By Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400)
A Study Guide
Background and Summaries by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......The Canterbury Tales is a fictional account in a historical setting about pilgrims who tell stories on their way to a cathedral shrine. A tavern owner acts as their tour guide. The pilgrims' stories are in various genres, including chivalric romance, Arthurian romance, satire, beast fable, fabliau, and exemplum (an exhortation on morals and religion.) The Canterbury Tales opens with a general prologue introducing the storytellers after they gather at an inn. It continues the next morning. The pilgrims tell their tales to pass the time while journeying to Canterbury, about fifty-six miles southeast of London, to visit the shrine of Thomas à Becket, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. In prologues between the tales, the travelers comment on a tale just completed or introduce a story about to be told. Sometimes they also make general observations.
.......Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400) wrote The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, about half a century before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The first copies of Chaucer's work were handwritten. William Caxton (1422-1491), the first printer in England, published two editions of The Canterbury Tales, one in the late 1470s and one in the early 1480s.
language of The Canterbury Tales is Middle English, spoken and written
in Britain between 1100 and 1500. Middle English followed Old English (450
to 1100), the first period in the development of the English language,
and preceded Modern English (1500 to the present).
characteristic of Middle English was the use of the letter y (pronounced
as a long e) followed by a hyphen and a verb to indicate the past
tense of that verb. Examples from The Canterbury Tales are y-draw
(drawn), y-know (known), y-shave (shaven),
(beaten), y-hold (held), y-do (done),
(took), y-go (gone),
(fallen), y-grave (engraved), and y-run (ran).
Sometimes the y and hyphen preceded verbs already in the past tense
in modern English, as in y-bought (bought),
y-nourished (nourished). The use of y-
before a verb continued until about 1600. On some occasions or in some
editions of The Canterbury Tales, a y without a hyphen precedes
Introduction to Chaucer’s Language: Siân Echard, University of British Columbia
Canterbury Tales has one overall narrator, Chaucer himself in the persona
of the first pilgrim, who presents his account in first-person point of
view. In the general prologue, he establishes the time of the year, April,
then begins telling the story about the pilgrimage to Canterbury. After
describing the pilgrims gathering at their point point of departure—the
Tabard Inn, across the Thames River from central London—he reports a proposal
by their host, the proprietor of the Tabard, that the pilgrims tell stories
on their journey to pass the
time. Upon their return, the pilgrim deemed the best storyteller would
receive a meal paid for by his companions. The proprietor, Harry Bailly
(spelled Bailey or Bailley in some editions of The Canterbury
Tales), says he would accompany the pilgrims, acting as their tour
guide. The pilgrims enthusiastically approve his proposal.
group traveling to Canterbury to visit the the shrine of Saint Thomas à
Becket includes the following:
.......According to Chaucer's original plan, each pilgrim was to tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return trip, for a total of one hundred twenty-four tales (counting those of the canon's yeoman). However, Chaucer died before he could begin the twenty-fifth tale. Of the twenty-four stories in The Canterbury Tales, twenty are complete, two ("The Cook's Tale" and "The Squire's Tale") are incomplete, and two ("The Monk's Tale" and "Sir Thopas's Tale") are intentionally cut short.
.......The Tabard was one in a row of inns lining Borough High Street in Southwark, across the Thames River from central London. In his Survey of London, published in 1598 and revised in 1603, John Stow (1525-1605) says the inns could be identified by images on their signs. In Southwark, he says, "be many fair inns for receipt of travellers, by these signs: the Spurre, Christopher, Bull, Queen's Head, Tabard, George, Hart, King's Head," &c." The Tabard was constructed in 1307, repaired during Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), and destroyed in a fire in 1676. Among the lodgers at the Tabard and other Southwark inns were pilgrims traveling south to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. The inns also hosted northbound travelers to London and other points.
A tabard was a short-sleeved or sleeveless cloak worn by a knight to prevent the gleam of his armor from signaling his position to an enemy. A tabard, made of a heavy fabric, was emblazoned with a coat of arms. Presumably, the sign at the Tabard Inn bore the image of such a garment.
.......The Canterbury Tales begins in April of a year in the late 1300s at the Tabard Inn in the borough of Southwark (pronounced SUTH erk), across the River Thames from central London. In Chaucer’s time, a traveler passing through London reached Southwark by boat or by the only causeway spanning the Thames, London Bridge. The bridge led directly into a Southwark street that was the starting point of the road to Canterbury and other destinations in southeastern England, including ports on the Strait of Dover, between England and continental Europe. Inns that lined the street, including the Tabard, hosted many southbound travelers.
When and Where the Story Continues
.......After Chaucer introduces the pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn, the story continues the next morning when they begin telling their tales as they ride on horseback on the road to Canterbury, nearly sixty miles to the southeast.
Length of Trip, Condition of Road, and Safety
.......In Chaucer's day, a leisurely journey to Canterbury on horseback probably took three to five days, with stops at inns along the way. April rains probably made the dirt road connecting Southwark and Canterbury muddy in spots with water pooling in holes and ruts. Robbers were a constant danger on rural roads. However, armed pilgrims traveling in a large group, like those in The Canterbury Tales, probably were safe from marauders.
Thomas à Becket: Martyr, Saint
destination of the pilgrims is the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket
(1118?-1170) in Canterbury Cathedral, in which he was entombed after he
was murdered in the church on December 29, 1170.
1 Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,.......Some tales, however, use a different rhyme scheme. For example, "The Lawyer's Tale," "The Prioress's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale" are in rhyme royal, in which stanzas of seven lines in iambic pentameter have a rhyme scheme of ababbcc, as in the following stanza from "The Prioress's Tale":
a.....Lady! thy bounty, thy magnificence,Chaucer had earlier used rhyme royal in Parlement of Foules (1382) and Troilus and Criseyde (1385).
depicting the Canterbury pilgrims, Chaucer presents realistic descriptions
that exhibit his understanding of the human drama and the foibles and eccentricities
of its participants. Using concise and specific language, he enables the
reader to see or hear the squire carving meat for his father, the prioress
crying when she sees a mouse ensnared, the monk riding horses with bridles
that jingle, and the wife of Bath wearing hose of scarlet red. In "The
Reeve's Tale," Chaucer tells us that Simkin is a bully with a bald head
who can play pipes, fish, and wrestle. In "The Man of Law's Tale," he tells
us that the eyes of the evil knight pop from their sockets after he tells
a lie. In "The Miller's Tale," he tells us that Absalom gains revenge by
ramming a red-hot poker between the buttocks of Nicholas.
Examples of Genres in The Canterbury Tales
.......Five of the tales that the pilgrims tell are fabliaux. The fabliau was a short verse tale with coarse humor and earthy, realistic, and sometimes obscene descriptions that present an episode in the life of contemporary middle- and lower-class people. The fabliau uses satire and cynicism, along with vulgar comedy, to mock one or several of its characters. Not infrequently, the ridiculed character is a jealous husband, a wayward wife, a braggart, a lover, a proud or greedy tradesman, a doltish peasant, or a lustful or greedy clergyman. Plot development often depends on a prank, a pun, a mistaken identity, or an incident involving the characters in intrigue. The fabliau was popular in France from 1100 to 1300, then went out of fashion. Chaucer revived the format in The Canterbury Tales to write “The Miller’s Tale," “The Reeve’s Tale," “The Cook’s Tale," “The Shipman’s Tale," and The Summoner’s Tale." It is not entirely clear whether the fabliau was a pastime of the upper classes as a means to ridicule their social inferiors or of the middle and lower classes as a means to poke fun at themselves.
Chivalric Romance (or Courtly Love)
"The Knight's Tale" is an example of a chivalric romance, or a tale of courtly love. In such tales, the knights exhibit nobility, courage, and respect for their ladies fair, and the ladies exhibit elegance, modesty, and fidelity. Although knights and ladies may fall passionately in love, they eschew immoral behavior. In conflicts between good and evil, justice prevails.
"The Pardoner's Tale" is an example of an exemplum (plural, exempla), a short narrative in verse or prose that teaches a moral lesson or reinforces a doctrine or religious belief. Other tales can be regarded as exempla or contain elements of the exemplum in that they present examples of right or wrong living that teach moral precepts.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is an example of an Arthurian romance, a type of work in which a knight in the age of the legendary King Arthur goes on a quest.
"The Nun's Priest's Tale" is an example of a beast fable, a short story in verse or prose in which animals are the main characters. They exhibit human qualities, and their activities underscore a universal truth.
A satire is a literary work or technique that attacks or pokes fun at vices and imperfections. Many of the prologues and tales contain satire that ridicules people who exhibit hypocrisy, greed, false humility, stupidity, self-importance, and other flaws.
A burlesque is a literary work or technique that mocks a person, a place, a thing, or an idea by using wit, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, and/or understatement. For example, a burlesque may turn a supposedly respected person—such as old John in "The Miller's Tale"—into a buffoon. A hallmark of burlesque is its thoroughgoing exaggeration, often to the point of the absurd.
A type of comedy that is generally physical rather than verbal, relying on slapstick and horseplay as in "The Miller's Tale." Low comedy usually focuses on ordinary folk.
"The Franklin's Tale" is an example of a Breton lay, a Fourteenth Century English narrative poem in rhyme about courtly love that contains elements of the supernatural The English borrowed the Breton-lay format from the French. A lay is a medieval narrative poem originally intended to be sung. Breton is an adjective describing anyone or anything from Brittany, France.
allegory is a literary work or technique that ascribes secondary or symbolic
meaning to characters, events, objects, and ideas, as in "The Nun's Priest's
Tale." The pilgrims' journey to Canterbury may also be regarded as an allegory
in that it can be viewed as a representation of the journey through life
or the journey toward the ultimate destination, heaven.
Chaucer’s as a Pioneering Writer
Chaucer was among the first authors in Britain to write in the language
of the masses, Middle English, rather than Latin or French, giving impetus
to the development of English as a literary language. He was also among
the first to write about ordinary folk in a contemporary setting rather
than kings and queens or legendary heroes of the past. In doing so, he
laid bare in fine detail both the psyche and the soma of his characters,
setting an example for later writers to follow in drawing realistic portraits.
In addition, he was among the first to write in such verse forms as iambic
pentameter and rhyme royal.
Background and Summaries
"The Prologue" sets the scene—the Tabard Inn
on Borough High Street in Southwark (pronounced SUTH erk), across the Thames
River from central London—and introduces thirty pilgrims, including the
narrator. It also introduces the host who will accompany them on their
trip to Canterbury the following day. "The Prologue" reveals Chaucer's
understanding of humanity, with all its foibles and eccentricities, and
his ability to write with concision, humor, and gentle satire. "The Prologue"
is an important structural device that establishes the unity of a group
of diverse middle-class citizens who will be telling separate stories on
their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket.
Absent from the group introduced at the Tabard Inn is the canon's yeoman,
who catches up with the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.
April rains coax flowers from the soil, pilgrims begin traveling to holy
places in distant lands and, in England, to the shrine of St. Thomas à
Becket in the great cathedral at Canterbury. The pilgrims themselves are
flowers that bud and open on the journey to Canterbury.
Type of Story: "The
Knight's Tale" is a chivalric romance. It centers on the the love two young
men have for the same woman. Although set in ancient Athens, it follows
the practices and ideals of medieval chivalry. There is little character
Summary of the Tale
ruler of Athens, conquers Scythia, defeating the Amazons and marrying their
queen, Hippolyta. Afterward, he returns to Athens with his new wife and
her younger sister, Emily. Along the way, they meet three women who tell
Theseus a sad tale. Their husbands died in a war against Thebes, but the
ruler of that city—Creon—has
refused to permit their burial.
"The Miller's Prologue" provides a continuation of the outer story,
updating the reader on the activities of the travelers while enabling the
narrator to further develop his characterization of them. The prologue
also provides a transition from "The Knight's Tale" to the next tale.
of Story: "The Miller's Tale" is a fabliau about an elderly carpenter
who guards closely his pretty young wife. However, she and her paramour,
a student, execute a scheme that tricks the old man and provides an opportunity
for the young people to be together.
Summary of the Tale
Oxford lives a rich old carpenter, John, with a pretty young wife, Alison.
Lodging with them in a rented room is a poor young Oxford student, Nicholas
the Handy, who studies astrology. The carpenter’s wife, only eighteen,
is wild and capricious. Not wishing to be made a cuckold, he closely guards
her against the eyes of others.
Reeve's Prologue" presents the pilgrims' reaction to "The Miller's Tale"
and comments on the the reeve's temperament and his tendency to digress.
of Work: "The Reeve's Tale" is a fabliau in which two
students gain revenge against a miller who steals grain.
Summary of the Tale
to a brook at Trumpington, not far from Cambridge, is a mill run by Simkin,
a proud man and a bully with a bald head, a round face, and a snub nose.
He can play the pipes, fish, and wrestle. Simkin carries several weapons,
including a sword, a knife at his waist, a dagger in a pouch, and a Sheffield
knife inside his hose. He steals corn and ground feed.
Cook's Prologue" presents the pilgrims' reaction to "The Reeve's Tale,"
presents an appropriate biblical admonition, and comments on the quality
of the food the cook prepares.
of Work: Because this tale is unfinished, it is difficult to categorize
it. However, it resembles both an allegory and an exemplum—an allegory
because the main character appears to symbolize thieving spendthrifts,
an exemplum because the main character sets a bad example that people should
Summary of the Tale
apprentice to the victuals trade in London's Cheap side prefers to make
merry rather than keep to the shop where he works. He loves to dance—indeed,
he is so good at it that people call him Perking Reveler—and
he enjoys the company of young ladies. He frequents taverns and on the
streets he rolls the dice. When he lacks money to pay for his wayward ways,
he goes to the shop and takes it from his employer’s money box.
did not finish this tale.)
prologue informs the reader of the time of day, introduces the lawyer,
and comments on the stories Chaucer tells.
of Work: "The Lawyer's Tale" is an exemplum stressing the importance
of fidelity to Christian ideals. Character development is minimal.
Summary of the Tale
Syrian merchants who trade in spices, satins, and other commodities visit
Rome and hear stories about the emperor’s daughter, Constance. Every report
says she possesses unequalled beauty. Yet she is humble, not proud. Moreover,
she is courteous, generous, and mature beyond her years.