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362 Study Questions for Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Vocabulary: the bodily humors, church summoner, reeve, pardoner, pardon, saints, relic, pilgrimage


Lecture or Handouts: What does the trait of being gap-teethed indicate about a person according to medieval beliefs about anatomy? Explain the theory of the four bodily humors? Why was gold valued by medieval physicians? What was the medieval attitude toward widows and remarriage?

Identify the following characters:

The Doctor of Physick (i.e., the Doctor of Medicine), the Wife of Bath, the Parson, the Plowman, the Reeve, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Host (Harry Bailey)

Reading Questions:

  • Why are the stars important for the Doctor of Physick's medical treatments? (i.e., what medieval "science" of the stars does the Doctor ascribe to?)
  • What is this stuff about the humour of "hot or cold, of moist or dry"?
  • What profitable business arrangement does the Doctor have with "apothecaries"? (What are apothecaries?)
  • What sort of books is the physician well versed in?
  • What book does the physician not know very well?
  • What material does he like best of all as a "fine cordial"?
  • What physical disability does the Wife of Bath have?
  • What does the Wife of Bath wear on her head? How much does this weigh? Why do you suppose she wears this?
  • What color are her stockings?
  • How many husbands has she had?
  • What are two ways of interpreting that line about "not counting other company in youth"?
  • How many times had the Wife of Bath journeyed to Jerusalem? What other places has she traveled to? What do these wide-travels suggest about her as a character?
  • What are the Wife of Bath's teeth like? [Lecture: what does this indicate about her biology or psychology according to medieval physiognomy?)
  • What does the Wife wear on her feet/boots to help steer her horse? Why is this unusual for the period?
  • When we hear that, "For of that art she'd learned the old, old dance," what is this old dance the speaker is referring to, given the context of her knowledge in the previous lines?
  • According to the narrator, the Parson is hesitant to "curse [his parishioners] to get a tithe." Instead, what does the Parson do with his own income and goods?
  • Why does the narrator note that the Parson's parish was "wide" with "houses far asunder" before describing the Parson's travels? How does this characterize the Parson?
  • What does the Parson do first before he teaches his flock?
  • When the Parson asks allegorically, "if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?" what is he talking about? Who or what is the gold and who or what is the iron?
  • When the narrator speaks about a "shiten shepherde and a clene sheep," what is he talking about?
  • Why does the Parson refuse promotion to London or Saint Paul's Cathedral?
  • To whom is the Plowman related? What sort of work does this Plowman do all day?
  • What does the Plowman wear and how does this connect to the early setting of The Canterbury Tales?
  • What's the Miller like in terms of his physical build?
  • The Miller has an usual party-trick. What technique does he use to remove a door from its hinges?
  • What color is his hair or beard? To what animals does the narrator compare this hair color?
  • What's unusual or disturbing about the Miller's nose?
  • We find out the Miller is good at jesting and "poetizing," but what's the only thing he writes/composes poetry about?
  • What does it mean when the speaker says he had a "gold thumb."
  • What unusual musical instrument does the Miller play? According to the last lines of the portrait, where does he apparently travel in the pilgrimage order?
  • What is a manciple? What apparently is the Manciple's attitude to "learned men" in comparison to his own wit?
  • What does it mean in terms of bodily humors that the Reeve is "choleric"? Hint: This is a bit of foreshadowing for events taking place later on in The Canterbury Tales.)
  • How does the Reeve keep his hair and beard trimmed?
  • What is the Reeve's bodily build like, judging by the narrator's description of the Reeve's legs?
  • The narrator states that "Yet no man ever found him in arrears." What are two ways of interpreting this statement about the Reeve's skills?
  • Why are business agents more afraid of the Reeve than they are afraid of death?
  • Before Oswald was a Reeve, what job did he have?
  • From what region of England does the Reeve come?
  • What is a summoner?
  • What skin problems does Chaucer's Summoner have?
  • What foods does the Summoner like best?
  • What is the Summoner's mastery of Latin limited to?
  • Why does the narrator think the Summoner is a generous, friendly fellow? (i.e., For what trade would the Summoner let a person off easily when that person was summoned to court?) What are two grammatical ways of reading those lines about "suffre for a quart of wine / A good felawe to have his concubyn / a twelf month"?
  • The text tells us he knew "ful prively a fynch eek koude he pulle." Your notes give you one interpretation of this phrase. Can you think of another? [Hint: Don't think too hard--we're looking at some coarse humor here.]
  • How had the Summoner gained power over all the boys and girls of the diocese?
  • The Summoner is making an unusual fashion statement. What does he wear upon his head, and what does he carry for a buckler (a shield)? How might this be a parody of scripture? (Check out Ephesians 6:16, a verse some priests required crusaders and pilgrims to read before going on a pilgrimage or crusade).
  • What pilgrim in particular is a buddy to the Summoner?
  • What is a pardoner? What is a pardon?
  • What is the Pardoner's hair like? What is this "vernycle" that the Pardoner has sewed to his cap?
  • What documents are stuffed full into the Pardoner's wallet?
  • What does the Pardoner's voice sound like?
  • What's unusual about the Pardoner's beard (trick question!).
  • What does the speaker mean when he states, "I think he [the Pardoner] was a gelding or a mare"?
  • What does the Pardoner claim about the pillow-case he carries?
  • What does the Pardoner claim about his bottle filled with pig bones?
  • What other fake relics does the Pardoner carry to sell?
  • Chaucer's narrator notes that the Pardoner "moste preche . . . To wynne silver." Why do you suppose the Pardoner seeks to win silver? Why not gold?
  • When the narrator finishes listing the 29 pilgrims, what does he apologize about to the reader in lines 720-746?
  • What traits distinguish the host?
  • What sport or entertainment does the Host suggest for the pilgrim company?
  • Describe the rules of the game the Host establishes. How many stories will each pilgrim tell on the way to Canterbury? How many stories will each pilgrim tell on the way back to London?
  • What are the two criteria used to determine the best tale? What is the prize the best storyteller will receive? Where will the winner receive this prize? Who will pay for it?
  • Who will judge the contest? According to the Host, if anybody "gainsays" or questions his rule, what will that person have to do along the journey?
  • How does Harry Bailey (the Host) determine the order of the storytellers? Why is it suspicious that the Knight "happens" to draw first and "happens" to win?


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