Chaucer, Geoffrey. "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales
- originally conceived as a series of 120 tales x but: completed 22 tales, began 2 others
- the title: the Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite pilgrimage site, the site of murder of archbishop Thomas Becket, a famous English saint (murdered 1170)
- uses a fictitious pilgrimage as the framing device for a number of stories
<> collections of tales linked in such a way were common in the later Middle Ages (e.g. Boccaccio's Decameron with 10 narrators telling 10 tales within 10 days)
x unlike in Boccaccio, Chaucer represents a wide spectrum of ranks and occupations in his narrators
- the variety of tellers is matched by the diversity of their tales: the stories contrast in genre, style, tone and values
- some of the stories are linked by the interchanges among the pilgrims who react to the tale and sometimes quarrel
- several narrators' stories also respond to topics taken up by previous tellers
(from Sparknotes + my own reading)
The first person speaker describes spring as the time for pilgrimage. The speaker himself sets out for pilgrimage to Canterbury. He accommodates himself in the Tabard Inn in Southwork where he joins a friendly diverse group of 29 fellow pilgrims. He announces his intention to describe the social status and the characters of the pilgrims as they appear to him.
Note on Society Stratification
The medieval society is divided in roughly three classes called "estates". The military estate is here represented by the Knight and the Squire. The clergy by the Prioress, her nun and three priests, the Monk, the Friar and the Parson. The other characters are laymen. The laity is represented by landowners (the Franklin), professionals (the Clerk, the Man of Law, the Guildsmen, the Doctor, the Shipman), labourers (the Cook, the Ploughman), stewards (the Miller, the Manciple, the Reeve) and church officers (the Summoner, the Pardoner).
Characters (in order of appearance)
The Knight: a worthy, respectable and valiant man coming from the Crusades. Satire: perhaps too self-conscious, too interested in the impression he makes, though the most truly respectable of all the characters.
The Squire: the Knight's son, a young man serving as his father's apprentice, but equally devoted to love affairs. Satire: in a way a medieval "dandy", well aware of his physical beauty, worshipping the ideal of courtly love.
The Yeoman: the Squire's military servant, an independent free-born commoner, a forester by profession.
The Prioress (i.e. Mother Superior): kind and charitable, well-bred, or rather imitating the manners of the court. Satire: poses as a lady of the court rather than to adopt the humility expected in a nun. Seems to be hypocritical and pretentious, cries when seeing a mouse in a trap x but: keeps dogs and feeds them meat and milk. Also her motto "Love conquers all" is ambiguous, might refer to the love of Christ x but: also to a more earthly kind of love.
The nun and three priests: the prioress's company.
The Monk: well-fed and well-dressed, in pursuit of earthly pleasures like hunting and horse keeping. Satire: obviously enjoys leisure as if he were a lord rather than to pursue simple life expected in a monk.
The Friar (i.e. a member of a religious order living by begging): fond of absolving the rich confessed sinners in exchange for financial contributions. Satire: puts the rules of the Franciscan order on its head by avoiding the beggars who can give no contributions and abusing his office to raise profit.
The Merchant: clever, even foxy, profit-oriented. Satire: himself in debt, but anxious to keep it secret.
The Clerk (i.e. Oxford student): a poor thin philosopher.
The Sergeant (i.e. the Man of Law): capable in his profession.
The Franklin (i.e. a prosperous country man of lower-class ancestry): an epicurean enjoying food and luxury.
The five Guildsmen: a haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer and tapestry maker.
The Cook: accompanies the guildsmen.
The Shipman: successful in his profession. Satire: a rough person lacking conscience, stealing wine from the merchants who use his service and drowning his prisoners.
The Doctor: seems to use somewhat quack methods based on astronomy and horoscopes. Satire: his own favourite medicine is gold and his chief goal is to gain profit rather than to heal.
The Wife of Bath: a sensuous woman who has had five weddings but at the same time is excessively religiously devout.
The Parson: devout to his occupation, but especially fond of delivering paid masses for the souls of the rich.
The Ploughman: the Parson's brother, hard-working.
The Miller: physically strong and tough, rough also in character. Deceives his customers, loves drinking and telling ribald tales.
The Manciple (i.e. the business agent of a community of lawyers): uneducated but more foxy than most of the lawyers he serves. Money-oriented.
The Reeve (i.e. an estate keeper): money-oriented, stealing from his employer.
The Summoner (i.e. an employee of the ecclesiastical court who summons suspects to the court): corrupted physically by a skin disease and morally by his love for women and drink.
The Pardoner (i.e. the collector of money on behalf of a charity in exchange for the absolving of one's sins): has just come from Rome where he got in possession of some holy souvenirs. Misuses his office for personal gain.
The inn owner suggests to his guests a contest for the best tale. Each pilgrim will tell two tales on their way to Canterbury and two more tales on their way back. The winner will be served a meal paid for by the rest of the company. Their Host will join the group as their guide and judge of the stories. If anyone is to disagree with his judgement, he or she will pay the costs of the journey for the rest of the company. In the morning the pilgrims draw straws and the Knight is to begin with his tale.
- Chaucer's character types continue the tradition discernible throughout medieval literature, esp. in estates satire
<> like estates satire exposes typical examples of corruption at all levels of society
- e.g. the flattering Friar: practices the typical little vanities and larger vices for which such ecclesiastics are conventionally attacked
x unlike estates satire avoids moral judgement, seems even to express admiration of the characters' skills
- uses carefully selected details to give an integrated sketch of the person being described
- the accumulation of detail (facial features, clothes, favourite foods and drink of the characters etc.) is expressive of the characters' social rank x but: also of their moral and spiritual condition
=> collectively, the characters represent the condition of late-medieval society
Form and Content:
A verse satire using the ABAB rhyme: gives the impression of swiftness and easiness. Uses no regular stanza pattern: the stanzas vary in length, usually devotes one stanza to one character. Uses "objective" description in the sense that there is no explicitly expressed criticism of the portrayed vices. Quite the contrary, the narrator always starts with praising his "worthy" characters and only then proceeds to describe their unfavourable aspects.
Some of the characters are described in some detail (the members of the clerical estate), while others are hardly touched upon (the Yeoman, the Clerk). Begins in what seems to be a serious rather than satirical tone (the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman), but starting from the Prioress gets more ironical. The clerical characters are treated especially harshly, the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner and others are described as the very opposite of what their status prescribes them to be.
The General Prologue covers a wide range of vices, but focuses especially on the exploitation of one's professional position (the clergy, the stewards), greediness and sensuousness. Most of the characters share their vices of deception, hypocrisy and pretentiousness. Though formally presented as portraits of individual people, the depicted phenomena remain universal and timeless. The satire applies specifically to the Middle Ages, but would be equally valid in any time, including the present.
AuthorGeoffrey Chaucer. (c. 1343 - 1400).
Full Title"General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales.
ComposedBetween c. 1386 - 1400.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 215-235.
Literature Study Guides. SparkNotes. www.sparknotes.com