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Vocabulary in The Canterbury Tales

Vocabulary Examples in The Canterbury Tales:

The General Prologue - The General Prologue

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"nine and twenty..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

This is an antiquated way of saying 29. The narrator references the other 29 people that he meets at the inn who are on the same pilgrimage to Canterbury that he has undertaken. He uses this as the first introduction to the characters who will dominate 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.

"holt and heath,..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

“Holt” here means wood and “heath” means open uncultivated lands. Here Chaucer creates a list of images to demonstrate how far Zephyr’s breath reaches. The image he creates shows spring coming to every piece of wood, uncultivated land, plant shoots, and flower buds.

"vein..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

Chaucer uses “vein” here to refer to the veins in leaves of plants. He begins a long description establishing the setting of the story he is about to tell. He is talking about the change of seasons from the dryness of March to the blossoming and new birth of April, the time of year when winter becomes spring.

"palmers..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

Palmers are professional pilgrims, who act as substitutes for people who cannot make a pilgrimage.  Their symbol is a palm frond.

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

Chaucer uses this term to mean showy. Here again, he juxtaposes the good quality of what the knight possesses and the modesty with which he handles what he possesses. Note that in this repetition and hyperbolic description of the Knight’s greatness there is a hint of irony that suggests Chaucer may be poking fun at the idea of this perfect Knight.

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

“Array” here refers to the arrangement of military items in a neat and orderly line. He follows this with a catalogue of his military gear, such as the tunic he wears, his horses, and his chainmail.

"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.

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

Chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy are the five courtly ideals that a knight should have. Chivalry was an honor code that dictated Knightly behavior, especially in terms of the respect that they were meant to show towards women. This idea of the ideal knight and the importance of chivalry becomes the later subject of the Knight’s tale.

"lusty..."   (The General Prologue - The Squire)

“Lusty” here means joyful, cheerful, and lively. The narrator uses this word to refer back to the images of Spring in the general prologue. While we have moved away from the randy birds, we still have a lusty, youthful character who embodies the abundance and growth of Spring.

" him there was his son, a youthful squire..."   (The General Prologue - The Squire)

In the military order of the feudal system, a squire is a knight’s attendant who ranks just below the knight. A squire was usually a young man of good birth who would eventually rise to the position of a knight. The “his” here refers to the Knight that the Narrator has just introduced. The squire is his son.

"Madam Eglantine..."   (The General Prologue - The Prioress)

"Eglantine" means sweet briar, a type of pink flower. When nuns take their vows they choose new names, generally religious names. However, the Prioress chooses a name that symbolizes beauty rather than religious connotations. This further supports reading her character as social satire.

"coy..."   (The General Prologue - The Prioress)

"Coy" here means modest and did not carry connotations of flirtatiousness in Chaucer's time. Rather, it was an adjective often used to describe heroines from French Romances.

"Amor Vincit Omnia..."   (The General Prologue - The Prioress)

Latin for "Love Conquers All." It's a strange thing for the Prioress to wear, given her status in the Church, and, like her gaudy bracelet and her fondness for wine, should indicate to the reader that she's not as pious as she might seem.

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

A cloister is an enclose walkway generally attached to a church or cathedral. Cloisters were used by monastic orders because they served as a physical barrier between the monks and the lay people. This physical structure metaphorically represented the separation of the monks from the world and worldly practices.

"manly man..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

In Chaucer's time, the word "manly" meant two things: personable and virile. Again, these are not traits one would generally assign to a pious monk. However, the narrator states that these qualities make the monk an "able abbot," meaning these qualities make him a good monk. This suggests that the narrator sees all monks as worldly and impious and implicitly acts as a critique of the church.

"Orders Four..."   (The General Prologue - The Friar)

This is a reference to the four prominent orders of friars, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, and the Carmelites.

"philosopher,..."   (The General Prologue - The Clerk)

Philosopher in this context could be read as a pun on alchemist, a pseudo science even in Chaucer's age. Thus, this description suggests that even though the Clerk has a vocation, he has dedicated himself to the wrong thing.

"gain office..."   (The General Prologue - The Clerk)

To "gain office" meant to become employed, typically in a church office. Here the narrator connects the Clerk's poverty and hunger with the fact that he has been so busy studying that he has not gotten a proper job.

"hollow..."   (The General Prologue - The Clerk)

"Hollow" in this context refers to a hungry or starved look. Both the Clerk and his horse are starving because they are so poor.

"chattels..."   (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)

"Chattels" meaning property or money. The "For" at the start of this line compares their riches to both their wisdom and ability to be an alderman, the head of a guild. In this way, Chaucer associates money with intelligence and power. Note that because of the tone of the General Prologue that this may be a satirical association.

"burgess..."   (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)

A "Burgess" in Chaucer's time was a person elected to represent their town in the English House of Commons. The English House of Commons is the lower house in Parliament, comparable to our House of Representatives. This metaphor works to emphasize the guild member's stately dress and air of authority.

"livery..."   (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)

"Livery" is a particular type of clothing or uniform that distinguishes someone as a member of a guild. It also signifies a distinguishing feature or characteristic of the person wearing it. Notice that throughout the introductions Chaucer has used dress in order to describe a character's personality. Here, the characters themselves wear livery in order to intentionally present their occupations as personality characteristics.

" haberdasher and a carpenter, An arras-maker, dyer..."   (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)

A Guild was a group of people that practiced a similar trade who banded together in order to regulate their products and protect their members from exploitative feudal lords (similar to a modern-day union). These men were probably part of a craft guild since a "haberdasher" is a hat maker, an "arras-maker" made tapestries, a "dyer" dyed fabrics, and a "weaver" weaved cloth.

"boot..."   (The General Prologue - The Physician)

To "give the boot" in this context means to give a remedy. Medieval connotations with "boot" would have also have associated the "boot" with deliverance from evil or peril. This further demonstrates the supernatural understanding of medicine and the human body in Chaucer's time.

"plowman..."   (The General Prologue - The Plowman)

A plowman is a farm laborer or rustic peasant, generally one who drives a cattle plow to till soil. Notice that characters who are lower in the social order are described with less sarcasm and irony. This could suggest a social critique that the upper classes are more corrupt and hypocritical while the poor workers are more genuine.

"thumb of gold..."   (The General Prologue - The Miller)

This is a reference to the proverb "an honest miller hath a golden thumb" which means that honest millers are extremely rare. While the Miller described here is said to "have a golden thumb" his propensity to steal indicates that he is not the rare honest miller. Instead, it probably refers to the method by which he triples his grain profits, by using his "golden thumb" to weigh down the scale that measures the weight of grain.

"vulgar..."   (The General Prologue - The Manciple)

In Chaucer's time "vulgar" referred to the common man, someone who spoke the vernacular. The term did not yet carry the negative connotation that we now associate with it. Here he is simply showing that this common man is so clever that he can keep up with the wisdom of a crowd of learned men.

"reeve..."   (The General Prologue - The Reeve)

A reeve was generally a royal official that supervised towns or districts. As a representative of the king in the country, a reeve would administer royal justice and collect royal taxes. He was a bit like a sheriff or judge. This reeve, however, is not a royal representative but a manager of a nobleman's estate.

"choleric..."   (The General Prologue - The Reeve)

"Choleric" is a reference to the four humors believed to control humans and their emotions in Chaucer's time. People believed that yellow bile, one of the four humors, caused a choleric disposition. Being choleric meant being quick to anger or aggression.

"Questio quid juris..."   (The General Prologue - The Summoner)

In latin this means, “I question which law applies in this situation?” This question is presented as the summoner's philosophy. The summoner's "philosophy" demonstrates a type of ignorance towards the law that he enforces. This presentation of the summoner seems to mock the ecclesiastical court since the institution employs someone who is both lecherous and ignorant of the church law.

"Mars..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Mars is the Roman god of war. He represents savagery and brutality. Theseus is suggesting that these two knights will be executed savagely to punish them for their crimes.

"maugre..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

"Maugre" meaning to defy or to get the better of. This word is used especially when one holds ill-will towards the thing one is trying to conquer. Arcita argues that a man's need for love not only rises above the law, but causes him to feel ill-will towards that law. This is an odd claim for a knight to make since nothing should be more important to him than upholding the law.

"false..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Here, "false" means treacherous or deceitful. Over the short course of Palamon's speech he has gone from invoking a blood oath that ties him to Arcita to calling him treacherous for having a similar love at first sight feeling for Emilie. Again, this extreme reaction may point to a satirical portrayal of courtly love.

"To love my lady..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

"My lady" is a term that acts as both a formal, respectful address to a woman of high social status and a claim over a woman. Palamon's use of this term figures Emilie as his wife, though he has never met her and has only seen her outside his window. The hyperbolic nature of this love at first sight suggests that Chaucer is mocking courtly love.

"spoilers..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

"Spoilers" here means someone who pillages, plunders, or robs in times of war. It refers to the men going through the possessions of the dead soldiers after the battle has ended. This is another reference to the traditions of medieval warfare established by the Crusades.

"banner..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

The word "banner" in this context refers to a heraldic flag which would have a coat of arms, badge, or other symbol on it to identify a king or nobleman. In medieval warfare, the unfurling of flags signals to both armies that the battle is beginning. Flags are most often used to tell troops where their leaders are, and as long as flags are still flying, they know the leaders are still fighting successfully.

"when a thing is destined, it must be)..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

In other words, if something is destined to happen, it cannot be altered. This is a belief that goes back to early Greek culture and is often called the "will of the gods." Notice that unlike Arcita's escape from prison, which was willed by a man, Pirithous, Palamon's escape is willed by the gods.

"of your gentleness..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

In Middle English, the word is gentillesse, which combines the sense of gentle demeanor and gentility (social class). In using this address, the women invoke the chivalry inherent to Theseus's gentility in order to get him to help them.

"churl..."   (The Miller’s Prologue)

A "churl" is a contemptible, base fellow that is generally associated with crude or sexually explicit behavior. In describing the Miller using this term, the narrator prepares the reader for the story that will follow and gives the reader an explanation for the content of the story. Notice also that the Miller is a character from a low class. His rude story and churlish description aligns this character with the stereotypes of his class.

"Sathanas..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

This is a compound term that means "Satan's Wrath." This at first seems to be a threatening declaration. However, we soon find out that Absalom has reduced "Satan's Wrath" to branding a man's butt with a hot poker. This is another instance in which the Miller trivializes religion.

"Thomas..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

The carpenter invokes Saint Thomas, the patron saint of Canterbury cathedral who the pilgrims of the frame story are on a pilgrimage to venerate. Notice that both Alison and John invoke Saint Thomas when they need to mention a saint. This could be because Saint Thomas is the only saint with whom the Miller is familiar.

"puss..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

"Puss" is a term that refers to someone's mouth, particularly a mouth in a pout or frown. The Miller uses this as a double entendre for both the woman's frown and her genitalia. Nicholas catches Alison by both her lust and her lips.

"lickerish..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

"Lickerish" is another word for lecherous. The description of the wife's wandering lecherous eye clashes with the descriptions of her white, silk clothing, which suggest purity. The Miller seems to be suggesting that though she appears pure on the surface, this maiden is actually wanton in her core. This could be an attack on the chivalric romance that uses physical descriptions to mark a woman's chastity and perfection.

"Almagest..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

The "Almagest" is a mathematical treatise written by a Greek philosophy in the second century. It charts the motions of the stars and planetary paths. It is called one of the most influential scientific texts of all time.

"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.

"Venus’ labours..."   (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)

Venus was the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, and desire. The Wife uses Roman mythology to argue that old, impotent men paint their wives as wicked because women are unfaithful when their husbands can no longer perform "Venus's labors," or sexual intercourse. The "vow of marriage" was traditionally thought of as a vow of fidelity between a man and his wife. However, with this statement, the Wife seems to be suggesting that the "vow of marriage" is physical intimacy. Rather than women being the unfaithful ones when they search for intimacy outside the marriage, she argues that men break the vow when they become old and cannot please their wives.

"leaf..."   (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue)

"Leaf" in this context means a page within a book. Alison, the Wife of Bath, is talking about tearing a page out of a book that her husband owns. Metaphorically, this signifies that she is challenging his authority, since in Chaucer's time men controlled learning and women were generally illiterate. To punish her, the Wife's husband hits her in the ear and causes her to go deaf.

"grace..."   (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)

Grace was a main component of knightly chivalry and a trait of the noble classes. Grace in this context is the sign of God's favor in a human being. It manifested in elegance, refinement, and adhering to the strict conduct of the chivalric code. In following proper conduct, one demonstrated their salvation and close proximity to God. In showing the knight "grace" the king shows him respect. The Queen's challenge that serves as the man's punishment suggests that the knight is not a bad man, he simply needs to cultivate grace and chivalry.

"maidenhead..."   (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)

"Maidenhead" means virginity and tells us that the lusty bachelor from the king's court rapes this young woman while she walks alone in the corn. Notice that this story of the rapist bachelor is directly connected to the description of the friar that the wife just outlined. The friar can "do them naught but dishonor" and the bachelor "befell" the court of King Arthur with his actions. This is an interesting parallel that suggests a grim critique of friars.

"wrathy..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition. Using this adjective to describe the Pardoner, Chaucer is able to demonstrate the immorality and hypocrisy of this character. He uses this subtle rhetorical device to cause the audience to dislike and distrust this character, and to undermine the moral credibility of his story.

"rent..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

Rent in this context means to tear apart, separate by parts, or divide. The three main characters tear apart the body of Christ with their blasphemous words and actions. The Pardoner compares them to "Jews" who are blamed for the crucifixion of Christ in the New Testament. In this way, the Pardoner implies that swearing and crucifying Christ are the same thing. The antisemitism imbedded in the comparison also demonstrates the church context in which the Pardoner operates.

"jade..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue)

In this context the host is referring to the Nun's Priest's horse. Jade is a derogatory term for a horse of inferior breed. It has connotations of an animal that is pathetic, ill-conditioned, worn-out, worthless, stupid, or ill-tempered. Often it was used to refer to donkeys. Riding a "jade" would reflect badly on someone's social status or disposition. Thus, this is a veiled insult towards the Nun's Priest.

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

Chanticleer is a French word that was adapted by English to refer to roosters. The fancy name that the Nun's Priest gives to this rooster situates the story in a beast fable. While the widow lives a modest life in the country, the rooster's life mimics and mocks courtly life.

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