In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the assembling of a group of pilgrims at the Tabard Inn near London. They plan to journey to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by agents of King Henry II of England in 1170. A pilgrimage to this spot was one of the favorite religious exercises in medieval England, but Chaucer’s work does not deal with an actual pilgrimage. It would have been an impossible feat for about thirty people traveling on horseback to tell a series of tales, mostly in verse. In “The Knight’s Tale,” one character says:
This world nys but a a thurghfare ful of wo,And we been pilgrymes, passinge to and fro,Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.
(This world is but a thoroughfare of woe/ And we be pilgrims passing to and fro/ Death is the end of every worldly sore.) This pilgrimage, then, is a symbol of the life of human beings.
Their host at the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proclaims that he will accompany the pilgrims and judge the effectiveness of the tales. The scope of the completed work, two tales by each pilgrim on the way out, two more on the way back, would have amounted to about 120 tales. Like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and other grandiose literary schemes, the work falls far short of its goal. The pilgrims, in fact, do not reach Canterbury. Chaucer may have run out of time or energy—or he may never have intended to write so many tales. In the symbolic sense, Canterbury represents death, the end of the earthly journey. It is fitting that the pilgrims remain on their pilgrimage of life toward death.
Most of the pilgrims come alive in the descriptions in the “General Prologue.” Several colorful ones are in holy orders or are functionaries of the medieval church. These include priests (at least two, possibly four), two nuns, a monk, a friar, a pardoner who sells papal indulgences, and a summoner who issues summonses to an ecclesiastical court. The majority of these officials hardly live up to their vocational ideal. The Prioress is a rich, extravagant woman, the Friar gives very easy penances to confessors to encourage personal gifts, the Monk spends little time in his cloister, and the Pardoner and Summoner are scoundrels. The Parson, however, performs his duties admirably; he preaches well and, more important, obeys the rules himself. He is patient, diligent, generous, a true shepherd of souls.
Another group of pilgrims contributes tales on the subject of marriage. Of these, the most fascinating, though not the most exemplary, is that of the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands and is now seeking a sixth. Her tale, designed to prove that wives should have sovereignty over their husbands, shocks several of the men and provokes several more marriage tales. The Clerk, a university student who will probably become a cleric, tells of a lord who subjects...
(The entire section is 1262 words.)