Brief summary: From “The Canterbury Tales” – The General Prologue (Introduction)

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August 28, 2013 by ArtBlogger

From “The Canterbury Tales”

The General Prologue (Introduction)

-Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400)

About Chaucer and the poem in brief

–          Chaucer is also known as English Homer of Renaissance age and Father of English Poetry.

–          Canterbury Tales is a collection of tales in verse form.

–          Just the general introduction of the pilgrims travelling to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury is described/given in prologue.

–          Chaucer’s original plan for the Canterbury Tales was for 120 tales (each character/pilgrims to tell 4 tales – 2 on the way to Canterbury and 2 on the way back) but only 24 tales are completed.

–          Chaucer himself has played as a character or narrator (one of pilgrims).

–          This poem shows the mirror-like society of 14th century.

–          Prologue consists of every types of people like nobility, clergy (persons termed as priests or ministers of Christian church) and commoners.

–          Poem represents the social and economic condition of his time (14th century England).

–          Narrator describes or balances both vice and virtues of characters.

–          Chaucer as a pilgrim (character) and Chaucer as a narrator (poet)

–          satirical use of irony (unmatched appearance and reality) in the poem

–          Chaucer’s characters (29+narrator himself)

a)      7 pilgrims – nobility

b)      7 pilgrims – clergy (related to church)

c)      15 pilgrims – commoners

–          Themes: The popularity of courtly love; corruption of church

–          Characters’ list:

a)       Knight

b)      squire

c)      Yeoman

d)     Prioress

e)      Second nun

f)       Monk

g)      Friar

h)      Merchant

i)        Clerk

j)        Lawyer

k)      Franklin

l)        Haberdasher

m)    Carpenter

n)      Weaver

o)      Dyer

p)      Tapestry maker

q)      Cook

r)       Shipman

s)       Physician

t)       Wife of Bath

u)      Parson

v)      Plowman

w)    Miller

x)      Manciple

y)      Reeve

z)      Summoner

aa)   Pardoner

bb)  host

cc)   Nun’s priest

dd) Chaucer himself (Narrator)

About the poem in brief:

Action begins at the Tabard Inn, a tavern Southward, near London, where group of pilgrims gather in preparation for their journey to visit the shrine of the famous Saint Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury). Narrator (Chaucer) himself joins them there and becomes one of their companies. People of different levels (class) are going to take part.

The owner of the inn, i.e. Host, makes the proposal for each pilgrim to tell four tales (2 on the way to Canterbury and 2 on the way back) where he himself would be the judge and the best tale (teller) would get a prize of a free dinner at the tavern at journey’s end. Everyone eagerly agreed with the proposal.

Some pilgrims tell stories where a character with another pilgrims’ occupation is humiliated in the course of tale. The Miller, for example, tells a tale about a carpenter whose wife not only commits adultery with a clerk but humiliates him in front of the whole town. The real carpenter (one of the pilgrims) takes it very seriously and proceeds to tell a tale of the miller where he suffers humiliation at the hands of some student. Rivalry occurs between Friar and Summoner too.

Characters with their description:

1) The Knight

worthy man

belongs to high social class

good example of nobility

loves chivalry

worthy, truthful in war

honoured for his worthiness

wise and bold

peacemaking/telling polite romance

2) The Squire (Knight’s son)

lovely and dusty bachelor

curly hair, teenager, pretty boy

moderate height

little time, he’s just begun serving

singing and fluttering, whistling all day

fresh as month of May

wears short gown with long and wide sleeves

can ride horse fairly

composes nice versed songs

loves night tales

doesn’t sleep more than a nightingale

always carves his lord’s (Knight’s) meat

represents youth feminity

3) The Yeoman (Knight’s military servant, former owning his own land)

has no servant

likes to ride

poorly dressed and has green hood

likes archery a lot (dressed in green and decked out with bow and arrow, dagger and sword)

dresses like a workman / has short hair, brown face

has mighty wooden crafted bow in his hand

wears wrist-guard and has a sword, shield, dagger (with sharp point)

wears Christopher medal shining like a silver

poet guesses as if the Yeoman is a forester (officer in charge of protecting forest wild animals).

4) The Nun (prioresse – Mother Superior)

coy (falsely modest, flirtation)

tries to exude grace, manners and sophistication but speaks poor French

upset when mouse dies

feeds dogs roasted flesh and finds food while other people die starving

deceptive,  saterised

tries hard to seem courtly

wears jewelry with “Amor Vincit Omnia” (love conquers all)

instead of carrying rosary beads, carries vanity beads

speaks fairly and elegantly dressed / called Madame Eglantine

doesn’t let even morsel (tiny piece of food) fall from her lip; doesn’t let the fingers dip in the sauce.

nose well-formed, eyes gray as glass, small mouth, soft dread, big forehead

5) The Second Nun (secretary of Nun)

hired by Nun as secretary

also by the priest to tell the rest story

(less described)

6) The Monk

fair and fine one; has many horses; worthy to become Aboot

keeper of cella (a branch of monastery)

doesn’t follow the old rules of Saint Maure and Saint Benet, rather follows the new direction of things

careless of rule; lazy; likes hunting ; tries to be modern man

likes riding; fast as a greyhound and swift as a fowl

bald-headed like glass; fat; bright-eyed

loves to eat roasted fat swan; has a brown horse

uses expensive clothing

highly satirized

hunter, overfed, expensively dressed in fur and gold jewellery

tries to be modern man

rolling eyes (meaning lust for good and women)

7) The Friar

ceremonious man, jovial and merry

knows sociability and fair languages

thinks himself more than a Parish priest

strong and champion / satirized

liscenced to hear confessions; lecherous

wishes to get good donation

doesn’t cry even if he’s hardly grieved

has his tippet always stuck by fall of knives

has lots of pins to give to young wives; doesn’t hesitate to take others’ property; more like master of Pope.

8) The Merchant

has forked beard; highly satirized; worthy man; keeps wits well set

sits on horse in motley cloth; flemish hat and boots

solemn opinions

used to govern trade affairs very nicely with bargains, borrowing and share

appears to be rich but actually is in debt.

knows “now” contemporary fashion

contrast from Knight, who follows traditional dressings

9) The Clerk (Oxford student)

poor; hollow look: can’t find job in church; satirized

borrows money from friends but never pays back

“book smart” but “life dumb”

chooses book over food and clothes

position may get good if his fortune takes a turn

10) The Cook

good at his skills

sore on his leg resembles blancmange

has his kitchen dirty with flies

ulcer on knees

makes thick good soup

is satirized

poisons the food of pilgrims

alleged by Host of regularly selling stale meat pies

11) The Shipman

quintessential bad boy

good at what he does despite his criminal nature

one of the best travelled pilgrims

12) The Physician

learned man

astrologer; relying on stars and planets

loves money and gold a lot; doesn’t read Bible; satirized

reads for financial gain

13) The Wife of Bath

first feminist character

skilled weaver; garishly dressed; wants to attract man

wears scarlet red stockings and supple new shoes

gapped teeth; large hips; heels spurred; deaf

married 5 times and has had many affairs in youth

travels a lot and has been to many pilgrims

pleasant, easygoing, dominating nature

14) The Sergeant of law (lawyer)

speaks well, writes an air-tight contract and knows cause by heart

often appointed by the king as a judge in the court of assizes (sort of supreme court for criminal law)

owns lands freely and clearly (without having loans) because of good financial support

seems busier than he really is

rides only in a homely, multi-coloured coats

finds loopholes in law to deprive heirs of their land


15) The Franklin

wealthy, landowner, member of nobility

takes pleasure in eating, drinking, entertainment; generous

known as “Saint Julian” ironically


16) The Tradesmen (haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, tapestry maker)

{grouped together to represent one thing, i.e. the upward mobile tradesmen gaining lots of power and money at the contemporary time/14th century)

worthy to serve as older men or leaders of city

difficult husband-wife situation because of new ways of making money

17) The Parson

teaches holy things

views himself as a caretaker of Christian souls

performs responsibility seriously

noble, holy minded, poor, devoted, shepherd, serves poor

18) The Plowman

brother of the Parson

holy as his brother; laborious; rides mare; honest worker; good and true

helps poor with love; not satirized; medieval symbol of virtue

used to do the dirtiest job (loading the cart full of dung) but never complains

19) The Miller

huge;  red beard; wide black nostril; gapped mouth; wins wrestling matches

steals corn from customers or charges 3 times the proper fee of it

Miller’s portrait draws medieval negative stereotypes about lower class people.

lustful nature; 224 pounds weight; hates Reeve; satirized

20) The Reeve

has been a carpenter; hot-tempered; long legs

works as the manager of someone’s state or farm

too good in reckoning because of which everyone fears cheating him

financially outsmarting his master

sickly; skinny; diseased-looking

wears cloak as of priest (Friar); hates the Miller; satirized

22) The Summoner

face covered with incurable sores

narrow eyes covered with fierce

bushy eyebrows; hideous face

likes to eat smelly vegetables like onion, garlic and has bad breath

lecherous; dishonest; unethical; drinks a lot

seduces young girls; dependent on bribery; frightens children

disdainful of church’s teachings; satirized

23) The Pardoner

blonde hair; smooth hairless face

good at preaching

sells pardons to make living

goat-like voice

cant’ grow beard; always works


24) Canon and Canon’s Yeoman

cheat people selling gold-like metal

25) The Host


judge of tales

large man; bright, large eyes

asks to play the game of storytelling

accompanies the pilgrims to Canterbury


done by Sudha Aryal


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