ENGL 330 Virtual Quarter / ENGL 330 face-to-face quarter / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales I: 
The General Prologue (GP)
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012; for page numbers in 8th ed., 2006, click HERE]

We will start our unit on the Canterbury Tales by discussing the work as a whole as an example of the Frame Narrative genre and the General Prologue as an independent piece within that collection.  We will consider GP lines 1-42 as "opening signals" for the collection as a whole, and discuss the implications of the ending of  the work (the Introduction to the Parson's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction) for our understanding of Chaucer's poetic ambitions.  Finally, we will consider the General Prologue itself as an example of the genre known as  "Estates Satire" and discuss a number of the Pilgrim Portraits in this light.

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:  GP lines 1-42 (the opening); the portraits of the Knight, Squire, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Clerk, Wife of Bath, Parson, Plowman and Pardoner, GP lines 43-100, 118-271, 287-310, 447-543, 671-716; Chaucer's comments on the "truth" of his fiction (GP lines 717-49); and the set-up for the Tale-Telling Contest (and the frame narrative collection) at GP 771-803.  For help on the language, consult one of the linked websites, the handouts on e-reserve and NA 19-24. Be sure to bring BOTH the Norton Anthology (or photocopy/scan of NA pp. 213-38 and 340-343) AND your translation to class! Please note that in the study guide below, numbers following "GP" refer to LINE NUMBERS in the original Middle English text printed in Norton (not page numbers).
Don't forget to look for references to gentilesse (gentil) and trouthe (trewe) as you read.

General Prologue, lines 1-42: Opening Signals

Read carefully the first 42 lines of the General Prologue in middle English, NA 243-244, 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 243-44) with you to class.

The opening lines of the General Prologue imitate the opening of another work which Chaucer and his audience knew extremely well: the thirteenth-century French Romance of the Rose, an allegorical dream vision about a young man (the dreamer-lover) and his efforts to win a beloved lady (the "Rose") that was the "best seller" of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Most educated readers -- including Chaucer's cultivated court audience -- were familiar with this work, which Chaucer himself had partially translated into English. By imitating the opening of this "best seller," 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, the flowers bloom, and 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! (see GP 12-18). Note also the reference to the "drought of March" (GP 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, playfully manipulating conventions drawn from both classical and vernacular poetry in a virtuoso opening sentence that is 18 lines long (!).  This virtuoso display of poetic knowledge and skill signals that one purpose of the Canterbury Tales collection is to allow Chaucer to STRUT HIS STUFF AS A POET well versed in the medieval art of translatio.

The General Prologue as a Whole: Estates Satire

The party described by Chaucer has gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark prior to departing on a pilgrimage to Canterbury (see the map of the pilgrimage route online or on e-reserve).  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?  (Recall our discussion of Sainte Margarete; see also the unit on Marian devotion.)  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 The Medieval Estates and study guide on Hali Meidhad to review concept of the medieval estates); note also the Wife of Bath representing the "female" estates of "wife" and "widow" while the Prioress presumably represents that of "virgin." Read carefully the portraits of  Parson, Knight, and Plowman. Of which "estates" are these idealized portraits? Other portraits 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 the various portraits, pick out a key word or phrase to describe each pilgrim. Pay attention to the first and last lines of each portrait, and to physical descriptions (in medieval times, physiognomy was believed to be revealing of character -- see chart on e-reserve or website 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 portraits of the various religious figures (Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson, Pardoner); to the portraits representing the other two "official" estates (the aristocrats = Knight and Squire; the peasantry = Plowman); to the "new" estate of Intellectuals (the Clerk, GP 287-310); and to the representatives of the "middle class" whose tales we will read: the Franklin (GP 333-362), the Wife of Bath (GP 447-478) and the Miller (GP 547-568). (Note that the Nun's Priest, whose tale we will also read, lacks a portrait -- he is only mentioned in passing as one of three priests accompanying the Prioress at GP 164.) 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 (GP 118-162). 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 her own 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? (See GP 37-41). Pay particular attention to lines GP 727-48 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 skop (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?

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 headnote on the "Close of the Canterbury Tales" (NA 340) and peruse the text of the Parson's Introduction, NA 340-342.  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 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 to the "Close of the Canterbury Tales," NA 340, and text, NA 342-343).  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 in his literary production? In that case, we might see the Retraction as 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 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, 1999-2007

Click here to review Chaucer's poems "Gentilesse" and "Truth"

Click here for Background to the Canterbury Tales

Click here for more information on The Medieval Estates

Click here for Study Questions for the Knight's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Miller's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Franklin's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Nun's Priest's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

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