At the close of the previous entry, I said we would face challenges with this new topic. If you're familiar with the General Prologue, you know that acquainting us with the pilgrims goes on for many pages--the Knight, the Wife, the Friar, the Monk, the Physician, Sir Thopas and more. Then, an apparently random cluster, like five left-overs, are presented all at once, as if Chaucer is in a rush to have done with the introductions. But that's not it at all. Immediately after citing the five, the individuals are singled out and given as detailed and unique a description as all those who came before. Finding a reason for this tactic is the first challenge.
Here is how Chaucer begins:
There was also a Reeve, and a Miller,
A Summoner, and a Pardoner also,
A Manciple, and myself--there were no more.
This is what their occupations amounted to: A reeve kept the records of what was produced on a manor, and the work done. A miller needs no special explanation. A summoner was a petty clerical officer who cited people to appear before the ecclesiastical court. A pardoner was a minor churchman, who had the reputation of selling "little pardons" in lieu of other penances. A manciple was an employee of an institution and functioned mainly in the purchasing of provisions.
Because I understood that the pilgrims were signs of the zodiac, my first thought had to do with astrology. Were these signs significant to Chaucer's birth date? That may be true, but it is well nigh impossible to discover facts to support this notion because birth dates of commoners--such as Chaucer--were rarely recorded.
So why set them in a group? At first glance it might seem pointless, but Pilgrim Chaucer is made a member of this clique. That is surely a signal to gain our attention. These characters must have some sort of affinity with one another and some sort of relationship with the author/pilgrim.
I'd worked with the five for quite a while, first this one, then that one, when a recognizable traditional influence came into focus for each! The five did portray pilgrims and signs of the zodiac--but now, clearly, each had a third role to play. These were not incidental associates. The poet had reserved this handful to construct the ultimate image of his own pilgrimage. That answers the first challenge.
We will deal separately with the members of his clique, to illustrate what it is that connects each one to the others and to Chaucer's pilgrimage--his life. Our search will acquaint us with Scorpio, Taurus, Aquarius, Pisces, and Libra.
We'll begin next time with Libra, the Manciple because its significance will be obvious after very little evidence.