It is April. Thirty pilgrims have gathered at the Tabard Inn just south of London prior to departure for the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, martyred in his cathedral at Canterbury two centuries earlier.
Socially they range from the Franklin, a wealthy landowner, to the Plowman; morally from the Parson, who has taught Christ’s word (“but first he followed it himself”) to the Pardoner, a rascally confidence man. The proprietor of the Tabard offers to accompany them as Host and suggests that they entertain themselves on the way by telling stories in turn; the teller of the most entertaining and morally instructive tales will later receive a free meal.
The tales also vary, illustrating popular medieval genres: romance, fable, saint’s life, fabliau (a coarse, comic tale), exemplum (a story designed to illustrate the theme of a sermon). Chaucer the pilgrim burlesques a type of popular romance, but his satirical purpose goes unrecognized and the Host will not allow him to finish. The Wife of Bath, on the lookout for a sixth husband, tells a tale cunningly contrived to prove that the main ingredient of domestic happiness is rule by the wife.
The Miller, somehow drunk early on the first day, tells of a carpenter deceived and made the laughing stock of his neighborhood by his wife and her lover. The hot-tempered Reeve, a carpenter by profession, responds in kind. The Wife of Bath baits the Monk, who has interrupted her. The Knight averts a brawl between the Host and the Pardoner.
The Canterbury Tales is fragmentary and unfinished, but Chaucer carefully concludes with the tale (actually sermon) of the good Parson, who reminds them all that they are on a pilgrimage not merely to Canterbury but to heaven.
Several modern translations of the poem are available, but to master Chaucer’s Middle English repays the effort. Many editions and introductions summarize handily his spelling, pronunciation, and grammar.
Brown, Peter. Chaucer at Work: The Making of “The Canterbury Tales.” New York: Longman, 1994. Designed as an introduction to The Canterbury Tales, it includes questions for discussion to guide the reader about the workings of Chaucer’s literary method. A good place to start a study of The Canterbury Tales.
Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. A complete reference for all basic points about the literary character of The Canterbury Tales.
Howard, Donald R. The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Discusses the concept of The Canterbury Tales in terms of style and form as an unfinished but complete literary work.
Leyerle, John, and Anne Quick. Chaucer: A Bibliographical Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986. A bibliographical guide to Chaucer’s work with sections on The Canterbury Tales, the facts of Chaucer’s life, and his rich literary sources.
Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Approaches The Canterbury Tales by genre of stories. Includes helpful discussions of the surviving manuscripts and the reception of The Canterbury Tales from 1400 to modern times.