General Notes on Chaucer and the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales


Bifel that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

GP lI.20-27

In April Geoffrey Chaucer at the Tabard Inn in Southwerk, across the Thames from London, joins a group of pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. He describes almost all of the nine and twenty pilgrims in this company, each of whom practices a different trade (often dishonestly). The Host of the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proposes that he join them as a guide and that each of the pilgrims should tell tales (two on the outward journey, two on the way back); whoever tells the best tale will win a supper, at the other pilgrims’ cost when they return.

The pilgrims agree, and Chaucer warns his readers that he must repeat each tale exactly as he heard it, even though it might contain frank language. The next morning the company sets out, pausing at the Watering of St. Thomas, where all draw straws, and the Knight is thus selected to tell the first tale.

Until Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales he was known primarily as a maker of poems of love—dream visions of the sort exemplified in The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess, narratives of doomed passion, such as Troilus and Criseyde, and stories of women wronged by their lovers that he tells in The Legend of Good Women.

The General Prologue begins with the description of Spring characteristic of dream visions of secular love. Chaucer set the style for such works (for some imitations click here). His first audience, hearing the opening lines of the General Prologue, may well have thought they were about to hear another elegant poem on aristocratic love. Indeed, the opening lines seem to echo the most famous dream vision of the time, Le Roman de la rose, which Chaucer translated into English as The Romaunt of the Rose, one of his first surviving works:

That it was May thus dremed me
In time of love and jollite
That al thyng gynneth waxen gay
For there is neither busk nor hay
In May that it nyl shrouded ben,
And it with new leves wryen. 
These greves eke recoveren grene,
That dry in wynter ben to sen,
And the erthe waxeth proude withal
For swete dewes that on it falle . . .

 And the birds begin to sing:
To make noyse and syngen blythe
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelandre and popinjay
Then yonge folk entended ay

For to ben gay and amorous

 The General prologue begins with the same tone, even some of the same details, but where the audience expects to hear that it is the time for gay and amorous thoughts, they hear instead: Then longen folk to gon on pilgrimages.

The focus changes from secular love to religion, to a pilgrimage, and the texture shifts from the elegant abstractions and allegorical personages to a very real London in the fourteenth century, populated by apparently real people, some of whom—Harry Bailly, the host, and Chaucer himself—were well known to Chaucer’s audience. These characters, we learn, are going to tell one another stories to pass the time on their way along the Road to Canterbury and to the shrine of Thomas á Becket in Canterbury cathedral.

This initiates the “framing narrative,” consisting of the “connecting links” which hold the groups of tales together, as the pilgrims amuse themselves by telling stories “to shorten with our way” (GP I.791).

The idea of writing a collection of stories for a specific fictional audience was not new; it was common in the later Middle Ages. It is worth looking at how some of the other collections of tales begin, since they give some idea of the possibilities of which Chaucer might have availed himself:

John Gower’s Confessio Amantis is a collection of tales, told by Genius, the Priest of Love, for the instruction of an unsuccessful lover (Gower himself). The Book of the Knight of Latour-Landry begins with an explanation of how the Knight wrote the book with its illustrative stories for the instruction of his daughters,

The First Day of Boccacio’s Decameron, which more closely resembles The Canterbury Tales than the works of Gower or the Knight, begins with a chilling description of the Plague (Boccaccio, First Day ), which provides the impetus for the journey in which the tales are told. The Preface defines an audience somewhat different from Chaucer’s, as does the Conclusion, which includes a defense of broad speech and indecorous stories somewhat similar to that which Chaucer offers in the General Prologue.

The Canterbury Tales has many speakers, rather than just one (as in The Confessio Amantis and The Book of the Knight of Latour-Landry), and it differs from Boccaccio’s Decameron, the closest analogue, in that the speakers are not from a single social class (as are Boccaccio’s elegant young Florentines) but are drawn from a broad range of society, from the noble knight to the drunken rascal of a Miller and the impoverished Parson. Choosing a pilgrimage as the vehicle for the tales was a brilliant move—a pilgrimage was the one occasion in medieval life when so wide a range of members of society could plausibly join together on relatively equal terms.

Chaucer’s idea of a Canterbury Pilgrimage is thus very unusual (there is an Italian analogue, the Novelle of Giovanni Sercambi, in which Sercambi tells tales to amuse the pilgrims he leads, but it probably postdates Chaucer; see p. 796 in The Riverside Chaucer). And consequently it cannot easily be assiged to any one literary genre. The somewhat processional nature of the presentation makes it somewhat similar to the “Dance of Death.”

 This is more a genre of art than of literature (it consisted of paintings, with explanatory verses, in which a strict hierarchy is observed: Death comes first to the Pope, then to the Emperour, then to a cardinal, then to a king, and so on down the ladder of social rank. Chaucer explicitly points out that he does not observe the expected decorum:

Also, I prey yow to foryeve it me
Al have I nat set folk in her degree
Here in this tale, as they shold stonde.
My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.

Jill Mann, in one of the best studies we have of The General Prologue, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire; the Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. (Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1973) [PR 1868.P9 M3], shows the influence on Chaucer of “Estates satire,” a censorious survey of society. It is a mode rather than a genre but well worth considering in this matter.

Also one might think about some of the problems raised by the characters in the General Prologue; it is a collection of nonpareils, each a master of his or her trade, but it is also a great gathering of scoundrels. The rascals far outnumber the admirable figures. Chaucer seems to admire them all, without regard to their moral status. That has seemed a problem to many readers; a classic solution is offered by E.T. Donaldson in his article “Chaucer the Pilgrim,” though Donaldson’s solution should be applied with caution.

As time allows, students might want to look at some later imitations of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, in which Lydgate (a much younger contemporary of Chaucer) imagines a homeward journey in which he tells the first tale. The anonymous Prologue to the Tale of Beryn likewise deals with the pilgrims once they have arrived at Canterbury and narrates the Pardoner’s unsuccessful courtship of the barmaid. These works are interesting not only for themselves but for evidence of how Chaucer’s contemporaries (such as Lydgate) and early admirers (such as the author of the Tale of Beryn) interpreted the General Prologue and its characters. Their readings sometimes differ surprisingly from ours.


She hadde passed many a straunge strem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,
In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne.
She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.

(General Prologue, I.464-67).  

Pilgrimages began as exercises in penance, as defined in The Parson’s Tale: Commune penaunce is that preestes enjoynen men communly in certeyn caas, as for to goon peraventure naked in pilgrimages, or barefoot. (ParsT (X.105) Walking barefoot or even riding a horse could be a difficult undertaking, along poorly maintained and dangerous roads. Journeys overseas, to Campostella or Jerusalem, were complicated, difficult, and dangerous.  In the later Middle Ages, conditions of travel improved, but getting from England to Jerusalem (as did the Wife of Bath, a frequenter of pilgrimages) was not easy. Such credit accrued to those who made such journeys that professional pilgrims were soon making the journey, returning with relics, badges, and pilgrim symbols (such as the palm for one who had made the trip to Jerusalem) and often with tall tales of the places they had visited. Chaucer’s House of Rumor (in The House of Fame) charcaterizes pilgrims with “wallets stuffed with lies:

And, Lord, this hous in alle tymes
Was ful of shipmen and pilgrimes,
With scrippes bret-ful of lesinges.

(House of Fame 2121-23)

Langland says much the same in the Prologue to his Piers Plowman.

Pilgrims and palmers · pledged them together 
To seek Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went forth on their way · with many wise tales, 
And had leave to lie · all their life after.
I saw some that said · they had sought saints;
Yet in each tale they told · their tongue turned to lies
More than to tell truth · it seemed by their speech.

 The abuses Langland describes were fairly common; fake pilgrims were suitably punished. For many (including, apparently, most of Chaucer’s pilgrims) a pilgrimage was more a holiday, complete with sightseeing at the shrine; this is the case in the Prologe to The Tale of Beryn where the pilgrims spend much time in acting like tourists and no time in prayer. It is not therefore surprising that moralists of the time, especially the Lollards, strongly objected to pilgrimages. The Lollard William Thorpe’s description of pilgrimages sounds very much like Chaucer’s, complete with bagpipes and bells on the horses:

The General Prologue

The most popular part of the Canterbury Tales is the General Prologue, which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach, claiming that the portraits are indicative of social types, part of a tradition of social satire, “estates satire”, and insisting that they should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in a novel. Yet it is sure that Chaucer’s capacity of human sympathy, like Shakespeare’s, enabled him to go beyond the conventions of his time and create images of individualized human subjects that have been found not merely credible but endearing in every period from his own until now.

It is the General Prologue that serves to establish firmly the framework for the entire story-collection: the pilgrimage that risks being turned into a tale-telling competition. The title “General Prologue” is a modern invention, although a few manuscripts call it prologus. There are very few major textual differences between the various manuscripts. The structure of the General Prologue is a simple one.  After an elaborate introduction in lines 1 - 34, the narrator begins the series of portraits (lines 35 - 719). These are followed by a report of the Host’s suggestion of a tale-telling contest and its acceptance (lines 720 - 821). On the following morning the pilgrims assemble and it is decided that the Knight shall tell the first tale (lines 822 - 858). Nothing indicates when Chaucer began to compose the General Prologue and there are no variations between manuscripts that might suggest that he revised it after making an initial version. It is sometimes felt that the last two portraits, of Pardoner and Summoner, may have been added later but there is no evidence to support this. The portraits do not follow any particular order after the first few pilgrims have been introduced; the Knight who comes first is socially the highest person present (the Host calls him ‘my mayster and my lord’ in line 837).

The Knight is the picture of a professional soldier, come straight from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armour. His travels are remarkably vast; he has fought in Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Turkey against pagans, Moors, and Saracens, killing many. The variety of lords for whom he has fought suggests that he is some kind of mercenary, but it seems that Chaucer may have known people at the English court with similar records. The narrator insists: “He was a verray, parfit, gentil knight,” but some modern readers, ill at ease with idealized warriors, and doubtful about the value of the narrator’s enthusiasms, have questioned this evaluation. His son, the Squire, is by contrast an elegant young man about court, with fashionable clothes and romantic skills of singing and dancing. Their Yeoman is a skilled servant in charge of the knight’s land, his dress is described in detail, but not his character.

The Prioress is one of the most fully described pilgrims, and it is with her that we first notice the narrator’s refusal to judge the value of what he sees. Her portrait is more concerned with how she eats than how she prays. She is rather too kind to animals, while there is no mention of her kindness to people. Finally, she has a costly set of beads around her arm, which should be used for prayer, but end in a brooch inscribed ambiguously Amor vincit omnia (Virgil’s “Love conquers all”). She has a Nun with her, and “three” priests. This is a problem in counting the total number of pilgrims as twenty-nine: the word ‘three’ must have been added later on account of the rhyme, while only one Nun’s Priest is in fact given a Tale and he is not the subject of a portrait here. The Monk continues the series of incongruous church- people; in this description the narrative voice often seems to be echoing the monk’s comments in indirect quotation. He has many horses at home; he does not respect his monastic rule, but goes hunting instead of praying. The narrator expresses surprisingly strong support for the Monk’s chosen style of living. The Friar follows, and by now it seems clear that Chaucer has a special interest in church-people who so confidently live in contradiction with what is expected of them; the narrator, though, gives no sign of feeling any problem, as when he reports that the “worthy” Friar avoided the company of lepers and beggars. By this point the alert reader is alert to the narrator’s too-ready use of ‘worthy’ but critics are still unsure of what Chaucer’s intended strategy was here.

The Merchant is briefly described, and is followed by the Clerk of Oxenford (Oxford) who is as sincere a student as could be wished: poor, skinny like his horse, and book-loving. The Sergeant at Law is an expert lawyer, and with him is the Franklin, a gentleman from the country whose main interest is food: “It snowed in his house of meat and drink.” Then Chaucer adds a brief list of five tradesmen belonging to the same fraternity, dressed in its uniform: a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer and a Tapestry-maker. None of these is described here or given a Tale to tell later. They have brought their Cook with them, he is an expert, his skills are listed, as well as some unexpected personal details. The Shipman who is described next is expert at sailing and at stealing the wine his passengers bring with them; he is also a dangerous character, perhaps a pirate. The Doctor of Physic is praised by the narrator, “He was a verray parfit praktisour,” and there follows a list of the fifteen main masters of medieval medicine; the fact that he, like most doctors in satire, “loved gold in special” is added at the end.

The Wife of Bath is the only woman, beside the Prioress and her companion Nun, on this pilgrimage. Again the narrator is positive: “She was a worthy womman al hir live” and he glides quickly over the five husbands that later figure in such detail in her Prologue, where also we may read how she became deaf. She is a business woman of strong self-importance, and her elaborate dress is a sign of her character as well as her wealth. From her, we pass to the most clearly idealized portrait in the Prologue, the Parson. While the previous churchmen were all interested in things of this world more than in true christianity, the Parson represents the opposite pole. He is accompanied by his equally idealized brother, the Plowman, “a true swinker” (hard-working man) “Living in peace and perfect charity.” If the Parson is the model churchman, the Plowman is the model lay christian, as in Piers Plowman, one who is always ready to help the poor. It is sometimes suggested that the choice of a Plowman shows that Chaucer had read a version of Piers Plowman.

The series then ends with a mixed group of people of whom most are quite terrible: the Miller is a kind of ugly thug without charm. The Manciple is praised as a skillful steward in a household of lawyers; they are clever men but he is cleverest, since he cheats them all, the narrator cheerfully tells us. The Reeve is the manager of a farm, and he too is lining his own pocket. Last we learn of the Summoner and the Pardoner, two grotesque figures on the edge of the church, living by it without being priests; one administers the church courts, the other sells pardons (indulgences). Children are afraid of the Summoner’s face, he is suffering from some kind of skin disease; he is corrupt, as the narrator tells us after naively saying “A better fellow should men not find.” But it is the Pardoner who is really odd, and modern critics have enjoyed discussing just what Chaucer meant by saying: “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare”. With his collection of pigs’ bones in a glass, that he uses as relics of saints to delude simple poor people, he is a monster in every way, and he concludes the list of pilgrims.

The narrator of this Prologue is Chaucer, but this pilgrim Chaucer is not to be too simply identified with the author Chaucer. He explains that in what follows, he is only acting as the faithful reporter of what others have said, without adding or omitting anything; he must not then be blamed for what he reports. Neither must he be blamed if he does not put people in the order of their social rank, “My wit is short, ye may well understand.” This persona continues to profess the utter naivety that we have already noted in his uncritical descriptions of the pilgrims.

It is in this way, too, that we should approach the conclusion of the Prologue. Here the Host of the Tabard Inn (Harry Bailey, a historical figure) decides to go with them and ironically it is he, not Chaucer, who proposes the story-telling contest that gives the framework of the Tales. He will also be the ultimate judge of which is the best: “of best sentence and most solas.” He is, after all, well prepared by his job to know about the tales people tell! One model for the literary competition would seem to be the meetings of people interested in poetry, known in French as puys, with which Chaucer would have been familiar.