Chaucer was writing at a time when English life and society were dominated by the Church, and it is no surprise that many of the pilgrims described in The General Prologue were employed by the Church in some capacity or that Chaucer defines them and reacts to them according to their religious beliefs and practices.
The description of the pilgrims starts with the Knight – the person with the highest social status. The knight is one of Chaucer’s most admired pilgrims – but not because of this social status. The reader is expected to admire the knight because of his service to Christianity in Crusades all over Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Chaucer calls him a “worthy man” (43) and lists the battles and sieges the knight has taken part in: his courage and integrity are strongly implied. Moreover, he is modest, having come straight from the ship that brought him home to England. He has not bothered to change his clothes – a sign of his devotion, not his untidiness: Al bismotered with his habergeon. (76)
The poor parish priest and his brother, the Ploughman, are both admired for the steadfastness of their characters, the simplicity of their lives and their devotion to genuine Christianity. In The General Prologue Chaucer presents other members of the church who are vain and corrupt, but the parish priest is a genuine Christian who cares for his parishioners, and does everything he can to help them. Chaucer admires him without reservation.
Chaucer is slightly critical of figures like the Friar, the Monk and the Prioress, none of whom quite live up to the ideals of Christianity; he treats them with good-humoured irony. The characters Chaucer likes least come right at the end. The Summoner is corrupt, horrible to look at and frightens small children with his disfigured face. He encourages people to commit the very crimes they then are tried for at the church courts. His companion, the Pardoner, is even worse. He is a con-man and a trickster, and the most corrupt of all the pilgrims. Chaucer’s dislike of him becomes clear when he questions his sexuality: I trowe he were a gelding or a mare. (693)
Chaucer, Geoffrey. (1965). The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.