Bifel that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
Until Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales he was known primarily as a maker of poems of love -- dream visions of the sort exemplified in The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess, narratives of doomed passion, such as Troilus and Criseyde, and stories of women wronged by their lovers that he tells in The Legend of Good Women.
The General Prologue begins with the description of Spring characteristic of dream visions of secular love. Chaucer set the style for such works (for some imitations click here). His first audience, hearing the opening lines of the General Prologue, may well have thought they were about to hear another elegant poem on aristocratic love. Indeed, the opening lines seem to echo the most famous dream vision of the time, Le Roman de la rose, which Chaucer translated into English as The Romaunt of the Rose, one of his first surviving works:
That it was May thus dremed me
In time of love and jollite
That al thyng gynneth waxen gay
For there is neither busk nor hay
In May that it nyl shrouded ben,
And it with new leves wryen.
These greves eke recoveren grene,
That dry in wynter ben to sen,
And the erthe waxeth proude withal
For swete dewes that on it falle . . .
And the birds begin to sing:
To make noyse and syngen blythe
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelandre and popinjay
Then yonge folk entended ay
For to ben gay and amorous
The General prologue begins with the same tone, even some of the same details, but where the audience expects to hear that it is the time for gay and amorous thoughts, they hear instead:
Then longen folk to gon on pilgrimages.
The focus changes from secular love to religion, to a pilgrimage, and the texture shifts from the elegant abstractions and allegorical personages to a very real London in the fourteenth century, populated by apparently real people, some of whom -- Harry Bailly, the host, and Chaucer himself -- were well known to Chaucer's audience. These characters, we learn, are going to tell one another stories to pass the time on their way along the Road to Canterbury and to the shrine of Thomas á Becket in Canterbury cathedral. (For an excellent photographic tour of the cathedral, see Jane Zatta's Chaucer page)
This initiates the "framing narrative", consisting of the "connecting links" which hold the groups of tales together, as the pilgrims amuse themselves by telling stories "to shorten with our way" (GP I.791).
The idea of writing a collection of stories for a specific fictional audience was not new; it was common in the later Middle Ages. It is worth looking at how some of the other collections of tales begin, since they give some idea of the possibilties of which Chaucer might have availed himself:
John Gower's Confessio Amantis is a collection of tales, told by Genius, the Priest of Love, for the instruction of an unsuccessful lover (Gower himself).
The Book of the Knight of Latour-Landry begins with an explanation of how the Knight wrote the book with its illustrative stories for the instruction of his daughters,
The First Day of Boccacio's Decameron, which more closely resembles The Canterbury Tales than the works of Gower or the Knight, begins with a chilling description of the Plague (Boccaccio, First Day), which provides the impetus for the journey in which the tales are told. The Preface defines an audience somewhat different from Chaucer's, as does the Conclusion, which includes a defense of broad speech and indecorous stories somewhat similar to that which Chaucer offers in the General Prologue.
The Canterbury Tales has many speakers, rather than just one (as in The Confessio Amantis and The Book of the Knight of Latour-Landry), and it differs from Boccaccio's Decameron, the closest analogue, in that the speakers are not from a single social class (as are Boccaccio's elegant young Florentines) but are drawn from a broad range of society, from the noble knight to the drunken rascal of a Miller and the impoverished Parson. Choosing a pilgrimage as the vehicle for the tales was a brilliant move -- a pilgrimage was the one occasion in medieval life when so wide a range of members of society could plausibly join together on relatively equal terms.
Chaucer's idea of a Canterbury Pilgrimage is thus very unusual (there is an Italian analogue, the Novelle of Giovanni Sercambi, in which Sercambi tells tales to amuse the pilgrims he leads, but it probably postdates Chaucer; see p. 796 in The Riverside Chaucer). And consequently it cannot easily be assiged to any one literary genre. The somewhat processional nature of the presentation makes it somewhat similar to the "Dance of Death." This is more a genre of art than of literature (it consisted of paintings, with explanatory verses; for an example click here. As the illustration shows, a strict hierarchy is observed: Death comes first to the Pope, then to the Emperour, then to a cardinal, then to a king, and so on down the ladder of social rank. Chaucer explicitly points out that he does not observe the expected decorum:
Also, I prey yow to foryeve it me
Al have I nat set folk in her degree
Here in this tale, as they shold stonde.
My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.
Jill Mann, in one of the best studies we have of The General Prologue, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire; the Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. (Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1973) [PR 1868.P9 M3], shows the influence on Chaucer of "Estates satire," a censorious survey of society. It is a mode rather than a genre but well worth considering in this matter.
Also one might think about some of the problems raised by the characters in the General Prologue; it is a collection of nonpareils, each a master of his or her trade, but it is also a great gathering of scoundrels. The rascals far outnumber the admirable figures. Chaucer seems to admire them all, without regard to their moral status. That has seemed a problem to many readers; a classic solution is offered by E.T. Donaldson in his article "Chaucer the Pilgrim," though Donaldson's solution should be applied with caution.
As time allows, students might want to look at some later imitations of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Lydgate's Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, in which Lydgate (a much younger contemporary of Chaucer) imagines a homeward journey in which he tells the first tale.
The anonymous Prologue to the Tale of Beryn likewise deals with the pilgrims once they have arrived at Canterbury and narrates the Pardoner's unsuccessful courtship of the barmaid.
These works are interesting not only for themselves but for evidence of how Chaucer's contemporaries (such as Lydgate) and early admirers (such as the author of the Tale of Beryn) interpreted the General Prologue and its characters. Their readings sometimes differ surprisingly from ours.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on The General Prologue, click here.