The Canterbury Tales
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.
action begins on a day in April in the late 1300s—probably 1383—at the
Tabard Inn in the borough of Southwark, across the Thames River from central
London. It continues the next morning.
1:Camaraderie: Although the pilgrims come from different
backgrounds and exhibit different temperaments and preferences, they are
all one in their enthusiastic acceptance of one another as comrades.
Theme 2: Adventure:
The gathering of the pilgrims, many of them armed with swords and daggers
to protect themselves on their journey, suggests adventure. True, their
destination, Canterbury, was only fifty-six miles away. But in Chaucer's
world, traveling such a distance took far more time time than it does today
to travel by air from New York to Hong Kong.
Theme 3: Atonement:
Many pilgrims hope to gain expiation or other spiritual benefits from visiting
Becket's tomb. To be sure, some pilgrims are merely going along for the
ride. But other pilgirms seek the benefits of a religious experience.
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.
the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from central London, the
narrator sits at a table and observes twenty-nine pilgrims as they
arrive for the trip to Canterbury. Before the sun sets, the narrator speaks
with all the travelers, who agree to get up early the next day to begin
narrator identifies the pilgrims as follows:
knight who has traveled throughout Christian and heathen countries,
performing great deeds. With his sword, he has seen service in Alexandria,
Lithuania, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere, taking part in fifteen battles
and performing bravely and nobly. He is truly a man to look up to.
squire who accompanies his father, the knight. Though only in his early
twenties, the squire has already seen cavalry service in Flanders, Artois,
and Picardy. With his deeds he hopes to win the heart of a fair lady. He
sings, plays the flute, dances, and composes verses and songs. Not a little
of his time he spends on the art of love. He is well-mannered and humble
and carves meat for his father at the dinner table.
yeoman who is the squire's servant. He has a bow and sheaf of arrows,
as well as a dagger on his hip. Next to him, to one side, are a sword and
shield. He is skilled at woodcraft.
prioress, Madam Eglantine, who sings beautifully in church, can speak
French well, and exhibits exquisite table manners. And how charitable this
nun is. She cries when she sees a mouse caught in a trap. She wears a pleated
wimple (head covering), a fine cloak, and a rosary on her wrist.
second nun and a priest, who accompany the prioress.
monk, who is bald and husky and loves to hunt and ride horses with
bridles that jingle. He has the makings of an abbot. He keeps not often
to his cell, for he thinks the rules of his religious order are too strict.
Nor does he favor long hours of study or long hours of manual labor. To
aid him in his hunting of the hare, he keeps swift greyhounds.
friar, Hubert, who is a merry chap talented at idle chatter and arranging
marriages for beautiful ladies. Well known is he throughout his
county, for he is pleasant to all when he hears confessions. He gives small
penances that bring him gifts. He can sing and fiddle, and in taverns where
he is a frequent guest. He also mingles with the merchants and the rich,
from whom he accrues a profit.
among the pilgrims are a bearded merchant, proud and boastful, who
buys and sells French currency; an Oxford student, thin and threadbare,
who studies logic; a sergeant of the law in a motley coat who buys
land with fees he collects; and a franklin (freeborn landholder),
red in complexion with a white beard, who loves wine and meat and all the
delights that tempt people. He once served as a sheriff and a county auditor.
include a haberdasher, dyer, carpenter, tapestry
maker, and weaver. All bear the markings of success in the attire
of their guild and in their fine belts and pouches. They have a cook
to prepare their chickens and serve their Cyprus wine.
is a skipper with a dagger dangling from a strap. Because he has
no conscience, he drank the wine of a sleeping merchant while sailing from
Bordeaux on The Maudelayne. But he is the best of navigators, plotting
his course by the moon and the stars.
pilgrims also include the following:
physician who loves gold.
wife from near the town of Bath who has visited Jerusalem three times
and gone to the marriage altar five times. An excellent clothier is she.
She is a bit deaf and wears fine kerchiefs on her head and fine hose of
parson who is learned and holy and would rather give than take. He
is never proud or self-righteous.
plowman, the parson's brother, who loves God and loves his neighbor.
out the company of pilgrims are a miller, a reeve (officer
of a manor), a summoner, (who serves legal papers accusing a person
of a crime), a
pardoner, (a priest who gives indulgences remitting
sin in exchange for money for the church) a manciple (a purchaser
of provisions for an institution), and the narrator.
welcoming the pilgrims to the Tabard Inn, their host, Harry Bailly—merry,
robust man who is the proprietor of the Tabard—serves
them good food and strong wine. He then proposes a way for them to amuse
themselves on their journey: Each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way
to Canterbury and two more on the way back. The best storyteller will receive
a supper at the Tabard paid for by all. The host says he is willing to
ride along to make the pilgrims merry and act as their guide at his own
expense. Everyone happily agrees to Bailly's proposal and accepts him as
the morning, the host rouses everyone. When they draw lots to see who tells
the first tale, the knight wins the honor. In a moment, they are on their
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
Source: Chaucer based
"The Knight's Tale" on The Teseida of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).
Written in 1340-41, the twelve-canto epic centers on two young men, Arcita
and Palemone, who vie for the love of a young woman.
Setting: The action
takes place in ancient Athens and its environs over several years. However,
the spirit, traditions, and ideals of medieval chivalry prevail during
1: Estrangement and Reconciliation: After two cousins fall in
love at first sight with same woman, they become desperate rivals. After
they lead knights in a duel for her hand, they become friends again after
the winner suffers a mortal injury in a fall from his horse and recommends
his cousin for the hand of the woman.
2: Wise and Just Leadership in Overcoming Conflict: Theseus,
the ruler of Athens, acts wisely and decisively when he goes to war against
the ruler of Thebes, Creon, who refuses burial to three warriors killed
fighting against him. Denial of burial, even to an enemy, is a violation
of one of the most sacred rights of Greek citizens. Theseus defeats Creon
and the burials take place. Theseus again acts wisely in resolving the
conflict between the two cousins vying for the hand of the same woman.
Summary of the
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.
noble Theseus then declares war on Creon, defeats him, and orders the burial
of the three husbands. Afterward, he captures two of the enemy, cousins
Arcite and Palamon, and casts them in jail in Athens for life.
May morning, Arcite and Palamon look out their jail window and see a beautiful
young woman, Emily, picking flowers. Both men fall immediately in love
with her, and each lays claim to her even though neither can walk farther
than the four walls imprisoning him. They become enemies.
and by, a friend of Arcite speaks up for him, and the young man gains his
freedom. But there is a condition: He must leave Athens and never return.
years pass. Arcite returns to Athens in disguise, calling himself Philostrate,
and gets a job as a page in service to Emily. He distinguishes himself,
and Theseus makes him a squire.
Palamon escapes prison and hatches a plot to win Emily in combat against
Athens. While hiding in the woods, he encounters Arcite. They agree to
fight to death on the following day. The winner gets to woo Emily.
next day, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emily go hunting and come upon Arcite
and Palamon dueling. Because Arcite has violated his vow never to return
to Athens and because Palamon is an escapee, Theseus condemns them to death.
When the women bewail the sentence, Theseus gives the young men a reprieve.
He tells them that they may do as they please for one year, then face each
other in a tournament in which each man will marshal one hundred knights
to support him. Aware of their love for Emily, he decrees that the winner
may marry the young lady.
erects an arena for the competition, with an altar honoring Venus on one
side and an altar honoring Mars on the other. He declares that the competitors
may not use lethal weapons, for he wants all participants to survive.
the tournament day arrives, the fighting is fierce, but Theseus proclaims
Arcite the winner. But, alas, Arcite is thrown from his horse and suffers
a mortal injury. Before dying, he beseeches Emily to take Palamon as her
husband if she decides to marry.
Athens grieves for Arcite after he dies. Theseus orders the construction
of a fitting sepulcher for the hero and presides at Arcite’s funeral rites
before a great pyre.
several years pass, the leaders of the government decide to form alliances
with other nations and to oversee the affairs of Thebes with a watchful
eye. Theseus then summons Palamon and Emily. The time for grieving is at
an end, he says. He tells them that upon the advice of his parliament he
wishes Emily and Palamon to marry. And so they are wed in a ceremony attended
by nobles and government leaders. As time passes, Palamon and Emily love
each other dearly, and never does jealousy or a cross word come between
"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.
the travelers agree that the knight’s tale is a fine one long to be remembered.
When the host calls on the monk to begin his story, the miller, drunk with
ale and wobbly on his horse, refuses to wait his turn, saying he has a
tale to match the knight’s. After the host bids him wait his turn and the
reeve bids him remain silent, the miller insists upon telling his tale
immediately. If he makes mistakes in telling his tale, he says, blame not
him but Southwark ale. And so the churl of a miller tells his story.
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.
Not established. Chaucer may have based "The Miller's Tale" on a similar
story in Dutch that was retold in another language.
action takes place in Oxford, England, in the 1300s.
Figure of Speech: Irony. After taking pains to avoid
being made a cuckold, the old carpenter ends up a cuckold anyway.
1: Romantic Roguery: When a young man and the teenage wife of
an elderly carpenter seek an adulterous relationship, they work an outrageous
mischief that diverts the husband's attention and makes him appear demented.
2: Gullibility: The old carpenter, John, readily believes the
student's story that a great flood will come, and he accepts the student's
ridiculous solution: to place tubs on the roof and enter them so that the
three of them will float away when the waters come.
3: Revenge: Absalom gets revenge for the prank played on him
by wielding a red-hot poker against Nicholas when he sticks his buttocks
out the window.
Analysis of The Miller's Tale: Universal Teacher, UK
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.
day, after the carpenter goes off to Osney, Nicholas importunes her to
submit to him. Out of fear of the old man, she begs him to wait for a more
opportune time and to keep secret what passes between them. Then Nicholas
kisses her while his hands roam.
she attends church one day, the eyes of the parish clerk, Absalom, fall
upon her. Absalom has golden hair and wears a lacy blue tunic and red hose.
From top to bottom, he is the picture of the latest fashions. Her beauty
dazzles him, and in the evening he goes to the carpenter’s house and serenades
her. Thereafter, he tries to impress her in many other ways, sending her
gifts of wine, mead, ale, cakes, and money. However, she ignores him, and
all of his wooing is for naught. It is Nicholas who interests her.
Nicholas and Alison prepare a scheme to rid themselves of John. First,
Nicholas keeps to his room for several days, not coming out a single time
and not answering knocks on his door. On a Sunday, John sends a servant,
Robin, up to knock on the door with a stone. He pounds and pounds but there
is no response. When he looks through the keyhole, he sees Nicholas locked
in an upward gaze. The carpenter concludes that he is sick or mad. With
a staff, he pries at the door while Robin heaves against it. It falls,
revealing Nicholas still locked in his gaze.
Nicholas finally awakens from his stupor, he tells John that his meditation
has revealed to him the coming of a great flood. So that he and John and
his wife can survive it, John must get three kneading tubs, affix them
to the roof with a cord, and place provisions in them. The tubs must
be some distance apart so that no communication can take place. He must
also get an axe to cut the cord when the high water comes.
the predicted night of the flood, the carpenter enters his tub and shortly
falls asleep. Nicholas and Alison then go inside the house to be alone
with each other. By and by, Absalom arrives to serenade Alison. He will
not leave, he says, until they kiss. Alison opens the window and turns
around, facing inside. Because it is so dark, Absalom proceeds to give
her a kiss on her behind. After he realizes what has happened, he becomes
angry, fetches a red hot coulter (plow blade) from a blacksmith, Master
Gervase, and returns to the window and requests another kiss. This time,
Nicholas decides to get in on the fun and pokes his behind out the window.
Absalom then lets him have it right between the buttocks.
cries out in great pain. “Help! Water! Water!"
the old carpenter thinks the flood has arrived. He cuts the cord, the tub
crashes down, and the fall knocks him unconscious. People gather after
Alison and Nicholas shout for help. When John comes to, he explains what
happened. But Alison and Nicholas deny everything, saying John is insane.
They tell the onlookers that John had a fear of “Noel’s flood, bought three
kneading tubs, attached them to the roof, and asked Alison and Nicholas
each to sit in a tub and wait with him for the calamity. The people laughed
and thereafter regarded him a madman.
Alison and Nicholas got what they wanted, each other, in spite of all the
carpenter’s efforts to safeguard his wife’s virtue.
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.
Everyone laughs at the miller’s tale except Oswald the Reeve, an old man
with white hair. He is angry that the miller ridiculed a practitioner of
his trade, carpentry. After expressing his displeasure at the tale, he
talks about the infirmities that he and other elderly persons must face.
But the host objects to his digression, calling it preachy, and tells him
to get on at once with his tale. Oswald then says he will tell a story
that will make the miller look foolish.
of Work: "The Reeve's Tale" is a fabliau in which two
students gain revenge against a miller who steals grain.
The action takes place presumably in the 1300s at a mill in the countryside
not far from the city of Cambridge, home of Cambridge University. Two of
the characters in the story are Cambridge students who take grain to the
mill to be ground into meal. The university received its first charter
central theme is revenge—or theft begets
theft. After the miller steals
grain from Cambridge University, two students from the university gain
revenge by stealing the virtue of the miller's daughter and wife.
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.
wife is the illegitimate daughter of a parson who paid a large dowry to
find her a husband after she was brought up in a nunnery. She is a proud
woman and saucy in her speech.
she and the miller go to church on holy days, everyone treats her with
respect, calling her “Madam." To do otherwise or, God forbid, to flirt
with her would incur the wrath of Simkin. Simkin and his wife have daughter
of twenty with broad buttocks and a snub nose and a six-month-old baby.
makes a large profit from the fees he charges for grinding grain, especially
from the wheat and malt he grinds for the Cambridge College Solar Hall.
One day, while the college manciple (buyer of provisions) is sick in bed,
the miller helps himself to huge amounts of the college’s grain—a
hundred times more than he usually steals. Two young students from the
town of Stretcher, John and Alan, decide to take action against the miller
and receive permission from the college warden to take corn to the mill
on his horse the next time the school needs meal.
the young men arrive, they cheerfully greet the miller and inquire about
the well-being of his wife and daughter. When the miller asks them what
they will do while he grinds their corn, they tell him they will observe
the process as a learning exercise. But the sly miller sees through their
ploy. At an opportune moment, he sneaks outside to a tree in the back of
the mill, where the horse is tied, and frees it. It runs off toward a fen.
He then grinds and sacks the corn. When John goes out to fetch the horse
and discovers it missing, the miller’s wife tells him they did not secure
it properly to the tree and it ran off toward the fen. When he and Alan
search for it, the miller steals half a bushel of their grain and tells
his wife to make it into a cake. He brags that he, a miller, can outwit
young men of learning.
in the evening, the young men return with the horse. Because of the lateness
of the hour, they ask to lodge with the miller overnight. He arranges for
them to sleep in the family bedroom. After the miller and his wife fall
asleep, Alan takes revenge on the miller by joining his daughter in bed.
John then moves the baby in its cradle from the foot of the miller’s bed
to the foot of his and Johns bed. After the miller’s wife leaves the room
and returns a moment later, the location of the baby's cradle disorients
her, and she gets in bed with John.
Alan is in bed with the miller’s daughter, he learns from her where the
miller stashed the stolen grain. As night begins to give way to dawn, Alan
goes back to his and Johns bed. But he too becomes disoriented by the location
of the cradle and gets in bed with the miller. Because he thinks the miller
is John, he tells him all about their shenanigans. An exchange of blows
ensues. The miller’s wife and John then wake up. She takes up a club and
wields it against John but strikes the miller instead. John and Alan run
off with their ground corn meal.
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.
"The Reeve’s tale" pleased the cook from London, Roger, who quotes Solomon:
“Into your house not every man invite." Roger says never before has he
ever heard of a miller being so completely hoodwinked. The host then advises
the cook to tell a story that goes down better than his warmed-over pastries
or the geese he 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
action takes place in the Cheap side district of London.
doesn't pay. After an apprentice pilfers money from his master to pay
for his wastrel ways, the master regards him as the rotten apple in the
barrel and fires him.
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.
day, when Perkin nears the end of his apprenticeship, he seeks a contract
with his master. But the master, now mindful of the apprentice's devious
ways, decides to apply the wisdom of a proverb he recalls: "Better is rotten
apple out of hoard, / Than that it should rot all the remenant." So he
fires Perkin and tells him to go "with sorrow and mischance." Perkin then
lodges with a fellow of his kind, who also gambles with dice and has a
wife who keeps a shop for the sake of appearances but sells herself instead.
did not finish this tale.)
The Man of Law's Prologue
prologue informs the reader of the time of day, introduces the lawyer,
and comments on the stories Chaucer tells.
The host, noting that it is already 10 o’clock, comments briefly on the
importance of not wasting time, then calls upon the lawyer to tell his
tale. The lawyer says he will cooperate but points out that the selection
of his tale poses a problem because it is difficult to find one that the
writer Chaucer has not already told in one book or another (although, the
lawyer says, Chaucer's meter and rhymes are not always on the mark). Then
he says he will proceed anyway, noting he does not care "a bean" about
serving up story that may not appeal to some. Unlike Chaucer, he says,
he will tell his story in prose even though he tells it in verse.
The Man of Law's Tale
of Work: "The Lawyer's Tale" is an exemplum stressing the importance
of fidelity to Christian ideals. Character development is minimal.
Chaucer based "The Man of Law's Tale" on "The Life of Constance," a story
in Nicholas Trivet's Anglo-Norman Chronicle (1328-1335).
time is the Christian era after the development of Islam. The places are
Syria, Rome, the English county of Northumberland, and ships at sea.
Living Ultimately Yields Rewards: The main character, Constance, undergoes
many hardships and trials. But her virtuous living, which sets a good example
for others, ultimately brings her happiness.
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.
they see her, they sail back to Syria full of wonder at her many charms.
sultan always entertains the merchants after they return from a trip so
that they may acquaint him with the latest news of the lands they have
visited. When they tell him about the extraordinary qualities of Lady Constance,
he yearns to bring her to Syria and love her evermore.
because his faith is Islam and hers Christianity, marriage seems out of
the question. The sultan then converts to the older religion and decrees
that all the nobles of his realm should do the same. In addition, he offers
Rome gold for the hand of Constance. One can go on about the reactions
in Rome, but suffice it to say that in the end the emperor decides to send
his daughter to the sultan. Constance bids a tearful good-bye and prays
that Christ fortifies her to accept her fate. Women, she says, must accept
the decrees of men.