Chaucer’s Silence: On the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

william blake canterbury tales
William Blake’s 1810 copper engraving entitled “The Canterbury Pilgrims”

In the “General Prologue” to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tests the standards for classical poetics, standards identified by Plato, Aristotle, and Horace. Do classical poetics still have a place in our literary canon? Like Dante, Chaucer portrays himself as a silent pilgrim, quietly observing the characters around him. Whereas in the Divina Commedia, Dante is led by the greatest of the Latin poet Virgil, in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer is led by a mix of noble and bawdy pilgrims, each competing to tell a superior story while en route to Canterbury Cathedral. With each successive story, The Canterbury Tales become a testing ground for the idea of persuasion a la Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Which speaker do we trust? Who is reliable? Who is persuasive?), as well as Horace’s Ars Poetica (Which of the poets tells the tale that is both informative and delightful?). Each character is asked to reach the height of his or her own virtue and reflect that virtue in a particular story. Thus, The Canterbury Tales comes to light as a certain character study of poets. Which people make great poets? What is common among tellers of great stories? Chaucer takes great care to introduce the reader to the moral qualities of each character, excluding himself, but he also shows us the details of each character’s garb and general self-presentation, again excluding himself. Throughout the General Prologue Chaucer is the silent pilgrim, and our great effort in summiting The Canterbury Tales is to dissect the text and discover Chaucer’s hidden presence within his own work, beginning with his commentary in the General Prologue, and continuing with his observations of each character.

The humor and satire of the Canterbury Tales mirrors the high comedy of Aristophanes in its playful and, at times, ribald story-telling. However, it also echoes the structure of a Platonic dialogue, especially with many tales representing a certain kind of dialectic. Plato’s Laws comes to mind. In The Laws, three men engage in a public discussion about the laws found in the best city, laws that can actually come into being, all while they proceed on a day-long pilgrimage to the sacred mountain on Crete. Similarly, the men and women of The Canterbury Tales are on a sacred pilgrimage to Canterbury to the remains of Thomas Becket whose remains lay in Canterbury Cathedral. To recall the story of Thomas Becket – he was the Archbishop of Canterbury who had a tumultuous relationship with King Henry II. According to popular mythology, the King infamously ordered Becket killed at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Shortly before his death, Becket stayed in Southwark, hence the imitation of his travels as a pilgrimage. The story of Thomas Becket also calls our attention to the growing tension between church and state in Western literature. However, on a much deeper level, the pilgrimage highlights the context in which a poet thrives -in motion while paying sacred deference to politics as well as to piety.

It is not sufficient to label the whole of the The Canterbury Tales as merely one or the other: tragic or comic. Instead The Canterbury Tales, overall, is a comedy, dealing lightly with a sacred pilgrimage while it is filled with interpolated tales, both tragic and comic. Considered next to one another, and in contrast to one another, each story (and therefore its corresponding author) is judged within a certain context. Recall, in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates remains awake into the early morning hours along with Aristophanes and Agathon, attempting to persuade them both that a truly great poet is both tragic and comic. Perhaps we might use the same criteria to identify a great poet in The Canterbury Tales.

As indicated in the General Prologue, the primary setting of Chaucer’s Tales is first identified not by a place, but rather a timeframe: “whan” or “when” April’s rains have brought forth Spring in full bloom. It is the time of “the ram” in its halfway “cours y-ronne,” and the lark in melody. The setting is Arcadian; blissful and pastoral.

We receive our narrator at line 21. Chaucer is sitting at The Tabard, an historic Inn in Southwark (central London) on his way to Canterbury “with ful devout corage” when suddenly a group of twenty-nine “sondry folk” who are all pilgrims arrive at the inn. The narrative is written in the past-tense: these are the recollections of Chaucer not an omniscient narrator. The group he encounters is already en route to Canterbury. Chaucer speaks with them and then joins their fellowship by popular vote of unanimous consent –the people are unanimously persuaded by a poet. And while Chaucer has “tyme and space” he endeavors to paint a picture of each of the twenty-nine travelers: their “condicioun,” who they are, what degree, and their “array” or garb. The form and the presentation of each character is just as important as the content of their tales.

The Knight from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15 century

First is the Knight. The Knight is most virtuous and truthful and honorable; a lover of freedom. He brings along fine horses, but he is not dressed gaily, his tunic is smudged since he has only just arrived back in England from his many defenses of Christendom abroad, and he has arrived late to the pilgrimage.

The Squire from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15 century

With the Knight is his son, a Squire, “a lovyer, and a lusty bacheler” of about twenty years of age. He is a lover of music and writing and jousting. He sleeps very little and wears a gown that is short with long sleeves. At his side is a Yeoman, and no other servants. The Yeoman wears a green cloak with peacock-feathered arrows with a bow and a sword, dagger, and a silver image of Saint Christopher on his breast (the patron saint of travelers). Chaucer supposes him to be a forester.


Pictured above is the Prioress (above left), the Second Nun (above right), and the Nun’s Priest (bottom) all taken from the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is also a Nun (or Prioress) who is named madame Eglentyne. Chaucer spends a great deal of time describing the Nun (44 lines) in the Prologue. She speaks Anglo-French well, but not the French of Paris. She is described as courteous, sentimental, dainty, tender, wide-foreheaded, by no means undergrown, and she wears a golden brooch that reads “Amor Vincit Omnia” -an allusion to Book X of Virgil’s Eclogues (“love conquers all”). With her, she has another Nun, who is her chaplain, and a Priest of the nun.

The Monk from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Monk, a “manly man” who loves hunting and managing the lands of his monastery. He is a man of the modern world who rejects old conventions of monks. For example, he rejects the claim that a monk who is uncloistered is like a “fish that is waterless” and Chaucer notably agrees with him. Chaucer, the character, comes to light also as a man of the world, one who is skeptical of tired conventions, such as St. Augustine’s injunction that a monk should work hard labor in the fields and be cloistered among books. He is not pale like a tormented soul, but rather plump and curious, a lover of the hunt. He is bald and wears a gold pin.

The Friar from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a wanton and merry Friar, as well. He is a mellow man, but also festive, and he is well-spoken and respected with a deep intimate relationship of his countryfolk. He is a noble pillar to his Order, he has been given special license from the Pope to hear confessions and deliver penitence, or so he says (Chaucer expresses skepticism), a gift he seems to offer to young ladies quite frequently. Chaucer subtly describes the Friar as a greedy beggar who knows all the taverns and barmaids, spends the money he earns from confessions on liquor, and he approaches many poor widows and rich men asking for money, rather than with lepers and the poor. He arbitrates disputes (also for money) and his name appears to be Hubert (“Huberd”).

The Merchant from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Merchant wearing a Flemish hat, who speaks solemnly about commerce and negotiations and loans. He is so well-spoken that none know he is in-debt. Chaucer never did catch his name.

The Clerk from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Clerk of Oxford, a poor student who completed his Logic courses long ago. His horse is thin, his cloak is threadbare, and he has found no preferment in the church nor availability for him to join the world of secular employment. Chaucer describes him as a “philosopher” though he was never able to turn stone into gold -a laughable allusion to the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone,’ however the fact that Chaucer labels the Clerk a philosopher is important. The Clerk prefers to have twenty books of Aristotle at his bedside each night.

“Of studie took he most cure and most hede,
Noght o word spak he more than was nede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quik, and ful of hy sentence. 
Sowninge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche” (303-308).

There is a Sergeant of the Law, who serves the clients of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is a learned man of the law, able to recite and draft every case since the time of King William (William the Conqueror). He seems busier than he is. With him is a Franklin, a white-bearded and sanguine wealthy landowner. He lives for pleasure as “Epicurus owne sone” and is a lover of sensual delight. He is always at the ready to host his countrymen at his lavish home like St. Julian (the martyr who converted his home to serve 1,000 people as a hospital).


The Cook from the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 15th century

Next Chaucer lists a Haberdasher, Carpenter, a Weaver, and a Carpet-Maker –all tradesmen like a “fraternitee.” They are all clothed in livery with silver knives, though none have property and their wives prefer to be referred to as royalty, and each one is deserving of an alderman’s rank (or a town councilor of sorts). They are a resentful bunch, always look upward with envy toward a higher station in life. With them, they have a skilled Cook, who Chaucer notes has a grotesque ulcer on his knee.

The Shipman from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Shipman from Dartmouth (a port-town in southwestern England). He wears a long wool gown, while riding a farming horse as best he can. He is a “good felawe” who wears a dagger dangling from his neck, however “of nyce conscience took he no keep” as was not ashamed to steal wine on his travels in Bordeaux while the shopkeep slept. He had lived through many tempests all over Brittany and Spain and his ship is called the “Maudelayne.”

The Doctor from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Doctor (“Doctour of Phisyk”) who is unique among all men in the world. He is a perfect practitioner who knows the cause of every malady. He is well-read of all the great men of medicine, including Hippocrates, Galen, Rufus, Asclepius, Avicenna, Averroes, and others. He pursues a moderate diet of healthy foods, with no superfluities, and he is not a reader of the Bible. He is somewhat stingy, and keeps gold close to his heart. Gold is described as “cordial” (meaning good for the heart) so they say. The Doctor is a lover of gold.

The Wife of Bath from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a good Wife of Bath (Bath is in Southwestern England) who is unfortunately somewhat deaf and is a maker of cloth. She can be quite wrathful. She had been married five times, apart from other, shall we say ‘companions’ in her youth. She is well-traveled the world over: to Rome and London and Jerusalem and Spain. She wears a large hat with wide hips and likes to laugh among the company. Her face is bold. She knows the remedies for love, as she has performed the dance many times. In other words, she is a well-traveled lover.

The Parson from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

A good man of religion is among the group, a poor Parson, “nut riche he was of holy thoght and werk.” He is a learned man, and a teacher of the gospel. His parish is in the country with a home spread far and wide, though he never neglects to pay a visit. He is an honorable man, and why shouldn’t a priest be honorable? If he does not lead by example, then the sheep of his flock will also decay. If gold rusts, what then will iron do? Chaucer acknowledges the value and purpose of faith, not necessarily in its truth, but perhaps its effectual truth. The Parson is described by Chaucer as a fine man. With him is a Plowman, his brother. He is an honest worker who gives unto others and works diligently. He wears a tabard smock and rides a mare.

Next, Chaucer curiously summarizes the remainingpeople before returning into further detail: a Reeve, a Miller, a Summoner, a Pardoner, a Manciple, and lastly Chaucer, himself. Chaucer jumbles this ordered listing as he finishes describing the group in the Prologue.

The Miller from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

The Miller is a strongman, a large buffoon who tells bar stories. He has a large wart on his nose with red hair coming out of it. He wears a hood of blue and plays the bagpipes. He plays the bagpipes while the group leaves town the following morning.

The Manciple from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

The Manciple comes from the Inner Temple of high courts. He is moderate in his purchases and despite being illiterate, he can outdo any of the obscure legal scholars. A manciple is a purchaser of goods for a school, college, university, or monastery.

The Reeve from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

The Reeve is old and thin. He is a skilled bargainer and not in debt, though his lord is aged twenty and not as frugal. The Reeve is rich and skilled in his trade of carpentry. He rides a stallion named Scot. He wears a long blue overcoat with a rusty blade. He comes, as Chaucer hears, from Norfolk (located in Eastern England). He rides at the back of the group.

The Summoner from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a Summoner who has fire red carbuncles on his face. He is a lecherous man with black hair who scares children. He likes to eat strong spices like onion and garlic, and he tends to get drunk on strong wine and shout random legal phrases in Latin. He is something of a dishonest and unprincipled man. He is unafraid of curses of the Church, though Chaucer is quick to jump in and defend excommunication. The Summoner knows the licentious secrets of the young men of the church, and so they obey what he says.

The Pardoner from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

There is a gentle Pardoner, a lover of fun and singing. He has long blonde hair. He is young, a good reader and story-teller, especially if there is silver to win from the crowd. He has a wallet of pardons from Rome.

Chaucer from the Ellesemere Manuscript, early 15th century

Chaucer does not describe himself.

Next in the Prologue, Chaucer endeavors to describe their journey. First, he makes a request to the audience, a plea for humility and forgiveness -after all, he is only trying to tell an honest tale and his “wit is short, ye may wel understonde:”

“But first I pray yow of your curteisye,
That ye narette it nat my vileinye” (725-726)

As part of his apologia, Chaucer cites the broad speech of Christ in the gospels, which are ‘surely not scurrilous,’ as well as Plato who says something akin to ‘speech should be a cousin to the deed.’

Then, the Host of the Tabard Inn, a manly and agreeable man, is the last person we are introduced to. He praises the group and offers a suggestion to them since traveling will not necessarily be enjoyable of its own accord (i.e. poetry makes the walk of life light, enjoyable, knowledgeable, and delightful). If the group does not like his suggestion (he swears by his late father’s soul) that they may take his head. Before hearing the Host’s suggestion they all agree. So the Host suggests they each deliver two tales on the way to Canterbury, and then two tales on the return journey. And the Host will be the governor, the judge of the best tale. Thus, they form a small political association which is not democratic – it has certain elements of meritocracy when they draw lots and search for the best tale, and also the Host plays the role of the lawgiver and king. He says he will join them on the journey at his own expense. The Host now replaces Chaucer as the guide to the story, the record-keeper. Thus, the Host becomes the most important character of the Tales, next to the silent Chaucer. The Host says he will judge the tales that are “of best sentence (instruction) and most solas (delight).” In other words, the goal will be to closely mirror the classical idea of good poeises: to both instruct and delight at the same time (Aristotle’s Poetics, and Horace’s Ars Poetica – i.e. the oft-repeated Horatian platitude that poetry should both “instruct and delight”). The purpose of the competition is offered by the Host and it is the central objective and testing ground of The Canterbury Tales.

This conclusion gives us an additional clue as to Chaucer’s project. Aristotle discusses at length in the Rhetoric both the means and affects by which people can be persuaded; the moral character, presentation, and trustworthiness (ethos) of a speaker are critical elements, hence why Chaucer goes to great lengths to describe the moral qualities of each character, how each carries himself, and other seemingly innocuous physical traits. The General Prologue deals with Aristotelian ethos, and the remaining tales allow us to examine each character’s pathos (passions) and logos (reasonable account or demonstration). Then, lastly, we are asked to play the role of Host, in order to judge which tale is best according to classical principles: which tale both instructs and delights?

The teller of the best tale will receive a free meal back at the Tabard Inn on the return trip. The goal of the project is not the award of laurels, nor honor for its own sake, but rather the goal is a mild offering, a mere incentive, a meal. The project mirrors the dialectical competition of speeches in Plato’s Symposium, and it also mirrors the incomplete promise of Plato’s Republic wherein dinner and a show is promised to Socrates but it never actually arrives. If The Canterbury Tales had continued as intended, there would be approximately 120 tales, however the original manuscript ends after only about twenty-four tales (depending on which edition is used). Some have suggested it is an unnaturally incomplete dialogue. If so, it fails in Aristotle’s conception of poesis in the Poetics which suggests the overarching plot of the tales does not contain an end after its beginning and middle; however it succeeds in its imitation (mimesis) of a complete action (i.e. the trip to Canterbury).

At the close of the General Prologue, the group draws lots and the Knight is appropriately selected as the first to proceed with a tale.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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