Physiognomy in The Canterbury Tales: Examples & Meaning

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Do you think you can tell something about a person's character by the way they look? Chaucer certainly thought so! In this lesson, you'll learn more about the use of physiognomy in ''The Canterbury Tales.''

Good vs. Evil

In a battle of good versus evil, where would you place this guy?

Outward appearances offer us insight into the personality of a character.
evil, physiognomy

With the sharp, pointy teeth, red glaring eyes and horns atop his head, he clearly has all the makings of a villain opposing a story's good guy.

This type of tactic is used frequently in movies to help the viewer identify the villain. In the Disney movie, ''Sleeping Beauty,'' we see the evil character, Maleficent, portrayed with green skin, sharp angular features and horns atop her head. We can look at her and immediately know she is bad or evil. On the opposite side, you have Sleeping Beauty portrayed as a fair and beautiful young woman, with perfect skin and long flowing hair.

The science of this phenomenon is known as physiognomy. The idea behind it is that we judge a person's attitudes, behaviors or character based on what he or she looks like. Good and wholesome characters are portrayed as young and beautiful; villains or bad guys take on features that are ugly or undesirable.

Physiognomy traces back to the time of the ancient Greeks, who believed you could discern a person's character just by looking at their face. Authors, like Geoffrey Chaucer, who penned The Canterbury Tales, use physiognomy to help develop their characters. By giving characters a particular appearance, a writer can guide the reader's impression of that character and mold it to what he or she wants it to be. For example, full lips are frequently a mark of a vixen or beauty, while a large or warty nose may be the mark of a criminal or ne'er-do-well.

Let's look at how Chaucer uses physiognomy in The Canterbury Tales to help readers paint a picture of different characters' personalities.

Physiognomy in The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer uses physical characteristics to help us, as readers, make certain assumptions about characters in his Canterbury Tales. Here are some notable examples:

The Pardoner

The Pardoner is an interesting character in terms of his physical description. He is noted for his long, thin and limp yellow hair, his jolly spirit and glaring eyes. Many of his attributes, such as his ''dainty'' voice and forever beardless face, paint a picture of a immature, somewhat feminine character, though there's no indication the character's anything other than a man.

It seems that the author was intent on showing two sides, or faces, of the Pardoner, which goes right along with his lines of work. On one hand, he represents the church and sells pardons from the bishop. But, on the other hand, he's something of a slick salesman, offering religious relics he claimed once belonged to well-known saints:

''For in his bag he had a pillowcase, That used to be, he said, Our Lady's veil; He claimed he had a fragment of the sail, That took Saint Peter out upon the sea, Before Christ called him to his ministry...''

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath is described as a large woman, with a broad hat, ample hips and a bold and ruddy face. She is also described as someone who could ''laugh and carp,'' or complain, in a social setting. She's well able to hold her own.

She is a successful business woman, a clothier, who dresses in apparel as fine as what she sells.

Her appearance, along with ''the lover's gap teeth,'' suggests a medieval stereotype as a lustful, passionate person. This is also illustrated in her anger at other women for holding a loftier position in the church and the presumption that she's had numerous lovers and husbands.

The Miller

The Miller is your stereotypical blue collar worker. He is described as stout, a ''fellow big in brawn as well as bone,'' both broad and husky. He has a wart on his nose, with hair springing from it, as red as the beard that adorns his face.

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