ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales I: 
the General Prologue
[page numbers in NA refer to 9th ed., 2012; click HERE to access study guide with pagination from the NA 8th ed., 2006 ]

Background Information

Make sure you have read the general background information NA 13-17 (on the Fourteenth Century), 25 (final paragraph on Chaucerian verse), 238-43 (headnotes to Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales and the General Prologue), 340 (on the close of the Canterbury Tales) and 370-73 (headnote to William Langland, Piers Plowman).  Know the significance of the following titles/names/terms: dream vision, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, the Romance of the Rose, Boethius (esp. his Consolation of Philosophy), Boccaccio (esp. his Decameron), Saint Thomas à Becket, Canterbury Cathedral.  Know dates  for Chaucer's birth and death (NA 238) and for the composition of the Canterbury Tales collection as a whole (NA 241-42).  What was Chaucer's social class? Was his life experience limited by his birth? How did he come by his familiarity with other aspects of 14th-century English society? What factors contributed to his formal and informal education? What languages did he read and how was he likely to have learned them (NA 240)? Know meaning of the term "frame narrative" and what Italian work (author and title) was a model of this genre (if not a source) for Chaucer (see NA 241). Know what is meant by the "fragments" of the Canterbury Tales (NA 242). How many Canterbury Tales were originally planned? How many of the projected tales were actually written? What sort of verse is used for most of the Canterbury Tales (including all of our readings except for Chaucer's Retraction)? What was its metrical form? (know the correct term and be able to define it -- number of syllables and stress pattern -- see NA 25). Know what is meant by Chaucer's "Retraction" (see the headnote entitled "Close of the Canterbury Tales, NA 340, and text, NA 342-3). 

The General Prologue

You are responsible for the WHOLE TEXT in your modern English translation, but also for the following lines in the original Middle English printed in Norton:  lines 1-42 (the opening) and the portraits of the Knight, Squire, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Clerk, Parson, Plowman, and Pardoner, lines 43-100, 118-271, 287-310, 447-478, 479-543, 671-716.  For help on the language, consult one of the linked websites and/or NA 15-19. Be sure to bring BOTH the Norton Anthology (or photocopy of NA pp. 243-63 and 340-343) AND your translation to class! 

We will discuss lines 1-42 as "opening signals" for the Canterbury Tales as a whole; we will then consider the whole General Prologue as an example of "Estates Satire." In order for these discussions to make sense to you, some background information is necessary.

Background Concept I: The Three "Estates"

Priest, Knight and Plowman: The Three
                    EstatesIn feudal times, medieval society was viewed as being made up of three categories of peoples, or "estates" (from the Latin word "status"): the Clergy (those that prayed = the First Estate), the Nobility (those that fought = the Second Estate), and the peasantry (those who produced the food which supported those who fought and prayed = the Third Estate). The second and third estates (Aristocracy and peasantry) are a matter of birth, while the first (the Church) is entered into, willingly or not, by individuals of varying social origin. While the medieval estates are not the exact equivalent of modern social classes, high status within the Church was frequently a matter of birth: no matter how saintly or pious, a peasant (like Caedmon) was unlikely to end up an abbot, a bishop, or a high ranking Church official (like the Venerable Bede). In addition to these broad categories, there were also three specifically feminine estates: virgins, wives and widows. Note that the general (i.e. male) estates are defined by how one makes a living (still thought by many today to be more important for men than for women), while the "female" estates are defined by sexual activity, that is, according to the men with whom the woman does, no longer does, or never did, sleep. The Wife of Bath will represent two out of three of these "feminine estates" (and she will have a lot to say about the Church's emphasis on the third!) 

By the later middle ages, the rigid division of feudal society into these three traditional (male) "estates" has begun to break down. The late fourteenth century -- the time of Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, and William Langland, author of Piers Plowman -- witnesses the rise of a new urban middle class made up of merchants and tradesmen. In addition to this new mercantile class ("mercantile" derives from the word "merchant"), there is also new sub-division of the clergy: intellectuals or men of letters (like the Clerk of the General Prologue), men who have been trained in the Church-controlled disciplines of scholarship and writing, but who will not end up with a career within the Church as monks or priests. Geoffrey Chaucer arguably belonged to both of these new categories.

Chaucer and his contemporary William Langland (see NA 331-3) are both highly conscious of the social divisions known as the "Estates." Both the "Field of Folk" episode from Piers Plowman and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales are examples of "Estates Satire," that is, works which satirize the abuses that occurred within the three (official, male) Estates (in particular, the Clergy).  The Wife of Bath's Prologue argues forcefully that the feminine estates of "wife" and "widow" should be valued as much as that of "virgin."

Background Concept II: Medieval Allegory

DEFINITION: Allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons within a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The allegorical figure exists simultaneously on two levels of meaning -- the literal one (what the figures does in the narrative), and the symbolic level (what the figure stands for, outside the narrative). Thus, allegory evokes a dual interest: in the events, characters and setting presented, and in the ideas they represent or the significance they bear. Allegory may involve the personification of abstract qualities (e.g. Truth, Beauty); of an event (such as Death, personified e.g. in the medieval morality play Everyman); or another sort of abstraction (e.g. Una in Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene = the one True Church). It can be used to represent a historical personage (e.g. Piers Plowman = Christ; Gloriana in The Faerie Queene = Queen Elizabeth) or a category of individual (a Rosebud = a beloved Lady in the Romance of the Rose). Characters, events and setting may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the test is that these materials must represent meanings independent of the action described in the surface story. On the surface, the Romance of the Rose is about a young man who attends a sort of garden party; Piers Plowman about a peasant who guides a group of people looking for a nobleman; Everyman about a man on a walk and the people he meets; Book I of the Faerie Queene about a knight killing a dragon and rescuing a princess. On the allegorical level, however, the first is about a lover's efforts to win his lady, while the other three concern the duties of a Christian and the way to achieve salvation.

Note that use of personification (e.g. a talking animal) is not allegory in and of itself; in an allegory, characters and objects symbolize abstract qualities, and the events recounted convey a coherent message concerning those abstractions. Allegory is frequently, but not always, concerned with matters of great import: life and death; damnation and salvation; social or personal morality and immorality. It can also be used for satiric purposes.

Literary Contexts for the General Prologue: Two Allegorical Dream Visions

Literary Contexts I: Piers Plowman

General:  review NA 10-13 followed by 331-3. Know the following terms: dream vision, allegory, passus, the three "Estates." Know the approximate life span of William Langland; approximate date given in Norton for Piers Plowman. Recall that Piers Plowman was written in alliterative verse; William Langland is the other master poet of the Alliterative Revival besides the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Note that the Pearl Poet, Langland and Chaucer were contemporaries, all working in the late fourteenth century.

Piers Plowman is a dream vision like The Dream of the Rood. To what extent is a dream vision "true"? What is the attitude towards "truth" in Piers Plowman? Of what forms of falsehood is the Dreamer critical? What does the Dreamer have to say about the "truth" of other literary forms? Note his attitude toward story-telling Pilgrims (a prominent feature in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). While the selection we are reading does not contain allegory (see "Background II, above), be aware that the poem as a whole is allegorical (see NA 331-3). (If you are using the 7th ed. of the Norton Anthology, a brief but amusing example is found in the confession of Gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, pp. 323-5; this passage is no longer included in the 8th edition.)

The vision of society in the Field of Folk episode (NA 333-6) is an example of "Estates Satire" (see "Background I," above, as well as NA 218). What sorts of persons are described (social class, profession, age, gender)? What category of people receives pride of place by being described first?  (To which Estate do they belong?) Is this brief description essentially positive or negative?  What sorts of person are treated most negatively in Langland's descriptive comments? Would you consider Piers Plowman to be primarily an anti-ecclesiastical satire? What or who is the focus of Langland's criticism? Keep Langland's Field of Folk in mind as you read Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, another example of Estates Satire. Compare Langland's and Chaucer's Plowmen (PP lines 20-22; GP lines 531-543 and translation) as well as their Pardoners (PP lines 68-82; GP lines 671-716 and translation; for more on Chaucer's Pardoner, read through the Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale in your translation). Look for other characters or types of person that appear in each work and note similarities and/or differences in their portrayal.

Literary Contexts II: The Romance of the Rose, Selections 1

[Readings are on Electronic Reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn; 

The thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose was the most famous and influential dream vision of the Middle Ages. It recounts the dream of a young man who falls in love with and tries to win a Rosebud -- the symbol, at various points, of the beloved woman, of her genitalia, and of her virginity. Read Rose Selections 1, passage 2 (pp. 52-59) for an allegorical account of how the Dreamer sees and falls in love with the Rose. The notion that Cupid's arrows can make you fall in love derives from classical literature (for example, the Latin poets Tibullus, Gallus, Catullus and Ovid mentioned in Rose Selections 1, passage 3, pp. 186-7; more on this passage below). Recall how the Romance of Eneas poet played with this convention, causing Eneas to fall in love with Lavinia after reading the letter which she shoots to him on an arrow.

The first 4000 lines of the Romance of the Rose were written (in French, octosyllabic rhyming couplets) by Guillaume de Lorris in the early 13th century (ca. 1230). While Guillaume may well have considered his poem to be complete, it was picked up and continued in the late 13th century (ca. 1275) by Jean de Meun, whose continuation of over 18,000 lines (also in French, octosyllabic rhyming couplets) dwarfs and totally changes the character of the original poem. While Guillaume's poem is respectful of women and imbued with the spirit of "courtly love," Jean's continuation is highly disrespectful of women -- even misogynistic -- and extremely bawdy at times (we will discuss his account of plucking the Rosebud, found in Rose Selections 3, passage 4 [pp. 346-54], as a context for Christine de Pizan's reactions to the Romance of the Rose). More on these issues later; for now, you should simply be aware that the Romance of the Rose sparked an on-going controversy between the attackers and defenders of womankind (an issue we will return to when we read and discuss the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Christine de Pizan). 

Chaucer knew the Romance of the Rose well, and admired it enough to translate parts of it into English (NA 239). By so doing, he demonstrated that he too was a translatio poet. Interestingly, the midpoint of the conjoined Romance of the Rose poems (the scene that comes halfway through the 22,000 lines of the combined texts; see Rose Selections 1, passage 3 [pp. 186-189]) is literally about translatio. In this scene, the God of Love explains how the classical love poets Tibullus, Gallus, Catullus and Ovid were followed by the French poet Guillaume de Lorris, whose work will itself be followed and completed by Jean de Meun (whom he calls "Jean Chopinel").

Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

I. GP lines 1-42 as Opening Signals

Read carefully the first 42 lines of the General Prologue in middle English, NA 218-9, using the marginal glosses and footnotes to get a flavor of Chaucer's English. You CAN manage this, but OF COURSE you should READ IT FIRST IN YOUR TRANSLATION! Bring BOTH the translation AND your NA (or a photocopy of NA pp. 213-38 and 312-15) with you to class.

If Tristan was the literary "best seller" of the twelfth century, the Romance of the Rose was the "best seller" of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Most educated readers were likely to know it, or at least to know of it. As you read the opening lines of the General Prologue, compare to the opening lines of the French poem (Rose Selections 1, passage 1, pp. 31-32). Note how Chaucer plays with the reader's expectations. EVERYONE knew the opening of the Romance of the Rose and the poetic conventions it invokes. So EVERYONE knew what's supposed to happen in the Springtime. . . when the sap rises, the birds sing, and the flowers bloom, people start to long for LOVE. Chaucer begins his General Prologue with an evocation of April, of birdsong and flowers, and of people who ALSO are in a state of longing. . . and then surprises us with what they're longing for. Note also the reference to the "drought of March" (GP line 2).  Is England a country known for its dry winters? To what else might this line be a reference? (What parts of Europe are notably drier in climate than England? How would a poet like Chaucer know about the climate in, say, Greece or Rome?) In the first lines of the General Prologue, Chaucer does more than establish the ground rules of the pilgrimage. He also evokes the literary traditions of which he is a part. His playful manipulation of conventions drawn from both classical and vernacular poetry in a virtuoso opening sentence that is 18 lines long (!) allows him to STRUT HIS STUFF AS A POET versed in the art of medieval translatio.

II. The General Prologue as a Whole: Estates Satire

The party described by Chaucer have gathered at the Inn in Southwark prior to departing on a pilgrimage to Canterbury (see the map of the pilgrimage route online or on ereserve in PolyLearn). What was the purpose of a medieval pilgrimage?  For what reason was it considered useful to visit a saint's shrine or to touch his/her relics? In what sense is this veneration comparable to medieval veneration for the Virgin Mary? Who is the "holy blisful martyr" (GP 17) and why is he of interest to the pilgrims? In what sense are they travelling to "seek" him? How many pilgrims are there? Are they a homogeneous group? What is the usefulness of this device to Chaucer? (What sort of people went on pilgrimages?) How is this helpful to Chaucer in his ambition to "strut his stuff" as a poet? (Would all of these people be expected to like the same kinds of literature?) 

Pay attention to the individual portraits of the pilgrims. From what walks of life do they come? Note pilgrims who represent each of the three "male" estates (see Background I, above); note also how the "Wife of Bath" represents the "female" estates of "wife" and "widow" while the Prioress presumably represents that of "virgin." Read carefully the portraits of Knight, Parson and Plowman. Of which "estates" are these the idealized portraits? Compare the portrait of the Knight with that of the other aristocrat on the pilgrimage -- his son, the Squire.  While they represent the same Estate, do they both seem to have the same values?  Compare e.g. their respective modes of dress; the list of their accomplishments; the military campaigns in which each has served -- where and for what purposes have they fought?  Also pay attention to the portraits which represent two new classes that were gaining prominence in the fourteenth century:  the urban middle class, and the intellectuals (people trained as "clerks" -- i.e."clerics" -- but not destined to a career within the church). Which pilgrims represent these new classes? As you read through the various portraits, pick out a key word or phrase to describe each pilgrim. Pay attention to physical descriptions (in medieval times, physiognomy was believed to be revealing of character -- see chart on PolyLearn or online information on the four humors). What do the descriptions reveal about the pilgrims' characters? Which figures are painted in a positive or in a negative light? 

Pay particular attention to the satirical portraits of the members of the First Estate, the Church (Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson, Pardoner); to the portraits representing the other two "official" estates (second = the aristocracy = Knight and Squire; third = the peasantry = Plowman); to the "new" estate of Intellectuals (the Clerk or student); and to the Wife of Bath, whose tale we will read. How would you describe each of these figures? What do we learn about their past lives and characters? What seems to be Chaucer's attitude toward the Church? Is he anti-religious? What if anything is satirized? Contrast the portraits of the Wife of Bath and the other woman pilgrim described in the Prologue, the Prioress. Love is mentioned in both portraits. Is the sort of love which interests each the same, or different? How might she define this "love"? Is it appropriate to her station in life? (What sort of love might one expect a Prioress to be concerned with?) Note the Wife of Bath's extensive prior experience (the first word of the Wife of Bath's Prologue) as both a wife/lover (GP 462-4) and as a pilgrim (GP 465-9).  Note the narrator's allusion to her partial deafness (mentioned in passing at GP 448); the story of how she lost her hearing plays a crucial role in her personal Prologue.

What is the role of Chaucer the pilgrim within this group? Is he an objective observer? Pay particular attention to lines GP 727-748 and GP 771-811. How does Chaucer define telling the "truth" in his poem? (The tales of the pilgrims are understood as fiction; what then is "true" about them?) What is the responsibility of the poet with respect to that truth? Is this "truth" similar to that of, say, the Dream of the Rood? How is the role/responsibility of the poet similar or different to that of Caedmon, the Dreamer in Dream of the Rood, or the bard of Beowulf? The Host says that the "best" tale is that which contains "best sentence and most solas" (GP 800) -- which best instructs and most delights us. How does this statement add to our understanding of the "truth" of the tales?

III. Pilgrimage as Metaphor: From the General Prologue to 
the Close of the Canterbury Tales

Consider the metaphorical implications of the Pilgrimage. On one level, it is a useful device for Chaucer because it permits him to assemble a group of very different storytellers who will tell very different types of stories, allowing him to "strut his stuff" as a writer (see Opening Signals, above). But there are strong metaphorical implications as well, best illustrated by the transformation of this theme in the Introduction to the Parson's Tale, the final piece in the Canterbury Tales collection.

Read the editor's note NA 340 on the "Close of the Canterbury Tales" and peruse the text of the Parson's Introduction, NA 340-42.  Know what time of day is evoked at the end of the tales (Parson's Introduction, lines 1-9) and the symbolism associated with that time of day. Consider how the Parson transforms the theme of pilgrimage from its original use in the General Prologue.  Is the goal of this pilgrimage still the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral? (see Parson's Introduction, lines 48-51).  What is the symbolic value of this change in "destination"? Finally, pay attention to the Parson's disparaging comments about both alliterative and rhymed courtly literature (lines 31-47); he evidently shares Bede's skepticism about the value of literature intended purely for entertainment (what the Parson calls "fables" in lines 30-34 recalls Bede's "vain and idle songs," NA 30). Note that while this attitude seems appropriate to Chaucer's Parson, it cannot plausibly be attributed to the Chaucer of the General Prologue, who seems intent upon demonstrating his ability to write a broad variety of the very "fables" that the Parson scorns.

Know what is meant by Chaucer's "Retraction" (see the headnote, NA 340, and text, NA 342-43).  Should we take Chaucer's repudiation of his prior literary production in the Retraction seriously?  Or does the list of works in the Retraction betray a sense of pride analogous to that of Chrétien de Troyes in the Prologue to Cligés?  In that case, could we consider the Retraction to be one last example of the different literary genres included in the Canterbury Tales collection, a final instance of Chaucer "strutting his poetic stuff" (see Opening Signals, above)?  Given that the Parson seems to redefine the Pilgrimage, changing it from a literal journey (from London to Canterbury) to a metaphorical one (from birth to death and beyond), the Parson's Tale, a penitential treatise (in English Prose) teaching the reader how to atone for each of the seven Deadly Sins, could be seen as a particularly appropriate literary genre to read (or write) in the "twilight years" of one's life.  Similarly, Chaucer's Retraction, in which "the makere of this book [taketh] his leve" (NA 342), might represent a particularly appropriate genre for a writer to master as his life draws to an end; it symbolizes Chaucer's recognition that what ultimately matters most is the salvation of one's immortal soul.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Parson's Tale and the Retraction together constitute the final "fragment" of the Canterbury Tales in every manuscript that preserves the full collection (see NA 242).

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2019

Click here for The Wife of Bath Study Questions

Click here for Rose Selections 2 Study Questions (context for the Wife of Bath)

Click here for Rose Selections 3 Study Questions (context for Christine de Pizan)

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