‘The General Prologue’, more than anything else, offers the modern reader a window into medieval society. Discuss, from your reading of the prologue, what problems appear to affect English society in the late fourteenth century, using evidence from the text.
Through the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer in The General Prologue we peer into the lives of the many figures of late fourteenth century England in this estate satire. Because of this, we also come to see the problems of the society in which these figures abode. One of which is how the violent lifestyles present in this time can change a person. In this case it tends to be for the worst. Religious figures who should be on their path of religious divinity are instead problematic, living in excess when their lives should be lived in poverty. With this we also see the ignorance of people during this time, respecting and dismissing characters actions who are not deserving of such. If anything is evident from this time it is that respectability and honour tower over one’s actions.
Fourteenth Century England was a violent time. While this was not a problem in of itself as it was the norm, it gave way to such problems. Nowhere is this more apparent than comparing the Knight and Squire, father and son. Chaucer describes the many places the Knight has fought and won such as Alexandria, Granada and Belmarye, sitting at the seats of honour at feasts. However, Chaucer then begins to describe him as quiet as a maid and like no other man in such a way (263). From this we get the impression of a damaged man, scarred from battle. After all the bloodshed he has seen how can a man remain in such a demeanour? This looks to be even more haunting when we read of his son. The Squire is a young knight and full of life, described as fresh as the month of May (Chaucer 263). With this we see what the Squire will become as he ages, turning into the quiet and damaged man his father is, giving up the life and energy of his youth for that of honour and nobility. It is evident that the lifestyle of Knighthood during this time strips the humanity of a person in favour of societal notions such as honour and sovereignty.
While the military estate is affected by what are noble intentions, it is the religious estate which is painted as a walking contradiction. They act as figures who are looked up to but are quite a far cry from that in reality. Take the Prioress. Chaucer takes his sweet time to describe her as a proper woman who is sincere, elegant and would cry at the sight of a dead mouse. Yet despite this she would feed her hounds rotting flesh with ease (264-65). It is evident that she puts on this facade of what a Prioress ought to be, proper, sensitive and lady-like over what she acts as to herself, which is in fact the opposite. We can see a similar depiction in the Monk’s portrait. Here Chaucer depicts a man’s man. He is a hunter with fine horses, again, a far cry from what a religious figure should be. Chaucer describes him as a fish that is waterless (265). This is distant from any other traditional monk at the time. While the Knight and Squire are looked up to as men of action, the Prioress and Monk are looked up for what they don’t do, which is follow their religious lives. They ought to act a certain way, but they do not and follow no repercussions.
The one character which may be overlooked is the Narrator or Chaucer himself. It is through his lens we see the characters and his lens only. With this we see Chaucer’s appreciation of status over one’s actions. This is prevalent in the Pardoner’s portrait. We can see Chaucer’s admiration almost immediately as he calls him gentle coming straight from the Court of Rome (277). He goes on further admiring his appearance with his dishevelled hair and clean-shaven face (Chaucer 278). It is not until Chaucer speaks of the Pardoner’s misdeeds do, we see his ignorance. He speaks of how the Pardoner sells, along with the pardons, old relics of saints, a clear scam. Not only this but it is said the Pardoner took two months wages of a man from his trickery. How does Chaucer respond to these horrid acts of the Pardoner? With praise of his singing in church and how noble he is (Chaucer 278). Instead of viewing a person for their faults, Chaucer perceives the Pardoner as noble despite his actions. This highlights the problem of religious figures had during late fourteenth century. No matter the cunning actions of a religious figure, people such as Chaucer will still perceive them as noble and respectable, glossing over their wrong doings.
Fourteenth-century England has its problems as any society at any time would have. While violence exists today it does in a much more criminalised state. Therefore, looking at the military estate with the Knight and Squire we can see mind and manner of such violent figures. With it one can see how society at the time changed these energetic figures seen in the Squire to essentially murderers with the Knight. This goes on to show a double standard with how the military and religious estate were constructed. Knights being praised for their actions while Monks and Prioresses being praised for being just that, and not looked down upon for their deviation of traditional religious ways. This narrow perception is evident in the Narrator himself, seeing the Pardoner for just a religious and holy figure but not the scammer and deceiver he is. If there is one overlying problem found of society in The General Prologue, it is how Chaucer views status over the characters. A high status meaning to dismiss one of questionable actions while low status means to not.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. ‘The Canterbury Tales; The General Prologue.’ The Norton Anthology of English Literature Tenth Edition. Ed. Julia Reidhead and Marian Johnson et al. New York: Norton, 2018. 261-81.