Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400)
and Summaries by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.)
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.
Written and Published
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).
1100 and 1250, Middle English was the language of the middle and lower
classes, French was the language of the upper classes, and French and Latin
were the languages of literature. (William, Duke of Normandy, had brought
French to England when he conquered the country in 1066 and acceded to
the throne on Christmas day of that year.)
1250 and 1300, the upper classes also began speaking Middle English because
of the decline of French influence in England, but French and Latin remained
the language of literature. When Chaucer wrote
The Canterbury Tales
in Middle English between 1387 and 1400, he was among the first writers
who told stories in MIddle English. Chaucer mainly used the East Midlands
dialect of Middle English (spoken in London and nearby locales) in The
the Middle English period, rules of pronunciation and inflection were flexible,
allowing the language to evolve. A notable characteristic of Middle English
as used by Chaucer was the presence of a final -e in words that
today are written without a final -e. Generally, the final -e
of a word was pronounced if it preceded a word beginning with a vowel.
Although midway through the Middle English period speakers were beginning
to cease pronouncing the final -e before a vowel, Chaucer usually
retained its pronunciation in The Canterbury Tales. It was pronounced
coma and the second a in papa.
(Note: A sounded
e inside a word was generally pronounced like the
modern long a. Thus, the first e in the word swete,
the Middle English equivalent of sweet, was pronounced like the
in mate.) Following are examples of words ending in e
in lines 1-30 of the general prologue as presented in many popular editions
of The Canterbury Tales:
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
additional information on Middle English, consult the following pages
to Chaucer’s Language: Siân Echard, University of British Columbia
and Structure: the Frame Tale
Yourself to Read Chaucer’s Middle English: Harvard University
English Pronunciation Guide: Hamill Indexing
English Pronunciation Pages
English Phonology: Goucher College
English: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language Via High
on Translating Middle English: Wessex Parallel Web Texts
Basic Chaucer Glossary: Edwin Duncan, Towson University
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.
then allows the pilgrims to narrate their tales. They tell them in third-person
point of view. Between their stories, Chaucer resumes his narration, reporting
the discourse of the pilgrims and the words of Harry Bailly when he introduces
the next storyteller. Thus, The Canterbury Tales consists of stories
within a story. Bailly plays a crucial role in The Canterbury Tales.
With his questions and comments, he stimulates conversation that helps
to reveal the personalities and attitudes of the pilgrims.
label as frame tales literary works that present a story (or stories) within
another story. The inner story is like a painting on a canvas; the outer
story is like the frame of the painting. In The Canterbury Tales,
the inner stories told by the pilgrims form the images on the canvas; the
outer story told by Chaucer forms the frame. The frame tale was not unique
to Chaucer. Among other literary works with this format were The Seven
Sages, a collection of tales (authors and dates of composition not
established) originating in India that spread westward; The Thousand
and One Nights, a collection of tales (authors and dates of composition
not established) from India, Persia, Arabia, and Egypt, including the famous
stories about Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor; Samuel Taylor
Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
of Travelers to Canterbury: 32
the Gathering at the Tabard Inn and the Journey to Canterbury|
The Images on the Canvas: the Tales
of the Pilgrims
Frame Includes the General Prologue, Other Prologues, and the Pilgrims'
Interruptions of Tales
group traveling to Canterbury to visit the the shrine of Saint Thomas à
Becket includes the following:
|Narrator, the first of the
pilgrims to arrive at the Tabard Inn
|Pilgrims who arrive at the
Tabard after the narrator
|Pilgrim (canon's yeoman)
who joins the others on the road
|Host at the Tabard Inn,
who accompanies the pilgrims
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.
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.
Was a Tabard?
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.
and Where the Story Begins
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.
and Where the Story Continues
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.
of Trip, Condition of Road, and Safety
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.
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.
was born in London to well-to-do parents of Norman birth. After receiving
an education in England and France, he served as a secretary to a lord
and as a city clerk and an auditor for sheriffs.
he was twenty-five, his father helped him gain employment in the house
of the archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec. After proving himself
competent, he acted on the archbishop’s behalf on missions to Rome and
studied civil and church law in Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France. His
talents won him an appointment as archdeacon of Canterbury. After Theobald
introduced him to England’s King Henry II in 1154, Henry appointed him
chancellor of England on the archbishop’s recommendation. In that position,
Becket exhibited superior administrative skills in domestic and military
endeavors and in the king’s effort to gain more control and authority over
the activities of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.
Theobald died in 1161, Henry recommended Becket as a replacement for Theobald
and, in 1162, Thomas won election as Canterbury’s archbishop. Henry now
had a powerful ally who could win popular support for Henry’s program to
bolster his control of the church—or so he thought. But in his new position,
Becket took the side of the church—in particular, in its contention that
the right to try and punish priests accused of felonies should remain the
sole responsibility of the church.
January 1164, Henry promulgated the Constitutions of Clarendon, a document
limiting church authority. In a key provision, it decreed that priests
accused of serious crimes must be tried in government rather than ecclesiastical
courts. Although Becket at first accepted this document, he later rejected
it. In retaliation, the king charged that Becket had committed graft as
chancellor, and Becket took refuge in France in November 1170.
that same year, Henry ordered the crowning of his oldest son, Henry, as
a co-ruler by the archbishop of York. Becket, maintaining that only the
archbishop of Canterbury could preside at a coronation ceremony, excommunicated
clergymen who conducted the ceremony. While Henry was in France, Becket
returned to England and ordered additional excommunications. The people
regarded him as a hero.
hearing of Becket’s action, as well as his soaring popularity with citizens
of the realm, Henry exploded into a tirade against Becket. Four of Henry’s
knights then took it upon themselves to return to England and get rid of
Becket once and for all. On December 29, 1170, they murdered him in Canterbury
Cathedral. Shortly thereafter, pilgrims began visiting his tomb in the
church. Reports of miracles at the site prompted the Pope to canonize Becket
a saint in 1173. A repentant Henry visited the tomb in 1174, and thereafter
pilgrimages to Canterbury became a European tradition.
for two prose tales, Chaucer presents The Canterbury Tales in verse.
The meter varies, although many lines are
in iambic pentameter. However, metric classification
depends often on whether the reader uses Middle English pronunciations.
Even then, it may be difficult to determine whether Chaucer intended a
syllable to be pronounced or skipped as silent. A further problem is that
scribes copying his original manuscript may have deleted or inserted syllables.
of the prologues and the tales of the pilgrims consist of a series of rhyming
couplets (units of two lines, each about the same length, with end rhyme).
The opening lines of the work in the general prologue demonstrate the couplet
pattern. The rhyming pairs of words in each couplet are in alternating
blue and red type.
that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
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":
2 The droghte
of March hath perced to the roote
3 And bathed
every veyne in swich licour,
4 Of which vertu
engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus
eek with his swete breeth
6 Inspired hath
in every holt and heeth
7 The tendre
croppes, and the yonge sonne
8 Hath in the
Ram his halfe cours yronne,
9 And smale
foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen
al the nyght with open eye-
11 So priketh
hem Nature in hir corages-
12 Thanne longen
folk to goon on pilgrimages
13 And palmeres
for to seken straunge strondes
14 To ferne
halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially,
from every shires ende
16 Of Engelond,
to Caunturbury they wende,
17 The hooly
blisful martir for the seke
18 That hem
hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
thy bounty, thy magnificence,
Chaucer had earlier used rhyme
royal in Parlement of Foules (1382) and Troilus and Criseyde
virtue, and thy great humility,
may no tongue express in no science:
sometimes, Lady! ere men pray to thee,
go'st before, of thy benignity,
gettest us the light, through thy prayere,
guiden us unto thy son so dear.
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.
the pilgrims are the learned, the religious, the worldly, the romantic,
the practical, the idealistic, the merry, the irreverent. The pilgrims
come from the middle class but vary in their personal backgrounds and occupations.
As a group, they are a microcosm of the English society that flourished
beyond the pale of the highborn. However, the characters in the pilgrims'
stories include royals as well as commoners. Thus, in
Tales, Chaucer presents the whole range of humanity, a rarity in a
day when most writers centered their stories primarily on kings and queens
and legendary heroes. The host, Harry Bailly, plays a crucial role in The
Canterbury Tales. With his questions and comments, he stimulates conversation
that helps to reveal the personalities and attitudes of the pilgrims.
the tales the pilgrims tell reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the tellers.
of Genres in The Canterbury Tales
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
Chivalric Romance (or
"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
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
innovations, along with the wit and insight he used to carry them out,
earned him a place in the pantheon of England's greatest writers.
a complete biography of Chaucer, click
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).