Canterbury Tales General Prologue Essay

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Fragment 1, lines 1–42

Summary

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .

(See Important Quotations Explained)

The narrator opens the General Prologue with a description of the return of spring. He describes the April rains, the burgeoning flowers and leaves, and the chirping birds. Around this time of year, the narrator says, people begin to feel the desire to go on a pilgrimage. Many devout English pilgrims set off to visit shrines in distant holy lands, but even more choose to travel to Canterbury to visit the relics of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, where they thank the martyr for having helped them when they were in need. The narrator tells us that as he prepared to go on such a pilgrimage, staying at a tavern in Southwark called the Tabard Inn, a great company of twenty-nine travelers entered. The travelers were a diverse group who, like the narrator, were on their way to Canterbury. They happily agreed to let him join them. That night, the group slept at the Tabard, and woke up early the next morning to set off on their journey. Before continuing the tale, the narrator declares his intent to list and describe each of the members of the group.

Analysis

The invocation of spring with which the General Prologue begins is lengthy and formal compared to the language of the rest of the Prologue. The first lines situate the story in a particular time and place, but the speaker does this in cosmic and cyclical terms, celebrating the vitality and richness of spring. This approach gives the opening lines a dreamy, timeless, unfocused quality, and it is therefore surprising when the narrator reveals that he’s going to describe a pilgrimage that he himself took rather than telling a love story. A pilgrimage is a religious journey undertaken for penance and grace. As pilgrimages went, Canterbury was not a very difficult destination for an English person to reach. It was, therefore, very popular in fourteenth-century England, as the narrator mentions. Pilgrims traveled to visit the remains of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170 by knights of King Henry II. Soon after his death, he became the most popular saint in England. The pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales should not be thought of as an entirely solemn occasion, because it also offered the pilgrims an opportunity to abandon work and take a vacation.

In line 20, the narrator abandons his unfocused, all-knowing point of view, identifying himself as an actual person for the first time by inserting the first person—“I”—as he relates how he met the group of pilgrims while staying at the Tabard Inn. He emphasizes that this group, which he encountered by accident, was itself formed quite by chance (25–26). He then shifts into the first-person plural, referring to the pilgrims as “we” beginning in line 29, asserting his status as a member of the group.

The narrator ends the introductory portion of his prologue by noting that he has “tyme and space” to tell his narrative. His comments underscore the fact that he is writing some time after the events of his story, and that he is describing the characters from memory. He has spoken and met with these people, but he has waited a certain length of time before sitting down and describing them. His intention to describe each pilgrim as he or she seemed to him is also important, for it emphasizes that his descriptions are not only subject to his memory but are also shaped by his individual perceptions and opinions regarding each of the characters. He positions himself as a mediator between two groups: the group of pilgrims, of which he was a member, and us, the audience, whom the narrator explicitly addresses as “you” in lines 34 and 38.

On the other hand, the narrator’s declaration that he will tell us about the “condicioun,” “degree,” and “array” (dress) of each of the pilgrims suggests that his portraits will be based on objective facts as well as his own opinions. He spends considerable time characterizing the group members according to their social positions. The pilgrims represent a diverse cross section of fourteenth-century English society. Medieval social theory divided society into three broad classes, called “estates”: the military, the clergy, and the laity. (The nobility, not represented in the General Prologue, traditionally derives its title and privileges from military duties and service, so it is considered part of the military estate.) In the portraits that we will see in the rest of the General Prologue, the Knight and Squire represent the military estate. The clergy is represented by the Prioress (and her nun and three priests), the Monk, the Friar, and the Parson. The other characters, from the wealthy Franklin to the poor Plowman, are the members of the laity. These lay characters can be further subdivided into landowners (the Franklin), professionals (the Clerk, the Man of Law, the Guildsmen, the Physician, and the Shipman), laborers (the Cook and the Plowman), stewards (the Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve), and church officers (the Summoner and the Pardoner). As we will see, Chaucer’s descriptions of the various characters and their social roles reveal the influence of the medieval genre of estates satire.

The most popular part of the Canterbury Tales is the General Prologue, which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach, claiming that the portraits are indicative of social types, part of a tradition of social satire, "estates satire", and insisting that they should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in a novel. Yet it is sure that Chaucer's capacity of human sympathy, like Shakespeare's, enabled him to go beyond the conventions of his time and create images of individualized human subjects that have been found not merely credible but endearing in every period from his own until now.

It is the General Prologue that serves to establish firmly the framework for the entire story-collection: the pilgrimage that risks being turned into a tale-telling competition. The title "General Prologue" is a modern invention, although a few manuscripts call it prologus. There are very few major textual differences between the various manuscripts. The structure of the General Prologue is a simple one. After an elaborate introduction in lines 1 - 34, the narrator begins the series of portraits (lines 35 - 719). These are followed by a report of the Host's suggestion of a tale-telling contest and its acceptance (lines 720 - 821). On the following morning the pilgrims assemble and it is decided that the Knight shall tell the first tale (lines 822 - 858).

Nothing indicates when Chaucer began to compose the General Prologue and there are no variations between manuscripts that might suggest that he revised it after making an initial version. It is sometimes felt that the last two portraits, of Pardoner and Summoner, may have been added later but there is no evidence to support this. The portraits do not follow any particular order after the first few pilgrims have been introduced; the Knight who comes first is socially the highest person present (the Host calls him 'my mayster and my lord' in line 837).

The Knight is the picture of a professional soldier, come straight from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armour. His travels are remarkably vast; he has fought in Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Turkey against pagans, Moors, and Saracens, killing many. The variety of lords for whom he has fought suggests that he is some kind of mercenary, but it seems that Chaucer may have known people at the English court with similar records. The narrator insists: "He was a verray, parfit, gentil knight," but some modern readers, ill at ease with idealized warriors, and doubtful about the value of the narrator's enthusiasms, have questioned this evaluation.

His son, the Squire, is by contrast an elegant young man about court, with fashionable clothes and romantic skills of singing and dancing.

Their Yeoman is a skilled servant in charge of the knight's land, his dress is described in detail, but not his character.

The Prioress is one of the most fully described pilgrims, and it is with her that we first notice the narrator's refusal to judge the value of what he sees. Her portrait is more concerned with how she eats than how she prays. She is rather too kind to animals, while there is no mention of her kindness to people. Finally, she has a costly set of beads around her arm, which should be used for prayer, but end in a brooch inscribed ambiguously Amor vincit omnia (Virgil's "Love conquers all"). She has a Nun with her, and "three" priests. This is a problem in counting the total number of pilgrims as twenty-nine: the word 'three' must have been added later on account of the rhyme, while only one Nun's Priest is in fact given a Tale and he is not the subject of a portrait here.

The Monk continues the series of incongruous church- people; in this description the narratorial voice often seems to be echoing the monk's comments in indirect quotation. He has many horses at home; he does not respect his monastic rule, but goes hunting instead of praying. The narrator expresses surprisingly strong support for the Monk's chosen style of living.

The Friar follows, and by now it seems clear that Chaucer has a special interest in church-people who so confidently live in contradiction with what is expected of them; the narrator, though, gives no sign of feeling any problem, as when he reports that the "worthy" Friar avoided the company of lepers and beggars. By this point the alert reader is alert to the narrator's too-ready use of 'worthy' but critics are still unsure of what Chaucer's intended strategy was here.

The Merchant is briefly described, and is followed by the Clerk of Oxenford (Oxford) who is as sincere a student as could be wished: poor, skinny like his horse, and book-loving.

The Sergeant at Law is an expert lawyer, and with him is the Franklin, a gentleman from the country whose main interest is food: "It snowed in his house of meat and drink." Then Chaucer adds a brief list of five tradesmen belonging to the same fraternity, dressed in its uniform: a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer and a Tapestry-maker. None of these is described here or given a Tale to tell later. They have brought their Cook with them, he is an expert, his skills are listed, as well as some unexpected personal details. The Shipman who is described next is expert at sailing and at stealing the wine his passengers bring with them; he is also a dangerous character, perhaps a pirate.

The Doctor of Physic is praised by the narrator, "He was a verray parfit praktisour," and there follows a list of the fifteen main masters of medieval medicine; the fact that he, like most doctors in satire, "loved gold in special" is added at the end.

The Wife of Bath is the only woman, beside the Prioress and her companion Nun, on this pilgrimage. Again the narrator is positive: "She was a worthy womman al hir live" and he glides quickly over the five husbands that later figure in such detail in her Prologue, where also we may read how she became deaf. She is a business woman of strong self-importance, and her elaborate dress is a sign of her character as well as her wealth.

From her, we pass to the most clearly idealized portrait in the Prologue, the Parson. While the previous churchmen were all interested in things of this world more than in true christianity, the Parson represents the opposite pole.

He is accompanied by his equally idealized brother, the Plowman, "a true swinker" (hard-working man) "Living in peace and perfect charity." If the Parson is the model churchman, the Plowman is the model lay christian, as in Piers Plowman, one who is always ready to help the poor. It is sometimes suggested that the choice of a Plowman shows that Chaucer had read a version of Piers Plowman.

The series then ends with a mixed group of people of whom most are quite terrible: the Miller is a kind of ugly thug without charm. The Manciple is praised as a skillful steward in a household of lawyers; they are clever men but he is cleverest, since he cheats them all, the narrator cheerfully tells us. The Reeve is the manager of a farm, and he too is lining his own pocket.

Last we learn of the Summoner and the Pardoner, two grotesque figures on the edge of the church, living by it without being priests; one administers the church courts, the other sells pardons (indulgences). Children are afraid of the Summoner's face, he is suffering from some kind of skin disease; he is corrupt, as the narrator tells us after naively saying "A better fellow should men not find." But it is the Pardoner who is really odd, and modern critics have enjoyed discussing just what Chaucer meant by saying: "I trowe he were a gelding or a mare". With his collection of pigs' bones in a glass, that he uses as relics of saints to delude simple poor people, he is a monster in every way, and he concludes the list of pilgrims.

The narrator of this Prologue is Chaucer, but this pilgrim Chaucer is not to be too simply identified with the author Chaucer. He explains that in what follows, he is only acting as the faithful reporter of what others have said, without adding or omitting anything; he must not then be blamed for what he reports. Neither must he be blamed if he does not put people in the order of their social rank, "My wit is short, ye may well understand." This persona continues to profess the utter naivety that we have already noted in his uncritical descriptions of the pilgrims.

It is in this way, too, that we should approach the conclusion of the Prologue. Here the Host of the Tabard Inn (Harry Bailey, a historical figure) decides to go with them and ironically it is he, not Chaucer, who proposes the story-telling contest that gives the framework of the Tales. He will also be the ultimate judge of which is the best: "of best sentence and most solas." He is, after all, well prepared by his job to know about the tales people tell! One model for the literary competition would seem to be the meetings of people interested in poetry, known in French as puys, with which Chaucer would have been familiar.


The above text is taken from Brother Anthony's Literature in English Society: The Middle Ages. Published by Sogang University Press, Seoul, in 1997.

Copyright 1997 Brother Anthony (An Sonjae).

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