Rhetorical Devices in The Canterbury Tales

The General Prologue - The General Prologue 2
"Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

Chaucer abruptly shifts from describing the natural world to describing folk going on a pilgrimage. While the flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and the birds are getting busy, people are going on a pilgrimage, a religious journey to a sacred place. The juxtaposition of humans going on a religious journey and the lusty birds is meant to be humorous. This humorous beginning sets the tone for the rest of the poem.

"make melody..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

Chaucer’s use of this word is twofold. He both invokes the melodic quality of birdsong, something that is prevalent in spring time, and uses the euphemism “make melody” to reference the mating season. Spring in this sense is figured as a time of rebirth, growth, procreation, and abundance.

"mortal..."   (The General Prologue - The Knight)

Mortal in this context means deadly, seeking to bring about the destruction of an enemy. Here Chaucer describes of a fierce knight destroying his enemy in fifteen battles. However, by phasing this as “fighting mortal battles,” Chaucer sidesteps the image of a brutal knight slaughtering his enemies. This image keeps with the chivalric depiction of the Knight.

"prelate..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

A "prelate" is a high ranking clergy member that is supposed to act as an example to all other monks. The narrator calls the Monk a "fine prelate" suggesting he is good at his duties. Since he has just presented a man who loves hunting, seems to not care about his vows, and uses money donated to the monastery to buy material possessions, the narrator changes what it means to be a "fine prelate." This suggests that Chaucer uses this character to critique corrupt church practices.

"Since riding and the hunting of the hare Were all his love..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

Since he is a monk, "all his love" should be directed to God. However, the Monk loves hunting more than his vows. This statement further supports the presence of irony earlier in this introduction.

" name I can’t recall...."   (The General Prologue - The Merchant)

Even though the narrator demonstrates that this merchant is great at being a merchant, almost king-like in his skills with money, his conclusion that he cannot remember the man's name signifies the insignificance of the merchant in society. While he has done an excellent job in his vocation, his actions are still not noteworthy enough, or noble enough, to be remembered as a king or powerful man would be. In this way, Chaucer is able to use the Merchant's description to deliver a picture of the hierarchical society in which he lives.

"Fortuna..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Notice that with the syntax of this sentence, neither Emily nor Theseus will decide who gets to marry Emily. Arcita and Palamon's fate will be decided by Fortune. This once again indicates the importance of Fortune as the decider of all things.

"I will speak ..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Notice that the Knight once again calls attention to his narrative construction of the text. He engages his audience by asking them which one of his characters has it worse, Arcita and Palamon. This is both the Knight's way of keeping the pilgrims entertained and Chaucer's way of keeping the reader invested in the story.

"I told and shall yet tell..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Asides like this remind the reader that this story is being told within the frame story established by the General Prologue. These breaks in narration occur throughout the text. They may indicate an allusion to Chaucer's presence and the larger satirical structure of the text. Remember, this is an overly chivalrous knight telling a story about chivalrous knights to a group of pilgrims with variable moral compasses.

" May,..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

As in the beginning of the text when the narrator talks about May as the time of year that "pricketh" beasts and men to action. Whenever May is mentioned it is a sign to the reader that something important is about to happen. It marks the beginning of a new story or event within the story. In this case, it is the entrance of Emily into the text.

"Let I..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

This is a narrative device that the Knight uses to say that Theseus, his queen, and their heraldry ride to Athens. He inserts himself into the story as the narrator, he does not actually influence Theseus historically. In this way, the Knight draws attention to the fictional nature of his tale.

"choose another tale;..."   (The Miller’s Prologue)

The narrator uses this caveat to excuse himself from the rudeness of the Miller's tale. The reader is given agency to choose another tale and therefore the narrator cannot be to blame for the content that follows. In this way, the narrator is allowed to remain neutral and likable while the tale that follows is able to push moral boundaries.

"equal the Knight’s tale.”..."   (The Miller’s Prologue)

Both the Knight and the Miller tell stories about a love triangle that tears men apart. However, while the Knight's tale revolves around chivalry and contains allusions to classical mythology, the Miller's tale is mostly concerned with body humor. While this juxtaposition makes the Miller's tale more absurd and amusing, it could also demonstrate Chaucer's attempt to show similarities between the high and low classes since both experience love triangles.

"Why, she should say..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

Here, Chaucer inserts a lapse into the lines to remind the reader that this tale is told within a frame story. While the Knight repeatedly inserted himself into his own story to remind his audience that they were hearing a tale, the Miller makes errors that remind us that this is an oral tale from a drunken man.

"oath..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

Notice that here the Miller uses the oath to bond Alison to her adulterous lover Nicholas. As an oath is a formal declaration that invokes God, it is seems paradoxical that she would invoke God for this immoral action. This could suggest that the Miller is making fun of the oaths that the Knight's tale took so seriously.

"Oxford..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

"Oxford" here refers to the University of Oxford in England. During Chaucer's time, Oxford would be recognized as a place of holy learning in which the sons of rich men would gain religious, scientific, and classical learning. Generally, universities were places in which men were to remain chaste in order to focus on their studies. Like the Knight's tale, the Miller sets his tale in a high class environment. However, unlike the Knight's tale, the characters in the Miller's tale do not fit their setting.

"‘Theophrastus’ and ‘Valeriou’..."   (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)

Theophrastus was an ancient Greek philosopher who took over the Peripatetic school after Aristotle. Valeriou was his wife. The book that her husband reads to her is about the most deceitful wives that great men have had throughout history. Notice that he is reading a book written by a man about women's nature in order to educate her about her own nature. This could suggest that the Wife's relationship serves as a critique of the gender politics of Chaucer's time.

"That I within your fellowship did fall,..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

Notice how the Pardoner's rhetoric tries to transform the action of the pilgrims giving him money into a favor that he does for them. This rhetorical appeal seems to fail because it is obviously an attempt to profit off of them rather than save their souls. In this way, Chaucer's larger rhetorical strategy comes through: in making the Pardoner an unsuccessful and transparently greedy character, Chaucer is able to show his audience church hypocrisy and reinforce his theme.

"wicked..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

Notice that the Pardoner has changed the descriptive adjective he uses to indicate the rioter. Now he is not only a rioter, comrade, or drunk, but a "wicked" man. His choices have fundamentally changed who he is so that this wickedness is now part of his identity. In this way, the Pardoner implicitly shows his audience that some decisions are irreversible stains upon the soul. It is another way in which he uses his rhetoric to convince the audience of his moral.

"treachery..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

This comment on the action within the tale is interesting because it focuses on the vice of the flatterer and not the vanity to which their flattery appeals. The Nun's Priest shows himself again to be a skilled story teller. He makes the message of his story appealing to the noblemen in his audience by locating the problem in the flatterer rather than in their vanity.

" fly from the beams,..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

The comedy of roosters and hens talking about philosophy, medicine, and antiquity is further emphasized in this phrase that reminds the audience that they are animals in a barnyard. Notice the Nun's Priest's ability to use his genre, the beast fable, in order to create the comedy requested by his audience.