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General Notes on Chaucer and the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

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Introduction

General Notes on Chaucer and the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Bifel that in that seson on a day, In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, At nyght was come into that hostelrye Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde. GP lI.20-27 In April Geoffrey Chaucer at the Tabard Inn in Southwerk, across the Thames from London, joins a group of pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas � Becket in Canterbury. He describes almost all of the nine and twenty pilgrims in this company, each of whom practices a different trade (often dishonestly). The Host of the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proposes that he join them as a guide and that each of the pilgrims should tell tales (two on the outward journey, two on the way back); whoever tells the best tale will win a supper, at the other pilgrims' cost when they return. The pilgrims agree, and Chaucer warns his readers that he must repeat each tale exactly as he heard it, even though it might contain frank language. The next morning the company sets out, pausing at the Watering of St. Thomas, where all draw straws, and the Knight is thus selected to tell the first tale. Until Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales he was known primarily as a maker of poems of love-dream visions of the sort exemplified in The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess, narratives of doomed passion, such as Troilus and Criseyde, and stories of women wronged by their lovers that he tells in The Legend of Good Women. The General Prologue begins with the description of Spring characteristic of dream visions of secular love. Chaucer set the style for such works (for some imitations click here). ...read more.

Middle

was not easy. Such credit accrued to those who made such journeys that professional pilgrims were soon making the journey, returning with relics, badges, and pilgrim symbols (such as the palm for one who had made the trip to Jerusalem) and often with tall tales of the places they had visited. Chaucer's House of Rumor (in The House of Fame) charcaterizes pilgrims with "wallets stuffed with lies: And, Lord, this hous in alle tymes Was ful of shipmen and pilgrimes, With scrippes bret-ful of lesinges. (House of Fame 2121-23) Langland says much the same in the Prologue to his Piers Plowman. Pilgrims and palmers � pledged them together To seek Saint James � and saints in Rome. They went forth on their way � with many wise tales, And had leave to lie � all their life after. I saw some that said � they had sought saints; Yet in each tale they told � their tongue turned to lies More than to tell truth � it seemed by their speech. The abuses Langland describes were fairly common; fake pilgrims were suitably punished. For many (including, apparently, most of Chaucer's pilgrims) a pilgrimage was more a holiday, complete with sightseeing at the shrine; this is the case in the Prologe to The Tale of Beryn where the pilgrims spend much time in acting like tourists and no time in prayer. It is not therefore surprising that moralists of the time, especially the Lollards, strongly objected to pilgrimages. The Lollard William Thorpe's description of pilgrimages sounds very much like Chaucer's, complete with bagpipes and bells on the horses: The General Prologue The most popular part of the Canterbury Tales is the General Prologue, which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach, claiming that the portraits are indicative of social types, part of a tradition of social satire, "estates satire", and insisting that they should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in a novel. ...read more.

Conclusion

Last we learn of the Summoner and the Pardoner, two grotesque figures on the edge of the church, living by it without being priests; one administers the church courts, the other sells pardons (indulgences). Children are afraid of the Summoner's face, he is suffering from some kind of skin disease; he is corrupt, as the narrator tells us after naively saying "A better fellow should men not find." But it is the Pardoner who is really odd, and modern critics have enjoyed discussing just what Chaucer meant by saying: "I trowe he were a gelding or a mare". With his collection of pigs' bones in a glass, that he uses as relics of saints to delude simple poor people, he is a monster in every way, and he concludes the list of pilgrims. The narrator of this Prologue is Chaucer, but this pilgrim Chaucer is not to be too simply identified with the author Chaucer. He explains that in what follows, he is only acting as the faithful reporter of what others have said, without adding or omitting anything; he must not then be blamed for what he reports. Neither must he be blamed if he does not put people in the order of their social rank, "My wit is short, ye may well understand." This persona continues to profess the utter naivety that we have already noted in his uncritical descriptions of the pilgrims. It is in this way, too, that we should approach the conclusion of the Prologue. Here the Host of the Tabard Inn (Harry Bailey, a historical figure) decides to go with them and ironically it is he, not Chaucer, who proposes the story-telling contest that gives the framework of the Tales. He will also be the ultimate judge of which is the best: "of best sentence and most solas." He is, after all, well prepared by his job to know about the tales people tell! One model for the literary competition would seem to be the meetings of people interested in poetry, known in French as puys, with which Chaucer would have been familiar. ...read more.

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