What vision of England does the group of pilgrims in the Prologue suggest?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Poet Laureate John Dryden sees a defining aspect of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in how it contains “the various manners and humoursof the whole English nation in [Chaucer’s] age.”  It is this idea of representation which is communicated about England in the Prologue.  Chaucer's Prologue introduces the characters who will make up this pilgrimage in a realistic and complex manner.  No one is depicted as completely righteous or completely evil.  They are shown to be human beings, filled with elements of good and bad within them.  Chaucer sought to depict his pilgrims as representative of the tenets in English society.  While the Knight represents the highest order of social standing amongst the pilgrims, there are members of the clergy, and also regular "middle class" individuals. Chaucer's realistic depiction of pilgrims, consisting of "the whole English nation," is a deliberate attempt to bring out what he sees as "the real England."  It is in this light where the Prologue seeks to make a statement about the vision that Chaucer sees as consisting of England's identity.  Its basic nature is composed of heterogeneous elements bound by a common goal. 

Chaucer's inclusion of this centrality helps to bring about another statement regarding his view of England society. Chaucer's vision of English society is an overall hopeful one.  The Prologue makes specific mention of how the pilgrimage is to take place in April, and opens with a note of hope that Chaucer identifies with both his pilgrims and the nation they represent: "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour."  The images presented are ones that embrace hope:  April, purifying rains, power, generate, and a shedding of the "drought" preceding it.

Such images are not only hopeful reflections about the pilgrimage, but also about the English society that Chaucer sees.  Chaucer is well aware of the destruction caused in wars with France.  The vision of English society rendered in the Prologue is not a group of people battle scarred and emotionally deadened from decades of war.  Rather, they are shown to be vibrant, and accepting of a pilgrimage towards redemption. They are honorable at heart, and while they might not be the best of people, Chaucer shows them possessing good intentions on the outset of their pilgrimage. Chaucer states that the pilgrims move with a mission that is pure of heart:  "To Caunterbury with ful devout corage." The pilgrims, individuals who hail "from every shire's end" do so in the hopes of paying homage to "The hooly blisful martir for to seke,/ That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke."  This vision of individuals who move with singularity in mission and focus towards a humbling goal to pay respect and homage to something that is collective in scope represents how Chaucer sees English society.  At its outset, the Prologue paints a very optimistic view of English society.

Given how Chaucer wrote the text in English and not in another language represents another view that Chaucer has towards English society.  Chaucer does use the text as a way to make satirical observations, but he does affirm a belief in the goodness within England.  It is for this reason that Chaucer uses English as the language and not Latin. Chaucer seeks to present a view of "the whole English nation," embracing what he sees as reality.

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