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Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is indeed a pageant of medieval English social life. While we do not see much of the very poorest people in English society (who were the majority in Chaucer's time) Chaucer nevertheless introduces the reader to one colorful figure after another, each representing a different social class or position that would have been familiar to many of his readers. There is a old-fashioned, chivalrous knight, a ladylike Prioress, the remarkable Wife of Bath, and a series of clergymen who run the gamut from the gentle, sincere, pious Parson to the unscrupulous Pardoner, Summoner, and Friar. We are also introduced to many commoners, including the coarse Miller, whose tale still holds its ribald humor after centuries. There is also a Merchant, who, along with other upwardly mobile bourgeois characters in the Prologue, is primarily concerned with acquiring wealth. We should of course take the Prologue for what it is, a work of literature, but even if we view the characters as only archetypes, they still provide us with an intriguing peek into medieval society.
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