In this lesson, we'll go over the General Prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. We'll take a look at some of the most interesting pilgrims and establish the frame narrative for the rest of the work.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Even some of the 'professional' pilgrims - the ones who have actual jobs - are just as bad. The merchant is in horrible debt. He thinks he's really good at hiding it, but everybody knows. (Kind of like your uncle who thinks he's farting silently but is actually just deaf.) The physician (who's the doctor) is really miserly. The shipman (the guy who runs the ship) is always stealing from the people he ships around. The miller is disgusting and drunk and tells horrible stories. All these people are nuts, basically.
The Wife of Bath
One of the most interesting people I haven't talked about yet is the Wife of Bath. She and the prioress are some of the only women who get to tell stories. She's interesting because she's actually been married five times. It says:
'She was a worthy womman al hir lyve:
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe,--'
So basically, she's had five husbands and also some 'other company' in her youth (nudge, nudge). And she's very congenial; she knows a lot of stuff:
'In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.
Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.'
She's laughing, and she knows the old ways of love. (She's had so many husbands, so she's very informed about this.) The interesting thing about her is that it's kind of hard to figure out if Chaucer likes her or if he's making fun of her because he's making fun of so many people. She's described in great detail; when she goes on to tell her tale later in the sequence, she gets a much longer prologue than anybody else, so she gets to talk about herself more. It seems like maybe he's actually interested in her and thinks that some of this stuff is a good thing. We don't really know.
Oh wait, I just mentioned her tale … you might have forgotten this is the The Canterbury Tales. All of these people are going to tell stories! The way this is set up is that they're all hanging out at the inn, and the host (the host at the inn) gives them dinner. Then he tells them that he's decided they're a great group of people, he loves them, and he's going to come with them to Canterbury. He's going to run, essentially, a tale-telling contest. Everyone is going to tell two stories on the way there and two stories on the way back, and whoever tells the one he likes the best is going to get a free meal, paid for by the rest of the pilgrims. So, that's the setup for why they tell these stories and how we get the stories that make up the rest of the work. It's also what makes some scholars think that the thing is unfinished. The guy says 'two tales there, two tales back,' and there are a lot of tales, but there aren't that many tales. We think maybe Chaucer didn't make good on his premise in the end; he didn't really finish it.
The interesting thing about these tales and comparing them to the General Prologue is that the same thing that's going on with Chaucer saying, 'Oh, this person has this job, but they're actually like this.' and kind of pointing out that discrepancy. A similar thing goes on with what stories they choose to tell. Their job, the way they are and their story all intersect in a really interesting way, and you can kind of figure out what this person really is and what Chaucer thinks of them. It gets really interesting.
In this lesson, we've looked in detail at some pilgrims: the knight, the prioress, the Wife of Bath. We've looked at a few more corrupt ones: the pardoner, the summoner, the merchant, the friar, the miller. And we've seen how these professions just don't line up with their personalities. This frame narrative of introducing all of these people and then setting up the tale-telling competition as the reason why they tell their tales allows us to see that discrepancy even more as the tales unfold. So, stay tuned, and we'll go over some of these tales!