Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

(English 330 version--MS & criticism notes expanded from 211)

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 and a full 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).

Manuscript Position, Interpretive Textual Issues, and Important MS Variants:

The GP always is found with the other members of Fragment 1, the Knight's Miller's and Reeve's tales and the fragmentary tale given the Cook.  Its initial position clearly expresses Chaucer's intention the same way in every manuscript, so it's tempting to use the pilgrim portraits as a kind of interpretive "key" to unlock the intentions of the tales most of them tell.  C. David Benson (1986) attacked this "dramatistic" reading of the GP as a universal prologue to all tales, and since then critics have been more cautious of assuming tale-portrait and tale linkage without making the case for its plausibility.  If you read carefully, though, you also can find possible misconnections between the GP portraits and the tales.  The Monk, for instance, is a forthright and lusty man in the GP, but by the time he tells his tale he paints a picture of himself as a gloomy man whose "cell" is filled with "histories" of the fall of great men.  This is not an impossible relationship, but Benson's critique of simplistic references to the GP personae makes us read it more closely.  (Does he read in hopes of his elder brother's seemingly inevitable "fall" liberating him from his monastic orders?)  The GP implies that the Wife of Bath's luxurious life-style, including her taste for pilgrimages, is the result of her lace-making expertise.  However, her own prologue never mentions that craft, but instead claims she married her money.  These problems might be the result of Chaucer's revising his conception of the characters, but never issuing a single final revision, and they also might not be problems at all--maybe the Wife's money comes from both sources, but the one she's proudest of in this context is her manipulation of husbands ("take that you male pilgrims who might my challenge my being her and my pride in it!"). 

        Chaucer-the-narrator's attitude toward some pilgrims is openly ironic, and in other cases genuinely ambiguous (e.g., the Pardoner and Monk, vs. the Shipman or Man of Law).  Readers have to remain skeptical of the literal truth of anything he tells us here or in the prologues or epilogues.  Take time to check it against what seems likely under the circumstances and against what he has said elsewhere.

        Not many manuscript variants are important enough to cause real interpretive "cruces" or dilemmas.  The Prioress's oath by "Sainte Loy" (St. Elegius) and the number of priests who accompany here nuns are made ambiguous by scribal variants (see RC 803-4).  The former variant may mean she swears no oaths at all and the crux in the latter instance may be solved if the Nuns' Priest (who tells the beast fable) is the third of three priests (instead of one plus three more, which messes up the pilgrim count).

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?

Summary:  A "naturingang" 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 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:
Nobility (petite) and retinue: Knight, Squire, Yeoman

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, their wives and servant: 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 (his 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.

        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.

Interpretive Issues:

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?

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 jewelery 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.

Critical Sources:

Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. N.Y.: Macmillan,
         1948. 2nd. Ed., 1973.

Benson, C. David.  Chaucer's drama of style : poetic variety and contrast in the Canterbury tales.
        Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1986.  (826.2 C49HcaSben)

Benson argues that the sheer variety of genres and modes in the Canterbury tales are part of Chaucer's designed appeal to a medieval aesthetic of exuberant variety, a collection of tale types which would establish him as a great artist in a pre-modern aesthetic.  This argument specifically took issue with the "dramatistic" reading of tales as part of an ongoing drama in which tellers introduced in the General Prologue carried out a program of tale-telling to make alliances and attack enemies in the remaining tales, prologues and endlinks.  Evidence scribes had written many of the prologues and endlinks tended to increase the plausibility of Benson's reading.  Also, other medieval artists published a similarly varied range of works in pursuit of poetic fame.  For instance, John Gower's three main works (also in three languages) are similarly various in their genre and style.  The main value of Benson's critique was to remove any certainty that we could read transparently a relationship between GP pilgrim portraits and the tales attributed to the teller (or the pilgrim's persona in a prologue or endlink).  Those arguements now must be defended, though they're not at all unpersuasive in many instances.

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 in the introduction to RC. 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.
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 eponymous "estates satire" (an ancestor of our "lawyer jokes" and the more sophisticated satires on professional types which we might see in L.A. Law, N.Y.P.D. Blue, etc.).

To see a sample English 211 quiz on the General Prologue, click here.

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