The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Symbol: Physical Features
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The practitioners of medieval physiognomy thought that it was possible to learn things about someone's personality from their physical characteristics. For this reason, various physical features in the pilgrim's portraits are symbols of certain character traits. The Wife of Bath's gap teeth are a symbol of sexuality, as are the Miller's red beard and hair. The Pardoner's beady eyes and long, limp hair are symbols of duplicity or deceitfulness. Broad, earthy features like the Miller's symbolize lower-class status. Since these symbols were a part of their culture, a medieval person would likely immediately have recognized the significance of the physical traits in the pilgrims' portraits.