The Canterbury Tales Prologue: Quotes & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores Chaucer's literary portrait of Medieval English society as portrayed in the prologue to his famous ''The Canterbury Tales.'' We will look at his use of language and then discover how each character represents a distinct social class.

Here Beginneth the Book of the Tales of Canterbury

The prologue to The Canterbury Tales provides an introduction. The prologue opens in the month of April sometime in the late 14th century, presumably the 1380s when Chaucer penned his Tales. Picture the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a suburb of London. Here, Chaucer, the narrator, introduces his readers to a group of 29 pilgrims. These travelers are about to journey to the sacred shrine of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury, a 60-mile expedition to that Cathedral in the Southeastern county of Kent.

Jan Steen, Revelry at the Inn, 1674
medieval inn

Chaucer sets down his Tales in Middle English, the language of English commoners used between approximately the 12th and 15th centuries. After Old English and before Early Modern English, Middle English served as 'the language of the people.' Importantly, Chaucer chooses to use the common tongue instead of the French that was spoken in court or the Latin used in Church.

Try to look beyond the obscure verse in which Chaucer scribed his Tales. Chaucer begins with a description of the awakening spring and the feelings associated with it:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

In Modern English, it reads:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;

Chaucer means to say that the winter has begun to melt and the flowers of spring are emerging from the frost. It helps to notice that the author mentions the months of the year. He also uses words that evoke the fragrance of the spring and its delicate flavor. Chaucer chooses words that arouse the spirit of the season. He mentions the sounds of birds and the smell of flowers 'So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage.'

Can you imagine being there, in the chilly months before the summer's awakening? Doesn't it make you feel ready to embark on a journey?

Medieval Estates Satire, A Well-Ordered System

A structured class system existed in the Middle-Ages. In England, as well as Europe, people made sense of the social world through a rigid class structure, called the estates. In the prologue, Chaucer presents a procession of pilgrims in a hierarchical order, meaning that the most important and powerful classes came before the lower peasants and workers. According to this order, women are in the lowest position at the bottom. Chaucer's Tales are so important to us today because he maps out the order in the prologue, while also providing portraits of each of the social classes in the individual tales.

Class order represented in Die Schedelsche Weltchronik (The Nuremburg Chronicle), 1493
estates

Chaucer's Tales is one of the most widely studied examples of the genre known as estates satire. Other examples include William Langland's Piers Plowman and John Gower's Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis. In the study of literature, the estates satire is a genre in which the author describes, examines, and explains the workings of the social order, and offers their criticism or humor of that system. The estates satire provides important documentation in explaining how medieval life made sense of and coped with the regimented class system and all the rules that went along with it.

Introducing the Estates

Chaucer introduces the aristocracy first. Then, follow the clergy. After that, come merchants and skilled tradesman. The workers, farmers, and peasants bring up the rear.

William Blake, Canterbury Pilgrims, 1808
blake pilgrims

Nobles and Clergy

This 1808 etching by English artist William Blake depicts the procession leaving the Inn. Blake shows the Knight and Squire leading the group of pilgrims. The Knight and his company were associated with the Crusades and held the power to protect the faith and the nation. Behind them, follow the clergy: Nuns, Priests, the Friar, and the Monk. These characters are dignified and devout, respected for their commitment to their faith. By introducing these characters first, Chaucer indicates that they are the most important people in his society.

Nobility and clergy
Nobility

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