Chaucer's Pilgrims in "The Canterbury Tales"

The text was probably written between 1380 and 1400. The story of the 29 travellers going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury is fictional, but it must have been based on keen observation of such excursions. It reads rather like an account of a 20th century holiday trip in a motor coach, with its anecdotes and its small disagreements between the participants, and the general air of good humour that prevails.

The interest, from the equestrian point of view, lies in the detailed portraits of the people involved, with their mounts. The best accompanying contemporary illustrations of the "company" riding to Canterbury come from the Ellesmere manuscript, now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; this is believed to have been written and drawn within 10 years of Chaucer's death (ref).

Such contemporary illustrations of horses in use are informative but very difficult for us to judge today. How much of what is seen is accurate, and how much is dramatic exaggeration, like modern cartoons or caricatures?

Medieval view of the horses in the Tales

The poet Chaucer himself rides a small grey pony sized animal, almost the smallest portrayed; while the Knight's horse is much bigger than all the others. This animal is closely observed: it has shoes with studs or sharp nails protruding from the under surface. It bears a brand on its near hindquarter.

The other horses are smaller, but they all have distinct tufts on their fetlocks, like modern British native ponies; they are not "clean legged" which might indicate Oriental blood, but neither do they have profuse feather. The word "fetlock" incidentally probably means "foot lock" - the hair at the fetlock joint. Their heads are small and necks sharply flexed, making the ears the most forward part of the animal.


The men ride astride. Their seat on the horse looks strange to us now, because they ride very straight legged, with their long-toed shoes well pointed forward and their toes down in their stirrups. Many of them wear long spurs.

The Prioress and the Nun ride demurely sidesaddle, facing to the side and with both feet level -- one with her legs to the nearside, one to the off. Could this be artistic licence, so that the images move "in" to the page centre? However, the artist's observation is true in that the lady rider would have had a choice: the side saddle with fixed pommels for the knee had not been invented, so her position was not yet fixed.

But the sensual Wife of Bath rides vigorously astride; and she has spurs, too!

Lines from the Prologue

Modern verse translation of parts of the Prologue by Nevill Coghill, Penguin Classics, 1951:

The Wife of Bath
Easily on an ambling horse she sat
Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a shield;
She had a flowing mantle that concealed
Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that."

The Merchant
There was a Merchant with a forking beard
And motley dress; high on his horse he sat,
Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat
And on his feet daintily buckled boots."

The Plowman
"He wore a tabard smock, and rode a mare."

The Reeve
"The stallion-cob he rode at a slow trot
Was dapple-grey and bore the name of Scot."

The Monk
"A monk there was, one of the finest sort
Who rode the country; hunting was his sport.
A manly man, to be an Abbot able;
Many a dainty horse he had in stable.
His bridle, when he rode, a man might hear
Jingling in a whistling wind as clear,
Aye, and as loud as does the chapel bell.....
His palfrey was as brown as is a berry."

The Skipper (sailor)
"He rode a farmer's horse as best he could."

PLEASE - to all the USA school classes who keep searching for the Skipper on this site ... ... PLEASE go and read Chaucer's work for yourselves. I am not going to do your school work for you.

I have no images of these characters myself, as the best illustrations are copyright of the Huntington in America.

The Knight
"Speaking of his equipment, he possessed
Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed."


Size

The horses are on the small side. Maybe the artist thought that the riders were of more interest than their mounts. The smallest of all and the worst ridden is that of the Friar - the artist clearly saw him as a comically bad horseman only fit for a small pony. His downturned toes reach below its knees; he attempts to clutch the pony's body with his calves and leans forward with his chin in the air.

Bearing in mind that people were much smaller in previous centuries than they are now, it is likely that horses generally measured smaller too. Even allowing for a slight exaggeration of the rider's size in these illustrations, the animals were ponies by our standards.

Lateral Movement?

The ponies in the Ellesmere manuscript appear to be moving laterally rather than diagonally. The Wife of Bath 's horse is described as an ambler, the Monk's as a palfrey, but the Reeve's "rouncy" (translated by Coghill as "stallion-cob") is said to trot. Dent says that palfreys (ambling horses) were valued at 61 shillings in Chaucer's day, whereas the trotting "hackenay" was worth only 24 shillings. Were all the 29 travellers mounted on expensive " rakkers " or was this an artistic convention of the time when showing horses walking? It was not until Edweard Muybridge photographed the actual sequences of motion of a horse in 1885 that it became common for artists to portray its action realistically.

Harness

The Merchant's excitable, prancing horse has a bridle with studs or decorations along every strap, but the bridles of the other horses seem to be quite plain: headstall, browband, tight-looking throatlash; no noseband, and in every case a single curb bit. One or two saddles have two girths. The riders who go astride have stirrups but the sidesaddle ladies do not - they would certainly need to sit an ambler rather than a trotter. Most of the ponies have trappings of leather straps over the quarters, like a breeching, and a breastplate round the chest.