The Prologue To The Canterbury Tales
Going through The Prologue To The Canterbury Tales is like visiting a portrait-gallery. In a portrait-gallery we see portraits of a large number of persons on display. These portraits impress us by a variety of dresses, and they impress us also with their vividness. Each portrait creates an impression that a real human being sits or stands before us. This precisely is the impression that the Prologue produces on us. We are greatly struck by the large variety for which the Prologue is remarkable. A large number of human beings, who are both types and individuals, have been delineated by Chaucer, and these human beings possess certain universal qualities also. At the same time, these characters are by no means puppets; they are not wooden figures. On the contrary, they appear before us as living and believable characters.
The vitality and the realistic qualities of the various characters are undeniable. Their apparel too is, in most cases, described and that lends additional realism to the portraits.
First of all there are the Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman, all of whom correspond to certain known forms of human beings in the fourteenth century, but all of whom also have certain distinctive features. The Knight reflects the code of behavior prevalent in those days among the members of this class of society. As for his individual attributes, he is portrayed as humble as a maiden, wearing a doublet of thick cloth. The Squire has distinguished himself in battles as expected, but he can also compose songs, and he can dance and draw and write well. The Yeoman is described as a true forester, but he also wears the Christopher medal.
From those characters who are connected with the mediaeval code of chivalry, we move on to the Prioress, whom, however, we shall consider along with the Wife of Bath. The next character is the hunting monk, who, ignoring the laws of monastic discipline, does not work with his hands or pour over a book in the cloister, and who “loves a fat swan the best of any roast.” Those in truth, were the large majority of the monks of the Priod.
The Monk is also individualised. He wears an intricate pin of wrought gold in the form of a love knot. He’s fat and he’s got a bald head that shines like a glass. His eyes were sharp and rolled in his head. We definitely have the impression that we’re standing face to face with this guy, so vividly he’s been portrayed to us by Chaucer. The sleeves of the monk are trimmed with the finest grey fur. The portrait of the Friar is not less realistic or vivid. This Friar misuses his power to hear confessions and sells absolutions. Like most friars of the time, he’s wearing ornamental knives and pins to send to pretty ladies. He only partners with wealthy people, leaving beggars and lepers at arm’s length. He is capable of extracting some money, however little, even from a destitute widow, and settles disputes of a worldly nature on love-days, receiving substantial fees for his pains. The Friar wears a half-cape of double worsted. After a perusal of this description, we begin to feel that we have really met this man such is Chaucer’s skill in characterization.
Going through the character-sketches of the Lawyer and the Doctor, we find it possible to identify them with certain professional men of our own acquaintance. We have all dealt with lawyers and doctors, and we find Chaucer’s characteristisation of these two men to be most realistic and lifelike. This Lawyer has enriched himself with fraudulent transactions in land, and he always tries to pretend to be busier than he really is. The Doctor allows the apothecaries to send him sub-standard drugs and medicines, so that both he and they can make profits out of the sales. The Doctor specially loves gold, and he has not missed the opportunity to make money during the pestilence. Indeed, these features of the Lawyer and the Doctor are universal and have been valid through the centuries. As for their clothes, the Lawyer wears a motley coat belted with a girdle of silk with small stripes, while the Doctor is clad in blood-red and blue-grey-lined with taffeta and fine silk.
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve may be considered next. The Miller is described as a man of a robust physique, as a ribald joker, as stealing his customer’s corn and over-charging them, as having a thumb of gold, as having a wart on the tip of his nose, and so on. He too is a mixture of typical and individual chacteristics, and a perfectly convincing person. The Manciple is shrewd enough to be able to outwit fifty law-students, while the Reeve goes one step further in the direction of fraud. The Reeve is a very skilful manipulator of accounts and no auditor can find fault with him. He gives and lends to his lord the lord’s own goods in such a way as to make the lord believe that the Reeve had done him a favour. The Reeve has accumulated sufficient private wealth and has built himself a house in a fair part of the countryside. Physically he offers a contrast to the Miller, as his legs are very long and lean while the Miller is a stout fellow. We can easily visualize all these three characters, but the Miller and the Reeve are more vividly drawn than the Manciple.
The Summoner are the Pardoner and memorable figures. The treatment of the Summoner begins with a visual description, but there is more to it than simple visualization. His physical disorders are described in such a way as to suggest inner or spiritual corruption. He has incurable pimples on his face. He is fond of garlic, onions, and strong wine; when drunk, he makes a show of his meager knowledge of Latin; for a quart of wine, he will allow a fellow to keep a mistress for twelve months ; he teaches people not to stand in awe of arch-deacon’s curse because the curse can be rendered ineffectual by paying money; he knows the secrets of the young people of his district; and so on. The Summoner indeed vibrates with life and vitality. The Pardoner is a fitting companion for him. They both join in singing a love-song. The Pardoner has thin hair, and shining eyes like a hare’s. He carries fake pardons and bogus relics in order to make money. But he is able to read out a passage from the Bible or the life-story of a saint eloquently, thus creating an impression of piety in the church. He too is fully alive. Both the Summoner and the Pardoner represent certain well-known types of the Middle Ages, and clearly convey to us the abuses that were prevalent in the church in those days. But both of them have their individual characteristics to mark them off from the others. The Summoner has, besides the pimples, scabby black brows and a shaggy beard, while the Pardoner has a voice tiny as a goat’s and a face without a beard.
There are women too among Chaucer’s pilgrims. The Wife of Bath is an unforgettable character. Like many other members of this band, she is both a type and an individual. She is skilful at clothmaking; she is quite aggressive in claiming her right to go to the collection box before anybody else; she wears scarlet stockings and carries a heavy weight of kerchiefs on her head on a Sunday. But she is somewhat deaf; she has visited many shrines in the past; she has had lovers in her youth, and has married five husbands; she is gap-toothed and has large hips. And she can laugh and joke in company, besides having completed knowledge of “the remedies of love”. It is true that the character of the Wife of Bath is developed further later in The Canterbury Tales, but even the brief sketch of her in the Prologue conveys to us an impression of an energetic, full blooded, highly sociable, and self-assertive woman. The Prioress is easily distinguished from her. In the case of the Prioress, her feminity and womanly charm are emphasized more. The Prioress has sweet features, knows aristocratic manners, is fashionable in her dressd, gets, sentimental over her pet dogs and so on. But alive though she is, she is a shadow beside the Wife of Bath. The wives of the Guildsmen are merely mentioned in the Prologue, but a universal trait of all women is indicated when we are told of these wives’ desire to the socially recognized and respected.
There is a Merchant in this company. He speaks mainly of the increase in his profits and is worried about the sea route beings kept open to ensure the flow of trade on which business depends. He is in debt, but he takes care not to set this secret leak out. The Franklin is a recognizable type also. His chief interest in life is exquisite food and drink and by virtue of this interest, he may be regarded as “Epicurus’s own son”. He is very hospitable and may therefore be called “the Saint Julian of his country” : his bread and his ale are always uniformly good, and a man with a better wine-cellar does not exist. Surely have known such persons in the course of our lives though their number has greatly dwindled and is further dwindling on account of inflation. Nor should we ignore the Cook who has an ulcer on his shin, or the Shipman, the master of the Madelaine, who is certainly. “a good fellow”, being well-experienced in stealing his clients’ wine.
The parson and the Plowman represent, like the Knight and the Squire, some of the finest aspects of human nature. The Parson is benign, patient, and helpful to his parishioners. He sets a noble example to his “flock”. He actually practices what he preaches. He is not in the least mercenary and does not hire out his benefice in order to become a chantry priest in London. Chaucer says about him: “A better preest I trowe ther nowher noon ys”. The Plowman, sketched in a much briefer compass, lives in peace and charity loving God and then his neighbour exactly as himself. These are idealized portraits, but approximations to these ideals to exist in this world.
Thus the variety and range of Chaucer’s characterization is amazing. The poet has chosen characters from different classes of contemporary society and has given them eternal life. We have the impression that we have actually met and known them. We get the feeling that we’ve been calling them and talking to them. We have both pleasant and unpleasant memories of them. The mention of any of them stirs up certain responsive chords in us. Here is God’s plenty, indeed. And Chaucer takes us to a wonderful portrait-gallery without a doubt.
Lines – 43-78
There was a Knight among them, and he was a worthy (or brave) man. From the time that he first began to ride out to take part in military campaigns, he loved chivalry, truth, honour, generosity, and courtesy. He proved his bravery in war in the service of his feudal superior (King Edward III). In order to fight he had ridden very far (in fact, no man had travelled further than he) in both Christian and non-Christian countries, and he had been always honoured for his bravery. He fought at Alexandria when it was captured (by King Peter of Cyprus in 1365). Many times he had taken the head of the table in Prussia as the most honoured person among those of all nations. He had fought in Lithuania and Russia, more than any other Christian of his rank. In Grenada also he had been at the siege of Algezir (near Gibraltar), and had ridden in Benmarin. He had been at Ayas (in Armenia) and at Adalia (in Asia Minor) when these were captured (by Peter of Cyprus). He had been with many noble expeditions on the Great Sea (that is, the eastern portion of the Mediterranean). He had fought in fifteen deadly battles, and he had also fought for the Christian faith at Tramyssene (in Alegeria) three times in the tournaments, and had each time killed his adversary.
This same brave Knight had also once been with the ruler of Palatia to fight against another heathen in Turkey, and he had since then always enjoyed a noble reputation. And even though he was brave, he was wise; and in his behaviour he was as modest as a maiden. He had never uttered any foul words in all his life to any kind of person. He was truly a perfect, gentle Knight. But to tell you of his clothes and equipment, he had fine horses, though he did not wear showy garments. He wore a doublet of coarse cloth which was all soiled by his coat of mail, for he had recently returned from his voyage and was now going to make his pilgrimage (to Canterbury).
Lines – 79-100
With him was his son, a young Squire, who was a lover and a strong aspirant for attaining knighthood. He had curly hair which seemed to have been pressed in a curling iron. I think that he was about twenty years old. In stature, he was a man of average height. He was woderfully agile and possessed great strength. And he had once been in the cavalry in Flanders, in Artois, and in Picardy where he had given a good account of himself, considering the fact that he had been in the army for only a short period yet. (Because of his good record of fighting in the wars) he hoped to win his lady’s favour. His garments were embroidered like a meadow all full of fresh flowers, white and red. He would sing or flute all day. He was as fresh as is the month of May. He wore a short gown with long and wide sleeves. He could sit on his horse well and could ride fairly. He could compose songs and compose them well. He could engage in combat, and also dance, draw, and write well. He loved so hotly that at night-time he slept as little as does a nightingale. He was courteous, humble and useful, and he carved before his father at the table.
Lines – 165-187
There was a Monk, a dominating kind of man, an outrider (whose duty it was to supervise the monastery’s estates), one who loved hunting. the monk had manly qualities, and was competent to be the head of an abbey. He had quite a large number of valuable horses in his stable, and when he rode, people could hear his bridle jingling in a whistling wind as clearly and also as loudly as they could hear the ringing of the chapel bell. There, at the place where this lordly Monk was head of the cell, he disregarded such old things as the rules of monastic discipline established by St. Maurus and St. Benedict because these rules were (in his opinion) out of date and somewhat strict. And he followed the practices introduced by the new order of things. He did not give a plucked hen for that text which tells us that hunters are not holy men or for the text according to which, a monk, when he disobeys the regulations, is like a fish without water, or that such a monk is a monk without a cloister. But such a text he held to be worthless. And I said that this Monk’s opinions were commendable. Why should he study and drive himself mad by always poring over a book in the cloister? Or, why should he work with his hands and toil, as St. Augustine bids? How shall the world be served (either by hard study or by hard labour)?
Lines – 285-308
There was also a Clerk of Oxford, who had studied logic for a long time. He had a horse which was thin like a rake and, I might add, he himself could not be called fat because he always looked hollow-cheeked, and was in addition self-restrained (or sober). His outer cloak was absolutely wornout, because he had not yet been able to obtain the rectorship of any parish church, and because he was not worldly enough to seek a job. He would rather have at his bed’s head twenty books, bound in black and red, of Aristotle and his philosophy than acquire rich garments, or a fiddle, or a gay harp. But, although he was a philosopher, he had hardly any gold in his possession. On the contrary, he spent on books and learning all the money that he might get from his friends, and he devotedly prayed for the welfare of the souls of those who provided him with the resources for his studies. He was most careful and most diligent in the pursuit of his studies. He did not speak even a word more than was necessary, and what little he spoke was spoken in a most appropriate and modest manner. He spoke briefly and animatedly. What he spoke was pregnant with noble thought. His speech was eloquent with moral virtue, and he took pleasure in both learning and teaching.
Lines – 331-360
There was a Franklin in his company. The Franklin’s beard was white like a daisy, and he had a ruddy complexion. He was very fond of taking a sop of wine in the morning. It was always his practice to live a life of pleasure, because he was a great follower of the philosophy of Epicurus who used to recommend a life of luxury and who held the theory that complete pleasure was truly the source of perfect happiness. He was a house-holder, and he kept a grand house. He was as hospitable as Saint Julian himself. The bread and the ale in his house were always uniformly good. A man with a better wine-cellar did not exist. His house was never without meat-pie. There was such a plenty of fish and meat in his house that one would think that food and drink and all conceivable delicious eatables rained there. He varied his meat and his meals according to the changing seasons of the year. He had a large number of fat partridges in the basket in his house, and he cultivated plenty of fish of different kinds in his pond. His cook would have come to grief if he could not make available sauces, pungnent and sharp, and if he did not keep cups and plates ready for the table. The diner-table in his house was fixed to the floor of the hall and was thus always ready for use throughout the day. At court sessions he was a lord and a benefactor, and often he was the representative of his county in Parliament. A dagger and a silk bag hung at his girdle which was white in colour like morning milk. He had been a sheriff and an auditor. There was nowhere such a worthy servant of the King.
Lines – 379-387
They had a Cook with them for the occassion (that is, to accompany them on the journey) in order to boil the chickens with the marrow bones, and to prepare sharp-tasting spices and flavours. This Cook could well appreciate a drink of the famous London ale. He could roast and boil and broil and fry, and make a stew, and properly bake a pie. But it was a great pity, as I thought, that on the lower part of his leg he had an ulcer. As for spiced chicken, he was such an expert in preparing it that he could equal the performance of the best of cooks.
Lines – 445-476
There was a god house-wife who came from a place close to Bath. But it was a pity that she was somewhat deaf. She was such an expert in weaving cloth that she excelled the workmen of the Flemish town of Ypres and Gaunt. In the whole parish, there was no woman who dared to go to the collection-box in the church before this Wife of Bath. And if any woman preceded the Wife of Bath on such an occasion, she certainly became so angry that she lost all pity or consideration. Her kerchiefs were finely woven. I am absolutely certain, and I can therefore affirm on oath, that the kerchiefs she wore on her head on a Sunday must have been ten pounds in weight. The colour of her stockings was a fine scarlet red, and they were tightly tied. Her shoes were very soft and new. Her face was bold and fair, red in complexion. She was a worthy woman throughout her life. She had married five husbands at the church door, besides other lovers she had in her youth: but there is no need to discuss that now. And thrice she had been to Jerusalem. She had crossed many oceans to go to foreign lands. She had been to Rome, to Boulogne, to the shrine of St. James in Galicia, to Cologne. She had a lot of experience of travelling. She was gap-toothed, to tell the truth. She sat upon an ambling horse with ease, neatly veiled. On her head she had a hat which was as wide as a buckler or a shield. About her large hips she wore an outer skirt, and on her feet she wore a pair of sharp spurs. In company she could laugh and joke a good deal. Undoubtedly she knew the remedies of love, because she had learnt this art as it existed in olden times.
Lines – 623-636
There was a Summoner with us in that place. His face was red like fire, as an angel’s face is, and he had pimles all over his face. He had narrow eyes, and he was a passionate fellow, constantly desiring sexual indulgence like a sparrow. He had black brows, which were infected with mange (or itch), and he had a shaggy beard. Children felt afraid on seeing his face. There was no quicksilver, lead oxide, brimstone, borax, white lead, cream of tartar, or any cleaning and disinfectant ointment that could cure him of his white pimples or of the lumps of flesh in his cheeks. He was very fond of garlic, onions, and also leeks. He loved to drink strong wine, red-coloured like blood. After drinking he would talk and shout as if he had gone mad.
Lines – 669-679
With him there rode a gentle Pardoner (that is, a trafficker in papal) pardons or indulgences). The Pardoner, who was the Summoner’s friend and comrade, belonged to Rouncival (a convent near Charing Cross in London). He had come, according to his own version, directly from the Pope’s court at Rome. In a very loud voice he sang the song: “Come hither, Love, to me!: The Summoner joined him in singing this song with his strong, deep-sounding voice. Never was there a trumpet, the sound of which was even half as loud as the singing of the Summoner. The Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax, but it hung smooth as does a coil of flax. The few locks he had, hung down thinly and covered his shoulders. But his locks were very thin and lay on his shoulders, in small bunches, here and there. Lines – 751-768
Our Host was a man altogether fit to perform the duties of a marshal in a dining-hal. He was a large man, with bright eyes. There was no finger citizen in Cheapside than our Host. He was bold of speech, and sensible, and well-educated. And he was not wanting in any quality of real manhood. In addition to all this, he had a jovial temper, and after supper he began to indulge in jokes and he talked, among other subjects, of the pleasures of life. After we had settled our bils, he spoke to us in the following manner: “Now, gentlemen, I say truly that you are heartily welcome here for I swear that, if I am to speak the truth, I have not seen this year such a merry company assembled in this inn at any one time as you on this occasion. I would like to provide entertainment for you if I knew how. And a pastime has just occurred to me to entertain you, which will cost nothing.”
Model Questions and Answers
Question. To which age does Chaucer belong?
Answer: The age of Chaucer covers the period from 1340 to 1400. He was born at the middle of the transition period and the elements of renaissance were breeding.
Question. What kind of a writer do you consider Chaucer to be?
Answer: Chaucer is the true representative of his age as Pope is of the eighteenth century and Tennyson is of the Victorian era.
Question. What are the main features that are represented by Chaucer in his works?
Answer: Chaucer’s works breathe the political social’ economic and religious tendencies of his time. He stands on the threshold of the new age, but is still hedged in a backward gazing world.
Question. What were the main characteristics of the fourteenth century England?
Answer: The fourteenth century in England was the most important of the mediaeval centuries. It covered the period of the Block Death and Peasant’s Revolt, the Hundred wears war with France and the great economic and social changes which we associate with the decay of velleinage. Two kings were murdered and deposed and the authority of church was questioned and there was a demand of freedom of thought. Even the Renaissance and Reformation were on their way.
Question.What was Chaucer’s intention while writing this great Prologue To The Cantrabury Tales?
Answer: The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a work of supreme importance, as created by Chaucer for the understanding of the English history in a dramatic, piquant and all embracing picture of a real mediaeval life before the great changes should arrive.
Question. How many pilgrims contribute to the pilgrimage and to the Prologue to the Cantrabury Tales?
Answer: There are thirty persons with the addition of Chaucer himself and the Host of the Tabard, makes in all thirty two.
Question. Comment on Chaucer’s humour?
Answer: Chaucer’s humour has three main qualities in his writings; a humour wich is sometimes gentle, sometimes sly, often satiric, but never vicious. (quite frequently he is the butt of his own jokes) an understanding of human beings which is warm and compassionate but never sentimental; and an acuteness of observation which is unfailing in its ability to discern the most significant detail.
Question. What was behind Chaucer ‘s portrayal of his pilgrims and narratives?
Answer: To have each of his characters tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, to while away the time.
Question. What does the Prologue to Canterbury try to depict?
Answer: The general Prologue shows how fully Chaucer grasped it in his own mind. It is not merely an introduction but a mature and highly finished work in its own right – the liveliest, most convincing picture of life in the middle ages which has come down to us.
Question. What language has Chaucer used in his Prologue To The Canterbury Tales?
Answer: The language used by Chaucer comes from the middle English rather different from the modern English we know.
Question. Did Chaucer complete his Prologue To The Canterbury Tales?
Answer: Chaucer did not live to complete his ambitious project.
Question. What is a “Satire”? Is the Prologue a piece of satiric composition?
Answer: It may be defined as a literary composition whose principal aim is to ridicule folly or vice. It is a light form of composition, intended to keep the reader in a good humour even when it is of its most caustic. It may be inspired by either a personal grievance or a passion for reform. It is like a dome, holds the mirror up to nature and lashes out at contemporary follies and foibles. Yes, Chaucer’s prologue is a great satiric piece of work.
Question. Chaucer’s group of pilgrims constitute a picture of the society of his times.” Discuss how many groups of people are there?
Answer: The pilgrims in the “Prologue” may be classified into three groups which throw a lot of light on the social structure of England in the fourteenth century. The first group represents agricultural feudalism founded on land ownership and service to the king and the country eg. The Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman, the Franklin, the Miller, the Reeve and the simple Plowman.
The second group represents the growth of a new, urban society that came to rise in the fourteenth century eg. Doctor, Lawyer, Manciple, Merchant and even Wife of Bath along with the Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver and the Dyer.
The third group represents the church which was in those days one of the most powerful forces in the society. Eight of the chaucer’s pilgrims belong to the church, eg. Prioress, her Chaplain, the Monk, the Friar, the Clerk, the Parson, the Summoner and the Pardoner.
Question. Do you think that Chaucer was a social reformer? How?
Answer: Chaucer is generally regarded as a painter of life in his age, but not as a social reformer. Although a good deal has been written about the social life of the second half of the fourteenth century in England – its ecclesiastical troubles, its dynastic and military frauds, the evil consequences of the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt, the growing power of the trading classes. But all these things make their appearance on the fringe of Chaucer’s poetry: they are referred to in passing and everything represented in marginal. In fact, the Prologue clearly shows that Chaucer is interested only in portraying characters as they are. He does not anywhere urge people to improve themselves morally or in any other way.
Question. Write a short note on the ecclesiastical characters is the The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
Answer: There are eight ecclesiastical characters dealt with by Chaucer in the Prologue. These eight characters, in the order in which they appear before us are; the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Clerk of Oxford, the Parson, the Summoner and the Pardoner. Chaucer represent sthe clergymen of his times in a very unfavourable light. The only ecclesiastical characters whom Chaucer admires and whom we admire also are The Clerk and the Parson for whom the author has nothing but praise. The other characters belonging to the church are ridiculed and satirized. Chaucer exposes the follies, the absurdities, the monetary greed, the hypocrisy and on the whole, the unreligious nature of these men. Indeed we feel greatly depressed and dismayed by the spectacle of these clergymen who are not only most worldly minded but dishonest, immoral and corrupt. It is the abundance of hunour in the portrayal of these persons that relieves the depression and dissolves it in laughter. When we consider that the character of the men of religion all over the world even today is no better than it was in Chaucer’s time, we are driven to the conclusion that human nature has not changed much since then and that religion has served largely as a cloak for the nefarious. Actually it is a group of unscrupulous people who resort to the “religions profession to promote their selfish ends.”
Question. What are the main features of Chaucer’s characterization?
Answer: Chaucer is the first character delineator in English literature. His characters are drawn from his observation of men and women he saw around him. He was a man of keen observation and that represents his creativity and he represented men and women as they really are:
(a) Real characters: Chaucer’s character are real, full blooded personalities. We see them laughing, moving, talking, eating and gossiping or we do is our lives.
(b) Universal types: They are timeless creations on a time determined stage. He pilgrimage is the pilgrimage of the world and the pilgrims the epitome of mankind. The knight represents the species of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against the oppressor. The good parson, a real message of heavy covers in every age of the illumination of divine light etc.
(c) Types and individuals: The characters of Chaucer, though well defined types of contemporary society and of the universal traits of mankind are also vividly delineated individuals. All the characters have strongly individual tastes and contrasting social backgrounds. Chaucer endows life like individuality to his pilgrims though form of speech appropriate to them a rank and personal temperament.
Question. Comment on the character of the Wife of Bath.
Answer: The universal characteristic of the Wife of Bath are obvious. She represents not the virtuous or pious class of womanhood, but the class of women, who, having an amorous nature, care little for chastity, who are fond of merry making and fun, and who enjoy gossip. The wives of the guildsmen possess the universal trait of vanity they wish to be given a measure of respect which they think is their due. These wives wanted to be addressed as “Madome” and they wanted to lead ceremonial possession. This desire for social recognition and for precedence is common to most women.
Question. Discuss Chaucer’s contribution to English Literature.
Answer: Chaucer’s abiding contribution to literature may be summed up as follows:
(a) He is the creator of English language and poetry.
(b) He is the first great material artist.
(c) He is the first great realist who breathed a free secular spirit in the poetry.
(d) He is the first great character painter.
(e) As a narrator in verse he is superb. He is also the father of English novel.
(f) Chaucer was a dramatist before the dome proper was born.
(g) Greater humorist and humanist
(h)The first national poet of England.
In addressing “The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales”
We are dealing with what has long been recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature, certainly the finest and most influential work of fiction to emerge in England from that period we call the Middle Ages. For most literary historians, English literature begins well before Chaucer’s greatest poem, but this particular work marks the start of the trading which is still readily accessible in the original language even though Chaucer’s Middle English requires the constant help of a glossary.
Let us discuss some important interpretative feature of “The General Prologue,’ largely with a view to raising some points which will not only help us to understand Chaucer’s poem a little better but also to hone our literary-critical skills. Chaucer’s’ poem is a particularly useful place to carry out the latter task, because, if we take the time to get familiar enough with his language to read the poem with some case, it raises interesting critical problems for those learning about literary criticism of ancient works.
Before turning directly to the text of the poem however let us consider the historical term commonly associated with this poem, the Middle Ages. By common agreement, this work is the finest poem to emerge in English during the Middle Ages, in part because it provides us with such a vivid unforgettable look at a wide social canvas from that time. But what does that term mean?
A Note on the Term Middle Ages
One might well begin by asking “Why the Middle Ages?” Clearly, people at the time did not think of themselves as living between two different time periods (they thought of themselves, as every age does, as the most recent arrivals), so where does the term come from? Well, the term Middle Ages was applied by later Renaissance writers and historians to refer to the period falling very roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 AD (when Alaric sacked Rome) and the Renaissance. The arrival of the latter has no clear date and tends to be dated earlier in southern Europe than in the north. A convenient (but somewhat misleadingly precise) date for the arrival of the Renaissance in England might be 1485, the date of the battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor, thus initiating the reign of the Tudors, which lasted in England until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.
The term Middle Ages, like so many historical terms applied to an earlier period, was deliberately pejorative. There had been the great Classical Period of Greece and Rome, and now there was the wonderful revival of classical learning, the Renaissance. In between was a period viewed by many Renaissance thinkers as a time of relatively little achievement (with some exceptions here and there), a time of ignorance, an absence of the invaluable classical inheritance, feudal oppression, and the widespread power of the church. With deliberate contempt, some writers applied the term The Dark
Ages to the earlier part of this period (up to about the eleventh century.)
In fact, the Middle Ages was a time of extraordinary vitality. In the first five hundred years of this period, Christianity established itself throughout Europe, developed a complex institutionalized religion capable of governing society at all levels, ministering to the sick, and dealing with judicial disputes; the Church hammered out compromises with secular rules, an aristocracy derived from the Germanic tribal customs and placed Europe’s economy on a firm agricultural foundation (the work of the monasteries in clearing the land is one of the greatest successes of western world). During this period there were many fierce disputes about Christian doctrine, about the relative distribution of power between Church and State, and about the relationship between the Church’s immense economic power and its ministry to the poor. Nevertheless, for much of the Middle Ages, life was calm, orderly, stable, and relatively prosperous. If we tend to remember the excesses, like the Black Death and the persecution of heretics and witches (which is more a Renaissance phenomenon), we should not, therefore, forget that this period established the basis from which were to develop the institutions, customs, and power which fuelled the amazing expansion of Europe in the Renaissance and afterwards.
It is particularly important for modern readers of medieval works not to make the common but fatal error of thinking about the Middle Ages, especially about the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, as something monolithic, homogenous, and backward. Within the Church, as within the ranks of modern liberal capitalism, there were all sorts of tensions between traditional authoritarian conservatives, radical free thinkers, communitarians insisting on limiting individual freedom, individualists insisting on more individual freedom, reformers wanting a better deal for the poor and less money for the top bureaucrats, and so on. The major work of the Church was to maintain, in the midst of all these tensions, a workable social community in the thousands of very small agricultural communities throughout Europe, and in this attempt, it was for a long time astonishingly successful. If many of the popes and bishops, like the imperial Caesars, left behind scandalous records of personal misconduct, nevertheless many were efficient and caring administrators, and the bureaucracy of the Church could often work extremely well with corruption at the top because it was staffed by educated and diligent human beings at lower levels.
The terms Renaissance is applied to the period of intellectual and cultural history which succeeded in the Middle Ages. The term refers to the rebirth of classical learning which swept across Italy in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, as old classical manuscripts were rediscovered, edited, translated, and distributed throughout southern Europe, moving slowly northward throughout the fifteenth century. The immediate impetus which launched this revival was the serious threat posed to Eastern Europe by the Turkish Muslim forces moving up towards Constantinople and Vienna throughout the early part of this period (Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453). The flight of Greek scholars with the manuscripts towards the West brought into the West, and especially into Italy, what had been lost long ago. Greek language and literature. The diffusion of such learning accelerated rapidly after the invention of printing in the 1450s.
But there was more to the Renaissance than just this scholarly revival. There was a renewed emphasis on classical humanism, on the view that the good life did not have to be lived under the constant supervision of the Church within the often limited restrictions of the rising interest in speculating about the nature of the earth and the heavens (often supported by ambitious central monarchs growing in power) all put pressure on the static, traditional, communal model which had been the social reality of Europe for eight centuries.
Chaucer’s poem was written late in the fourteenth century, in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, depending on how one wishes to consider the time. And a few things about the social conditions of the period are clear from the picture of society he gives us there.
First, the Church is still clearly a major part of society. About of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are church officials, and the entire group is celebrating spring by taking part in a traditional Christina ritual, the pilgrimage to an important holy shrine. In doing so they are giving public testimony to things that are valued in their society and their lives, just as we would reveal a great deal about our social and personal values if we were to write this poem today.
Secondly, while none of the pilgrims comes from the top classes of society, the aristocracy, many of them are quite rich and sophisticated. In examining them, we are, for the most part, looking at members of the middle-class (although the concept of class did not exist at the time). Some of them have money, a few have travelled extensively. They know about clothes and books and food. Some ordinary folk have horses. What we would call the trading and service industries are well represented by people who would not out be out of place in a Nanaimo mall. And yet we are reminded, too, that traditional roles of the Middle Ages have not yet disappeared.
Finally, there is a sense of rising individualism, among them. While the ideals of the dedication to a traditional Christian communal society are still clearly there, it is equally evident that for many of these pilgrims, including the Church officials, the sense of a communal duty is being eroded by a personal desire for money and the fine things money can buy. In fact, there is a strong sense throughout The Canterbury Tales that this money is somehow a threat to something older and more valuable.
All of these details suggest a society in transition. We are not here dealing with the vision of the Middle Ages of a few hundred years before, a time when books were very scarce, travelling much more difficult, and money (and the good things it purchases) in much shorter supply.
Chaucer, incidentally, lived before the invention of printing and the widespread diffusion of classical literature into Northern Europe. Thus, although he was well-read in French and Italian literature and drew heavily upon certain Continental works and traditions, he did not have access to Greek literature. When he wrote about Troilus and Cressida and the Trojan Wars he was drawing on medieval traditions of this famous story, without direct knowledge about Greek versions in Homer or the tragedians.
The age of Chaucer covers the period from 1340 to 1400. Chaucer is the true representative of his age as Pope is of the eighteenth century and Tennyson is of the Victorian era. His works breathe the political, social, economic and religious tendencies of his time. The middle of the fourteenth century was the transitional period in which Chaucer was born. The elements of Renaissance were breeding. “He stands on the threshold of the new age, but still hedged in a backward gazing world.”
The fourteenth century in England was the most important of the mediaeval centuries. It covered the period of the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, the Hundred Years War with France and the great economic and social changes which we associate with the decay of villeinage. During its years, two kings were deposed and murdered, and dynasties began to rise and fall. The antagonism to the church and the demand for the freedom of thought, which was to culminate in the Renaissance and the Reformation were beginning to be manifested in this pregnant century. It was of supreme importance for the understanding of English history that we should have a dramatic, piquant and all-embracing picture of real mediaeval life before the great changes should arrive and Chaucer has given us this picture in his Canterbury Tales.
During the English Period, Chaucer appears to us as a great original poet. He had learnt almost to perfection the arts of description, narrative and characterization. Chaucer is known for his technique of versification like that of a fine craftsman and a supreme writer because of his humour and personal talk. This period includes his remarkable work, The Canterbury Tales. In this poem, he truly represented the comedy of life in its all forms. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales gives us the background of the actions and movements of the pilgrims who make up the company of the members of the troop who undertook this pilgrimage. All these pilgrims represent the whole of “English society” of the fourteenth century. The pilgrims are persons of all ranks and classes of society; and in the inimitable description of their manners, dresses, person, horses etc, with which the poet has introduced them, we behold a vast and minute portrait gallery of the social state of England in the fourteenth century. They are – a knight, a squire, a yeoman or military retainer of the class of the three peasants, who in the quality of the archer was bound to accompany his feudal lord to war, a prioress, a lady of monk, superior of a nunnery, a nun and three priests in attendance upon this lady; a Monk, a person represented as handsomely dressed and equipped and passionately fond of hunting and good cheer; a friar, or monk, a merchant, a clerk or student of the University of Oxford; a sergeant of the law; a franklin or rich country–gentlemen, five wealthy burgesses or trademen, described in general but vigorous and characteristic terms; they are Haberdasher or dealer in silk and cloth, a carpenter, a weaver, a dyer and a tappisser or maker of carpets and hangings, a cook or rather what in old French is called Rotisseur i.e. the keeper of a cook’s shop; a shipman, the master of a trading vessel; a doctor of Physic; a wife of Bath, a rich cloth manufacturer, a Parson, or Secular Parish priest; a ploughman, the brother of the preceding personage; a miller; a manciple or steward of a lawyer’s hostel or inn of court; a Reeve, bailiff or interdant of the estates of some wealthy landowner; a summoner, an officer in the then formidable ecclesiastical courts, whose duty was to summon or cite before the spiritual tribunal those who had offended against the cannon laws; a Pardoner, or vendor of the Indulgences from Rome. To these thirty persons must be added Chaucer himself and the Host of the Tabard, making in all thirty-two. The Canterbury Pilgrims have described so realistically and graphically that one gets great enjoyment in reading The Prologue.
Chaucer was regarded as the greatest writer of his age, (the fourteenth century), for he was widely read, imitated, and quoted; even some of his success in the material world was probably a reward for his skill with his pen. Three qualities are outstanding in his writings; humour which is sometimes gentle, sometimes sly, often satiric, but never vicious (quite frequently he is the butt of his own jokes), an understanding of human beings which is warm and compassionate but never sentimental; and an acuteness of observation which is unfailing in its ability to discern the most significant detail. Chaucer’s fame, unlike that of many writers, was great in his own lifetime and has remained consistently so for over 550 years.
The general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in some respects the most remarkable product of Chaucer’s genius, is an extended “dramatis personae” for the collection of tales. In it, Chaucer presents his characters, one by one, in a series of vivid, detailed, and lifelike portraits, and also sets forth his plan: to have each of his characters tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back, to while away the time. The result is a continuous drama, for the tales give rise to altercations and other byplays and also further characterize their tellers. Chaucer did not live to complete his ambitious project. The Prologue, however, shows how fully he grasped it in his own mind. It would be a mistake to consider the Prologue as merely an introduction. It is a mature and highly finished work in its own right – the liveliest, most convincing picture of life in the Middle Ages which has come down to us. The language used by Chaucer comes from the Middle English rather different from the modern English we know.
Linking the episodic nature of the gallery of characters and their stories is the engaging presence of the narrator, who is a major presence in the poem. Chaucer presents the narrator as one of the pilgrims, a fellow Christian travelling to Canterbury and meeting the various characters and hearing their stories. This gives his descriptions the immediacy of a personal narration based upon intimate conversations and direct witnessing of the dramatic events which take place upon the way (like the different quarrels among some of the pilgrims.)
At the same time, however, it is quite clear that many of the details we learn (especially in the General Prologue) are obviously based upon a perspective that cannot be simply derived from a personal encounter. The details we learn about all the Knight’s achievements, for example, or the details of the Wife of Bath’s behaviour back home in her own church, these are not things that a pilgrim narrator could learn in such vivid detail.
Hence, we are dealing with, in effect, two narrators. The shifts, between them, are unannounced, but not many readers enjoying the poem are at all disturbed by questions about how a pilgrim-narrator could possibly know so much about people he has just met. This, in itself, is a good reminder that what matters in reading a poem is not the total absence of logical difficulties of this sort but rather the skill with which the winter avoids drawing attention to any such inconsistencies. The dual point of view has the great advantage, of detail of the sort available only to an omniscient narrator where this is a useful supplement to a portrait or a narrative.
Some Thematic Considerations
When we first start reading the General Prologue we are likely to be drawn first to the richness and variety of the gallery of characters. This is, indeed, one of the wonderful things about this poem; as Dryden observe, “Here is God’s plenty.” To approach a work thematically is to consider what ideas of leitmotivs co-ordinate its details, how these ideas are presented, modified, challenged, and resolved by the end of the work. Thematic criticism will tend to see characterization as primarily important for what it contributes to the complication or presentation of such co-ordinating ideas.
It’s important to stress for all those interested in thematic criticism that works of fiction are not philosophical works. They do not present rational arguments (although such arguments may exist in them at times). Thus, thematic criticism is not simply a matter of reducing a work to some simple “moral” or prose summary. What matters in thematic criticism is following the way in which a particular idea or theme is qualified, complicated, challenged, deepened, resolved, reinforced as one proceeds through the fiction. In some fictions, the thematic dimension will be very clear indeed (e.g., in allegories); in others, it may not exist at all (the point of the fiction may well be to disqualify and thematic approach to experience- which, when one thinks about it, is a theme in its own right).
The Opening Sentence
So thematic approaches to the General Prologue might begin by focusing attention on the famous opening sentence. The first point to notice about that opening sentence is that it falls into two equal parts, the first focusing on the spring and the second on the holy duty of the pilgrimage. The first half really stresses the erotic energies of spring, with words like “engendred”, “Inspired,” “priketh,” “Ram,” and so on. These words often denote penetration and fertilization, and the movement of the lines and the short vowels in some of the words help to create a sense of erotic energy of a time when nature is so charged with sexual vitality that even the birds sleep with one eye open.
The second half of the sentence focuses on something entirely different, the desire of people to give thanks to God for having survived another winter, having with the help of God and his special saint overcome illnesses and threats of death. The sounds and movements of this part of the sentence is much softer and gentler.
Now this sentence holds in perfect balance the two primary motives of life-the erotic drives which come to us from spring push up forward into newly renewed life, and the desire: for a common religious experience to thank God for our life together, something which pulls us to worship. Based on these two motions, the irrational push of Eros and the spiritual pull of Thanatos (to use Freudian terms) we can approach the study of society which Chaucer then depicts for us.
The opening sentence announces a powerful theme which runs throughout the General Prologue: that there are two essential forces of life and that what matters is that they be held in a balance (as they are grammatically in the opening sentence). This theme, you might think, is not nearly so explicit as I am suggesting in the opening sentence. But portraits (of the Knight and Squire, father and son), a pairing which unties the highest virtues of active Christianity displayed in the lifetime of service of the Knight with the exuberant vitality of the son, an erotic love of life which yet remains in check, so that he knows his duties towards his father (as the last detail of the portrait makes clear).
If we look closely at the first pair of portraits in the light of the theme suggested by the opening sentence, then we encounter a standard of human conduct against which we will inevitably compare the later portraits. What is clear about the Knight is that he has led an active life fighting on behalf of Christianity, especially against the threat of Turkish invasion. He has displayed fortitude, courage, truth, honour, and earned a high reputation. Yet he remains humble and does not flaunt his rank in an expensive exterior or display any sense of superiority. He has just arrived back in England and immediately joins the procession to give thanks.
His son, the Squire, shows all the virtues of youth, full of erotic energy, song, a love of the fine things of spring and a commitment to the ideals of chivalry; he is a creative spirit, able to sing, write lyric poetry, dance, and, in general, celebrate the joy of life. But, as already mentioned, this has not led him to forget the respect he owes his father.
Later in the poem, near the end, we meet another pair, the Parson and the Ploughman. They display virtues remarkably similar to those of the Knight and the Squire. They are, above all, charitable and hard working. They have dedicated their lives to the service of their fellow creatures and do not shrink from self-sacrifice or danger to stand up to injustice. What seems clear is that the energies which drive them through life (and into this pilgrimage) are in harmony with the highest ideals by which the narrator measure human conduct.
There’s an important point to starting the catalogue of pilgrims with an ideal standard and to reintroducing it near the end. What this achieves is to enable us to make moral judgments more easily about the other portraits. It is clear what the narrator in this poem most admires; he conveys that in this ideal portraits. In this way, we could claim that a central theme of the General Prologue is an exploration of the full range of the moral qualities of late Medieval Christianity as they manifest themselves in the daily of the people.
The General Prologue as an Epic Poem
If we wish to address the vision of life developed in the General Prologue, we can pay tribute to its epic quality. This literary term is usually reserved for certain narrative fictions which hold up for our exploration something more than just a story. They have a social breadth and a narrative scope which provide a much wide and all-inclusive canvas than an ordinary fiction. In reading them, we are exploring, not simply particular characters in a particular setting, but an entire cultural moment. Epic narratives, from Homer onwards, celebrate civilization in a particular manifestation, and part of their power and interest comes from our sense that an entire way of life is under scrutiny. Parenthetically, what is curious about epic poems is that they tend to appear when the way of life they celebrate is the process of disappearing forever (Homer, for example, is writing about a heroic society a couple of centuries older than him, Paradise Lost appears when the great Protestant experiment under Cromwell is clearly over, many of the novels celebrating the American South come after the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederate cause.)
In that sense, the General Prologue invites us to evaluate a particular society. Like all societies, this culture is under tension. It has a clear sense of values, what we might call the traditional values of active Christianity, bet summed up in the well known Biblical celebration of faith, hope, and charity (and the greatest of these is a charity). The ideal portraits make it clear to us that the narrator of this poem admires such qualities more than any others. Any the remaining portraits acquaint us with the various ways in which these qualities are under threat. Hence, reading the General Prologue is a voyage through the evaluation of an entire society.
Two comments about the moral visions we encounter: First, by the end of the General Prologue we have become well acquitted with the seven cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity) and the seven cardinal sins (pride, envy, covetousness, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony). And it seems clear importance of this traditional value scheme.
Second, and related to the above point, is the emphasis on the social basis for virtue. What makes people good or bad Christians, in the world of this poem, is how they treat each other. Virtue is not an abstract matter of doctrine, a purification ritual carried out in contemplative isolation, or a challenge to the individual will. It is thoroughly social, a matter of one’s obligations to help others and to refrain from mistreating them. That list of virtues and vices is primarily social and cannot be understood outside of a rich social context.
Comparative Critical Details
In this respect, you should notice how certain words and details appear from one portrait to the next. For example, we are often told about a character’s attitude to or use of money. And it’s worth paying attention to what each character values enough to spend money on. The Knight’s price is his reputation, and he has paid for horse. The Parson’s gold is his sense of Christian duty (“if gold rust, what shal iren do?”), the Clerk (student) spends money on books. The Ploughman dutifully gives money to the Church. Other pilgrims spend money on a wide variety of consumer goods: clothes, food, fine living. How do these people get their money? How do they use their money?
In following just this one point, we can see how that necessary balance between one’s erotic and one’s religious feelings can be upset, perhaps is some places corrupted. Here it is important to notice how many of the portraits are of Church officials, for whom this question is of particular importance. By looking closely at what the Monk purchases with his money or the tactics used by the Fair and the Pardoner to get money we see immediately where their particular sense of priorities drive them.
Similarly, we should pay attention to clothes. Sometimes these are quite appropriate to the social function a character occupies (e.g., the Knight and perhaps the Prioress). At other times, we might wonder. The narrator clearly likes a fine appearance and has a keen eye for good clothes, just as he values books and his ability to read and write, as well as good manners (courtesy). But his highest praise is reserved, for those details which enable us to see someone as charitable, that is, as loving his neighbours more than himself. So when the words charity or charitable appear we need to be particularly alert to assessing just what the words mean in this context.
This business of love is essential. What does each character love? Is this love corruption of the spirit? In the Prioress, we are not sure. The brooch might very well refer to love of God (for the slogan is a common religious statement). In the Monk, his love of God has become a lust for hunting and eating; the Friar’s love directs him to al the common pleasures. The finest thing about the Parson is the perfect balance between his love of God and for this world. In the Pardoner, by contrast, the love of God’s justice (of which he is the agent) and for humanity has become hopelessly corrupted.
We have to be careful about assessing the importance of each detail. The task asks us to evaluate, not what we think of the character n question, but what the narrator thinks. How do the details he presents about each character shape our understanding of how he feels about them? What emotional pressures is the language putting on us to understand a particular character in one way rather than another? The narrator rarely, if ever, offers an explicit judgment that is not tinged with some irony. But the list of specific details develop a latent judgment in a very delicate manner that the reader needs to attend to and respect.
This sort of assessment is particularly challenging in the General Prologue because of the ironic tone which pervades so many of the portraits. In fact, there could hardly be a better introduction to the importance of evaluating irony than this famous poem. So it is appropriate here to say a few words about this all-important critical term.
Irony, considered very generally, refers to the quality of language to have different levels of meaning, to be ambiguous, so that we are not entirely certain how to interpret a particular phrase or descriptive detail or action. The presence of irony complicates our response because it reveals that what is being described is not a simple literal fact for all to see, it is more complex and layered than that. Irony in language is, as one might expect, not welcome in certain forms of writing, especially in scientific and legal writing, where the unambiguous clarity of clearly defined words is the essence of the prose. In poetry and fiction generally, irony is a writer’s stock in trade because it is the surest way to remain the reader that the subject matter of this text is not something simple and literal, but inherently ambiguous.
How does irony work? We don’t have to read very far in the General Prologue to see Chaucer’s standard technique. He is always setting morally loaded language against actions which do not live up to that high praise, thus inviting us to see a discrepancy, an ambiguity between the moral language and the action. Here is a famous example from the portrait of the Wife of Bath:
She was worthy woman al hir live
Husbondes at chirche dore she had five.
The word worthy in the first line sets up a very approving moral value judgment; the detail in the second line undercuts it. Note that that detail doesn’t necessarily cancel the approval, but it redirects our attention. We have to wonder about just what the precise nature of the Wife’s worthiness consists of. The narrator is not telling us directly how to clarify the nature of the Wife, but he complicates it, inviting us to see her in a more complex way.
Similarly, the narrator tells us that the Prioress is charitable (very high praise indeed, given the importance of this term established in the earlier [ portrait of the Knight) and then, to establish that point, tells us that she weeps if she sees an animal in pain. The details add a distinct note of irony to the work charitable. We know the literal meaning of the word, but the style is asking us to qualify our literal understanding with something more ambiguous. Similarly, the Friar is the best beggar in his order. What does that mean? Obviously, he is a good beggar in the sense that he obtains a great deal of money, but the details of how he gets his money really qualify the moral content of the potential moral approval in that world best.
Some of the portraits are clearly not ironic; we are invited to take them as literal portraits of an ideal, the Knight and the Squire and the Parson and the Ploughman are such ideals. Perhaps the Clerk is as well. But almost all the rest are ironic portraits of human characters whose qualities are inherently ambiguous.
For the literary interpreter, the presence of irony is an important challenge, largely because an interpretation must explore that irony and seek to assess its effects, without being too ham fisted, that is, without resolving the irony too simplistically. If the effect of an ironic portrait is often thoroughly ambiguous, then one must acknowledge that and not close off the ironies too quickly. For example, the portrait of the Prioress has invited some people either to claim that there is no irony in the portrait whatsoever (and thus she is as fine and elegant a person as one might wish for), while others have dismissed her as a thoroughgoing hypocrite. Both of these reactions, in my view, deal with the portrait by destroying its most obvious and interesting quality, its elusiveness. Yes, there are contradictory tendencies in the details, but (and this is a crucial point) human characters often consist of contradictory qualities bound up in a single personality, and one of the functions of poetry is to explore and illuminate such emotional contradictions, not to destroy them.
Hence, in reading the General Prologue, one has to take care to shape one’s response to each character carefully, seeking to define as precisely as possible our sense of how the ironical details finally add up, what sort of critical weight we might give to the presence of irony. One of the obvious ways to do this (something the poem invites us to do) is to compare the characters with each other. We might sense, for example, that the Prioress is clearly not up to the standard of the Knight, but she does seem less corrupt than the Friar, who, in turn, is obviously not as scandalously hypocritical as the pardoner. Once we start comparing the characters with the theme of corruption of an ideal in mind, we will learn a great deal about the importance of making our responses to irony as precise as possible.
In this connection, it might be useful to remember and apply the concepts of sins of omission and sins of commission. The former stem from a failure to do what one’s duty requires one to do; the latter stem from active deed injuring others directly. And we might want to differentiate between sins of commission which are more serious than others. For example, the Flair commits many sins of commission, but he brings a certain amount of pleasure and fun with him, and his sexual conquests of women, although a disgrace to his order, are, we are led to believe, often well received. The Summoner and the Pardoner, by contrast, actively extort money through systematic lies, threats, and a corruption of church doctrine in their sermons.
One final comment about irony in a style. Often, the most important debates between interpreters of a particular work hinge on whether or not they both see irony in the style of, if they do, just what weight to give it. Since irony inevitably undercuts the literal meaning of particular words and phrases, its presence or absence can make a huge difference. My favourite example of this is Machiavelli’s The Prince. I sense that this was intended as a thoroughly ironic, even satiric work, but so many people failed to see the irony, that the book has been hailed or condemned as a celebration of the political life totally divorced from morality. Debates over the ending of Odyssey, or Shakespear’s Twelfth Night or Henry V, or Paradise Lost, some the most interesting and vital critical debates, hinge precisely on this question of detecting the presence of irony and evaluating it.
When does irony become satire? What is the difference between a thoroughly ironic portrait and a satirically ironic style? One way to sort out the difference is to remember that the purpose of satire is to hold someone up to ridicule as an example to others. Satire always has something aggressive about it, a desire to point a finger and say, in effect, “Look now ridiculous this person is.” Making readers laugh at the foolishness of others is the essence of the satire. And irony is the key stylistic technique used to achieve it. All satire emerges from the ironic discrepancy between what people think they are or would like to be and what they, in fact, are. The challenge to the satirist is to make this discrepancy “witty,” so that people laugh at the hypocrisy.
But there is an enormous range to satire, and we are not really saying much about a style just by labelling it satiric. We need to evaluate as best we can based on the language, the precise nature of the satire. There’s a huge difference, after all, between a very good-natured, even affectionate joke at someone’s expense and a savagely harsh indictment of the sinful duplicity of a total hypocrite.
To make fun of people’s foolishness and to hold them up as satiric targets requires the satirist to put a certain amount of distance between the target and the reader and to simplify the potential complexity of the personality under attack. It’s clear that the narrator in the Canterbury Tales is inviting us to laugh at the foolishness of some of the portraits. In that sense, we can usefully talk about a satiric presence throughout the General Prologue. But as soon as we have acknowledged that, we would have to concede that much of this satire is extremely gentle. The narrator seems genuinely to like these people on the journey. He brings us quite close to them and indicates that he, for the most part, enjoys their company. So the potential of the satire is enormously muted, to the point where sometimes one can concede that satiric possibility disappears completely.
For example, the portrait of the Prioress is clearly ironic. We are invited to sense ambiguities in her character, to wonder about what earthily passions might exist beneath the proper attire and the religious icons. But the narrator is clearly much taken with her fine appearance and seems to like her clothing and the way she conducts the divine service. There is an affection, even an admiration, for the woman. Hence, the irony develops little-to-no-satiric energy. We do no, I think, respond to this portrait with the sense that the narrator is inviting us to mock the woman as a hypocrite.
In other portraits where the irony is considerably stronger and more overt, the attitude of the narrator is always muting the satiric potential. The Friar is obviously a sinner, derelict in his duties, as is the Monk. But the narrator conveys a liking for these characters and an admiration for some of their qualities. This collapses the distance between the target and the readers and makes the satire. If it is there at all, much gentler than it might otherwise be. As Paul Baum has remarked, if this is satire, it is satire without indignation.
This mildly affectionate satiric tone in the General Prologue gives to the style of this poem its unique quality. There’s firm moral vision at work here, and the narrator is not afraid to let us know what he believes in. At the same time, he has such a genuine liking for people and their various silly ways that he is not going to let a censorious judgment come between them. The adds a distinct note of compassion, humour, and sociability to the narrator himself who, in some ways, emerges by the end of the General Prologue as the most interesting person on the trip.
The Pervasiveness of Courtly Love
The phrase “courtly love” refers to a set of ideas about love that was enormously on the literature and culture of the Middle Ages Beginning with the Troubadour poets of southern France in the eleventh century, poets throughout Europe promoted the notions that true love only exists outside of marriage; that true love may be idealized and spiritual, and may exist without ever being physically consummated; and that a man becomes the servant of the lady he loves. Together with these basic premises, courtly love encompassed a number of minor motifs. One of these is the idea that love is a torment or a disease, and that when a man is in love he cannot sleep or eat, and therefore he undergoes physical changes, sometimes to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Although very few people’s lives resembled the courtly love ideal in any way, these themes and motifs were extremely popular and widespread in medieval and Renaissance literature and culture. They were particularly popular in the literature and culture that were part of royal and noble courts.
Courtly love motifs first appear in The Canterbury Tales with the description of the Squire in the General Prologue. The Squire’s role in society is exactly that of his father the Knight, except for his lower status, but the Squire is very different from his father in that he incorporates the ideals of courtly love into his interpretation of his own role. Indeed, the Squire is practically a parody of the traditional courtly lover. The description of the Squire establishes a pattern that runs throughout the General Prologue, and The Canterbury Tales: characters whose roles are defined by their religious or economic functions integrate the cultural ideals of courtly love into their dress, their behaviour, and the tales they tell, in order to give a slightly different twist to their roles. Another such character is the Prioress, a nun who sports a “Love Conquers All” brooch.
The Importance of Company
Many of Chaucer’s characters end their stories by wishing the rest of the “campaignye,” or company, well. The Knight ends with “God save all this faire compaignye” (3108), and the Reeve with “God, that sitteth heighe in magestee, / Save all this compaignye, grete and smale!” (4322-4323). Company literally signifies the entire group of people, like the Middle deliberate choice of this word over other words for describing masses of people, like the Middle English words for party, mixture, or group, points us to another major theme that runs throughout The Canterbury Tales. Company derives from two Latin words, com, or “with,” and pane, or “bread.” Quite literally, a company is a group of people with whom one eats, or breaks bread. The word for good friend, or “companion,” also comes from these words. But, in a more abstract sense, company had an economic connotation. It was the term designated to cannote a group of people engaged in a particular business, as it is used today.
The functioning and well-being of medieval communities, not to mention their overall happiness, depended upon groups of socially bonded workers in towns and guilds, known informally as companies. If works in a guild or on a feudal minor were not getting along well, they would not produce good work, and the economy would suffer. They would be unable to bargain, as a modern union does, for better working conditions and life benefits. Eating together was a way for guild members to cement friendships, creating a support structure for their working community. Guilds had their own special dining halls, where social groups got together to bond, be merry, and form supportive alliances. When the peasants revolted against their feudal lords in 1381, they were able to organize themselves so well precisely because they had formed these strong social ties through their companies.
The company was a levelling concept-an idea created by the working classes that gave them more power and took away some of the nobility’s power and tyranny. The company of pilgrims on the way to Canterbury is not a typical example of a tightly networked company, although the five Guildsmen do represent this kind of fraternal union. The pilgrims come from different parts of society-the court, the Church, villages, the feudal manor system. To prevent discord, the pilgrims crease in informal company, united by their jobs and storytellers, and by the food and drink the host provides. As far as class distinctions are concerned, they do form a company in the sense that none of them belongs to the nobility and most have working profession, whether that work be sewing and marriage (the Wife of bath), entertaining visitors with gourmet food (the Franklin), or tilling the earth (the Plowman).
The Corruption of the Church
By the late fourteenth century, the Catholic Church, which governed England, Ireland, and the entire continent of Europe, had become extremely wealthy. The cathedrals that grew up around shrines to saints’ relics were incredibly expensive to build, and the amount of gold that went into decorating them and equipping them with candlesticks and reliquaries (boxes to hold relics that were more jewel-encrusted than king’s crowns) surpassed the riches in the nobles’ coffers. In a century of disease, plague, famine, and the Church’s preaching against greed suddenly seemed hypocritical, considering its great displays of material wealth. Distaste for the excesses of the Church triggered stories and anecdotes about greedy, irreligious churchmen who accepted bribes others and indulged themselves sensually and gastronomically while ignoring the poor famished peasant begging at their doors.
The religious figures Chaucer represents in The Canterbury Tales all deviate in one way or another from what was traditionally expected of them, Generally, their conduct corresponds to common medieval stereotypes, but it is difficult to make an overall statement about Chaucer’s position because his narrator is so clearly biased toward some characters-the Monk, for example-and so clearly biased against others, such as the Pardoner. Additionally, the characters are not simply satirical versions of their role; they are individuals and cannot simply be taken as typical of their professions.
The Monk, Prioress, and Friar were all members of the clerical estate. The Monk and the Prioress live in a monastery and a convent, respectively. Both are characterized as figures who seem to prefer the aristocratic to the devotional life. The Prioress’s bejewelled rosary seems more like a love token than sometimes expressing her devotion to Christ, and her dainty mannerisms echo the advice given by Gullanume de Loris in the French romance Roman de la Rose, about how women could make themselves attractive to men. The Monk enjoys hunting, a pastime of the nobility, while he disdains study and confinement. The Friar was a member of an order of mendicants, who made their living by travelling around and begging and accepting money to hear confession. Friars were often seen as threatening and had the reputation of being lecherous, as the Wife of Bath describes in the opening of her tale. The Summoner and the Friar are at each others’ throats so frequently in The Canterbury Tales because they were in fierce competition in Chaucer’s time-summoners, too, extorted money from people.
Overall, the narrator seems to harbour much more hostility for the ecclesiastical officials (the Summoner and the Pardoner) than he doe for the clerics. For example, the Monk and the pardoner possess several traits in common, but the narrator presents them in very different ways. The narrator remembers the shiny baldness of the Monk’s head, which suggests that the Monk may have ridden without a hood, but the narrator uses the fact that the Pardoner rides without a hood as proof of his shallow character. The Monk and the Pardoner both give their own opinions of themselves to the narrator-the narrator affirms the Monk’s words by repeating them, and his own response, but the narrator mocks the Pardoner for his opinion of himself.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The romance, a tale about knights and ladies incorporating courtly love themes, was a popular literary genre in fourteenth-century ligature. The genre included tales of knights rescuing maidens, embarking on quests, and forming a bond with other knights and rules (kings and queens). In particular, the romances about King Arthur, his queen, Guinevers, and his society of “knight’s Tale incorporates romantic elements in an ancient classical setting, which is a somewhat unusual time and place to set a romance. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is framed by Arthurian romance, with an unnamed knight of the round table as its unlikely hero, but the tale itself becomes a proto-feminist’s moral instruction for domestic behaviour. The Miller’s Tale ridicules the traditional elements of romance by transforming the love between a young wooer and a willing maiden into a boisterous and violent romp.
Fabliaux were comical and often grotesque stories in which the characters most often succeeded by means of their sharp wits. Such stories were popular in France and Italy in the fourteenth century. Frequently, the plot turns or climaxes around the most grotesque feature in the story, usually a bodily noise or function. The Miller’s Tale is a prime experiment with this motif: Nicholas cleverly tricked the carpenter into spending the night in his barn so that Nicholas can sleep with the carpenter’s wife; the final occurs when Nicholas farts in Absolon’s face, only to be burned with a hot poker on his rear end. In the Summoner’s Tale, a wealthy man bequeaths a corrupt friar an enormous fart, which the friar divides twelve ways among his brethren. This demonstrates another invention around this motif that of wittily expanding a grotesque image in an unconventional way. In the case of the Summoner’s Tale, the image is of flatulence, but the tale excels in discussing the division of the fart in a highly intellectual (and quite hilarious) manner.
Symbols are objects, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas concepts.
The Canterbury Tales opens in April, the height of spring. The birds are chirping, the flowers blossoming, and people long in their hearts to go on pilgrimages, which combine travel, vacation, and spiritual renewal. The springtime symbolizes rebirth and fresh beginning and is thus appropriate for the beginning of Chaucer’s text. Springtime also evokes erotic love, as evidenced by the moment when Palamon first sees Emelye gathering fresh flowers to make garlands in honour of May. The Squire too participates in this symbolism. He is compared to the freshness of the month of May, in his devotion to courtly love.
In the General Prologue, the description of garments, in addition to the narrator’s own shaky recollections, helps to define each character. In a sense, the clothes symbolize what lies beneath the surface of each personality. The Physician’ love of wealth reveals itself most clearly to us in the rich silk and fur of his gown. The Squire’s youthful vanity is symbolized by the excessive floral brocade on his tunic. The Merchant’ forked beard could symbolize his duplicity, at which Chaucer only hints.
Physiognomy was a science that judged a person’s temperament and character based on his or her anatomy. Physiognomy plays a large role in Chaucer’s descriptions of the pilgrims in the General Prologue. The most exaggerated facial features are those of the peasants. The Miller represents the stereotypical peasant physiognomy most clearly: round and ruddy, with a wart on his nose, the Miller appears rough and therefore suited to rough, simple work. The Pardoner’s glaring eyes and limp hair illustrate his fraudulence.