This is the most basic post on the General Prologue, intended for introducing first year undergrads to the Canterbury Tales.
As we go through it I will mainly be explaining the language and outlining the characters with a brief discussion on the medieval class system (nobility, clergy, laymen) since this is an Estates Satire. Chaucer uses the pilgrimage, a very common concept during the Middle Ages, as a method of bringing together a group of people who would not otherwise interact. Essentially he takes the rather simple concept in the Decameron, adds extra characters, and a twist.
When we get into the character portraits we will look at what is *not* being said, noting that each character is an exaggeration, a caricature, of a specific part of society in order to undoubtedly make a series of comments on not just how people behaved, but more importantly about the unrealistic expectations in place. These expectations, when held under close scrutiny, elucidate that when what is perceived as an ideal, actually happens, the outcome is severely flawed, and highly undesirable.
We start off with the Knight:
He is the epitome of chivalry, a “verray, parfit, gentil knight.” It is immediately apparent that he is artificially created, as his track record would be physically impossible to attain, but his description is genuinely pleasing, and he represents the ideal. It is not until he tells his tale that the flaws within chivalry are exposed, in which Arcite and Palamon, also exemplary figures of knighthood, swear brotherly love to each other until a woman becomes involved, testing their ability to operate within the constraints of courtly love and knightly honor.
They spend their days spiting each other to win her over, culminating in a Colosseum-like death match over her hand in marriage. No one bothers to ask the woman who she wants, and the reader doesn’t even know until she goes to the temple of Diana and begs to be won not by the one who loves her most, but by the one who will cause her the least grief. Unlike the Wife of Bath, she has no experience, and even less authority, and hence nothing to say in the matter. Since both Arcite and Palamon are reputable knights from good families, it would make the most sense to allow Emelye to choose. Yet what becomes apparent is that the code of knighthood is highly stylized, so much so that normal human actions become stifled, and in following the idealized version of chivalry, the knight becomes so consumed with the code as to forfeit personal tastes and emotions- those closest to a man become objectified as either hindrances or aides towards a goal. The entire ordeal turns into a parody of knighthood and chivalry, with Emelye forced to play the damsel in distress (who’s existence is demanded), despite the fact that before either of these two saw her she was happily picking flowers and minding her own business. So even if knighthood, especially the knight here, is not depicted as morally corrupt like some of the other characters we will encounter (although there is quite a discourse on the kind of military/mercenary activities he was actually involved with), the fact is, the ideal is corrupt in multiple other ways, producing a devalued idea.
If the Knight seemed too perfect, the Squire portrays the other parts of knighthood and chivalry that are slightly hinted at in the Knight’s Tale. The squire, a knight in training, plays his part by the book. However his interests are not in line with what is expected of him. From his speech it appears chivalry and knightly duty are solely a means for him to attain fame, love, and fortune, and not a reward onto themselves. In fact, he uses his knightly status to that end, portraying a different kind of corruption within the system.
While this character is never directly touched on, the 17 lines dedicated to his appearance speak volumes. Why is a servant so well dressed? In other words, attention is drawn to the means by which he obtains enough wealth for such an upkeep. Further, Chaucer goes to great length to describe this man’s wardrobe as that of a potential forester and/or woodsman. In medieval times woodsmen were charged with the upkeep of a lord’s lands to protect said lands from poachers. His fine dress and accessories would here imply that he may in fact be poaching and then selling the very wood and animals he is hired to keep safe. Keep this in mind when we get to the Reeve.
First of all, her position in the introduction of the pilgrims is rather telling of itself. Returning to the medieval class system (nobility, clergy, and laymen), Chaucer positions the pilgrims in the General Prologue in accordance to which class they belong. He stars with the closest ones to nobility (Knight and Squire), and includes the Yeoman due to his being in service to the Knight (or Squire – a point that is never fully clarified), and thus would probably be riding along with him. The Prioresse begins the procession of clergy while her description is closer to a member of the aristocracy, with her elegant speech, and the great pains she takes to imitate court manners and behavior. She is simultaneously described as an ideal woman, but not one for a church setting. So if we were to remove her title, and the paraphernalia that goes with it (wimple, rosary, etc), she would seem quite lovely, dainty, and well mannered. Once she is identified as a prioress all of these positive attributes become fodder for judgement, illuminating the ridiculousness of the rules and expectations imposed on the clergy by the church, and society.
There is also the unstated commentary on who becomes a nun, and then a prioress. When we see a nun we do no look beyond the cloak, or consciously acknowledge her past (as is true with most clergy). However it is important to note that no one is born into the clergy. Chaucer draws inspiration from several works, and the idea of describing portraits through words comes from the Romaunt. Just like we will find that the Clerk’s Tale is a retelling of a story in the Decameron, the Prioresse closely resembles a character from the Romaunt – a prostitute. This has numerous implications, but the point here is that before donning a habit it is unknown what she may have been doing, thus absolute expectations of her piety would then seem unreasonable.
The Monk follows the Prioresse’s example of clergy that is more akin to the upper class. To better understand why this was so common at the time it would be helpful to know how the three class system first developed in England; it was devised by the church (not in England), where the clergy still operated in ways remnant of the Caesarian Clergy that was for the most part ruling Rome. High ranking church officials typically came from noble families, and continued to behave that way within their roles in the church. The lower ranking church officials while emulating nobility, were specifically imitating nobility found within their own upper ranks.
When the three class system first began being used it was implied that the clergy, and not the nobility, were the first/highest estate. As the clergy became diluted with nobility and spirituality was on the decline, the estates became inverted to reflect the ways in which society really worked – instead of the nobility striving for piety and salvation (although they all wanted salvation), the clergy was working towards appearing more noble.
Here the monk who skips church to go hunting is not only not condemned, but the narrator actually seems rather in accordance with this type of behavior. Without so much as saying it, the narrator makes the same comment as with the Prioresse: how is it that hunting, an honorable activity among the nobility all of a sudden becomes a source of disapproval for the Monk? Obviously there is something wrong with our expectations of certain titles and/or roles in life. Further, the narrator does not judge because he can’t; all of the nobles and higher clergy members are doing it, so parsing out judgment towards the Monk would seem like nit picking. The narrator’s nonchalance caters to the notion that this is a commonplace occurrence, which consequently then lets the reader judge for themselves.
By now it should be obvious that the clergy thus far is far from pious, and once again we get the narrator describing a corrupt friar without as much as batting a lash at his long list of misdeeds. The Friar, like the ones before, is “worthy,” but of what remains unsaid, with the expectation that the audience would make the connection between a friar who acts in accordance with the rules, and how the rules are then not bent, but misused. He is “licentiat,” meaning licensed to hear confession, after which he takes advantage of those who confessed, followed by a string of other such abuses.
The Merchant appropriately follows the Friar in the same way the Prioresse followed the nobility. However, unlike the Friar who was a business man in every sense, the Merchant is not judged in the same way for his conduct. Why is it appropriate for the Merchant to behave shrewdly in business but not for the Friar? It has more to do with our expectations of them, then their actual behavior, which is arguably in line with human nature. This is not to say that he is not judged for his financial handling, but in a different manner; he is expected to not just make money, but maintain a steady profit, and currently he is in debt. Again, while a poor clergyman is pious, a poor merchant is morally weak. Then he attempts to hide his debt by overcompensating with fine clothes, and even the absolutely naive narrator is picking up on the Merchant’s inefficiency – or better stated, lack of common sense.
The Merchant’s Tale is rather indicative of his inability to grasp reality. On the surface he tells a tale denouncing marriage considering his own where he is married to a rather shrewish woman. However, once the story is dissected it becomes evident that the Merchant’s grasp of how others work is really at fault. Briefly, his tale is about January and his lovely wife May. While it appears January found an amazing wife, both young and beautiful, he is paranoid about her probability of infidelity, and rightfully so, as she is unfaithful every chance she gets. To curtail her behavior he places her on a leash so he may never lose sight of her. Ironically, this is when he actually loses his sight, and relies more and more on the leash to gauge the whereabouts of his wife. Since he is blind, he must rely on her to tell him what she is doing, even while on the leash, and to make matters more ridiculous, she finds a means of engaging in an affair even under these conditions. At one point, during her walk in the garden with her husband, her and her lover climb into a tree in order to be together. Of course this is completely unbelievable, and to further add to this, at this very moment, as May and her lover are in the middle of things, Apollo restores January’s sight. He looks up, and finds his wife in a most compromising position (nevermind that she is in a tree). Without missing a beat, May thanks the Gods for January’s sight, as she claims she had heard that if she were to engage in extramarital sex, in a tree, his sight would be restored. Thus, according to her she was doing it for January’s sake. January then thanks the Gods and thanks May for being such a good wife as to sacrifice herself for his benefit. Again, as with everything else in the Tales, it is important to note what is not being said. Is January that naive? No. Just as May improvised on the spot, he played along. The alternative would be to acknowledge her infidelity, be shamed by it, and in the process shame her, which would mean he would have to renounce her as a wife, and he would have nothing left. Arguably he could use his power, influence and money to obtain another young and pretty wife just as he had obtained May. And chances are she will be just as unfaithful, so basically, why bother? He has what he has, she makes him happy (to whatever extent that may be), and the status quo is maintained. While the Merchant may believe he is telling a tale about a terrible wife and the woes of marriage, the true lesson will be better understood once we look at the Wife’s Prologue.
The Clerk appears out of place between the Merchant and the Man of Law, but nevertheless he belongs to the same social class as these two. He is the embodies the starving student concept, where he spends every penny given to him on books and scholarly materials, to the point where he is in threadbare clothes, and his horse appears to be starving (as well as he). He is the epitome of the scholar, and the commentary here is perhaps several hundred years before its time, but has to do with the detriments of absolute pursuit of knowledge, especially when it is for its own sake. While knowledge and scholarship are good, they are best in combination with some worldly knowledge as well (as the Host will later tell the Clerk). It is unclear what the Clerk from Oxford is studying, but it is clearly knowledge for its own sake, in the most philosophical sense, which will be evinced by his story. In the Clerk’s Tale, Walter attempts to test his wife, Griselde, using reason, while trying her emotions beyond what any feeling person may bear. Yet her patience is her greatest virtue to the end (this is very clearly drawn from Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy, while the tale itself is from the Decameron).
The Man of Law:
Once we get the Man of Law’s introduction it becomes clear why the Clerk was placed right before, with the Merchant before that. The Man of Law contrasts both of these figures. Unlike the Merchant who uses his monetary gain (whatever there may be of it) to become part of the rising middle class, the Man of Law is using his money to buy land, and win favors at court, meaning he is looking to becoming nobility or to assure nobility for his offspring. Further, unlike the Clerk, the Man of Law has used his education and knowledge to raise himself up, become financially stable, and study for a purpose as opposed to simply study for its own sake. The Man of Law is not so much placed within the characters as a satire himself since very little is spoken poorly of him, but rather as a direct comparison to the above characters, and to make their ideals and traits stand out even more.
The Franklin juxtaposes another of the Man of Law’s traits, land ownership. Unlike the Man of Law who looks both at land (material possessions) and knowledge as a means to betterment in every way, the Franklin is a wealthy landowner, and a complete hedonist. The most indicative of this is his meat consumption. While meat was prized during the Middle Ages, it was also a rarity, and his abundance of it, which he enjoys and shares with ever guest, demonstrates his monetary value, along with his other less explicit values of life. While the Man of Law practiced balance, the Franklin’s scale is heavily tipped to one side.
A Haberdassher and a Carpenter, a Webbe, a Dyere, and Tapicer:
These five guildsmen are in the same class as the Merchant, but obviously better off financially than he is. While the praise they receive from the Host for their devotion to material goods is clearly satirical, it is more an unfavorable commentary on the rising middle class of the day.
The Cook, much like his tale, is incomplete. He is a character thrown in to serve a narrative purpose for others. He is the embodiment of the material wealth the five guildsmen possess, and as dubious as the money that pays him. They may have the wealth to pay a personal cook, but in his description here and his later prologue, he is far from a private chef. Money does not breed discernment.
The Shipman is yet another product of the rising middle class, and thus new economy. The merchants and guildsmen of England now require commercial shipmen to export their goods. Yet what has the new economy brought about? The Shipman, while skilled and good at what he does, is more akin to a pirate. As he performs his duties he also steals and commits murder (should the need arise and if he “hadde the hyer hond”). Much like the cook, he is the physical embodiment of the consequences of a rising middle class.
The irony, however, is that Chaucer himself was a part of this class, a writer for several members of the court, but also a businessman on the side. Thus his constant jabs at the very class system to which he belongs is indicative of two things: his tongue in cheek approach to narrative that will become apparent in his Retraction (and which was also rather visible in his previous work, The Book of Good Women), and the fact that, while he may get away with plenty in between the lines, this adds to the evidence that the Canterbury Tales was very much written under patronage, catering to the idiosyncrasies of those who commissioned it.
He is a pirate of a different kind. While he, too, is very good at what he does, his motives for healing are not entirely altruistic. Not only must he charge a fortune for his skills since he “lovede gold in special,” he practiced some questionable behavior with apothecaries, often profiting from prescribing their drugs. Which of course is not at all what can be expected from real doctors, then and now. Even though the Doctor is on a pilgrimage, he does not invest any of his money/gold into a bible, which many interpret to be a commentary against him treating the body at the expense of the soul. However, this can hardly be considered hypocritical. It may be strange that he does not have a bible with him on a holy pilgrimage, but as for his profession, he never pretended to be clergy. He is a physical doctor, concerned with the body, not the soul. In this regard it makes perfect sense that he should be concerned with physical possessions (gold) above anything else.
The Wife of Bath:
She may just be the most interesting character in the Tales with an odd mix of desirable and undesirable traits, both physical and intangible. She is certainly entertaining, and appears to be better suited as a character on Sex and the City rather than a medieval traveler on pilgrimage.
Recall at the beginning this section I wanted to focus not just on caricature aspects of each character, but also on the consequences of idealized expectations, when fulfilled. The Wife is hardly any man’s ideal. Even scholars who don’t see her creation as a misogynistic plot on Chaucer’s part cannot argue that she is anyone’s dream come true. Except that she kind of is. When we meet her she is a fun-loving, lively character. Despite her multiple faults and physical shortcomings she is colorful, and in her way, alluring. What possessed five men to marry her?
As the tales are told we get several portrayals of marriage, many of which focus on what appears to be the ideal union, with the idealized wife, and despite that they miraculously work, they are lacking in many ways. The Wife’s Tale also focuses on marriage where she concludes that what women want is sovereignty. However, it is her person that is of more interest with her apparently no-nonsense stance on unions. After we hear her Prologue, her commentary remains with us as we read the Clerk’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale. The Wife is no Griseld, and while she may align herself more closely with May, she would not stoop to May’s petty trickeries. The idea of January placing a leash on her is laughable at best.
Her tale speaks of female sovereignty, but if we learn from her personal practices that she outlines in her prologue, the biggest lesson to be learned is of mutuality. Her numerous marriages were all trials and errors towards finding a kind of harmony that forgives her complete want of decorum (from the sheer volume of her clothes to the that of her voice).
When we looked at the Merchant’s Tale, the reasoning for January’s acceptance of May’s blatant lie was glossed over in order to better look at it in light of the Wife’s Prologue. January realized the alternatives of not accepting May’s lie, and chose to take it as it is, because, as the Wife states, “he is to greet a nigard that wol werne / A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne; / He shal have never the lasse light, pardee. / Have thou ynough, thee thar nat pleyne thee.” While the Merchant’s January learns this, the Clerk’s Walter does not.
Her introduction in the General Prologue leads to her long harangue in her own prologue. The narrator ends her description outlining her qualifications for speaking about love and marriage, which “she knew per chaunce, / For she coude of that art the olde daunce.” She picks it up from there in her prologue outlining those very qualifications of “experience, though noon auctoritee,” that give her license to “speke of wo that is in marriage.” However, what she describes is not necessarily woe, but rather as she later states “tribulacioun in mariage.” Tribulacioun is typically translated as “suffering” of some kind. However, a closer meaning would be a “trial” or “hardship.” These are not the same thing. Marriage is a process, often difficult, potentially unpleasant at times, and definitely a journey. The Wife’s Prologue outlines this journey as she discusses each husband, and in the process she does not omit the good and/or happiness each union brought her. In fact, as her tirade claims to discuss her terrible husbands, she actually mentions quite a bit of joy she obtained from each one. Her real marriages, unlike all the constructed ones within the Tales, depict the topography of marriage, with the peaks and valleys intact. The result is an arguably insane, yet surprisingly well balanced woman.
The Parson, just like the Man of Law earlier, is here for comparison purposes. As mentioned, it is obvious that that Monk, Friar, and Prioress are not the most pious. They are either fully corrupt, or simply unable to live up to the standards set upon the clergy. The Parson is the epitome of piety and self sacrifice, and a firm practitioner of what he preaches. By comparison, the rest of the clergy on this trip look absolutely decrepit. Chaucer will make an interesting commentary about this through the Parson’s Tale that we will look at later with the Retraction.
What the Parson is for the clergy, the Plowman is for the laymen, especially the Miller and Reeve who are to follow in description right after. The Plowman doesn’t tell a tale, and not much is dedicated to him in terms of description, insinuating that his only importance is to showcase the other characters through comparison. He is low class, but doesn’t mind it, and unlike others is not attempting to better his physical lot in life. He is content to do his work and live a virtuous life. Some believe Chaucer at this point may have read a copy of Piers Plowman which served as an inspiration for this character. Maybe. The figure of the plowman as a virtuous man was not uncommon at that time, and plowmen in general were typically hard working considering the jobs they were expected to do.
The Miller, by himself, is boorish, but following the Plowman he becomes an abhorrent specimen of man. The hard working Plowman makes the Miller’s work ethic appear even worse. And while both use their large physique to perform their respective duties, the Plowman’s job benefits society, whereas the Miller’s tournaments and other physical feats he performs for money, only benefit him.
It is important to mention that the Miller is the character who brings the pilgrims out of town. The Miller, along with the next few characters, are part of a class structure that is entrusted to temporarily take care of other’s possessions, and all of them abuse this privilege. The idea of stewardship is intrinsically tied with Christianity, appropriate for a pilgrimage. Considering the types of stewards present, speaks to the kind of journey the pilgrims will have.
In the same tone that the narrator described the worthy Friar, here he talks about the “gentil Maunciple.” He is the purchaser for a group of well off, well educated men, and the discrepancy between academic knowledge and non academic smarts is once again visible, just as it was between the Clerk and the Man of Law. Except the Man of Law possessed both, while the Manciple has only street smarts to rely on. Nevertheless, he “sette hir aller cappe.” He is entrusted with property, or maintenance of property, and much like the Miller, he skims off the top.
The Reeve is another unsavory character who uses his position to steal from those who entrust him with their property. The joke here is that he steals from his landlord, and then lends him back his own money. When we get to the actual tales it is interesting to note that the Reeve’s appearance is rather reminiscent of the Carpenter in the Miller’s Tale. Coincidentally the Reeve is also a carpenter by profession, aside from his stewardship job. Keeping in mind that at this end of the line of pilgrims we do not have well bred (or seemingly well bred) characters, the Reeve takes offense of the inept Carpenter in the Miller’s Tale and tells one of his own about what befalls a rather stupid Miller, outdoing the Miller’s Tale in accuracy – while the carpenter in the first tale was not terribly sharp, the Reeve is rather cunning, but the Miller as both pilgrim and character in the Reeve’s Tale, is not.
He is as lecherous as he appears, and interestingly the General Prologue ends with him and the Pardoner, the worst of the characters. While the slew of pilgrims are arranged according to class and estate, the fact that they are introduced in descending order is once again telling of the type of pilgrimage this is, with a commentary on the process of pilgrimage, and what it essentially has become – a glorified vacation. The Summoner steals, takes bribes, and uses his (albeit meager) position in the court/church system for personal gain. And much like the Pardoner, does not take what he does seriously.
He takes the idea of using his post within the church for personal gain the furthest of all the characters in this position. His job entitles him to travel the country selling official pardons for sins, or indulgences. He takes advantage of others’ guilt, making them feel even worse for their sins as to sell further pardons. On the side, he also peddles “relics” which appear to be rather suspicious at best. Not only are they so rare that if they were real he should be making a fortune, but the idea of relics at the time was already being questioned, and falling out of popularity. However, he does not need the majority of people believing in his perceived powers of forgiveness and idols of good luck, only a few. This pilgrimage is no different for him than his various stops, and instead of a prologue, he does not introduce himself but rather takes the opportunity to sell his wares, putting on his sing-song voice that convinces each time.
The last two characters to be discussed are the Host and Chaucer the pilgrim, who do not have a set place along with the line of pilgrims. The Host is interwoven throughout the General Prologue and the stories themselves. He is in charge of general merriment, maintaining his position as Host until the end. To better enjoy the trip he suggests the tales, with each pilgrim telling two tales on the way there, and two tales back (which obviously didn’t happen). He is the peace keeper between the pilgrims and one that progresses the tales and pilgrimage forward. While Chaucer the pilgrim is the narrator, in a sense the Host is a facilitator. However, the most important role he plays is that of audience member. Unlike the other pilgrims who may or may not have a vested interest in the tales, the Host has impartial reactions (for the most part). And unlike Chaucer the pilgrim who seems altogether too naive, the Host puts together a much more in depth commentary of each tale. Even though he is usually wrong in his analysis (comically so), presenting us with his opinion on what we read makes us think about it by questioning him, and applying our own take to it. In a sense we engage with the Host more than anyone else on the pilgrimage for this reason – even the most boisterous characters fade from view as the narrative progresses, but the Host is never too far from the forefront of a prologue or tale.
Lastly there is the narrator who is just as present as the Host, and serves in a similar fashion. Chaucer the pilgrim vows to narrate and describe everything exactly as it is, essentially distancing Chaucer the author from the entire work, and giving it a sense of autonomy. The narrator’s observations are naive and childlike, starkly contrasting with the truth, and consequently drawing attention to it.
Little is known about Chaucer the pilgrim physically, a little is said about his profession or personal business, but he tells two tales, more than any other pilgrim, and if these are indicative of his success as a writer, then it is no wonder that he does best transcribing others’ stories rather than creating his own.
As the General Prologue ends we get a sense of each character, and begin the Tales, starting with the Knight’s all the way until the Parson’s (the tales are not told in the order in which the pilgrims were first presented). Though not everyone tells a tale, we get subjects ranging in every genre, with the Host’s preference for comedy definitely guiding a large part of the work. Most of the tales are didactic in that they wish to instruct morally, spiritually, or simply about everyday life (even as they fall very short). As we see when we get to the Merchant’s Tale or the Wife of Bath’s Tale, both indirectly outline the solution for a successful marriage.
Yet what starts as a journey full of fun and games ends with the Parson’s Tale that is not a tale, but a sermon on moral behavior, almost a commentary against everything that had previously been told on the pilgrimage. The Parson’s treatise on morality is directly contrasting all of the tales thus far that were concerned with worldly affairs, petty possessions, or physical relationships. Even the Nun’s Tale cannot be looked at too much as a religious tract (her tale is a common anecdote of her time). Yet this is keeping in line with the characters, as we have met them thus far. They are all flawed, some more than others, and even those who have righteous/pious roles in the community are depicted as corrupt, or if not corrupt, questionable at best. Much like the Parson’s description was placed within the General Prologue as a means of making the other clergy members look worse, his tale achieves the same end for everyone.
In class I will go over the Tale in its entirety, outlining the various points he makes about the seven deadly sins and the three parts of penitence (contrition, confession and satisfaction). Basically, according to the Parson’s Tale, every single pilgrim on the trail, along with the readers who relate to them, is a sinner, headed straight to Hell. In the beginning of this post I argued that the commentary Chaucer as author makes when creating the characters is illustrating what happens when societal expectations are actually lived out. The Parson is the epitome of what a parson should be, and how any moral person *should* behave. His prologue and tale are a result of this, and it appears that what he is preaching is impossible to practice (even though the Parson himself does just that). The Parson is an unrealistic caricature of piety that cannot be reasonably upheld. As we look at a seemingly never ending list of sins and the ways of avoiding them, we realize that that could only work in theory, and even then it sounds most unappealing. The best evidence to link this reading to Chaucer’s intention of commentary is the positioning of the Retraction directly following the Parson’s Tale. The fact that over seventy manuscripts have this as a single unit means that it was created that way, with the cheeky Retraction undoing the message the Parson’s Tale sends out, bringing the audience back to a state of reality where neither the exaggerated world of the other characters, nor the Parson, can feasibly exist. Thus the microcosm of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, of every “degree” and “array,” falls apart when extrapolated into the macrocosm of everyday life. Chaucer the author and the pilgrim outline each character as society sees fit, only to retract. Reality is found somewhere in between.