illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The General Prologue Summary

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Last Updated on November 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

April has arrived as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales opens. The showers bring new life into the flowers and fields, and it is the time of year to go on pilgrimages. In England, these are most often journeys to Canterbury. The narrator, Chaucer himself, is preparing to set out and falls in with twenty-nine other pilgrims at the inn who decide to ride together to Canterbury in fellowship.

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Chaucer proceeds to describe the rank, personality, and appearance of each of his fellow pilgrims. The Knight is a worthy man who loves chivalry and has been successful in war yet is far from proud in his appearance and actions. He is brave and courteous. His son, the Squire, accompanies him and is a passionate, fashionable young man but also humble and courteous. He dances, draws, and composes songs.

The Yeoman is a proficient fellow who dresses for his position and knows his job as forester well. The Prioress is devoted to imitating courtly manners, and she dresses elegantly and pays much attention to her little dogs. She travels with a nun and three priests. The Monk is a hunter who cares little for his monastic rule and study but much for good horses and hounds. He wears rich clothing and jewelry and is plump, for he loves to eat.

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A Friar rides with the group, but he is focused more on accumulating payment for his services as a confessor than on saving souls. He loves to sing in taverns and pays much attention to the ladies. He is “the beste beggere in his hous” but wears expensive clothing.

The Merchant is solemn and decked out in clothing fitting for his dignity, but he is actually deeply in debt. The Clerk, on the other hand, is shabby and thin. He is devoted to his books and his studies and must rely on friends to obtain his living. He is a quiet man who enjoys learning and teaching.

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The Man of Law has achieved a high reputation in his profession, but he seems to be much busier than he actually is. He can draw up legal documents and knows the statutes by heart, but his clothing is simple. The Franklin is an older man and an Epicurean, devoted to pleasure and the finer things in life. He enjoys good quality food and drink, and he sets a fine table in his home. He takes pleasure in presiding there as well as in parliament and at court.

Several tradesmen are also among the pilgrims, all dressed according to their guild. The Cook exhibits the skills of his profession, and the Shipman is less than honest, having fought many times (and taken no prisoners) and having ignored illegal activities.

The Physician combines astrology and the humors to diagnose his patients. He is well-versed in the classical medical texts and in the apothecary trade but has studied the Bible “but litel” and has a strong love for gold.

The Wife of Bath dresses in bright colors that match her bright red face. She is a shrewd businesswoman with a strong personality and distinct appearance, and she has been married five times. The Parson provides a contrast with his simplicity and devoted care for his parishioners. He is a loving servant to his flock, guiding them and teaching them by word and example. With the Parson is the Plowman, his brother, also a simple man who will work for nothing out of charity.

The Miller is a large, strong, red-haired fellow who enjoys his drink and gets loud. The Manciple is dishonest in his profession, as is the Reeve, who is a thin man with a knack for cheating his lord by lending the young man’s own possessions back to him at great cost. The Summoner has a blotchy face and a lusty nature, and he is quite a rascal in how he defrauds people. The Pardoner carries around fake relics and collects plenty of money from those he deceives into believing they are real.

Led by the Host, these pilgrims decide to tell stories as they ride to Canterbury. The Host will determine the best tale, and the winner will receive a supper at the expense of the company after their return. All the pilgrims agree to be governed by the Host, and they set out the following day.

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The Knight’s Tale Summary