Monday 20 July 2015

The Cantebury Tales ~ The General Prologue

I've decided to join O at Behold the Stars in her reading of The Canterbury Tales.  Yes, it's one of my projects for the year, my The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project, but I've been really terrible at keeping up on my projects so I'm hoping someone else will give me that kick where I so desperately need it, or at the very least, drag me along.

I'm starting off reading from The Portable Chaucer with a translation by Theodore Morrison, but I suspect that it doesn't include all the tales, so once the library book comes in, I'll be reading The Penguin edition translated by Nevill Coghill.  O, the clever person that she is, is reading it in Middle English. Something to aspire to but not now. :-Z

Portrait of Chaucer - 17th century
source Wikipedia

It is surmised that Chaucer met Bocaccio, who perhaps influenced this work, as it begins in a similar way to Bocaccio's The Decameron.  In The Decameron, a number of lords and ladies escape the Black Death of Florence and begin a story-telling marathon in their exile, whereas in The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and on their journey, each tells a tale.  Originally Chaucer meant each pilgrim to tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back, but the manuscript breaks off with them still on their travels, so the final intent of Chaucer remains unknown.  The original order of the tales is also unclear, but going with O's the Riverside Chaucer, we'll be breaking the tales down as follows:

Week 1: General Prologue
Week 2: The Knight's Tale
Week 3: The Miller's Prologue and Tale, The Reeve's Prologue and Tale, The Cook's Prologue and Tale
Week 4: The Man Of Law's Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 5: The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
Week 6: The Friar's Prologue and Tale, The Summoner's Prologue and Tale
Week 7: The Clerk's Prologue and Tale
Week 8: The Merchant's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 9: The Squire's Introduction and Tale, The Franklin's Prologue and Tale
Week 10: The Physician's Tale, The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue, and Tale, The Shipman's Tale
Week 11: The Prioress's Prologue and Tale, The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas
Week 12: The Tale of Melibee
Week 13: The Monk's Prologue and Tale, The Nun Priest's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 14: The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale, The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale
Week 15: The Manciple's Prologue and Tale, The Parson's Prologue and Tale
Week 16: Chaucer's Retraction. Conclusion.

If I haven't finished by the beginning of November, you can all throw rotten tomatoes at me.

So let's start off with The General Prologue.

Initially Chaucer describes the setting of the pilgrims' starting point, in a beautiful poetic manner that establishes the ambiance of a lovely spring day.

"As soon as April pierces to the root
The drought of March, and bathes each bud and shoot
Through every vein of sap with gentle showers
From whose engendering liquor spring the flowers;
When zephyrs have breathed softly all about
Inspiring every wood and field to sprout,
And in the zodiac the youthful sun
His journey halfway through the Ram has run;
When little birds are busy with their song
Who sleep with open eyes the whole night long
Life stirs their hearts and tingles in them so,
Then people long on pilgrimage to go, ....."

Chaucer, himself one of the pilgrims, arrives at Southwark at the Tabard, and meets with twenty-nine other pilgrims, all ready to set out for Canterbury.  He introduces each, starting with The Knight, who is is honoured and respected and who has fought many battles in the name of Christ.  Yet in spite of his skill with a sword, he is deferential and temperate, embracing his code of chivalry.  His son, a Squire, is with him, a lad who is determined to have exploits to honour his lady.  He also has a Yeoman traveling with him, tidy and trim with a doughty demeanour, a strong bow and a St. Christopher's medal.

A Nun, known as Madame Eglantine, carries the dignity of religion with her, showing a love and empathy for animals and a tidiness that becomes her. Nevertheless, this Prioress is attached to courtly ways and displays a pride in her accomplishments.  She is escorted by a Priest and an Attendant Nun who acts as her secretary.

Next, a Monk is introduced and while his description is an unexpectedly unusual description for a Monk, during Chaucer's time the church was experiencing a degradation of religion and many of its adherents were infected with worldly desires.  This Monk much prefers fashion and hunting to the austerity of his order. It sounds like Chaucer, the narrator, approves of his designs and exploits.

The next in line is a Friar, who is gay and jolly. He is like a roving churchman who performs church services as he goes.  Yet, again, this Friar likes wealthy men, pretty women and money given as penance.  He prefers bars and barmaids to giving consolation and blessings to lepers.  Our rather unreligious Friar is christened Hubert.

The Merchant is very caught up in his business and enjoys the elevation of his station.  He knows his job well and is very full of himself, yet is he as rich as he seems?  Not only his financial acumen is highlighted, but his personal shrewdness, and the narrator confesses that he is never able to discover his name.

An Oxford Student shows his poverty by his shabby clothes, but exhibits a richness in learning and the value of philosophy.  He is willing to both learn and teach.

A crafty, yet diplomatic Lawyer or The Man of Law is one of the party.  He appears efficient and respected in his field.

The Franklin, or the "free man," loves his food so much that there is always food at his table.

Five Guildsmen, a Weaver, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Tapestry-maker and a Haberdasher are wealthy and respected in their crafts.  Their livery identifies their artistry. With them, they carry a Cook who ensures that they eat well.

The Skipper or Shipman is well-traveled and experienced at his job, but he is not shy about stealing from the wine casks.  He does not appear at home on a horse, riding it as if he were at sea.

The Physician

The Physician is particularly interesting.  I sense a sarcasm within Chaucer's description and though he seems to know his profession and be able to deal with a number of maladies, he takes advantage of his patients for financial gain, and his spiritual life is less than ideal.

"Of nothing in excess would he admit.
He gave but little heed to Holy Writ.
His clothes were lined with taffeta; their hue
Was all of blood read and of Persian blue .."

Next, The Woman or Wife of Bath is a rather large, broad-beamed woman, but she is dressed well and has a skill at weaving that is unsurpassed.  She's had many husbands and lovers and is well-versed in the art of love.  She is also well-travelled.

The Parson is given a long description praising his integrity, his sacrifice and his faithful adherence to his faith.  He is patient, gives offerings to the poor, and tries to teach by being a good example to others.  He is a wonderful illustration of a man of virtue, and a credit to his church flock.

The Plowman  c. 1525
Hans Holbein the Younger
We meet the brother of The Parson, The Plowman.  He loves God with all his heart, and is in charity with everyone.  He tithes regularly and his clothes reflect his humble station.

A big beefy man is The Miller and his physicality is emphasized, along with his rather unpleasant countenance, and his proclivity for stealing corn and selling it at three times the price.  He leads the pilgrims out of town whilst blowing his bagpipes.

The Manciple, or officer who buys supplies for a college, monastery or other institution, is lacking a formal education but is, nevertheless, ingenious in his dealings and more adroit than his clients.  He is a master at deception.

Possessing a fiery disposition and a wiry frame, The Reeve, or steward of a manor, is of questionable character.  While he ensures that no one steals from his master, he himself avails himself of that which belongs to his employer.  He is so shrewd that no one can catch him in his dishonesty.

The Summoner, a man who brings those who are in violation of church law to ecclesiastical court, is a lecherous character with a fearsome leprous face.  He uses the little Latin he knows to cover his intellectual inadequacy.  He does not have a respect for his vocation.

The Pardoner, one who grants papal indulgences, is a waxy, greasy sort of fellow, who we are led to disbelieve.  He carries with him a number of fake relics, which he sells to unsuspecting, trusting people.  He is religious and respectable on the surface, but underneath, he is rotten.

The Host is a big, cheery man who appears to have control of the group.  He sets the rules out for the tales, four for each pilgrim, two going to Canterbury and two returning.  We will see that this plan does not pan out.

The Narrator:  is it Chaucer, or is it Chaucer but not really Chaucer?  We will see, as we go.

The portraits of these pilgrims show the social organization of Chaucer's England.  First comes the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman, which represent the nobility or the upper class.  Next comes the Clergy: a prioress with her attendent priest and helper, a Monk and a Friar.  After the clergy comes the pilgrims who represent the merchantiles and professions of the cities and towns of Chaucer's England.  Finally we are introduced to a number of figures who perhaps don't represent a particular group, but nevertheless have a firm identity in Chaucer's time.

Chaucer's depiction of the pilgrims follows the Medieval literary technique of description in that description can be accomplished in two ways: using both internal qualities and external attributes.  We can ask ourselves as we read, how these two means of description affect the reader; which might elicit a stronger response and how does one influence the other to create tension within a story.  Chaucer uses each to make a social commentary and his means of using this technique is quite fascinating.  You get a sense with Chaucer's descriptions, that while he can appear to be praising and giving his characters good qualities, at times he is, in fact, doing quite the opposite.

The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project

The General Prologue
The Knight's Tale


  1. So glad we're doing this together! Excellent post! I loved the General Prologue, but actually writing about it was rather tough! Looking forward to moving on to The Knight's Tale :)

    1. Me too! Thanks for dragging me along and getting me posting again!

      Thanks, and yes, it was difficult, but as I was reading I was quite fascinated by Chaucer's characterizations ...... he often said more about a character by saying the opposite. Quite fun! I can't wait to move on too.

  2. What a fun challenge.

    I have only read CT in the abridged (children's) versions, and I am reading it to my kids later this year for our school year. They are going to be Medieval pilgrims on a pilgrimage through church history. We'll be reading Geraldine McCaughrean's version.

    So I have already learned a few things from your post that I can share with my kids, such as the organization of England, at the time. We'll be reviewing the feudal system.

    Well, I get to read the read the real thing once I get to the poetry section of TWEM, years from now. : )

    1. I have an Eleanor Farjeon children's version that is quite wonderful. I hope you really enjoy your read through it. Chaucer apparently is being very edgy and perhaps provocative in certain portions but much of it can be read as is, and the subtleties not delved into with kids. I love it so far.

      Aaargh! We read it again?! Actually that will be good. Perhaps the second time, I'll read it in Middle English and I must say, there is so much information in the stories that one would benefit from a second, third, fourth, etc. reading.

    2. Cleo, are you going to read through the other WEM genres, too? I was under the impression that you were going to do bios only. This is great!

    3. I am absolutely going to read the other genres. In fact, the novels and biographies are my least favourites. I drool just thinking about the poetry and plays and history. I absolutely cannot wait!

  3. I wish you all the luck with such a daunting project! I'm very afraid on this book and am nowhere close to pick it up myself, so it's nice to know what it's about from yours and o's posts (I'm sooo lazy, I know :D)

    And I also wanted to compliment you choice of illustrations: they are very suitable and besides some of my favourite artists make appearance! :)

    1. I don't think that you're lazy; I think that your brain has been burned out from too much school, etc. and it is telling you that it needs a break. You're an example to those of us who tend to overload, that it is okay to read less complex works sometimes.

      Aren't the illustrations nice? I'm so impressed that you recognized them even though most don't have captions. Evidence of the better education system in Europe, I think! ;-)

      Oh and BTW, welcome back! :-)

    2. Yep, so true about school, unfortunately...

      I don't think they teach art in schools, even in Europe, unless they are specialized schools :D But we DO have a lot of museums around, and you inevitably learn about art when you travel :) And one of my friends once gave me a tapestry with this Waterhouse picture as a birthday present! Awesome, right?

    3. No art in school? Wow. I just remember being in France and seeing French classes wandering through the museums. I'd even see older children by themselves examining the paintings and writing in notebooks. It was eye-opening; you'd never get that here.

      A Waterhouse tapestry for a birthday present sounds like a treasure! Awesome is right!

  4. I read some excerpts of the book back in College...I am so tempted to join....but for once hang on....way too many books for me to complete as is!

    1. Wow, what self-control! I wish I had it. I still haven't started The Awakening and I got half-way through Time of Gifts before I had to take it back to the library. Sigh! I need to finish something soon or I'm going to go crazy! ;-)

  5. Extensive overview that I will save when I get around to reading these tales. I have the book, hardcover and it is at the bottom of the TBR now.
    No tomato throwing....I know how difficult it is to keep on the reading plan. Dipped into a children's classic last week to ease the 'French' pressure.

    1. Hey Nancy! Then perhaps I can hide behind you when the tomatoes come. ;-)

      You are on a very eclectic reading plan this year that looks like fun. I might get more eclectic over the summer but I really must finish all these books that I already have on-the-go. Wish me luck!

    2. Luck! It is fun to mix up the books selections. I've kicked the 'crime and sci-fi' habit for this year. I always drift back to my classics, Nobels, Pulitzers and good French lit. They have stood the test of time. Big change, though, reading many Kindle books instead of paper. Font is adjustable (easy on the eyes) and Kindle has an excellent French-English dictionary available. This makes reading 'on-the- go' much easier.

    3. I should read more Nobels & PP; for some reason I always suspect that I won't like them. :-Z

      I'm so glad to learn that the Kindle French/English dictionary is good. I'm taking Le Petit Nicolas on vacation to try to improve my French a little. Finally, after planning to do it for the last year+!

    4. Starting The Prologue today (02.09.2015). I will follow your reading schedule as stated in this post.
      "..whatever brought you (me) here, or strong necessity or urgent fear." (The Iliad book 9)

    5. I'm so glad that you're joining us! Be prepared for a rollicking good time amidst much confusion! ;-)

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