The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

This is sometimes called “The General Prologue” to distinguish it from the shorter prologues which come before individual Tales.
 The Canterbury Tales is a fragment and uncompleted. Chaucer never fulfilled the original idea for the cycle of stories and we cannot know if he ever intended to do so. The concept is that a group of pilgrims travel together and tell two tales, each on the way to Canterbury and the same on the way back to win a prize dinner but not all of them tell even one story. The work is a frame narrative in that the stories are embedded in this overall structure. The General Prologue is itself also a frame in that the introduction to the setting and the agreement on the contest come at the beginning and the end of the portraits of the characters which are enclosed in the middle. As is the case generally with Chaucer, the simplicity is apparent only; the structure is quite complex, though there are other examples of sequences of stories giving a writer the opportunity to include narratives of many different forms from high to low life, if required.  There are also links joining the tales where relationships between the pilgrims could be established, although these are not fully developed in the fragment we have. The setting is unrealistic that the pilgrims could not possibly hear each other’s efforts as they travelled and the overall plan gives rise to the question of how far Chaucer meant that each tale should connect to the personality of its teller. The characters are introduced according to their trade or profession and the reader must decide if each is typical of that designation or an individual or both. Few are named, but they include so many strata of society, from upper ranks and learned to lower levels and ignorant, that they form a picture of the age, the fourteenth century. Some have an individual introduction or Prologue to their particular tale. Chaucer could have written the work in French or Latin but was original in choosing English and the language is decipherable for a modern reader equipped with a good edition or translation but it is worth obtaining an audio reading of the original to appreciate the flavor. Some editors have grouped the tales but this technical matter need not concern most readers. The work as a whole is full of insight into human nature, humour and narrative skill.
The General Prologue opens with a famous description of an English Spring and the month is April, probably the 16th (the date of the 18th is given as the second day of the pilgrimage in the The Man of Law’s Prologue.) This is a convention but Chaucer brings vivacity, freshness and detail to his poetry, opening with the showers which put an end to the drought of March and give “vertu” [life-giving power] to the sap-vessels of flowers. There is a physical sense of a breeze waking up the “tendre croppes” [shoots not crops] and we can almost feel this welcome breath on our faces.  The setting is out of doors with life quickening and a sense of relief at the end of winter but, at the same time, a restlessness to be going somewhere. There is a circumlocutio [roundabout way of saying something] at lines 7-8 to emphasise the season and the youth of the sun which has just started its annual progress through the signs of the Zodiac. All is fresh, vigorous and lively and the description is cinematographic and pictorial as well as appealing to our sense of hearing when the birds sing. The modern reader may feel that Walt Disney would have made an excellent job of drawing them with their eyes open in sleep as well as the plants coming to life. The birds [“fowles” had a wider meaning then than now] are incited by nature in their “corages” [feelings] as are men and women who experience a strong desire to go on a piligimage, possibly abroad, in much they way that we might take a holiday to celebrate winter’s conclusion. For some the pilgrimage would have been a holy occasion, as it should be, but for others it was a social jaunt with the religious element as a bonus. This could be why they agree so readily to the suggestion of story-telling as it will liven up the social side. Palmers had no stable residence, went to many or all shrines and professed poverty and were therefore different from pilgrims who paid for their travel and kept their profession, possibly visiting only one or few destinations. In England a main attraction was Canterbury, the shrine of Thomas a Becket, “the hooly blissful martyr”, murdered on December 29th 1170 and canonized in 1173. Many miracles of healing were reported there and these pilgrims had been helped by him when they were ill. The journey from London, leaving the pilgrims’ meeting place at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (a real inn), to Canterbury could be achieved on horseback in four days (or even two) thus setting a tight schedule for so many stories.
In the next section, beginning line 19, we learn the exact place of the start of the journey and that Chaucer will be one of the pilgrims. This, again is not a simple announcement – it has several implications: we will see the pilgrims through his eyes as observer although he is also their creator; he will tell their stories for them and need to develop voices for them and for their characters whilst being one of the reacting listeners; and he must choose a role or persona mask or assumed personality] for himself as one of them. The outward and false image of himself is that of the naive and trusting pilgrim, incapable of points judgements or satire, when the whole work is sharp, humorous and frequently ironic.  The naive narrator in literature often has the function of revealing corruption in society through his/her innocent acceptance of the morals and habits portrayed so that the reader realizes this cannot be a true view. It should be noted that the text of the work would probably be read aloud and so there are always three audiences or readers: the pilgrims whose reactions we hear or imagine; Chaucer’s listeners as the Tales were read aloud; and the modern reader. Sometimes we are invited to realize that one character within a tale speaks to others and they form another layer of receptors.
We are told that there are twenty-nine pilgrims although a count shows there are thirty-one: the important aspect is that they are a group who have come together through chance and most do not know each other. Such relationships and reactions as spring up are impromptu but may reveal deeper attitudes to, say, the Church as a whole. They are accommodated in comfort and Chaucer immediately [“anon” – urgent words of time soon lose their meaning] becomes one of the group but remains the anonymous and apparently uncritical narrator who deems it fit to describe them all before going further, mentioning their status in particular.
These portraits are mainly pictorial but the order of the description is that of current observation not memory – another subtle trick of technique as clearly the work was written after any journey, real or imagined. Memory tends to schematise but these thumb-nail sketches are randomly organized with clothing, horses, facial and other physical characteristics mentioned as the eye seems to rove over them. Yet Chaucer also deals with their background and habits which he could not have known at that time, if ever, in his role as pilgrim but his skill is such that we barely notice this fact. This background to the assembly of the band of pilgrims has been consummated swiftly and the effect is of a film stopped before the action starts with the camera scanning those present, although we do not yet know what form the eventual narrative will take as the challenge has not been announced.

Limited mode
to schematics but these thumbnail sketches are randomly organized with clothing