In April - so the narrator tells us - twenty nine persons meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to commence their pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Chaucer, the pilgrim, is admitted to their company. Their host, Harry Bailly, proposes a game for the journey: each pilgrim is to tell four stories, two on their way to and two on their way back from Canterbury. Before the journey begins the narrator takes time to present his fellow pilgrims:

Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren, and of what degree
And eek in what array that they were inne: [...]   (CT. Gen.Prol. 37-41)

He starts with the Knight, his son the Squire, and the Yeoman and ends with the Pardoner. By and large, this fictitious group covers nearly all levels of late 14th-century society, only the highest and lowest ranks are missing.

The pilgrims fall naturally into five groups:

  1. The 'Knight' group:
    Knight, Squire, Yeoman
  2. The 'religious community' group:
    Prioress, Monk, Friar, Nun, the three Priests
  3. The 'middle class' group:
    Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Five Guildsmen, Cook, Shipman,
    Physician, Wife of Bath
  4. The 'low orders' group:
    Parson and Ploughman
  5. The 'rogues' group:
    Reeve, Miller, Summoner, Pardoner, Manciple, Chaucer the pilgrim.
The General Prologue