The Canterbury Tales were published in 1387, and the first known book edition that bundles them all dates back to 1478. This work, a collection of 24 stories, is considered the greatest work of Geoffrey Chaucer, an accomplished (middle) English poet and prose writer and one of the finest storytellers in the English language. He was never able to finish his masterpiece which tells the story of 30 pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. To pass the time, they tell each other stories. The pilgrims come from different ways of life so the stories are very diverse as well. Through the stories told, the entire medieval society passes the revue. The Canterbury Tales are mostly written in verse, although some are written in prose.
The prologue is written as a satire, mocking the class system of the Middle Ages in England. Each of the characters represents a certain group of people and the way they are portrayed and the stories they tell only solidify this. Chaucer adds a group of people that don’t fit into either of the 3 classes, a kind of middle class that have come to be through industry and commerce. He also writes a few female characters, though they are mostly defined as mothers or a very selfish, sexual being. The stories are linked together by a satirical narrator who leaves judgement up to the readers.
As I said earlier, the manuscript was never finished as Chaucer planned for each of the 30 characters to tell two stories. The ones that he was able to write are:
- General Prologue
This is the frame story of the poem, narrated by a fictitious Geoffrey Chaucer character. He meets a group of 30 people, who are all on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in an Inn. The host of the Inn proposes a story-telling contest where each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way on two on the way back. Whoever tells the best story will win a free meal.
- The Knight’s Tale
This is the first story of The Canterbury Tales, told by a knight. It’s about all the different aspects if knighthood: chivalry, courtly love, ethical dilemmas, written in iambic pentameter end-rhymed couplets.
- The Miller’s Tale
The drunken miller tells his story as an answer to that of the knight. He says it’s a noble story as well, but can’t be held accountable since he is drunk. It’s a tale about a carpenter and his wife that got fooled by a clerk.
- The Reeve’s Tale
A reeve is a manager of a landowner’s estate. Chaucer’s reeve is named Oswald and he used to be a carpenter. Angry because the Miller mocked carpenters in his story, he tells one that mocks millers. It’s based on a fabliau that was popular at the time and also served as the source for the Sixth Story of the Ninth Day of The Decameron, called the “cradle-trick”.
- The Cook’s Tale
This unfinished tale is about an apprentice who likes to drink and dance. When he’s released by his master, he moves in with a friend where he drinks and dances more.
- The Man of Law’s Tale
The man of law is a judge in the civil court retells the tale of Constance (daughter of a Roman emperor who is sold in marriage to a sultan) which probably comes from John Gower who used Nicholas Trivet as a source.
- The Wife of Bath’s Tale
This is one of Chaucer’s best known tales which gives insight into the role of women in the late Middle Ages. She is is one of the most developed characters and her story is about a knight of King Arthur who rapes a girl and needs to be punished but Queen Guinevere intercedes and sends him on a quest to find out what women most desire.
- The Friar’s Tale
The friar (a kind of monk) tells a story about a corrupt summoner (someone who works for the church and brings people who’ve committed religious or spiritual crimes to Christian court) and his interactions with a demon.
- The Summoner’s Tale
To take revenge on the friar for talking bad about his own people, the summoner tells a satirical story about a corrupt friar giving a long sermon against anger through different stories about angry kings.
- The Clerk’s Tale
The clerk is a student of philosophy and he tells the story of a marquis who marries a poor peasant girl. She promises to honour all his wishes and he tests his wife’s loyalty by having their children taken away. Eventually, she passes the tests and they live happily ever after.
- The Merchant’s Tale
This tale is quite raunchy and possibly arrived in Europe through One Thousand and One Nights. It also shows similarities to the Adam and Eve story from the Bible. A summary: an old man marries a young woman out of lust, and goes blind shortly after. His wife cheats on him with one of his servants, and he regains his sight just in time to see them have sex. However, the wife talks her way out of it and they live happily ever after (through the intervention of two gods).
- The Squire’s Tale
A squire is the servant of a knight, in training to become a knight himself. His tale is an epic romance, left uncompleted by Chaucer. It’s about Genghis Khan who rules with his two sons and his daughter. He receives 3 gifts with magical qualities, which turn into subplots.
- The Franklin’s Tale
A franklin is a landowner, and his story is about providence, truth & generosity in human relationships. While her husband is away, Dorigen is courted by another. To be rid of him, she sets him an impossible task, which he completes with the help of a magician. When her husband returns, they are in despair but she keeps her promise. However, the man recognizes the couple’s true love, and releases her from her oath.
- The Physician’s Tale
A beautiful girl is to be taken away from her father by an evil judge. To save her from this fate, the father beheads her. When the judge wants to punish him, the people rise up and the judge is deposed.
- The Pardoner’s Tale
A pardoner is someone who sells papal pardons. His moral tale which warns of the dangers of greed is meant to cheer everyone up after the depressing physician’s story. It’s about three men who find a chest of gold. Two of the men plot to kill the third to have the treasure to themselves. They succeed, but then die as well when drinking the wine the first man poisoned because he wanted the gold all to himself.
- The Shipman’s Tale
This is a reteller of a common folk tale known as “the lover’s gift regained” about a merchant, his wife and her monk lover. This story not only criticises the clergy, but also connects money, business and sex. A similar wife can be found in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
- The Prioress’s Tale
A Prioress is the head of a house of nuns. Her tale is about plays out in Asia where a boy living in a Christian city is brought up to revere Mary. He is killed by Jews and his body is found by his mother. The guilty Jews are drawn by wild horses and hanged, on request of the Christian head of the city.
- Sir Thopas’ Tale
This is one of two tales told by the fictitious Geoffrey Chaucer character. To lift the pilgrim’s spirits after the gruesome Prioress’s tale, he tells the frivolous story of a knight and his quest to win the elf-queen’s heart.
- The Tale of Melibee
This tale is also told by the Chaucer character. It’s the longest of all the tales, and is based on the French “Livre de Melibée et de Dame Prudence” by Renaud de Louens, which in its turn was a loose translation of “Liber consolationis et consilii” by Albertanus of Brescia.
- The Monk’s Tale
This is a collection of seventeen short tragedies. THey recount the tragi endings of religious and historical figures: Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Pedro of Castile, Peter I of Cyprus, Bernabò Visconti, Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes, Antiochus, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Croesus.
- The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
This poem is based on a scene out of the fox Reynard stories: when Cauntecleer, a proud rooster, meets a sly fox. The fox plays to the rooster’s ego to capture him, and later the rooster does the same thing to escape the fox.
- The Second Nun’s Tale
A very spiritual nun tells the story of Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians. To prove he is worthy of her love, her husband travels to Urban to convince him of his pure intentions and be baptized as a Christian. The Roman prefect sentences him to death, and also tries to kill Cecilia. She survives being boiled alive and lives for 3 more days after being beheaded, all the while preaching Christianity.
- The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale
A Canon is a priest from a certain order and the yeoman is his servant. The yeoman tells two stories about Canons alchemists and their shady business dealings.
- The Manciple’s Tale
A manciple is someone who buys provisions for a law court. His fable is a myth that explains why a crow has black feathers and the moral of the story is an injunction against gossip.
- The Parson’s Tale
According to the prologue, this was intended as the final tale in The Canterbury Tales. The parson (a type of priest) cannot rhyme nor alliterate so he tells a story in prose. It’s about penance and penitence, which he divides into three parts: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth and finally satisfaction.
My favourite stories are the Wife of Bath’s tale and the short tragedies told by the Monk. Have you read The Canterbury Tales? If not, I do suggest it. There are so much layers to this book and this collection of short stories can be read in any order you want. If you can’t read Middle English, there are many modern English translations, and new versions are still being published to this day.
Fun fact: about 2000 words have been credited to Chaucer, as the earliest uses of these words can be found in his works. You can find the list right here.
That is all for today! Do let me know if you have read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and what you thought of them in the comments!