Tips for Survey Course Readers of the "General Prologue"
Most first-time readers in survey courses find the CT's "General Prologue" a daunting flow of information. The footnotes are essential to understanding this thing, and not just because it's really in Middle English. (If you are tempted to read it in Modern English translation, remember that the translator is giving you only a general summary of the prose-meaning, not the poetic "work," itself. The humor will get right past you.) If you want to concentrate your efforts on only a few sites of greater importance for our survey, here are some tips for what to read closely after you have quickly read the whole GP to get an idea of its structure.
The invocation of Spring and setting the stage for Chaucer-the-Pilgrim's meeting with the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn is essential to setting up both thematic issues (rebirth, penitence, social conventions) and narrative issues (how to tell a medieval tale, what tellers worry about).
The Knight and his entourage (his son, the Squire, and his servant, a Yeoman) are a coherent group of significant importance for "courtly" values (what the aristos know) and for changes in military culture in Chaucer's time (hint: of the three, who is the most potent force on the C14-15 battlefield? The yeoman with his longbow. What does that do to "estate" or class distinctions?)
Then, look for the portraits of the Miller and Wife of Bath. We are reading tales told by the Miller and Wife, and it might be possible that Chaucer the poet has laden the General Prologue "portraits" with information relevant to understanding these two characters.
The final 144 lines (ll. 717 to 860) set up the tale-telling game under the extremely important authority of "Oure Hoost," the inn keeper (who will be named much later--"Harry Bailey"). The terms of the game are quite interesting. Notice that, in this late medieval hierarchy, a nearly democratic institution has emerged. Compare it to what you know of the English Parliament and consider what Chaucer has done in giving his Canterbury tales to such a diverse collection of tellers.
If you still have time for more close reading, look carefully at the portraits of the Reeve, Pardoner, Friar and Summoner, because they will interrupt the Miller and the Wife in the Miller's Prologue and Wife of Bath's Prologue. The portraits and footnotes for those three characters will prepare you for why they might be antagonized by what the Miller and Wife are saying. All the quarrels are based on some form of professional rivalry, and they are an excellent sign that "class consciousness," as Marxists know it, has not yet emerged to unify these folks as "middle class." Instead, they fight each other in what we might call "intra-class rivalry." Why do these particular people pick fights with the people they antagonize and what do you suppose will happen in the tale-telling game as a result?