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15thCenturyPilgrimsFromCanterbury

image from an early 15th century manuscript which depicts pilgrims leaving the city of Canterbury.

The "General Prologue" is the name given to the introductory text which opens The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. In common with most of the rest of the work, it is written in verse. The "General Prologue" sets up the framing device which allows for the telling of several different short stories of various different types. It also introduces the characters of many of the different pilgrims who are the supposed narrators of those stories. To a certain extent, the different personalities and backgrounds of those pilgrims are reflected in the stories which are attributed to them.

Summary

Thomas Stothard Canterbury Pilgrims 318 x 952 mm

18th century depiction of the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales by Thomas Stothard.

The start of spring in April is the time of year when many people in England go on pilgrimages. Some travel to Christian shrines in faraway lands. Many more go to the city of Canterbury to pray at the tomb of the martyr Thomas Becket.[1] People often pray to the popular Saint Thomas when they are in great need and go to give thanks at his shrine in Canterbury after their prayers are answered.

Geoffrey Chaucer has begun traveling to Canterbury on a pilgrimage. He stops at an inn called the Tabard in the London borough of Southwark. Twenty-nine other pilgrims who are on their way to Canterbury also stop at the inn. Chaucer speaks with them and decides to join their group.

Descriptions of the pilgrims

Chaucer describes the following pilgrims in the "General Prologue":[2]

  • The Knight: He is a brave warrior who has fought with distinction in many campaigns throughout Europe and beyond. His travels have taken him as far as Russia and Egypt. In spite of his long and illustrious military career, he is a very kind and mild mannered man. He shuns extravagant displays of wealth and fine clothes. He wears a tunic of coarse cloth which has been stained from contact with his rusty old armor.
The Squire - Ellesmere Chaucer

Image of the Squire from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

  • The Squire: He is the Knight's son. He is about twenty years old. He has seen some military action. He has also written poetry, enjoys singing, playing the flute and dancing. His clothes are embroidered with images of flowers.
  • The Prioress: She is the head of a convent. Her name is Madame Eglentyne. She speaks an old-fashioned form of Norman French which is only spoken in England. She does not understand French as it is spoken in France. She is known for her good table manners. She wears a rosary of green beads around her wrist. A brooch with the words "Love conquers all' written on it in Latin hangs from the rosary. She travels with another nun and a priest. She is also accompanied by some small dogs.
  • The Monk: He does not like his monastery and does not spend much time there. He does not like studying religious texts and much prefers hunting. His sleeves are lined with fur and his hood is fastened by a gold pin.
The Friar - Ellesmere Chaucer

Image of the Friar from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

  • The Friar: He makes a living by begging. He is very good at persuading people to make rich gifts to his monastery in return for forgiveness of their sins. He is more likely to be found at taverns than helping the poor and needy. It is even suggested that he has made several women pregnant and found suitable husbands for them afterwards.
  • The Merchant: He appears to be prosperous and boasts of his success in business. In reality, he is heavily in debt. Chaucer remarks that he does not know the Merchant's name.
The Franklin - Ellesmere Chaucer

Image of the Franklin from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

  • The Franklin:[3] He is a white-bearded old man who had been a Member of Parliament. He has a taste for the very finest things in life. He is however, very happy to share his fine foods, wines and ales with his neighbors.
  • 'The Clerk: He is a student at the University of Oxford and has been studying there for many years. He is thin and wears old clothes because he spends all of his money on books. He hopes to become a priest.
  • The Man of Law: He is an expert in the law. he has become rich as a result of buying land astutely.
  • The Cook: He is a master of the culinary arts and an expert in beer. Chaucer notices that he has an ulcer on his shin.
  • The Shipman: He is the captain of a ship called the MaudeLayne. He has traveled by sea across northern Europe and has also traveled by river in France and Spain. His skin has been tanned by the sun.
The Wife of Bath Blake

Early 19th century depiction of the Miller and the Wife of Bath by William Blake.

  • The Physician: He is an excellent doctor. He has a thorough understanding of medicine, including how, according to astrology, the stars and planets influence people's health and how magical talismans can be used to treat them. He has read all the most important medical textbooks but does not know the Bible very well. He is richly dressed but he is very careful in how he spends his money.
  • The Wife of Bath: She is a woman who has been married five times and who had several more lovers in her youth. She has been on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Boulogne, Cologne and Santiago de Compostela. She wears red clothes and a very large hat.
  • The Parson: He is a genuinely good priest. He knows the Bible well and always sets a good example to his parishioners with his good behavior. He always helps those in need without judging them. However, he has been known to scold people for their immorality, regardless of their position in society.
  • The Miller: He is a big strong man with a red beard and a wart on his nose. He plays the bagpipes and enjoys telling rude jokes. He steals corn from his customers and charges excessively high for his services.[4]
The Summoner - Ellesmere Chaucer

Image of the Summoner from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

  • The Manciple:[5] He is responsible for buying food for a law school. He is a very shrewd man who always gets a good price for the food that he buys, even if he does not have ready money to pay for it.
  • The Reeve:[6] He is responsible for the safekeeping of the lord of the manor's livestock and stored provisions. He is respected and feared in his area. He had been a carpenter before he became a reeve. He is tall, thin, clean shaven and has very short hair. He always rides at the back of the group of pilgrims.
  • The Summoner:[7] He wears a garland of flowers on his head. He has a very red face which frightens children. He is very fond of red wine. When he is drunk, he speaks nothing but Latin, even though his understanding of that language is very limited.
  • The Pardoner:[8] He is a friend of the Summoner. He has long blond hair. He is a skilled preacher but he is essentially a religious charlatan. He makes most of his money by selling bogus relics.

The telling of the tales

Paul Hardy09

Early 20th century oil painting by Paul Hardy which depicts the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales.

The landlord of the Tabard inn, who is named elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales as Harry Bailly and also referred to as the Host, enjoys the company of the pilgrims. He decides to join them on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. Harry Bailly proposes a way in which the pilgrims can entertain each other on their journey. He suggests that each of them should tell two stories on their way to Canterbury and two more on their way back.[9] He adds that the person who tells the best story will be rewarded with a meal at the Tabard inn when they return to Southwark. The other pilgrims agree that Harry Bailly should judge who tells the best tale.[10]

In order to decide who will tell the first story, Harry Bailly asks the Knight, the Clerk and the Prioress to draw straws. The Knight draws the shortest straw. Consequently, "The Knight's Tale" is the first of The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer asks his readers not to blame him for any vulgarities in The Canterbury Tales. He says that this is because he has written the tales word-for-word exactly as he heard them from their original narrators.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in his cathedral on the orders of King Henry II on December 29, 1170. A fictionalized account of Thomas Becket's last days is given in the play Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.
  2. A servant of the Squire, a haberdasher, a dyer, a carpenter, a tapestry maker and a plowman are also referred to in the "General Prologue" but they are not given tales to tell. The Canon's Yeoman is not among the original party of pilgrims that leaves from Southwark. He joins the group later.
  3. A franklin was a landowner who was not a member of the aristocracy
  4. Millers were very unpopular in medieval England. They were routinely accused of stealing from and cheating their customers.
  5. A manciple was a person who was responsible for buying food and other provisions for a monastery, a college or a court of law
  6. In medieval England, a reeve was a kind of official. The exact duties of a reeve varied at different times and in different places. The word "sheriff" is derived from "shire reeve".
  7. In medieval England, a summoner was responsible for telling people that they had been ordered to come before a Church court to answer charges of immorality.
  8. A pardoner was a person licensed by the Pope to sell documents absolving people of their sins.
  9. The Canterbury Tales is an unfinished work. According to the "General Prologue", each of the pilgrims should tell four stories. However, most of them tell only one. An exception to this is the character of Chaucer himself. He begins to tell "The Tale of Sir Thopas", is interrupted because the tale is so bad, then tells "The Tale of Melibee".
  10. Due to The Canterbury Tales being unfinished, no decision is ever made as to which story is the best.

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