Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "General Prologue," (ca. 1380-1400) (all surviving MSS are posthumous, from early 1400s; ed. prin, London: William Caxton, 1477)

Genre:  Originally it was thought this was simply a narrative introduction to a complete literary work called the "Canterbury Tales," which Chaucer fully intended to write as described in Harry Bailey's dialogue. Since the 1970s, scholars have begun to treat this "General Prologue" as a work of art called an "estates satire" (see Jill Mann below). The "estates" were the divisions of society (nobility, clergy, and commoners), "those who protect all," "those who pray for all," and "those who feed all." The satire of the estates collects an array of familiar personality types from all three estates, and gives concrete examples of their usual faults and virtues. The dramatic monologue also influenced this prologue. It strongly resembles parts of Boccaccio's Decameron and Sercambi's Nouvelle, but there is no convincing evidence C knew the first and the second was composed after C's death.   Since the GP occurs in all manuscript fragments and complete tale collections, and since it always begins the KT-MT-RT-CFrag sequence (often called "Fragment 1" and continuously line-numbered by critics), its importance to Chaucer's overall scheme of a tale-cycle seems to connect it "organically" to the "tales of Canterbury" as a whole work. 

[For guidance in pronouncing Middle English, click here To hear the NSF researchers' sound files recreating the same dialogue as the speakers shift from Middle English to Early Modern English to Modern English, click here. For a full audio performance of "Truth" (AKA "Balade de Bon Conseyl"), click  here. ]

Form:  The prologue is made up of rhyming couplets, mostly in four-stress lines but with some regularized iambic tetrameter emerging. It often is noted as a masterpiece of easy colloquial dialogue mingled with sophisticated poetic effects (metaphor, metonymy, internal rhyme and assonance, and artful dramatic revelations).

Online Reading Aloud:  Click here for a web page linked to a performance of the first 34 lines of the "General Prologue" read by Alan Barragona of VMI.  Remember that most Middle English works are written for the ear, not the eye, and they will make the best sense if you read them out loud to yourself rather than reading them silently.  Remember, too, that any language is spoken differently by different speakers.  For some idea of how much variety in oral performance can exist in "correct" readings, click here for the whole menu and listen to some other speakers reading lines 1-18 of the GP.

Characters:  Chaucer-the-pilgrim (the narrator), twenty-eight other pilgrims comprising the lower nobility, clergy, and laity, and a Host of the Tabard Inn ("Harry Bailey," identified in the prologue of the Cook's Fragment at I.4358). Note, though, that the high nobility (earls, dukes, duchesses, princes, kings and queens) are entirely absent. Why? Also, though the guildsmen are introduced near the end of the procession, they will tell no tales. Why would this powerful group not be represented in the tale-telling?  Click here for advice about "the mnemonic bookmark," a strategy for remembering characters' names and major plot and thematic issues!

Summary:  It begins with a  "naturingang," "reverdie," or "nature-beginning," found in many Provencal, Italian and German courtly romances and lyrics, describes the coming of Spring (possibly derived from Guido delle Colonne, Historia destrucionis Troiae). The narrator explains his presence one spring at the Tabard Inn outside London where he waits to begin pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in gratitude for aid during sickness. He then introduces the Pilgrims in clusters and describes their "condicioun" or moral/emotional nature, "whiche they weren" by occupation, "of what degree" or estate of nobility or villainy, and "in what array that they were inne," because clothes communicate so much about the inner person in this culture.  Finally, the innkeeper, at first known only as "Oure Hoost" (later named, Harry Bailey), proposes a tale-telling game to make the journey to Canterbury pass more enjoyably, and the pilgrims vote to elect him judge of the tales and regulator of the telling.  Oure Hoost proposes to begin the game by having pilgrims draw straws from his hand for who tells first, and (son of a gun!) the highest status pilgrim, the Knight, wins the draw.

    This list names the pilgrims in the "General Prologue" order, which is not the order in which they tell their tales, and it suggests ways to understand Chaucer-the-Pilgrim's (or -the-Poet's) decisions to group and rank them in this order ("NT" = one who does not tell a tale in surviving manuscripts):

Nobility (petite) and retinue:
Knight, Squire, Yeoman (NT)
High Clergy:
Prioress ("madame Eglentyne"), 2nd Nun, three Priests (? see Exp. Note and Textual Note), and Monk
Mendicant Clergy:
Friar ("Huberd")
Free, high-status non-nobles:
Merchant, Clerk, Sergeant of the Lawe (lawyer), Frankeleyn (wealthy landowner).
Guildsmen and their wives (NT all except their Cook):
Haberdasshere (hats and handkerchiefs), Carpenter, Webbe (weaver), Dyere, Tapycer (maker of tapestries). and their Cook
Freemen, middle-status:
Shipman, Doctour of Physik, Wif of Bathe, Persoun (parson), Plowman (NT, the Parson's "brother," maybe a real sib or "good friend" or "comrade")
Freemen, contested status:
Reeve (estate overseer), Miller, Somnour (bishop's "sheriff"), Pardoner, Maunciple (household purchasing agent) & Chaucer-the-pilgrim.

Chaucer's narrator also begs to be excused for telling tales which might offend because of four reasons: those who repeat tales of others must speak the words as nearly as said or "moot telle his tale untrewe, / Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe" (735-6); Christ spoke somewhat boldly in the gospels; Plato says words must be "cousin to the deed"; and C-the-pilgrim is stupid ("My wit is short," 746). Critics love this bit.  To learn more about how the character of "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim" was rediscovered by modern scholars who overthrew the "naturalistic" or "historical" reading of the persona, see E. Talbot Donaldson's 1954 PMLA article, "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim," a version of which is stored on the Harvard Chaucer Seminar Web Site.  For some critical terms to help describe this poem's complex narrative structure, see Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction and its explanation of the "implied author."

Then "Oure Hooste" proposes the tale telling game to pass the time. All pilgrims are to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the return trip (a potential 116 tales). The winner will be the teller whose tale is deemed (by Harry Bailey, OH) to be "Tales of best sentence and moost solaas" (798) or most wise and most pleasing. This dual measure of tale quality is not original with Chaucer, but establishes a potential intention for all tellers. The prize is a supper at the Tabard for the winner, and bad sports will be charged all that the pilgrims spend on the way. The game permits Chaucer to experiment with a community formed by mutual consent of the governed and ruled by a man whose constitution is laid out for their inspection (vs. the feudal system which depends for its legitimacy on "timeless" precedent). The Host proposes they draw straws for first tale, and (surprise!) the highest status pilgrim wins.


1)  Chaucer's narrator sets up a cross-section of English culture, but he leaves out the high nobility who are so often the subjects of romances, one of the medieval period's most common genres.  The tales, themselves, contain characters who are kings, queens, etc., but why would there be no kings, queens, dukes or earls (or their ladies) on this pilgrimage?  Consider that the pilgrimage travels from London to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury, site of a man martyred for opposing royal/noble power in the appointment of church officials in defense of papal authority?  How does that set up potential conflicts with the social and moral values represented by the clerical pilgrims?

2)  What does the creation of the game do to the social hierarchy which Chaucer the Pilgrim and Oure Hooste (the game's designer) are so concerned with protecting?  What kind of social structure is the tale-telling game?

3)  Who rides with whom, and what does that suggest?   Especially, who leads the pilgrims and who rides last?  This will be important to understanding the "Miller's Tale Prologue."  With what modern social behaviors can we equate "riding with" someone?  How does it relate to "The Battle of Maldon"?

4)  The "pilgrim portraits" create a rich, concise vision of the pilgrims who crowd into the Tabard Inn on the night before the pilgrimage.  Chaucer-the-Narrator tells us, for each one, their "condicioun" or socio-economic circumstance (status and wealth within their social group), what social group they belonged to (usually employment), and their "degree" (whether they were nobles [Knight, Squire, and by birth, probably the Monk and Prioress], gentlemen and -women [Man of Law, Franklin, Doctor?], or other free people distinguished only by their crafts or offices).  The most subtle and important indicators of status and wealth are their "array" or clothing and other implements or jewelry they carry.  To get some idea of the socio-economic differences among them, and how they might affect their relations with one another, look for the fourteenth-century prices of items of clothing etc. named in the portraits by clicking here.

5)  Because they were invented as ensembles for oral performance, the whole "tales of Canterbury" operates more like a musician's play-list than a published work of literature in the modern sense.  Chaucer may have had an evolving sense of their emerging overall form as he composed them (probably 1385-1400), but scholars don't believe he left comprehensive instructions about the ordering of the tales.  Some groups of tales, however, always occur together, whereas others appear to be "moveable" and others appear to have been switched ("Melibee," told by Chaucer in many versions, may have been the Man of Law's original tale, and the Shipman's fabliau originally may have been the Wife of Bath's tale).  For a survey of surviving tale orders, and some modern speculations about what Chaucer might have had in mind, click here.

6)  If you are a survey course reader in a hurry and need to limit your close rereading of the GP, click here for some advice about where to focus your efforts and why.

Good General Sources:

Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1948. 2nd. Ed., 1973.
Donaldson, E.T. "Chaucer the Pilgrim." PMLA 69 (1954) 928-36.
Only two years after Manly (q.v.) but far more sophisticated, partaking of New Criticism's discovery of the "unreliable narrator" to detect in Chaucer's "pilgrim narrator" persona a creature of considerable instability. Also see Kittredge's comments on the notion of a naive custom's collector, which Donaldson quotes and which are repeated in the introduction to Riverside Chaucer. Basically, Chaucer creates a mask behind which the historical man is not directly accessible, and then he attributes beliefs and experience to his narrator which he, himself, need not share.
Kirby, Thomas A. "The General Prologue" in Beryl Rowland Ed. Companion to Chaucer Studies, Rev. Ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
A decent overview, though dated, like all from this now sadly aged volume, with a fine bibliography through 1978.
Manly, John Matthews. Some New Light on Chaucer. 1926. Rpt. New York: P. Smith, 1952.
A famous (then) but now infamous attempt to tie Chaucer's pilgrim portraits to actual English men and women of Chaucer's day (i.e., M read it as Juvenalian satire where actual persons are named). Useful still for the wealth of information M obtained form the Public Records Office and the various shire church accounts, but DO NOT be duped into taking his conclusions as accurate or even logically valid.  It's still in the library's collection as a historical artifact, but I note it hear mainly to save you from its dangers.  Manly's method is a perfect example of misused historical and biographical criticism of the sort Wimsatt and Beardsley ("New Criticism") criticized in "The Intentional Fallacy."  For instance, having located several women named "Alison" who lived in the suburbs of Bath, he presumed he had thereby identified "Chaucer's source" or "model" for "the Wife of Bath," as if Chaucer had no poetic gifts or practices at all, and only took good notes on the people he met.  In fact, scholars now that Chaucer's "models" for the Wife's character were more nearly two literary characters, "La Vielle" (the old woman) and "La Dangereuse" (the disdainful woman) from the C13 French allegory about courtly love, the Roman de la rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean de Meun.  Like any author of this era, including Shakespeare, Chaucer openly borrowed and adapted his predecessors' characters as a way to transform the previous work's fairly savage anti-feminist satire into a more balanced view of life from a woman's point of view.  So successful was GC's adaptation of the Roman that quite a few modern readers suspect the Wife is a "feminist."  What we know she is not is a simple transcription of the speech of some woman named Alison who actually lived in Bath.
Mann, Jill. Chaucer and the Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. London: Cambridge UP, 1973.
This one was the real ground-breaker after the "poet of nature" and the "naive Geoffrey" readings had become exhausted. Contains a wealth of information about medieval social structure, status and occupation, daily life, etc., as well as the "estates satire." an ancestor of our "lawyer jokes" and the more sophisticated satires on professional types which we might see in television comedies or dramas, etc..

To see a sample quiz on the General Prologue, click here.

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