Fragment 1, lines 715–858
After introducing all of the pilgrims, the narrator apologizes for any possible offense the reader may take from his tales, explaining that he feels that he must be faithful in reproducing the characters’ words, even if they are rude or disgusting. He cites Christ and Plato as support for his argument that it is best to speak plainly and tell the truth rather than to lie. He then returns to his story of the first night he spent with the group of pilgrims.
After serving the pilgrims a banquet and settling the bill with them, the Host of the tavern speaks to the group. He welcomes and compliments the company, telling them they are the merriest group of pilgrims to pass through his inn all year. He adds that he would like to contribute to their happiness, free of charge. He says that he is sure they will be telling stories as they travel, since it would be boring to travel in silence. Therefore, he proposes to invent some entertainment for them if they will unanimously agree to do as he says. He orders the group to vote, and the narrator comments that the group didn’t think it would be worthwhile to argue or deliberate over the Host’s proposition and agreed immediately.
The Host congratulates the group on its good decision. He lays out his plan: each of the pilgrims will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back. Whomever the Host decides has told the most meaningful and comforting stories will receive a meal paid for by the rest of the pilgrims upon their return. The Host also declares that he will ride with the pilgrims and serve as their guide at his own cost. If anyone disputes his judgment, he says, that person must pay for the expenses of the pilgrimage.
The company agrees and makes the Host its governor, judge, and record keeper. They settle on a price for the supper prize and return to drinking wine. The next morning, the Host wakes everyone up and gathers the pilgrims together. After they have set off, he reminds the group of the agreement they made. He also reminds them that whoever disagrees with him must pay for everything spent along the way. He tells the group members to draw straws to decide who tells the first tale. The Knight wins and prepares to begin his tale.
The Host shows himself to be a shrewd businessman. Once he has taken the pilgrims’ money for their dinners, he takes their minds away from what they have just spent by flattering them, complimenting them for their mirth. Equally quickly, he changes the focus of the pilgrimage. In the opening lines of the General Prologue, the narrator says that people go on pilgrimages to thank the martyr, who has helped them when they were in need (17–18). But Bailey (as the Host is later called) tells the group, “Ye goon to Caunterbury—God yow speede, / The blissful martir quite yow youre meede!” (769–770). He sees the pilgrimage as an economic transaction: the pilgrims travel to the martyr, and in return the martyr rewards them. The word “quite” means “repay,” and it will become a major motif throughout the tales, as each character is put in a sort of debt by the previous character’s tale, and must repay him or her with a new tale. Instead of traveling to reach a destination (the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket), the traveling becomes a contest, and the pilgrimage becomes about the journey itself rather than the destination. Bailey also stands to profit from the contest: the winner of the contest wins a free meal at his tavern, to be paid for by the rest of the contestants, all of whom will presumably eat with the winner and thus buy more meals from Bailey.
After creating the storytelling contest, Bailey quickly appoints himself its judge. Once the pilgrims have voted to participate in the contest, Bailey inserts himself as their ruler, and anyone who disagrees with him faces a strict financial penalty. Some have interpreted Bailey’s speedy takeover of the pilgrimage as an allegory for the beginnings of absolute monarchy. The narrator refers to the Host as the group’s “governour,” “juge,” and “reportour [record-keeper]”—all very legalistic terms (813–814).