Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Quotes

  • Time

    General Prologue

    And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
    So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
    .
    (General Prologue 30 – 31)

    This is the first instance of something that happens constantly in the frame story of the Tales, which is the obsessive detailing of exactly what time it was when something happened.

    Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
    The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote
    ,
    (General Prologue 1 – 2)

    For everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (Turn, turn, turn.) Yeah, you know the song, and it's basically making the same point as the first fourteen lines of The Canterbury Tales. These lines tell us that there's a particular time of year when people want to go on pilgrimages. They describe just what that time of year that is: namely, spring. The point seems to be that spring is a time for beginnings, like the beginning of a journey which is the beginning of repentance (and the beginning of this poem).

    Amorwe, whan that day bigan to springe,
    Up roos oure Host and was oure aller cok
    .
    (General Prologue 822 – 832)

    It's fitting that the Host would be the rooster here, since, as the frame story progresses, he is the character most concerned with time. He's constantly urging the pilgrims to hurry up and tell their stories already, for time is passing! This moment is important foreshadowing of that role.

    But natheles, whyl I have tyme and space,
    Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
    Me thinketh it acordaunt to resoun
    To telle yow al the condicioun
    Of ech of hem, so as it semed me
    .
    (General Prologue 35 – 39)

    Here, Chaucer is referring not to time as it's passing in the story, but to narrative time, the amount of time and space it takes him to say what he wants to say. Just as the Host is always worried that time is passing too quickly, Chaucer and many of the other characters are often concerned that they're going to take up too much narrative time and space.

    The Reeve's Prologue

    As many a yeer as it is passed henne
    Syn that my tappe of lif bigan to renne
    .
    (Reeve's Prologue 35 – 36)

    By comparing the years of his life to a barrel of wine that's draining, the Reeve emphasizes the way that we are powerless to stop the flow of time, however much we might wish to. Wine is something desirable, that we'd like to have around forever. But no matter how much we desire to keep it, it always runs out eventually.

    Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme.
    Lo Depeford, and it is half-wey pryme!
    Lo Grenwych, ther many a shrewe is inne!
    It were al tyme thy tale to bigynne
    .
    (Reeve's Prologue 51 – 54)

    Half-way prime is only about 7:30am, but the Host is already worried the pilgrims are running out of time. Part of what's going on here could be a medieval Christian idea that waste, even the waste of time, is morally wrong. All time should be spent doing something productive, which is why the Host urges the pilgrims to tell stories.

    Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale

    Wel kan Senec and many a philosophre
    Biwaillen tyme moore than gold in cofre;
    For 'Los of catel may recovered be,
    But los of tyme shendeth us,' quod he.
    It wol nat come agayn, withouten drede,
    Namoore than wolde Malkynes maydenhede,
    Whan she hath lost it in hir wantownesse
    .
    (Man of Law's Introduction 25 – 31)

    As he does in the above quote, the Host suggests again that time is lost only through our negligence. He accomplishes this by comparing lost time to virginity lost in "wantownesse," or the lustful nature of the virgin. Sexist, yes, but it makes the Host's point that loss of time is our own fault.

    Lordynges, the tyme wasteth nyght and day,
    And steleth from us, what pryvely slepynge,
    And what thurgh necligence in oure wakynge,
    As dooth the streem that turneth nevere agayn,
    Descendynge fro the montaigne into playn
    .
    (Man of Law's Introduction 20 – 24)

    As the Reeve does, the Host here compares time passing to a liquid flowing away. Yet he also suggests that it's possible not to lose time if we are careful. Time is only lost through our own negligence and waste.

    Our Hooste saugh wel that the brighte sonne
    The ark of his artificial day hath ronne
    The ferthe part, and half an houre and moore

    (Man of Law's Introduction 1 – 3 & ff)

    These and the eleven lines that follow go into great detail about how the Host calculates the time of day by combining his knowledge of the date (May 18) with his observation of the position of the sun and the length of shadows on the ground. It's possible that Chaucer was showing off a bit here: we know that he wrote a book about the astrolabe, an instrument for determining the time of day based on the position of the sun, among other things. Here, he's probably demonstrating the knowledge he got from that endeavor.

    The Clerk's Prologue

    I trowe ye studie aboute som sophyme;
    But Salamon seith 'every thyng hath tyme.'
    (Clerk's Prologue 5 – 6)

    There's an interesting echo of the poem's "a time for everything" beginning. The Host is emphatic about the fact that a pilgrimage is not the time for study. Yet the Host's conviction that a pilgrimage is the time for stories is a bit puzzling. Isn't a pilgrimage really a time for prayer?

    Prologue to the Monk's Tale

    Though I by ordre telle nat thise thynges,
    Be it of popes, emperours, or kynges,
    After hir ages, as men writen fynde,
    But tellen hem som bifore and som bihynde,
    As it now comth unto my remembraunce,
    Have me excusen of myn ignoraunce
    .
    (Monk's Prologue 97 – 102)

    The Monk's apology for failing to tell his stories in the correct historical order echoes Chaucer's apology in the General Prologue for failing to describe the pilgrims in order of degree. In both cases, the authors are upsetting order in the name of artistic license, but claiming a lack of wit or memory as their excuse.

    The Parson's Prologue

    By that the Maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
    The sonne fro the south lyne was descended
    So lowe that he nas nat, to my sighte,
    Degrees nyne and twenty as in highte.
    Four of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse

    (Parson's Prologue 1 – 5 & ff)

    Like he does in the Man of Law's Introduction, Chaucer shows off his knowledge of the astrolabe and calculating the time precisely based upon the position of the sun. This moment is also a neat match-up of time in the story with time in the poem: the poem is almost over for us, and the day is almost over for the pilgrims.

  • Wealth

    General Prologue

    His lord wel coude he plesen subtilly,
    To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
    And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood
    .
    (General Prologue 610- 612)

    Although the Reeve appears very deceitful by loaning to his lord from the property he has stolen from him, there's also a subtle condemnation of the lord in question here. By leaving his affairs wholly to his serf and not bothering to look into them in detail, the lord shows himself to be lazy or negligent.

    So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:
    al was fee simple to [the Sergeant of the Law] in effect
    .
    (General Prologue 318 – 319)

    The Sergeant of the Law's financial success has allowed him to avoid something that, for medieval people, was a moral failing: debt. All the Sergeant of the Law's land is "fee simple," or purchased free and clear with ready money.

    For whether that he payde, or took by taille,
    Algate he wayted so in his achat
    That he was ay biforn and in good stat
    .
    (General Prologue 570 – 572)

    There's something a little strange about the way the Manciple manages to always come out ahead on his accounts despite the fact that he sometimes takes "by tail," or on credit. It's possible that the Manciple is cheating someone in order to do this.

    For wel he wiste, whan that song was songe,
    He most preche, and wel affyle his tonge
    To winne silver, as he ful wel coude
    .
    (General Prologue 711 – 713)

    Because he makes his living by selling pardons, or forgiveness from sin, the Pardoner must tell people they are very sinful, whether or not they actually are. That way, they will want to purchase the pardons he is selling. Thus the Pardoner's trade is inherently deceitful, since the Pardoner must always ignore the actual state of people's souls in favor of the sermon that will make him the most money.

    Everich, for the wisdom that he can,
    Was shaply for to been an alderman.
    For catel hadde they ynogh and rente
    .
    (General Prologue 371 – 373)

    This quote raises the age-old question: who should have power? Those who are qualified or those who are wealthy? Or are the rich wealthy because they are qualified? The guildsmen are not only good at what they do, they're crafty, having seen the financial advantage in joining a guild. Does that make them wise, and, thus, qualified to be aldermen, too?

    Of maistres hadde he mo than thryes ten
    [...]
    Worthy to ben stiwardes of rente and lond
    Of any lord that is in Engelond,
    To make him live by his propre good
    In honour, detelees, but he were wood
    .
    (General Prologue 576, 579 – 582)

    The mark of a good steward, or keeper of financial accounts and properties, is someone who can keep the lord living within his means. This way the lord can avoid debt, which was seen as a moral failing at this time period.

    But al be that he was a philosophre,
    Yet hadde [the Clerk]but litel gold in cofre
    .
    (General Prologue 297 – 298)

    Two things could be happening here: 1) This could be an ironic joke playing upon the fact that then, as now, we don't really expect someone who studies obscure topics for a living to have a whole bunch of money. 2) "Philosophre" actually means alchemist, someone who transforms base metals into gold.

    His resons [the Merchant] spak ful solempnely,
    Souninge always th'encrees of his winning
    .
    (General Prologue 274 – 275)

    Usually when someone gives "resons," it's in the context of a philosophical debate. But the Merchant's mind is on one thing and one thing only: money. We get the impression that his conversation is a bit monotonous!

    A good man was ther of religioun,
    And was a povre Persoun of a toun,
    But riche he was of holy thought and werk
    .
    (General Prologue 477 – 479)

    As the only religious character fulfilling his vow of poverty, Chaucer implies that the Parson is actually the richest of them all. The idea is that God trades in a different currency – faith and holy deeds – with which the holy can buy their way into Heaven.

    He wolde techen him to have non awe
    In swiche cas of the erchedeknes curs,
    But-if a mannes soule were in his purs,
    For in his purs he sholde y-punisshed be
    .
    (General Prologue 654 – 657)

    The Summoner knows that it's possible to buy forgiveness and thus avoid or reverse a sentence of excommunication ("the erchedeknes curs"). Perhaps he wants the people he summons to appear before the archdeacon for sin to come easily.

    He kepte that he wan in pestilence,
    For gold in phisik is cordial;
    Therfore he lovede gold in special
    .
    (General Prologue 442 – 444)

    A sly joke is occurring here based upon the fact that medieval physicians and apothecaries used finely ground gold in their most expensive medicines. Thus gold in medicine really was a cordial, or pleasure-giving concoction. But the implication here is that gold gives pleasure to the Physician because he's greedy.

    The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue
    The Canon and Canon's Yeoman

    "I seye, my lord kan swich subtilitee –
    [...]
    That al this ground on which we been ridyng
    Til that we come to Caunterbury toun,
    He koude al clene turnen up-so-doun
    And pave it al of silver and of gold."

    (Canon's Yeoman's Prologue 67, 70 – 73)

    With this statement, the Canon's Yeoman's reveals that his master is an alchemist, someone who studies how to turn metals like lead and copper into gold. The fact that he does so in such fabulous terms, saying not just that his master can turn lead into gold, but that he could pave the whole road to Canterbury with the stuff, reveals that the Canon's Yeoman is eager to impress the pilgrims.

    To muchel folk we doon illusioun,
    And borwe gold, be it a pound or two,
    Or ten, or twelve, or many sommes mo,
    And make hem wenen, at the leeste weye,
    That of a pound we koude make tweye
    .
    (Canon's Yeoman's Prologue 120 – 124)

    The Canon's Yeoman's description of how he and his colleagues deceive people into thinking they can multiply their gold foreshadows the events that occur in his tale. We have to wonder why the Canon's Yeoman is being so honest; why confess to being a thief and a liar? His honesty certainly gets him in trouble with his master, who leaves the company rather than be exposed as a fraud in front of them.

  • Society and Class

    General Prologue

    [The Prioress] peyned hire to countrefete chere
    Of court, and to ben estatlich of manere,
    And to ben holden digne of reverence
    .
    (General Prologue 139 – 141)

    Wanting to appear noble, the Prioress makes herself appear ridiculous. The Prioress's belief that one must be noble to be worthy of reverence provides an interesting window into her character and her failing as a religious figure.

    It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
    For to delen with no swich poraille,
    But al with riche and selleres of vitaille.
    (General Prologue 246 – 248)

    The friar, who has taken a vow of poverty, is supposed to live a humble life tending to the poor and sick. But his pride and his desire for creature comforts cause him to gravitate toward the wealthy. This is a common failing of most of the religious figures Chaucer describes.

    [The Plowman] wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve,
    For Cristes sake, for every povre wight,
    Withouten hyre, if it lay in his might
    .
    (General Prologue 536 – 538)

    The figure of the plowman is a medieval symbol of the poor. The fact that this plowman works not just for himself, but for all poor men, reinforces this symbolism and speaks to a vision of the solidarity of the poor.

    Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas,
    The sothe is this, the cut fil to the Knight
    .
    (General Prologue 344 – 345)

    Chaucer plays it coy here by claiming not to know whether chance, fate, or fortune allows the Knight to draw the shortest cut and, hence, go first in the tale-telling. In fact, the Knight's position in the order is perfectly in keeping with the social logic that places the nobleman on top of the pyramid. So, in this logic, it's definitely fate that puts the Knight first.

    But rather wolde [the Parson] yeven, out of doute,
    Unto his povre parisshens aboute
    Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce
    .
    (General Prologue 487 – 489)

    The Parson's generosity to the poor is what marks him as a successful religious figure, and distinguishes him from other religious figures like the Summoner and Pardoner, who take from, rather than give to, the poor.

    The Millere was a stout carl for the nones;
    Ful big he was of brawn, and eek of bones –

    [...]
    His nosethirles blake were and wyde.
    [...]
    His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.
    (General Prologue 545 – 546, 557, 559).

    The Miller's physical appearance – a big lug with a huge nose and mouth – fits the medieval stereotype of a lower-class person. The idea is that he's all brawn, no brains.

    Also I preye yow to foryive it me,
    al have I nat set folk in hir degree
    Here in this tale, as that they shode stonde;
    My wit is schort, ye may wel understonde
    .
    (General Prologue 743 – 745)

    If Chaucer were following the "proper order" of things, he would list the pilgrims in order of their social class, starting with the most noble and descending to the poorest. Instead he mixes it up a lot. This may be a foreshadowing of the disorder to come in the telling of tales, when the Miller interrupts the "proper" order begun by the Knight.

    Everich, for the wisdom that he can,
    Was shapely for to been an alderman.
    For catel hadde they ynogh and rente.
    (General Prologue 371 – 373)

    There's an interesting irony in this quote: Chaucer starts out by claiming that, to be an "alderman," or powerful leader of the town, wisdom is necessary. But he ends by justifying the craftsmen's ascent to this position because of their wealth.

    But with thise relikes, whan that [the Pardoner] fond
    A povre person dwellinge upon lond,
    Upon a day he gat in monthes tweye
    .
    (General Prologue 701 – 703)

    Since we've already had a portrait of a truly good Parson, who gives to rather than takes from the poor, the Pardoner's cheating of the poor person here appears doubly treacherous.

    It is ful fair to been y-clept, 'Madame,'
    And goon to vigilyes al bifore,
    And have a mantel royalliche y-bore
    .
    (General Prologue 376 – 378)

    The upwardly mobile wives of the guildsmen like to display their social status conspicuously. For the women of this class, the ability to get noticed is an important "perk" of having money.

    His Lord wel coude [the Reeve] plesen subtilly,
    To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
    And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood
    .
    (General Prologue 611 – 613)

    Do we detect a bit of the narrator's vicarious delight in the way the lower-class Reeve outsmarts the nobleman? It's the classic "rooting for the underdog," with the element of class competition thrown in to spice it up a bit.

    The Miller's Prologue
    The Host

    "Now telleth ye, sir Monk, if that ye konne,
    Somwhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale."

    (Miller's Prologue 10 – 11)

    By asking the Monk to go next, the Host reveals that he plans to have the pilgrims tell their tales in order of social class; after the Monk would likely be the Franklin or another one of the religious figures.

    The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this.
    So was the Reve eek and othere mo,
    And harlotrie they tolden bothe two
    .
    (Miller's Prologue 74 – 76)

    It's in keeping with the "all brawn and no brains" stereotype of lower-class people ("cherles") that Chaucer suggests that the Miller and the Reeve would be incapable of telling a classy tale. Instead, they rely upon "harlotrie" – more low-brow humor – to enter the competition.

    The Miller

    [The Miller] swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,
    I kan a noble tale for the nones,
    With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."

    (Miller's Prologue 17 – 19)

    By demanding that he be the one to tell the next tale, the Miller not only upsets the proper social order the Host has indicated he plans to follow, he also sets himself up in direct competition with the Knight. It would have probably seemed a little ludicrous to a medieval person that a Miller would think he could compete with a knight, even if only in tale-telling, but that's all part of the fun.

  • Competition

    General Prologue

    In all the parisshe wyf ne was ther noon
    That to the offringe bifore [the Wife of Bath] sholde goon
    .
    (General Prologue 451 – 452)

    The Wife of Bath is in competition to be seen as the most important woman in her parish church. Not only does this provide us with an important piece of information about the Wife's character, it also tells us about what could serve as a status-enhancer for a medieval woman: in this case, being first to give the offering at mass.

    Over al ther [the Miller] cam
    At wrastlyng he wolde have alwey the ram
    .
    (General Prologue 549 – 550)

    Compare the prize the Miller wins in his competition – a ram – with what we learn the Knight wins for his prowess in battle – a great reputation. These different prizes might represent the different registers in which the Knight and Miller are portrayed – the Knight's is abstract and noble, the Miller's is earthy and animalistic.

    If that he faught and hadde the hyer hond,
    by water he sente hem hoom to every lond
    .
    (General Prologue 401 – 402)

    It's interesting that among the first competitions we hear about in The Canterbury Tales are the Shipman's physical fights that end in death by drowning. This colors our perception of the conflicts between the pilgrims that follow, some of which also threaten to become physical and violent.

    At many a noble armee hadde [the Knight] be,
    At mortaille batailles hadde he been fiftene
    And foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene
    In lystes thries and ay slayn his foo
    .
    (General Prologue 60 – 64)

    Chaucer is careful to emphasize that the Knight fights for the Christian faith. He does not engage in competition for no reason whatsoever, like some of the other characters we meet in the Prologue.

    And which of yow that bereth him best of alle,
    That is to seyn, that telleth in this cas
    tales of best sentence and most solas,
    shal have a soper at oure aller cost
    .
    (General Prologue 798 – 801)

    The Host is a lot more specific about what will win the competition than just, "the best tale." The winner has to tell the tale "of best sentence," that is, the best instruction, and "most solas," the most delightful. This gives us an idea of what the Host thinks makes for a good story, and it corresponds with ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's definition of what the purpose of literature is – to instruct and delight.

    The Reeve's Prologue

    And, by your leve, I shal [the Miller] quyte anoon;
    Right in his cherles termes wol I speke
    .
    (Reeve's Prologue 63 – 65)

    The way the Reeve's going to "quite," or get back at the Miller, is by speaking in the same terms he does. This sets the rules of the competition between them as a sort of "copycat" game, and gives us one way of looking at the Reeve's tale – that is, in comparison to the Miller's tale.

    For leveful is with force force of-showve.
    (Reeve's Prologue 58)

    This is kind of like saying, "you've got to fight fire with fire." And by saying this, and therefore excusing himself for speaking rudely, the Reeve makes himself appear better – more polite than – the Miller (i.e., the Reeve is only speaking rudely because he's got to fight fire with fire, whereas the Miller is just rude by nature).

    Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale

    [. . .] I recche noght a bene
    Though I come after hym with hawebake,
    I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make
    .
    (Man of Law's Introduction 94 – 96)

    The Man of Law explicitly sets himself up in competition with Chaucer. In contrast to the Reeve and the Summoner, though, who want to fight fire with fire, the Man of Law proposes that the best way to overcome an opponent is to do something different than him and avoid the competition altogether. So, he announces he will speak in prose, rather than attempt to beat Chaucer at his own game.

    The Friar's Prologue

    [. . .] Whan it comth to my lot,
    By God, I shal hym quiten every grot
    .
    (Friar's Prologue 77 – 78)

    The Summoner allows the Friar to say what he wishes, because he knows that, later, he will have a chance to speak and get back at the Friar. It's interesting how, here, anticipated future competition is actually a means of preventing conflict in the present.

    The Franklin's Interruption

    For he to vertue listeth nat entende;
    But for to pleye at dees, and to despende
    And lese al that he hath is his usage
    .
    (Squire's Tale / Franklin's Interruption 689 - 691)

    The Franklin's son's gambling is the kind of competition that wastes money and serves no purpose. It signifies vice, in contrast to the Knight's fighting for the Christian faith, which signifies virtue.

    Men shal nat maken ernest of game.
    (Miller's Prologue 78)

    Here "game" can mean either something funny, or it could be referring to game in the sense of competition. By calling his repetition of the Miller's words "game," Chaucer compares his narration to the tale-telling competition in which the pilgrims engage.

  • Friendship

    General Prologue

    An haberdassher, and a carpenter,
    A webbe, a dyere, and a tapicer,
    Were with us eek, clothed in o liveree
    Of a solempne and greet fraternitee.
    (General Prologue 361 – 365)

    Taking friendship to the next level, the Tradesmen have joined together in a guild. Sort of a forerunner of the modern trade union, the guild protected its members financially. The fraternity, or brotherhood, the members of a guild share is not blood; instead they share the same trade.

    With him ther rood a gentil Pardoner
    of Rouncival, his freend and his compeer
    .
    (General Prologue 669 – 670)

    The fact that the Summoner and the Pardoner are friends is not surprising, for they're both in the business of selling forgiveness from spiritual obligations. The Pardoner sells pardons from sin, and the Summoner sells a sort of "bail," or escape from an obligation to appear in a Church court for one's sins. Like the craftsmen, then, these two hang together because they practice a similar trade.

    At night was come into that hostelrye
    Wel nyne and twenty in a companye
    Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
    In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they all
    .
    (General Prologue 23 – 26)

    Here Chaucer uses the two words he most often chooses to speak about the group of pilgrims: companye and felawshipe. Companye simply refers to a group of traveling companions, but fellowship can mean both this and a group of intimates – something closer to friends. These pilgrims have been thrown together by aventure, or chance, but can they form a true fellowship from their chance encounter?

    But al that he mighte of his freendes hente,
    On bokes and on lerninge he it spente,
    And bisily gan for the soules preye
    Of hem that yaf him wherwith to scoleye
    .
    (General Prologue 299 – 302)

    Here we have the first version of a student loan, except that it doesn't seem like the clerk will pay this back; instead, he'll exchange prayers for the money to continue his schooling. It's hard for us to imagine relying upon our friends for the money we need for school, which suggests that the obligations and expectations of friendship have changed a lot since Chaucer's time.

    For by my trouthe, if that I shal nat lye,
    I saugh nat this yeer so mery a compaignye
    Atones in this herberwe as is now.
    Fayn wolde I doon yow mirthe, wiste I how
    .
    (General Prologue 763 – 766)

    The merriness the Host senses in this group of pilgrims causes him to want to increase it further by officiating over the tale-telling game. His proposal also serves him well, though, for it immediately makes him part of this "mery" company.

    A bettre felawe sholde men noght finde:
    He wolde suffre, for a quart of wyn,
    A good felawe to have his concubyn
    A twelf-month and excuse him atte fulle.
    (General Prologue 648 – 651)

    Chaucer's idea about what makes a good companion – someone who allows you to indulge in your vices without question – has got to be a little bit ironic. Although, on the other hand, maybe certain types would prefer to hang out with those who mind their own business. Is Chaucer this type, or is something else going on here?

    For ech of hem made other for to winne;
    Hir frendschipe nas nat newe to biginne
    .
    (General Prologue 427 – 428)

    The physician's longstanding "friendship" with the apothecary to whom he sends his patients enriches both of them. Similar to the guildsmen, this is a friendship entered into for financial gain: the physician likely takes a cut of the business he sends the apothecary's way.

    In felawschipe wel coude she laughe and carpe.
    (General Prologue 474)

    The Wife of Bath is an ideal traveling companion because she knows how to laugh and chat in a group. When we think of the types of people it'd be good to have on pilgrimage with us, an expert socializer isn't necessarily the first one that comes to mind. But someone like this would have helped to pass the monotonous hours on the road.

    So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
    That I was of hir felawshipe anon
    .
    (General Prologue 31 – 32)

    Chaucer's means of joining the fellowship of pilgrims is to speak with all of the members. His connection with all, and not just one or two of them, is what truly makes him a part of the group. This might give us an idea of what it means to a medieval person to be part of a fellowship.

    The Friar's Prologue

    In compaignye we wol have no debaat.
    (Friar's Prologue 24)

    The Host's definition of what makes a successful "company," or group of traveling companions, hinges upon a group in which there is no conflict or controversy. That's why here he asks the friar to stop insulting the Summoner. The Host often takes it upon himself to prevent further conflict from erupting among the pilgrims.

    The Manciple's Prologue

    […]"I se wel it is necessarie,
    Wher that we goon, good drynke with us carie;
    For that wol turne rancour and disese
    T'acord and love, and many a wrong apese."

    (Manciple's Prologue 95 – 98)

    The Host's suggestion that alcohol is the best way to turn conflict and rancor into peace and accord is actually a little disturbing. If the only way to resolve conflict is really to drug people into a stupor (as the Manciple has done to the Cook), well, that suggests the conflicts go deeper than we might like to admit. If that's the case, true fellowship for these pilgrims may be impossible.

  • Literature and Writing

    General Prologue

    [The Monk] yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
    That seith that hunters ben nat holy men,
    Ne that a monk, whan he is reccheless,
    Is lykned til a fish that is waterlees
    (That is to seyn, a monk out of his cloistre);
    But thilke text held he nat worth an oistre
    .
    (General Prologue 177 – 182)

    A good medieval reader would not only understand a text, but also apply it to his own life. What are we to make then, of the monk's casual disregard for this text by St. Augustine, one of the great authorities of Christian literature? Not only does this monk have a "newfangled" attitude toward the proper pursuits for a monk, but a newfangled attitude toward reading and authority.

    [The Squire] koude songes make and wel endyte,
    Juste and eek daunce, and wel purtreye and wryte
    .
    (General Prologue 95 – 96)

    Not only is the Squire good at feats of arms, he's also skilled at composing verses. We could draw a few different conclusions for this: either we're meant to take the Squire as a true "Renaissance man," or the Squire's writing of verse is really writing of love poetry, and yet one more piece of evidence of his tendency toward romantic infatuation. Or maybe it's both.

    And which of yow that bereth him best of alle,
    That is to seyn, that telleth in this cas
    Tales of best sentence and most solas,
    Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
    .
    (General Prologue 796 – 799)

    The Host expresses the standard medieval definition of good literature here: it's something that both instructs and delights. This definition comes from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's Poetics, a treatise about the elements and purpose of drama.

    This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
    That first [the Parson] wroghte, and afterward he taughte.
    Out of the gospel he tho wordes caught
    .
    (General Prologue 496 – 498)

    The most important book for a medieval person was the Bible. A good medieval reader of any text, but especially the Bible, is one who internalizes the teaching contained in it and truly lives it in his own life. That the Parson does this marks him as a good reader.

    For [the Clerk] was levere have at his beddes heed
    Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed,
    Of Aristotle and his philosophye
    Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrye
    .
    (General Prologue 293 – 296)

    In contrast to the Monk's disrespect toward learned authority, the Clerk would rather have books than food or clothes! His specific love of Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher who became very popular with scholars during this time period, tells us that the Clerk is well-versed in the intellectual trends of the medieval university, where Aristotle was one of the most important authorities.

    And certeinly [the Friar] hadde a murye note;
    Wel coude he singe and pleyen on a rote;
    Of yeddinges he bar outrely the prys
    .
    (General Prologue 235 – 237)

    A "yeddinge" is a narrative song. The type that would be accompanied by a rote, a kind of stringed instrument, would probably be a romantic ballad. This kind of literature might be considered frivolous, especially for a Friar who ought to devote his attention to religious reading and writing.

    The Miller's Prologue

    Whan that the Knight had thus his tale y-told,
    In al the route nas ther yong ne old
    That he ne seyde it was a noble storie,
    And worthy for to drawen to memorie,
    And namely the gentils everichoon
    .
    (Miller's Prologue 1 – 5)

    Here's another definition of what makes for a good story: something that's worth remembering. The "gentils" or higher-class people in the fellowship especially enjoy the Knight's story, probably because he tells a very polite and traditional classically-inspired romance.

    The Millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this,
    So was the Reve, and othere manye mo,
    And harlotrie they tolden bothe two
    .
    (Miller's Prologue 74 – 76)

    The idea that the type of person you are determines the type of story you will tell is one that seems to influence some of the tale/teller pairings in the Canterbury Tales. The lower-class Miller and Reeve both tell fabliaux, a genre of story full of sexual jokes and associated popular culture with the lower classes. But other pairings in the Tales don't necessarily confirm the idea expressed above.

    Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale

    That is so horrible a tale for to rede,
    Whan he hir threw upon the pavement.
    And therfore he, of ful avysement,
    Nolde nevere write in none of his sermons
    Of suche unkynde abhomynacions,
    Ne I wol noon reherce if that I may
    .
    (Man of Law's Introduction 84 – 89)

    The "abomination" of which the Man of Law speaks is the rape of his own daughter by a character in a romance. In expressing a dislike of tragedy, the Man of Law echoes the opinion Knight and Host give after the Monk's Tale. But Apollonius of Tyre, the romance from which this episode comes, was one of the first romances written in English and was actually very popular.

    The Clerk's Prologue

    And trewely, as to my juggement,
    Me thynketh [Petrarch's long Prologue] a thyng impertinent,
    Save that he wole conveyen his mateere
    .
    (Clerk's Prologue 53 – 55)

    The Clerk's decision to omit the Prologue originally given the tale by its Italian author, Petrarch, shows that he, unlike Chaucer the character, doesn't feel the need to repeat tales exactly as he heard them. It also shows that he's a confident scholar, making public judgments about literature.

    Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
    Highte this clerk, whos rethorike sweete,
    Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie,
    As Lynyan dide of philosophie,
    Or lawe, or oother art particuler
    .
    (Clerk's Prologue 31 – 35)

    It's not surprising that the Clerk knows a lot about the most famous figures in every field, even very specialized ones. After all, he spends so much time studying! It's also clear from this that he has lots of respect for people with specialized knowledge.

    Telle us som murie thyng of aventures.
    Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
    Keepe hem in stoor til so be ye endite
    Heigh style, as whan that men to kynges write.
    Speketh so pleyn at this tyme, we yow preye,
    That we may understonde what ye seye
    .
    (Clerk's Prologue 15 – 20)

    The Host is afraid that the studious clerk will use too many big words in his tale, making the rest of the pilgrims unable to understand him. Maybe this concern on the part of the Host reveals his democratic sensibility – he wants everybody, and not just the studious types among the pilgrims, to be able to participate in the contest.

    The Merchant's Epilogue

    Lo, whiche sleightes and subtilitees
    In wommen been! For ay as bisy as bees
    Been they, us sely men for to deceyve,
    And from the soothe evere wol they weyve;
    By this Marchauntes tale it preveth weel
    .
    (Merchant's Epilogue 1209 – 1213)

    The Host seems convinced that he can draw conclusions about the character of all women from the events that happen in the Merchant's tale. What might be the problems with doing this? (For more about this, see the Wife of Bath's Prologue.)

    The Pardoner's Introduction

    By Corpus bones! But I have triacle,
    Or elles a draughte of moyste and corny ale,
    Or but I heere anon a myrie tale,
    Myn herte is lost for pitee of this mayde.

    (Pardoner's Introduction 28 – 31)

    The Host thinks that a tale can have the same effect upon him as cake and beer, and that a happy tale can serve as a remedy for the sadness produced by a tragedy. This is a very physical, bodily description of the effect stories can have upon people.

    Prologue to Sir Thopas

    And though I nat the same wordes seye
    As ye han herd, yet to yow alle I preye
    Blameth me nat; for, as in my sentence,
    Shul ye nowher fynden difference
    Fro the sentence of this tretys lyte
    After the which this murye tale I write
    .
    (Tale of Sir Thopas 269 – 274)

    Here, the character Chaucer reverses his earlier position that a tale ought to be repeated word-for-word as you heard it. Now he claims that it's enough for the sentence, or meaning, of the tale, to be the same.

    Myn eres aken of thy drasty speche!
    Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!
    This may wel be rym dogerel, quod he
    .
    [...]
    Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!
    Thou dost not elles but despendest tyme.
    Sire, at o word, thou shalt no lenger ryme
    .
    (Tale of Sir Thopas 233 – 235, 240 – 242)

    In what may be one of the greatest literary jokes in history, the host declares the character Chaucer's poetry awful and forbids him from speaking in verse! Saying that Chaucer is just wasting everybody's time is a huge insult, since good literature was supposed to have a moral purpose.

    Prologue to the Monk's Tale

    I hadde levere than a barel ale
    That Goodelief, my wyf, hadde herde this tale!

    (Monk's Prologue 5 – 6)

    The Host has great faith in the power of tales: here, he expresses a belief that the example of a virtuous wife might reform his own, not-so-virtuous one.

    Tragedie is to seyn, a certeyn storie,
    As olde bookes maken us memorie,
    Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee
    And is yfallen out of heigh degree
    Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly,
    And they ben versified communely
    Of six feet, which men clepen exametron.
    In prose
    eek been endited many oon,
    And
    eek in meetre, in many a sondry wyse.
    Lo, this declaryng oghte
    ynogh suffise;
    (Monk's Prologue 86 – 95)

    Why does the Monk think it's necessary to define the genre of his tale, when none of the other pilgrims have done so?

    Prologue to the Nun's Priest's Tale

    Youre tale anoyeth al this compaignye.
    swich talkyng is nat worth a boyerflye,
    For therinne is ther no desport ne game
    .
    (Nun's Priest's Prologue 23 – 25)

    Taking his critique of the Monk's Tale a step further than the Knight, the Host declares the Monk's tragedies not only unpleasant to hear, but annoying and worthless. This is probably why the Monk reacts so sulkily when the Host asks him to tell another tale.

    I seye for me, it is a greet disese,
    whereas men han been in greet welthe and ese
    To heeren of hire sodeyn fal, allas!
    And the contrarie is joye and greet solas,
    As whan a man hath been in povre estaat,
    And clymbeth up and wexeth fortunat,
    And there abideth in prosperitee.
    Swich thyng is gladsom, as it thynketh me,
    And of swich thyng were goodly for to telle
    .
    (Nun's Priest's Prologue 9 – 13)

    In expressing his preference for tales in which someone ascends to great fortune, rather than falls from prosperity, the Knight reveals that for him, the most important consideration in determining the worth of a tale is whether or not it makes him feel happy. In this he agrees with the Host and perhaps, the Man of Law.

    The Manciple's Prologue
    The Host

    "By cause drynke hath dominacioun
    Upon this man, by my savacioun,
    I trowe he lewedly wolde telle his tale."

    (Manciple's Prologue 57 – 59)

    The Host expresses the importance of having all one's wits about one to tell a good tale, and demonstrates just how seriously he takes this story-telling competition.

    The Parson's Prologue
    The Parson

    "Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me,
    For Paul that writeth unto Thymothee,
    Repreveth hem that weyven soothfastnesse
    And tellen fables and swich wrecchednesse."

    (Parson's Prologue 31 – 34)

    Expressing the opinion that "fables," or fanciful stories, are not only frivolous but sinful, the Parson foreshadows the opinion Chaucer expresses in his retraction (for more on this, see "What's Up with the Ending?"). It's a sober note on which to end a story all about telling stories, and no one's ever been quite sure what to make of this choice of last tale-teller and this, the last word on stories.

    Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
    He moot reherce as ny as evere he can
    Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
    Al speke he never so rudeliche and large
    Or elles he moot telle his tale untrewe,
    Or feyne thing, or finde wordes newe
    .
    (General Prologue 731 – 736)

    Chaucer the character's rule for being a good repeater of tales is that you have to copy the tale exactly. This compares very interestingly with Chaucer the poet's idea of what makes a good repeater of tales: most of the tales he has the pilgrims tell are taken from other sources, but he freely revises them to suit his purpose, finding "wordes newe" to tell them with.

  • Spirituality

    General Prologue

    He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
    That seith that hunters ben nat holy men
    .
    (General Prologue 176 – 177)

    There were lots of things about hunting that might make it unholy. But delighting in the kill of another living being was probably not as troublesome to the medieval Christian soul as delighting, period. Any immoderate emotions, like those that could be inspired by the hunt, were seen as sinful.

    A good man was ther of religioun,
    And was a povre persoun of a toun,
    but riche he was of holy thought and werk
    .
    (General Prologue 477 – 479)

    After all the descriptions of decadent wealth in the previous pilgrims' portraits, the Parson's richness only in holy thoughts and works is particularly striking.

    And specially, from every shires ende
    Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
    The holy blisful martir for to seke,
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke
    .
    (General Prologue 14 – 17)

    When people voyage to Canterbury, says the poem, they are seeking "the holy blisful martir." Their pilgrimage is not just about the spiritual: it's also about seeking the physical remnants of holiness, like the body of a martyr. Accordingly it's not enough to just pray to the martyr; there's something to be gained in the physical trek to Canterbury to see, and maybe touch, his body.

    A trewe swinkere and a good was he,
    Livinge in pees and parfit charitee.
    God loved he best with al his hole herte
    At alle tymes thogh him gamed or smerte
    .
    (General Prologue 531 – 534)

    With the Plowman we learn a simple formula for holiness: hard work, peaceful nature, and love. If the Plowman's portrait is short, maybe it's to make the point that holiness doesn't have to be a complex endeavor.

    For unto a povre ordre for to yive
    Is signe that a man is wel y-shrive –
    For if he yaf, he dorste make avaunt,
    He wiste that a man was repentaunt
    .
    (General Prologue 225 – 228).

    How do you measure repentance? For obvious reasons, the Friar wants to measure it in donations to himself. Although this impulse is selfish in the Friar's case, it's not totally out of line with the expectations for a penitent, who needed to show outward signs of their sorrow and do acts of restitution.

    His walet lay biforn him in his lappe,
    Bretful of pardoun comen from Rome al hoot.

    (General Prologue 686 – 687)

    Calling the pardons "al hoot" emphasizes the way in which they're a hot commodity, and one that's become easy to get because they're quickly produced and moved into the marketplace.

    The Parson's Prologue

    Why sholde I sowen draf out of my fest,
    Whan I may sowen whete, if that me lest?

    (Parson's Prologue 35 – 36)

    Morality and virtuous material is the "whete" the Parson wishes to sow among the pilgrims. This language emphasizes the Parson's hope that his words will take root in the pilgrims' souls and grow into good works and increased faith.

    'He schal no gospel glosen here ne teche.
    We leven alle in the grete God,' quod he
    .
    (1180 – 1181)

    The Shipman, afraid that the Parson will make trouble for the other Pilgrims by berating their sinfulness, holds out their belief in the same God as reason not to do so. But as we know from the pilgrim's portraits, belief in the same God does not necessarily lead to equal levels of holiness.

  • Lies and Deceit

    General Prologue

    His lord wel coude he plesen subtilly,
    To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
    And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood
    .
    (General Prologue 610 – 612)

    The Reeve uses trickery to gain not only money, but gratitude. This last makes the Reeve's action particularly heinous because it's not only that he's stealing from his Lord; he's also making him look like an idiot.

    Nowher so bisy a man ther nas;
    And yet he semed bisier than he was
    .
    (General Prologue 321 – 322)

    There's an awful lot of "seeming" going on in the Man of Law's portrait, which makes us think that, despite the generally neutral tone of it, there might be something going on underneath the surface here.

    Or elles he moot telle his tale untrewe,
    Or feyne thing, or finde wordes newe
    .
    (General Prologue 735 – 736)

    Here Chaucer says that failing to repeat words as exactly as one heard them is close to lying. Later, in his prologue to the Tale of Melibee, he reverses this position, so it's impossible to say what Chaucer the character really thinks. As for the poet, he has no problem with embellishing and changing often-told tales to suit his purpose.

    And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,
    He made the person and the peple his apes
    .
    (General Prologue 705 – 706)

    "Japes" are tricks, and here the word is probably referring to the false relics the pardoner passes off as genuine. One person who won't stand for being made an "ape" is the Host, who calls the Pardoner's relics the garbage that they are.

    This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette:
    Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette
    .
    (General Prologue 279 – 280)

    Like the Prioress, the Merchant is working really hard to appear to be something he's not: financially solvent. In his case, though, this deception is probably necessary for his business success, whereas for the Prioress it's actually contrary to the obligations of her profession.

    [The Prioress] peyned hire to countrefete chere
    Of court, and to been estatlich of manere,
    And to ben holden digne of reverence
    .
    (General Prologue 139 – 141)

    With the Prioress we have the first of many characters who are pretending to be something they're not. The idea of counterfeiting is a word that also appears when Chaucer talks about his repetition of other pilgrim's words. This shows the way the word can have both negative ("faking") and positive ("repeating") connotations.

    Wel coude he stelen corn, and tollen thryes.
    (General Prologue 562)

    The Miller cheats his customers by replacing part of the flour they've purchased with worthless filler, or by charging them three times the going price for wheat. This former method of cheating customers foreshadows the one that occurs in the Reeve's tale.

    The Reeve's Prologue

    Four gleedes han we whiche I shal devyse –
    Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise;
    Thise foure sparkles longen unto eelde
    .
    (Reeve's Prologue 29 – 31)

    The Reeve describes his four powers of the elderly as "gleedes," or coals, and "sparkles," or sparks. By using fire imagery here, he tries to return the spark of vitality to the elderly, so to speak.

    The Summoner's Prologue

    I yow biseke that, of youre curteisye,
    Syn ye han herd this false frere lye,
    As suffreth me I may my tale telle
    .
    (Summoner's Prologue 5 – 7)

    The Summoner believes that the opportunity to tell his tale is the appropriate response to lies. As Chaucer has done in the General Prologue, then, he links tale-telling and lying.

    The Merchant's Epilogue

    Lo, whiche sleightes and subtilitees
    In wommen been! for ay as bisy as bees
    Been they, us sely men for to deceyve,
    And from the soothe evere wol they weyve
    .
    (Merchant's Epilogue 1209 – 1212)

    Of the powers the Reeve attributes to the elderly, the one they share with women is deceit. The other thing these two groups have in common is that they have less power in medieval society.

    Discreet he was and of greet reverence:
    He semed swich, his wordes weren so wyse
    .

    "Seeming" is not a good thing in The Canterbury Tales. The appearance of this word usually marks some kind of deception that's going on, someone trying to appear to be something they're not.