Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Spirituality

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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.

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