By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one of the jewels in the crown of medieval English literature. From its opening lines extolling the virtues of April showers through to Chaucer’s wonderfully descriptive introductions to the various pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury, the General Prologue provides a window onto medieval culture while also reminding us that some features of human nature are timeless and common to all generations and ages.
The opening lines of the General Prologue are one of the most powerful and evocative pieces of writing about spring in all of English literature, from its first reference to the rejuvenating qualities of April showers through to the zodiacal allusions to Aries (the Ram). You can read the General Prologue in the original Middle English here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
The General Prologue: summary
One April, Chaucer, the poet and narrator of the Canterbury Tales, arrives at a tavern called the Tabard in Southwark, London. It is the time of year when people in medieval times go on pilgrimages, and Chaucer is about to set off with the tavern’s landlord, Harry Bailly, on the long ride to Canterbury in Kent, to visit the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket.
Twenty-nine other pilgrims arrive at the inn, ready to set off on their pilgrimage. Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims, from the knight and his squire, to the miller, the parson, the Wife of Bath, and the various other representatives of medieval society.
Bailly, who is hosting the group of pilgrims at the inn, suggests that they each take it in turns to tell stories to everyone as they travel, to liven up the journey. The pilgrim who tells the best story will be treated to a supper by the rest of the pilgrims when they get back to the inn. Harry Bailly himself will be the judge of the contest. And so the pilgrims set off for Canterbury …
The General Prologue: analysis
The notion of having an overarching narrative which would allow for various characters to tell numerous stories within that broader story was something that Chaucer probably picked up from Boccaccio, the Italian author whose Decameron sees a group of Italians fleeing the city of Florence during the Black Death and holing themselves up outside the city, telling stories to each other to pass the time.
But another important (though less well-known) influence on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was something known as the ‘estates satire’, a medieval genre in which various trades and professions were mocked and satirised through a certain type (usually a stereotype) which represented their trade.
In each case, the character lays bare the shortcomings of the trade or class which they emblematise. We can clearly see this in Chaucer’s characters: in the pardoner who is not exactly free from sin himself, or the Wife of Bath who readily admits to adultery, and so on.
But Chaucer’s characters go beyond the mere archetypes (or stereotypes) found in such medieval satires. He makes his characters more individual, more ambiguous, and more difficult to categorise.
Is the Wife of Bath a terrible wife because she has cheated on at least one of her five husbands, or a model wife because she has learned how to tame and control the often abusive or wayward men she has married? Is the Miller right to mock the Knight’s ‘straight’ tale of courtly chivalry? Such tensions and ambiguities are held in balance throughout the Canterbury Tales, and they are immediately present in the famous opening lines of the General Prologue:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …
This is hardly a placid and beautifying picture of spring: to borrow from more recent artistic modes, we might say it has the restless energy of the opening of a movie rather than the stillness of a photograph.
The reference to ‘the Ram’, the animal that represents the star sign Aries, is also a nod to rutting season and the idea of mating, copulation, and the wildness of nature – and many of the pilgrims will prove to be in the possession of wild and even violent passions, such as lust, greed, avarice, and other desires.
And ‘folk’ might ‘longen’ to ‘goon on pilgrimages’ for reasons that are not altogether holy, as Lesley A. Coote points out in her informative contextual notes to The Canterbury Tales (Wordsworth Poetry Library).
It is this sense of ambiguity that makes The Canterbury Tales so varied and so surprising an anthology of tales, with the pace and tone constantly shifting as each pilgrim hands the storytelling baton to another (or has it wrenched from his hand, as happens to Chaucer himself when telling his disastrous Tale of Sir Thopas).
Coote provides a good example of this ambiguity and how subtly and deftly Chaucer weaves it into his descriptions of the various pilgrims. Consider the Prioress, who carries a rosary – as we’d expect a medieval religious woman to – but one with the inscription ‘amor vincit omnia’ on it.
This means ‘love conquers all’: a reference to God’s love and how it overcomes everything else? Perhaps, except that ‘amor vincit omnia’ is a quotation from Virgil, a pagan poet, rather than from the Bible or other Christian text. Is the Prioress as interested in human passion as with divine love or agape?