General Prologue

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The first lines from the General Prologue at the opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript.
Illustration of the knight from the General Prologue. Three lines of text are also shown.
The Tabard Inn, Southwark, around 1850

The General Prologue is the first part of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.


The frame story of the poem, as set out in the 858 lines of Middle English which make up the general prologue, is of a religious pilgrimage. The narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer, is in The Tabard in Southwark, where he meets a group of "sundry folk" who are all on the way to Canterbury, the site of the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.

The setting is April, and the prologue starts by singing the praises of that month whose rains and warm western wind restore life and fertility to the earth and its inhabitants. This abundance of life, the narrator says, prompts people to go on pilgrimages; in England, the goal of such pilgrimages is the shrine of Thomas Becket. The narrator falls in with a group of pilgrims, and the largest part of the prologue is taken up by a description of them; Chaucer seeks to describe their 'condition', their 'array', and their social 'degree':

To telle yow al the condicioun,
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne,
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.

The pilgrims include a knight, his son a squire, the knight's yeoman, a prioress accompanied by a second nun and the nun's priest, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a clerk, a sergeant of law, a franklin, a haberdasher, a carpenter, a weaver, a dyer, a tapestry weaver, a cook, a shipman, a doctor of physic, a wife of Bath, a parson, his brother a plowman, a miller, a manciple, a reeve, a summoner, a pardoner, the host (a man called Harry Bailly), and a portrait of Chaucer himself. At the end of the section, the Host proposes the story-telling contest: each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Whoever tells the best story, with "the best sentence and moost solaas" (line 798) is to be given a free meal.[1]

The Tales[edit]

Gallery of the Pilgrims[edit]


The General Prologue establishes the frame for the Tales as a whole (or of the intended whole) and introduces the characters/story tellers. These are introduced in the order of their rank in accordance with the three medieval social estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners and peasantry). These characters, while seemingly realistically described, are also representative of their estates and models with which the others in the same estate can be compared and contrasted.

The structure of the General Prologue is also intimately linked with the narrative style of the tales. As the narrative voice has been under critical scrutiny for some time, so too has the identity of the narrator himself. Though fierce debate has taken place on both sides, (mostly contesting that the narrator either is, or is not, Geoffrey Chaucer) it should be noted that most contemporary scholars believe that the narrator is meant to be some degree of Chaucer himself. Some scholars, like William W. Lawrence, claim that the narrator is Geoffrey Chaucer in person. While others, like Marchette Chute for instance, contest that the narrator is instead a literary creation like the other pilgrims in the tales.[2]

Manly attempted to identify pilgrims with real 14th century people. In some instances such as Summoner and Friar, he attempts localization to a small geographic area. The Man of Law is identified as Thomas Pynchbek (also Pynchbeck) who was chief baron of the exchequer. Sir John Bussy was an associate of Pynchbek. He is identified as the Franklin. The Pembroke estates near Baldeswelle supplied the portrait for the unnamed Reeve.[3]


First 18 lines[edit]

The following is the first 18 lines of the General Prologue. The text was written in a dialect associated with London and spellings associated with the then-emergent Chancery Standard.

Original in Middle English:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Near word-for-word translation into Modern English[4]
When April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every vein in such liquor,
Of whose virtue engendered is the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath
Has quickened, in every grove and heath,
The tender sproutings; and the young sun
Has in the Ram his half-course run,
And small fowls make melody,
[While] sleeping all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them in their hearts);
Then folks long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers to seek strange shores
To far-off shrines, known in sundry lands;
And, [e]specially, from every shire's end
Of England, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blessed martyr to seek,
Who has helped them when they were sick.
Sense-for-sense translation into Modern English
with new rhyme scheme
(by Nevill Coghill):[5]
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye,
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially from every shires’ end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick

In modern prose:

When April with its sweet showers has pierced March's drought to the root, bathing every vein in such liquid by whose virtue the flower is engendered, and when Zephyrus with his sweet breath has also enlivened the tender plants in every wood and field, and the young sun is halfway through Aries, and small birds that sleep all night with an open eye make melodies (their hearts pricked by Nature), then people long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers seek foreign shores and distant shrines known in sundry lands, and especially they wend their way to Canterbury from every shire of England in order to seek the holy blessed martyr, who has helped them when they were sick.[6]


  1. ^ Koff, Leonard Michael (1988). Chaucer and the Art of Storytelling. U of California P. p. 78. ISBN 9780520059993. Retrieved 9 October 2012. 
  2. ^ Kimpel, Ben. "The Narrator of the Canterbury Tales". Journal Article. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved 30 October 2012. 
  3. ^ John Matthews Manly (1926). Some New Light on Chaucer (New York:. Henry Holt. p. 131-57. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ Canterbury Tales (selected). Translated by Vincent Foster Hopper (revised ed.). Barron's Educational Series. 1970. p. 2. 
  5. ^ Gleason, Paul (2002). "Don DeLillo, T.S. Eliot, and the Redemption of America's Atomic Waste Land". Underwords. Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp. p. 131. 
  6. ^ Sweet, Henry (d. 1912) (2005). First Middle English Primer. Evolution Publishing: Bristol, Pennsylvania. ISBN 1-889758-70-1. 

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