The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue (Notes:40)

Seth Lerer remarks that The Canterbury Tales may be the most wide-winging of any of not only any Chaucer’s work but of all medieval literature. He feels strongly about this and has declared that the remaining lectures on this course will be focused on this work; this lecture, of course, is focused on the General Prologue.

The poem begins in the immortal sky and gradual descends to the plane of mortals as it touches on the season, rain, trees, soil, and finally the pilgrims. Lerer suggests that this is like a funneling of a point of view—from the cosmic to the earthly. This is what the first eighteen lines purpose constitutes: a wide inheritance in which Chaucer utilizes the many tools at his disposal from many dialects and languages to unfold a grand tale.

The pilgrim portraits do much the same sort of funneling for the social and economic (estate) reality of Chaucer’s England. ‘ordiansetio,’ or an ordering if how the medieval intellectual would have conceived of Chaucer’s work. But what is the order of Chaucer’s pilgrims? It is: The knight, followed by his son the squire and their servant the yeoman (these represent the nobility, the first estate); they are then followed by a group of clergy, a pyress (the head of an abbey), her nun, her assistant and three priests, a monk, and a frier, who are then followed by a group of individuals who represent the professions of the cities and the towns, who are somehow representative of the commercial and mercantile life of Chaucer’s time: a merchant, a clerk, a franklin (a wealthy land owner), the guildsman, haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer and rug-weaver, a cook, a shipman, and a doctor. We then see figures who fall into another more general category that of how Chaucer’s contemporary would have experienced life on a day-to-day basis: the widow, the wife of Bath, two spiritual brothers, a parson and his brother the plowman, three people who are concerned with the production and distribution of agricultural wealth—who grinds the grain, supervises the grinding of the grain, and he who controls/oversees the workers who labor in the fields—the miller, the mantipole, and the reeve. Then, at the end, we have the people who Lerer calls the ‘grotesque’ or the ‘carnal’ brothers—the summoner, who is charged with summoning people to an ecclesiastical court, and the pardoner (who sells indulgences or pardons). Then we have the controllers, the narrator who tells the tale, and the host, the keeper of the Tabard inn whom all the pilgrims assemble. In total: 29 pilgrims, the host, and the narrator. 

In each of these pilgrim portraits, there are aspects which direct our point of view to a focus. Each works at the local level in the same way that the general prologue works at the global level: by directing the eye and focusing attention; one could focus attention by two ways in medieval writing; one could describe internal qualities (moral, loyalty, patience, and essences) or external descriptions (physical qualities/attributes). Central to the medieval poet is the relationship between the internal and external descriptions. Chaucer’s descriptions play off of internal and external descriptions; often, this tension leads to social satire. The portraits, accordingly, are lenses by which we read the tales.