201 Study Questions for Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (second half)
by Dr. L Kip Wheeler
Vocabulary: the bodily humors, church summoner, pardoner, pardon (or indulgence), pilgrimage, reeve, relic
Lecture or Handouts: What does the trait of being gap-teethed indicate about a person according to medieval beliefs about anatomy? Explain the theory of the four bodily humors. Why was gold valued by medieval physicians? What was the medieval attitude toward widows and remarriage?
Identify the following characters:
The Doctor of Physick (i.e., the Doctor of Medicine), the Wife of Bath, the Parson, the Plowman, the Reeve, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Host (Harry Bailey)
- THE PHYSICIAN (DOCTOR OF PHYSIC)
- Why are the stars important for the Doctor of Physick’s medical treatments? (i.e., what “science” of the stars does the Doctor ascribe to?)
- What is this stuff about the “humour” of “hot or cold, of moist or dry”?
- What profitable business arrangement does the Doctor have with “apothecaries”? (What are apothecaries?)
- What sort of books is the physician well versed in?
- What book does the physician not know very well?
- What material does he like best of all as a “fine cordial”?
- THE WIFE OF BATH
- What physical disability does the Wife of Bath have?
- What does the Wife of Bath wear on her head? How much does this weigh? Why do you suppose she wears this?
- What color are her stockings?
- How many husbands has she had?
- What are two ways of interpreting that line about “not counting other company in youth”?
- How many times had the Wife of Bath journeyed to Jerusalem? What other places has she traveled to? What do these wide travels suggest about her as a character?
- What are the Wife of Bath’s teeth like?
- What does the Wife wear on her feet/boots to help steer her horse? Why is this unusual for the period?
- When we hear that, “For of that art she’d learned the old, old dance,” what is this old dance the speaker is referring to, given the context of her knowledge in the previous lines?
- THE PARSON
- According to the narrator, the Parson is hesitant to “curse [his parishioners] to get a tithe.” Instead, what does the Parson do with his own income and goods?
- Why does the narrator note that the Parson’s parish was “wide” with “houses far asunder” before describing the Parson’s travels? How does this characterize the Parson?
- What does the Parson do first before he teaches his flock?
- When the Parson asks allegorically, “if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?” what is he talking about? Who or what is the gold and who or what is the iron?
- When the narrator speaks about a “shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep,” what is he talking about?
- Why does the Parson refuse promotion to London or Saint Paul’s Cathedral?
- THE PLOWMAN
- To whom is the Plowman related? What sort of work does this Plowman do all day?
- What does the Plowman wear and how does this connect to the early setting of The Canterbury Tales?
- THE MILLER (ROBIN)
- What’s the Miller like in terms of physical build?
- The Miller has an usual party-trick. What technique does he use to remove a door from its hinges?
- What color is his hair or beard? To what animals does the narrator compare this hair color?
- What’s unusual or disturbing about the Miller’s nose?
- We find out the Miller is good at jesting and “poetizing,” but what’s the only thing he writes/composes poetry about?
- What does it mean when the speaker says the Miller had a “gold thumb?”
- What unusual musical instrument does the Miller play? According to the last lines of the portrait, where does he apparently travel in the pilgrimage order?
- THE MANICPLE
- What is a manciple? What apparently is the Manciple’s attitude to “learned men” in comparison to his own wit?
- THE REEVE (OSWALD)
- What does it mean in terms of bodily humors that the Reeve is “choleric”?
- How does the Reeve keep his hair and beard trimmed?
- What is the Reeve’s bodily build like, judging by the narrator’s description of the Reeve’s legs?
- The narrator states that “Yet no man ever found him in arrears.” What are two ways of interpreting this statement about the Reeve’s skills in managing?
- Why are business agents more afraid of the Reeve than they are afraid of death?
- Before Oswald was a Reeve, what job did he have?
- From what region of England does the Reeve come?
- What position does the Reeve always ride in as he travels with the pilgrimage company? Why do you suppose he rides there?
- THE SUMMONER
- What is a summoner?
- What skin problems does Chaucer’s Summoner have?
- What foods does the Summoner like best?
- What is the Summoner’s mastery of Latin limited to?
- Why does the narrator think the Summoner is a generous, friendly fellow? (i.e., For what trade would the Summoner let a person off easily when that person was summoned to court?) What are two grammatical ways of reading that line about “suffer for a quart of wine, / Some good fellow to have his concubine”? What two possible antecedents could the pronoun “his” refer to?
- The text tells us, “Between ourselves, though, he could pluck a gull.” The original Middle English reads, “ful prively a fynch eek koude he pulle.” What does this mean?
- How had the Summoner gained power over all the boys and girls of the diocese?
- The Summoner is making an unusual fashion statement. What does he wear upon his head, and what does he carry for a buckler (a shield)? How might this be a parody of scripture? (Check out Ephesians 6:16, a verse some priests required crusaders and pilgrims to read before going on a pilgrimage or crusade).
- What pilgrim in particular is a buddy to the Summoner and sings love-songs with him?
- THE PARDONER
- What is a pardoner? What is a pardon or indulgence?
- What is the Pardoner’s hair like? What is this “Veronica” that the Pardoner has sewed to his cap?
- What documents are stuffed full into the Pardoner’s wallet?
- What does the Pardoner’s voice sound like?
- What’s unusual about the Pardoner’s beard? (trick question!)
- What does the speaker mean when he states, “I think he [the Pardoner] was a gelding or a mare”?
- What does the Pardoner claim about the pillow-case he carries?
- What does the Pardoner claim about his bottle filled with pig bones?
- What other fake relics does the Pardoner carry to sell?
- Chaucer’s narrator notes that the Pardoner “moste preche . . . To wynne silver.” Why do you suppose the Pardoner seeks to win silver? Why not gold?
- When the narrator finishes listing the 29 pilgrims, what does he apologize about to the reader in lines 720-746?
- THE HOST (HARRY BAILEY)
- What traits distinguish the host?
- GENERAL PROLOGUE CONTINUED:
- What sport or entertainment does the Host suggest for the pilgrim company?
- Describe the rules of the game the Host establishes. How many stories will each pilgrim tell on the way to Canterbury? How many stories will each pilgrim tell on the way back to London?
- What are the two criteria used to determine the best tale? What is the prize the best storyteller will receive? Where will the winner receive this prize? Who will pay for it?
- Who will judge the contest? According to the Host, if anybody “gainsays” or questions his rule, what will that person have to do along the journey?
- How does Harry Bailey (the Host) determine the order of the storytellers? Why is it suspicious that the Knight “happens” to draw first and “happens” to win?
Sample Quotations for Identification and Discussion:
A. He kept the gold he gained from pestilence.
For gold in physic is a fine cordial,
And therefore loved he gold exceeding all.
B. She’d been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth,
But thereof there’s no need to speak, in truth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In company well could she laugh her slurs.
The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she’d learned the old, old, dance.
C. This fine example to his flock he gave,
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto–
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,
A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep.
D. He was a chunky fellow, broad of build,
He’d heave a door from hinges if he willed,
Or break it through by running, with his head.
His beard, as any sow or fox, was red.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Upon the coping of his nose he had
A wart, and thereupon stood a tuft of hairs,
Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ears.
E. Straight from the court of Rome had journeyed he.
Loudly he sang “Come hither, love, to me.”
. . . [He] had hair as yellow as wax,
But lank it hung as does a a strike of flax;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A voice he had that bleated like a goat.
No beard had he, nor ever should he have,
For smooth his face as he’d just had a shave;
I think he was a gelding or a mare.
F. “And therefore will I furnish you a sport,
As I just said, to give you some comfort.
And if you like it all, by one assent,
And will be ruled by me, of my judgment,
And will so do as I’ll proceed to say,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That each of you, beguiling the long day,
Shall tell two stories as you wend your way
To Canterbury town; and each of you
On coming home shall tell another two,
All of adventures he has known befall.
And who who plays his part best of all,
That is to say, who tells upon the road
Tales of best sense, in the most amusing mode,
Shall have a supper at the others’ cost
Here in this room and sitting by this post.”
If you missed the first half of these study questions, you can find them here.
Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2013. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction.
Many thanks to Dr. Wheeler for generously making this resource freely available to the educational community. These study guide questions were originally posted on his excellent website.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes; the author retains copyright to this work.