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General Prologue (The Canterbury Tales)

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The General Prologue is Geoffrey Chaucer’s introduction to his famous Middle English work The Canterbury Tales. After his celebration of the return of spring, pilgrim Chaucer reveals his plan to undertake a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. In the Tabard Inn in Southwark near London, where he intends to start his journey, he acquaints a party of pilgrims and decides to join them. He gives a vivid description of the party, consisting of representatives of different occupations and social classes. The Tabard’s Host, Harry Bailly, decides to accompany the party and suggests a storytelling contest to pass the time. Pilgrim Chaucer will be the reporter of the pilgrimage and the stories told.

Synopsis

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;” [1]

Not with a description of his own circumstances or those of the pilgrims, but with these superb Middle English couplets, Chaucer begins his account of the pilgrimage. Spring is an ideal moment for people to go on a pilgrimage.
It so happens that on such a nice day, pilgrim Chaucer begins his pilgrimage in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, south of London. That same day, a party of twenty-nine other pilgrims arrives at the inn, all representatives of different occupations and social classes. Pilgrim Chaucer observes them and describes their 'condition' (situation), their 'array' (equipment), and their social 'degree' (status). Since all of them are planning to depart for Canterbury early in the morning, they decide to travel together. Harry Bailly, the host of the Tabard, offers to accompany them and suggests a contest to avoid boredom on the trip. Each of the pilgrims shall tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back.

“That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
In this viage shal telle tales tweye
To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
And homward he shal tellen othere two,” [2]

The host will be the judge of the contest, and the teller of the winning story will enjoy a free supper on their return at the Tabard Inn, payed by the other members of the company. The pilgrims agree to this. The next morning, the company gathers, and before leaving the Host sets the rules of the game. First of all he asks if they still agree to hold the contest. He then determines that whoever opposes his judgement, shall have to pay for all the expenses of the journey.

“Whoso be rebel to my juggement
Shal paye for al that by the wey is spent” [3]

To decide who will begin the contest, Bailly proposes to draw straws. He or she who draws the shortest, shall tell the first tale.

“Now draweth cut, er that we ferrer twynne;
He which that hath the shorteste shal bigynne.” [4]

To everyone's satisfaction the lot falls to the Knight, and the company rides forth on their journey, while the Knight begins to tell his tale.

Date and text

Chaucer presumably began to work on The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380s, but it is not known whether he continued working on it until the time of his death in 1400. Although he probably wrote the General Prologue fairly early in this period, it is not necessarily the first that he composed for it, nor is it certain that he wrote it all at once. It looks like he revised it from time to time, and some revisions remained to be made. Some of the storytellers, like the Second Nun and the Nun’s Priest, are not described yet, so it is likely that Chaucer intended to add their descriptions later. [5]
The title ‘General Prologue’ is not Chaucer’s, but a modern one. The Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript opens with ‘‘Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury’’, but the Ellesmere Chaucer and many other manuscripts provide no introductory title at all. Only a few manuscripts describe it as the prologue to the entire book, with a title like ‘prologus libri’. [6]
The ‘‘General Prologue’’ and the tales of the Knight, Miller, Reeve and Cook form a unity that is now labeled as ‘Fragment I’. Although this group is not finished, it is almost never broken up or rearranged by scribes. [7]

References

  • The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition (1987), General Editor Larry D. Benson, Harvard University, Houghton Mufflin Company, Boston. ISBN 0-395-29031-7
  • Cooper, Helen, "The Canterbury Tales", Second Edition (1996), "Oxford Guides to Chaucer", Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198711557
  • Skeat, Walter W., (1899) "The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer", edited from numerous manuscripts (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols.
  1. "When April with his soft rain showers/The drought of March has permeated to the roots,/And bathed every vein in such moisture/Of which virtue the flower is engendered;" GP 1-4.
  2. "That each of you, to make our road look shorter,/ during this voyage shall tell two tales/ on the way to Canterbury, that is how I mean it,/ and he shall tell another two on the way back," GP 791-794.
  3. "Whosoever will disagree with my judgement/Shall pay for all expense en route" GP 833-834.
  4. "Now draw cuts, before we depart further;/He who has the shortest shall begin." GP 835-836.
  5. Riverside, p. 5.
  6. Cooper, p. 27.
  7. Riverside, p. 798.