The Canterbury Tales begins with a General Prologue in which the poet tells us how he
happened to meet these „nine and twenty” pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, how they agreed to
tell the tales at the suggestion of the landlord of The Tabard (the inn where they stopped in
Southwark in south London), and how they all appeared to the poet: their habits, their speech, their
clothes, their attitudes, and so on. His account of the pilgrims here, before any of them gets to tell a
tale, is a verbal portrait gallery with word pictures of the individuals who will later tell the famous
tales. It has often been remarked, and it is worth remarking again, that this portrait gallery provides
a wonderful cross section of fourteenth-century English society. Not a complete and
comprehensive survey, for Chaucer is a poet not a sociologist, but one remarkable for its diversity:
there are men and women, clerics and laymen; young, middle aged and old; people who differ
widely in their spiritual lives, their economic status, their tastes in clothes, books, and food; those
who need to travel constantly and those for whom this will be the one major journey of their life.
There are rogues and innocents, introverts and show-offs, saints (few) and sinners (many). The
people in this varied group tell an equally varied selection of tales, some of them dealing with
„gentleness, morality and holiness” as Chaucer says himself. Many are also highly comic,
including the tale of the Miller and the Prologue of the Wife of Bath. And one of the most
surprising tellers of a moral tale is that ugly and immoral man the Pardoner. “God’s plenty” the
poet Dryden later called it.
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