More about the Canterbury Tales More about the Pilgrims

The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

by José Goris, M.A.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

When April with his sweet showers

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

has pierced the drought of March to the root,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

and bathed all the veins in liquor of the kind

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

that brings about the engendering of the flower.

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

has blown air in every grove and heath

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

into the tender shoots, and the young sun

Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne

has run half its course in the sign of the Ram,

And smale foweles maken melodye

and the small fowl are singing

That slepen al the nyght with open ye,

that sleep all night with open eyes

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages)

(so nature pricks them and gives them energy)

thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

then people long to go on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

and palmers long to seek the stranger strands

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

of far-off saints, hallowed in several countries.

And specially from every shires ende

and specially from every shire’s end

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

of England, to Canterbury they went

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

to seek the holy and blessed martyr,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

who had helped them when they were ill.


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The Canterbury Tales

On 29 December 1170 the Archbishop Thomas Beckett was celebrating mass in Canterbury Cathedral when four knights of King Henry II burst in and beat him to death in front of the altar. Six weeks later Beckett was canonized; he became a saint, a 'holy blissful martyr' and pilgrims began arriving at the Cathedral soon afterwards. Pilgrimages occupied a central place in the Middle Ages. Sometimes people were ordered to go on a pilgrimage by their priest as a penance for sins. Others believed it would cure a disease or prevent peril. But to some it was merely an adventure or a chance to see the world. They all had to take the discomforts of the travel for granted and the best way was to take the principal roads, along which religious houses offered rest and hospitality. Taking care of pilgrims was seen as a charitable act that earned merit in Heaven, as did the pilgrimage itself.

Chaucer (1345) had studied the world of Boccaccio, whose 'Decamerone', written 40 years before 'The Canterbury Tales', presents a group of nobles taking refuge in a castle and occupying the time with storytelling. Chaucer, however, wanted his pilgrims to be of all ways of life and he mingled people of every kind, however contrasting: devout people and cynics, gentle people and brutes, the blameless and the hypocrites; honest people mingled with crooks and charlatans. Chaucer added yet another innovation: first he presented each of the pilgrims as in a kind of portrait gallery in The Prologue, and then let each of them tell a story, a piece of self-revelation. Once he had this idea, he elaborated it: he let the pilgrims react to the stories: to quarrel, to joke, to take offence. This has left us the large-scale compilation of 'The Canterbury Tales' in which Chaucer parades the pilgrims with colour and vivacity. It is not known exactly when Chaucer began the Tales, though the pilgrimage is traditionally dated 1387.


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The Pilgrims

The pilgrims - 'wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye'- , so a group of about twenty-nine met at the Tabart Inn in Southwark, London, where they hired horses and had a meal. From here they set out to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. The highest ranking pilgrim was the brave Knight, whose Tale was the longest. He was in the company of his son, a Squire with curled locks, and their servant, a Yeoman.

The fashionable Prioress was the first of Chaucer's female pilgrims; she was together with three priests and another nun. Then there was a Monk, one of the eight ecclesiastics among the pilgrims, who loved riding. Chaucer's Limiter Friar was a hypocrite, who cynically exploited religion, for which the Summoner wants his revenge on him in his Tale about an ailing man who is preyed by the friar on his sickbed. The Summoner was together with a friend, a Pardoner , who earned his living by selling holy relics and indulgences. Another hypocritical person was the Merchant , and greedy into the bargain.

Then there was the Clerk , a scholar from Oxford, whose only interest was his study and the Sergeant-at-law, whom we now call Lawyer, who was characterized by his professional qualities. There was also a Franklin, a freeholder who ranked next below the gentry. The business Woman from Bath was a bit deaf, but she knew all about love and could laugh and joke. The task of a Reeve was to superintend the estates and tenants of a landowner. Chaucer's Miller was a big fellow, a brute, more of an animal than a human. And there were several more, but we will leave it here.


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Click for a large picture
The Pilgrimage Packhorse at the Tabard Inn



Benson, L.D. (ed): The Riverside Chaucer.
Third Edition, 1987. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, M. (ed): The Canterbury Tales - Illustrated Prologue.
Scala Books, 1996.