The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s last major work, was written between the mid-1380’s and his death in 1400, although some of the stories, such as “The Knight’s Tale,” were composed earlier. It is considered one of the greatest works of English literature. Most of the work is poetic, but a few of the tales are written in prose. In the twenty-four tales, Chaucer demonstrates mastery of almost every literary genre known in the Middle Ages. Various pilgrims tell tales of romance (the Knight, the Wife of Bath), farce (the Miller), and beast fable (the Nun’s Priest). Although many of the stories were not new, Chaucer transformed the material with an originality that made the tales unique. He imbued his characters with vivacity by skillfully playing the general types of stereotyped social classes and occupations against specific details of individuals’ appearance and mannerisms.
The tales begin with a general prologue that sets up the frame narrative of the pilgrimage. It provides the rationale for the stories and introduces the pilgrims. The concept of a story collection has antecedents in medieval literature, including Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), written in the fourteenth century by the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio. The frame of telling stories on a pilgrimage, however, was unprecedented and creates the potential for interaction among the storytellers, which Chaucer exploits. The descriptions of the pilgrims show how well Chaucer combines the typical with the particular. While the “true, perfect, gentle knight” represents the ideal estate of medieval knighthood, the Wife of Bath, a middle-class textile maker, comes to life with more individual details about her appearance and her ability to laugh and gossip.
“The Knight’s Tale” is a romance, a medieval literary genre in which the setting is the distant past, the protagonists are from the nobility, and the plot stems from deeds based on love and chivalry. The tale is set in ancient Athens, the principal characters are knights, and the plot unfolds from their contest to win the love of a noble lady. Although Boccaccio’s Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974) provided the idea for this tale, Chaucer shortened and changed the emphasis of Boccaccio’s narrative. He also introduced new elements, particularly about the role of fate, from diverse sources. Individual character development is subordinated to maintaining the conventions of the romance genre.
With the drunken Miller’s outburst, Chaucer poses a dramatic contrast between “The Knight’s Tale” and“The Miller’s Tale.” The fable told by the Miller is the exact opposite of the Knight’s refined, noble romance. Characters in a fable typically are from a lower social class, as is the Miller. John, the husband in the tale, is a carpenter; his young wife, Alison, is a pretty but common damsel. Her suitors are the student Nicholas and the clerk Absalom. The action takes place in Chaucer’s Oxford. The plot generates humor from sexual exploits, as Nicholas and Absalom vie for Alison’s favors. Chaucer’s inspiration for this tale came from similar themes characterizing medieval fabliaux. He created lively characters through their appearance and actions. For example, his lengthy description of Alison utilizes comparisons with animals (“skittish as a colt”) to emphasize her playful attractiveness. Its fast-moving plot, contemporaneous setting, and earthy characters make “The Miller’s Tale” memorable.
With the Wife of Bath, Chaucer returns to the romance genre. The Wife of Bath prefaces her tale with a lengthy discourse on marriage, in which she recounts her life with her trials and triumphs over five different husbands. The prologue to her tale allows Chaucer to develop her garrulous character. This passage is famous for the Wife of Bath’s diatribe against medieval misogyny.
In contrast, the tale about a knight at King Arthur’s court is restrained. Its source is probably English folklore, but it follows the requirements of romance with its setting in Arthurian England and a plot based on a love quest. The tale deals with nobility, not only in the social position of its main characters—including the knight and King Arthur’s queen—but also in the old woman’s discussion of nobility’s true nature. While the tale’s point about a wife’s dominion over her husband supports the Wife of Bath’s position on marriage, its courtly setting and economical narration diminish the impact of its message when compared to the vivid discourse and opinions in the wife expresses in her prologue.
The Nun’s Priest tells a beast fable, in which animal protagonists provide a human moral. The tale of the cock, Chauntecleer, and the fox, Sir Russel, was a well-known beast fable that Chaucer transformed for his purposes. First, he amplified the plot with an extended commentary on the nature of dreams that drew on varied literary sources. Second, the full description of Chauntecleer, “the courtly cock,” and his animated conversations with his favorite hen, Pertelote, created characters more real than the humans within the story or even than the storyteller. Chaucer again used his literary talents to create a memorable and distinctive story.
These selections provide only a glimpse into the variety that makes The Canterbury Tales such an intriguing literary work. This variety also introduces a question about the unity of The Canterbury Tales. The issue of this unity is complex because Chaucer died before finishing the work, and the order of the tales, in part, results from editorial efforts made from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries to impart unity to what in fact remains a fragment of the intended whole. Many crucial elements contribute to the artistic integrity of The Canterbury Tales as a complete concept. The frame of the pilgrimage is maintained throughout, and dialogue among the pilgrims links some of the tales, as in the transition between “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale.” Particular themes repeat themselves: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” for example, is part of a larger group of tales discussing marriage. In its entirety, The Canterbury Tales provides an infinite source for entertainment and enlightenment and remains as engrossing a work of English literature as when Chaucer first composed it.