Rationale for the questions in Quiz 1, Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

English 211--Quiz #1 

Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

Note: Usually there are only 3 questions plus an Extra Credit, but I encourage you to tell me what you know, and to ask intelligent, relevant questions, for which I will give you extra credit even if you cannot answer my questions.  It is possible to ace the quiz solely on extra credit!

1) During what season does the pilgrimage take place?

   Spring!  This might be dismissed as a question of the first order, to tell whether you were reading accurately, or at all.  But it also leads directly to the GP's central relationship between the physical world's renewal at the onset of the spring rains and the soul's need for renewal after the illness of (take your choice: life, loss, striving at court, or any other kind of "sickness" which Thomas the martyr might heal).  What's your wound?   What would you do to have it healed? 

2) Name the occupations of three pilgrims.

    Lots of right answers, but those who get beyond the knight, squire and yeoman will let me know how far into the GP their memory (and experience) goes.  Occupation also is a key issue in CT's GP, which is based on the genre of estates satire (think "doctor jokes" and "lawyer jokes").  See Jill Mann's excellent work explaining how the narrator's apparently neutral or even favorable descriptions of almost all the pilgrims hide generous satires of typical estate characteristics.  For modern estates satire using the occupations commonly found in high tech companies, see Scott Adams' Dilbert.  There, too, you often will see the satirist present as approved various sorts of bad behavior which audiences are meant to reject.  That's how satire works, showing us what the world would be like if we did not dispraise bad behavior.

3) Describe the dress, mount, and behavior of one of them.

    OK--in the 20th century you might describe a person by the car s/he drives, the computer s/he uses, or the music s/he listens to.  In a culture in which clothes are expensive and social competition makes them powerful signals of status, clothes would be among the first things you'd mention. The horse is the C14 car, an expression of its driver's taste, competence, and style.   The behavior ("conditions") rounds out each pilgrim's portrait with evidence which either confirms or disconfirms what we gather from the rest of the evidence.  Notice the rowdy Miller's insistence on leading the group out while playing the bagpipes--party on dude!  The Knight's sobriety (in the spiritual sense) also is represented in his resistance to outbursts of profanity, unguarded displays of force, etc.  (But he does interrupt the Monk, much later, and for a very interesting reason.)

4) Who organizes the tale-telling game and what is the prize?

   Like the dress, mount, behavior question, this one tests how far into the GP you read (it's near the end) and it is moving into interpretive territory with bigger rewards.  The game is the idea of "oure Host" (the innkeeper) and it completely restructures this typical medieval pilgrimage, with all the feudal hierarchy of its procession, as a competitive democracy of tale-telling under the innkeeper's benevolent judgment.  Think of it--a knight and a drunken miller telling tales one after the other!  What a disruption of the orderly cultural relationships this culture took as a given.  Something big is changing in medieval English culture, and this is why CT belongs in the "canon" of English literature, as a record of that change in process, as well as an unsurpassed collection of short and long fiction.  Chaucer impishly presupposes here perhaps the biggest trick he plays in the whole CT collection.  The game is not under his (the narrator's) control, because Harry and the pilgrims are running the show.  So all poor Geoffrey can do is sit back and record what they say.  If you fall for this literally, you need a big shot of suspicion.  This buffers Chaucer-the-poet from Chaucer-the-narrator so as to give both more freedom.  See also his quotation of the Apostle Paul's assertion that Christians can benefit from any literature because: "all is written for our doctrine."  Under that rule, what would you exclude?  All of those possible consequences, which you could mention, derive from a simple question about who started the game.  (Go deep, beyond the literal answer, and you get extra credit points!)

   The prize is a dinner at the Tabard Inn at the expense of all the other pilgrims.  This reward out of the communal wealth illustrates the potential power of a non-hierarchical culture that rewards excellence in poetic making.  I wonder why Chaucer would be in favor of that kind of world?  But then again, wouldn't it reward almost all of us more than a feudal nobility in which only the top echelon people got the big money as a reward for high birth?

5) Who draws the shortest straw and wins the right to tell the first tale?

   This is almost a trick question, and I tend not to ask these as regular parts of the quizzes.  The Knight wins, or so Harry says, but he's also the highest status pilgrim and (once the Knight has told his tale) Harry quickly tries to steer it down the line of status to the Monk.  The Miller, playing by his own rules, interrupts with the excuse that he's too drunk to resist, and from this arises his revolutionary attempt to "quit" (pay back, defeat) the Knight's romance about love among feudal nobles.  Once the social contest has begun in earnest, the tone of the tales becomes more and more pointed in response to (or in anticipation of) other tellers' tales.  

Extra credit: Having told his audience he will repeat the tales all characters told on the pilgrimage, the narrator says:

But first I praye you of youre curteisye

That ye n'arette it nought my vilainye

Though that I plainly speke in this matere

To telle you hir wordes and hir cheere,

Ne though I speke hir wordes proprely... (ll. 727-31)

Give one of his three reasons for claiming the right to repeat potentially offensive speech in public.

    This is a tough one to remember, but the first is that one must repeat faithfully others' words or risk falsifying their statements (a quasi-legal notion of stories as "testimony").  The second is that the Apostle Paul said all was written for our doctrine, so even a drunken Miller's tale must be incorporated into the faith somehow.  The third is that, if you don't like naughty tales, turn the page and read another because you've been warned the Miller is not sanitary.  This is a measure of Chaucer's skill in courtly persiflage.  These never would stand up as reasons for repeating treason or heresy, but nevertheless GC expects them to shield him from the king's and the archbishop's reach.  (Note--there is no inquisition in England yet, but it's coming in the decade after Chaucer's death.)  Is he joking, or is there really such force in those arguments?  Test them against the tales, themselves.

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