The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue – Summary

Genral Prologue 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 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.


Going through The Prologue to The Centerbury 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.

There are, first of all, the Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman, all of whom conform to certain known types of human beings in the fourteenth century but all of whom also have certain distinctive features. The Knight represents the code of behavior prevailing in those days among members of this class of society. As for his individual characteristics, he is depicted as modest like a maiden and wearing a doublet of coarse cloth. The Squire has distinguished himself in battles as he was expected to, 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 medal of Christopher.

From these characters who are associated with the medieval code of chivalry, we pass to the Prioress whom, however, we shall consider along, with the Wife of Bath. The next character is “the hunting Monk” who, ignoring the rules of monastic discipline, neither labours with his hands nor pours over a book in the cloister, and who “loves a fat swan the best of any roast”. Such, indeed, were a large majority of the monks of the period.

The Monk is individualized too. He wears an intricate pin of wrought gold in the shape of a love-knot. He is fat and has a bald head which shines like glass. His eyes are sharp and roll in his head.We do certainly get the feeling that we are standing face to face with this man, so vividly is he represented to us by Chaucer. The Monk’s sleeves are trimmed with the finest gray fur. The portrait6of the Friar is no less realistic or vivid. This Friar misuses his authority to hear confessions and he sells absolutions. Like most friars of the time, he carries ornamental knives and pins to be given to pretty women. He associates only with the rich people, keeping the beggars and the lepers at arm’s length.He is capable of extracting some money, however little, even from a destitute widow, and he settles disputes of a worldly nature on love-days, obtaining 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 life-like. 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-gray-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 characteristics, 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 and7a 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 cloth-making; 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 femininity and womanly charm are emphasized more. The Prioress has sweet features, knows aristocratic manners, is fashionable in her dress, 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 selected characters from various classes of contemporary society and given them an eternal life. We are given the impression that we have actually met and known them. We get the feeling that we have called on them and talked to them. We carry both pleasant and unpleasant memories of them. The mention of any one of them stirs certain responsive chords in us. Here is God’s plenty, indeed. And Chaucer takes us to a marvelous portrait-gallery without doubt.

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