One April, a group of pilgrims gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, to embark on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. After dinner, Harry Bailly, the host, proposes a storytelling competition on the journey. The host will judge, and the winner will receive a dinner at the Tabard Inn. The following morning, as the pilgrims depart, they draw lots to begin. The Knight draws the shortest lot and tells his tale.
In “The Knight’s Tale,” Duke Theseus returns to Athens victorious over the Amazons with their queen, Hippolyta, as his wife and with her sister Emily. They encounter women mourning because the Theban king, Creon, refuses burial for their husbands, who were killed besieging Thebes. Duke Theseus then conquers Thebes. He captures two knights, Palamon and Arcite, and imprisons them.
One May morning, both Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily when they see her walking in the garden. Duke Perotheus, a friend of Duke Theseus, negotiates Arcite’s release on the condition that he never return to Athens. Arcite longs for Emily, however, so he disguises himself as a squire, calls himself Philostratus, and serves at the court of Duke Theseus. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes by sedating his jailer.
By chance, Palamon and Arcite meet in the woods outside Athens. Duke Theseus finds them as they battle over Emily. He decrees that Palamon and Arcite should return in a year to wage a tournament for Emily. Palamon and Arcite gather with their knights at the new stadium built by Duke Theseus. Palamon is defeated, but Arcite is mortally injured while riding in victory around the stadium. After mourning Arcite, Duke Theseus arrange for the marriage of Palamon and Emily.
After commending the Knight’s story, Harry Bailly asks the Monk to continue, but Robin, the drunken Miller, insists on telling his bawdy tale next. In “The Miller’s Tale,” John, an older carpenter who is married to Alison, a pretty young woman, is afraid of her attractiveness to other men. Nicholas, a student who boards in their house, proposes a tryst with Alison. Absalom, a parish clerk, also tries to court her. Nicholas contrives a plan to deceive the carpenter. He convinces the carpenter of an impending flood and instructs John to provide tubs and provisions for them. At night, when they retire to their tubs in the attic to await the deluge, the carpenter falls asleep and Nicholas steals away with Alison to her bedroom.
Meanwhile, Absalom woos Alison outside her room. In the darkness, he asks for a kiss. She sticks her backside out the window. He kisses her backside. Realizing that he has been duped, Absalom obtains a red-hot iron. Absalom returns and asks for another kiss. Nicholas, amazed at Absalom’s foolishness and wishing to participate in the jest, sticks his backside out the window while Alison says it is she, and Absalom brands Nicholas with the iron. Nicholas’s screams of pain awaken the carpenter, who falls to the ground and breaks his arm. Nicholas and Alison convince the neighbors that the carpenter is delusional about the flood.
Next, the Reeve, the Cook, and the Man of Law tell their stories. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a reaction to “The Miller’s Tale,” Oswald the Reeve tells about a dishonest miller who robs two clerks. They retaliate against him by getting him drunk and taking advantage of his wife and daughter. “The Cook’s Tale,” a fragment of about fifty lines, tells of a young man done out of his inheritance by a wicked older brother. In “The Man of Law’s Tale,” Constance, daughter of a Roman emperor, marries first a sultan of Syria who is killed and then a king. Both mothers-in-law cause her to be accused of treachery, but ultimately she is reunited with her second husband.
The wife of Bath next offers her tale. She prefaces the story with a discourse on marriage, based on her experiences with five husbands. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a young woman. When he is sentenced to death, the queen intercedes and agrees to save the knight’s life if he searches for a year to ascertain what women most desire. As he is about to return after an unsuccessful search, he encounters an ugly old woman. She agrees to tell him the answer if he will grant her next request. The knight agrees, is told what women want, and returns to court. When the knight reveals to the queen that women desire power, his answer is accepted. The old woman appears and demands that the knight marry her. The knight is reluctant but changes his mind after the old woman lectures him on the true character of nobility. After the marriage, the old woman is transformed, becoming young and beautiful.
The Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire, the Franklin, the Physician, the Pardoner, the Shipman, the Prioress, the Monk, and even the narrator himself all tell their tales as the pilgrims continue toward Canterbury. “The Friar’s Tale,” directed by the Friar at the Summoner, paints a humiliating picture of a wicked summoner in cahoots with the devil whose scheme against a widow backfires, landing him in hell. The Summoner retaliates by telling “The Summoner’s Tale,” in which a greedy, hypocritical friar visits the home of Thomas, a villager. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” patient Griselda, the daughter of the poorest man in a poor village, is married to a marquis who tests the limits of her patience by subjecting her to endless indignities. In “The Merchant’s Tale,” a young woman, married to an old man who goes blind, carries on an affair practically under his nose until the god Pluto restores the old man’s sight. Proserpine in turn gives the wife a good excuse for what the old man “sees” as his wife’s infidelity.
“The Squire’s Tale,” an incomplete tale, tells of a king’s daughter, Canacee, who is given a brass horse that can fly, a mirror with the power to foretell disaster, and a ring that enables its wearer to understand the language of birds. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” Dorigen, wed to Averagus, is loved by Aurelius, in whom she has no interest. She promises to be his lover if he can accomplish the near-impossible task of clearing away all the rocks on the seacoast. With a magician’s help, Aurelius completes the task, but when he realizes Dorigen does not really want him, he releases her from her promise. In “The Physician’s Tale,” the Roman knight Virginius has a beautiful daughter Virginia, who is lusted after by a wicked judge, Apius. Apius schemes to get her under his power, and, when his success seems inevitable, Virginia tells her father she would rather die than become Apius’s lover. When she swoons, her father cuts off her head.
In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” three blasphemous, lecherous revelers decide to seek out Death to destroy him. In their search, however, they find a cache of gold, which makes them turn on one another in their greed. They end up killing one another, thus meeting Death at last. In “The Shipman’s Tale,” a monk cuckolds a miserly merchant and then causes his wife to reveal her infidelity to her husband. In “The Prioress’s Tale,” a boy, delighted with the song “Alma Redemptoris,” sings it so much that a group of Jews become incensed enough to hire someone to kill him. The killer tosses the body into a pit to hide it, but, miraculously, the dead boy begins to sing, and those searching for him find his body and the killers, who are quickly put to death.
“The Monk’s Tale” actually combines several stories that tell of the fall from power or high station of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nero, Julius Caesar, and several other men. Chaucer, the narrator, next begins “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” a kind of parodied romance, but he is interrupted by the Host, who claims the doggerel Chaucer uses is downright silly and lewd. Instead, Chaucer tells the story of Melibee/Meliboeus, in which Melibee debates with his wife the best way to deal with one’s enemies.
Because “The Monk’s Tale” was a tragedy that has saddened the company, Harry Bailly asks the Nun’s Priest to lighten their hearts with a merrier tale. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chauntecleer is a vain rooster. One night, as Chauntecleer sleeps beside his favorite hen, Pertelote, he dreams about a fox. Pertelote does not believe in dreams and chides him for cowardice. Although Chauntecleer thinks dreams have veracity, he flies down into the yard the next morning. Sir Russel, the fox, arrives and flatters Chauntecleer into singing. The fox seizes Chauntecleer and runs into the woods. Chauntecleer advises the fox to eat him immediately. When the fox opens his mouth to reply, Chauntecleer escapes.
“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is followed by “The Second Nun’s Tale,” “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” “The Manciple’s Tale,” and finally “The Parson’s Tale,” a long prose tract. “The Second Nun’s Tale” recounts the life of the famous Roman martyr St. Cecilia. “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is a story of a swindling alchemist that serves to denounce the trickery involved in alchemy. “The Manciple’s Tale,” a variation on the traditional telltale bird story, tells of the crow, who once was white. After he tells his owner, Phoebus Apollo, that Apollo’s wife has been unfaithful—and after Apollo slays her—the crow is turned black by the angry god. “The Parson’s Tale,” more a sermon than a story, is about penitence, various sins, and their remedies.