The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
One April, a group of pilgrims gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, to embark on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. After dinner, Harry Bailly, the host, proposes a storytelling competition on the journey. The host will judge, and the winner will receive a dinner at the Tabard Inn. The following morning, as the pilgrims depart, they draw lots to begin. The Knight draws the shortest lot and tells his tale.
In “The Knight’s Tale,” Duke Theseus returns to Athens victorious over the Amazons with their queen, Hippolyta, as his wife and with her sister Emily. They encounter women mourning because the Theban king, Creon, refuses burial for their husbands, who were killed besieging Thebes. Duke Theseus then conquers Thebes. He captures two knights, Palamon and Arcite, and imprisons them.
One May morning, both Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily when they see her walking in the garden. Duke Perotheus, a friend of Duke Theseus, negotiates Arcite’s release on the condition that he never return to Athens. Arcite longs for Emily, however, so he disguises himself as a squire, calls himself Philostratus, and serves at the court of Duke Theseus. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes by sedating his jailer.
By chance, Palamon and Arcite meet in the woods outside Athens. Duke Theseus finds them as they battle over Emily. He decrees that Palamon and Arcite should return in a year to wage a tournament for Emily. Palamon and Arcite gather with their knights at the new stadium built by Duke Theseus. Palamon is defeated, but Arcite is mortally injured while riding in victory around the stadium. After mourning Arcite, Duke Theseus arrange for the marriage of Palamon and Emily.
After commending the Knight’s story, Harry Bailly asks the Monk to continue, but Robin, the drunken Miller, insists on telling his bawdy tale next. In “The Miller’s Tale,” John, an older carpenter who is married to Alison, a pretty young woman, is afraid of her attractiveness to other men. Nicholas, a student who boards in their house, proposes a tryst with Alison. Absalom, a parish clerk, also tries to court her. Nicholas contrives a plan to deceive the carpenter. He convinces the carpenter of an impending flood and instructs John to provide tubs and provisions for them. At night, when they retire to their tubs in the attic to await the deluge, the carpenter falls asleep and Nicholas steals away with Alison to her bedroom.
Meanwhile, Absalom woos Alison outside her room. In the darkness, he asks for a kiss. She sticks her backside out the window. He kisses her backside. Realizing that he has been duped, Absalom obtains a red-hot iron. Absalom returns and asks for another kiss. Nicholas, amazed at Absalom’s foolishness and wishing to participate in the jest, sticks his backside out the window while Alison says it is she, and Absalom brands Nicholas with the iron. Nicholas’s screams of pain awaken the carpenter, who falls to the ground and breaks his arm. Nicholas and Alison convince the neighbors that the carpenter is delusional about the flood.
Next, the Reeve, the Cook, and the Man of Law tell their stories. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a reaction to “The Miller’s Tale,” Oswald the Reeve tells about a dishonest miller who robs two clerks. They retaliate against him by getting him drunk and taking advantage of his wife and daughter. “The Cook’s Tale,” a fragment of about fifty lines, tells of a young man done out of his inheritance by a wicked older brother. In “The Man of Law’s Tale,” Constance, daughter of a Roman emperor, marries first a sultan of Syria who is killed and then a king. Both mothers-in-law cause her to be accused of treachery, but ultimately she is reunited with her second husband.
The wife of Bath next offers her tale. She prefaces the story with a discourse on marriage, based on her experiences with five husbands. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a young woman....
(The entire section is 1647 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Tabard Inn. English tavern that is the starting point of the poem’s pilgrimage, located in Southwark, a borough across the River Thames from and just south of London, at the beginning of the main road to Canterbury—the pilgrims’ destination. The owner of the inn, Harry Bailly, proposes and serves as judge for the storytelling contest that makes up The Canterbury Tales. The tavern location is an appropriate entryway into Chaucer’s world for a number of reasons. It is a place of hospitality and conviviality, in which men and women of a variety of social classes and backgrounds might realistically mingle informally and in temporary equality (as done on the pilgrimage itself). The historical Southwark was a neighborhood that was not entirely respectable, known for its brothels as well as its taverns, and many of the tales represent immoral characters and bawdy incidents. Indeed, in Chaucer’s time, many people viewed pilgrimages with some suspicion, as opportunities for rowdy vacations rather than as pious religious journeys. Finally, the first four tales have often been seen as unified by the theme of “herbergage,” of the use and misuse of dwelling-places and hospitality.
*Canterbury. Destination of the pilgrims in England’s southeastern Kent region. The pilgrims undertake the journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas, located in the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury’s great cathedral. The collection ends just before they arrive at Canterbury; its penultimate tale, of the Manciple, is delivered at “Bobbe-Up-and-Down” (usually identified as Harbledown, two miles from Canterbury). The prologue to the final tale, that of the Parson, makes explicit the allegorical significance of the location as the Parson undertakes to show the pilgrims that their physical journey from London to Canterbury is an emblem of their...
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1: General Prologue Questions and Answers
1. How many pilgrims are making the journey to Canterbury?
2. Why are all these people going to Canterbury?
3. List the members of the middle class in the group.
4. List the members of the clergy.
5. Which members of the clergy appear to be corrupt or sinful?
6. What plan for the group does the Host propose?
7. How does Chaucer himself fit into the group?
8. By what devices does Chaucer reveal his characters?
9. How many of the tales did Chaucer actually complete?
10. What weaknesses within the Church do the pilgrim clergy represent?
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2: The Knight's Tale Questions and Answers
1. Why is it appropriate that the Knight should tell the first story?
2. Which features of the romance are evident in this tale?
3. How do Arcite and Palamon come to be imprisoned?
4. How is each man released from prison?
5. Why is Arcrite not recognized when he is employed in Emily's household?
6. How is it decided who will marry Emily?
7. What happens to prevent the man who won Emily's hand from marrying her?
8. What characteristics of chivalry are evident in the story?
9. What is the theme of The Knight's Tale?
10. From what sources did Chaucer borrow material for this tale?...
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3: The Miller's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What are the main sources of humor in this story?
2. What does Chaucer seem to be saying about marriage?
3. What details make the tale seem realistic?
4. What basic human need motivates each of the characters?
5. Why is it appropriate for the Miller to tell this particular story?
6. Describe how The Miller's Tale qualifies as a fabliau.
7. What is the theme of the story?
8. What rivalry is set up before this tale is told?
9. How is the medieval fascination with astrology introduced into the story?
10. What traditional plot is present in The Miller's Tale?
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4: The Reeve's Tale Questions and Answers
1. How does the miller, Simkin, parallel the Miller on the pilgrimage?
2. How is Simkin paid back by the clerics for his cheating?
3. What features of human nature are exaggerated in this tale?
4. What elements of the fabliau are present in The Reeve's Tale?
5. How does the Reeve pay the Miller back with this story?
6. What was the reaction of the other pilgrims to the tale told by the Miller?
7. Why was The Miller's Tale so offensive to the Reeve?
8. What qualities does the Reeve say characterize old men?
9. How does the infant in the cradle function in this story?
10. What "advantages"...
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6: The Man of Law's Tale Questions and Answers
l. What concession does the Sultan of Syria make in order
to obtain the hand of Constance in marriage?
2. How does Constance end up a widow landing on the coast of Britain?
3. How does Constance come to wed King Aella?
4. What type of wife is Constance intended to represent?
5. How does this contrast with the wives in the preceding stories?
6. List the types of narratives that Chaucer drew on to create this tale.
7. What device is employed extensively in the structure of the tale?
8. Describe the underlying theological theme of The Man of Law's Tale.
9. Describe the events that lead Constance...
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7: The Shipman's Tale Questions and Answers
1. How does the wife in the story obtain the money she needs for her new dress?
2. How is Don John's loan actually repaid and by whom?
3. Does the merchant learn of the arrangement between his wife and Don John?
4. What elements of the fabliau are obvious in this tale?
5. What does the author seem to be saying about marriage?
6. What rationale does the wife use to convince the husband that she really must be well-dressed?
7. Does the husband, who is a merchant, appear to be miserly or just careful?
8. What makes the monk Don John unattractive as a person?
9. How does the merchant in this story seem...
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8: The Prioress's Tale Questions and Answers
1. Who is the central character in the story?
2. What is his special mark of devotion to the Virgin Mary?
3. Why do the Jews in the story hate the boy so much?
4. Describe the grim nature of the boy's murder.
5. What miraculous circumstance attends the finding of the murdered boy?
6. How is the abbot able to release the boy's soul?
7. How do the Catholics interpret the child's amazing singing?
8. How does the modern reader account for the treatment of the Jews in this tale?
9. Why is it appropriate that this tale should be told by the Prioress?
10. What happens to the Jews in the tale?...
(The entire section is 225 words.)
9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Questions and Answers
l. What elements of the romance are found in the story of Sir Thopas?
2. What leads the reader to understand that the story is a parody?
3. On what ancient form of literature is the Tale of Melibeus based?
4. What causes Harry Bailley to disapprove of The Tale of Sir Thopas?
5. Why does he approve of the Tale of Melibeus?
6. What kind of a wife is Prudence in the story of Melibeus?
7. Explain how The Tale of Sir Thopas is a joke on the Host.
8. In what way does the story of Melibeus complete the joke?
9. What does the Narrator call the divisions in The Tale of Sir Thopas?
10. What is...
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10: The Monk's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What kind of a wife does the Host have?
2. How does the description of Harry Bailley's married state fit in with the theme of many of the tales?
3. What is the Host's opinion of the clergy?
4. How does the Monk respond to the teasing of the Host?
5. What is the theme of The Monk's Tale?
6. From what sources are the examples drawn?
7. The Monk's Tale is not actually a story. What is it?
8. List three of the 17 notable figures described in this section.
9. Against what is the Monk warning the listeners?
10. Why must the listeners not trust in these things?
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11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Questions and Answers
1. In what genre is The Nun's Priest's Tale written?
2. How do the rooster and the hens and the fox reflect the typical format of this genre?
3. How has Chaucer altered the traditional plot of this old tale?
4. What is the obvious moral theme?
5. What is the more subtle theme of the story?
6. What is Chanticleer's great fault?
7. What is the redeeming quality that prevents his destruction?
8. What commentary about the nature of women is inserted in this tale?
9. What brings an end to the long list of tragedies the Monk was recounting?
10. How has the Monk revenged himself on Harry...
(The entire section is 212 words.)
12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Questions and Answers
1. At what age was the Wife of Bath first married?
2. Name two arguments that the Wife uses in her defense of the married state.
3. What is the Wife's "philosophy" of marriage?
4. How has the Wife changed as she has aged?
5. In what way were her fourth and fifth husbands different from the first three?
6. What ongoing argument begins in this prologue?
7. What type of tale does the Wife tell?
8. For what crime is the young knight being punished?
9. Why is it fitting that this tale should be told by the Wife of Bath?
10. How does the ending of the story reconcile with the Wife's...
(The entire section is 240 words.)
13: The Friar's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What insulting remark about summoners is made by the Friar in his prologue?
2. How does the pilgrim Summoner respond to the insult?
3. In what way might a sinner in the tale have the charges of the summoner dismissed?
4. Who does the stranger he meets say he is?
5. What causes the summoner in the tale to declare eternal brotherhood for the stranger?
6. What is the real identity of the stranger?
7. Why don't the farmer's curses send his animal to hell?
8. Why do the curses of the old woman have the result of sending the summoner to hell?
9. What is the theme of this story?
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14: The Summoner's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What is the reaction of the Summoner to The Friar's Tale?
2. What happens in the Summoner's joke about the friars?
3. What happened to the prayers that were supposed to be
offered for all who donated to the friars?
4. Why is Thomas so angry with the friar?
5. How does the friar try to calm his benefactor's anger?
6. What new donation does Thomas make by way of response to the friar's sermon?
7. To whom does the friar take his case against Thomas?
8. What distracts the lord of the shire from dealing with the
9. Who finally solves the problem of dividing the "gift"?
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15: The Cleric's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What promise does Griselda make to Walter before accepting his offer of marriage?
2. Name each of the tests Walter applies to test Griselda's loyalty.
3. Does Walter ever relent in his testing of his wife?
4. On which two Italian classics is The Cleric's Tale based?
5. Which two genres are represented in this story?
6. Why does Walter not allow the people to select his wife for him?
7. How does Walter use public opinion to persuade the Pope to grant nullification of his marriage?
8. When she comes to her father's house, who do the people think Walter's daughter is?
9. How is the hearer intended...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
16: The Merchant's Tale Questions and Answers
1. Describe the trickery and deception used to dupe January.
2. What is the literary genre of The Merchant's Tale?
3. What elements of the romance are incorporated?
4. What is the theme of this tale?
5. What is this story saying about marriage?
6. What does the Merchant reveal about his own marriage in his prologue?
7. Who sympathizes with him?
8. What is the significance of the names of the husband and wife in this tale?
9. What is the function of the advisors to the old knight?
10. Why is it appropriate that this tale be told by the Merchant?
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17: The Squire's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What element is inserted in The Squire's Tale that is not present in any of the others?
2. What is the probable theme of this tale?
3. What elements of the romance are present in this fragment?
4. What type of tale is the falcon's story intended to imitate?
5. What gifts does the mysterious knight bring Cambiuskan?
6. Describe the magical properties of each of the gifts.
7. Who has sent the strange knight?
8. What event is being celebrated when the bearer of gifts enters?
9. Why does the Host invite the Squire to tell a love story?
10. What is the Franklin's opinion of the Squire?...
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18: The Franklin's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What quality of the nobility does the Franklin admire most and try to imitate in his tale?
2. What is the rash promise made by Dorigen which is the source of all the trouble in The Franklin's Tale?
3. In what literary genre is this story written?
4. What is the theme of this tale?
5. From what sources did Chaucer borrow in creating The Franklin's Tale?
6. What is the effect on Aurelius when Dorigen rebuffs him?
7. Who stands by Aurelius during all of his trials?
8. How is the impossible feat of removing the rocks finally accomplished?
9. When he cannot pay his debt, what does Aurelius promise to...
(The entire section is 225 words.)
19: The Physician's Tale Questions and Answers
l. What characteristic of an exemplum is found in The Physician's Tale?
2. How are The Franklin's Tale, The Physician's Tale, and The Second Nun's Tale alike?
3. In what way are they different?
4. What is the theme of The Physician's Tale?
5. In what way does Virginius represent true justice and how does Appius represent justice corrupted?
6. How does Virginia, though pagan, fit into the medieval
Christian concept of virtuous womanhood?
7. How did Chaucer change his tale from the original?
8. On what source is The Physician's Tale based?
9. What trumped up charges put Virginia under the...
(The entire section is 260 words.)
20: The Pardoner's Tale Questions and Answers
1. What is an allegory?
2. What abstract qualities are portrayed by the evil young men in the story?
3. What is the theme of this tale?
4. What is the moral lesson of this tale?
5. What characteristics does the Pardoner reveal in his prologue?
6. How does this story fit the character of the Pardoner?
7. Why would medieval audiences have been familiar with The Pardoner's Tale?
8. How does the youngest reveler plan to kill the other two?
9. Does he kill them?
10. How does the youngest die?
1. An allegory is a tale in which the characters personify...
(The entire section is 208 words.)
21: The Second Nun's Tale Questions and Answers
1. The Second Nun's Story is the only example of what type
2. How does Cecelia maintain her virginity in marriage?
3. Why is it appropriate that this story be told by the Nun?
4. Where did the Nun learn the story of St. Cecelia?
5. Why is this slightly ironic?
6. When do angels appear in this story?
7. What may account for the absence of conversational links before and after The Second Nun's Tale?
8. For what specific refusal is Cecelia condemned to death?
9. Why doesn't the raging fire burn the young wife?
10. From what cause does St. Cecelia finally die?
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22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Questions and Answers
1. In what way is the prologue to this tale different from others in The Canterbury Tales?
2. What is alchemy?
3. By whom was alchemy practiced and why was its practice confined to this group?
4. Why is The Canon's Yeoman's Tale different from the other tales?
5. About what does the Canon's Yeoman seem to be in conflict?
6. What angers the pilgrim Canon? What does he do because of his anger?
7. Describe the two tricks the alchemist employs to dupe the priest in the tale.
8. What is always the outcome of alchemy?
9. According to the Canon's Yeoman, what keeps people
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23: The Manciple's Tale Questions and Answers
1. Another rivalry among the characters is revealed in the prologue to The Manciple's Tale. Between whom is this new rivalry and what is its basis?
2. Into what genre does The Manciple's Tale fall?
3. What is the theme of this tale?
4. Why is it appropriate for the Manciple to tell this particular tale?
5. How is the Cook calmed and persuaded not to argue further with the Manciple?
6. What did Phoebus' crow look like before he was cursed?
7. How was his appearance changed after he was cursed?
8. What specifically did the bird do which so angered Phoebus?
9. How does the behavior of Phoebus' wife...
(The entire section is 225 words.)
24: The Parson's Tale Questions and Answers
1. How is the long sermon of the Parson appropriate to his character?
2. What is the theme of The Parson's Tale?
3. What are the sources Chaucer used in constructing this tale?
4. What kind of story were the Host and the pilgrims expecting from the Parson?
5. What comparison does the Parson make in his prologue?
6. Why does the Parson refuse to tell a fable?
7. In what genre is this tale written?
8. What requirement necessitated the clergy to instruct the laity about penitence?
9. What kind of handbook might The Parson's Tale comprise?
10. At what stage of the journey is The Parson's...
(The entire section is 200 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Besserman, Laurence. Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Interprets the many instances of biblical diction, imagery, and themes in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
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.
Brown, Peter. A...
(The entire section is 300 words.)