In this article, we will discuss in detail the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer.
Chaucer begins his masterpiece with an appreciation for the season of spring. The time of blooming flowers, pleasant weather, and welcome rain. The cool droplets of awaited showers bring relief to the dry winter lands and revitalize the plants and men alike.
The season of rejuvenation brings with it a new form of sensual lusts together with a desire for spiritual attainment. Hence, the people get ready to start the journey to the holy places.
They are getting ready to embark on the pilgrimage to the sacred Canterbury Cathedral and its resting hero, Martyr St. Thomas à Becket. They are longing of the martyr’s blessings and come from every part and every stratum of the English society and life.
Chaucer changes roles from the write to the narrator and joins the ranks of the pilgrims, collected together in Southwark, London at popular haunt called ‘the Tabard Inn’
He is staying at the place with 29 other Englishmen from all over the country to start their journey to Canterbury. He is ever so glad to be their company and accepts their invitation enthusiastically. They decide to begin on their spiritual and religious quest the next morning.
But before the pilgrimage starts, he makes a point to observe and analyze every individual and create a persona based on their visible and discernible choices, manners and appearance. He prepares profiles for each person and gives his verdict on their social category or rank.
Canterbury Tales Characters Analysis
It can be argued the descriptions follow linearity in terms of social status prevalent in the Medieval England with Knight being the highest placed individually. Hence, the next ranking individual had to be from the Church.
Then we come to next stratum of English society, the professionals, tradesmen and salaried employees. Chaucer ends with the unskilled and manual labourers ending the descriptions with the last level of social setting.
The pilgrims, based on Chaucer’s description, can be broadly categorized in:
Honest and Good
The Knight is considered a man of high repute, venerated and courteous. He is dressed conservatively in stained clothes of coarse fabric. He has had victories all over the continent but is modest with his words and conduct.
Chaucer seems genuinely impressed without any tone of satire in his words. His son, on the other hand, is dressed in feminine preferences with clothes having colourful flowers. He seems to be flirtatious and likes to write songs. He is of medium height and curly hair. He is training to follow in his father’s footsteps.
We are introduced to a simply clothed but impeccably educated Judge or the ‘Sergeant of the Law’. He is wise and has been awarded many medals and grants by the King for his service and courage. Even at the pinnacle of his field, he seems to exhibit a sense of glorious modesty.
We are introduced to the Merchant who is a man of colourful clothes and even more colourful opinions. He is brilliant at his trade but nobody seems to know much more about him.
He is dressed modestly and prefers Greek philosophy over the temptations of singing and dancing. He is as judicious and conservative with his words as with his gold.
Next, the narrator introduces the well-travelled Shipman. He hails from Dartmouth but has been to several places like Cape Finistere etc. He is tanned due to his long travels under the burning Sun and wears a woollen gown that runs down to his knees. He is good looking but has a weakness for wine.
After that, we are told about the Parson who is a man of religion. He is not rich in terms of material wealth but is generous with his words and actions.
He is well versed in the Christian scripture especially the Gospels and is devoted to his parishioners. Like a messianic leader, he tries to practice what he preaches and is regarded by Chaucer as the noblest of the priests in the land.
Then comes the hard-working Plowman, the Parson’s brother. He is clad in loose clothing and has a mare to ride on. He is a peaceful and generous man following the teachings of Jesus Christ himself. The Parson is the polar opposite of the clerical characters of the Friar, Prioress and Monk.
The Knight and Squire also have a male servant or the Yeoman. He is covered in a hood and carries a St, Christopher’s image. He is proficient at handling weapons like daggers, swords, arrows etc.
Next, we come to the Franklin, a free man or land-owner. He is a cheerful person with a bearded appearance. He is a glutton when comes to food and an admirer of the delicious foods, be it English pie or French wine.
Then, there is a group of skilled craftsmen, namely, the Weaver, the Tapycer (tapestry maker), the Carpenter, the Dyer and the Haberdasher. They all are dressed in their signature and unique clothes pertaining to the particular craft or guild.
They are not described in much detail probably because they do not get to tell any tales and remain in the backdrop for the most part.
The next pilgrim to be described is the talented Chef, Roger de Ware, hired by the guildsmen. He is there to offer his services as a culinary expert. He was supposed to make chicken and was known for his stews and pies. He seems to have an ulcer on his leg which is noticed by the narrator.
He is followed by the Manciple who is a smart and clever businessman. He is intelligent and informed above and beyond his lack of formal education and can deceive even the sharpest of men.
Hypocritical and Pretentious
The Prioress, Madame Eglantine, who wears a brooch that reads ‘Amor Vincit Omnia‘ or love is victorious over all else is described next. Being part of the Clergy, she is expressively religious, kind (to men and animals alike) and is extremely well mannered.
She also excels at the French language. Accompanying her is a second Nun. She is the Prioress’ secretary.
Adding to the ranks of the Clergy next comes the Monk. He is no conventional man of God and loves to go hunting and is a lot less conservative than others in his field of expertise. He is chubby but good looking who likes to observe God’s beneficent nature than relegating himself to just revising scripture. There are total two Nuns, three priests and one chaplain.
He shows contempt for lepers and beggars even though the father of Friars St. Francis devoted his life to serve the two oppressed groups of people.
The Prioress, Monk and Friar are mocked in a very explicit way by Chaucer for their diversion to a life of pretension, hypocrisy and artifice.
Chaucer then describes the Reeve who is slim and tall. He is adept at measuring the fields of his employer and stocking food grains in the granary. He is also very social and well connected with several men of utility like herdsmen, farm workers etc.
Since he knows about everyone’s dirty secrets, he is not a man to be messed with. He also knows carpentry.
The next pilgrim is the Summoner who has bad skin and pimples. He has a shabby appearance with an unkempt beard and small and slender eyes. He is an alcoholic and extremely vulgar.
He is also a scam artist and is described to be repulsive in no unclear terms. He is also the only counsellor for the young maidens in his region.
Subsequently, we read about the Doctor who is eloquent and well versed in surgery and medicine alike. His clothes are blue and red. Chaucer notices that even though the man of medicine is well read in his subject, from Greek to Anglican medicine but is not a student of the Biblical text and scripture.
Chaucer ridicules his passion for Gold and that he practices medicine to build a treasure rather than for healing others. The Parson is contrasted with the Wife of Bath. She is a woman of luxury and is fond of clothing and accessories.
She has been married five times already and claims to know everything about the affairs of the heart. She is described as a lustful person with a weakness for men and travel. She has visited places like Rome, Jerusalem, and Rome etc.
Next, we come to the very base of the social hierarchy with the muscular Miller. Apart from his size, he has fearsome features like wide nostrils and fiery mouth.
He is a dishonest and deceitful man who steals food and sells it at extortionate prices. Chaucer deems all the millers as unworthy and morally corrupt. He is a prized wrestler as well.
The last pilgrim to be described is the slightly effeminate Pardoner who is a companion of the repulsive Summoner. He has yellow coloured hair and has a handful of pardons from Rome.
He seems to be lustful as well. He also seems to be allured by material wealth as he hoards bejewelled crucifixes etc. He robs poor people by using his gift of storytelling. He is fond of singing and dancing. Chaucer words lead one to speculate whether he is homosexual.
Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Conclusion
Seemingly aware of his own biases and prejudices, Chaucer exhorts the readers to consider his reportage as close to their honest accounts as possible. Any errors or additions on his part would be unjust and grossly misrepresentative of the individuals being described.
He employs a linear and simplistic style of storytelling without many twists and frills. It keeps the reportage as close to the real and unaltered as possible.
Obviously, when he goes to narrate each individual’s stories, he takes the liberty of using their personal traits and quirks as governing markers in the narration style.
Now the owner of the Tabard Inn, the host arranges the supper for every pilgrim and that wins the heart of everyone. Hospitable and affable, he praises them as the best bunch of pilgrims he has met and proffers an innovative sport for them.
He expounds that rather than travelling to Canterbury is disparate and unconnected strangers why do not all the pilgrims play a round of story-telling. He encourages all of them to narrate two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey.
This will keep their morale and energies up for the journey. He propositions that he would be the final judge for the quality of the tales. He promises a free meal to the best talebearer on the return which the rest of the party will fund.
The Host decided to pay for his own travel with one condition that if anyone argues with his final judgment, that person will bear the cost of his travel. Every pilgrim gets onboard with the idea. The pilgrimage now becomes an exciting adventure rather than a chastening spiritual quest.
They all embark on their adventure the next morning. Straws are drawn to decide the order of storytellers. The Knight, mush out of resounding admiration and universal regard gets to go first.
He draws the short one and gets to tell his tale first. The rest of the poem describes various tales from the pilgrims. In the end, not everyone gets to tell their stories let alone two of them and the merry group does not even make it to Canterbury. As it happens, Chaucer did not finish his own magnum opus.