General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers
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.

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chris0scott | Student

The importance of The Canterbury Tales can not be overstated: it helped popularize and normalize the use of English in literary works, much as Dante’s Divine Comedy had done for Italian earlier in the century.

Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales uses the literary device of a frame story – in this case a pilgrimage to Canterbury – to introduce the various travelers to the reader. Each of the travelers, simply through Chaucer’s general description, would have been instantly recognizable to his contemporaneous reader as the ideal of a specific type of person in the clearly stratified society of the time; any reader would have been able to classify each pilgrim through Chaucer’s description by socioeconomic status, status of his or her profession, and broad ideal attributes of character, class, and calling.

Chaucer takes time to set the stage – it is a great time for a pilgrimage: the sun is shining, birds are singing, and people are so enamored with the call of nature that they can barely sleep. He succinctly describes the goal of the pilgrimage, who the pilgrims sought, and why they were seeking this particular martyr’s favor:

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke[1].

Chaucer does not select the types of pilgrims – or the stories each tells – randomly. Each type of pilgrim represents a class. The Knight, valiant and true, would have been of a much higher class than the Physician. Medicine during this period was considered a ‘dirty’ trade, much like those who dealt with the dyeing of cloth and those who butchered animals. The Knight, on the other hand, gallant as he was, would have been at the top of the pilgrim food chain.

Chaucer also selected types of pilgrims who could represent various levels of piety and character. The Wife of Bath’s tales were bawdy, reaffirming what Chaucer thought was her less than stellar character, while those who gave up the sins of the flesh and their belongings were considered pious: poverty equaled sanctity.

The General Prologue does not serve as simply an introduction to the pilgrims, but serves to stratify the pilgrims Chaucer wished to describe – types of pilgrims who reflected his time, place, and society.

[1] Pilgrimages as a means of atonement for sin had existed since at least 1096, but a pilgrimage to a martyr who had helped them when they were sick is most likely a reference to the Black Death of 1348 that killed almost two-thirds of Europeans and continued to ravage Europe during the period The Canterbury Tales was written.