General Prologue, Canterbury Tales, I
Chaucer the Man
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) was perceived by later poets as a kind of literary father figure: the poet who polished and embellished the vernacular tongue, refined it for literary purposes.
A member of the rising merchant class (his father was a vintner), Chaucer bridges the gap between the world of the urban merchant class and the nobility when he enters court service in his teens.
Chaucer spent his life in royal service. His main patron was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of King Edward III's third son.
At one time or another Chaucer was:
- a squire of the royal household
- a member of Parliament
- a justice of the peace
- a clerk of the works (an administrator in charge of building and repairs of various royal properties)
- a forestry official
- a controller of customs, and
- a member of several diplomatic missions (to France, Spain, Italy).
In Italy, while on royal business, he seems to have discovered the poetry of the famous 14th century Italian writers Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.
Chaucer the Poet
His works include translations:
- from the French (The Romance of the Rose)
- and the Latin (Boethius Consolation of Philosophy).
Some of his own compositions:
- The Book of the Duchess (an elegiac poem written after death of John of Gaunts first wife)
- The House of Fame (a dream vision)
- Troilus and Criseyde (a love story set in the Trojan war, a mixture of epic and romance, inspired by a work by Boccaccio)
- The Legend of Good Women (an anthology of legends mainly from classical mythology), and
- The Canterbury Tales
(See handouts for notes on Chaucers language and on the verse form of the Canterbury Tales)
- There are over 80 surviving manuscripts of all or part of The Canterbury Tales (which suggests that quite a few people wanted to commission copies).
- The most striking one is the Ellesmere MS, which contains illuminated portraits of all the pilgrims (see Chaucer Wing of our web-page art gallery; they are also used to illustrate the TAs & Discussion Sections page).
A Note on Terminology
- Pilgrimages: journeys of faith (or in search of spiritual refreshment) to foreign or domestic shrines
- Palmer: a pilgrim who has gone to Jerusalem and brought back palm leaves to commemorate the trip
- Most important English shrine: that of St. Thomas a Becket(t) in Canterbury Cathedral (check out the Cathedral Wing of the web-page art gallery)
- In a game-playing frame that recalls Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucers pilgrims first assemble at the Tabard Inn.
- There, the Host, Harry Bailey, devises a tale-telling competition, in which the pilgrims must strive to tell the tale of "best sentence and most solas," i.e., the tale that is most morally uplifting/instructive AND which gives the most pleasure. (Didactic and aesthetic criteria).
- The frame story offers an enclosing narrative of relationships, arguments, and debates between the pilgrims.
- See handout for catalogue of pilgrims and also for the description of Chaucer himself, through the eyes of the Host.
Notes on Genre
(Recall the three estates of medieval social theory, explained in the handout from Medieval Backgrounds lecture).
- Satire: any kind of literature which holds up people, social practices, and institutions to laughter or scorn.
- A literary genre popular at this time: estates satire, in which representatives of various classes and occupations from the monarch down are portrayed with a particular emphasis on the vices and abuses commonly associated with each calling.
Chaucer seems to have drawn upon the tradition of estates satire in the General Prologue,although by no means are all the pilgrims portrayed satirically, nor does Chaucer use the very broad strokes with which estates satire usually depicts bad rulers, bad churchmen, bad peasants, etc. His techniques are more subtle.