While historically existing animals and literary animal characters inform allegorical and metaphorical characterization in The Canterbury Tales, figurative usage does not erase recognition of the material animal. "The Pardoner's Tale," for one, challenges the terms of conventional animal metaphors by refocusing attention on common animals as common animals and common human creatures as something worse than vermin. Most attention has been paid to the larger animals-goat, hare, and horse-that constitute the physical portrait of Chaucer's Pardoner in the "General Prologue" and in the prologue to his tale.! Like these animals, rats and a polecat, together with rhetorical shrews, appear in this tale as well as in other literature, including bestiaries and natural histories. Equally to
the purpose, these animals could be physically observed as constituents of both urban and rural landscapes in fourteenth-century England.2 In the Middle Ages, animals were part of the environment as well as part of the culture: they lived inside as well as outside the city gates, priory walls, and even domestic spaces; a rat in the street or the garden might not be any less welcome or uncommon than encountering someone's horses and goats nibbling vegetation or blocking a passage. Not being out of the ordinary, though, such animals could (and can) be overlooked or dismissed as common, too familiar to register. This chapter reveals why readers and listeners should pay close attention to the things they think they know and what they hear about what they think they know.
Additional publication details
Shrews, rats, and a polecat in "the pardoner’s tale": Chapter 3