"Chaucer's Prologue to Pilgrimage: The Two Voices" Arthur W. Hoffman
from The Norton Critical Edition of The Canterbury Tales

The portraits in the General Prologue are like figures in a tapestry.

Internal relationships between the portraits exist. By exploring the juxtaposition of opposite traits in the tapestry, between characters and within the characters themselves, we discover Chaucer's central purpose:
through the power of the poetic imagination, an aspect of the divine spirit is revealed:

  • opposites can be resolved, 
  • contradictory character traits can be integrated
  • a new vision of human nature emerges, complex and unpredictable
  • the medieval notion of determined character types explodes
  • the seeming chaos of human nature's conflicting desires finds harmony in God's love.


The Proem 

  • From the outset the poem explores the dual nature of our earthly pilgrimage.
  • The pilgrimage is made in response to the up-thrust and burgeoning of life in Springtime.
  • This pilgrimage is also a particular outpouring of individuals in a particular time and place. 
  • Yet the pilgrims (and the season) also respond to the call of the supernatural: the saint whose shrine is the final destination of the journey.

Close Reading of first twenty five lines:

  • the impregnating of March by April
  • a marriage of holt and heath, of air and earth
    the focus moves from the general to the specific, from a universal celebration of Spring to the particular celebration of that event in England
  • it moves from nature and amor (secular life) to the embrace of the holy blissful martyr and amor dei
  • the season brings the restoration of the sick, the watering of the dry earth, and the restoration of the human heart
  • reading the poem imaginatively can accomplish the same religious purpose.

The double view of the pilgrimage is enhanced and extended by the portraits: 

  • there is a range of motivation for joining the pilgrimage from sacred to profane
  • Knight and Parson vs. Summoner and Pardoner
  • The Prioress vs. the Wife of Bath
  • a fundamental and inescapable ambiguity exists as part of the human condition, yet these opposites are joined:
- origins vs. ends
- matter vs. spirit
- comic resolution and harmony in the end reveal how the purposes of nature and supernature are one
  • Knight vs Squire:
    Age vs. youth
    Amor dei vs. amor

The Prioress

  • Delicately poised ambiguity which will open into emphatic discrepancy in the Monk and the Friar: a designed sequence in the portraits
  • What kind of woman is the Prioress? What kind of prioress is the woman?
  • The Prioress should be obligated to cloistered piety and has been enjoined against going on pilgrimages, yet she goes.
  • The portrait emphasizes the physical attributes of woman: the individual set against the sacred purpose of her office: Blue eyes, red mouth, finely shaped nose, width of forehead, 
  • Eglentyne- a name from Romance tradition, 'simple and coy' can be read any number of ways
  • The coral beads and green gauds of her rosary
  • Her gold brooch is a religious emblem
  • She wears a fashionable nun's habit
  • Her speech possesses a Stratford accent but she also has a beautiful singing voice.
  • She possesses vanity for talent, but it serves God's glory.
  • "Amor vincit omnia." Saint Venus yet a religious symbol
  • Earthly love vs.Heavenly Love
  • Amor is meant to be taken as both earthly and divine love.
  • How does God's love make the Prioress' religious devotion valid despite all her vanities, shallowness and limitations? 
  • The Secular impulse is overcome by a sacred redemptive will.

The Parson and The Ploughman (with The Knight, idealized figures.)

  • The Parson is brother to the Ploughman
  • The sacred and the secular linked
  • The conflicts of the sacred and secular resolved.

The Summoner and The Pardoner

  • The illumination of the links between sacred and secular are intensified and refracted by dark surfaces.
  • Love is made sinister and distorted
  • The lecherous Summoner harmonizes in song with the impotent Pardoner, the eunuch: "Come hider, love, to me!"
  • Love's dual aspects- denied both- but which each desperately needs
  • The Summoner
- Office of divine justice operating on Earth
- "Questo quod iuris"- not just the sum of his knowledge but the true substance of his office.
- "significavit"- the opening word of the writ of excommunication: the ultimate judgment
- fiery physical features: not just indications of a decadent lifestyle, but also remind us of the power of God at the Last Judgment: voice like a trumpet
  • The Pardoner
- The ostensible instrument of divine mercy and love
- He makes appeals for charity to God's mercy and love
- His pardons are inferior versions of the ultimate pardon: Christ's sacrifice

The Pardoner and The Summoner together:
- two aspects of supernature: 
- divine justice and divine love are powerful even over these debased instruments
- natural love and celestial love



  • The poem explores how the opposites which exist simultaneously in human nature can be miraculously resolved by the restorative power of Love.
  • The poem explores how even in the most debased characters the existence of God's love still persists if only in perverse forms.