Chaucer: General Prologue
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE CANTERBURY TALES:
THE GENERAL PROLOGUE
“Whan that Aprill” places us immediately in the reverdie tradition — literally the “re-greening,” a mode in medieval lyric poetry celebrating the revival of spring and all that that entails. If you had a responsible “old school” 12th-grade high school English teacher, you had to memorize the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I’m still carrying my 18 around inside my head.
This reverdie passage presents a unified and ideal organic hierarchy — a great chain of awakenings from the rain to the roots of the plants to the flowers, the sun to the fields and the birds growing musical and insomniacal, to humans who maybe sublimate the same impulses into pilgrimages to holy shrines of martyrs. So we progress from the natural to the divine, or from the natural/divine to the anthropomorphic/sacred.
Note the asssonance associated with the western wind (5), which brings soft rains in England (“Westren wind when wilt thou blow?”).
This is damn good stuff, people; nothing comparable in English before it, not even Chaucer’s own poetry to this point. Memorize these 18 lines!
Suddenly, after that unified structured vision, we find ourselves hearing “Bifel,” “I,” “by aventure” — and we’re in the realm of chance, offhandedness, subjectivity (so as it semed me”), personal specificity, randomness, the casual. That we get twenty-nine in the company seems an arbitrary number.
A distinction is now required between Chaucer-poet and Chaucer-pilgrim. It’s the pilgrim giving us the prologue. Point-of-view is through this puppet’s eyes. So the often ironic poet is using a narrator, a persona, through which to speak — a pretty stupid faux-Chaucer.
See Thomas J. Garbáty’s “The Degradation of Chaucer’s ‘Geoffrey'” [PMLA 89 (January 1974): 97-104] for a seminal discussion of the dynamics among the “levels of perception.” At the first level is Chaucer-poet. The reader holds a tenuous and tense position on the second level, being pulled towards Chaucer-poet’s level of understanding but never entirely sure, yet certainly more aware than Chaucer-pilgrim. [The reader is known in law school as “the reasonable man.” “The reasonable man is a foolish fellow. The reasonable man doesn’t shoot a trespasser on his property.”]
The Knight is traditionally seen as one of the few idealized characters among the portraits, representing the chivalric ideal and seeming to be a peacemaker when he can. “And though that he were worthy, he was wys” — a line that assumes the normal mutual exclusivity of worth and wisdom.The Knight hasn’t changed gear from battle (“Al bismotered with his habergeon”), indicating that he has immediately committed himself to holy pilgrimage. But Terry Jones, the most thorough medievalist from among the Monty Python troupe, argues in his 1970s book that the Knight is actually a mercenary (e.g., “Somtyme with the lord of Palatye / Agayn another hethen in Turkye”).
The Knight’s duties are to his lord and to God; the Squire’s to his lady, and his “lady” is not Mary. (So with the Knight he forms the tripartite composite of chivalry.) This is the Knight’s son, who is a knight-in-training. His “lokkes” are “crulle” because of the metathesis of the “r.” Learning to carve is part of his training, at the page stage. Eventually he’ll carve before his lord.
“A Yeman hadde he” — and the Knight is the pronoun antecedent. So was the Squire a later addition? A yeoman serves the knightly class as a kind of forest policeman. This guy can use what he carries. His image of St. Christopher is appropriate here since Christopher protects travellers. “He’s a walking tree, a tank — a good fellow to have around.” But we get only his appearance; Chaucer-pilgrim knows very little about this fellow.
The first three portraits show three ranks in the secular classes. Next we’ll have the religious “nobility,” but things go slightly haywire….
The portrait starts on an off-line and puts us off-balance. “Prioresse” does not rhyme with “gentilesse” or “holiness,” and indeed the whole portrait is askew. This is Madame Eglentyne (or Sweetbriar), a peculiar nickname for someone in a nunnery. [J.M. Manly in New Light identified a Madame Argentine in St. Leonard’s, but the identification is weak.] The exclamation, “by Seinte Loy!” (120) is a dainty oath and a courtly saint. Everything about the description is “ful,” such as the fairness of her spoken French (but what about Latin?). As we scan along issues of physiognomy, courtly behavior, language, dining etiquette, and more, we may be waiting to hear about her religious feelings, her charity and piety. What we get to substitute is her devotion to mice (144f). (But wait. Who has the traps set in the nunnery in the first place? She’s the Prioress!)
Nunneries were often finishing schools for extra daughters of the rich. But the last line here is also ambiguous — her Amor vincit omnia “brooch” — as is her character. Chaucer-pilgrim is enthusiastic and positive, maybe even a little smitten. What about Chaucer-poet? The irony is here, but is there condemnation? The irony against the religious figures will increase, but Chaucer never seems to judge (possibly because, being in the royal court and on royal business so often, one had to be diplomatic despite one clearly seeing what’s wrong with the world).
Another Nonne … and preestes thre:
The couplet is problematic. Is such an entourage likely? In the end, Chaucer seems to have changed his plan anyway. The Second Nun tells a tale, and “the” Nun’s Priest. There are no indications of further priests.
If the Prioress is too much a woman, the Monk is too much a man. His portrait is the same length as hers. Reference comes here to Chaucer-pilgrim speaking to the other pilgrims. The Monk’s words and colloquialisms are even given here: “He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen” (177); “likned til a fissh that is waterlees” (180). The pilgrim is not discriminating; he gullibly, naïvely accepts what he hears from the other pilgrims.
Monks and nuns were cloistered orders supposed to be dedicated to the contemplative life. They tended to settle in rural retreats, and libraries would accumulate at the monasteries. Benedictines (Black Monks) started in 597 c.e., Cistercians (White Monks) in 1128. Augustinian, Premonstratensian, and Gilbertine orders arose later. When enough corruption had infected the system, the mendicant orders of friars were created to counter this. Friars were to be devoted to preaching missions, which involved travelling. Dominicans (Black Friars), a preaching order, got their start in 1221; Franciscans (Grey Friars), a begging order, in 1224; Carmelites (White Friars), a penitential order, in 1240; and Austin or Augustinian Friars in 1248. None of them were supposed to be given to enthusiastically to “venerie” (166) suppoedly hunting, but whatever it really means!
This Friar, Hubert, is a “lymytour” — he begs in a restricted “limited” area. He gets a lot of those “Ful”s that we heard in the Prioress’ portrait. “Unto his ordre he was a noble post” (214). The implication is that he knocks up women and pays to get them married off. He’s popular because, probably unlike the local legitimate priest, he gives easy penance: “Oh, so you killed your mother; well, we all do that occasionally….” But of course this forestalls any real sincere reflection on one’s sins.
Now we get the townspeople. In the late Middle Ages, the rise of the middle class, or merchant class, threw society into a tizzy. What standards apply to this new batch? What makes a good knight or good friar is obvious. But what makes a good merchant? Money?
This Merchant sits “hye on horse” (271), which ought to be imposing, or maybe he’s trying too hard to seem so. His Flemish hat would increase the effect. This guy is in debt, as we find out in a slight breach of the pilgrim’s dullard pose. In the build-up, he’s a worthy man (283); but then, “sooth to seyn, I noot how men hym calle” (284). The bottom line is a deflation: we don’t know this guy’s name.
As an Oxford scholar in the 14th century, this fellow would have learned the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and then the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (astrology), music). He appears goofy, and he drives a heap (287); but finally he is admirable. Every Chaucer teacher who ever needs a motto chooses the key line here: “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche” (308).
The Man of Law:
Not just a dime-a-dozen lawyer, this guy is one of about twenty sergeants analogous to our Supreme Court Justices. Because of the appearance of the term “pynche” (326), it has been suggested that maybe Chaucer means Thomas Pynchbeck, the sergeant who signed against Chaucer for an arrest in a debt case in 1388. Subtle digs appear (311, 313, and 319: “fee simple” = simply fee?). The use of the term “might” is also nice: His purchasyng myghte nat been infect” (320) — could not be? or justperhaps wasn’t?
The Franklin is simply a landowner, in company with the sergeant. Is that supposed to suggest something? We seem to head towards a picture of gluttony, but then we find out this guy is generous and neighborly. He serves the community as knight of the shire (356).
Travelling together are a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapestry-maker. They are not distinguished as individuals, but then, neither are many group-think company men one meets in life. The implication is that they’re henpecked too (374ff).
See Thomas J. Garbáty’s article, “Chaucer’s Guildsmen and their Fraternity” [Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) 59 (October 1960): 691-709]. This is not a trade guild, like food services, but a social guild. Records of guilds in Aldersgate in London near St. Botolph’s church shows that they had meetings the Sunday after Easter. In 1387 Easter was April 7th. The guild would have met on the 14th and then hit the road on the Wednesday, April 17th, 1387.
The Cook is with the Guildsmen. His “mormal” (386) is a gangrenous itchy running sore; “blankmanger” (387) is a kind of mousse. And that’s “Too bad.” (But the association is disgusting.)
He looks like a pirate and, significantly, “He knew alle the havenes … And every cryke” (407ff).
He’s “grounded in astronomye” (414) and is fond of gold.
The Wife of Bath:
Try as the narrator may, he cannot get a fix on the Wife of Bath. Why is the conjunction “But” in the second line: “But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe” (446)? He inserts the cliché anti-feminist joke about her wearing big hats (453-455), but it comes off as desperate and arbitrary. “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, / Withouten oother compaignye in youthe” (460-461). She travels a lot. (Is she a professional pilgrim? cruising for her next husband?) She’s “Gat-tothed” (468), which may indicate something (lusty?) or may just be another desperate attempt to pinpoint something about her. She continues to resist categorization. The narrator returns to describing her clothes, and so tries a multitude of approaches but ends up with just a jumble of details.
The Parson is given an unequivocally ideal portrait. He serves as a role model to his flock, for “if gold ruste, what shal iren do?” (500). He is a deviation from the norm, as Chaucer indicates what 14th-century parsons are typically like. This fellow stays put. “He was a shepherde and nought a mercenarie” (514). There’s no rift here between the man and his occupation.
The Plowman, to emphasize brotherhood with the Parson, is also an ideal, and also stays put. Because of the labor shortage after a severe round of the Black Plague, workers like this guy could go mobile and accept better offers, but that signalled more chaos to the medieval mind. After this portrait comes a steady degeneration of scummy pilgrims.
The cinematographic close-up puts the Miller right in your face. And “nosethirles” — another instance of metathesis of the “r.” The Miller’s red hair might signal treachery. His ability to cheat customers is standard; his real distinction is his talent for knocking doors off their hinges with his head (550-551). He plays bagpipes and rides out front on the pilgrimage.
This is an obscure profession involving the purchase of provisions for a law school. It’s an odd choice unless Chaucer had been acquainted with the study of law. This weasel can outwit lawyers.
The Reeve serves as the foreman of a manor. This guy strikes us as sour and humorless. He also feathers his own nest at the expense of his young naïve lord. He rides last on the pilgrimage, the furthest away from his enemy the Miller. It also affords him a position of watchfulness.
Now the real dregs. The Summoner delivers citations for individuals to appear in the ecclesiastical court. Garbáty determined that this guy’s symptoms are not those of leprosy but rather of syphilis [“The Summoner’s Occupational Disease.” Medical History 7.4 (October 1963): 348-359]. In any case, the outward appearance matches the inward (im)moral character, and surely he stinks of garlic and onions (634).
The Pardoner is empowered to transmit indulgences. He has formed a sinister brotherhood with the Summoner. His yellow stringy hair, glaring eyes, and small voice (688) make him disconcerting; and the narrator says, “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare” (691). He’s a eunuch? homosexual? feminoid?
He’s parasitic, spoiling the potential for the Parson to lead his flock by introducing quick-fix cure-all false relics, for which his role is that of sleazy informercial pitch-man.
Chaucer requests absolution from blame (725ff), and then gives us a portrait of the Host in action. Harry Bailey is the self-appointed authority, literary critic, emcee of the pilgrimage. He flatters the crowd (763ff), gets them to vote for they know not what (783), and turns the pilgrimage into a competition: each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas” (798). The Host stands to make a bundle: everyone else will pay for the winner’s dinner, but of course at his establishment. And going against his judgment will cost you big also (805f, 833f).
On the morning of the start of the pilgrimage, they draw straws to determine who will tell the first tale. “Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas, / The sothe is this: the cut fil to the Knyght” (844-845). Peachy, but the competition subverts the true meaning of pilgrimage, disallowing the reflective process that’s supposed to be the essence of the journey.