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362 Study Questions for Chaucer's
General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
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)
DOCTOR OF PHISIK (MEDICAL DOCTOR)
- 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
- 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
- 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"?
- THE WIFE OF BATH
- 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
- 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
- What are the Wife of Bath's teeth like?
[Lecture: what does this indicate
about her biology or psychology according to medieval
- 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?
- THE PARSON
- 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
- Why does the Parson refuse promotion
to London or Saint Paul's Cathedral?
- THE PLOWMAN
- 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
- What's the Miller like in terms of his
- 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
- 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?
- THE REEVE (OSWALD)
- 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
- 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
- THE SUMMONER
- What is a summoner?
- What skin problems does Chaucer's Summoner
- What foods does the Summoner like best?
- What is the Summoner's mastery of Latin
- 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
- 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?
- THE PARDONER
- 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
- 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
- When the narrator finishes listing the
29 pilgrims, what does he apologize about to the reader
in lines 720-746?
- THE HOST (HARRY BAILEY)
- What traits distinguish the host?
- GENERAL PROLOGUE CONTINUED:
- 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"