The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

General Prologue Summary

The General Prologue opens by setting the scene. It’s spring, the time of year when many people go on religious pilgrimages. The narrator of the General Prologue, who is Chaucer himself, is one such pilgrim.

As the General Prologue opens, Chaucer is staying at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, preparing for a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury (Thomas Beckett was Archbishop of Canterbury until 1170, when he was murdered in a conflict with King Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the church). He is traveling with twenty-nine other pilgrims, who are identified primarily by their jobs or social positions. They include: The Knight, The Squire, The Yeoman, The Prioress, The Monk, The Friar, The Merchant, The Clerk, The Man of Law, The Franklin, The Haberdasher, The Carpenter, The Weaver, The Dyer, The Tapestry-Weaver, The Cook, The Shipman, The Physician, The Wife of Bath, The Parson, The Plowman, The Miller, The Manciple, The Reeve, The Summoner, The Pardoner, two Nuns, and the Nuns’ Priest.

The group is also accompanied by Harry Bailey, also known as “the Host.” He is the proprietor of the Tabard Inn.

As the pilgrimage begins, Harry Bailey proposes a contest: each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. Harry Bailey will judge which tale is the best, and the winner will receive a “free” dinner at the Tabard Inn (actually paid for by the other pilgrims). If any of the pilgrims disagrees with Harry Bailey’s judgment, that pilgrim will be responsible for paying Bailey’s expenses for the pilgrimage.