The Knight, a courtly medieval fighting man who has served king and religion all over the known world. Modest in dress and speech, though the highest in rank of the pilgrims to Canterbury, he rides with only his son and a yeoman in attendance. He tells a metrical romance, the first of the stories in the series related by the various pilgrims. His is a tale of courtly love, the story of the love two young Theban noblemen, Palamon and Arcite, have for Emily, the beautiful sister-in-law of Duke Theseus of Athens. The young men compete in a tourney for the girl’s hand. Palamon wins but is killed in an accident, so that Arcite eventually has his love rewarded.
The Squire, the Knight’s son. A young man of twenty years, he has fought in several battles. Like his father, he is full of knightly courtesy, but he also enjoys a good time. He tells a story of adventure and enchantment in a distant land. The story he leaves unfinished tells of three gifts sent to Canacee, daughter of King Cambuscan. Each of the gifts has magic powers: a ring that enables the bearer to talk to birds, a brass horse that will take its rider anywhere, and a mirror that shows the truth and the future. The ring enables Canacee to learn the story of a lovelorn hawk for the mate who has deserted her.
The Yeoman, the Knight’s attendant, a forester who takes excellent care of his gear. He wears a St. Christopher medal on his breast. He does not tell a story.
The Prioress (Madame Eglentyn), who travels with another nun and three priests as her attendants to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. A woman of conscience and sympathy, she wears a curious brooch on which appears the ambiguous statement, in Latin, “Love conquers all.” Her story is that of a schoolboy murdered for his religion by Jews. The child’s death is discovered by a miracle of Our Lady. Like most of the stories told in the collection of tales, this one fits the personality of its narrator.
The Second Nun
The Second Nun, who accompanies the Prioress. She also tells a Christian legend, that of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia. The story is typical of medieval hagiography.
The Nun’s Priest
The Nun’s Priest, whose name is John. He tells the beast epic relating the adventures of the cock, Chauntecleer, and the fox. It is a didactic yet humorous story suitable for the Prioress’ father confessor.
The Monk, a fat hedonist who prefers to be out of his cloister. No lover of books and learning, he prefers to hunt and eat. He cites tragedy as being the story of a man fallen from high degree and then offers many examples, including anecdotes of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Balthasar, Ugolino of Pisa, Julius Caesar, and Croesus. His lugubrious recital is interrupted by the Knight.
The Friar, named Huberd. He is a merry chap who knows barmaids better than the sick. Having the reputation of being the best beggar in his house, he appears to be a venal, worldly man. His story is a fabliau of a summoner who loses his soul to the devil. The story arouses the discomfiture of the Summoner in the group of pilgrims.
The Merchant, a tight-lipped man of business. Unhappily married, he tells a story of the evils of marriage between old men and young women. It relates how a superannuated husband named January is deceived by his young and hearty spouse named May.
The Clerk of Oxford
The Clerk of Oxford, a serious young scholar who heeds philosophy and prefers books to worldly pleasures. His tale is an answer to the Wife of Bath’s idea that in marriage the woman ought to have dominion. The Clerk’s tale is of an infinitely patient wife named Griselda who endures all manner of ill treatment from her husband.
The Sergeant of Law
The Sergeant of Law, a busy man who seems busier than he really is. He makes a great show of his learning, citing cases all the way back to William the Conqueror.
The Franklin, a rich landlord who loves to eat and keeps a ready table of dainties. He has been sheriff of his county. His story is an old Breton lay, a tale of chivalry and the supernatural. He apologizes for his story and its telling, saying he is an uneducated man.
the Dyer, and
the Tapestry Maker
the Tapestry Maker, each a member of a guild and each rich and wise enough to be an alderman. None of them tells a story.
The Cook, named Roger, who was hired by the master workmen to serve them during their journey. He is a rollicking fellow. Pleased by the bawdy tales of the Miller and the Reeve, he insists on telling a bawdy story of his own, one left unfinished.
The Shipman, the captain of theMaudelayne, of Dartmouth. He is a good skipper and a smuggler. Like others of the company, he tells a fabliau, a bawdy tale. He relates the misadventures of a merchant of St. Denis, in Belgium, who is cheated of his wife’s favors and his money by a sly monk named John.
The Doctor of Physick
The Doctor of Physick, a materialistic man greatly interested in money. He knows all the great medical authorities, as well as his astrology, though he seldom reads the Bible. His story, which he attributes to Livy, is the old tale of Appius and Virginia.
The Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath, named Alice, a clothmaker and five times a widow. Apparently wealthy from her marriages, she has traveled a great deal, including three trips to Jerusalem. She is well versed in marriage and lovemaking. Her theory is that the woman must dominate in marriage. To make her point, she tells a tale of a loathsome lady who, when her husband is obedient, becomes fair.
The Parson, a poor but loyal churchman who teaches his parishioners by his good example. Refusing to tell an idle tale to his fellow pilgrims, he tells what he terms a merry tale about the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Plowman, an honest man, the Parson’s brother. He tells no tale.
The Miller, a jolly, drunken reveler who leads the company playing on his bagpipes. He tells a bawdy story about a carpenter named John who is cuckolded by his young wife, Alison, and her witty lover, Nicholas.
The Reeve, a slender, choleric man named Oswald. Having been a carpenter, he is incensed by the Miller’s tale. In retribution, he tells a story about a miller cuckolded by two lusty students who sleep with the miller’s wife and daughter.
The Manciple, an uneducated man who is shrewd enough to steal a great deal from the learned lawyers who hire him to look after their establishments. He relates the old folktale of the tattling bird.
The Summoner, a lecherous, drunken fellow who loves food and strong drink. Angered by the Friar’s tale about a summoner, he tells a tale about a friar who becomes the butt of coarse humor.
The Pardoner, a womanish man with long, blond hair. He tells a tale of three young men who seek death and find it. His story is actually a sermon on the evils of unnatural love of money. He follows up the sermon with an attempt to sell phony relics to his fellow pilgrims.
Harry Bailey, the host at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. He organizes the storytelling among the pilgrims, with the winner to have a meal at his fellows’ cost upon the company’s return. He is a natural leader, as his words and actions show.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the author, who put himself into his poem as a retiring, mild-mannered person. He tries to recite the Rime of Sir Thopas, a dreary tale that is interrupted as dull, whereupon he tells the story of Melibee and Dame Prudence.
The Canon, a traveler who joins the pilgrims briefly on the road to Canterbury. He leaves when it is hinted that he is a cheating alchemist.
The Canon’s Yeoman
The Canon’s Yeoman, who remains with the pilgrim company and tells an anecdote about an alchemist, a canon like his master, who swindles a priest.