Summary of the Poem
In the beauty of April, the Narrator and 29 oddly assorted travelers happen to meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London. This becomes the launching point for their 60-mile, four-day religious journey to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at the Cathedral in Canterbury. Great blessing and forgiveness were to be heaped upon those who made the pilgrimage; relics of the saint were enshrined there, and miracles had been reported by those who prayed before the shrine. Chaucer's pilgrims, however, are not all traveling for religious reasons. Many of them simply enjoy social contact or the adventure of travel.
As the travelers are becoming acquainted, their Host, the innkeeper Harry Bailley, decides to join them. He suggests that they pass the time along the way by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell four stories—two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the return trip—a total of 120 stories. He will furnish dinner at the end of the trip to the one who tells the best tale. The framework is thus laid out for the organization of The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer, the Narrator, observes all of the characters as they are arriving and getting acquainted. He describes in detail most of the travelers which represent a cross-section of fourteenth-century English society. All levels are represented, beginning with the Knight who is the highest ranking character socially. Several levels of holiness and authority in the clergy are among the pilgrims while the majority of the characters are drawn from the middle class. A small number of the peasent class are also making the journey, most of them as servants to other pilgrims.
As the travelers begin their journey the next morning, they draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw. He begins the storytelling with a long romantic epic about two brave young knights who both fall in love with the same woman and who spend years attempting to win her love.
Everyone enjoys the tale and they agree that the trip is off to an excellent start. When the Host invites the Monk to tell a story to match the Knight's, the Miller, who is drunk, becomes so rude and insistent that he be allowed to go next that the Host allows it. The Miller's tale is indeed very funny, involving several tricks and a very dirty prank as a young wife conspires with her lover to make love to him right under her husband's nose.
The Miller's fabliau upsets the Reeve because it involves an aging carpenter being cuckolded by his young wife, and the Reeve himself is aging and was formerly a carpenter. Insulted by the Miller, the Reeve retaliates with a tale about a miller who is made a fool of in very much the same manner as the carpenter in the preceding rendition.
After the Reeve, the Cook speaks up and begins to tell another humorous adventure about a thieving, womanizing young apprentice. Chaucer did not finish writing this story; it stops almost at the beginning.
When the dialogue among the travelers resumes, the morning is half gone and the Host, Harry Bailley, urges the Man of Law to begin his entry quickly. Being a lawyer, the Man of Law is very long-winded and relates a very long story about the life of a noblewoman named Constance who suffers patiently and virtuouly through a great many terrible trials. In the end she is rewarded for her perseverence.
The Man of Law's recital, though lengthy, has pleased the other pilgrims very much. Harry Bailley then calls upon the Parson to tell a similar tale of goodness; but the Shipman, who wants to hear no more sermonizing, says he will take his turn next and will tell a merry story without a hint of preaching. Indeed, his story involves a lovely wife who cuckolds her husband to get money for a new dress and gets away with the whole affair.
Evidently looking for contrast in subject matter, the Host next invites the Prioress to give them a story. Graciously, she relates a short legend about a little schoolboy who is martyred and through whose death a miracle takes place.
After hearing this miraculous narrative, all of the travelers become very subdued, so the Host calls upon the Narrator (Chaucer) to liven things up. Slyly making fun of the Host's literary pretensions, Chaucer recites a brilliant parody on knighthood composed in low rhyme. Harry hates Chaucer's poem and interrupts to complain; again in jest, Chaucer tells a long, boring version of an ancient myth. However, the Host is very impressed by the serious moral tone of this inferior tale and is hightly complimentary.
Since the myth just told involved a wise and patient wife, Harry Bailley takes this opportunity to criticize his own shrewish wife. He then digresses further with a brief commentary on monks which leads him to call upon the pilgrim Monk for his contribution to the entertainment.
The Monk belies his fun-loving appearance by giving a disappointing recital about famous figures who are brought low by fate. The Monk's subject is so dreary that the Knight stops him, and the Host berates him for lowering the morale of the party. When the Monk refuses to change his tone, the Nun's Priest accepts the Host's request for a happier tale. The Priest renders the wonderful fable of Chanticleer, a proud rooster taken in by the flattery of a clever fox.
Harry Bailley is wildly enthusiastic about the Priest's tale, turning very bawdy in his praise. The earthy Wife of Bath is chosen as the next participant, probably because the Host suspects that she will continue in the same bawdy vein. However, the Wife turns out to be quite a philosopher, prefacing her tale with a long discourse on marriage. When she does tell her tale, it is about the marriage of a young and virile knight to an ancient hag.
When the Wife has concluded, the Friar announces that he will tell a worthy tale about a summoner. He adds that everyone knows there is nothing good to say about summoners and tells a story which proves his point.
Infuriated by the Friar's insulting tale, the Summoner first tells a terrible joke about friars and then a story which condemns them, too. His rendering is quite coarse and dirty.
Hoping for something more uplifting next, the Host gives the Cleric his chance, reminding the young scholar not to be too scholarly and to put in some adventure. Obligingly, the Cleric entertains with his tale of the cruel Walter of Saluzzo who tested his poor wife unmercifully.
The Cleric's tale reminds the Merchant of his own unhappy marriage and his story reflects his state. It is yet another tale of a bold, unfaithful wife in a marriage with a much older man.
When the Merchant has finished, Harry Bailley again interjects complaints about his own domineering wife, but then requests a love story of the Squire. The young man begins an exotic tale that promises to be a fine romance, but Chaucer did not complete this story, so it is left unfinished.
The dialogue resumes with the Franklin complimenting the Squire and trying to imitate his eloquence with an ancient lyric of romance.
There is no conversation among the pilgrims before the Physician's tale. His story is set in ancient Rome and concerns a young virgin who prefers death to dishonor.
The Host has really taken the Physician's sad story to heart and begs the Pardoner to lift his spirits with a happier tale. However, the other pilgrims want something more instructive, so the Pardoner obliges. After revealing himself to be a very wicked man, the Pardoner instructs the company with an allegory about vice leading three young men to their deaths. When he is finished, the Pardoner tries to sell his fake relics to his fellow travellers, but the Host prevents him, insulting and angering him in the process. The Knight has to intervene to restore peace.
The Second Nun then tells the moral and inspiring life of St. Cecelia. About five miles later, a Canon and his Yeoman join the party, having ridden madly to catch up. Converstion reveals these men to be outlaws of sorts, but they are made welcome and invited to participate in the storytelling all the same.
When the Canon's Yeoman reveals their underhanded business, the Canon rides off in a fit of anger, and the Canon's Yeoman relates a tale about a cheating alchemist, really a disclosure about the Canon.
It is late afternoon by the time the Yeoman finishes and the Cook has become so drunk that he falls off his horse. There is an angry interchange between the Cook and the Manciple, and the Cook has to be placated with more wine. The Manciple then tells his story, which is based on an ancient myth and explains why the crow is black.
At sundown the Manciple ends his story. The Host suggests that the Parson conclude the day of tale-telling with a fable. However, the Parson preaches a two-hour sermon on penitence instead. The Canterbury Tales end here.
Although Chaucer actually completed only about one-fifth of the proposed 120 tales before his death, The Canterbury Tales reflects all the major types of medieval literature. They are defined for the reader as follows:
Romance: a narrative in metrical verse; tales of love, adventure, knightly combat, and ceremony.
Fabliau: stories based on trickery and deception; often involves adultery
Myth: a story originating in classical literature
Breton Lais: a type of fairy tale; set in the Brittany province of France; contains fairies, elves, folk wisdom, and folktales
Beast Fable: animals personify human qualities and act out human situations; usually teaches a lesson
Sermon: a Christian lesson
Exemplum: a story which teaches a well-known lesson
Saint's Legend: inspiring story of the life and death of a saint
Miracle Story: one in which a saint or the Virgin Mary intervenes with a miracle in response to the faithfulness of a follower
Allegory: a tale in which persons represent abstract qualities; i.e., Death, Virtue, Love
Mock Romance: parodies, or makes fun of, the usual subjects of a romance
These genres are further explained in the analyses of individual tales.
The Canterbury Tales is set in fourteenth-century London, one of the medieval period's great centers of commerce and culture. In England at this time, society was still very strictly ordered, with the King and nobles having all power in things political and the Catholic Church having all authority in spiritual matters. However, trade and commerce with other nations had expanded dramatically in this century, giving rise to a new and highly vocal middle class comprised of merchants, traders, shopkeepers, and skilled craftsmen. Their newly acquired wealth, their concentration in centers of commerce, and their organization into guilds gave this newly emerging class increasing power and influence.
However, the population of England remained for the most part agrarian, poor peasants working hard for a meager living farming on rented land, completely at the mercy of the landowner, mired in ignorance and superstition, and generally devoid of any opportunity to change their lot in life. These peasant people looked to the Church for consolation and defense. Sometimes they found nurture there, though, just as often, they confronted corruption and further victimization. As the clergy became landowners, they victimized the peasants as blatantly as did the nobility. The hierarchical organization of the Church and its dominance of education also gave rise to widespread shocking abuse and corruption.
In the latter fourteenth century, there was a new and considerable resistance to the inflexible dominance of society by the nobility and the clergy. The Plague had struck three times in the century, killing one-third of the population of England. The resultant labor shortage at last gave the peasants the courage to insist on higher wages. They even staged what is known as "The Peasants' Rebellion" in 1381 in reaction to their enforced poverty, but their group was quickly subdued by the nobility.
Geoffrey Chaucer witnessed this rebellion firsthand. He was the Controller of the Custom in London and resided rent-free in a house built onto the wall around London. His house was located just over the gate where the furious peasants descended on the city. One can only imagine his horror as he watched the rebels burn the elaborate castle of his patron, John of Gaunt.
Chaucer's ability to give the reader his view of life in the city of London is but one of the sterling elements of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer knew these angry peasants and successful and outspoken merchants and tradesmen because he lived among them and dealt with them constantly in his work. His service to the nobility and his diplomatic duties gave him wide acquaintance among the clergy and the ruling class. All of these types of people are recreated in The Canterbury Tales, giving the reader an almost perfect picture of life in medieval England.
Aside from the living people of England, the other major influences on The Canterbury Tales were the vast and widely varied works of literature with which Chaucer was unusually well-acquainted. Since he alludes so often to his sources in The Canterbury Tales, it is certain that Chaucer was familiar with all the classical writers, such as Ovid and Virgil and with the Christian apologists like Augustine and Boethius. He knew and corresponded with the French poet Eustache Deschamps, and had studied French literature extensively. Unlike most of his English contemporaries, Chaucer was a devotee of the Italian poets Dante and Petrarch. He seems to have been greatly influenced by the Italian poet Boccaccio, as well; The Canterbury Tales has many elements in common with Boccaccio's Decameron.
That Chaucer used many well-known models and sources for his tales, Chaucer himself admits. However, with The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer departed from the prevailing literary norm which held that all worthy writing was modelled on a work already in existence. While all of his tales contain elements borrowed from classical models, Chaucer's stories are all dramatically altered in some way so that they become something new, rather than a repetition of an old pattern. Few of his pilgrims are copies; they are essentially English; and the framing of the tales with a trip to Canterbury is a Chaucerian innovation which sets him apart totally from his predecessors.
One of the things that makes The Canterbury Tales unique is the frame just mentioned. As the title implies, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of all sorts of stories, but they are ingeniously united by being framed by a journey and told by the travellers on the journey. A frame of sorts existed in Boccaccio's Decameron, but Chaucer's use of this device is original in its completeness, polish, and brilliance.
The work is also remarkable because it is written in English. In Chaucer's day, it was a foregone conclusion that all serious writing had to be done in Latin or French. Chaucer himself was fluent in both these languages, as well as in Italian. Yet his long experimentation with poetry written in these languages convinced him that it was not only possible, but desirable, to make poetic music in the vernacular, which, for him, was Middle English.
This work was well-received. This is known because enough handwritten copies of it were in circulation for the famous printer William Caxton to make The Canterbury Tales one of the first works he printed when he imported his first printing press in 1478. Enough demand for the book existed for him to print a second edition in 1483; it must have been extremely popular, for both printing and purchasing books were very expensive at that time. Only a widely read and widely accepted book would have been given a second printing. The Canterbury Tales has never been out of print since that time.
List of Characters
The Narrator—Geoffrey Chaucer, the author, although he is never named
The Knight—father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman (minor nobility)
The Squire—young man of 20, son of the Knight (minor nobility)
The Yeoman—a forester; servant of the Knight (peasant class)
The Prioress—superior of a monastery of nuns; attended by the Nun, the Monk, the Friar, and the Priest (clergy)
The Monk—manages the estates of the Prioress and the monastery (clergy)
The Friar—a religious who has taken a vow of poverty and is licensed to beg (clergy)
The Nun—chaplain to the Prioress (clergy)
The Priest—with the Prioress; not described (clergy)
The Merchant—wealthy and pompous (middle class)
The Cleric—a religious who is a scholar at Oxford (clergy)
The Man of Law—a lawyer, shrewd and wealthy (middle class)
The Franklin—landowner; wealthy (middle class; possibly minor nobility)
The Haberdasher—hat and clothing maker; guildsman (middle class)
The Carpenter—guildsman (middle class)
The Weaver—makes fabric; guildsman (middle class)
The Dyer—dyes fabric and leather; guildsman (middle class)
The Tapestry—Maker-makes large, intricate woven pictures which are decorative and expensive; guildsman (middle class)
The Cook—works for the five guildsmen (peasant class)
The Shipman—a sailor, commander of a merchant ship (middle class)
The Physician—well-educated; a lover of gold (middle class)
The Wife of Bath—has survived five husbands; prosperous, gregarious, experienced (middle class)
The Parson—poor because he is good; a true pastor (clergy)
The Plowman—brother of the Parish Priest; an honest, decent farmer (peasant)
The Miller—owns a mill; grinds grain into meal and flour (middle class)
The Manciple—a buyer for 30 lawyers who are administrators of London courts (middle class)
The Reeve—manager of a nobleman's estate; prosperous (middle class)
The Summoner—an agent of the Church courts who summons sinners to answer charges before the court (clergy)
The Pardoner—traded on the gullibility of the populace; sold relics and indulgences (which are pardons from the punishment due to sin) (clergy)
The Host—owner of the Tabard Inn where all the pilgrims meet; self-appointed leader; tour guide for the pilgrims (middle class)
*The Canon—a clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral (clergy)
*The Canon's Yeoman—servant to the Canon (peasant)
*The last two characters join the group when the journey is almost over.
Estimated Reading Time
The length of time necessary to read the entire work will depend on whether it is being read in Modern or Middle English. The reading in Modern English will go much faster; probably an hour for the prologue and an hour for The Knight's Tale, with the remainder of the tales requiring 30 to 45 minutes each.
If the student is required to read the work in Middle English, with all the footnotes for interpretation, each part named above will take about twice as long. The reader can estimate a total of 14 hours for the Modern English version, or 28 hours for the Middle English.
It is strongly suggested that the book be divided by the reader into manageable units for sittings of no more than two hours.
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the assembling of a group of pilgrims at the Tabard Inn near London. They plan to journey to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by agents of King Henry II of England in 1170. A pilgrimage to this spot was one of the favorite religious exercises in medieval England, but Chaucer’s work does not deal with an actual pilgrimage. It would have been an impossible feat for about thirty people traveling on horseback to tell a series of tales, mostly in verse. In “The Knight’s Tale,” one character says:
This world nys but a a...
(The entire section is 1262 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s best-known and most important literary achievement, consists of twenty-four tales, some with prologues and epilogues, which range over a wide variety of styles, subjects, and genres. The work avoids becoming merely a loose collection of unrelated stories because of Chaucer’s ingenious development of the framing device of the pilgrimage and his ability to suit his diverse tales to the personalities of their tellers. Chaucer’s ideas about the book apparently evolved over a period of decades, with some tales (the Second Nun’s Tale, parts of the Monk’s Tale) possibly written as early as the 1370’s, and others (the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Parson’s Tale) probably written in the...
(The entire section is 1794 words.)
Summary and Analysis
1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis
The Narrator: Geoffrey Chaucer the author, although he is never named
The Knight: father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman
The Squire: young man of 20, son of the Knight
The Yeoman: a forester; servant of the Knight
The Prioress: superior of a monastery of nuns; attended by the Nun, the Monk, the Friar, and the Priest
The Monk: manages the estates of the Prioress and the monastery
The Friar: a religious who has taken a vow of poverty and is licensed to beg
The Nun: chaplain to the Prioress
The Priest: with the Prioress; not described
(The entire section is 2424 words.)
2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis
The travelers have drawn straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw and graciously launches the entertainment with his tale.
Part One: In ancient times there was a famous conquering duke named Theseus who was lord of Athens. As the story opens, Theseus has just conquered the Amazons and married their queen, Hipppolyta. Returning victorious to Athens, the Duke is accosted by a group of grieving widows begging for his help. These noblewomen are all former residents of Thebes; their husbands have been killed in battle with the victorious King Creon who has forbidden the women to bury their dead and who has piled the bodies of their husbands in a heap for...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)
3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis
The pilgrims congratulate the Knight on a wonderful story. The Host invites the Monk to tell another uplifting story, but the drunken Miller interrupts, insisting that he can match the Knight. The Host tries to stop the Miller, but the Miller will not be stopped. When he says he will tell a tale about a carpenter, the Reeve loudly objects; but it is to no avail. Chaucer warns the reader that the story may be coarse, but if the reader finds it offensive, he may choose another tale.
The Miller tells the story of a wealthy carpenter named John who has a very young and beautiful wife named Alison. Nicholas, a poor scholar of astrology, boards with John and Alison. Nicholas is young and lusty...
(The entire section is 999 words.)
4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis
All the pilgrims have laughed and enjoyed The Miller's Tale, but the favorable reception has angered the Reeve, who is himself an aging carpenter. He says that he, like all old men, is motivated by boasting, anger, lying, and covetousness. When the Host tells him to quit philosophizing and get on with his story, the Reeve promises to get even with the Miller.
Scornful Simkin is a wealthy miller who is armed to the teeth at all times and is very dishonest in his business dealings. No one dares accuse him, however, since he will immediately attack with one of the four weapons always on his person. Simkin has a wife with relatives among the nobility and a beautiful and desirable young...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
5: The Cook's Tale Summary and Analysis
The cook is mightily entertained by the story the Reeve told and wants to tell a funny story of his own. However, the Host reminds the Cook, who is named Hodge of Ware, that he owes the company a good tale since food he prepares so often makes travelers ill. Good-naturedly, the Cook begins his story.
Perkin the Reveler is apprenticed to a guild of food merchants. He is a wild and fun-loving youth, particularly fond of gambling and womanizing. Both vices require money which he lifts from his master's safe. One day, fed up, the master fires Perkin the Reveler. Perkin sends his personal belongings to the home of an equally devious friend . . . (Fragment concludes.)
(The entire section is 159 words.)
6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Host reminds the company that the day is nearly one quarter over and they must hurry on with the telling of tales. He calls on the Man of Law to begin his story quickly. The worthy gentleman consents. He rambles along for a while, commenting that he cannot hope to imitate the well-known poet Chaucer in the quality of his speech, yet he will tell one in prose even though he be plainspoken. The teller then rambles on some more in an apparent sermon against poverty. It seems that his tale will somehow deal with this subject, but it certainly does not.
Part One: The Christian Emperor of Rome has a beautiful and extremely virtuous daughter named Constance whose reputation comes to the...
(The entire section is 1568 words.)
7: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Host invites the Parson to tell his story next. When the Parson admonishes the Host for his drunkenness, the Host jokingly accuses the Parson of being a prude, and maybe even a heretic. Their interchange is rudely interrupted by the Shipman who says he will tell a jolly tale with no hint of preaching in it.
His tale begins with a very successful merchant who lived at St. Denis with his very beautiful wife, a woman excessively fond of entertaining and dressing herself to be admired. To accommodate her, the merchant kept a very fine house which was always filled with visitors. Frequently among them was a monk called Don John, a handsome man of 30. He and the merchant had become such...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis.
After jesting rather coarsely about the monk in the Shipman's Tale—and monks in general—the Host switches to a tone of exaggerated politeness in inviting the Prioress to tell her tale.
A very young schoolboy learns a difficult Latin hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary because of his deep devotion to her. Every day, on the way to school and on the way home, he passes through the Jewish ghetto of the town singing the hymn.
Taking his singing as a direct insult, a group of wicked Jews has an assassin slit the boy's throat. The child's widowed mother searches for him everywhere. She finally discovers his poor little body on a dung heap. Miraculously, the child is still singing...
(The entire section is 336 words.)
9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Summary and Analysis
After the sobering miracle story, the Host calls on the Narrator to give a lively, amusing story. (The Host fancies himself something of a literary critic; apparently, the pilgrim Narrator's genial nature has led Harry Bailley to believe that the Narrator will know some excellent tales.) Apologetically, with tongue in cheek, the Narrator says he knows only one old story in rhyme-doggerel. (Rhyme-doggerel was a sing-song form of poetry associated with low-class humor.)
The First Fit: Sir Thopas, in all his youthful perfection and vanity, is closely described. One day, Sir Thopas rides out to hunt and falls into a fit of "love-longing." He finds no woman worthy to be the object of his love....
(The entire section is 642 words.)
10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Host comments that he wishes his own wife were as patient as Prudence in the Tale of Melibeus. He describes Goodlief, his wife, as ill-tempered in the extreme and big and brawny into the bargain. In short, Harry reveals that he is henpecked.
The Host then turns the company's attention to the Monk, whom he abuses at length, supposedly in jest. Harry comments on the Monk's well-fed and sturdy appearance, remarks that he would make a fine breeder, and adds that if the Host had his way, all the monks and priests would have wives and beget fine children. Harry feels that the Church is taking all the best men and leaving only weaklings among the laity who are fathering inferior offspring....
(The entire section is 326 words.)
11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Knight interrupts the listing of tragedies by the Monk, saying that such grim recitals are making everyone sad. The Host immediately agrees, commenting that the long narration has almost put everyone to sleep. He begs the Monk to tell them something different. When the Monk declines, Harry calls upon the Nun's Priest to tell a happy story. The Priest laughingly agrees, seeing that the clever Monk has revenged himself on Harry Bailley by nearly boring him to death.
He begins his tale about a poor old widow who owns a remarkable rooster named Chanticleer. For crowing exactly on time he has no equal, and the splendor of his colored feathers and his coral comb is amazing. Chanticleer has...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Wife of Bath tells the travelers that she has buried five husbands and has lived in the married state since she was 12 years old. Furthermore, she is now looking for her sixth husband. For these reasons, she considers herself an expert on the subject of matrimony.
Before telling her story, the Wife feels compelled to defend her numerous marriages. In a lengthy monologue, she counters the religious arguments against multiple marriages. For instance, she says, although God and St. Paul recommend chastity as a perfect state, neither of them expressly forbid marriage. Since she is not perfect and has no desire to be, she personally prefers being married as she has an enormous appetite for...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)
13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Friar says it is time to speak of "gayer things" and volunteers to tell a tale he knows about a summoner. He adds that everyone knows how hated summoners are. The Host is afraid the Friar will upset the pilgrim Summoner, but the pilgrim Summoner says that he will shortly pay the Friar back. The Friar begins.
An archdeacon kept in his employ a summoner who had no rival for finding sinners. The man kept a network of spies to help him discover wrongdoers. He often pretended that he had charges against an individual, but if that person would compensate him, the charges would be "dismissed." By extorting money in this manner, the summoner grew rich; he shared only a little of what he...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis
The pilgrim Summoner is so enraged at the condemnation of the Friar that he immediately tells an evil little joke about an angel touring a friar around hell. When the visiting friar comments that he sees no friars in hell, the angel takes him directly to Satan who reveals 20,000 friars hiding in his ass, the idea being that Satan and friars are extremely close. He then tells his tale.
There was once a very greedy friar who was licensed to beg and preach in a particular district. He would pretend to have his scribe record all the names of those who donated so that his monastery could pray for them, but the names were erased as soon as he was out of sight.
On the day this story...
(The entire section is 560 words.)
15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis
The jovial Host teases the young Cleric for his quiet, demure behavior, but begs him to tell them a gay story with no preaching and no rhetoric. This gentler clergyman, in contrast with the two who preceded him, mildly agrees to relate a tale first written by Francis Petrarch, an Italian poet whom the Cleric revered.
The First Part: The Marquis of Saluzzo was a handsome and admired young squire who was also a bachelor. His people persuaded him that it was time to marry and even offered to pick his bride for him. He declined the offer, preferring to select his own wife, but did set a date for the wedding and commanded that all preparations be made.
The Second Part: Walter of...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis
Commenting that his wife is absolutely nothing like Griselda, the Merchant reveals that he is very unhappily married. The Host, who can sympathize, begs the Merchant to tell more. Saying he would prefer not to go on about his own troubles, the Merchant begins his story.
January is an Italian knight who has remained a bachelor for 60 years. However, he has recently become convinced that the married state is the happiest and has, therefore, decided that he will take a wife.
January calls in all of his friends and brothers and lectures them all on the bliss of the wedded state. He then begs them to help him find a young wife because he wants to marry right away. Some advise him...
(The entire section is 968 words.)
17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Host invites the Squire to tell a love story, assuming the youth to be knowledgeable in such matters. The Squire says he really does not know that much, but he agrees to tell a story.
The First Part: In the land of the Tatars there lived a noble and famous king, called Cambiuskan, who possessed every conceivable virtue and knightly trait. Cambiuskan and his queen had two sons and a gorgeous young daughter, Canace.
The story begins in the twentieth year of Cambiuskan's reign. In the early spring, he announces his birthday feast, as was his custom. As the glorious feast begins, the guests are suddenly amazed to see a knight on a brass horse, wearing a bare sword, ride into...
(The entire section is 738 words.)
18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Franklin tells the company that the ancient Bretons made up rhymed stories which they set to music. He says he is uneducated but can tell one of the traditional Breton tales.
In Brittany, a noble knight falls in love with an honorable lady. When she learns of his love, the lady agrees to take the knight as her husband. The knight is overjoyed. In his enthusiasm, he volunteers never to be jealous or to try to rule her. His wife need only let it appear as though he is the master in the marriage.
Arveragus and Dorigen marry; but after about a year, Arveragus announces that he must go to London for a year or two in order to win knightly honor and glory in arms. As soon as her...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis
This is the only story which is not linked to the others by dialogue among the pilgrims.
Virginius, a noble knight of Old Rome, had the loveliest daughter anyone could imagine. She was Nature's perfect work; and Virginia's virtue was a thousand times greater than her beauty. She was particularly prudent with regard to preserving her chastity. To protect her purity, Virginia often pretended to be ill so that she wouldn't be vulnerable to the wantonness prevelant at dances, feasts, and revels.
One day, when Virginia goes to pray at the temple, a very famous judge called Appius observes the maiden and immediately determines to ravish her. Conspiring with a fellow called Claudius,...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Host finds the Physician's story terribly touching. Teasing the Physician, he begs the Pardoner to cure the pain caused by the Physician's narrative by telling a gay story immediately. The Pardoner, denied a drink before launching his tale, punishes the company by making them wait while he thinks of a suitably moral story.
That greed is the root of all evil, the Pardoner tells the travelers, is always his theme when he preaches. He boasts openly of his corrupt practices and manipulative methods of getting money out of the gullible. He brags boldly of how little he cares for humanity. He also states that he enjoys the creature comforts humanity's guilt and stupidity afford him. The...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Nun tells the company that idleness leads to sinfulness while lawful industry is an aid to the avoidance of sin. The sister then tells the company that she will tell the life of St. Cecelia to give them an example of a good woman. She says she will tell them the version she has translated from The Legend of Good Women.
The tale is preceded by an Invocation to Mary in which the nun prays to be inspired to tell the story to the profit of her listeners. The Invocation is followed by a lengthy explanation of the name "Cecelia," which may be translated "lily of heaven," "the way for the blind," or "lack of blindness." If one stretches a point, it may...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Canon: clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral
The Canon's Yeoman: servant to the Canon
Shortly after the tale of St. Cecelia is finished, two riders, one of whom is dressed like a canon, approach the party. They have observed the jolly group and have ridden very hard to catch up and join the party. The Host bids them welcome if the Canon is able to tell a merry tale or two. The Canon's Yeoman replies that the Canon is a very important person and certainly able to contribute to the entertainment. In fact, it is hinted that he somehow knows a very great deal about a great many things. The Host is impatient with the Yeoman's...
(The entire section is 778 words.)
23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis
The Cook had so much to drink that he has fallen asleep in the saddle. The Manciple derides and insults him for this, whereupon the Cook's drunken agitation causes him to fall off his horse. The Manciple doubles his insults. He then reconsiders his position, since he and the Cook are apparently professionally associated and the Cook could retaliate by revealing things the Manciple does not want known. He therefore suggests that they placate the Cook with more wine. This tactic works, and the Manciple then tells his tale.
When the ancient Phoebus lived on the earth, he was a wonderous man, greatly to be admired. He kept a pet crow which he taught to speak. This crow was snow white and sang...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
24: The Parson's Tale Summary and Analysis
The journey of the pilgrims is almost over as this interlude begins. The Parson wants to remind the travelers that life itself is a spiritual journey, but the Parson says that he declines to bury his message in a fable. He will speak out exactly what he means. Promising to be brief, the Parson begins his tale.
The Parson openly preaches a sermon on the nature of penitence. First of all he discusses the concept of contrition. He describes the requirements for confession and details how satisfaction for sin is to be made. This incredibly long discourse becomes a sort of handbook for the sinner who wishes to obtain God's forgiveness according to the teachings of the Catholic Church....
(The entire section is 298 words.)
25: Chaucer's Retraction Summary and Analysis
Chaucer tells the reader that The Canterbury Tales are meant to give an overview of human nature; to be an encyclopedia of human behavior. The author does not want to be seen as a judge of his fellow man, but merely as a recorder of what he has heard and observed. He hopes that even the bawdy tales may be a means of improving his readers' souls.
Chaucer adds his thanks to God, to the Virgin Mary, and to the saints for their inspiration in the writing of his more spiritual works. He begs for the grace of true penitence and the blessing of a happy death.
Discussion and Analysis
The nature of the retraction—a sincere statement to...
(The entire section is 124 words.)