The Guildsmen in The Canterbury Tales: Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer & Tapestry Maker

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The London guildsmen of a 'great fraternity' in ''The Canterbury Tales'' are representative of 14th century England's prosperous, confident urban elites. This lesson examines their characterization and places them in their historical context.

Introduction: The Canterbury Tales in Context

The Guildsmen described
Harley MS

Among the pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are five guildsmen, members of organized professional associations. In the later Middle Ages, guilds were multifaceted organizations, not only in charge of quality control, but of determining who could practice a craft. They also provided social solidarity - and, when necessary, support - to their members, like the prosperous artisans in the poem. In 14th century England, such artisans enjoyed growing wealth and influence, and the confidence that came with them.

Guilds might sponsor anything from members-only banquets, to public theatre performances, to donations of food and drink to the poor or to charitable organizations. Membership in such organizations was a source of pride. That the five men in The Canterbury Tales are proud of their status is indicated by Chaucer's observation that 'Each man of them appeared a proper burgess / To sit in guildhall on a high dais' (lines 369-370). A burgess was a citizen with special legal privileges (very special indeed, in the city of London from which these men came). In their own minds at least, all of these men are worthy of sitting at a high table at one of their guilds' banquets.

The Guildsmen and their Roles

Each of Chaucer's guildsmen belongs to a different profession, although three of them are part of 14th century England's great cloth industry (361-62). The weaver, the dyer, and the tapestry-maker would all have worked with cloth, and might have worked with each other. The haberdasher (making hats and other accessories) and the carpenter are in unrelated businesses.

Although the five guildsmen each belong to a different guild, they travel together as members of the same fraternity. A medieval fraternity, far from being a society notorious for drunken parties, was an organization of laypeople who shared spiritual and charitable activities. Fraternities cultivated relationships with hospitals and other religious houses, all of which cared for the sick, the poor, the elderly, and others in need.

Chaucer's guildsmen were probably honorary members of the tailors' fraternity of St. John the Baptist. This high-profile organization would have given them greater social mobility and contact with influential urban elites. It would also have given them scarlet and pink hoods, answering the question of what the 'similar livery, / All of one sober, great fraternity' (363-64) actually looked like!

The Guildsmen's Appearance and Attitudes

Chaucer describes the guildsmen's clothing as 'ful fressh and newe'; that is, not only new but on trend (365-366). Their leather accessories are well-made, and their knives ornamented with silver, instead of the cheaper and more ordinary brass (366-368). As narrator, reporting on this, Chaucer implies that this display is connected to the guildsmen's possibly inflated sense of self-importance.

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