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.
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, 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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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".
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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