“When April comes with his sweet, fragrant showers, which pierce the dry ground of March, and bathe every root of every plant in sweet liquid, then people desire to go on pilgrimages.”
Chaucer begins his masterpiece with appreciation for the season of spring.
The time of blooming flowers, pleasant weather, and welcome rain. The droplets of awaited showers satiate the thirst of the parched winter lands and revitalize the spirits of plants and men alike. The season of rejuvenation re-instills the verve of sensual lusts together with a craving for spiritual gratification.
Hence, the people get ready to start journey anew to the holy places. They are getting ready to embark on pilgrimage to the hallowed Canterbury Cathedral and its resting hero, martyr St. Thomas à Becket. They are in want of the martyr’s blessings and scamper from every part and every stratum of the English society and life.
Chaucer changes hat from the write to the narrator and joins the ranks of the pilgrims, collected together in Southwark, London at popular haunt called ‘the Tabard Inn’
He is co-habiting the place with twenty nine other Englishmen from all over the country to start their journey to Canterbury.
He is ever so glad to become party to their company and accepts their invitation enthusiastically. They decide to begin on their spiritual and religious quest the next morning.
But before the pilgrimage starts, he makes a point to observe and analyze every individual and create a persona based on their visible and intangible choices, manners and appearance. He prepares profiles for each person and gives his verdict on their social category or rank.
Chaucer begins to sketch the different characters beginning with the Knight and his son the Squire. The Knight is considered a man of high repute, venerated and courteous.
He is dressed conservatively with stained clothes of coarse fabric. He has had victories all over the continent but is modest with his words and conduct. Chaucer seems genuinely impressed without any tone of satire in his words. His son on the other hand is dressed in feminine preferences with clothes having colorful flowers. He seems to be flirtatious and has proclivity to write songs. He is of medium height and curly hair. He is training to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The two also have a male servant or the Yeoman.
He is covered in a hood and carries a St, Christopher’s image. He is proficient at handling weapons like daggers, swords, arrows etc.
It can be argued the descriptions follow linearity in terms of social status prevalent in the Medieval England with Knight being the highest placed individually. Hence, the next ranking individual had to be from the Church.
The Prioress, Madame Eglantine, who wears a brooch that reads ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ or love is victorious over all else is described next. Being part of the Clergy, she is manifestly religious, kind and is extremely well mannered. She also excels at the French language.
Accompanying her is a second Nun. She is the Prioress’ secretary.
Adding to the ranks of the Clergy next is the Monk. He is no conventional man of God and likes to dabble in hunting and is a lot less conservative than others in his field of expertise. He is plump but goo looking who likes to observe God’s bounteous nature than relegating himself to just revising scripture. There are total two Nuns, three priests and one chaplain.
Next the narrator mentions the Friar, Hubert, who is a man of desires for woman and a favorite of landed elite.
He has the special leave to beg for alms as mendicant which he is really skilled at. He shows contempt for lepers and beggars even though the father of Friars St. Francis devoted his life to serve the two oppressed groups of people.
The Prioress, Monk and Friar are mocked in a very explicit way by Chaucer for their diversion to a life of pretension, hypocrisy and artifice.
Now we come to next stratum of English society, the professionals, tradesmen and salaried employees.
We are introduced to the Merchant who is a man of colorful clothes and even more colorful opinions. He is brilliant at his trade but nobody seems to know much more about him.
Then we come to the office Clerk who is part of the Merchant’s entourage. A man of the text and the written word he has honed his intellect at the famed University of Oxford. He is dressed modestly and prefers Greek philosophy over the temptations of singing and merriment. He is as judicious and thrifty with his words as with his gold.
We are introduced to a simply clothed but impeccably educated Judge or the ‘Sergeant of the law’. He is wise and has been awarded many commendations and grants by the King for his service and sagacity.
Even at the pinnacle of his field he seems to exhibit a sense of glorious modesty.
He is accompanied by the Franklin meaning a free man or land-owner. He is a cheerful person with a bearded appearance.
He is a glutton when comes to food and an avid connoisseur of the gustatory offerings, be it English pie or French wine.
Then, there is a group of skilled craftsmen, namely, the Weaver, the Tapycer, the Carpenter, the Dyer and the Haberdasher. They all are dressed in their signature and unique clothes pertaining to the particular craft or guild. They are not described in much detail probably because they do not get to tell any tales and remain in the backdrop for the most part.
The next pilgrim to be described is the talented Chef, Roger de Ware, hired by the guildsmen. He was there to offer his services as a culinary expert. He was supposed to make chicken and was known for his stews and pies. He seems to have an ulcer on his leg which is noticed by the narrator.
Next, the narrator introduces the well travelled Shipman. He hails from Dartmouth but has been to several places like Cape Finistere etc. He is tanned due to his long travels under the burning Sun and wears a woolen gown that runs down to his knees. He is good looking but has a weakness for wine.
Subsequently, we read about the Doctor who is eloquent and well versed in surgery and medicine alike. His clothes are blue and red. Chaucer notices that even though the man of medicine is well read in his subject, from Greek to Anglican medicine but is not a student of the Biblical text and scripture.
Chaucer ridicules his passion for Gold and that he practices medicine to build a treasure rather than for healing others.
The Parson is contrasted with the Wife of Bath. She is a woman of luxury and is fond of clothing and accessories. She has been married five times already and claims to know everything about the affairs of the heart. She is described as lustful person with a weakness for men and travel. She has visited places like Rome, Jerusalem, and Rome etc.
After that we are told about the Parson who is a man of religion. He is not rich in terms of material wealth but is generous with his words and actions. He is well versed in the Christian scripture especially the Gospels and is devoted to his flock of parishioners. Like a messianic leader, he tries to practice what he preaches and is regarded by Chaucer as the noblest of priest in the land.
Then comes the hard working Plowman, the Parson’s brother. He is clad in loose clothing and has a mare to ride on. He is a peaceful and generous man following the teachings of Jesus Christ himself. The Parson is juxtaposed, as antithetical, to the clerical characters of the Friar, Prioress and Monk.
Finally, we come to the very base of the social hierarchy with the muscular Miller. Apart from his size he has fearsome features like wide nostrils and fiery mouth. He is a dishonest and unscrupulous man who steals food and sells it at extortionate prices. Chaucer deems all the millers as unworthy and morally corrupt.
He is a prized wrestler as well.
Chaucer then describes the Revee who is slim and tall. He is adept at measuring the fields of his employer and stocking food grains in the granary. He is also very social and well connected with several men of utility like herdsmen, farm workers etc. Since he knows about everyone’s dirty secrets, he is not a man to be messed with. He also knows carpentry.
He is followed by the Manciple who is a smart and clever businessman.
He is intelligent and informed above and beyond his lack of formal education and can deceive even the sharpest of men.
The next pilgrim is the Summoner who has bad skin and pimples. He has shabby appearance with scraggly beard and small and slender eyes. He is an alcoholic and extremely vulgar. He is also a scam artist and is described to be repugnant in no unclear terms. He is also the only counselor for the young maidens in his region.
The last pilgrim to be described is the slightly effeminate Pardoner who is a companion of the repulsive Summoner. He has yellow colored hair and has a handful of pardons from Rome. He seems to be lascivious as well. He also seems to be allured by the sparkle of material wealth as he hoards a trove of bejeweled crucifixes etc. He swindles poor people by using his gift of storytelling.
He is fond of singing and dancing. Chaucer words lead one to speculate whether he is homosexual.
Conclusion of the Prologue
Seemingly aware of his own biases and prejudices, Chaucer exhorts the readers to consider his reportage as close to their verbatim accounts as possible. Any interpolations or concoction of his part would be unjust and grossly misrepresentative of the individuals being described.
He employs a linear and simplistic style of storytelling without many twists and frills. It keeps the reportage as close to the real and unexpurgated as possible.
Obviously when he goes to narrate each individual’s stories, he takes the liberty of using their personal traits and quirks as governing markers in the narration style.
Now the owner of the Tabard Inn, the host arranges the supper for every pilgrim and that wins the heart of everyone.
Hospitable and affable, he praises them as the best bunch of pilgrims he has met and proffers an innovative sport for them. He expounds that rather than traveling to Canterbury is disparate and unconnected strangers why do not all the pilgrims play a round of story-telling. He encourages all of them to narrate two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey.
This will keep their morale and energies up for the journey. He propositions that he would be the final adjudicator for the quality of the tales. He promises a free meal to the best talebearer on return which the rest of the party will fund.
The Host decided to pay for his own travel with one condition that if any one argues with his final judgment, that person will bear the cost of his travel.
Every pilgrim gets onboard with the idea. The pilgrimage now becomes a frolicsome adventure rather than a chastening spiritual quest.
They all embark on their adventure the next morning. Straws are drawn to decide the order of storytellers. The Knight, mush out of resounding admiration and universal deference gets to go first.
He draws the short one and gets to tell his tale first. The rest of the poem describes various tales from the pilgrims. In the end, not everyone gets to tell their stories let alone two of them and the merry group does not even make it to Canterbury.
As it happens, Chaucer did not finish his own magnum opus.
Thematic explorations of the Prologue
- Chaucer exposes the desecration of marriage and companionship in search of affection outside marriage. Chaucer uses the idea that truest love does not require the validation or completion of marital bonds. Be it the failed marriages of Woman of bath, the Prioress lamentation of love being the antidote for all suffering, or the young Spire, the misery of being truly loved and the pangs of unfulfilled destiny is highlighted in the Canterbury Tales’ prologue.
- The celebration of togetherness or the collective. Be it the words of the Knight or the traveling band of guildsmen etc. they all combine and come together in the game of storytelling. This brings people from the various fields like theology, various trades, medicine, law etc.
and different social rankings, in a congregation. This sense of company and unity is quite manifest in the poem.
- The moral corruption of men and women is another theme of the Canterbury Tales.
Be it the torch-bearers of religion or the common law, many of them show deviance toward the vices of gluttony, materialism, debauchery, lust and perversity. People like the Friar, the Monk and the Pardoner etc. show a penchant for swindling the poor and taking advantage of other people’s misery and misfortune. Of course, there are others like the Parson and his brother, the Knight etc.
who balance the scale of propriety put the scales are biased toward the human vices. The themes of adultery, vindictiveness, greed, justice etc. have been explored in both the prologue and the ensuing tales.
- There are also strands of perverted ideals of feminism in the character of the Wife of Bath but it is not free of problems.
- A critical breakdown of the entire work is also problematic because we can never sure if it’s the perspective of the storyteller, Chaucer the pilgrim reporter or Chaucer the original author of the poem.