or does. The tale of the Friar is aimed at the Summoner, and before the Friar ended his prologue the Summoner vows to repay him: Say what he likes, and when my turn's to come I'll pay him back, by God! I'll strike him dumb! I'll tell him what an honour it is, none higher, To be a limiter, a flattering friar! I'll tell him all about that job of his (Chaucer 311). In this way, Chaucer demonstrates his knowledge of human nature not just in each tale separately, but within the frame of the whole Canterbury Tales. Chaucer showed the universality of human nature in many ways in The Canterbury Tales. In several tales, he shows greed as playing a major part in human nature. But he also shows that human nature is not all greed; in "The Nun's Priests Tale" he shows an old widow living in simplicity and poverty. Chaucer shows the relationships between men and women in his tales, as well as the role of knowledge. Through the whole set of tales, he shows the tendency for humans to have the last word. Therefore, this shall be the last word; this paper ends here. Works Cited Balliet, Gay L. "The Wife in Chaucer's Reeves's Tale: Siren of Sweet Vengeance." English Language Notes 28.1 (1990): 1-5. Baylor, Jeffrey. "The Failure of the Intellect in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale." English Language Notes 28.1 (1990): 17-19. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Nevill Coghill. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Old and Middle English. Ed. Jeffrey Helteman and Jerome Mitchell. Detroit: Sale Research, Inc., 1994. Edden, Valerie. "Sacred and Secular in the Clerk's Tale." The Chaucer Review 26.4 (1992): 369-376. Fehrenbacher, Richard W. "'A Yeerd Enclosed Al About': Literature and History in the Nun's Priest's Tale." The Chaucer Review 29.2 (1994): 134-148. Whittock, Trevor. A Reading of The Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1970.