General Prologue: Introduction
Fragment I, lines 1–42
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .
Important Quotations Explained
The narrator opens the General Prologue with a description of the return of spring. He
describes the April rains, the burgeoning flowers and leaves, and the chirping birds. Around
this time of year, the narrator says, people begin to feel the desire to go on a pilgrimage.
Many devout English pilgrims set off to visit shrines in distant holy lands, but even more
choose to travel to Canterbury to visit the relics of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury
Cathedral, where they thank the martyr for having helped them when they were in need. The
narrator tells us that as he prepared to go on such a pilgrimage, staying at a tavern in
Southwark called the Tabard Inn, a great company of twenty-nine travelers entered. The
travelers were a diverse group who, like the narrator, were on their way to Canterbury. They
happily agreed to let him join them. That night, the group slept at the Tabard, and woke up
early the next morning to set off on their journey. Before continuing the tale, the narrator
declares his intent to list and describe each of the members of the group.
The invocation of spring with which the General Prologue begins is lengthy and formal
compared to the language of the rest of the Prologue. The first lines situate the story in a
particular time and place, but the speaker does this in cosmic and cyclical terms, celebrating
the vitality and richness of spring. This approach gives the opening lines a dreamy, timeless,
unfocused quality, and it is therefore surprising when the narrator reveals that he’s going to
describe a pilgrimage that he himself took rather than telling a love story. A pilgrimage is a
religious journey undertaken for penance and grace. As pilgrimages went, Canterbury was not
a very difficult destination for an English person to reach. It was, therefore, very popular in
fourteenth-century England, as the narrator mentions. Pilgrims traveled to visit the remains of
Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170 by knights of
King Henry II. Soon after his death, he became the most popular saint in England. The
The Canterbury Tales
should not be thought of as an entirely solemn occasion,
because it also offered the pilgrims an opportunity to abandon work and take a vacation.
At line 20, the narrator abandons his unfocused, all-knowing point of view, identifying