The backdrop to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett, one of the most popular pilgrim sites in the whole of Christendom until its destruction by Henry VIII. It consists of a General Prologue, in which Chaucer introduces the fictional characters who are travelling together on the pilgrimage, and a number of tales told by some of these characters. A very ambitious work, it was unfinished at the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400. Although, therefore, we have only fragments of a much bigger work, the fragments are themselves finished tales told by the various pilgrims.
The General Prologue begins with an evocation of resurrected life. It is April, and sweet showers help to bring new life to every wood and field. This sets the scene for the resurrected spirit of people longing to go on pilgrimage. One such group of pilgrims meet by chance at an inn in London and decide to journey together to Canterbury, telling each other stories along the way. We are then introduced to the pilgrims themselves who are a motley group comprised mostly of reprobates who are evidently in need of the grace that a pilgrimage brings.
There is the Knight, a man of courage and martial prowess, who joins the pilgrimage as an act of thanksgiving, having returned from the wars; there is the Knight’s son, the Squire, who has the courage of his father in battle but is altogether a dandy in times of peace, wearing the most fashionable clothes and hairstyle and delighting in music and dance. There is the less-than-holy Prioress who is vain and fastidious, seeking the pleasures that opulence affords. Even worse than the Prioress is the worldly Monk, whose wealth makes a mockery of his vow of poverty and whose heretical theology makes a mockery of his orthodox pretensions.