The Cantebury Tales (Prologue Notes)



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The Cantebury Tales

(Prologue Notes)


  • According to Chaucer, people long to go on pilgrimages in the spring because winter is over, and it’s time for renewal.

  • The narrator is at the inn when twenty-nine pilgrims arrive.

  • The knight fought in wars that spanned some forty years. He fought the Moors at the west end of the Mediterranean, the Turks at the Med’s east end, and the Lithuanians and Tartars on the Russian border. All of these people were considered infidels or pagans who did not believe in God.

  • Because the knight is a veteran soldier we may be surprised that he is modest, considerate, and well-mannered-the ideal of chivalry.

  • The knight’s soiled clothing revel that he is a plain, honest man who cared more about thanking God for his blessings than about making an impression on others. The other reality is that he might not have much money.

  • A squire is a knight’s attendant. He is younger; his clothing is flashier; his hair is well coiffed; both he and his horse seem more active, less sedate. Perhaps he is less knowledgeable and wise. His clothing stresses his youthfulness and frivolity.

  • Yeomen were once knights’ servants, but later they became landowners and occupied a class just lower than the gentry.

  • A nun is a woman who lives in a convent and takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; a prioress is in charge of the nuns. The prioress is under an oath not to leave her charges. Chaucer’s Prioress’s swearing by St. Loy is ironic because this saint was known for his refusal to swear.

  • Chaucer suggests that the Prioress’s French is not good French. She careful about her table manners and puts on airs of courtly grace. The narrator feels that she is counterfeit or a fake. Chaucer also suggests that she is a romantic. Eglantyne is the name of several romantic heroines.

  • Nuns were not supposed to keep pets b/c the money required for their care was meant for the poor. The Prioress seems more concerned about luxuries than about her responsibilities to her order.

  • In Chaucer’s time, physical characteristics were thought to reveal a person’s true character.

  • When Chaucer refers to the Prioress as “by no means undergrown,” he is using an understatement to suggest that she is either a bit heavy or at least tall.

  • In Chaucer’s time, coral was considered both a love charm and a defense against worldly temptations. The Prioress’s coral shows she may be interested in love or is trying to ward of temptation.

  • A monk is a member of a religious order who has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Chaucer suggests that the monk is not serious about his vocation b/c he rides a fine horse, wears rich clothes and jewelry, and enjoys good food.

  • Because peasants in the Middle Ages did not always have enough to eat, obesity was a sign of success and affluence. The monk is meant to suffer for the world’s sins not enjoy the world’s temptations.

  • Friars went into the world as beggars to preach, help the poor, and cure the sick. One of his duties was to hear people’s confessions and to absolve or forgive them with a penance, or penalty of prayer, or doing good works. Chaucer’s Friar gives light penances because people pay him suggesting that he is more interested in making money than saving people’s souls.

  • The Friar’s “lily-white neck” might represent cowardliness.

  • The Friar earns his living forgiving sins and settling disputes for a fee. For example, his semi-cope is double-worsted, which means it is very expensive. Chaucer greatly disapproves of this type of corruption.

  • The Merchant secretly hides that he is in debt.

  • The Merchant thinks there should be police on the sea between Harwich and Holland, a region know for its market. He wants to protect his interests.

  • Chaucer’s Oxford Cleric plays on the stereotype of the starving student. Both he and his horse are poor and gaunt.

  • In order for a person to enter a medieval university, he would have to join a minor religious order outside of the church. After school, he/she was expected to seek employment outside of the church. The cleric’s books would have cost a small fortune b/c the printing press had not yet been invented.

  • The Sarjeant at the Law was one of a group of lawyers who served the King’s legal advisors. Chaucer disapproves of the Sarjeant saying he, “narrow-mindedly and predictably executes his job, and he gives the appearance of being far busier and more knowledgeable than he really is.”

  • Medieval Britons usually only ate two meals a day (dinner and supper). The Franklin also eats a large breakfast.

  • Chaucer infers that the Franklin is a self-indulgent man who cares too much about eating.

  • Guilds were organizations of tradespeople who taught their trade to apprentices, or trainees. They were a powerful economic force, controlling the price of goods. Many wore a special uniform. Chaucer makes fun of their social climbing and social pretences.

  • Intentionally, Chaucer does not mention the cook’s open sore until after he describes his delicious specialties. He appeals to the reader’s humor slipping it in in an understated way.

  • The Skipper was from Dartmouth, a coastal shipping town on the English Channel, was know for its piracy and brutality of its sailors.

  • Doctors in the Middle Ages believed that the twelve signs of the zodiac affected different parts of the body and that the human body contained fluids, called humors, influenced by the stars and dictated a person’s temperament and physical makeup.

  • We know that Chaucer feels negatively toward the Doctor b/c he remarks that the Doctor profits from people’s illnesses by prescribing drugs that don’t work and sharing the profits with the apothecary or pharmacist. The Doctor is well-dressed and appears to have plenty of money to spend on himself.

  • When she goes to church, the Wife of Bath is concerned about being the first to the alter and if she is wearing the best clothes. In that time, people approached the alter according to their social rank. Chaucer suggests that she is more concerned about status than spirituality.

  • The Wife of Bath’s freedom to travel on multiple pilgrimages was a luxury not available to many women in her time.

  • Chaucer might describe The Wife of Bath as bold, assertive, imposing, earthly, strong, intelligent, frank, stubborn, etc.

  • Chaucer describes the Parson as poor. We can infer that Chaucer approves of poverty and disapproves of wealth and greed because of his descriptions.

  • Chaucer uses the metaphor of a shepherd and his flock when talking about the Parson.

  • The Parson is a good priest b/c he stays with his parish instead of going to the city to make money. He is kind, soft-spoken, modes, and fair, setting a good example for his flock.

  • The Plowman may be portrayed as an instrument of salvation to his community as he is in other works of the time.

  • The allusion in line 545 refers to Luke, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart… and they neighbor as they self.”

  • Chaucer praises the Plowman, Parson, and Cleric. They are all generous, spiritual, and uninterested in wealth, and full of energy for their work.

  • Chaucer’s comparisons of the Miller to a fox, spade, sow’s ear, and furnace door suggest that his is rough, uncouth, wild, belligerent, and as ordinary as the most common animal or tool.

  • Chaucer plays on a Medieval saying, “An honest miller has a golden thumb,” suggesting that most millers overcharge their customers by putting their thumbs on the scale.

  • A Reeve in the Middle Ages was a manager of an estate, whose job it was to inspect everything and to impose fines on the workers if he found anything wrong. Chaucer says that although the Reeve does his job well, he is mean to the serfs and has become rich by embezzling from the master.

  • Chaucer portrays the Summoner as hideously ugly faced, covered with pus-filled pimples, boils, and sores. He also has black, scabby eyebrows, narrow eyes, and a scraggly beard.

  • In Chaucer’s time, sexual relations outside of marriage were cause for excommunication, and the Summoner’s job was to track down offenders and deliver them to the Archdeacon for punishment. Chaucer’s Summoner will ignore offenders if they pay him in money or wine.

  • Long hair was a violation for men who worked for the Church. The Pardoner’s hair is described as “hanging like rat-tails; he puts on airs by trying to ride in a fashionable style; he has a voice like a goat; he has bulging eyeballs.”

  • Relics are the remains of a holy person. Saying a prayer w/a relic in hand was though to bring respite from the pains of purgatory. Some were fake, but believers willingly bought them.

  • The Host has promised to be the judge of the best tale and to give the winner a supper, paid by all, in his tavern, the Tabard Inn. The pilgrims also agree that he can set the price of the supper, as well as standards for judgment. Anyone who refuses to tell a tale must pay the cost of the journey. Each pilgrim will tell two stories going and two stories returning.


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