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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Last Updated November 9, 2022.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sooteThe droghte of March hat perced to the roote,And bathed every veyne in swich licourOf which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;And specially from every shires endeOf Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,The hooly blisful martir for to seke,That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. (“General Prologue”)

These lines are from the opening of the “General Prologue,” and they set the frame story for The Canterbury Tales. It is April, and the weather has turned beautiful. The world is fresh, and that symbolizes the need to freshen the spirit, which is one of the primary reasons to go on pilgrimage. In England, people traveled to Canterbury to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Beckett. The narrator mentions that many have appealed to the saint’s prayers in their illnesses and have found healing. This shows the confidence that medieval people had in the prayers of the saints, whom they saw as intercessors with God for their well-being. Chaucer, of course, will focus on a specific group of pilgrims heading to Canterbury, perhaps in hopes of refreshing their souls or finding healing but also perhaps to break up the monotony of winter and see something new and interesting.

The Firste Moevere of the cause above,Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,Greet was th'effect, and heigh was his entente.Well wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,For with that faire cheyne of love he bondThe fyr, the eyr, the water, and the londIn certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.That same Prince and that Moevere,” quod he,“Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adounCerteyne dayes and duraciounTo al that is engendred in this place,Over the whiche day they may nat pace. . . .” (“The Knight’s Tale”)

These lines are spoken by Duke Theseus at Arcite’s funeral in “The Knight’s Tale,” and they illustrate one of Chaucer’s primary themes, namely fate versus free will. Theseus is trying to provide comfort to the mourners, assuring them that there is a Prime Mover, a God who created the world and keeps it firmly in his control. This God has set certain limits on the world and also limits on human life. Each life has a certain number of days, and then death comes. Arcite has reached the limit of his days. It is his fate to die, and no one can change that. Theseus goes on to explain that people should not attempt to rebel against God but must do the best they can with the time they have in order to grow in virtue and win honor as Arcite has done. This is the proper use of free will that balances and completes the fate of human beings.

“My lige lady, generally,” quod he,“Wommen desiren to have sovereyneteeAs wel over hir housbond as hir love,And for to been in maistrie hym above.This is youre mooste desire, thogh ye me kille.Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille.” (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale”)

Women want free choice and control over their husbands more than anything else, the knight declares in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” He has been sent to discover what women desire the most, and he has done so. The queen and her ladies agree wholeheartedly. This knight has learned his lesson well, for he now puts...

(This entire section contains 1122 words.)

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himself at the mercy of the women and, in a short time, will leave an important decision to the judgment of his own wife. This quotation seems to reflect the desires of many women in The Canterbury Tales who long to make choices for themselves and have some mastery, or at least equality, with their husbands. The Wife of Bath has dominated her own five spouses, she claims, but other women in the stories choose infidelity perhaps in protest of their lack of influence (like the wife of the miser in “The Shipman’s Tale”) and their husbands’ strict control (as with May in “The Merchant’s Tale”). Thus this quotation helps illustrate the theme of the trials and tribulations of marriage that runs through this collection.

The ministre and the norice unto vices,Which that men clepe in Englissh Ydelness,That porter of the gate of delices,To eschue, and by hire contrarie hire oppresse—That is to seyn, by leveful bisynesse—Wel oghten we to doon al oure entente,Lest that the feend thurgh ydelness us hente. (“The Second Nun’s Prologue”)

Chaucer’s irony and satire shine in this quotation from the beginning of “The Second Nun’s Prologue.” The Second Nun rails against idleness as the nurse and minister of vices, yet idleness is arguably what the pilgrims have been engaging in during their whole journey. They have been telling tales, arguing with each other, drinking, and entertaining themselves. In the medieval mind, this is a prime example of idleness, and the company is supposed to be on a pilgrimage at that. They should be thinking and speaking of holy things, praying, and singing hymns as they journey along, but most of their minds and hearts are not on God. Certainly some of the tales are moral and even religious, but the overall mood of the fellowship is enjoyment and entertainment. That, of course, is the point of Chaucer’s satire. Most of the pilgrims, ironically, are not especially religious.

This blisful regne may men purchace by poverte espiritueel, and the glorie by loweness, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the reste by travaille, and the lyf by deeth and mortification of synne. (“The Parson’s Tale”)

These words end the final story in The Canterbury Tales. The Parson is speaking of heaven and reminding the pilgrims what they must do to get there. They should embrace spiritual poverty and humility, accept and even find joy in their suffering and hard work, repent of their sins, and face death with courage in order to find true life. Here is a note of true religion that sets the false religion of so many of the pilgrims and their tales in sharp relief. It critiques the pride of the Pardoner and the luxury of the Monk, the Epicurean pleasures of the Franklin and the open sinfulness of the Miller and the Reeve (and others). Chaucer leaves his readers with a picture of what religious devotion should look like and implicitly invites them to examine themselves to see if they are more akin to most of the pilgrims or to the Parson’s ideal.