Summary of The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
- Author: Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400). He is the father of English poetry and grandfather of English novel and first representative poet in the history of English literature. Chaucer wrote this story in his third phase of literary career and this age is called the creative age for Chaucer.
- Prologue: Prologue means introduction of a great book and it is just like a trailer or teaser of a movie nowadays.
- Type: Epic
- Genre: Satire
- Time Setting: 1387 – 1400 that means fourteenth century England.
- Place Setting: Tabard Inn or hotel situated in the southern part of London, the way from London to Cathedral, Canterbury.
- Source of the story: From Italian or Latin poet Boccaccio.
- Number of stories: 24 including 22 verse tales and 2 prose tales; the Parson’s tale and Chaucer own tale of Melibeus. First tale is the Knight’s tale and the last tale is the Parson’s tale.
- The host: Hairy Bally is the host of the Tabard inn who suggests that each pilgrim will tell two stories outward journey and two on the return journey so that the journey to Canterbury becomes interesting. Thus, Chaucer plans that he will write in total 120 stories but it remains unfinished because of sudden death of Geoffrey Chaucer. And it is also decided that the parson who will tell the best story will get a free supper or dinner in the Tabard inn, paid by the pilgrims.
- Range of the characters: Chaucer represents three types of characters such as royalty or nobility, ecclesiastical or the church and the commoners or peasantry which include all classes of people of the 14th century or medieval period. Because of such range of characters or portrait gallery characters, Chaucer is called the first representative poet of English literature.
- Number of characters: 30 characters including Chaucer himself. Basically, Chaucer has introduced each of the pilgrims in The Prologue within 892 lines.
Notes of Masters: Click here
Introduction of the prologue
Chaucer starts his prologue by mentioning by mentioning the season spring or springtime, that is the symbol of increased sexual desire, fertility, and spiritual rebirth, and describing the flowers. Chaucer mentions the springtime since it is the perfect time for being rectified and purified.
Chaucer has introduced his Knight in the prologue by pointing out some characteristics features which are as follows:
- Ideal and chivalric
- Gentle in speech and manner
- Bit out of place in the age of declining chivalry
- Dignified in his rough tunic
- Winner of many battles
Chaucer has introduced the Spuire in the prologue by pointing out some characteristics features which are as follows:
- Son of knight
- young courtly lover
- About 20 years old
- Handsome physique and curly locks
- He can sing, dance, draw, write, jost, compose songs.
- He is characterized by his green dress, horn and talisman image of St. Chistopher
- Sunburnt face
- Close cropped head
- Carrying bows, peacock, feathered arrows, sword, shield and dagger
Prioress (ecclesiastical or religious class)
- Name: Madam Eglentyne
- Well bred
- Possesses many pets
- Tries to imitate courtly manners
- Modeled on the heroine of courtly Romance
- Wears a brooch with the motto: Love conquers All.
Monk (Ecclesiastical or religious class)
- Name: Daun Piers
- Has a healthy appetite for life.
- Dismisses Augustinian ideals of asceticism, renunciation and cloistered learning
- Loves hunting
- Wears foppish clothes
Friar (Ecclesiastical Class)
- Name: Hubert
- His habit of lisping is a sign of lechery
- Plays on the religious beliefs of the people.
- With gifts, trinkets and songs, he seduces women and later finds husbands for them
- Visits the taverns and houses of rich while abandoning sick and poor.
- In debt
- Maintains his financial reputation by boasting about his profits and bargains
- Has a forked beard
- Wears neatly clasped boots
- Conservative clothes and a Flemish Beaver Hat
- University student preparing for a career in the church
- Unworldly and poor scholar
- Has 20 volumes of Aristotle by his bedside
- Relies on the charity of benefactors. Tries to repay them by saying prayers for them
Sergeant of the Law
- One of the king’s legal servants chosen from barristers of 16 years standing
- Won many gifts from his clients
- His legal expertise helped him to unrestricted possession of property.
- Franklin (free man) means a substantial landholder
- Has white beard
- Has been a member of the parliament
- His bread, ales, wine and meat were of excellent quality
- He changed his diet or menu according the seasons of the year
- Culinary artist
- Not exactly likable
- Has a sore on his shin
- The host later accuses him of selling stale, unhygienic, and contaminated food
- Dresses efficiently like the Yeoman
- From Dartmouth
- Although he is the master of the trading ship “Maudeleyne”, he unlawfully attacked other vessels at the sea
Doctor of Physic
- Has good knowledge of Medieval Medicine
- Watched his patient and chose astrological humors most favorable for the treatment
- Used the theory of humors to treat his patients
- Rarely read the bible
- Chaucer emphasizes on the doctor’s love for gold.
Wife of Bath
- Name: Alyson
- Comes from a place called Bath
- Has been married five times
- Widely experienced pilgrim who has been to Jerusalem, Rome and other shrines
- Deaf, teeth set wide apart
- Takes pride in her weaving skill
- Wears a broad hat, protective skirt, shoes of expensive leather
- The wife’s portrait is characterized by Boldness, Frankness and vitality.
Parson (Ecclesiastical Class)
- Good Parish priest
- Poor but learned
- Committed to his pastoral responsibilities
- Holy in thought and work
- His wealth was entirely spiritual
- Never condemned the poor for being unable to pay tax
- Merciful to sinners who were repentant
- Brother of Parson
- Exemplifies the dignity of labor
- Leads his life in perfect charity, unruffled by pleasure and pain, loving god and his neighbors
- Has massive physical strength
- Short shouldered
- Has a fat face with red bushy beard
- His nose has a wart on top
- He is a shameless, quarrelsome, talkative and lecherous person
- He came from inner Temple
- A cheat
- His deceptive powers are ironically described as wisdom
- Perfect competitor of the Miller, especially in matter of devious dealing
- Slender, choleric man with long, thin, calfless legs
- Dishonest and cunning
Summoner (Ecclesiastical Class)
- Has a red, fiery face full of eruptions
- Suffers from a kind of leprosy brought on by his lechery
- Looks lecherous as a sparrow
- Children are afraid of him
- Loves garlic and onions
- Drinks strong wine till everything gets hazy
- Immoral and corrupt
- Arrives freshly from Rome with his collection of so-called relics
- Has yellow hair, a goat’s voice and is beardless
- Carries a pillow which he claims to be “Our Lady’s Veil”, a cross and some pig bones
- Cheats poor parishioners with these relics
The next morning, the host invites the pilgrim to draw lots. The person who draws the shortest cut shall begin the game. The Knight draws the shortest cut and begins the game with pleasure.
Chaucer gives credits to the characters according to the their morality and blames the characters due to their corrupt and destructive nature. So, he is starkly classic from the point of view of art of characterization thought Matthew Arnold in his critical essay “The Study of Poetry” does not recognize Chaucer as classic in poetry.