General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

In the early months of 1387 Philippa Chaucer lay ill; she would die that summer or early fall. Her husband of twenty years, the courtier and author Geoffrey Chaucer, may have resolved to invoke spiritual aid for Philippa by journeying some sixty miles from their home of Kent to the cathedral at Canterbury, with its shrine to Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 and canonized three years later. By the late fourteenth century it had become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. As the English winter yielded to spring in mid-April, perhaps Chaucer joined other pilgrims “the hooly blisful martir for to seke,/ That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke [sick].”

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A genuine journey may thus underlie the most famous fictional pilgrimage in English literature, the one recounted in The Canterbury Tales. The “General Prologue” sets the scene for this jaunt. The action unfolds in mid-April, a month that inspires both lust and wanderlust. In England both impulses lead people to venture to Becket’s shrine.

The tone of the first sentence of eighteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, which provides the setting, is formal and objective. Like the pilgrimage itself, this stately mood quickly vanishes in the subjective and colloquial. In homely language, though still in rhymed couplets, the narrator explains that he is preparing to embark on a journey to Canterbury. To that end he has lodged for the night at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just outside London’s walls. In the evening he is joined by “nyne and twenty in a compaignye,/ Of sondry folk,” all of whom are also going to Canterbury. If one adds up the ensuing list of travelers, one finds that in fact there are thirty.

Chaucer identifies the pilgrims by their occupations, beginning with the respectable Knight, the Knight’s son the Squire, and the Squire’s Yeoman, and concluding with an unsavory lot consisting of the Reeve (estate manager), Miller, Summoner, Pardoner, Manciple (college purser), and the narrator himself. In quick, bold strokes Chaucer describes most of the twenty-seven men and three women, noting the most revealing features of each. He mentions the Prioress’s golden brooch with its crowned A, the Monk’s gold pin that fastens his hood under his chin, the Merchant’s manner of riding “hye on horse,” the Wife of Bath’s gapped teeth, the Summoner’s baldness.

After everyone has supped, their host, Harry Bailly, who actually owned the Tabard Inn in 1387, proposes that the travelers pass the time by telling stories. The trip to Canterbury from London would require four days, as would the return. Each pilgrim would tell two stories on the way to the shrine and two on the homeward journey. Bailly would accompany the pilgrims, and whoever, in his opinion, told the best tale would receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn at the others’ expense at the end of the expedition.

The next morning the pilgrims and their Host set off. At the “wateryng of Seint Thomas,” a brook at the second milestone on the Kent Road, Bailly instructs the pilgrims to draw lots to determine who will begin the story-telling contest. The Knight wins the right to tell the first story, and so the “General Prologue” ends by neatly segueing into “The Knight’s Tale.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

The “General Prologue” is analogous to a Gothic processional with individual portraits. The roll call of characters accords with the medieval dedication to hierarchy, beginning with the Knight, proceeding through those of middle state, and concluding with the corrupt Summoner and Pardoner. This party of some thirty divides into various smaller groups: the Knight, Squire, and Squire’s Yeoman; the Prioress, Second Nun, and three priests; the Reeve and Miller; and the Summoner and Pardoner. In some instances the figures in the subgroup coexist peacefully. The Squire carves his father’s meat, which the Squire’s Yeoman apparently catches. The Summoner and Pardoner may be lovers. The Miller and Reeve, on the other hand, clearly are antagonists. The Miller leads the procession out of town, while the Reeve brings up the rear. The Miller is as fat as the Reeve is lean. These differences foreshadow a future falling out between the two. Chaucer recognized that he could enhance the interest of his anthology by allowing the narrators to interact with each other, to comment on both tales and tellers. No exchanges occur within the “General Prologue,” but the groupings here anticipate later affinities and antipathies.

The poet Chaucer places the pilgrim Chaucer at the end of the hierarchically arranged catalogue to suggest that the Chaucer within the poem will not be omniscient. He has total recall of what is said, but he never learns all the pilgrims’ names. Further, he is naïve. He imagines that the Physician loves gold because gold is useful in compounding medicines. He calls the Summoner “a gentil harlot [rascal] and a kynde;/ A bettre felawe sholde men noght fynde.” What elicits this seeming praise is the Summoner’s willingness to overlook sexual indiscretions for a small bribe of wine. The pilgrim Chaucer says that both the Monk and Summoner arrange marriages for young women of their acquaintance. He never suggests what the reader infers—that these churchmen have first made the women pregnant.

Indeed, none of the details that the narrator conveys is as innocent as it seems because to the medieval mind all was symbolic. The gap in the teeth of the Wife of Bath connotes lasciviousness. The bagpipe that the Miller plays indicates from its shape that he is gluttonous and lecherous. Chaucer dresses his Knight in cheap English homespun to imply a forthright simplicity. The Knight is so devout that he has not even taken the time to clean his habergeon (short chest armor) before embarking for Canterbury from his latest foreign combat.

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