The Canterbury Tales is the culminating life’s work of Geoffrey Chaucer, a fourteenth-century Englishman considered to be one of the greatest poets to write in the English language. In addition to its literary value, The Canterbury Tales is significant because it is the first major work of literature to have been written in English, a language that during Chaucer’s time was considered unworthy of poetry or prose. Full of romance, drama, pathos, and humor, Chaucer’s diverse collection of tales paints a vivid literary portrait of his medieval society. His writing influenced many English authors of great renown who succeeded him, including William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
Chaucer was born between 1340 and 1345 to John Chaucer, a successful merchant who supplied wine to the royal court. Through this family connection, Chaucer worked as a page in an aristocratic household and went on to pursue a busy life in English society. He served a brief stint in the army, attended the royal court as a poet, and held various royal clerkships and public appointments, including the lucrative position of Controller of Customs for the Port of London. He also served as a Member of Parliament. At a time when it was nearly impossible to rise above one’s social class, Chaucer enjoyed the patronage of King Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful noblemen of the time. Chaucer’s intellect, wit, and knowledge of human nature, qualities that characterize The Canterbury Tales, likely contributed to his professional and social success as a commoner among members of the aristocracy.
Chaucer’s diplomatic and military travels afforded him an invaluable opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to read the literature of the European continent, experiences which influenced The Canterbury Tales. He traveled in England and Ireland, as well as in Spain, Flanders, France, and Italy. Already versed in the French poetry popular in the royal court and knowledgeable of classical literature from his studies as a youth, Chaucer became familiar with the Italian language. His knowledge of both French and Italian is reflected in his poetry. Chaucer, however, wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, a fact that is significant because English during Chaucer’s time was not the language of poetry or prose. Because of the Norman invasion in 1066, which made William the Conqueror the King of England, the Anglo-Norman aristocracy of the English court spoke French, and the language of the cultured was French or Latin. In seeing the poetic possibilities of writing in English and in creating a masterpiece in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gave literary authority to the English language.
During his time in Italy, Chaucer may have read Italian poet Boccaccio’s recently written The Decameron, a collection of tales told by upper-class characters traveling in the Italian countryside to avoid the Florentine plague. The Decameron is thought to be an inspiration for The Canterbury Tales’ ambitious collection of storytellers and their tales. Chaucer’s individual tales drew on many other literary works. It is uncertain when Chaucer began work on The Canterbury Tales. He had certainly written versions of some of the tales for other purposes before he generated the idea of framing the tales with the story of a pilgrimage in the late 1380s. During the last decade of his life, Chaucer edited and added to the project. It remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1400.
The Canterbury Tales is structured as a collection of stories told by a socially diverse group traveling to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas. Chaucer introduces his characters in the Prologue and then presents each pilgrim’s tale interspersed with dialogue between and among the travelers. Two tales, the Squire’s and the Cook’s, are incomplete. The Prologue indicates that the pilgrims intended to continue their storytelling game on the trip back from Canterbury. From manuscripts and early print editions of The Canterbury Tales, ten distinct fragments are evident. Chaucer’s intended ordering of the fragments is a matter of debate; scholars and editions differ somewhat on this point.
The tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims include a variety of medieval literary genres, such as the courtly romance, the fabliau, saint’s life tales, and a beast fable. They explore ideas about marriage, sex, fidelity, honor, religion and class, often from multiple perspectives. Many of his characters spring from the page as comic caricatures, while others are vivid portraits of unique individuals. Perhaps his most memorable pilgrim is the bawdy and loquacious Wife of Bath, who proudly details her experience of dominating her five husbands. Historians have identified possible real-life inspirations for some of the pilgrims, including the Wife of Bath; she may have been based on Alice Perrers, the licentious mistress of King Edward III, one of Chaucer’s royal patrons.
Chaucer’s lively use of language, his astounding versatility as a storyteller, and the ambition of his project make The Canterbury Tales a much studied work, even seven hundred years after his death. Chaucer’s tales reflect the complex interrelationships of the nobility, the church, and the commoners, called in the Middle Ages the “three estates.” Chaucer portrays not only the tensions that arise from the hierarchy of the three estates, but also those that arise from any challenge to the status quo in terms of age, gender, profession, or ethics. These tensions continue today. Many of the tales’ themes—morality, marriage, money, and social standing—are still central to our world and our literature, and in moving from the allegorical tradition toward realism, The Canterbury Tales anticipates modern fiction, despite having been written in the 1300s. For its influence, historical significance, poetic brilliance, sharp satire, and canny portraits of human nature, The Canterbury Tales will continue to engage readers, just as it has for more than seven centuries.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the historical importance of The Canterbury Tales as a societal portrait of Chaucer’s time.
2. Identify and describe the characters introduced in the Prologue and discuss the social hierarchy they illustrate.
3. Describe the stories-within-a-story framing narrative of The Canterbury Tales.
4. Compare tales with regard to style, genre, subject matter, and rhyme scheme.
5. Identify Chaucer’s use of humor and irony to explore elements of his society.
6. Define characteristics of knighthood, chivalry, and courtly love.
7. Describe the Wife of Bath’s character and her ideas on chastity and sovereignty in marriage.
8. Compare tales in their portrayals of marriage.
9. Contrast tales in regard to themes of morality, religious virtue, and religious corruption.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized to study the Prologue and each tale separately. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading the Prologue and each tale and to acquaint them generally with their content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
(The entire section is 953 words.)
1. Why might Chaucer have set his storytelling contest in the context of a religious pilgrimage?
2. In the Prologue, who are the characters with high status? Who are the least respected? What are their analogs in society today? Why are some professions more highly esteemed than others?
3. What virtues and vices do the pilgrims possess? How do the tales reflect the characters of the pilgrims who tell them?
4. Bravery, honor, and courtesy are the tenets of medieval chivalry in its ideal form. Do these standards of conduct exist in modern life?
5. Discuss the elements of story and character that make The Miller’s Tale humorous.
6. The Nun’s Priest’s...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
amor vincit omnia: Latin “love conquers all”
baldrick: a belt worn across the chest to carry a sword
cunningly: slyly, deceitfully
heathen: an uncivilized or irreligious person
hurdy-gurdy: a stringed musical instrument played by turning a crank
manciple: a food buyer
miller: a person who makes flour from grain
obstinate: stubborn, resistant
palmer: a pilgrim of the Middle Ages
pilgrimage: a journey, especially one with a religious purpose
reeve: a manager of an estate
sovereign: supreme in rank
summoner: a member of the clergy who calls...
(The entire section is 885 words.)
Amazon: Greek mythology a member of a race of female warriors
armipotent: archaic powerful in battle
cithern: a musical instrument similar to a guitar
coppice: a thicket of small trees
Diana: Roman mythology goddess of chastity, the moon, and the hunt
disconsolate: unhappy, cheerless
Mars: Roman mythology god of war
paragon: a model of excellence or perfection
pomp: ceremonial display
sleight: a skillful trick
Venus: Roman mythology goddess of love
wont: a habit or...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
Cato: short for the Distichs of Cato, an ancient Roman book of moral wisdom
censer: a person who performs incense rituals in a church
churl: a peasant; a rude ill-bred person
coulter: a plow blade
cuckold: a man whose wife is unfaithful
geomancy: an ancient form of divination performed by reading patterns on the ground
jape: a trick meant to amuse or deceive
kip: a lodging house
scud: a driving shower of rain or snow
sloe: black or dark purple fruit of the blackthorn tree
(The entire section is 668 words.)
byre: a barn
canny: British pretty
coltish: archaic lustful
dotage: senility, especially in old age
fen: a marshland
mote: a particle of dust
palfrey: a riding horse
wor: dialect our
1. Why are the scholars Alan and John angry with the miller?
John and Alan’s plan to extract their fair share of flour fails when the notoriously dishonest miller sets their horse loose. They leave to retrieve the horse, and by the time they return, the miller...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Hodge: a nickname for Roger
prentice: an apprentice
publican: a tavern owner
1. What reason does the master give for firing his apprentice, Revelling Peterkin?
Peter is a “riotous servant,” and the master fears he will corrupt the other servants. The master arrives at this decision by remembering a version of the familiar proverb, “Throw out a rotten apple from the hoard / Or it will rot the others.”
2. Where does Peter go after being fired?
He goes to stay with a similarly merry friend whose wife is a prostitute.
3. What does the tale...
(The entire section is 242 words.)
citadel: a fortress that commands a city; a stronghold
fete: French to celebrate
penance: self-punishment undertaken to purify sin or guilt
pithy: brief but full of meaning
rend: to rip
thrall: one who is in bondage
1. What must the Sultan of Syria do in order to marry Constance? How does Constance feel about leaving Rome for Syria?
The Muslim Sultan must convert to...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
countenance: behavior, demeanor
effusive: overflowing in emotion or affection
plight: to pledge
repair: to go, to take oneself
requite: to repay
sumptuous: expensive, magnificent
thither: archaic there
tonsure: the shaven crown or patch worn by monks and other clerics
1. Where does Sir John get the money he gives to the merchant’s wife? What does he get in return?
(The entire section is 449 words.)
bier: a stand on which a corpse is placed before burial
canticle: a hymn
chorister: a member of a choir
comrade: a friend
diligence: persistent work
Herod: an ancient king of Judaea
O Alma Redemptoris: Latin O Redemptive Soul
privy-drain: a sewer
prostrate: lying face down
reverence: deep respect, worship
throng: a crowd
usury: moneylending with very high interest
vouchsafe: to grant a privilege or special favor in a gracious or condescending manner
1. Rhyme royal, the rhyme...
(The entire section is 590 words.)
bower: a lady’s private rooms, boudoir
for the nonce: indeed
hauberk: a piece of armor worn like a tunic
swain: a country youth, a young lover or suitor
1. Describe Sir Topaz. Whom is he in love with?
Sir Topaz is a handsome and virtuous knight. After hearing some particularly melodious birdsong, he dreams of an Elf Queen who will be his bride. He vows to make the dream a reality because no other women are worthy of him.
2. Why does the Host interrupt The Tale of Sir Topaz?...
(The entire section is 218 words.)
annunciation: an announcement
assail: to attack
diadem: a crown
distaff: a tool for spinning fleece into wool
knave: a man of low character
magnanimity: generosity of spirit
quern: a small hand-mill for grinding corn
1. Before beginning his first tragedy, the Monk states the moral of the stories to follow. What does he say?
The monk says, “For sure it is, if Fortune...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
Words of the Knight and the Host, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and Words of the Host to the Nun’s Priest
altercation: a noisy, angry dispute
apoplexy: sudden physical impairment
debonair: archaic gracious, pleasant
derision: scorn, mockery
forsooth: archaic truly
implore: to beg
mulier est hominus confusio: Latin “woman is man’s ruin”
poltroon: a coward
ravish: to rob; to destroy
repletion: being full of food
sycophant: a flatterer, a toady
(The entire section is 548 words.)
ashen: whitish grey
Bacchus: Roman mythology god of wine
blackguard: a villain
clemency: leniency, mercy
forsake: to give up, renounce, or abandon
intemperance: lack of self-restraint
Pallas: Greek mythology Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom
panacea: a remedy
Phoebus: Roman mythology god of light
ribaldry: debauchery, lewd behavior
shamefast: shy, modest
sterling: thoroughly excellent
1. Describe the many virtues of Virginius’s...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
acquit: to free
bull: a sealed document issued by the Pope
florin: a gold coin
haughty: grand, lofty
papal: of or relating to a pope
parley: to debate
perdition: utter ruin
prating: foolish talking or preaching
Radix malorum est cupiditas: Latin (literal translation) “the root of evil is greed”; (more common translation) “the love of money is the root of all evil”
shrive: to offer a church-sanctioned pardon for sin
stertorous: characterized by snoring
stile: steps to allow people to pass over a livestock fence
(The entire section is 440 words.)
annexed: attached, associated
bequeath: archaic speak about
bigamy: marriage with a second spouse when already married
calumniate: to slander, to speak against
dejected: discouraged, depressed
demur: to raise doubts, to hesitate or show reluctance
dilection: spiritual love
expound: to explain in detail
incubus: an evil spirit who attacks women
mead: a meadow
pestilence: a fatal disease, a plague
propagation: production of offspring
provident: psychic (in context)
rail: to complain
rebuke: to scold...
(The entire section is 945 words.)
bailiff: a man who manages a lord’s estate and collects rent
bawd: archaic one who arranges opportunity for sexual immorality
bawdry: archaic the business of arranging opportunity for sexual immorality
extortion: taking money by illegal use of force, authority, or threat
limiter: a friar licensed by the church to beg within a certain geographical area
ordinand: a person about to be ordained as clergy
retinue: an entourage
scoff: to mock, to ridicule
simony: bribery within the church
slough: a muddy area
(The entire section is 447 words.)
cavil: to find fault without good reason
curate: a clergyman
fie: an exclamation of disgust
gloze: archaic to talk smoothly, to flatter
guerdon: a reward
je vous dis sans doute: French “I tell you without a doubt”
orison: a prayer
potentate: a ruler
rout: a group, a pack
scrip: a beggar’s purse
spoor: a trail, a track
supplication: a plea
tabor: a small drum
varlet: an attendant, a servant
1. In The Summoner’s Tale, what does the friar write on his wax-covered tablet...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
abstruse: difficult to understand
acquiesce: to agree
adversity: a hardship
assay: to test, to try
besot: to stupefy, to make dull or stupid
buffet: a blow or strike, usually of the hand
caprice: a change of mind without sufficient reason
changeful: sparkling (in context)
coronet: a small crown
defray: to pay
deputation: a group of people sent on a mission on behalf of someone else
legion: a multitude, a large number
rancor/rancour: deep resentment...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
billet-doux: a love letter
convivial: festive; pertaining to a feast
cordial: a sweetened alcoholic beverage
derision: scorn, mockery
disport: archaic amusement, relaxation
eschew: to avoid
fettered: bound, limited, hampered
laity: lay people (not clergy)
pedant: overly academic person
Pluto: Greek mythology god of the underworld
qualms: pangs, sudden feelings
sum: summarize (in context)
superlative: utmost, highest degree
(The entire section is 582 words.)
canticle: a hymn
caracole: a half turn to the right or the left by a horse
courser: a powerful horse
dissimulation: the act of lying
emulous: motivated by rivalry
feign: to fake, to pretend
gossamer: fine cobwebs that float in the air
insinuation: subtle instilling of anything into the mind
sepulchre: a tomb
sophistry: trickery, false reasoning
stationary: still, unmoving
steed: a male horse, a stallion
tercelet: a male hawk
(The entire section is 308 words.)
beseech: to beg earnestly
betwixt: archaic between
conjouror: a magician
covenant: an agreement, a contract
graft: cultivated trees
hoodwink: to trick
mead: a meadow
pleach: interwoven tree branches
proffer: to offer
roundel and virelay: types of song
soothed: confirmed, proved
troth: archaic loyalty
(The entire section is 465 words.)
abjure: to renounce
boon: archaic a request, a prayer
cloister: an enclosed place
coronal: a circlet for the head implying rank or dignity
dispel: to scatter
hallow: to make holy
idleness: inactivity, avoidance of work
Interpretatio Nominis Ceciliae: Latin interpretation of the name Cecilia
inured: accustomed, used to something
Invocacio ad Mariam: Latin invocation of Mary
Jove: Roman mythology Jupiter, king of the gods
(The entire section is 476 words.)
amalgaming: mixing with mercury
beechen: made of wood from the beech tree
Benedicite: an exclamation of surprise, “Good Gracious!”
calcination: the process of reducing a substance to powder using fire
canon: a clergyman
cozen: to cheat, to defraud
crupper: hindquarters of a horse
daub: to coat or to cover (often with clay)
disabuse: to free from error or misconception
dock-leaf: a plant used medicinally
enumerate: to list, to count
gull: a fool
hack: a low-quality or worn-out horse
hose: pants, tights
ignotum per ignotius: Latin “the unknown by the more unknown” (refers to...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
arrant: wandering, vagrant
assuage: to calm, to pacify, to relieve
blear the eyes: to deceive
broach: to begin discussion about
cavalry: horsemanship (in context)
compass: to achieve, to bring about
imbecility: mental incompetence
paladin: a heroic knight
pallid: pale in color
plumb: to have sex with (in context)
psaltery: an ancient stringed instrument
punk: archaic a prostitute
unwieldy: awkward to handle
wreak: to bring about, to cause
1. In The Prologue to The Manciple’s Tale, what...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
bale: a bundle
bewail: to express sorrow audibly, to make a mournful cry
castigation: correction, criticism
cavalcade: a procession on horseback
enditings: archaic writings
homily: a sermon
Paternoster: a prayer
1. What is the theme of The Parson’s Tale? Why is it appropriate that The Parson’s Tale is the last tale to be told before the pilgrims reach Canterbury?
The Parson’s sermon concerns sin and its remedies for the purpose of religious salvation. After many tales differing in tone and topic, the solemn religious theme emphasizes the purpose of...
(The entire section is 425 words.)
1. Why are the characters in The Canterbury Tales traveling to Canterbury?
A. To visit the queen.
B. To escape legal trouble.
C. To attend a wedding.
D. To make a religious pilgrimage.
E. To act in a theater.
2. Which of the following is NOT a character introduced by the narrator in the Prologue?
3. What does the tavern host suggest as entertainment for the journey to Canterbury?
A. wine drinking
B. a horse race...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)
1. A fabliau is a type of irreverent comic tale, with elements of trickery and vulgarity, written about common people rather than the aristocracy. Explain how The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale fit the fabliau genre. Who are the heroes and the fools? How is justice done, and how does it differ in the two tales?
Both The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale portray tradesmen who are outsmarted and cuckolded by poorer, younger men of learning. Each tale includes the hallmark elements of fabliau: tricksters, fools, and bawdy subject matter.
In The Miller’s Tale, Nicholas and Alison are the trickster-heroes. They conspire against Alison’s husband John to enable their illicit tryst. To amuse...
(The entire section is 3415 words.)