Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Friendship

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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.

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