One spring day, the Narrator of The Canterbury Tales rents a room at the Tabard Inn before he recommences his journey to Canterbury. That evening, a group of people arrive at the inn, all of whom are also going to Canterbury to receive the blessings of "the holy blissful martyr," St. Thomas à Becket. Calling themselves "pilgrims" because of their destination, they accept the Narrator into their company. The Narrator describes his newfound traveling companions.
The Host at the inn, Harry Bailey, suggests that, to make the trip to Canterbury pass more pleasantly, each member of the party tell two tales on the journey to Canterbury and two more tales on the journey back. The person who tells the best story will be rewarded with a sumptuous dinner paid for by the other members of the party. The Host decides to accompany the pilgrims to Canterbury and serve as the judge of the tales.
The primary function of these opening lines is to provide a physical setting and the motivation for the Canterbury pilgrimage. Chaucer's original plan, to have each pilgrim tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back, was never completed; we have tales only on the way to Canterbury. In The Prologue are portraits of all levels of English life. The order of the portraits is important because it provides a clue as to the social standing of the different occupations. The pilgrims presented first are representative of the highest social rank, with social rank descending with every new pilgrim introduced.
Highest in the social rank are representatives of the aristocracy or those with pretensions toward nobility. First in this group are the Knight and his household, including the Squire. The second group within those of the highest social standing includes the Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar, who ought to be of the lower class, but who, as a pious beggar, has begged so well that his prosperity ironically slips him into the company of the nobles. Of these pilgrims, probably only the Knight and his son, the Squire, qualify as true aristocrats, both outwardly and inwardly. The "gentilesse" — refinement resulting from good breeding — of the Prioress and the Monk is largely external and affected.
Following this class are pilgrims whose high social rank is mainly derived from commercial wealth. Included in this group are the Merchant, who illegally made much of his money from selling French coins (a practice that was forbidden in England at the time); the Sergeant of Law, who made his fortune by using his knowledge as a lawyer to buy up foreclosed property for practically nothing; the Clerk, who belongs with this group of pilgrims because of his gentle manners and extensive knowledge of books; and the Franklin, who made enough money to become a country gentleman and is in a position to push for a noble station. (It is evident both from the relationship of the Franklin's portrait to that of the guildsmen, presented next, and from Harry Bailey's scornful remarks to him, however, that he is not yet of the noble class).
The next class of pilgrims is the guildsmen, consisting of men who belong to something similar to specialized unions of craftsmen guilds. Among this group of specialized laborers are the Haberdasher, the Dyer, the Carpenter, the Weaver, and the Tapestry-Maker. None of them tell a tale.
A middle-class group of pilgrims comprises the next lower position of social rank. First presented in this group is the Cook, whom we might consider out of place — ranked too high — but who, as a master of his trade, is greatly respected by his fellow travelers. Also included in this social class are the Shipman, because of his immense knowledge of and travels throughout the world, and the Physician, a doctor of medicine (a career that was less revered in the Middle Ages than it is now). The Wife of Bath, who is the last of this group to be presented, is included in this group because of her knowledge and deportment and her many other pilgrimages.
The Parson and the Plowman comprise the next group of pilgrims, the virtuous poor or lower class. Each, although very poor, represents all of the Christian virtues.
The last group of pilgrims include those of the immoral lower class. Among this group of pilgrims are the Manciple, who profits from buying food for the lawyers in the Inns of Court, and the vulgar Miller, who steals from his customers. The Reeve tells dirty stories and cheats his trusting young master, and the corrupt Summoner takes bribes. Last, and most corrupt in this litany of undesirables is the Pardoner, who sells false pardons and fake relics.