About General Prologue:|
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. The General Prologue is the key to The Canterbury Tales that narrates about the gathering of a group of thirty people in an inn that intend to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury (England) next morning. In the General Prologue, the narrator of The Canterbury Tales, who is one of the intended pilgrims, provides more or less accurate depictions of the members of the group and describes why and how The Canterbury Tales is told. The host of the inn offers to be and is appointed as judge of the tales as they are told and is supposed to determine at the end the best hence winning tale.
If we trust the General Prologue, Chaucer determined that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. So Chaucer's initial plan was to write 120 tales (30 x 2 x 2 = 120). The Canterbury Tales consists of 24 tales and and most of the tales are not finally revised. Some of the tales are not even finished. The order of the tales is uncertain. Apparently The Canterbury Tales was a project too ambitious. The project ended with Chaucer's death.
There are several handwritten manuscripts (the invention of the printing press came later) so there is not even a final text of The Canterbury Tales. Loose ends, lack of a final revision and uncertainty about the order of the tales have left space for centuries of endless scholarship and speculation about (hidden) meaning(s) and symbolism in The Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales have a certain quality and are funny or meaningful. Some of the tales are flat and tedious. Chaucer even incorporated some ridiculous plots and revolting stories in The Canterbury Tales. Would flatness, tediousness and ridiculousness have servived the final revision that has never been done? Speculation ends here.
Lets take a short look at the pilgrims and characters that populate The Canterbury Tales and how they are depicted in the General Prologue, following the order in the General Prologue. Note that rank and class more or less determine the order of the descriptions of the characters. Also note that some pilgrims are only mentioned and lack a description in the General Prologue.
The Knight (lines 43-78)
The Knight is the highest person in rank. He is a "worthy" man of high status and he has fought is many crusades for a noble cause and subsequently travelled through many countries. He is dressed in a coat of chainmail.
The Squire (lines 79-100)
A squire is a young knight in the service of another knight. In this case, the Squire is the son of the Knight. He is twenty years old and his clothes are decorated with red and white flowers. It seems that the Squire prefers singing, fluting and dancing rather than fighting, although he knows well how to ride a horse. The Squire even has literary ambitions and knows the art of drawing. This is a sharp contrast with the average medieval knight, who was usually an illiterate.
The Yeoman (lines 101-117)
The Squire and the Knight are accompanied by the Yeoman (a yeoman is a freeborn servant). The Yeoman's clothes are green and he carries an abundance of weaponry. No words about his deeds or intellectual capacity.
The Prioress (lines 118-162)
The Prioress is educated in French and sweetly sings religious songs and services. Her table manners take a large part of her description. Religion preaches frugality but the dinners of the prioress are not frugal at all. The Prioress loves animals. She cries on seeing a dead mouse and she has two small dogs that travel along with her.
The Second Nun and Three Priests (lines 163-164)
A nun and three priests accompany the Prioress. None of these four people is described in the General Prologue. They were not important? Or their social rank has an intrinsic lack of importance? Interesting questions. We simply don't know. One of the priests is a nun's priest. The only reason we know this is because The Nun's Priest's Tale is one of The Canterbury Tales. The other two priests remain invisible.
The Monk (lines 165-207)
The Monk is described as a well-fed and fat man who loves to hunt and eat. Studying old books or doing burdensome manual labour is not for this monk. A fat swan he loves best of any roast (line 206). The Monk is another example of a religious person that rejects frugality for his personal life.
The Friar (lines 208-271)
The Friar, who's name is Huberd, is a pleasure-loving man who loves to sing, dance and play musical intruments. He knows very well how to beg and talk money out of people's pockets. Instead of dealing with lepers and beggars, the Friar rather goes to taverns and he knows all the hosts and barmaids. Again, no sign of frugality.
The Merchant (lines 272-286)
The Merchant is well-dressed and sits high on his horse. He knows his trade and foreign currencies and how to make a profit.
The Clerk (lines 287-310)
The Clerk is a student at Oxford University. He rather has books (and reads them) than rich clothes or other wordly things. He spends his money on books and learning.
The Sergeant of the Law (lines 311-332)
The Sergeant of the Law is a lawyer, keen and wise, who often serves as a judge in court. His knowledge and reputation make him a wealthy man who can take large fees and very fine clothing. However, on the way to Canterbury, he is dressed simply in a medley coat.
The Franklin (lines 333-362)
The Franklin accompanies the Sergeant of the Law. The Franklin prefers a pleasing life and loves to dip his morning bread in wine. The description of the Franklin is almost only about what he eats and the provisions, food and drink he has in stock. He carries a dagger and a purse of silk.
The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Tapestry-maker, Dyer and Weaver (lines 363-380)
These people are neatly clothed in the same appropriate guildsman's dress. They are described as a group and there is no distinction between them. None of these persons tells a tale.
The Cook (lines 381-389)
The Cook knows his profession and is able to roast, simmer, boil and fry all kinds of food. Unfortunately he has an ulcer on his shin. The Cook's Tale remained unfinished at Chaucer's death.
The Shipman (lines 390-412)
The Shipman (or sailor) rides a carthorse and is dressed in a thick woolen cloth or coat. His is face is burned by the sun. Of course he knows how to navigate and avoid dangerous currents and shores. Although the Shipman is a fine person, he likes to steal and drink some wine from the sleeping merchant who has chartered his vessel.
The Physician (lines 413-446)
The Physician is described as an excellent doctor who knows all illnesses, cures and medicins. He has studied Greek and Roman books about medicine and surgery and has spend very little time on reading the Bible. He eats and drinks modestly. What the Physician most of all loves is gold.
The Wife of Bath (lines 447-478)
The Wife of Bath is described as a well-dressed woman and very skillful in making clothes. She has been married five times, which is a very high number of marriages (even today). She has travelled to Jerusalem three times and has seen many European cities. In other words, she is a worldly and independant woman.
The Parson (lines 479-530)
The Parson is rich in holy thought and work but poor in goods and possessions. He serves as an example and role model to his parishioners. According to the narator (Chaucer), the Parson is a good and truthful person.
The Plowman (lines 531-543)
Descending the social ladder, the reader has arrived at the Plowman, who is actually the Parson's brother. The Plowman is a true worker who has loaded and transported many carts with dung. The Plowman lives in peace, never thought of wealth and always pays his taxes. The Plowman does not tell a tale.
The Miller (lines 544-568)
The Miller is a big-boned and big-muscled man who always wins the prize in wrestling contests. He knows how to steal corn or grain during the milling process. Chaucer more or less implies that there are no honest millers.
The Manciple (lines 569-588)
The Manciple is a smart business agent who knows the markets and rituals. He serves his masters well but he serves himself best. After all, the Manciple covers the sight of his masters with blur (line 588).
The Reeve (lines 589-624)
The Reeve is a beardless man with long legs. As a manager of an estate or farm he knows about cattle, dairy cows, poultry, horses, grain etc. and about how to maintain all these goods. No person is able to deceive the Reeve and the Reeve knows something secretive of every person in his surrounding. So obviuously no person dares to challenge the Reeve. The Reeve's house is more nice and better than the dwelling of his lord. In his youth the Reeve was a skillful carpenter. On the way to Canterbury the Reeve always rides at the back of the group.
The Summoner (lines 625-670)
The Summoner has a skin disease that cannot be cured and a scanty beard. He likes to drink wine to get dizzy and then tries to impress his audience with two or three phrases in Latin. Besides, he likes to eat garlic, onions and leeks so his breath must be hideous. According to the Summoner, a person who deserves punishment should be punished in his purse, by paying the Summoner.
The Pardoner (lines 671-716)
The Pardoner travels with the Summoner as his friend and companion. The narrator is ambiguous here so we cannot tell in what sense the word "compeer" (meaning "companion") is used (line 672). The Pardoner has a high boyish voice and long yellow curly hair. The narrator thinks the Pardoner might be a eunuch or a homosexual (line 693). The Pardoner however says he likes to have a joly wench (girl) in every town (line 167 of The Pardoner's Prologue). Eunuchs and homosexuals don't care about wenches. This is of course all very ambiguous and no scholar knows the true nature of the Pardoner. Want to know more about the nature of the Pardoner and his trade? Read The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale.
The Host (lines 717-860)
The Host is the last person described in the General Prologue. He is a large man and honest man with large and bright eyes. All pilgrims are gathered for supper in his inn. It is the Host that comes with the idea of a tale-telling game during the journey to Canterbury, which is actually a pilgrimage. The pilgrims agree to the Host's proposal and his judgement to appoint the winning tale at the end. The next morning the pilgrims draw lots (straws). The Knight draws the shortest straw. So after the General Prologue has been finished, the Knight proceeds and starts telling his tale.
Overview and what is present
The General Prologue describes clothing and the rank and social status of the characters. Table manners and eating and drinking habits are repeatedly depicted as well as the quantity, type and quality of the food a person had in his possession. Possessing an abundance of food and wine denoted wealth and richness. This is all quite explainable. In Chaucer's time obtaining sufficient daily nutrition was a challenge for the larger part of the population.
What is missing?
What is missing is a depiction or description of the narrator, of Chaucer himself. We don't know his clothing, we don't know his trade, we don't know his social rank or profession. Chaucer's name does not appear anaywhere in The Canterbury Tales although he is the only pilgrim that tells two tales (The Tale of Sir Thopas, which is cut off by the Host because of its crappiness and The Tale of Melibee, which is a tedious lecture in prose about revenge, repentance and forgiveness). All others tell only one tale or no tale at all. As mentioned before, that was not on purpose. The Canterbury Tales was simply not finished because the project was too big and too ambitious.
Chaucer's trade, rank or profession are of no importance. He is ubiquitously present. All characters in The Canterbury Tales are fictitious. The only real person is Chaucer. Chaucer's voice is the voice of all characters.
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