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The General Prologue is the first part of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Synopsis The frame story of the poem, as set out
in the 858 lines of Middle English which make up the general prologue, is of a
religious pilgrimage. The narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer, is in The Tabard in
Southwark, where he meets a group of "sundry folk" who are all on the way to
Canterbury, the site of the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.
The setting is April, and the prologue starts by singing the praises of that
month whose rains and warm western wind restore life and fertility to the earth
and its inhabitants. This abundance of life, the narrator says, prompts people
to go on pilgrimages; in England, the goal of such pilgrimages is the shrine
of Thomas Becket. The narrator falls in with a group of pilgrims, and the
largest part of the prologue is taken up by a description of them; Chaucer seeks
to describe their 'condition', their 'array', and their social 'degree':
To telle yow al the condicioun, Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne,
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.
The pilgrims include a knight, his son a squire, the knight's yeoman, a prioress
accompanied by a second nun and the nun's priest, a monk, a friar, a
merchant, a clerk, a sergeant of law, a franklin, a haberdasher, a carpenter, a
weaver, a dyer, a tapestry weaver, a cook, a shipman, a doctor of physic, a
wife of Bath, a parson, his brother a plowman, a miller, a manciple, a reeve,
a summoner, a pardoner, the host, and a portrait of Chaucer himself. At the end
of the section, the Host proposes the story-telling contest: each pilgrim will
tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back.
Whoever tells the best story, with "the best sentence and moost solaas" is to be
given a free meal. The Tales
General Prologue The Knight's Tale
The Miller's Tale The Reeve's Tale
The Cook's Tale {Unfinished} The Man of Law's Tale
The Tale of Gamelyn intended by Chaucer for The Cook's Tale?
The Wife of Bath's Tale The Friar's Tale
The Summoner's Tale The Clerk's Tale
The Merchant's Tale The Squire's Tale
The Franklin's Tale The Physician's Tale
The Pardoner's Tale The Shipman's Tale
The Prioress Tale Sir Thopas Tale told by Chaucer
{Unfinished} The Tale of Melibee told by Chaucer
The Monk's Tale The Nun's Priest's Tale
The Second Nun's Tale The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
The Manciple's Tale The Parson's Tale
Chaucer's Retraction The Plowman's Tale a 15th-century
addition to the Canterbury Tales Siege of Thebes a 15th-century addition
to the Canterbury Tales Prologue and Tale of Beryn a 15th
Century addition to the Canterbury Tales which tells of the epilogue after the
Pilgrims arrive in Canterbury Gallery of the Pilgrims
Structure The General Prologue establishes the
frame for the Tales as a whole and introduces the characters/story tellers.
These are introduced in the order of their rank in accordance with the three
medieval social estates. These characters, while seemingly
realistically described, are also representative of their estates and
models with which the others in the same estate can be compared and contrasted.
The structure of the General Prologue is also intimately linked with the
narrative style of the tales. As the narrative voice has been under critical
scrutiny for some time, so too has the identity of the narrator himself. Though
fierce debate has taken place on both sides, it should be noted that most
contemporary scholars believe that the narrator is meant to be some degree of
Chaucer himself. Some scholars, like William W. Lawrence, claim that the
narrator is Geoffrey Chaucer in person. While others, like Marchette Chute for
instance, contest that the narrator is instead a literary creation like the
other pilgrims in the tales. Manly attempted to identify pilgrims
with real 14th century people. In some instances such as Summoner and Friar, he
attempts localization to a small geographic area. The Man of Law is
identified as Thomas Pynchbek who was chief baron of the exchequer. Sir John
Bussy was an associate of Pynchbek. He is identified as the Franklin. The
Pembroke estates near Baldeswelle supplied the portrait for the unnamed
Reeve. Translation
= First 18 lines = The following is the first 18 lines of
the General Prologue. The text was written in a dialect associated with
London and spellings associated with the then-emergent Chancery Standard.
In modern prose: When April with its sweet showers has
pierced March's drought to the root, bathing every vein in such liquid by
whose virtue the flower is engendered, and when Zephyrus with his sweet breath
has also enlivened the tender plants in every wood and field, and the young sun
is halfway through Aries, and small birds that sleep all night with an open
eye make melodies, then people long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers seek
foreign shores and distant shrines known in sundry lands, and especially they
wend their way to Canterbury from every shire of England in order to seek the
holy blessed martyr, who has helped them when they were sick.
References External links
Side by side Translation into Modern Verse - Illustrated
Modern Translation of the General Prologue and Other Resources at eChaucer
"Prologue to The Canterbury Tales" – a plain-English retelling for
non-scholars.
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General Prologue

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