The Canterbury Tales (Prologue Summary)

Hello everyone! I’m back with a sort of book summary, however, I will be doing this one tale by tale. The Canterbury Tales was written by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1386 and 1389. Because it is a manuscript written so far in the past, the wording in my copy still reflects the style of English in which Chaucer wrote it, though updated with today’s correct spellings for easier reading. I am going to try to read a chapter (or tale, as they are called) once every two weeks, and hopefully break down what I understand from it. It is definitely not a book I would advise for someone who just wants to relax and read, as it does take some thought to understand everything, and in some parts I am not sure I understand it at all. However, I will be doing my best to break down what I did take from it.

Geoffrey Chaucer makes himself a character in these tales. The prologue takes place sometime in April when he leaves to go on his pilgrimage, as he states,

When April with his showers hath pierced the drought

Of March with sweetness to the very root,

…Then people long on Pilgrimage to go.

Geoffrey Chaucer in the Prologue of Canterbury Tales

He stops at the Talbard Inn on the way to Canterbury, where he meets twenty-nine other pilgrims, along with their host at the inn. He introduces them all, some in more detail than the others.

  • The Knight: The Knight is who Chaucer describes first. He is said to love chivalry, honor, faith, and generosity, and his character is described as meek and a perfect noble knight. Chaucer goes on to state what wars and battles the knight had been in, from Alexandria to Turkey, before telling how he was arrayed. He states that though his horses were well clad, the knight himself was plainly dressed in just a “fustian doublet”.
  • The Squire: The Squire is the second pilgrim, and he is the knight’s son. He is young, about twenty, with curly hair and “middle” height. He is said to be great of strength, and that he had gone on several campaigns in Flanders, Artois, and the like. His personality is described as courteous, humble, willing, and able, and he has skills such as singing, jousting, drawing, and writing. Chaucer says his raiment was embroidered with red and white flowers, and his gown was short, though it had long and wide sleeves.
  • The Yeoman: The Yeoman I think was like a man-at-arms or page to the Squire, though I am not a hundred percent sure. Chaucer describes his attire first, stating that he had a coat and hood of green with a quiver of arrows, with peacock feathers edging the wood. His hair is close cropped and his face was brown, and he was said to keep his gear in proper order. He bore multiple weapons; his bow and arrows, a buckler and sword, and a dagger as “sharp as a spear’s point”. Chaucer ends his description by saying, “In truth, he was a forester, I should guess.
  • The Prioress: She is the first pilgrim I see actually given a name, Madame Eglentine. She is described as smiling, innocent, and coy, as well as good mannered, pleasant, and amiable. She tries to stay dignified, but has a heart of pity and charity, as she is said to cry if an animal was hurt or killed. She is said to have a fine voice and is fluent in French. Chaucer says her face was fair, she had grey eyes, a small mouth, and a “well-shaped” nose. She has a handsome cloak and many jewels with her, one of which have the Latin words, “Amor Vincit Omnia“. I looked up the definition of the words, and they appear to mean “Love Conquers All.” In her retinue ride another Nun and Three Priests, who are not expounded upon by Chaucer.
  • The Monk: The Monk is described as being very fair, manly, having a bald head, and bright, flaming eyes. He loves the outdoors, especially the sport of hunting, and does not keep the rules of his order, but instead ignores them and does his own thing. He wears a hood of fine gray fur with a gold pin with supple boots, and rides a brown palfrey.
  • The Friar: This pilgrim is also given a name, Hubert. He is a begging friar by occupation, claiming to have been licensed by the Pope himself. He’d give easy penance if he knew he would be recompensed with money, for he thought that if they would be willing to give to the needy friars, then they must be repentant. He is described as strong and white, and knows more inn hosts and barmaids than lepers and beggar-men, seeing as he thinks it is indecent. Chaucer states that he prefers to cultivate venders of food and wealthy individuals.
  • The Merchant: The Merchant is next, and Chaucer states that he does not know his name. He has a forked beard, wears a Flanders beaver hat, and buckled boots. He is said to speak very solemnly, and his mind is kept on his business, but a worthy man in all.
  • The Student from Oxford: The Student is thin, and looks hollow and sad. He wears a threadbare coat, and is not very rich, but would borrow money in order to buy books on philosophy. He does not speak beyond the need, but is respectful and willing to learn and teach.
  • The Sarjeant of the Law: The Serjeant of the Law is wise, discreet, and prudent, or at least he seems so by his speeches. He is constantly busy, and his writing is said to be flawless. He wears a vari-colored coat and a silk sash.
  • The Franklin: I had to look up what a franklin was as well, and I found it means a land owner of free birth, but not of noble blood. His house is said to always be full of food and drink, and he clearly enjoyed his life by his sanguine expression. He has a white beard and purse, and wears a dagger and girdle. It is said that he served both as a sheriff and an auditor.
  • The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer and Upholsterer: Chaucer mentions all these together. He states that they were clothed in livery, and that their equipment was both fresh and shining. They wear dagger sheaths tipped with silver, as well as new girdles and pouches. Each one has income and goods sufficient for their station in life.
  • The Cook: The five mentioned above brought along with them a cook who would cook their food, and could judge the quality of wine. He is said by Chaucer to have a sore below the knee.
  • The Seaman: Chaucer guesses the seaman is from Dartmouth, and he describes him as a rogue character. He wears a gown of falding and a dagger on a slip. He is a skilled fighter, and his ship is called the Madelaine.
  • The Doctor of Physic: The Doctor is skilled in physic, surgery, and astrology. It is said that he knew the cure to every malady and would ever be ready to send the patient remedies, drugs, and lectures. He only eats for digestion and nourishment, and rarely ever reads the Scriptures. He is said to be dressed wholly in sky-blue and sanguine (blood-red).
  • The Good Wife of Bath: The Wife of Bath is described as being a skillful cloth-maker, but a little deaf. She wears a broad hat, a mantle, with scarlet stockings and new shoes. She is fair and bold, though gap-toothed, and she’s been married five times.
  • The Parson: The parson is a good man, and though poor in money, he is rich in charity. He is learned, and seeks to preach faithfully God’s Word. He helps those out in need rather than demand they pay their tithes or punish them. He has a staff, and seeks to set a good example for all.
  • The Plowman: The Plowman is the parson’s brother, and he is described as loving God first, then his neighbor as himself. He often helps the poor without looking for recompense, and pays his tithes. He wears but a simple plowman’s gown, and rides a mare.
  • The Miller: The Miller is a broad, big-boned man, who could win any tussle he is in. However, he has a large wart on his nose. He wears a sword and buckler, and makes loud jests and boasts that are often sinful. He is known to steal, but he is very smart in financial matters. He wears a white coat and blue hood, and plays the bagpipes.
  • The Manciple: A manciple is one who buys provisions for a college, monastery or the like; basically a steward. This manciple works in an inn of court, and he is very thorough with his stock. He is an expert in law and diligence, and when people would try to trick him, he would constantly fool them all.
  • The Reeve: A reeve is a president of a village or town counsel. This Reeve is slender, lean and choleric, and he keeps his hair very short. He is a very good reporter of weather and giving accurate estimates to his lord. He has also learned the trade of carpentry, and is said to be richer than his lord. He has a dapple gray stallion named Scot, and he rides at the very back of the group. He bears a rusty sword and wears a coat of sky-blue.
  • The Summoner: A summoner was hired by the church to call people out on certain spiritual crimes. This summoner is no different. He has a fiery-red cherubic face with pimples and small, narrow eyes. He has as scraggily beard and black brows, and is said to have a face all children feared. However, he is said to be decent and that a better fellow nowhere could one find. He can frighten people or leave them at peace, whichever he preferred, as he was their counselor. The only thing Chaucer mentions him as wearing is a large garland.
  • The Pardoner: The summoner brought along with him the pardoner. He has long, yellow hair, and wears nothing but a cap. His eye bulge, but he does not have a beard. He claims to have part of the Blessed Lady’s veil, as well as a piece of Peter’s sail, and carries a cross set with stones. He sings very loudly when he does so, in hope of earning some silver from the crowd.
  • The Host: The Host is large, with bright eyes, and is well-learned, wise, and merry. It is he who has the idea for everyone to tell a tale.

When everyone arrives, the host sits them all down to supper and gives them a very delightful dinner. Afterwards, he has an idea on how to make the journey much more enjoyable, and sets up a game. As they go along to Canterbury, they are to each tell two tales. He, the host, will be the judge, and whoever tells the most interesting and profitable tales shall have a supper, at all the others’ expense, back at the inn when they arrive back from Canterbury. Everyone agrees to the terms.

The next morning, the arise and ride to St. Thomas’ Watering Place, where the host reminds them of their agreement. They draw straws to see who will go first, and the knight draws the smallest straw, causing him to get to go first.

I hope you all enjoyed this breakdown! It’s been very interesting for me to read this book, especially since I do not read too much poetry, and in some places it can be hard to understand. So I hope for those of you who have wanted to read the book but find it too hard to understand (or even those of you who have already read it) that this has been an informative and enjoyable summary! Thank you all for reading! God bless! ~ C.G

My Favorite Quote in The Prologue

“Indeed, he held that text not worth an oyster;

And his opinion here was good, I say.

For why go mad with studying all day…”

Geoffrey Chaucer describing the Monk.

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