A few thoughts on the “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
1) The Prologue sets the stage for a multi-layered set of tales. The real-life Chaucer is, of course, the author, but in the Prologue, he introduces a fictional version of himself as narrator:
It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride (Nevill Coghill translation).
This has two effects. First, it personalizes the Tales. After eighteen opening lines of exalted verse, the poet speaks in the first person and afterwards regularly addresses the reader as “you,” establishing an illusion of intimacy between poet and reader, as if we were in the tavern listening to Chaucer-the-Narrator regale us with tales from the road to Canterbury. (On this technique, see Kemp Malone, “Style and Structure in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,” English Literary History 13.1  38-45.)
Second, it destabilizes the narrator’s descriptions of the other characters. Chaucer-the-Pilgrim thinks the Knight is “worthy” (he says so four times); but does Chaucer-the-poet share that opinion? We can be pretty sure the real Chaucer didn’t regard the Friar as a “virtuous” man, but the gullible Pilgrim Chaucer is sincere when he says, “There was nowher no man so virtuous.” Pilgrim Chaucer reports the Friar bore the cost of many marriages, apparently seeing it as evidence of generosity. The poet Chaucer hints at the truth: The Friar pays for marriages to cover the unwanted consequences of his own promiscuity. Given the distance between the two Chaucers, we must always ask, Whose perspective is being presented?
There are two additional layers: The Pilgrims and the characters they create in the stories they tell. If we ask, for instance, what Chaucer-the-poet thinks of the Wife of Bath, what he wants us to take away from the story, the answer needs to pass through several filters: What does the story mean? Given what we know of the Wife of Bath, what does she intend by her story? What, if anything, does Pilgrim Chaucer add to, or subtract from, her tale? The Tales are a source of endless fascination and scholarly debate partly because Chaucer has built multiple perspectives into the collection.
2) The Prologue organizes the nine-and-twenty pilgrims in a social hierarchy. Chaucer begins with the Knight, the most aristocratic member of the company, along with his Squire and Yeoman. Next come high-ranking, semi-noble figures in the church: A prioress with her entourage, a Monk, and the Friar. Then a group of “middle class” townspeople: A merchant, a theology student (called a “clerk”), various members of a guild, a cook, a skipper, and the wife of Bath. Then two brothers, a parson and a plowman, a handful of laborers, and finally two more clergymen, the summoner and the pardon-peddler.
The placement of the clergy is significant. The prioress, monk, and friar are included in the textual “upper class,” just under the Knight and his group. Fittingly, they’re “upwardly mobile” members of the church, their lives and appearance more suited to courts than to cathedrals or cloisters. The prioress speaks dainty French, has exquisite manners, and displays a “zest” for courtliness. She pleats her nun’s wimple “in a seemly way,” replaces her rosary with a “set of beads,” and instead of a crucifix wears a “golden brooch” engraved with what appears to be her personal motto: Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.” The Monk pays little attention to the Rule of Benedict. He spends his days hunting hares, riding his horse, or racing his greyhounds. Fat and personable, he wears furred sleeves and polished boots, and a gold pin keeps his hood in place. The Friar is a gallant, and is more familiar with taverns, innkeepers, and barmaids than with lepers, since “nothing good can come / Of commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers.”
The parson, by contrast, is introduced late in the Prologue. Textually, he’s among commoners, just as he is in life. He’s poor, yet “rich in holy thought and work,” generous with the little he has. A learned man, he’s “truly knew Christ’s gospel and would preach it / Devoutly to parishioners and teach it.” A true shepherd, he stays with the sheep, instead of running off to London to sing masses for the dead or enrolling in a cushy order: “He was a shepherd and no mercenary,” who was “never contemptuous of sinful men, / Never disdainful, never too proud or fine, / But was discreet in teaching and benign.” At this point, the narrator’s judgment surely corresponds to Chaucer’s: “I think there never was a better priest.”
3) Much of the Prologue is social satire, but it’s not corrosive, nihilistic satire, not satire “all the way down.” Satire works well only if the satirist knows virtue as well as vice. And, alongside his rascals, Chaucer provides three (perhaps four) models of social virtue. The Knight is celebrated as a paragon of his class. Though a decorated warrior for Christendom, he
And in his bearing modest as a maid.
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might;
He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.
The studious clerk is (possibly) an exemplar of study, and the parson is a perfect shepherd of souls. The parson’s brother, the plowman, is
an honest worker, good and true,
Living in peace and perfect charity,
And, as the gospel bade him, so did he,
Loving God best with all his heart and mind
And then his neighbour as himself, repined
At no misfortune, slacked for no content,
For steadily about his work he went
To thrash his corn, to dig or to manure
Or make a ditch; and he would help the poor
For love of Christ and never take a penny
If he could help it, and, as prompt as any,
He paid his tithes in full when they were due
On what he owned, and on his earnings too.
Chaucer provides exempla of each of the medieval “three orders,” those who fight, those who pray, and those who work; bellatores, oratores, laboratores.
John Dryden is right about Chaucer: “Here is God’s Plenty.” For all the sharpness of his satire, Chaucer is a man of generous spirit, alternately amused and outraged by his rogues and scoundrels.
4) Bonus track: Colin Wilcockson (in Bloom, ed., Canterbury Tales) gives a structural analysis of the opening thirty-four lines of the Prologue. The first sixteen lines describe the renewal of nature in April. Lines 17-18 describe the pilgrims’ destination - the “hooly blisful martir,” Thomas Becket. The following sixteen lines introduce the whole company as they gather in the Tabard Inn.
Chaucer thus calls attention to the link between the natural renewal of spring and the spiritual renewal of pilgrimage. He alludes to the medieval understanding of the creation story by referring to the “droghte of March” giving way to the life of April, an annual recapitulation of the creation of Adam from the dust, an event that, in the medieval theory, took place in March.
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