Chaucer, The General Prologue

“The General Prologue as a microcosm of the medieval world”

The idea of a pilgrimage as a framework for the tales lends Chaucer the device to represent ensembles of almost all kinds of occupations practiced, and, by extension, other aspects of medieval life in his time. This is one instance of the General Prologue being a microcosm of the medieval world. Others include the description of the practices of the pilgrims, their attitudes, their arrays, the narrator’s ambiguous commentary on each of them as he introduces them, and the setting of the narrative being, first, the Tabard Inn, and thereafter, the road to Canterbury.

Historically, the Black Death (1348-49) and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) foreshadow the writing of The Tales. The effect of these events is evident in the General Prologue as the portraits of the people suggest a prominent presence of the labores estate rising. Still, beginning with the knight the narrator signals the prominence of the “estaat”. The gradual shift to capitalism was now evident, as the General Prologue bolsters this claim. Also, as in the descriptions of the Monk and the Friar, is corruption typified even in the supposedly pious. As do the examples of the Merchant and the guildsmen who broke whatever laws (e.g. sumptuary laws) whenever they could.

Added to that, the narrator’s diction and idiom hints the learning, traditions, and morals of the age. The Tales being narrated by an unreliable narrator–“so as it semed me”, “Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye/Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle”–though he claims to be true to the word in the character of Plato–“The words moot be cosyn to the dede”–may lead the reader to reach contingent conclusions, yet the universality in the main cannot be refuted. This universality is the inconstancy of human nature, its whims and its perfections, too: Miller, Pardoner, Parson are examples. All of this is presented by contrast, by allusion to the antiquity and various symbols, the ‘relic’ figure of speech used, etc. This then, in turn again points to the representation of the then medieval society the General Prologue constitutes.

Chaucer, having known Italian, French, and Latin, surely had proficiency characterizing the fabric of the time; this in the same degree shows the General Prologue to be a miniature of the time and space in question.

The saints are referred to frequently which shows the religious character of the time; whatever the real practice may be, in theory, the race was highly religious. With that, philosophy is consistently referred to: we have Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, Amore vincit omnia* and others. The character of the society shows itself in the pilgrims’ mien and clothing too.

On the whole, therefore, the General Prologue in itself is a very living, breathing miniature medieval society, as of course Geoffrey the pilgrim narrated, but also in general a very likely world living on till date through its characters.


*The painting by Caravaggio is another instance of the line originally by Virgil.

Resources as yet: Dr. Wheeler’s Pages (primary)| Chronology: ChaucerGlossary: Chaucer

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