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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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FREE BOOK SUMMARY FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES

The General Prologue

Summary

In April the pleasant showers of rain had pierced the drought of March to the very root and bathed every plant with life-giving moisture. The refreshing west wind had quickened the young shoots in every wood and field. The young sun had completed its second half course in the zodiac sign of the Aries, and the small birds encouraged by nature sang melodiously. People longed to go on pilgrimages and seek strange shores in this rejuvenating month. People from every corner of England went to Canterbury to seek the holy blessings at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.

One spring day at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, while the narrator (Chaucer) was waiting for the next day to go on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, a group of twenty-nine pilgrims arrived at the inn. The narrator was accepted into their company and they decided to rise early next morning and carry on their journey. The narrator describes each of these pilgrims and tells the reader about their ranks and the kind of clothes they wore.

Notes

In the opening lines Chaucer rapidly sketches a season -- April, an occasion - pilgrimage to Canterbury, and a location - Tabard Inn. The enchanting picture of the sun-kissed and rain-cleansed April sky and budding forth of new life possesses a special charm. The passing away of the bleak and dark winter inspired people to go on pilgrimages since it was the only form of holiday in medieval England. Chaucer also states his intention to describe the Canterbury pilgrims. But more importantly he declares his intention to state the social estate or rank of all the pilgrims. Thus the Prologue may be seen as a form of estates literature which enables Chaucer to paint a holistic picture of fourteenth century society.

The Knight

The Knight, an extremely brave and distinguished man, loved chivalry, truth, honor, generosity and courtesy. He had ridden further than any man in Christendom or heathendom and had always been honored for his valor. Although he was brave he was also prudent. He was a true, perfect, gentle knight who never spoke rudely to anybody. His horse was good but he himself wasn’t ostentatiously dressed. His chain mail coat bore the scars of his latest expedition.

Notes

Some critics hold that Chaucer was correct to begin with the portrait of the Knight since he occupied a high status in society. Thus the Knight is respected by all the pilgrims and also tells the first tale. However one must remember that the General Prologue follows the framework of estates literature. In this light it would have been more correct if Chaucer had started with the ecclesiastical characters since in estates literature the clergy occupy a higher position than the others. Chaucer’s description of the chivalrous Knight suggests that this is not an actual portrait but an idealistic representation of his profession. Chaucer endows him with all the qualities and gentlemanly traits that one would expect from a Knight. The list of campaigns undertaken by the Knight indicates the religious role played by him. The references to far-away places also add a dash of romance and glamour.


The Squire

The twenty-year-old Squire was the Knight’s son. With his fashionably curled locks he was a lusty bachelor and an aspirant to Knighthood. He was of average height and was wonderfully agile. He had conducted himself well in cavalry expeditions in the hope of gaining his lady’s favor. He was singing / playing his flute all day long. He wore a fashionable short gown with long wide sleeves. He could compose lyrics, joust, draw, dance, and ride elegantly. He was courteous, modest and helpful.

Notes

Chaucer tells the readers that the young Squire could ride and sing, joust, dance, draw and write poetry. These references to simple everyday activities and the special qualifications required by the profession, enables Chaucer to paint a realistic portrait of the pilgrim

The Squire’s curled locks and fashionably short gown embroidered with white and red flowers are appropriate for his role as a figure of romantic chivalry, and provide a stark contrast to the more serious religious aspects of chivalry represented by his father, the Knight.

The Yeoman

The Yeoman was the only servant brought along by the Knight. He was dressed in a green coat and hood and carried a sheaf of bright and sharp peacock arrows under his belt. He carried a large bow in his hand. His hair was closely cropped and his face was tanned. He carried a sword, a shield and a bright dagger. He wore a St. Christopher medallion on his beautiful breast of silver. He had thorough knowledge about forestry and woodcraft and carried a hunting horn.

Notes

The detailed description about the tools and equipment carried by the Yeoman serves to fortify Chaucer’s assertion about the Yeoman’s mastery in woodcraft. It should be noted that the Yeoman not only carries a bow, sword and buckler which would indicate that he is on military service, but also a hunting horn which implies that he is a forester.

The Prioress

There was also a nun; a Prioress named Madame Eglantine (Sweetbrier) among the Canterbury pilgrims. She was very demure and her oath was, " by Sainte Loy". She sang the divine service with a pleasant nasal intonation. She spoke French fluently in the manner of the school of Stratford at Bow since she didn’t know Parisian French. She had excellent table manners and didn’t allow any morsel to fall from her lips nor wet her fingers deep in her sauce. She wiped her upper lip so clearly that no trace of grease was left on her cup after she had finished her drink. She had a good disposition and a pleasant and amiable bearing. She strove to imitate courtly manners and to be dignified in her manner. She was so charitable and full of pity that she would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap. She fed her 3 small dogs with roasted meat, or milk and fine bread. She was very sensitive and had a tender and affectionate heart. Her wimple was elegantly pleated. She had a broad forehead, straight nose, gray nose and soft small red lips. She wore a golden brooch with the inscription "Amor vincit omnia".

Notes

Chaucer has drawn an exquisite portrait of the Prioress. He presents a lady who is utterly charming and elegant. The reader is told that the Prioress is simple and coy when she smiles. She has a broad forehead and sings the divine service with a pleasant nasal intonation. She is obviously a lady who has not forgotten her past of refinement and fine living. Her strongest oath is by St. Loy which implies that she hardly swears at all. Her tender heart overflows with pity when she sees dead or bleeding mice caught in a trap. She is fond of animals and feeds her dogs with meat and expensive fine bread. She is also vain about her personal appearance and exposes too much of her broad forehead. Her love of jewelry is evident from the rosary and the elegant gold brooch with the ambiguous motto ‘Amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all). This type of love could imply both spiritual as well as human love. Since she is a nun it should rather have read ‘Amor Dei’ (love of God). The Prioress’s affectations and her straight nose, gray eyes, and tender sensibility associate her with an elegant society lady rather than a nun. Thus Chaucer fills his portrait of the Prioress with subtle irony by praising her especially for her faults.


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