Wheeler’s Chaucer Study Questions, Part 1

Study Questions for Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (first half)

by Dr. L Kip Wheeler

Vocabulary: frame narrative, ambiguity, bourgeoisie, satire, stereotype, relic, unreliable narrator, guild, Great Vowel Shift, Middle English, Epicureanism.

Introduction: Why might we consider The Canterbury Tales as a microcosm of the medieval world?

Lecture or Handouts: Who is this Thomas à Becket fellow? Our story begins in Southwark. What sort of place is Southwark? The inn is called “The Tabard Inn.” What is a tabard? Why does the narrator-persona begin his discussion of the various pilgrims by describing the knight first?

Identify the following characters:

“Canterbury cathedral” July 11, 2008. Photograph taken by Flickr.com user “Spiterman.” Creative Commons License

The Friar (Hubert), The Nun or Prioress (Madame Eglantine), the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman, the Monk, the Franklin, the Oxford Clerk, the Lawyer, the Five Guildsman, the Cook, the Sailor

Reading Questions:

  • What season is described in the opening passage of The Canterbury Tales? What do people especially want to do when this season comes, according to the narrator?
  • Where especially do English people want to go? Why do they want to go there?
  • How many pilgrims does the narrator claim he meets at the Tabard inn?


  • What are some of the places where the Knight has fought?
  • What does the Knight do to his opponents if he beats them in the tournament ring (“the lists”)?
  • What is the Knight’s conversation and speech like, according to the narrator?
  • What is the Knight’s armor (his habergeon) like in appearance? Why do you suppose it look like this?
  • What pilgrim is the son of this Knight?


  • How does the Squire’s appearance contrast with that of the Knight?
  • How old is the Squire? What talents does he have and how do they contrast with the Knight? Why does the Squire sleep so little?


  • What’s a Yeoman in the medieval world? Why is the Yeoman so sun-tanned? (What does this trait suggest about him, his activities, and how he spends a time?) Why do you suppose the Knight would want a servant who is good with a bow?


  • What’s a prioress? What is the name of the particular prioress who joins the pilgrimage company?
  • What foreign language does the Prioress speak? Where (according to her accent) did she learn to speak French? What might this detail reveal about her background?
  • How does the Prioress eat her food? What does this detail suggest about her background?
  • What is the Prioress’s attitude toward animals? What does this suggest about about her?
  • What does her golden brooch have written on it? What are two ways of interpreting this quotation?
  • What four people accompany the prioress?


  • The Monk, we hear, is an “outrider.” What is an outrider in a monastery?
  • What noise do people hear as the Monk rides past them?
  • What is the Monk’s attitude toward the Benedictine Rule or the Mauritian Rule (i.e., the guidelines monks are supposed to obey)?
  • What does the Monk think of the argument that holy men shouldn’t hunt animals?
  • What does the Monk think about studying books?
  • What does the Monk think of Saint Augustine’s Rule, which requires that monastic clergy work with their hands at manual labor?
  • What animals follow the Monk around when he rides?
  • What’s unusual about the sleeves of the Monk’s habit (robe)? Why does this seem strange for a monastic habit?
  • What sort of pin does the Monk wear in his habit? Why is this pin strange or unusual for a Monk’s clothing?


  • What is the Friar’s name?
  • What does the Friar frequently arrange for young women in his parish? What are two ways of interpreting this “generosity”?
  • What sort of absolution does the Friar grant to sinners?
  • What locations does the Friar know especially well in every town? What sort of people does he know very well?
  • We hear that the Friar was particularly of much help on “love-days.” What are two ways of interpreting this phrase, “love-days”?


  • What sort of hat does the Merchant wear?
  • What sort of subject does the Merchant always talk about?
  • What does the narrator say the Merchant’s name is? (Trick question!)


  • What does the word “Clerk” mean in medieval times?
  • What does the Clerk of Oxford look like in terms of his physical build? What condition are his clothes in? What does this suggest about the Clerk?
  • What does the Clerk apparently spend all his money on?
  • How talkative is the Clerk? When he talks, what traits characterize his speech?
  • What two things would the Clerk “gladly” do?


  • The lawyer (Sergeant-at-law) is capable of quoting what verbatim? How busy is the lawyer?


  • The Franklin is described in particular detail. What is his beard like? What color are his cheeks? (What modern legendary figure does he resemble from our holiday season?)
  • What does it mean when the text reads the Franklin “was Epicurus’ very son”? Who was Epicurus and what is Epicurean philosophy?
  • To what saint is the Franklin compared explicitly? Why is this an appropriate comparison?
  • What substances “snow” inside his house?


  • The guildsmen–the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Arras (Tapestry) Maker–all have eating utensils made of the same metal. What metal is this? [Lecture question: Why are they carrying items of this metal?] What hired help do the guildsmen bring with them?


  • Who does the Cook apparently work for in the pilgrimage company?
  • What does the Cook have on his shin? What does this indicate about the Cook’s health or hygiene?
  • What normal color is the sweet blanc-mange the Cook fixes? [Hint: the word “blanc” provides a clue!] Why is this particularly gross, given earlier details about the Cook’s health?


  • What town is the sailor possibly from? [Lecture question: What is the area around this town famous for in the medieval period?]
  • What does the Sailor keep on a cord around his neck? What does he keep “under his arm?” What does he keep hidden under his clothing {i.e., “and down”)? Why do you suppose he keeps three of these items? What does it suggest about what sort of “sailor” this man is?
  • What does the Sailor steal while the traders on his boat are asleep?
  • If the Sailor gets involved in a naval battle, what does he do with the people he captures, according to the narrator? What does that mean?
  • What is the name of his vessel?

Click here for more questions for the second half of the General Prologue.

Sample Quotations for Identification:

A. When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every vein with liquor that has the power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

B. And [he] bore himself as meekly as a maid.
He never yet had any vileness said,
In all his life, to whatsoever wight.
He was a truly perfect, gentle knight.

C. She was so charitable and piteous
That she would weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, though it were dead or bled.
She had some little dogs, too, that she fed
On roasted flesh, or milk, and fine white bread.

D. [He was] A manly man, to be an abbot able.
Full many a blooded horse had he in stable.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The rule of Maurus or Saint Benedict,
By reason it was old and somewhat strict,
This said monk let such old things slowly pace
And followed new-world manners in their place.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I saw his sleeves were prufled at the hand
With fur of grey, the finest in the land.

E. For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher,
He had but little gold within his coffer.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Not one word spoke he more than was his need;
And that was said in fullest reverence
And short and quick and full of high good sense.
Pregnant of moral virtue was his speech:
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

F. Well could he tell a draught of London ale.
And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry,
And make a thick good soup, and bake a pie,
But very ill it was, it seemed to me,
That on his shin a deadly sore had he;
For sweet blanc-mange, he made it with it with the best.


Click here for more passage identifications [and study questions] for the second half of the General Prologue.

Wheeler Study questions index


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.