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

Vocabulary: ambiguity, bourgeoisie, folio, frame narrative, Great Vowel Shift, guild, manuscript, Middle English, narrator, parchment, patronage, prologue, quire, recto, relic, satire, scribe, stereotype, summa, three estates of feudalism, unreliable narrator, vellum, verso.

Introduction: Why might we consider The Canterbury Tales asa microcosm of the medieval world? How is this design of all-embracing social classes represented in Chaucer's work similar to the medieval idea of a summa or a cathedral?

Lecture or Handouts: Who is this Thomas á Becket fellow? The story begins in "Southwerk" (i.e., modern Southwark). What sort of place is Southwark? The inn is called "The Tabard Inn." What is a tabard? Why does the narrator-persona begin his discussion of the various pilgrims by describing the knight? How does this connect to the medieval idea of Ordo? Why might Chaucer have chosen 29 pilgrims (i.e., how is the number 29 connected to Saint Thomas á Becket?) Chaucer states there were 29 pilgrims beside himself in line 24. Count his pilgrims. How many are there actually? How might we explain that discrepancy? Regarding the Prioress, what does The Ancrene Rule state about nuns or prioresses having pets? Regarding the Shipman, what was Dartmouth famous for in medieval times?

Identify the following characters:

Hubert, Madame Eglantine, the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Franklin, the Oxford Clerk, the Lawyer, the Five Guildsman, the Cook, the Sailor

Reading Questions:

  • What season is described in the opening passage of The Canterbury Tales? What do people especially want to do when this season comes, according to the narrator?
  • Where especially do English people want to go? Why do they want to go there?
  • How many pilgrims does the narrator claim he meets at the Tabard inn?
  • What are some of the places where the Knight has fought? Why is it odd that the Knight fought alongside the lord of Palatye (Turkey) against another heathen ruler there?
  • What does the Knight do to his opponents if he beats them in the tournament ring ("the lists")?
  • What is the Knight's conversation and speech like, according to the narrator?
  • What is the Knight's armor (his habergeon) like in appearance? Why does it look like this? What does it suggest about the speed he makes toward Canterbury? What does that in turn suggest about the Knight's character?
  • What pilgrim is the son of this Knight?
  • How does the Squire's appearance contrast with that of the Knight?
  • Where has the Squire "fought" his "battles"? How many of these "battles" has he fought in? How does this contrast with his father?
  • What goal or desire motivates the Squire to "bear hym weel" in these mock-battles?
  • How old is the Squire? What talents does he have and how do they contrast with the Knight's talents?
  • What are the Squire's gown and sleeves like? What does this suggest about his practicality in dress?
  • Why does the Squire sleep so little?
  • What is the Squire's main duty during dinner?
  • What's a yeoman in the medieval world? Why is the Yeoman so sun-tanned? (What does this trait suggest about him and his activities?)
  • What color does the Yeoman wear? Why do you suppose he wears these colors?
  • Why do you suppose the Knight would want a servant who is good with a bow?
  • What saint's medallion does the Yeoman wear? What is this saint in charge of? (You might wish to go-online and look at a dictionary of saints to find out.)
  • What's a prioress? What is the name of the particular prioress who joins the pilgrimage company?
  • What is the most horrible oath or dirty word the Prioress ever says aloud?
  • When the Prioress sings, where does she "intone" the words? What does this suggest about her singing ability to an observant reader? What does suggest about the narrator's reaction when he says she sings "ful weel" and "ful semely" (i.e., how good is our narrator's sense of music?)
  • What foreign language does the Prioress speak? Where (according to her accent) did she learn to speak French? What might this detail reveal about her background? What does the narrator's comment that "she spak [French] ful faire and fetisly" reveal about the narrator's understanding of French?
  • How does the Prioress eat her food? What might this detail suggest about her background or her personal habits?
  • What does the word "countrefete" in line 139 suggest about the Prioress's high-class manners?
  • What is the Prioress's attitude toward animals? What does this suggest about about her?
  • Lecture: What do the Prioress's grey eyes and red lips suggest about her, given what we know about courtly literature?
  • What is the Prioress's physical build like in terms of size and stature?
  • What does her golden brooch have written on it? What are two ways of interpreting this quotation?
  • What four (?) people accompany the prioress? Lecture: How might this list of people explain the numerical discrepancy between how many pilgrims Chaucer says are in the company and how many he lists?
  • The Monk, we hear, is an "outridere." What is an outrider?
  • We hear the Monk loved "venerie." What are two meanings of venerie in medieval puns? How is this word related to modern words like venison, Venus, and venereal?
  • The narrator says the Monk was "A manly man, to been an abbot able." What is an abbot? What does the word abbot mean etymologically? What are two very different ways of interpreting this bit about being a "capable father"?
  • What noise do people hear as the Monk rides past them?
  • What is the Monk's attitude toward the Benedictine Rule or the Mauritian Rule?
  • What does the Monk think about the argument that holy men shouldn't hunt animals?
  • What does the Monk think about studying books?
  • What does the Monk think about Saint Augustine's Rule, which requires that monastic clergy work with their hands at manual labor?
  • What does the narrator say about the Monk's arguments? What might this suggest about the narrator?
  • What animals follow the Monk around when he rides?
  • What's unusual about the sleeves of the Monk's habit? Why does this seem strange for a monastic habit?
  • What sort of pin does the Monk wear in his habit? Why is this pin strange or unusual for a Monk?
  • What is the Monk's hair like? (trick question!)
  • What is the Monk's skin complexion like in line 205? What does this suggest about the time he spends indoors in his monastic cell reading scripture?
  • What is the Friar's name?
  • What does the Friar frequently arrange for young women in his parish? What are two ways of interpreting this "generosity"?
  • What are two ways of reading the statement that the Friar "was a noble post" unto his mendicant order when he marries off young pregnant girls hastily?
  • What sort of absolution does the Friar grant to sinners?
  • What does the Friar want instead of tears from sinners?
  • What locations does the Friar know especially well in every town? What sort of people does he know very well? What sort of people does he not know well?
  • What verbal affectation does the Friar adopt to make his English sound sweet?
  • We hear that the Friar was particularly of much help on "love-days." What are two ways of interpreting this phrase, "love-days"?
  • What sort of hat does the Merchant wear? How does he wear his beard?
  • What sort of subject does the Merchant always talk about?
  • Why does it make sense that the Merchant is particularly worried about the sea being kept free from pirates?
  • What does the narrator say the Merchant's name is? (Trick question!)
  • What does the word clerk mean in medieval times?
  • What school does the Clerk attend, and what does that suggest about his intellectual abilities?
  • What does the Clerk study at school? What does the Clerk look like in terms of his physical build? How does this compare or contrast with the condition of his horse? What condition are his clothes in? What do these combined details suggest about the Clerk's finances overall?
  • What does the Clerk apparently spend all his money on?
  • How talkative is the Clerk? When he talks, what traits characterize his speech?
  • What two things would the Clerk "gladly" do?
  • The lawyer (Sergeant-at-law) is capable of quoting what verbatim?
  • How busy is the lawyer? What are two ways of reading the lines, "Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng"?
  • The Franklin is described in particular detail. What is his beard like? What color are his cheeks? (What modern legendary figure does he resemble from our holiday seasons?)
  • What does it mean when the text reads the Franklin "was Epicurus' very son"? Who is Epicurus and what is his philosophy? Click here for a hint.
  • To what patron saint is the Franklin compared explicitly? Why is this an appropriate comparison?
  • What does it mean that "a bettre envyned man was nowher noon"?
  • What substances "snow" inside the Franklin's house?
  • What is always set up and ready to go in the Franklin's hall?
  • The guildsmen--the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Arras (Tapestry) Maker--all have eating utensils made of the same metal. What metal is this? [Lecture question: Why are they carrying items of this metal?] What hired help do the guildsmen bring with them?
  • For whom in the pilgrimage company does the Cook apparently work?
  • What does the Cook have on his shin? What does this indicate about the Cook's health or hygiene?
  • [Lecture: what color is the seepage coming from a "mormal" according to medieval medical books?]
  • What normal color is the "blankmanger" that the Cook fixes? [Hint: this dish comes from the French words blanc and mangere (to eat), which provides a clue.] Why is this particularly gross, given earlier details about the Cook's health?
  • From what town does the Shipman possibly come? [Lecture question: What is the area around this town famous for in the medieval period?]
  • What does the Sailor keep on a cord around his neck? What does he keep "under his arm?" What does he keep hidden under his clothing {i.e., "and down")? Grammatically, is there one such bound in three places? Or are there three such items bound with one cord? If three, why do you suppose he keeps three of these items on cords? What does it suggest about what sort of "sailor" this man is?
  • What does the Shipman steal while traders sleep?
  • If the Shipman gets involved in a naval battle, what does he do with the people he captures, according to the narrator? What does that mean? What does the narrator mistakenly think the sailor means by this phrase?
  • The Shipman knows every "cryke" (creek) in Britain and Spain, and all the secret "havens" from Gotland and Cape Finistere. Neither Gotland nor Finistere are major trade routes. In fact, Finistere is located along a rocky, dangerous region so hazardous it is called "La Costa De Muerte" in Spanish. Most shipman have little reason to hide their boats away by sailing up un-navigable creeks. What does this strange knowledge suggest about the Shipman?
  • What is the name of his vessel?

Identifications: Be able to match a character's portrait from The General Prologue with the name of the character.


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