"The General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales serves two main functions: to offer context for the text to follow and to introduce all of the pilgrims. In fulfilling both of these purposes, Chaucer also inserts subtle criticism of certain characters and satirizes aspects of life in the Middle Ages.
serves two main functions: to offer context for the text to follow and to introduce all of the pilgrims. In fulfilling both of these purposes, Chaucer also inserts subtle criticism of certain characters and satirizes aspects of life in the Middle Ages.
The first purpose is fairly simple: Chaucer introduces the setting and premise of the text. "The Prologue" begins with Chaucer saying it's April, and people like to go on pilgrimages in April. The characters will be traveling to Canterbury, to the holy site of St. Thomas a Becket, to ask for healing. The pilgrims have all gathered at the Tabard Inn the night before the pilgrimage, and the host, who owns the inn, proposes a contest for the journey. He says each character will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, as a form of entertainment and to pass the time as they travel. The best story will be chosen by the host, and the winner will earn a free dinner when they return to the inn, paid for by the other pilgrims.
The second purpose, to introduce the pilgrims, is more interesting and complex. Chaucer describes each person traveling in order of social status, so he begins with the Knight. The Knight and a few other characters are described positively, but most of the characters are either openly or subtly critiqued by the narrator. His main target seems to be those associated with the Catholic Church. The wealthy pilgrims who work for the Church are distracted by material and worldly concerns—the Monk is well-dressed and loves hunting, the Friar looks down on the poor and spends time with wealthy people, and the Prioress imagines herself to be a proper, well-mannered aristocrat. Some of the lower-class characters associated with the Church are outright frauds, like the Pardoner, who cheats his parishioners out of their money by selling pardons and fake relics. The Summoner accepts bribes, when he's supposed to bring people to ecclesiastical court. The only "good" religious figures are the Parson and the Plowman, who are brothers; they are poor but genuine. In the context of "The Prologue," though, they are an anomaly. The descriptions of the pilgrims allow Chaucer to showcase the different facets of medieval life —from nobility to middle-class tradespeople to poor scam artists—but also to satirize medieval society to point out its flaws.