The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810) by William Blake. Engraving. The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories; it is a snapshot, a picture frozen in time, of life in the Middle Ages. To include the complete range of medieval society in the same picture, Chaucer places his characters on a pilgrimage, a religious journey made to a shrine or holy place. These pilgrims, like a collection of people on tour today, are from many stations and stages of life. Together they travel from London to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, about fifty-five miles to the southeast.
The father of English poetry Born to a middle class family in London Became a well known government official Served in the Hundred Years’ War Married with two children Often provided services to the Crown Began writing The Canterbury Tales in 1387 Never completed all the stories Considered one of the greatest works in the English language The Prologue alone places Chaucer in the company of Shakespeare and Milton Chaucer’s use of language seems to have been the key to its success The Prologue to The Canterbury TalesMeet the Writer Geoffrey Chaucer 1343-1400
The Prologue to The Canterbury TalesMeet the Writer Geoffrey Chaucer had two careers: He was not only a writer but also an important government official. Chaucer was so important, in fact, that when he was captured in France while serving as a soldier during the Hundred Years’ War, the king himself contributed to the ransom. More About the Writer
The narrator describes a group of pilgrims assembled at an inn near London prior to their journey to Canterbury. The inn’s host proposes that each pilgrim will tell two tales on the journey to and from Canterbury to entertain the others. Whoever tells the best tale will win a dinner paid for by the group. The Host joins the pilgrims and becomes their judge. The travelers draw lots to decide the order of the tales, and the cut falls to the knight. The Canterbury Tales: PrologueSummary
The narrator describes the pilgrims, revealing their personalities through direct and indirect characterization, sharp images, and figurative comparisons. Chaucer’s description of dress and appearance are particularly revealing of psychological traits. The pilgrims generally fall into three major divisions of medieval society: The feudal order The Knight and his Squire The church The Monk and the Nun The merchant or professional class The Miller and the Doctor Summary (cont’d)
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Literary Focus: Frame Story When Chaucer chooses to have each of his pilgrims tell a story on the way to Canterbury, he is using the “frame story.” A frame story is a literary device that binds together several different narratives. It is a story (or stories) within a story. • In The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims’ journey is the outer story. • The tales the pilgrims tell are stories within a story. • The tales themselves also have thematic unity.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer Chaucer’s English was not the same English that we use today. He wrote in what is now known as Middle English, the language that resulted when Old English was infused with the Old French of the Norman invaders. The version of The Canterbury Tales that you will read is a modern English translation. Click to hear a sample in Middle English.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Key Details Chaucer had twenty-nine characters to introduce, so he couldn’t develop any one character at great length. Instead, he provided a few well-chosen details that would make each character stand out vividly.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer Twenty-nine pilgrims are on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. The time is April, and the place is the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just outside London. London Canterbury
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Literary Focus: Characterization Chaucer uses indirect characterization when he tells how each character • looks and dresses This yeoman wore a coat and hood of green,And peacock-feathered arrows, bright and keen • speaks and acts Her greatest oath was only “By St. Loy!” • thinks and feels And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.
There was a Friar, a wanton one and merry,A Limiter, a very festive fellow. In all Four Orders there was none so mellow, So glib with gallant phrase and well-turned speech. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Literary Focus: Characterization Chaucer also uses direct characterization, when he comes right out and tells us what a character’s nature is—virtuous, vain, clever, and so on.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer Connecting to the Poem Have you ever wondered about fellow travelers on a trip and imagined what their lives are like? As you read The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, think about to what extent you can judge a person’s character from his or her profession, appearance, and manners. Turn to page 94.