Prologue Of The Canterbury Tales

The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales #

Medieval societies were still under the spell of magic or superstition including witches, miracles and folk tales. Archetypal cycles of the dawn, spring and birth phase leading to revival and resurrection of creation and (because the four phases are a cycle) of the defeat of the powers of darkness, winter and death. The archetype of romance and of most dithyrambic and rhapsodic poetry to celebrate a new lease of life.

Religious rituals permeated society as well as most people were under the influence of the Catholic Church in every aspect of their lives. It set the standard in Art, Music, entertainment, education and even had its own court of law. Church going was compulsory as all believed in salvation and damnation. The main entertainments were connected to the Church.

All holidays were Holy Days. There were miracle or mystery plays based on stories from the Bible, Paintings and stained glass windows had Biblical themes illustrating the creation, life of saints and the day of judgement so the illiterate masses could learn the stories.

Travel for pleasure was rare; you went on pilgrimages “To ferne halwes kouthe in sondry lands”, - To distant shrines known in far away lands.

Jerusalem, Rome and the Comino Trail to the shrine of James in Spain were the most hallowed. Thomas a’ Becket, who defied King Henry II, became a martyred saint with a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. Pilgrimages were social as well as religious, and Chaucer’s choice to use a pilgrimage to tell his stories gives his work overall unity.

##Chaucer -The Prologue

1 Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote sweet
2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, (drought)
3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour (such liqour)
4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour; (power of)
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth (wood and heath)
7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8 Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
9 And smale foweles maken melodye, (birds)
10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages), (stirs urges or hearts)
12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, (pilgrims
strange strands)
14 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; distant shrines known
15 And specially from every shires ende
*16 Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
17 The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
18 That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

This is a fusion of Hesiod’s Theogony where the Archetype of the barren Earth mother is impregnated by the sky father (Uranus) who each night comes down to envelop her. The April showers can also work as the imagery of Christian Baptism which immerses people into Christiaity.

Archetypal patterns of the mystical submersion into Cyclical Time: the theme of endless death and regeneration—man achieves a kind of immortality by submitting to the vast, mysterious rhythm of Nature’s eternal cycle, particularly the cycle of the seasons.

Chaucer includes the four elements of:

  • air - Zepherus,
  • fire - Sun,
  • water - rain, and the
  • earth.

The permanent Sun is worshiped as the highest of the chain of being.

In extreme climates, Spring is celebrated conventionally with rhetorical flourishes to indicate the significance of cycle of birth, growth, decline, death and rebirth. The seasonal change from winter (death) to spring (resurrection) is signalled by:

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Death has been conquered by the new, sweet, bathing showers of April which has sent up new shoots of flowers. The harsh sounds of March are replaced by the sibilant, soothing, balmy relief of Zephyrus’ winds – God breathing life into man.

Piercing to the roots conveys sexual connotations of fertility; engendering and birth. Birds, and people have been reinvigorated by the impulses of Spring - fertilisation, birth, rebirth, growth, moods of joy and pleasure - “maken melodye”.

Not only nature is reborn, people to are stirred back to vitality and newly inspired energy. While ostensibly on a pilgrimage - “The holy blisful martir for to seke”, Chaucer shows that they are ordinary people with all the flaws of our common humanity.

19 Bifil that in that seson on a day,
20 In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
21 Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
22 To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
23 At nyght was come into that hostelrye
24 Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
25 Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle (variety gather by chance)
26 In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
27 That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
28 The chambres and the stables weren wyde, (rooms)
29 And wel we weren esed atte beste. (well provided for)
30 And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
31 So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
32 That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
33 And made forward erly for to ryse,
34 To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse. (will you tell)
35 But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
36 Er that I ferther in this tale pace, (before I proceed)
37 Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun (It stands to reason)
38 To telle yow al the condicioun
39 Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
40 And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
41 And eek in what array that they were inne;
42 And at a Knyght than wol I begynne.

Chaucer introduces himself as congenial wayfarer who is interested in the whole company. He will be the faithful reporter who introduces the whole panoply of medieval characters from the three main echelons of society, the church, the emerging middle classes and the common people. He will then describe to us their situation, rank and attire. He is very effusive in his superlatives.

715 Now have I toold you soothly, in a clause,
716 Th’ estaat, th’ array, the nombre, and eek the cause
717 Why that assembled was this compaignye
*718 In Southwerk at this gentil hostelrye *
719 That highte the Tabard, faste by the Belle. (was called)
720 But now is tyme to yow for to telle
721 How that we baren us that ilke nyght, (conducted ourselves)
722 Whan we were in that hostelrie alyght;
723 And after wol I telle of our viage
724 And al the remenaunt of oure pilgrimage.
725 But first I pray yow, of youre curteisye,
726 That ye n’ arette it nat my vileynye, (don’t take it as) rude
727 Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere,
728 To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere,
729 Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely.
730 For this ye knowen al so wel as I:
731 Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
732 He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan
733 Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
734 Al speke he never so rudeliche and large,
735 Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,
736 Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe. (make things up)
737 He may nat spare, althogh he were his brother; (refrain from truth)
738 He moot as wel seye o word as another.
739 Crist spak hymself ful brode in hooly writ, (plainly)
740 And wel ye woot no vileynye is it. (offence)
741 Eek Plato seith, whoso kan hym rede,
742 The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede.
743 Also I prey yow to foryeve it me,
744 Al have I nat set folk in hir degree
745 Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde.
746 My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.

Introductions #

When he has finished his introductions, he tells us about the Host, who will conduct their journey and provide entertainment by having them each tell two stories. Only one was ever completed.

747 Greet chiere made oure Hoost us everichon,
748 And to the soper sette he us anon.
749 He served us with vitaille at the beste;
750 Strong was the wyn, and wel to drynke us leste.
751 A semely man OURE HOOSTE was withalle
752 For to been a marchal in an halle.
753 A large man he was with eyen stepe –


767 And of a myrthe I am right now bythoght,
768 To doon yow ese, and it shal coste noght.

772 Ye shapen yow to talen and to pleye;
773 For trewely, confort ne myrthe is noon
774 To ride by the weye doumb as a stoon;
775 And therfore wol I maken yow disport,

791 That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
792 In this viage shal telle tales tweye
793 To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
794 And homward he shal tellen othere two,
795 Of aventures that whilom han bifalle.
796 And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle –
797 That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
798 Tales of best sentence and moost solaas –
799 Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
800 Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,
801 Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury.
802 And for to make yow the moore mury,
803 I wol myselven goodly with yow ryde,
804 Right at myn owene cost, and be youre gyde;


831 Lat se now who shal telle the firste tale.
835 Now draweth cut, er that we ferrer twynne;
836 He which that hath the shorteste shal bigynne.

The Knyght gets the short straw and so the entertainment begins.