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The Canterbury Tales | Prologue | Summary

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Summary

Chaucer's Prologue begins with a description of springtime. The April rains drench the ground, and roots deep in the soil absorb the powerful liquid, which gives rise to flowering plants. The "young sun" shines down on these new plants, and birds sing. People, too, want to go on pilgrimages to far-away places, especially Canterbury Cathedral, where the relics of the martyr Thomas Becket are kept.

Chaucer is one of these pilgrims, and he is staying at the Tabard Inn in Southwark before embarking on the journey to Canterbury. A large group of pilgrims—29 in all—arrive at the inn, and they are such a friendly group he decides to join their company. He introduces each one in turn, describing their professions, social status, and clothing.

After Chaucer introduces the company, he describes the Host, a plump, bright-eyed man who takes a liking to the company of pilgrims and decides that he, too, will go with them to Canterbury. To make the time go by more quickly on the journey, each of the company will tell two stories on the way there and two on the way back. He will judge the stories, and the person who tells the best one will win a free meal at the inn when they return. Everyone agrees to this competition, and, as they set off the next morning, they draw lots to see who will go first. The Knight draws the short cut so he must begin the game, which he does cheerfully.

Analysis

The Prologue begins with a famous description of spring, a time of year rich with the contrasting symbolism of pagan sexual energy and Christian spiritual rebirth. These elements of energy and awakening will be developed through the plots of several tales, and the features of springtime—flowers, birds singing, and the like—will crop up time and time again throughout the stories, many of which take place in the spring months. Notably it's the earthier, pagan sort of awakening—rather than the Christian sort—that energizes the vast majority of the pilgrims' tales.

The Prologue also sets up the frame story that holds the rest of the tales together. It is loosely in the form of an estates satire—a satirical analysis of the different estates of society. In the Middle Ages there were three main estates—the first estate included members of the clergy and religious orders, the second estate were made up of the nobility, and the third estate were composed of peasants. Women were part of these informal social categories, but they also had their own estates: virgins, wives, and widows. All of these estates are represented among the pilgrims.

In Chaucer's time society had changed, and people were not as easily classified among these estates, which is one reason why a satire about the estates was possible. Merchants, skilled workers, and business owners made up a growing middle class that was difficult to classify as simply noble or peasant. The Miller, Reeve/Carpenter, Cook, Wife of Bath, Franklin, Merchant, and Shipman are examples of this growing middle class. These characters are not exactly peasants, but they are definitely not nobility or clergy, whose representatives among the pilgrims do not seem to behave much differently than the others.

Chaucer's individual descriptions of the pilgrims give readers a sense of their personalities as well as social class. Some, like the description of the Knight, are idealized. Some seem more like caricature. Their clothing, whether rich or ragged, also suggests their social status and occupation. In many of the descriptions, Chaucer slyly draws attention to the characters' weaknesses—whether vanity, greed, or gluttony.

Flashcards for Prologue

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Term:

Mesopotamia

Definition:

Sumerian civilization (modern day Iraq)

Term:

Epic

Definition:

a hero of national stature performing extraordinary deeds in a world setting whose mortal challenges and triumphs are associated with the immortal arena of the gods and goddesses

Term:

Quest

Definition:

the hero takes physical or spiritual journey to profit his country

Term:

Initiation

Definition:

the hero journeys from innocence to maturity/adolescence to adulthood

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