The Canterbury Tales begins with “The General Prologue,'” which imposes unity on the whole book. The General Prologue opens with the narrator, who states that on one April’s day, he was lodging at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, readying himself to leave on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. A group of 29 various other pilgrims arrive at nightfall. The narrator talks to everyone and becomes a part of their company. Before he goes on with the story, however, he wants to tell us who those people are, what rank, and how they are dressed.
His description begins with the Knight, who is a very distinguished man. He loves chivalry and loyalty. He fought bravely in the King’s service, and has traveled farther than most men. He fought in fifteen pitched battles, and everywhere he goes, he is honored for his valor. Though distinguished, his bearing is “as modest as a maid’s.” He never speaks discourteously to any kind of men. He wears a tunic of thick cotton cloth, and he has just come back from his travels.
In his company is his 20-year-old son, a young Squire with curly hair. Hoping to win favor in his lady’s eyes, the young squire has taken part in cavalry forays. He whistles or sings all day long, as fresh as the month of May.” He composes songs and sets them to music, jousts, and dances, and he can draw and write. His gown is short, with long white sleeves. Since he is passionately in love, he cannot sleep more than the nightingale.
The Knight has only one Yeoman, because that is how he prefers to travel on this occasion. The Yeoman knows how to look after his gear: he has a green coat and hood and carries sharp arrows with the peacock feathers in his belt, and in one hand he carries a mighty bow. His face is brown, framed with short cropped hair; on his breast is a shining silver image of St. Christopher.
A Nun, a Prioress whose name is Madame Eglantine, smiles in an unaffected and quiet way. She speaks French elegantly with a Stratford-at-Bow accent, for she doesn’t know the French of Paris. Her passion is etiquette, the narrator tells us, and then adds that she wipes her upper lip so meticulously that no spot of grease is to be seen on her cup after she drinks from it. She is very friendly and pleasant. She is also so tenderhearted that she weeps whenever she sees a mouse caught in a trap. She wears a very elegant cloak. Her nose is well-shaped, her eyes are gray as glass, and her mouth is small but red.
There is also a remarkably good-looking Monk, who loves hunting and has many fine horses. When he goes out riding, everyone can hear the bells on his bridle. He doesn’t care for the text that says that hunters cannot be holy men. The narrator notices that the monk’s sleeves have precious fur at the ends and that he wears a curious golden pin in the shape of a love knot, which fastens his hood. His bald head shines like glass, and his favorite meal is a fat roast swan.
After the Monk, the narrator introduces a Friar, Huberd, as a very spirited man. No one is so adept at flirtation (“daliaunce”) as he is. He is the best beggar of his order because he can get money from everybody. He is on good terms with landowners in the district where he begs and with wealthy women, because he is more qualified to hear the confessions of grave sins than the parish priests. The narrator says that people are so hardened in their hearts they cannot weep. So instead of prayers and tears, people give money to the poor friars. Chaucer’s Friar is a master in ballad singing.
The Merchant is introduced first by his appearance. He has a forked beard and wears a many-colored dress with a beaver hat on his head. He is an expert on exchange currency and constantly talks about increasing his profits. Although the narrator agrees that he is an estimable man, he cannot recall the Merchant’s name.
A Scholar from Oxford has been studying Logic. He is as lean as his horse, which looks like a rake. He has no employment because he prefers Aristotle’s philosophical works, bound in black and red leather, at the head of his bed to fine clothes. His coat is threadbare. In conversation he is well-spoken and never speaks a word more than necessary.
Full of excellence is the Sergeant-at-law. He is discreet and his words are wise. He has often been a Judge of the Assize and is authorized to hear all types of cases. He receives many fees for his skill and reputation. There is no busier man anywhere, though he seems even busier than he actually is. He knows all the statutes by heart, and he can quote all the cases and their judgments since the Norman Conquest. He is simply dressed in a colored coat girded by a silk belt with narrow stripes.
The Franklin is his companion, who has a red complexion and a beard as white as a daisy. He is a true son of Epicures, who believed that the only real happiness lay in sensual pleasures. His house is always full of food that varies according to season. The Franklin presides over the sessions of justice, and he is a Knight of the Shire in the Parliament.
Among the rest of the company are a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapestry–maker, who are clothed in the same uniform, all belonging to the rich Guild. Chaucer’s description of them melts them into one.
The Cook is accompanying them for this occasion. The Cook knows how to roast, fry, broil, make soup, and bake pies. The narrator comments that it is a great shame that the Cook got an ulcer on his shin.
The description of the Shipman is similar to that of the Cook. The Shipman is from Dartmouth; he rides on a farm horse and wears a gown that reaches to his knee. He carries a dagger under his arm and he is tan. When he fights he throws his prisoners overboard and sends them home by water to wherever they came from. No one can match either his ability to calculate tides, currents, and the hazards around him, or his knowledge of harbors and changes of the moon. The name of his ship is Maudelaine.
The Doctor of Medicine is also in their company. He is well grounded in astrology, which enables him to consult the stars and choose the best hour to treat a patient. He can also diagnose every kind of disease and tell from which of four humors the imbalance in the body comes. He also studies the ancient medical authors that the narrator mentions, but he seldom reads the Bible. As far as his diet is concerned, he is moderate. He hoards his money, the narrator tells, and he is too cold in character to be generous.
The Wife of Bath is a weaver, and here Chaucer continues the tradition of Eve, who was also a cloth-maker. This portrait develops two qualities of the Wife of Bath: her sexuality and her independence. She has outlasted five husbands, not including “the other company in youth.” Her clothes are very elegant: her stockings made of finest scarlet are drawn up above glossy shoes. She knows plenty about traveling in foreign countries; she has visited Jerusalem three times and been in Rome and Bologna. (It was proverbial in the Middle Ages that the husband who allowed his wife to travel was looking to be cuckolded.) Many voyages of the Wife of Bath emphasize her sexuality. The narrator tells us that she is deaf in one car. She is also gap-toothed; this was supposed to be a sign of luck, but physiognomists also regarded it as a sign of a lascivious disposition. She rides comfortably upon the horse, her head being covered by a hat the size of a shield. When she is in the company she laughs. The good “Wife of Bath” is representative of fleshly love.
After her the narrator, as a deliberate contrast, introduces the poor Parson, who is a good, religious man, a learned man, and a scholar who truly preaches Christ’s Gospel. He would rather give to the poor of his parish what the wealthy offer him. He manages to live on very little, and nothing can stop him from visiting faraway parishes. He adds his own saying to his preaching of Gospel: If gold can rust, what will iron do?
With him comes his brother, a Ploughman, who is a good laborer. He loves God with all his heart, in good and bad times, and he also loves his neighbor as much as himself. Chaucer gives a very sympathetic presentation of the farmer.
In contrast with the Parson and the Ploughman are five others: a Reeve, a Miller, a Summoner, a Pardoner, and a Manciple, who are lower-class rascals.
The first one is the Miller, a big-boned fellow with strong muscles who always wins wrestling matches. The narrator, in order to describe his strength, says that there is no door he cannot break down with his head. His beard is as red as that of the fox, his mouth is big, and his language is bawdy and vicious.
The second scoundrel is the Manciple, a steward of a society of lawyers, who is wise in his purchases, whether he pays by cash or on credit. There are 30 of his superiors who are all educated and experts in law, and there are a dozen men capable of managing the rents of any year in England that will enable him to live honorably; yet this Manciple makes fools of them all. The narrator is interested mainly in the Manciple’s ability to cheat them.
The Reeve is an agent who manages the farms when the landlord is absent. This Reeve is a slender, choleric man, with hair cropped around the ears, and a shaved beard. His legs are thin, with no calves to be seen. He can make a good estimate of the yield of his seeds just by noting the drought and rainfall. The Reeve has managed his master’s livestock since the master was 20 years old. He knows better than his master how to increase one’s possessions. His thievery, however, is not caught because he knows how to make an account book look correct. He is also sly; he knows how to please his lord by lending him from his own (lord’s) assets, and gets thanks for that. He wears a long blue overcoat with a rusty sword on his side. He rides last on a mare, while the Miller rides first.
Next comes the Summoner, whose duty it is to serve summons on alleged offenders and to make sure they show up at court on time. Not only do the summoners summon offenders, they also spy on them and report them. Chaucer’s Summoner is as physically ugly as he is morally repugnant. His face is as red as a cherub’s but is covered with pimples; he is as lecherous as a sparrow. Children are afraid of his black eyebrows and scruffy beard. He loves garlic, onion, and leeks; he enjoys strong red wine, which makes him shout like a madman. When he is drunk he speaks only in Latin. But then the narrator immediately adds that the Summoner knows only a few tags, and the thing he repeats, parrot-like, is questio quid juris (What is the law on this point?). For a quart of wine he will allow any rascal or priest to keep his mistress for a whole year, while he himself is skilled in seducing girls.
The Summoner’s companion is the Pardoner. Pardoners were sellers of papal indulgences. The profits were supposed to go to religious organizations, or to some pious purpose. The narrator first describes his appearance: His hair is waxy yellow and is as sleek as a hank of flax. With his hair loose and uncovered by a hood (which he carries in a bag), he thinks he is sporting the latest fashion. His voice is thin, goat-like, and there is no sign of a beard. His skin is as polished as if just shaven. As far as his profession goes, there is no pardoner that can match him from Berwick down to Ware. He carries, he claims, in his wallet a slip from Our Lady’s veil, a bit of the sail that belonged to St. Peter when he tried to walk on the waves and Jesus Christ caught him, and also a brass cross set in pebbles and a glass box full of pigs’ bones. With the help of those relics, he makes more money in a day than the Parson obtains in two months. The narrator, though, wants to do him justice, and says that the Pardoner is a fine ecclesiastic.
The Host, Harry Bailly, the narrator, joins the pilgrims on their voyage. He is a strikingly good-looking man. He suggests that they draw straws to decide who is going to tell the first tale.