The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

(This is intended to be a very general introduction to Chaucer's Prologue, for those of you who are terrified of the thing!)

Chaucer the poet, writing at the end of the fourteenth century may seem to us a quaint and incomprehensible creature, his world of knights, priests, merchants, rogues and vagabonds an alien and irrelevant one. It may seem difficult, even impossible, to connect with his ideas and it is natural to wonder what relevance they could have for the twenty first century reader. The first time you encounter Chaucer's language, you will probably feel bewildered. It does not look like modern English. It does not have the recognisable structure of what we understand as 'poetry'. 

However, if you persevere and take time to accustom your eye and your mind to the language, then you will come to see the beauty of the content and come, hopefully to appreciate that this man, the father of English poetry as he was named, has much to tell us.

To understand the man, you need to understand the world in which he lived. Chaucer's England was a land of paradox, with old and new in constant contradiction and it was a time which in many ways was very much like our own. From 1380 - 1400, for example, it was freely voiced that all men were created equal. There were times of unrest (the 'Peasants' Revolt' of 1381) when working men protested at unfair employment and demanded their 'rights'. The 'commons' in Parliament became essentially what they still are today - the junction between the government and the people. Learning and the Arts were becoming fashionable and the English language was at last emerging as the principal tongue of the country. On the other hand, it was a time of widespread illiteracy among the poor, a time when the notion of a Bible which could be read in the vernacular by common people was seen as grounds for religious persecution, a time of superstition, Satanic threat, disease and crushing feudal tradition. 

Chaucer the poet lived and worked in a world of contradiction. He was familiar with the world of trade, with the lofty surroundings of the Court, but also with the squalor and desperate uncertainty of the London poor. He knew that the church was corrupt and that powerfully eloquent preachers taught that reform was long overdue. He knew that the Crusades had taught many Christians that that the so-called 'infidels' were often men of great virtue and learning. It seems that he chose not to speak out politically, probably because he was well aware that to do so was to gamble with death. Instead he turned to the Human Comedy, writing of things that are universal and timeless, writing about real people, real concerns, things that are 'drenched in life'.

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's magnificently ambitious portrait of a medieval pilgrimage, celebrates life itself. Set in Springtime, when folk ' goon on pilgrimages', Chaucer, in character as a simple narrator of somewhat limited intellect, joins a fictitious group of people in the Tabard Inn, at Southwark, ready to 'wende' his way to 'Caunterbury...the hooly blisful martyr for to seke.' 

His Prologue introduces the reader to the pilgrims and within the framework of the pilgrimage we are offered a series of sharp and revealing portraits of medieval life, manners, dress and idiosyncrasy. Always gently ambiguous, often sharply ironic, sometimes extremely sympathetic, Chaucer shows his audience the people of the time. In his dual roles of poet and pilgrim, he reveals not only the supremely good in the characters of the Parson, the Plowman, the Clerk and the Knight, but also the hideous baseness of rogues like the Pardoner, or the ludicrous pretension of the vapid Prioress. Never overtly critical, but always subtly ambiguous, Chaucer lets the characters reveal themselves, thereby exempting himself from the need for direct (and potentially dangerous) criticism.

It is possible to read the Prologue as a free standing work, although this was not the way Chaucer intended it to be received by his own audience, but to appreciate the pilgrims, it is better to read their stories, too. (If you are studying the General Prologue, then at least try to get old of a good translation of the Tales themselves and read as many as you can) This way you will better appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the story tellers - their pretensions - their goodness - sometimes their outright wickedness.

Chaucer's pilgrims are representatives of what was known in medieval times as the 'Three Estates'. Simply, this was a three tier social structure made up of those who fought, those who prayed and the commoners. In other words, the knightly class, the Church and the rest! The aristocratic knights protect and defend the realm - the Church protects and defends the spirit and the commoners are protected and defended by the other two!

If you look at the group of people who gather with 'Chaucer the Pilgrim' in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, you can clearly see that he has assembled representatives of all three estates, ready to set out for Canterbury on the springtime 'pilgrimage'. Beginning (quite appropriately) with the Knight and his son, the Squire and going on through Church representatives, through the world of Trade, Medicine and the Law, past the innate goodness of the country parson and his brother the plowman, to administrative types like the Reeve, and the Manciple, on down to rogues and vagabonds like the Summoner and his dubious 'partner', the Pardoner, Chaucer introduces a very wide cross-section of medieval society and paints them 'warts and all' for the reader's delight.

But it is also possible to group and re-group this band of travellers according to various different criteria. Try, for example, grouping Christians and non-Christians. Or people who are dishonest, or those who are honest. Or those who are 'high' in society and those who are 'low'. Or 'tradesmen' versus 'professionals'. You will see very quickly that the rigid order of 'Three Estates' has many interesting and surprising variations. And of course this is exactly true to life, both then and now. People obstinately refuse to 'fit' into defined categories. The Prioress should be a spiritual leader, but her description makes it obvious that she is extremely worldly. Likeable, certainly, but not what you would expect the leader of a religious community to be. The Lawyer likes his fees and is very good at winning cases, the Doctor has a little arrangement with the local apothecary regarding the provision and fees for medicines, the Reeve is on the fiddle and so is the Manciple. 

What, then, does the modern reader make of the Prologue? It is tempting to regard it merely as an interesting, but irrelevant picture of an archaic and largely irrelevant society, rather like looking at a museum exhibit, but to do so is to miss much of what Chaucer has to offer us. Certainly we can see a structure and equally certainly we recognise that Chaucer himself intended it to be an introduction of 'types' to his audience, but we need to ask ourselves whether or not he is saying something important about his own world and also about ours.

Look, for example, at the idea of the pilgrimage itself. The band of travellers set out to go to Canterbury to seek a 'blisful martir', St Thomas Becket, but what are they really searching for? The sensuality of the opening 18 lines certainly does not set a holy mood. On the contrary, the mood could be described as very sensual - very wordly. Springtime is a time of fertility - of growth - as Chaucer plainly infers in the sizzling description of 'Aprille', with its 'vertu'. Nature and animals are stirred to mate, the land stirs to reproduce itself and 'folk...longen to go...........on pilgrimages'. For the Wife of Bath a pilgrimage is a package holiday (she has met several of her five husbands while 'journeying on the way') with a clear indication that travelling is pure pleasure. For the Guildsmen and especially their socially ambitious wives, the pilgrimage is an opportunity to show off. For the Prioress, perhaps, a chance to let the world outside the cloister see how elegantly a 'lady' can behave. The Monk has his fine horse, 'in greet estat' and clothes to match and lower down the procession, a band of opportunists are ready to eat, drink and maybe make a little bit 'on the side' as they travel along the road, by selling indulgences and fake relics.

With the exception of the 'verray parfit' Knight, who is going to Canterbury directly from the ship which has brought him back from active service, to give thanks for a safe return, Chaucer never tells us why any of the pilgrims are on the road. He chooses instead to allow his readers to speculate for themselves. Some critics have suggested that Chaucer uses the framework of a 'real' pilgrimage as a metaphor which mirrors the pilgrimage of life itself. His pilgrims are flawed, ordinary people, travelling towards Canterbury, in search of some kind of 'blis'. Chaucer's audience, largely Christian, would probably make the connection between the characters in the Tales and their own earthly journey. Whether or not a modern audience would (or could) make the same connection, is somewhat debatable, but the idea of a journey of discovery as a metaphor for life is interesting.

Again, if we look at each of the people on the journey, we can see that Chaucer 'approves' of very few and criticises (often obliquely) the majority of his fellow travellers. Look again and you will see that he rarely chooses to condemn any of them, preferring to retain an ambiguous tone - often saying very complimentary things about people who are anything but virtuous. Why does he choose to do this? You need to ask yourself whether or not Chaucer feels that he has no right to criticise what are, after all, very recognisable human characteristics. All he does is point them out and we can supply the unspoken details and, if necessary, link them to 'types' we recognise. (His contemporary audience would do it much faster, but we can do it, too.) In his chosen disguise, as a fellow pilgrim, and one who is not terribly intelligent ( a clever ruse to hide his identity?) Chaucer is able to pretend a rueful acceptance of a good many odd companions. It is as if he stands aside and shows a series of sketches to the audience, one eyebrow raised quizzically, saying "Do you recognise this one?" "And this one?" "A wonderful man, I swear!" but the tone is always wry and the irony is always apparent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the work has held such an enduring appeal to scholars for such a long time. There is something very mischievous about the way Chaucer sees his world and the people in it and of course the types don't change at all.

Of course, there are exceptions and occasionally characters are either given a resounding endorsement (the Parson and his brother the Plowman) or a scathing condemnation the Summoner and his 'partner' the Pardoner). Ask yourself what Chaucer has in mind when he does this and, equally importantly, why he chooses to focus on Christian vice and virtue? Is there, perhaps, a serious intention to suggest that corruption (and reform) of the established Church is something that the medieval world needs to address? Remember that the works of Wycliffe and the Lollard preachers would have been familiar to Chaucer and that perhaps he was trying subtly to make a serious point without compromising himself too much.

It is not possible to cover every aspect of this work in a single essay, but there is one important point to make in conclusion here. There are no 'right' answers, only lots of speculative ones. If you read Chaucer, you will learn about medieval life; about medieval society; about idiosyncrasy, about virtue and about vice. You will meet comic characters, rogues, ambiguous tradesmen, dedicated scholars, people who are corrupt or just plain silly. There are strong characters like the Wife of Bath, who are anything but typical of what we would expect medieval women to be and equally there are committed Christians who try to live their lives the way that Jesus taught. What shines through all of the portraits is the light of truth. Chaucer observed the world and its inhabitants shrewdly and accurately and the most intriguing thing about this work is that the characters he created four hundred years ago are as sharply recognisable now as they were then and just as entertaining for us as they were for the audience of Chaucer's time.

ŠVal Pope May 2002