Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997. Finch, Casey, trans. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. London: Longman, 1996.
GENERAL PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1390) The opening 18 lines of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales comprise the most famous sentence in medieval literature. Aside from setting forth one of the main themes of the entire collection— secular versus sacred love—these lines also provide temporal and geographic context for the tales to come: In spring, a group of pilgrims are on their way to Can terbury to visit the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket, martyr and miracle worker. Although ostensibly a religious journey, it quickly becomes clear that this eclectic group has more on its mind than saving souls. It is here that Geoffrey Chaucer develops the initial portraits of each pilgrim, providing the basis of their personality and of the rivalries that will later appear within the tales themselves.
The Canterbury Tales is structured as a frame narrative, like the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio and the Confesio Amantis by John Gower. However, the Canterbury Tales provides several unique additions to the frame narrative tradition. Whereas the introductory piece in most frame narratives serves solely as the setup for the subsequent stories, the General Prologue is a unique stand-alone poem. As well, the Prologue and all the tales are deftly interlinked—and meant to be that way. The interaction among the various pilgrims revealed in later tales is often dependent upon the initial relationships set forth in the General Prologue and revealed there by the singular Narrator, himself a pilgrim on the journey. Indeed, some of the Tales are so well suited to their teller that without the character development in the General Prologue, the audience could not appreciate all the story's nuances. The addition of a narrator character is unique to Chaucer, too, and likely has roots in another genre in which Chaucer excelled, the dream-vision tradition. Finally, in his frame narrative, incomplete though it may be, Chaucer offers an example of every major medieval literary genre (e.g., fabliau, hagiography, romance, beast fable, etc.) instead of relying solely on one or two story forms, or even a set of themes such as found in the Decameron.
Unlike many of the tales, the General Prologue has no direct source, though portions of it have analogues. Presumably, it was composed before the majority of the tales, although no exact date can be assigned. It begins in a manner reminiscent of a dream-vision poem, with a springtime setting and a chance encounter. However, instead of an allegorical setting, the Narrator enters a real-life establishment— the Tabard Inn in Southwark—and instead of describing allegorical characters, the Narrator depicts "real" people.
The General Prologue is set up to introduce the "portraits" (descriptions) of the pilgrims through narration, symbolism, and context. They are a "compaignye/ of sundry folk" (l. 24-25) who form a group by chance and circumstance—all of them just happen to be traveling to Canterbury at the same time. Chaucer the Narrator becomes a part of this group—"I was of hir felaweshipe anon" (l. 32)—and undertakes the task of describing the group: "me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun/ to telle yow al the condicioun/ of ech of hem, so as it semed me,/ and whiche they weren, and of what degree" (l. 36-40). Through his eyes, the audience will learn about each pilgrim's circumstances, clothing, and social rank. As well, the connection and clash of literal and symbolic is set up immediately with the idea of pilgrimage, which is both physical and spiritual, a journey of the body and the soul.
The Narrator is the main character of the General Prologue, as he does all the talking except for a few lines at the end by the Host, a character who never tells a tale but interacts in the liminal spaces between them. An outsider, the Narrator seems to be the ideal observer, yet he is naive and so holds a high opinion of many of the pilgrims whom he should not hold in esteem. Most of the portraits end up being satirical, although they are presented in a completely different manner because the Narrator overlooks many, though not all, of the pilgrims' shortcomings. The Narrator is also materialistic. He concentrates on the pilgrims' wealth and status as indicated by their possessions, and openly admires the wealth of the middle-class characters.
Scholars have often noted that there are three basic types of characters in the General Prologue: those merely mentioned (e.g., the three priests and the guildsmen), stereotypes (e.g., the Monk), and full characters (e.g., the Wife of Bath). Having individualized and stereotypical pilgrims is crucial to the success of the General Prologue, as the imagery, whether it works with the moral comment or against it, enhances it. Illusion, often presented by the Narrator, must be seen through to be successful—but it also must be presented without being seen through for this success to be possible.
unlike the tales, the pilgrim portraits appear in an order that would have been expected by medieval soci ety. The Knight serves as a figurehead, coming first, followed by his retinue, small though it may be. The ecclesiastic personages come next, followed by the "middle class" in various degrees. Where the rank becomes less clear, the pilgrims are then grouped in terms of social interaction. For instance, the Summoner and the Pardoner are riding together, and are described together. only some pilgrims are described in terms of their physical appearance, but in these cases, the description is crucial to the character's development. The Pardoner, for example, is rendered more effeminate by his physical appearance, while the Clerk's scholarly arrogance is conveyed effectively through circumstance, not looks.
The collection of portraits therefore begins with the highest ranked pilgrim, the Knight. The Narrator deems him a "worthy man" (l. 43) who loved chivalry and justice and protected Christianity against heathens. The Crusades took him to many foreign places, such as Prussia, Lithuania, Turkey, Spain, and Morocco. The Knight is one of the few ideal pilgrims; he is "a verray, parfit gentil knight" (l. 72)—true, perfect, and noble. The Knight's retinue includes his son, the Squire, and his servant, the Yeoman. Unlike his father, the Squire is the epitome of a courtly lover. He is handsome and well dressed and rides along singing and playing the flute. He is more interested in poetry and love than in war; nevertheless, he is "curteis [. . .] lowely, and servysable" [courteous, humble, and attentive] (l. 99). The Yeoman, a forester dressed in green and carrying a bow, follows the Squire.
The Narrator next turns his attention to the Prioress, whom he describes in terms more applicable to a romance heroine than a nun. Her smile is "symple and coy" (l. 119). Her "nose tretys [well formed], hir eyen greye as glas/ hir mouth ful small, and therto softe and reed" (ll. 152-153). She dresses elegantly, has excellent manners, and is named "madame Eglentyne" (l. 121). The naive Narrator reports details about the Prioress that are seemingly incongruous with a religious life. Instead of having sympathy for poor, suffering humans, for example, she reserves all of her compassion for "a mous/ kaught in a trappe" (ll. 44-45), and while people starve, she feeds her lapdogs white bread and milk. The Prioress clearly belongs to the gentry, as indicated by her name, attire, and education. She speaks French, wears a wimple of fine quality, and carries a rosary made of coral with a gold brooch attached. With the Prioress rides her retinue, including another nun and three priests. Although none of these Pilgrims is described, two of them—the Second Nun and the Nun's Priest—will tell tales.
The Monk rides after the Prioress. He loves to ride and hunt, and avoids prayer and manual labor: "What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood [mad],/ upon a book in a cloystre alwey to poure/ or swynken with his handes, and laboure,/ as Austyn [Augustine] bit? How shal the world be served?" (ll. 184-187). Though the Narrator is clearly impressed by this "manly man" (l. 167), his naive revelations allow the audience to condemn the Monk as a false cleric. A medieval reader would understand that a monk should remain in his cloister, studying and praying, should accept labor cheerfully, should follow the Rule of his order—and most certainly should ask how God (not the world) should be served.
Similarly, the Friar impresses the Narrator. The Friar, who follows the Monk, is "wantowne and merye" (l. 208), well dressed, well spoken, and clearly from the gentry class. According to the Narrator, the Friar is also generous: "he haade maad ful many a marriage/ of yonge wommen at his owne cost" (ll. 212-213), though once again the audience should catch the implication the Narrator seemingly misses—that the Friar has dallied with these women and now must find husbands for them. The Narrator's cheerful admiration of the Friar's popularity belies the cleric's falseness: "ful wel beloved and famulier was he/ with frankeleyns over al in his contree/ and eek with worthy wommen of the toun/ for he hadde power of confessioun" (ll. 215-218). By noting his power of confession, the Narrator inadvertently reveals the nature of the Friar's popularity—he is willing to trade absolution for money or other favors.
The stylish Merchant, who has a forked beard and wears motley and beaver, rides after the Friar. Though praised by the Narrator for his astute business sense, it becomes clear that the Merchant is really a usurer. The Clerk follows, a poor student who is extremely thin and wears threadbare clothing because he spends all of his money on books. Though the narrator believes the
Clerk would willingly teach others, the overall portrait implies he is more concerned with theory than application. Riding alongside these two Pilgrims are the Sergeant of Law (Man of Law) and the Franklin, a wealthy landowner. The Man of Law's portrait is brief, but revealing: "nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas/ and yet he semed bisier than he was" (ll. 321-322). Appearances are deceiving. The Franklin is an older man with a long white beard, renowned for his gourmet appetites. one of the few Pilgrims to be described in terms of the four humors, the narrator notes, "of his com-plexioun he was sangwyn" (l. 323), meaning the Franklin is generally good humored.
Five Guildsmen follow: the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Tapester (tapestry and rug weaver). None is described individually, but all are noted to be wearing opulent clothing and carrying silver knives in clear violation of medieval sumptuary laws. The Guildsmen are accompanied by their Cook, whose culinary skills are highly praised by the Narrator despite the "mormal" ('ulcer,' l. 386) on his shin that drips into his pot.
The Shipman follows. Deemed a "good felawe" (l. 395) by the Narrator, the Shipman—festooned with daggers and drunk on wine—is a violent drunkard. However, he is also a skilled navigator who relies upon the heavens to guide him. The next pilgrim, The Doctor of Phisik (the Physician), also relies upon the stars. The Physician is known for his astrological skills: "wel koude he fortunen the ascendent/ of his ymages for his pacient," (ll. 417-418); however, he is also well versed in classical medical texts, such as Hippocrates and Galen, and excels at interpreting the body's humorial balance.
Following these two pilgrims is the Wife of Bath, the third woman of the group and the only one traveling alone. A weaver, the Wife has her own money and spends it as she pleases. She enjoys going on pilgrimages and has been to the major sites—Rome, Cologne, Boulogne, Jerusalem (three times), and St. James of Compostella in Galicia, Spain. The sense is, however, that she goes on pilgrimages to socialize, not for religious reasons. The Wife is bold, outspoken, forthright, and, above all, passionate. Not only has she been married five times, but also she wears red and is "gat-
tothed" (I. 468)—which, according to physiognomy, indicates a lustful nature. Even the Narrator recognizes her zest for sex, as he observes: "of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,/ for she koude of that art the olde daunce" (ll. 475-476).
The portraits of the two other idealized pilgrims— the Parson and the Plowman—follow. The Parson is the ideal priest—monetarily poor but spiritually rich. He is learned and enjoys teaching. He is patient, kind, and forgiving, a true "noble ensample to his sheep [congregation]" (l. 496). About him, the Narrator proclaims, "A better preest I trowe that nowher noon ys" (l. 524). The Plowman is the Parson's brother. He is not described physically, but it is noted that he is a "trewe swynkere" ("hard worker"; l. 531) and tithes regularly.
Following these two pilgrims, the Narrator lists the remaining group: "ther was also a Reve, and a Millere,/ a Somnour, and a Pardoner also,/ a Maunciple, and myself—ther were namo" (ll. 542-544). The Miller is ugly in nature as well as appearance. He is short and stout with a red beard and big mouth. Most noticeable, however, is the huge wart that grows on the end of his nose, from which grows a bristly patch of hair. He is also a cheat, who holds his side of the scale down with his thumb in order to acquire more wheat for less money. The Manciple (business agent) is also a cheat, which even the Narrator notes: "and yet this Manciple sette hir aller cappe" ("still this Manciple deceived them all"; l. 586). The Reeve follows. He is described as a "sclendre colerik man" (l. 587), with close-cropped hair, and a wiry body. The prevalence of the humor choler indicates a ruthless nature. Like the Miller and Manciple, the Reeve is a cheat: "His lord wel koude he plesen subtilly,/ to yeve and lene hym of his owene good,/ and have a thank, and yet a cote and hood" (l. 610-612). Through lending his lord the man's own goods, previously stolen by the Reeve, the Reeve earns himself additional praise and profit.
The next two Pilgrims, the Summoner and the Pardoner, appear as a pair. The Summoner is loathsome, and his mere appearance scares children. A drunk, he reeks of garlic and onions. His face is fire-red, with scabby brows and a patchy beard, and is covered with pustules. The Summoner is "hot" and "lecherous as a sparwe [sparrow]" (l. 626), and claims to have numerous concubines. He, too, is a cheat, and will release offenders from their ecclesiastical summons for a bribe. Riding with him is a Pardoner, who is equally repugnant in appearance. He has a smooth face, a high voice, and long yellow hair hanging in greasy ringlets. All of these are feminine attributes. According to physiognomy, the Pardoner's eyes, "glarynge [. . .] as an hare" (l. 684) reveal homosexual tendencies. His sexuality is definitely ambiguous, and even the Narrator is forced to concede: "I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare" (l. 691). The relationship between the Summoner and the Pardoner is equally ambiguous. The Pardoner is singing a love song, and the Summoner "bar to hym a stif burdoun" (l. 673)—musically a strong bass accompaniment, but certainly a phrase with strong sexual implications. The Pardoner, like his fellows, is a cheat. He carries with him a bag full of fake relics and a series of false indulgences for which he charges inordinate sums of money.
The Pardoner is the final pilgrim the Narrator describes fully. of himself he says only "my wit is short" (l. 746). After the list of portraits, the Host, "a large man he was with eyen stepe" (l. 753), serves food and becomes enthralled with the company of pilgrims. He impulsively decides to travel with them, and he also proposes a contest: Each Pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey, with the winner earning a meal. The Host, who will serve as judge, sets forth the rules: "and which of yow that bereth hym best of alle—/ that is to seyn, that telleth in this caas/ tales of best sentence and moost solaas—/ shal have a soper at oure aller cost" (ll. 796799). Sentence and solaas—meaning and pleasure— the basis of teaching through entertainment, were prominent in medieval pedagogy.
Comic irony and satire are the two most prevalent literary devices of the General Prologue. Quite often these effects are achieved through the Narrator's hearty agreement with the pilgrims' obviously incorrect perceptions, such as the Monk's casual dismissal of the Rule of St. Augustine. As well, the Narrator often undercuts himself without (apparently) meaning to. For instance, in the Prioress's portrait, he notes: "Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,/after the scole of Stratford at Bowe,/for Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe" (ll. 124-126). Although the Narrator's admiring tone does not change, the additional information he provides reveals that she speaks provincial, not aristocratic, French. Nevertheless, this constant irony is itself undercut somewhat because the Narrator never actually says that the pilgrims are inaccurate in their estimations of themselves. The Prioress, for example, thinks of herself as a fine lady, not a model nun, while the Monk clearly believes himself to be a country gentleman, not a cleric. Thus, the audience can trust the details that the Narrator reports, if not their presentation.
Scholars, particularly Jill Mann, have noted that the General Prologue is related to a neglected medieval genre, the estates satire. This literary genre is a satiric examination of all classes of society—the so-called three estates. As well, such texts tend to concentrate on people's functions within a society as a whole, rather than on individual contributions. As a whole, there is an inordinate amount of time in the General Prologue devoted to "work," that is, dealing with what the pilgrims actually do as opposed to who they are. They tend to be sharply critical of characters that cheat others out of rightfully earned money or goods, such as the Miller and the Pardoner, both of whom are depicted in scathing terms. Estates satires are also typically anticlerical, often presenting religious characters as drains on an otherwise economically functioning society. The Friar's expensive habit of marrying off young women that he has dallied with and the Monk's stable of fine horses both typify this attitude.
Thus, the General Prologue provides a serious moral analysis of an entire society, which is, in turn, an essential setup for the whole tableau of the Canterbury Tales. The major themes, such as the nature of love and friendship, and the role of fortune, are all introduced here. The idea of chance is particularly interesting in this regard. Beginning with line 19, "Bifil that in that seson on a day," the idea of chance permeates the Prologue, as it will the later Tales. Bifil, meaning "it happened," or "it chanced," seems to indicate that the Narrator simply stumbles into this grand opportunity to travel with a motley assortment of pilgrims and record their tales. other references to chance abound, with the pilgrims randomly meeting, the Host impulsively joining the group, the contest springing from nowhere, with even the tale-telling order left to chance (the Pilgrims drew straws). Indeed, the Narrator ends the Prologue with a final tribute to chance: "and shortly for to tellen as it was,/were it by aventure, or sort, or cas" (ll. 843-844)—that is, by chance, luck, or destiny. Despite these great lengths taken to instill a sense of fortune into the Prologue, it is clear that the entire text has gone according to design and has not fallen according to chance.
The General Prologue also introduces the theme of ecclesiastical critique, which will return time and again in the tales. The satiric portraits of the ecclesiastical pilgrims are obvious examples, but more subtle critiques are present as well. For instance, the Physician is highly educated and well read, but "his studie was but litel on the Bible" (l. 438). Similarly, connections to Lollard beliefs have been attributed to the Parson, who resembles a Lollard "poor priest," and the Plowman, who may recall William Langland's Piers Plowman. Several allusions to Lollard beliefs—disparaging the mendicants, stressing the vernacular, and questioning authority, in particular—are found throughout The Canterbury Tales, but more orthodox beliefs (including the idea of pilgrimage) prevail consistently, and scholarly debates continue in this regard.
Finally, the General Prologue is also sometimes referred to as Chaucer's "London work," as it takes place at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, which was just across London Bridge. A number of the pilgrims are either from London (e.g., the Cook) or have clear connections to the city (e.g., the Manciple). Chaucer the Narrator may also be assumed to be a Londoner, as the poet clearly composed his masterpiece upon his return to the city. However, city life and city values do not pervade the work as a whole, and London serves as yet another piece of the frame on which the entire collection rests, which is, ultimately, the function of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
See also frame narrative; "Franklin's Tale, The"; "Man of Law's Tale, The"; "Miller's Tale, The"; "Nun's Priest's Tale, The"; "Pardoner's Tale, The"; "Prioress' Tale, The"; "Reeve's Tale, The"; "Wife of Bath's Tale, The."
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