General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Chaucer gives us a microcosm of English society in the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. Explain.

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Chaucer's General Prologue does several things: it creates both a natural and human setting for the work; gives a description, one by one, of people, or types, who represent the England of his time; and says this diverse group will pass the time during their stopover by having a contest of narrative skill.

These people, in the freshness of April, are going on a pilgrimage to the burial place of a martyr, Thomas Beckett, who, 200 years earlier, was assassinated by the king's agents. Right away, this tells us something about the English people, before Chaucer gets into their specific kinds of employment and their roles in society. They honor the past and tradition. They are religious, at least outwardly—but admittedly, everyone in Europe was outwardly religious at this time. They also are a people able to establish camaraderie with each other. It's a microcosm of human brotherhood bonded by the Narrator's (and therefore Chaucer's) good-natured, friendly, and conversational tone.

The cross-section of society Chaucer shows us is one that demonstrates diversity of position in the kind of work the people do, but it also shows the extent to which this was a time of transition in thought and activity. The Knight can be said to represent the past. The Miller is an emblem of the working class and (as we eventually will see in his tale) the rougher, more down-to-earth side of life. The Pardoner represents religion, but in a way, the portrayal of him shows the growing awareness among people of hypocrisy in the church establishment. The Merchant is the rising middle class. The Prioress and Parson are what is genuine in religion and not hypocritical. The Wife of Bath represents not only bluntness and honesty but also the rising independence of women and the refutation of gender double standards, even at this early point in modern history.

It's not only a cross-section of jobs and societal roles but a cross-section of ideas and philosophies of life. It is a microcosm of England, Europe, and the world, but also a microcosm of the past, present, and future. Only a few decades earlier, Europe had gone through an apocalyptic upheaval when bubonic plague wiped out nearly half the population. In the aftermath and recovery from this catastrophe, there was almost a paradoxical sense of buoyancy and optimism implicit in people's thinking. It is a microcosm of this universal feeling, as well, that one senses in Chaucer's Prologue and in the Tales altogether.

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It is often said that Chaucer's "Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales provides modern audiences with a glimpse of life during the Middle Ages:

The “General Prologue” re-creates a lively image of Chaucer’s world. 

Another source notes:

...we are indebted to him for the most vivid contemporary description of fourteenth-century England.

The same source points out:

In Chaucer's day it was customary throughout Europe for members of all classes to travel to religious shrines...By using the device of a journey, it was possible to bring together quite naturally...

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persons of varied occupations and diverse social rank, a rarity in medieval society. Thus Chaucer was able to present in his work a cross-section of medieval society...

This collection included the three groups that represented the prevalent social strata of medieval England: feudal, ecclesiastical and urban.

A "microcosm" is...

...anything that is regarded as a world in miniature.

In essence, the world represented in Chaucer's "Prologue" represents a smaller version of the bigger world. When studying the diverse members of the pilgrimage—people who at that time would never associate with each other except when traveling on a religious pilgrimage—Chaucer provides us not only with those found in everyday society, but he is also honest about some of the problems society faced because of these people. He entertains by pointing out typical human foibles of many of these people; though he does not judge, he provides us with information so that we can decide for ourselves that, for instance, most of the clergy (servants of the church) were crooks, rather than servants of the people. Without these kinds of details, we would not be able to see these individuals (and their shortcomings) so clearly. We also find that people in Chaucer's time are very much the same as they are today. 

The clergy most often miss the important details of their calling. Each was supposed to take a vow of poverty and give all they had to the poor: a Christ-like behavior. The only exception is the Parson. The Monk, the Friar, the Nun, and the Pardoner are all interested in their worldly possessions. One owns a fine hunting horse; another has clothes, jewelry and a dog that eats better than the peasants; another sells pardons stolen from Rome and fake holy relics; two of these men (we infer) get women pregnant and then arrange marriages for them. Only the Parson has given all he has to help the poor, weak and afflicted in his parish. This gives a clear picture as to the struggle the Church had to keep its servants honest and faithful.

However, among all those in the story, there are also those to admire: the Knight has just returned from battle. He is extremely thankful for his safe deliverance home; so much so that without removing his armor, he embarks immediately to pay homage to God at the holy shrine at Canterbury.

On the other hand, the doctor is a quack. The Wife of Bath is a good woman, but has buried several husbands and is looking for another: the inference is that she has a healthy libido, and wore all of her dead husbands out.

Chaucer is considered by some to be the father of fiction—and literature—because of his gift to so clearly describe people he met on his travels who came from all walks of life, reflecting the values and behaviors of the whole world at large.

Additional Source:

Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.

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