Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Literature and Writing

By Geoffrey Chaucer

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.

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