The Host

The Host's occupation

The Host is the innkeeper of the Tabard Inn in Southwark (across the Thames from the City of London). The inns of Southwark were a new fashion and they catered both for people coming to London for business or pleasure and also for travellers, who would often choose to stay the night at Southwark because they could make an early start, before the gates of London itself opened. 

The Host is also: 

  • A representative of the affluent businessmen of London
  • A man used in his work to controlling other people (the customers at his inn).

Thus Chaucer has created, for his alter ego as author and organiser, a figure who is practiced in exercising authority.

The social position of the Host

It is significant that the Host does not belong to any of the more traditional types of authority. He is not:

  • Upper class, like the Knight
  • A senior cleric, like the Monk
  • Learned, like the Clerk
  • A spiritual and moral guide, like the Parson. 

Instead, Chaucer has created to rule over the fiction a man who is:

  • Secular — a layman
  • Middle class
  • A professional organiser of groups of people. 

The ‘personality' of the Host

The Host provides an enjoyable example of Chaucer's skill at suggesting character:

  • The Host is presented as a confident man, bluff, assertive and unreflective
  • He reacts with his emotions rather than thinking: he is shocked, sentimental, confrontational etc.
  • He is dominating and Chaucer describes him as manly and authoritative in appearance and manner
  • He seems almost a representative of masculinity, which makes his apparent bout of homophobic anger at the close of The Pardoner's Tale particularly interesting
More on the Host's attitude to the Pardoner: Is Chaucer suggesting something about the psychology of a ‘hyper-masculine' personality: that it involves a distinct rejection of homosexuality, as well as an overt embracing of a heterosexual outlook and demeanour?     
  • He is a man professionally used to dealing with people and making them do what he wants them to, even if they are potentially trouble-makers.

Details that reveal more about the Host

Chaucer varies his portrait by giving the Host some unexpected and additional individualising features:

  • In an earlier Link passage (before The Pardoner's Tale) Chaucer had depicted the Host revealing that he is bossed about by his wife and urged all the time to be even more aggressive towards people
  • At the close of The Pardoner's Tale, Chaucer seems to depict the Host as being unnerved by the Pardoner's attempt to con money out of him
  • His anger is apparently about the Pardoner's avarice and cheating, yet the Host's rejection seems to contain signs of an instinctive homophobia (Chaucer's description of the Pardoner in the The General Prologue portrays him as effeminate, not a full man, and possibly in a homosexual relationship with the Summoner) 
  • Does the sudden vehemence in the Host's speech suggest a flip-side to the Host's hyper-masculine self-presentation: an underlying fear of seemingly ‘unmanly' behaviour?

A real person?

Chaucer gave his fictional Host the name of a real person, ‘Harry Bailly':

  • The actual Henry Bailly was an innkeeper
  • He is mentioned in contemporary records
  • He was a substantial member of the commercial community in London: a leading businessman
  • He represented his borough in Parliament twice, in the late 1370s. 

Chaucer moved in London circles which included merchants like his father, leading administrators and the sort of men who, like himself, served as Members of Parliament. So, there's a possibility Chaucer described a man he actually knew – though presumably with some artistic selection and even exaggerations. 

However, what happens in a text is always fiction, always text: not simply a mirror of reality:

  • Chaucer's actual authorial role is refracted in The Canterbury Tales. Some authorial jobs are displaced onto the Host and the Knight, or the ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim' figure, who seems clearly less clever than real-life Chaucer must have been
  • Similarly, Harry Bailly and the roles he plays in the text are new, literary structures and devices, not identical with meeting the real-life Henry Bailly.

The Host and masculinity

The Canterbury Tales as a whole explores many aspects of gender. One aspect is what it means to be masculine.

  • At one extreme are the ways in which the Pardoner and his friend the Summoner behave and are presented. The General Prologue presents both as homosexual or, to be more precise to medieval perceptions, as somewhat feminine in appearance and, in the case of the Pardoner, physically ‘unmanly' 
  • By contrast, Chaucer paints the Host as a hyper-masculine personality: aggressive, dominating others, bold and loud, wanting to control, yet at times obsessed with other men's sexuality. At several points in the tales, the Host alludes to, or speaks embarrassingly, about sex in relation to other men. 

Chaucer seems to have captured the psychology of the sort of man who feels a deep need to assert his own aggressive masculinity but whose obsessive reference to other men's sexuality suggests an insecurity about masculinity. The final section of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale contrasts these presentations of masculinity. The Host's vehement reaction to the Pardoner suggests that, along with disgust at the latter's cheating tricks, the Host is rattled by the Pardoner's highly unmasculine self-presentation.

How Chaucer conveys the Host's masculinity

When Chaucer introduced the Host in The General Prologue, he used the term ‘man' about him more than once. It sets the tone for the roles he will play later in The Tales.

A seemly man our Hooste was withalle
For to been a marchal in an halle.
A large man he was with eyen stepe [large and bright],
A fairer burgeys was there noon in Chepe—
Boold of his speche, and wys and wel ytaughte,
And eke of manhood hym lakkede right naught.
Eek therto he was a myrie man….                    751-7.

There are elements in Chaucer's wording here that bring a sense of dominance into the passage too:

  • Boold (bold) sets the theme and then there are supporting two words that denote a commanding position
  • A marchal (marshall) in a hall at this time was usually a royal official, organising proceedings and arrangements for dining in the grand hall of a palace
  • A burgeys (burgess) was a leading businessman. The host is said to be the equal of any burgess (leading citizen) in Cheapside: the main commercial and shopping street of the medieval City of London. 

Like several of the pilgrims, the Host is a man who comes from the middle-class world of commerce – neither a noble nor a peasant. His blokeish, bossy, controlling personality is used to great effect throughout The Tales and we can see aspects of it in the Links at the beginning and end of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

More on masculinity?

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