Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Time

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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.

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