Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Wealth

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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.

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