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 Priest’s...

(The entire section is 813 words.)



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 clergy who calls...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

The Knight’s Tale


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 habit or...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

The Miller’s Tale


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


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 miller...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

The Cook’s Tale


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 tale...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

The Man of Law’s Tale


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 convert to...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

The Shipman’s Tale


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?

Sir John...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale


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 rhyme...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

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


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 Topaz?...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

The Monk’s Tale


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, if Fortune...

(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


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 Questions


(The entire section is 548 words.)

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


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 Virginius’s...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale


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

yokel: a...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale


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 scold


(The entire section is 945 words.)

The Friar’s Prologue and Tale


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


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 wax-covered tablet...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

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


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 resentment


(The entire section is 509 words.)

The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue


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: truly


(The entire section is 582 words.)

The Squire’s Prologue and Tale


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


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


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: perversity,...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale


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” (refers to...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale


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 Tale, what...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

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


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 purpose of...

(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. a horse race...

(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.)