Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

General Prologue, lines 1-42, 79-100, 165-310, 333-362, 671-858

1-18 Notice the construction of the first sentence: Whan... (1), Whan... (5), Thanne... (12). Look at all the words that derive from French: perced, veine, licour, vertu engendred, inspired, tendre, melodye, Nature, corages, pilgrimages, palmeres, strounge, specially.
I'll discuss this passage in class.

What is a pilgrimage? Who was Thomas a Becket? when did he live? under what king and queen? (Try a dictionary.)

What is a saint? Why do people visit saints' bones? Having some idea of the purpose of the journey will give you a point of view on the action.

19-34 The narrator (persona, speaking voice--not to be confused with Chaucer the poet) meets the other 29 pilgrims, a very diverse bunch of people, at the Inn by chance (25).

Look at the map of London (xeroxed on the back of your map of England). Southwark was a town (now part of London) on the south bank of the Thames. The Tabard Inn was located near the (much later) Globe Theater, at the end of London Bridge (same as the one in the nursery rhyme).

Now look at the other side of the map and locate London and Canterbury. It obviously makes sense to set out on the journey from a place outside the city on the Canterbury side of London. There really was a Tabard Inn, apparently a very comfortable place to stay (28- 29).

The narrator is obviously a very social person (30-32)--a good trait in someone who is telling you stories about people.

They all decide to leave early the next morning (33-34).

35-42 The narrator interrupts his account to describe his cast of characters (and they are characters!): their position in life (38), who they were, and what their status was (40), and how they were dressed and equipped, horsed, etc. (41).

79-100 "Lusty" means "loving life" rather than (our more narrow meaning) "loving sex." He has the body of an athlete and the energy and enthusiasm to match. Look at his list of (courtly) accomplishments in lines 94-100. (By the way, nightingales are said to sing all night.)

165-172 If you don't know what a monk is, look it up. Does this monk accord with your idea of what a monk ought to be? A number of details in his portrait point to his love, not just of hunting and horseflesh, but of the ladies as well. Some readers have so interpreted his "stable" of fine horses. What other details might point in this direction?

173-188 The narrator seems to think it is a fine thing for monks to ride around the countryside instead of staying inside their cloisters (monasteries) and leading lives of obdience and prayer. What do you think?

189-207 Monks take a vow of poverty as well. How well does the monk honor this particular vow? (Swan was considered a delicacy in the Middle Ages.)

208-32 What is a friar? How do friars differ from monks? How is this Friar different from the Monk? What do you make of ll. 212-13?

Franklins (216) were known for their conspicuous middle-class attitudes towards wealth and therefore, often, their generous hospitality (see the Franklin, 341-48).

Friars were notorious for absolving people from sins (for fat fees) by giving easier penances than the local parish priest would (221-32); by so doing they drew income away from the local priests and led the people (according to many people) to spiritual ruin (we'll talk about this in class).

233-71 Why would he have little gifts to give wives (233-34)? Does the description that follows remind you more of a holy man or of, for instance, the squire (esp. 236-38, 250)?

Do you agree with the narrator's statement in 243-48? Why is he the best beggar in his house of friars (252)? What would you say the Friar loves most?

270-84 Would you say the Merchant's business is good? Could you read line 280 in two different ways? Why does Chaucer have his narrator tell us that he does not know the Merchant's name?

287-308 The word "clerk" is related to "clergy"; remember that the primary places of learning were church related (i.e., monasteries), and you'll see how the word evolved.

Our Clerk is the ideal student-scholar. In what way is he like modern students?

Note the description of his moral character (305-8).

671 Remember that "gentil" always means "noble" (not likely to be true in this case). Just as the Knight and the Wyf of Bath have been everywhere and done everything, so the Pardoner has been all the way to Rome (believe it or not) to fetch his pardons.

675-83 Flax has approximately the texture of a horse's tail. Have you ever seen uncolored wax? It is barely yellow. Sounds pretty greasy to me, but he's obviously very proud of its appearance, since he wants to show it off. Going bareheaded in public was considered somewhat immodest.

688-91 There has been (and still is) endless discussion of the Pardoner's sexual condition and preferences. Is he gay? a eunuch? (if so, from birth? or by surgical means?) or just a bit unappetizing physically? Of course, one important question is, does it matter? That is, does it matter for the purposes of understanding the character and the tale?
Goats are traditional symbols of lust.
It is a bit difficult to see how he could be a "mare" (unless he is a woman cross dressed as a man).

694-705 Look up "relic" if you don't know what it means. If you don't get a clear picture, ask in class.

710 The Pardoner is obsessed with filthy lucre. The Pardoner is also a very talented man, something that doesn't come through well in his portrait (except for his singing ability). It is important to put together the portrait and the tale in order to begin to make sense of the Pardoner--a very complex man.

715-46 Now the narrator picks up the thread of his story-- except that he interrupts himself again to speak to the reader/listener (7257-7424). Why?

Vilainye (726): the behavior of a villein or low-class person; un-courteous or un-court-ly behavior.

Look up decorum (literary and non-literary senses).

What do you think of the excuses the narrator makes for his low, sometimes rude speech in what follows? What do you think of his using the examples of Christ (739-40) and Plato (741-42)? his excuse that he is not too smart (746)?

747-87 What do you think of the Host? Do you think he is the appropriate leader and guide for a pilgrimage?

Would you like to meet him? What do you think of his desire for mirthe?

Do you agree with his statement in 773-74? Would you go along with his plan?

787-809 The Host proposes 4 tales per pilgrim (792-94), only a fraction of the number that were written (no pilgrim has more than one tale). Many have speculated on why the Tales are not finished: did Chaucer die? get bored? change his mind? get busy with other things? We simply don't know.

Note the terms sentence and solas (teaching and pleasure), an ancient pair of requirements for any kind of literature (798). We'll talk about them.

What is the bargain the Host proposes?

810-end What does the Host threaten in 833-34?

The pilgrims draw straws; why? Does this seem an appropriate way to begin a pilgrimage?

The Knight is the person of highest social status on the pilgrimage; do you think it is simply chance (844) that he draws the short straw?

What is the purpose of the General Prologue?


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Rev 10/97