The Canterbury Tales Lesson Plan - Lesson Plan

eNotes Lesson Plan

Introductory Lecture and Objectives

The Canterbury Tales eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

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.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

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...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Prologue

Vocabulary 

amor vincit omnia: Latin “love conquers all” 

baldrick: a belt worn across the chest to carry a sword 

cunningly: slyly, deceitfully 

felicity: happiness 

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 

sanguine: cheerful 

sovereign: supreme in rank

summoner: a member of the...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

The Knight’s Tale

Vocabulary 

Amazon: Greek mythology a member of a race of female warriors

armipotent: archaic powerful in battle 

beatitude: blessedness 

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 

felonious: wicked 

Mars: Roman mythology god of war 

paragon: a model of excellence or perfection

pomp: ceremonial display 

sleight: a skillful trick 

sluggardry: laziness 

Venus: Roman mythology goddess of love 

wont: a...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

The Miller’s Tale

Vocabulary 

asperity: harshness

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 

close: secretive

coulter: a plow blade 

cuckold: a man whose wife is unfaithful 

doleful: sorrowful

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 

travail: hardship

Study Questions

...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

The Reeve’s Tale

Vocabulary 

bumptious: arrogant

byre: a barn 

canny: British pretty 

coltish: archaic lustful

dotage: senility, especially in old age 

fen: a marshland 

grousing: grumbling 

hoary: grey-haired

mote: a particle of dust 

palfrey: a riding horse 

trenchant: sharp 

wor: dialect our

Study Questions

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 entire section is 480 words.)

The Cook’s Tale

Vocabulary 

Hodge: a nickname for Roger

prentice: an apprentice 

publican: a tavern owner 

repute: reputation

Study Questions

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...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

The Man of Law’s Tale

Vocabulary 

barbarous: uncivilized

citadel: a fortress that commands a city; a stronghold 

diurnal: daily 

fete: French to celebrate

guile: deceit 

indigence: poverty 

iniquity: sin 

occident: west

penance: self-punishment undertaken to purify sin or guilt 

pithy: brief but full of meaning 

rend: to rip 

smitten: struck 

succour: help

thrall: one who is in bondage 

unalloyed: unreserved

Study Questions

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...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

The Shipman’s Tale

Vocabulary 

blithely: joyfully

countenance: behavior, demeanor 

dearth: lack 

effusive: overflowing in emotion or affection

incumbent: obligatory 

niggardly: stingy 

pecunial: financial

pelf: money 

plight: to pledge 

prudent: cautious

redress: compensation 

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

Study Questions

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.)

The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

bier: a stand on which a corpse is placed before burial

canticle: a hymn 

celestial: heavenly 

chorister: a member of a choir

comrade: a friend 

diligence: persistent work 

dower: dowry 

Herod: an ancient king of Judaea

lucre: profit 

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

Study Questions

1. Rhyme royal,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topaz and Coghill’s Summary of Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee

Vocabulary 

betide: happen

bower: a lady’s private rooms, boudoir 

doughty: capable 

for the nonce: indeed

frowsty: bad-smelling 

glode: glided 

hauberk: a piece of armor worn like a tunic

saffron: yellow 

swain: a country youth, a young lover or suitor

Study Questions

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...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

The Monk’s Tale

Vocabulary 

annunciation: an announcement

assail: to attack 

consecration: sacredness 

diadem: a crown 

distaff: a tool for spinning fleece into wool

interred: buried 

knave: a man of low character 

leonine: lion-like 

magnanimity: generosity of spirit

predilection: preference 

quern: a small hand-mill for grinding corn 

redolent: strong-smelling 

redoubted: respected

tarried: stalled 

treachery: betrayal

Study Questions

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,...

(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

Vocabulary 

altercation: a noisy, angry dispute

apoplexy: sudden physical impairment 

benefice: advantage 

debonair: archaic gracious, pleasant

derision: scorn, mockery 

distension: swelling 

durance: continuance

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 

russet: reddish

superfluity: excessiveness 

sycophant: a flatterer, a toady 

timorous: fearful 

vapors/vapours: gas

Study...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

The Physician’s Tale and Words of the Host to the Physician and to the Pardoner

Vocabulary 

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 

junketing: feasting

lascivious: lewd 

lissom: limber 

machinations: scheming

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

Study Questions

1. Describe the many virtues of...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

acquit: to free

avarice: greed 

bull: a sealed document issued by the Pope

cupidity: greed 

florin: a gold coin

fundament: buttocks 

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.)

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

annexed: attached, associated

bequeath: archaic speak about 

betokens: predicts 

bigamy: marriage with a second spouse when already married

calumniate: to slander, to speak against 

continent: self-restrained 

cosseted: pampered

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...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

The Friar’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

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 

galls: annoys

ire: anger 

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

spoliation: robbery 

thriven: archaic...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

The Summoner’s Tale

Vocabulary 

asunder: apart 

cavil: to find fault without good reason 

curate: a clergyman 

dowered: gifted 

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

Study Questions

1. In The Summoner’s Tale, what does the friar write on his...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale and Chaucer’s Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale

Vocabulary 

abstruse: difficult to understand

acquiesce: to agree 

adversity: a hardship 

assay: to test, to try

besot: to stupefy, to make dull or stupid 

bounteous: abundant 

buffet: a blow or strike, usually of the hand

caprice: a change of mind without sufficient reason 

changeful: sparkling (in context) 

constancy: fidelity 

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 

opulence: wealth 

plenteous: plentiful

prepossession: prejudice 

raiment: clothing 

rancor/rancour: deep...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue

Vocabulary 

bereft: deprived

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)

morrow: morning 

pedant: overly academic person 

pelf: money

Pluto: Greek mythology god of the underworld 

qualms: pangs, sudden feelings 

restive: restless

rive: pierce 

sapience: wisdom 

sum: summarize (in context) 

superlative: utmost, highest degree

verily:...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

The Squire’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

averse: opposed

benignity: kindness 

canticle: a hymn 

caracole: a half turn to the right or the left by a horse

courser: a powerful horse 

cunning: clever 

disposed: prepared 

dissimulation: the act of lying 

doughty: able

emulous: motivated by rivalry 

feign: to fake, to pretend 

gamesome: playful 

gossamer: fine cobwebs that float in the air

insinuation: subtle instilling of anything into the mind 

plumage: feathers 

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.)

The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

amity: friendship 

beseech: to beg earnestly

betwixt: archaic between 

conjouror: a magician 

covenant: an agreement, a contract 

disquisition: research 

dolor/dolour: suffering

graft: cultivated trees 

hoodwink: to trick 

mead: a meadow 

mettlesome: playful 

obeisance: obedience

pleach: interwoven tree branches 

plighted: promised 

proffer: to offer

recompense: compensation 

roundel and virelay: types of song 

soothed: confirmed, proved 

temerity: boldness

troth: archaic loyalty 

twain: two 

unharried: unbothered

...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

abjure: to renounce

boon: archaic a request, a prayer 

cloister: an enclosed place 

contumacious: rebellious 

coronal: a circlet for the head implying rank or dignity

ere: before 

Deity: God 

dispel: to scatter 

guile: deceit 

hallow: to make holy

hither: here 

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 

obliquity:...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

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”...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale

Vocabulary 

amiss: wrongly 

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 

superfluous: excess 

unwieldy: awkward to handle 

wreak: to bring about, to cause

Study Questions

1. In The Prologue to The Manciple’s...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

The Parson’s Prologue and Tale and Chaucer’s Retractions

Vocabulary 

bale: a bundle 

bewail: to express sorrow audibly, to make a mournful cry 

castigation: correction, criticism

cavalcade: a procession on horseback 

enditings: archaic writings 

fructuous: fruitful 

homily: a sermon 

Paternoster: a prayer

Study Questions

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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

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? 

A. Nun 

B. Knight 

C. Monk 

D. Nurse 

E. Doctor

3. What does the tavern host suggest as entertainment for the journey to Canterbury? 

A. wine drinking 

B....

(The entire section is 1295 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

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.)