Notes – The Franklin

Notes – The Franklin



A Franklin was a free tenant of the Crown, holding his lands without the obligation of military service or rent. The wealth and importance of this one are shown not only by his keeping open house for all the country side (1. 340), and the mews and fish-ponds attached to his estate which enabled him to do so, but also by his having acted as chairman of the sessions, representative of the shire in Parliament (ll. 355 sq.), sheriff of his county, and an accountant or auditor of the local expenditure. The Ellesmere picture does full justice to the whiteness of his beard and shows him in a red surcoat lined with blue, with stripes of fringe across it. At his waist hangs a bottle, probably suggested by 1. 334.

333. Of his complexioun he was sangwyn. If we take this line in conjunction with its predecessor we shall be tempted to think that Chaucer meant only that the Franklin had a white beard and a ruddy face. But in Chaucer’s days a ruddy face was only an incident of a sanguine complexion. The latter word means ‘combination,’ and was a technical term in medieval medicine for the combination in different proportions of the four ‘humours’ mentioned in I. 420. The sanguine complexion (as opposed to its three rivals, the melancholy, choleric, and phlegmatic) was a combination of the hot and moist humours, and produced a large desire and capacity for all kind of self-indulgence.

336. he was Epicurus owene sone: Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who taught at Athens from 307 B.C. to his death in 270. Although Epicurus laid down the doctrine that pleasure is the chief good (cp. 1. 337 sq.), the life that he and his friends led was one of the greatest temperance and simplicity. They were content, we are told, with a small cup of light wine, and an inscription over the gate promised to those who might wish to enter no better fare than barley cakes and water (Chambers’ Encyclopedia). The crystallization of the slanders upon the Epicureans in the moder n word ‘epicure’ seems to date in England from the sixteenth century.

340. Seint Julian was he in his contree: St. Julian, to whom no one has ventured to assign a country or date, having murdered his parents under a misapprehension, by way of penance founded a house for travellers on the bank of a dangerous river, over which he ferried his guests. His name was given to many houses of rest for travellers, and the Franklin’s hospitality was so great that his house is likened to one of these.

341. after oon: according to one quality, and that presumably the best.

342. A bettre envyned man: as we should say ‘a man with a better cellar.’

350. many a breem and many a luce in stuwe: to provide fish for the numerous fast-days, at a time when transit from the coast was slow, it was the custom for large houses, as well as monasteries, to maintain special fish-ponds or ‘stews.’ Failing a supply from these they would have to fall back on ‘stock fish,’ i.e. fish hardened and salted.

351. Wo was his cook. ‘Wo’ may be taken either as a substantive with ‘cook’ as a dative (woe was to his cook, his cook felt woe), or as an adjective. The latter use would be due to a misunderstanding of the former.

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352. al his geere, presumably the cups and plates for the table.

353. table dormant, a ‘sleeping’ table, i.e. one fixed to the floor and so always ready for use, as opposed to a movable one or a board set up over trestles. [Hales’ Domesday of St. Pauls (Camden Society), p. 137: “In aula fuerunt duo bancha tornatilia et una mensa dormiens et unum buffum.” Ben Jonson speaks of ‘the table dormant’ in the Alchemist (1610) as if such fixtures were still in use.]

355. At sessiouns, etc. The Franklin took the lead among the county magistrates. Chaucer himself was a Justice of the Peace for Kent, and may have had such a franklin as his chairman. Like Chaucer, the Franklin was also a Knight of the Shire (1. 356), i.e. a representative in Parliament of a division of a county, as contrasted with the members for boroughs.

357. An anlaas, etc. It is characteristic of Chaucer’s conversational way of describing his pilgrims that he interrupts his enumeration of the Franklin’s dignities with these particulars as to his dagger and pouch, and then resumes them in 1. 359.

359. A shirreve, the king’s steward (reeve) in a shire. The sheriff is responsible for keeping the king’s peace, and carrying out all legal judgments. While his year of office lasts, he is the chief man in his shire after the Lord Lieutenant.

     countour, accountant or auditor, “an officer who appears to have assisted in early times in collecting or auditing the county dues” (New Eng. Did.).


The Fraternities or Gilds of the fourteenth century were of two kinds, those whose objects were purely religious and social, and those of which each was restricted to members of a particular craft or trade, for which they made regulations. These five pilgrims apparently also belonged to their craft-gilds, but as they were of five different occupations, the fraternity of which they all wore the livery was obviously only social and religious. [In Chaucer’s time such gilds abounded all over England and we may learn their character from the closely similar rules of the two gilds of S. Katherine and SS. Fabian and Sebastian, both connected with the Church of S. Botulph, Aldersgate, as reported to Richard II. in 1389, adding a few particulars from others in the country. Brothers and sisters were received into the gild, and paid yearly fees, on the annual day of meeting, when they heard mass and chose their officers; one disabled or in poverty might have a weekly allowance of I4d. (equal to as many shillings in present value) or be helped to get work; a loan could be borrowed, on security, from the gild funds. Funerals of the dead brethren were to be attended by all the members and prayers to be said for their souls, the cost for poor brethren being paid by the gild. Wax lights were to be provided for certain festivals in church. Many gilds undertook the maintenance of the fabric of churches; some supported schools, others repaired bridges or roads. All required good behaviour at feasts and meetings, with obedience to their officers, and these were in many cases required to exercise arbitration between members in dispute. Thus, a great part of the social life of the Middle classes between the reigns of Edward III. and Edward VI. centred round the gilds. Yet on the ground that their paying for masses for the souls of dead members made them superstitious institutions, the property of the social and religious class was confiscated by I Edward VI., c. 14, a mere fragment of it being devoted to founding grammar schools, while most of the rest was granted to court favourites. A blow was thus struck at English social life from which it has never recovered. (See English Gilds. The ordinances of more than one hundred early English gilds, edited by Toulmin Smith, 1870.)]

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361. An Haberdasshere. The Haberdashers of London were an offshoot of the ancient trade of Mercers, and in Chaucer’s time dealt in numerous small wares such as caps and hats, ribands, thread, pins, spectacles, games, paper, and many imported articles. [The name is supposed to come from ‘hapertas,’ a kind of stout cloth mentioned in the time of Edward I., which they may then have sold. Mr. Saunders, in his book on the Canterbury Tales, reminds us that while the most influential London gilds at this time sent six members to the Common Council, the Haberdashers, Weavers and Tapestry-makers sent four each, the Carpenters two, and the Dyers, apparently, none, though it was one of the gilds that possessed the right of keeping swans on the Thames. But, as already noted, although the Haberdasher and his friends doubtless belonged to these city companies, it was the livery of a social and religious gild they were now wearing.]

363. And they: resumptive. H smoothes the construction by reading: “Weren with uss eeke, clothed in o lyveree.” To illustrate this use of a livery we may quote the rule of the Gild of S. James at Garlekhithe, London (founded in 1375), which provided that “the brethren and sustren of the bretherhede, every yer, shul be clothed in suyt, and every man paye for that he hath.” Some gilds, presumably poorer ones, only required their members to wear a gild hood. The suit was intended specially for use at meetings of the gild, but a pilgrimage being an act of religion, and one which many of the gilds favoured, it would be appropriate to wear the gild livery while engaged in it. The fraternity of the five pilgrims was a “great” and evidently a rich one.

366. Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras, But al with silver. Tradesmen and mechanics were forbidden by the sumptuary laws to carry silver-mounted knives, but the wealth of Chaucer’s pilgrims (see 1. 373) put them into a higher class.

     wroght ful clene and weel. [Mr. Liddell puts a semicolon before wroght and omits the comma after weel, thus restricting wroght ful clene and weel to the pouches and girdles. This makes excellent sense, and the omission of a verb is easily paralleled in Chaucer. But it was not his custom to begin so distinct a clause in the middle of one line, and run on without a comma to the next.] With the punctuation here given we must understand wroght ful clene and weel to apply to the knives, and take the girdles and pouches as mentioned by an afterthought.

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369-370. a fair burgeys To sitten in a yeldehalle, on a deys: The municipal government of English towns was recruited from the merchants and chief tradesmen, members of gilds; we have here a genial picture of the well-to-do craftsman and burgess, conscious of his civic wisdom and his full pocket, fit, when his time comes, to sit as alderman with the mayor in the court of hustings in the gildhall of his city—whether London, York, or Winchester, or elsewhere. We should be much mistaken, Chaucer says, to leave the wives out of the question, they were ambitious, too, to be called Madame. (Women could belong to gilds, but there does not seem any allusion to that here.) Chaucer’s description is written with a courtier’s smile, witness, too, the “mantel roialliche y-bore” (see next note).

377, 378. These two lines probably refer to the craft burgesses, not to their wives. In Worcester and in Bristol the members of crafts attended the city officers at the vigils of S. John (Midsummer) and S. Peter. If the wives accompanied them, the richer ones doubtless had their mantles carried for them, as Speght describes in his account of the parish vigils. At the induction of a new mayor of Bristol, if it were his first mayoralty he was “to come without any cloke, in his skarlet goun. And all other that have be mareis, the same wise, sauf their servants shulle bere their clokes after them” (English Gilds, pp. 430, 408, 415).

In his glossary to Chaucer, Speght writes: “It was the custom in times past upon festival eves, called vigils, for parishioners to meet in their church-houses, and there to have a drinking-fit [rather a spiteful phrase] for the time. There they used to end many quarrels between neighbour and neighbour; hither came the wives in comely manner; and they which were of the better sort, had their mantles carried with them, as well for show, as to keep them from cold at the table. These mantles also many did use in the church, at morrowmasses, and other times.” It was thus evidently the custom on certain occasions for the gild-wives to have their mantles carried for show as well as for use, perhaps aping more high-bom ladies.


These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are generally enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.


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