General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

In his preface to Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) the seventeenth century poet laureate John Dryden commented that The Canterbury Tales offers the reader “God’s plenty,” that here one finds “the various manners and humoursof the whole English nation in [Chaucer’s] age.” The “General Prologue” does indeed portray a cross-section of fourteenth century England’s middle class. Although both Chaucer and his wife belonged to court circles, none of the pilgrims come from the aristocracy, nor are any of them destitute. The picture that Chaucer presents is at least in part painted from life. The Cook who accompanies the five guildsmen bears the name, if not all the traits, of the actual victualer Hodge of Ware. The Merchant may be patterned after Gilbert Mawfield, to whom Chaucer and some of his friends owed money. The Prioress speaks French in the manner of one from Stratford-at-Bow. Near that town was the Benedictine convent of St. Leonard’s. Chaucer’s first audiences may have recognized the model for his worldly nun.

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Realism is not, however, reality. Chaucer made his characters memorable by drawing on literary convention as well as on his own experiences, particularly on estates satire, popular at the time. The late fourteenth century in England witnessed the rise of Lollardism, which attacked clerical corruption. The Prioress of the “General Prologue” shows kindness to animals but not to people. Both the Monk and Friar are lecherous, and the Pardoner is a charlatan who sells pigs’ bones as saints’ relics. The Reeve and Manciple grow rich by cheating their employers; the Miller steals from his customers.

Even though the majority of the pilgrims here are flawed, Chaucer treats almost all of them kindly. The Prioress’s attempt to ape courtly manners has its charm, even its pathos. The Monk appears to have no more real religious vocation that the Prioress, but in the “General Prologue” he seems to be a jolly companion. The Franklin is an epicurean who is perhaps overly concerned with a good meal for himself, but he is also a St. Julian, the patron of hospitality. Most of the failings one sees in the pilgrims are venial rather than mortal. The satire is further tempered by the recognition that corruption is not universal. The Knight embodies the ideals of chivalry. The Clerk (student) of Oxford loves learning. Even if his fellow ecclesiastics do not live up to their vows, the Parson is a model priest, and his brother the Plowman an exemplary layman.

The “General Prologue” re-creates a lively image of Chaucer’s world. If the sinners outnumber the saints, the picture is perhaps the truer for this imbalance and certainly more entertaining. Chaucer here weaves a medieval tapestry with characters as eternally vibrant as they were when they assembled at Southwark on that April evening toward the end of the fourteenth century to begin their immortal journey, on which they are forever embarked.

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