The Canterbury Tales Study: General Prologue
The General Prologue is the opening section of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” written in the late 14th century, around 1387-1400. In this prologue, Chaucer introduces the framework for the entire collection of stories.
About General Prologue
The General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” is a foundational piece of English literature, setting the stage for a series of stories told by a diverse group of pilgrims. This prologue serves as an introduction to the main narrative, where each character is on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back, with the best storyteller awarded a meal at the others’ expense upon their return.
This prologue is notable for its detailed and often humorous portrayal of medieval life, making “The Canterbury Tales” a significant social document as well as a literary masterpiece. The prologue sets the stage for the stories that follow, each reflecting the values, flaws, and diversity of the characters and the times they lived in.
The General Prologue Plot Summary
The General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” serves as an introduction to the collection of stories that follow, setting the scene for a storytelling journey undertaken by a diverse group of pilgrims.
The prologue begins with Chaucer describing the return of spring, a time when people traditionally go on pilgrimages. He then introduces the setting: the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, where a group of 29 pilgrims, including Chaucer himself, have gathered. They are all preparing to embark on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
Chaucer uses the prologue to individually introduce each of the pilgrims. He provides detailed descriptions of their appearances, social standings, and personalities. These characters represent a wide range of medieval society, from the noble Knight, who is portrayed as honorable and experienced in battle, to the bawdy Miller, who is known for his crude humor. Other notable characters include the Prioress, who is more concerned with manners and appearances than with her religious duties; the Merchant, whose business acumen is highlighted; and the Wife of Bath, who is forward in her views on love and marriage.
Among the group are also several religious figures, including the Monk, the Friar, and the Parson, each representing different aspects of religious life in the medieval period. The Monk and Friar are depicted as having strayed from the strict path of their vocations, while the Parson is shown as a model of piety and devotion.
The Host of the inn, Harry Bailey, proposes a storytelling contest to entertain the group during their journey. Each pilgrim is to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The best storyteller, as judged by the group, will receive a free meal at the inn upon their return.
Through the General Prologue, Chaucer sets the stage for the stories to come, each reflecting the values, flaws, and societal roles of the characters. The prologue is celebrated for its rich characterizations, social commentary, and vivid portrayal of medieval life, setting the groundwork for the diverse and often morally charged tales that follow.