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 thurghfare ful of wo,And we been pilgrymes, passinge to and fro,Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.
(This world is but a thoroughfare of woe/ And we be pilgrims passing to and fro/ Death is the end of every worldly sore.) This pilgrimage, then, is a symbol of the life of human beings.
Their host at the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proclaims that he will accompany the pilgrims and judge the effectiveness of the tales. The scope of the completed work, two tales by each pilgrim on the way out, two more on the way back, would have amounted to about 120 tales. Like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and other grandiose literary schemes,...
(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 later 1390’s, not long before his death. The imaginative breakthrough that made the work possible—his conceiving of the framing narrative that lends coherence to the stories—seems to have occurred some time in the 1380’s, when he must have written an early version of the General Prologue. The work is evidently unfinished, though the flexible nature of the framing device allows for considerable diversity of opinion as to Chaucer’s final plans for the poem’s overall structure.
The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, which opens with a lyrical evocation of springtime in England, the time for folk to go on pilgrimages to holy shrines to thank the saints for their good fortune of the past year. It...
(The entire section is 1794 words.)
In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the speaker of the poem as a man named Chaucer, who is traveling from London with a group of strangers to visit Canterbury, a borough to the southeast of London. This group of people is thrown together when they travel together on a trip to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury in 1170. The Prologue gives a brief description of the setting as they assemble at the Tibard Inn in Southwark to prepare for their trip. It describes each of the pilgrims, including ones who were meant to be discussed in sections of the book that were never written before Chaucer died. After the introductions, the Host, who owns the inn that they gather at and who is leading the group, suggests that they should each tell two stories while walking, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back, to pass the time more quickly. He offers the person telling the best story a free supper at the tavern when they return.
The Knight’s Tale
The first pilgrim to talk, the Knight, tells a long, involved tale of love from ancient Greece about two knights, Arcite and Palamon. They were captured in a war between Thebes and Athens and thrown into an Athenian prison to spend the rest of their lives there. From the tower they were locked in, they could see a fair maiden, Emily, in the window of her chamber every morning, and they each...
(The entire section is 3462 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 Merchant: wealthy and pompous
The Cleric: a religious who is a scholar at Oxford
The Man of Law: shrewd and wealthy
The Franklin: landowner; wealthy
The Haberdasher: hat and clothing maker; guildsman
The Carpenter: guildsman
The Weaver: makes fabric; guildsman
The Dyer: dyes fabric and leather; guildsman
The Tapestry-Maker: makes large, intricate woven pictures which are decorative and expensive; guildsman
The Cook: works for the five guildsmen
The Shipman: commander of a merchant ship
The Physician: well-educated; a lover of gold
The Wife of Bath: has survived five husbands;...
(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 dogs to devour. Theseus is touched by their plea for help and filled with hatred for Creon. Theseus immediately abandons the victory parade and takes his army to Thebes to destroy the wicked Creon. He sends Hippolyta and her beautiful sister, Emily, back to Athens.
Theseus encounters Creon, kills him in knightly fashion, destroys the city of Thebes, and restores the bodies of their slain husbands to the widows. When his troops begin to pillage the bodies of the slain enemy, they find among the dead two badly wounded young knights, Arcite and Palamon. They are known to be of the royal house of Thebes and are taken to Theseus for judgment. Theseus sends the two youths to Athens to be imprisoned there for the rest of their lives...
(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 and covets the lovely Alison.
One day when John is away, Nicholas makes advances to Alison. She at first resists; however, Nicholas is persistent and Alison soon succumbs to his charms. She worries that her husband will kill her if he finds out, but Nicholas assures her that he will plan their time to make love so that the carpenter will never guess.
In the meantime, a lively parish clerk named Absalom also falls in love with Alison. Having an affair with her becomes his obsession and he makes a complete fool of himself in wooing her. Alison rebuffs him continually, but Absalom persists in his vain efforts to win her love.
Shortly after Alison and Nicholas fall in love, the carpenter goes away for the day...
(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 daughter of marriageable age. They also have an infant still in the cradle.
One of the miller's most lucrative accounts is with the manager of the estates belonging to the college at Cambridge. One day, when he goes to collect the wheat and malt to be ground for the college, Simkin finds the steward terribly ill. He is delighted because it means he can cheat the college even more than usual.
The sick steward persuades two poor students to deliver the grain and to watch the miller to prevent his usual cheating. John and Allan, young and high-spirited, agree eagerly. They pretend interest in the milling process and position themselves to watch the miller's every move. Simkin, however, turns their horse loose and the young men...
(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.)
Discussion and Analysis
The Cook's Tale was probably intended to be another fabliau (see Genre definitions), but its unfinished state precludes analysis. It is interesting to note that another rivalry, this time between the Cook and the Host, seems to be surfacing.
(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 attention of the Sultan of Syria. Without even laying eyes on the lady, the Sultan falls madly in love with her and determines she must be his bride. He begins to negotiate for her hand, even promising to become Christian. The arrangements are finally concluded and Constance and the Sultan are married. In the meantime, the mother of the Sultan, horrified that her son is so willing to renounce his Muslim faith, has plotted against the alliance.
Part Two: Shortly after the marriage, the Sultan's mother gives a banquet to honor the newlyweds. Once all the guests are seated, her henchmen assassinate all who assisted in the marriage and embraced the Christain faith, including her own son, the Sultan.
Only Constance is spared,...
(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 close friends that they referred to themselves as cousins.
On the occasion being described, the monk comes to visit just as the merchant is preparing to leave on a buying trip. The merchant takes an inventory of his assets while the monk recites his prayer walking in the garden. The beautiful wife approaches the monk and unburdens herself of all her marital troubles. She claims that her husband is miserly and that she needs 100 pounds to purchase a new dress. Don John agrees to lend her the money. He kisses and caresses her. It is understood that repayment will be made in sexual favors.
When the merchant emerges from his counting house, Don John borrows from him the 100 pounds, gladly loaned him by his "cousin." The monk...
(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 his hymn.
The Christians of the town bear his body to the monastery for burial, awed by the miracle of the child's continued singing. The boy, still able to speak, reveals to the abbot that the Virgin Mary has placed a miraculous kernel on his tongue which enables him to hold to life and continue his song. Profoundly affected, the Abbott removes the kernel and the child's pure spirit ascends to heaven. All the Christians are confirmed in their faith and the wicked Jews are tortured and killed.
Discussion and Analysis
True to her perfectionist, sentimental nature, the Prioress begins with a long apologetic prayer to the Virgin Mary. Her story of the martyred child resembles popular saints' stories...
(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. Feeling it to be the obvious decision, Sir Thopas decides to seek an elf queen to love.
Sir Thopas rides hard in his search and ends up in the kingdom of the Queen of Fairies. He is arrested by an enormous giant who tells Sir Thopas to leave immediately or he will kill Sir Thopas' horse. Sir Thopas makes an appointment with the giant for 9:00 the next morning at which time he intends to fight and slay the giant.
The giant begins to pelt Sir Thopas with stones from his enormous sling-shot, but the young knight, of course, manages to escape. He orders his servants to prepare a feast and entertainment for him to strengthen him this night before his battle. He tells them that he must fight a giant with three heads for...
(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 Monk bears all this taunting and disrespect patiently. As if to defend the seriousness of his commitment to the religious life, he vows to tell some tragedies which he defines as stories relating to persons of high station and prosperity who fall from power into misery and poverty.
The Monk's Tale turns out to be a lengthy list of noble historical, biblical, and mythological characters who suffered misfortune. Each recitation is very short and is intended to be a warning against trusting in the permanence of luck or prosperity. The characters the Monk deals with are: Lucifer, Adam, Samson Hercules Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, King Pedro of Spain, King...
(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 seven hens, all of whom are his wives and sisters, but the one he loves the most is called Demoiselle Partlet.
One day at dawn, Partlet hears Chanticleer moaning strangely. When she inquires in alarm about this clamor, Chanticleer reveals that he has had a strange and terrifying dream. In the dream, a yellow-red beast with black-tipped ears and tail grabbed him and intended to kill him. Partlet scorns Chanticleer, saying it is only a dream and he is truly a coward to be frightened by it. She recommends he find herbs to purge his system; she is convinced nightmares are no more than a symptom of indigestion.
Chanticleer then defends his fear by recounting several stories in which very important and learned men were...
(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 sexual activity. In any case, she says, God calls people to Him in many ways: He calls her to marriage.
Continuing the argument, the Wife adds that God would not have given men and women sexual organs if He did not intend for them to be used. The good Wife has learned to use her sexual organs to their best advantage, which is, in her opinion, as instruments with which to control her husbands.
The Pardoner interrupts to say that he was about to marry, but now that he has listened to the Wife of Bath, he is not so sure he wants to volunteer to be controlled in the way she is describing. The Wife tells him to keep listening.
Next, this lively narrator launches into her personal philosophy of marriage. It is,...
(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 collected with the archdeacon.
One day, as the rogue was on his way to charge an old widow, he meets a vigorous yeoman on the road to whom he takes an instant liking. This yeoman is a bailiff, the summoner's civil counterpart. When their conversation reveals their mutual dishonesty, lack of conscience, and love of gold, the summoner and the bailiff pledge eternal brotherhood.
Later in the trip, the summoner asks the bailiff's name and learns that he is a fiend, a devil who can alter his shape at will. He explains that he sometimes does the devil's work and sometimes inflicts God's punishments. The yeoman/demon gives the summoner a chance to forsake him, but the summoner renews his oath to be a faithful brother.
(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 takes place, the friar calls on one of his most generous benefactors whom he finds full of anger and very ill. The friar pretends concern and swears that he and all his brother friars have been praying for Thomas to recover. He delivers a hypocritical sermon on the great virtue in fasting, interpreting the scriptures to suit his purposes, in order to persuade Thomas to make another large donation.
The furious Thomas remarks that he cannot understand why his health has not improved with all the money he has donated for prayers (which he seems to suspect have never been offered). In reply, the friar delivers a second sermon on the terrible fate which befell famous kings who were wrathful and angry. The friar concludes by urging...
(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 Saluzzo surprised everyone by choosing a peasant girl for his bride. She was beautiful and virtuous. Walter had noticed her many times as he rode through his domain. The maiden was named Griselda. She was the daughter of Janicula, the poorest of all the Marquis' farmers.
With utmost courtesy, Walter asks Janicula for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Janicula, totally awestruck, assents. The Marquis then speaks to Griselda herself, conditioning their union on her agreement to obey him implicitly and never to grumble about his decisions. The virtuous Griselda agrees to obey Walter in all things and the two are wed.
The couple appears to be very happy together despite the difference in their stations in life. Griselda...
(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 against haste and others against marrying a young woman, but January's mind is made up on both scores.
Over the next several days, January imagines all the town's eligible women and considers their virtues and attractiveness. His choice finally rests on May, a girl of 20 who is poor, but very beautiful. He is overjoyed with his decision, but troubled because he has heard that man may be allowed true bliss only once. January is afraid that the joy he anticipates in marriage will prevent his enjoying eternal bliss in heaven.
The eager bridegroom's brother reminds him of the commentary of the Wife of Bath (it is unknown how she came to be in this story) and assures him that it is unlikely that he has anything about which...
(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 hall. On his thumb is a marvelous gold ring, and he is holding a large glass mirror in his hand.
Eloquently, the mysterious knight addresses Cambiuskan, saying that he brings the gifts on behalf of his leige lord, the King of Arabia and India. He then explains the marvelous gifts. The wonderous horse will ride or even fly the king anywhere he wants to go. It can even make itself invisible. The sword will cut through armor; no man it wounds will ever be healed unless the king lays the flat of the magical sword upon the wound he has inflicted.
The ring is for Canace. It will enable her to understand the language of birds and to decipher the uses of all healing herbs. She will have these powers whenever she wears the...
(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 husband leaves, Dorigen becomes ill with longing for Arveragus. She weeps both night and day and refuses all comfort.
Finally, her friends persuade her that her mood can be improved by walking along the seashore near her palace. On her walks, Dorigen would sometimes rest on a cliff above the shore and look down at the huge, horrible black rocks below. At these moments of solitude, she is filled with an irrational fear. She hates the rocks and sees no reason for their ever having been created.
One day, while enjoying a spring festival, Dorigen encounters Aurelius, a handsome, lust squire who has loved her secretly for a long time. Because he is her neighbor and a respectable man, Dorigen engages Aurelius in...
(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, Appius persuades the man to testify falsely that Virginia is really a slave girl, born into Claudius' house and stolen from him in the night when she was very young. Virginius is summoned to the court to hear the charges but is given no chance to testify or to call witnesses. The lascivious Appius rules that Virginia is to be immediately returned to Claudius, her rightful owner.
The heartbroken Virginius goes to his home immediately and lays the situation before his beloved daughter. Both are aware of Appius' evil intentions and Virginius tells his daughter that he must kill her rather than allow her to be dishonored in this way. She asks if there is any other way to save her. Her father replies in the negative.
(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 terrible man is also aware that he preaches against what he himself practices. He launches his story by remarking that his wickedness does not prevent him from telling a moral story.
Early one day, three very debauched and evil companions are drinking together in a tavern. These young men have been totally ruined by the sins of gluttony, avarice, and sloth, against which sins the narrator interjects a short sermon.
The three hear a bell tolling a funeral and a boy tells them that a friend of theirs, killed by a thief called Death, is about to be buried. The tavern keeper says this fellow, Death, has slain a whole village about a mile from there.
The three drunks swear an oath to find Death and slay him before...
(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 be read "way for the people," the point being that St. Cecelia's name implies all for which she is revered.
Cecelia belonged to a noble Roman family who were Christians at a time when the Christian faith was forbidden. Nevertheless, the devout girl had promised to remain a virgin in observance of her faith. Her holiness was so sincere that an angel guarded her chastity.
On their wedding night, Cecelia persuaded her husband, Valerian, that he could see her angel if he, too, would agree to remain chaste. When Valerian agreed, Cecelia sent him to the outlawed Pope Urban who thanked God for Valerian's newfound faith. The angel of God then appeared and Valerian was instantly converted.
(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 mysterious and roundabout way of speaking and tells him to come right out and say whether the man he serves is indeed a cleric. The Yeoman responds that his master is much greater than any cleric for he can turn silver into gold.
Harry Bailley does not believe the Yeoman because the two are dressed so shabbily. This comment leads the Yeoman to air his complaints against his master, the Canon, and to reveal that the man is really an alchemist. His master tries to shut him up, but the Yeoman will not stop talking. The furious Canon rides off in a huff. Then the Yeoman promises to tell all, at the same time lamenting his own involvement in this business of changing base metal into gold and bemoaning his inability to extricate himself from...
(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 beautifully.
Phoebus also had a gorgeous wife whom he loved and tried to please, but he did not trust her. There was something in her personality which warned the young god that his wife might prove unfaithful.
(After giving this background information, the Manciple digresses to remind the listeners that anyone who is naturally evil, licentious, or untrustworthy will behave that way no matter what is done for him. He tries to prove with classical examples that a person's nature cannot be changed.)
The wife of Phoebus did have an unfaithful nature; she had a lover whom she entertained frequently. One day she took the man into her marriage bed while Phoebus was away. However, the white crow saw everything....
(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.
Discussion and Analysis
The Parson refuses to sink to the level of an entertainer as the Host seems to be demanding in the prologue. Remaining true to his devout and serious nature, the Parson takes a religious stance, yet promises to tell a merry story.
Not only does the Parson not tell a story, he preaches a two-hour sermon. The material in The Parson's Tale is very difficult for the modern reader to relate to; the pilgrims must have had an even more difficult time understanding. Yet the long sermon is in keeping with the character of the teller whose primary motivation, we are told, is the salvation of souls.
In constructing this treatise on penitence, Chaucer used the theological...
(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 reader—precludes analysis.
(The entire section is 124 words.)