The Canterbury Tales General Prologue: Style, Structure, and Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Sjol
Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales contains a general prologue that sets up the style, structure, and characters. Explore these elements of the Prologue and discover some of the most interesting pilgrims through Chaucer's use of frame narrative. Updated: 08/21/2021

Style and Structure

The key thing about Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is that it's a story … within a story. He uses a frame narrative to set up who all of the characters are, and then the characters each tell stories of their own. The section of the poem that does this frame narrative is called the General Prologue, and that's what we're going to talk about in this video.

There's a narrator who tells us that a bunch of pilgrims have all gathered in an inn - it's called the Tabard Inn - in the south of London in April, he tells us, with all its 'sweet showers' reviving the plants. It's the perfect time for making pilgrimages, so they're all doing it. They've spent the night at this inn, and they're all getting ready to leave to go on their pilgrimage to Canterbury.

The narrator guy decides he's just going to describe them all, and there are a lot of pilgrims. They're all totally different from each other; they've got very different personalities. He identifies them all by their occupations - so, what they do - but his descriptions are interesting because more often than not, he's trying to point out discrepancies between what their job is and how they actually act. He, generally, praises everybody, but you can kind of tell that in some cases it's meant to be ironic; it's meant to be a joke. (Like 'Oh yeah, he's really great. No, he's not.') So there's a lot of that going on. There's a ton of pilgrims, and we're not going to talk about all of them, but we'll just talk about the most interesting, most significant ones. Go through a few of them. That's the spirit of the General Prologue; we're just cutting some things.

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  • 0:05 Style and Structure
  • 1:45 The Knight
  • 3:37 The Prioress
  • 5:20 Other Pilgrims
  • 6:52 The Wife of Bath
  • 8:17 Tale-Telling Competition
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The Knight

We're going to talk about the knight. First off - this is kind of fun - in Middle English, 'knight' is spelled 'knyght', and it's actually pronounced 'kenicht'. So, now you can pronounce 'knight' how you've always wanted to pronounce it: 'kenicht'. This 'kenicht' is accompanied by his squire, who's actually his son, and then he also has the yeoman, who's a kind of servant. They both tell tales as well, but the knight's is the most significant of the three. Chaucer talks about the battles this knight has won and all the places he's gone. He says:

'He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight'

That just means he never said anything bad to any person. You can see that first line: 'Never yet no villainy didn't say' is basically what it says. In Middle English, double negatives are totally fine. It's just emphasis; it doesn't cancel out like it does for us.

Chaucer comes to the conclusion:

'He was a verray parfit gentil knyght' (He was a really perfect, gentle knight.)

That sounds great! He's also not vain. He's wearing a rough tunic 'al bismotered with his habergeoun.' This is an example of Middle English that no one has a prayer of understanding: 'habergeoun'? That's something you'd have to go look up. His tunic is 'bismotered,' or 'stained,' and what it's staining is his 'chainmail coat.' So, he's noble, but he's not vain (because he's kind of messy, too). The knight is kind of a perfect knight - if Chaucer is being ironic about this, it's very subtle. His praise seems to be as straight as it is for anybody, so the knight seems to be okay.

The Prioress

Where it gets interesting is with the prioress, who comes next in the description. Here we start to really see that disconnect between her job and how she actually is. A prioress is, basically, a chief nun, and she's got a bit of a nun entourage. She's got the second nun, and she's also got the nun's priest, and they tell tales, too. So, think about what you know about nuns. They're kind of sober. They dress plainly. They wear those weird wimples. They're not that much fun (well, maybe some of them are). Now, look at this description of her:

'And sikerly she was of greet desport,

And ful plesaunt, and amyable of port,

And peyned hir to countrefete cheere

Of court'

So, she's got great manners, but she's counterfeiting the cheer (or the manner) of the court. She's pretending to be a courtly lady. Even though she's a nun, her manners are those of the court, which is a little bit strange. The narrator goes on to describe her piety and her goodness, and it's clearly overkill. He says:

'She was so charitable and so pitous,

She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous

Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.'

Basically, she's so compassionate that she's going to cry if she sees a mouse in a mousetrap. That seems to be an exaggeration of the courtly delicacy that ladies are supposed to have and how much compassion you're supposed to feel. It also seems to be a bit of a send-up of a type. She's supposed to be this prioress, but she also acts courtly and is over exaggeratedly concerned for the welfare of animals. Chaucer does this a lot, especially with the jobs that are involved in the church.

Other Pilgrims

There's the friar. Friars are supposed to make their living by begging, but this friar dresses really great and is eating all the time. The summoner and the pardoner; they work for the church (they're not actually of the cloth), and they're horrible people. Actually, if you love A Knight's Tale as much as I do, you'll recall that the summoner and the pardoner are the awful people who convince Chaucer, in the movie, to gamble away his clothes. It results in a naked Paul Bettany, so maybe it's not that bad. Anyway, the summoner, basically, gets people to go to trial who have broken court law, but he's all drunk and lecherous - he's always going after women. The Pardoner sells 'indulgences,' which, basically, means you can buy your way out of having sinned, and he's really corrupt about it, so he's not a good guy.

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