The Canterbury Tales
By: Geoffrey Chaucer
Introductory Notes
England during the 1300s…
• England had a population of approximately 2 ½
million people
• London, the capital, was about one square mile
• Countryside was scattered with small towns,
most of which had less than 150 people
• England was at a crossroads
• Medieval behavior was on the way out, but the
Renaissance had not yet fully blossomed
• Endless rebellions by the middle-class chipped
away at the feudal system
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)
• Chaucer was born around 1340
(anywhere from 1340 to 1343)
• Father was successful (wine and leather
making), mother was a member of the
• Chaucer was well-educated and placed in
as an attendant in the house of Prince
Lionel (one of King Edward III’s sons)
Teenage years…
• Joined the English Army as a teenager
• In 1359, went to France on an invasion
excursion and was taken prisoner
• Successfully ransomed in 1360
• Little is known about him until his
marriage in 1366
• During those years, his father died and
his mother remarried
His adult life…
He married Phillipa de Roet in 1366
(she was a lady in waiting to the queen)
He began to write in the mid-1360s
In 1367, he became a servant of the
court and traveled for the King to all
parts of Europe
His travels exposed him to French and
Italian literature
Became Comptroller of Customs in
The later years…
In 1386, he became a Knight of Shire and also
a member of Parliament
In 1387-ish, he began writing The Canterbury
The work was still unfinished at the time of his
death in 1400
He was buried in Westminster Abbey (a rare
honor for a commoner)
In 1566, a marble tomb was built in his honor
(this began the famous “Poets’ Corner” in
Westminster Abbey where many other great
English authors are buried)
Background on The Canterbury Tales
Written about a pilgrimage to
Canterbury, England
Pilgrimage is to the shrine of Saint
Thomas a’ Becket
Becket was appointed archbishop of
Canterbury by King Henry II in 1162
However, the two quarreled bitterly
over the rights of the church
• Four of King Henry’s
loyal knights murdered
the archbishop in his
own cathedral in 1170
• King Henry II did not
mean for the knights to
kill Becket, just to
scare him
• Becket was declared a
saint in 1173
• People went on yearly
pilgrimages to honor the
fallen saint
• Work was not finished at the time of Chaucer’s
death in 1400
• Scholars pieced together the stories in the order
that seemed to make most sense
• Was not published during Chaucer’s lifetime, there
were five different dialects in England at the
time. Many English people would not have
understood it anyway because of the specific
The Prologue
• One spring day in Southwark at the Tabard Inn, the
narrator (Chaucer) awaits the pilgrimage that is to occur
the next day
• That evening, a company of 29 persons arrive at the Inn,
all of whom are Canterbury pilgrims
• Chaucer is admitted to their company.
• It is at this point that Chaucer begins to describe his
The Prologue
• The Prologue gives an admirable description
of the uncomplicated life in England during
the Middle Ages
• Here are portraits of all levels of English life.
In this group, Chaucer brings together all of
the foibles and virtues of man and the
manners and morals of his time with
remarkable clarity
• Throughout the Prologue, Chaucer alternately
praises or chides the travelers with his word
portraits which provide insights into the life
of his time
The Knight
• The perfect and genteel man who loves
truth, freedom, chivalry, and honor
• He is truly a distinguished man
• He had ridden into battle in both
Christian and heathen lands and in every
instance, served his king well
• Despite his valorous deeds, the Knight
never boasts of his actions nor bores
his listeners with his feats
• The Knight is the most socially
prominent person on this journey, and
certain praises are given to him
throughout the journey
• He tells the first story and many
pilgrims offer him compliments
• One fact that Chaucer’s audience would
have been aware of is that of all the
battles the Knight fought in, none were
in the King’s secular wars, they were all
religious wars of some nature
The Squire
• The Squire would be a candidate
for Knighthood.
• When not in battle, he thinks of
himself as quite a lady’s man
• He takes meticulous care of his
curly locks and is somewhat proud
of his appearance
• He could also sing lusty songs,
compose melodies, write poetry,
and ride a horse with distinction
The Yeoman
• The Yeoman is a servant to
the Knight and the Squire
• He is dressed in all green
and is known as an expert
• He is an excellent shot
with the bow and arrow
The Nun (Prioress)
• The Nun’s name is Madam
• A gentle lady whose greatest
oath is “by St. Loy”
• Rather well-educated, even
though her French is not the
“accepted” Parisian French
• She is very coy and delicate
• Chaucer’s description of the Prioress is
filled with gentle and subtle irony
• Here is a picture of a lady who happens
to be a nun, but she never forgets that
she is a lady first. Her oath “by St. Loy”
implies that she has chosen the most
fashionable and handsome saint who was
also famous for his great courtesy
• Her emphasis on her appearance and her
possessions (including her three dogs)
suggest that she secretly longs for a
more worldly life
• Even the inscription on her brooch is a
phrase that was used in both religion
and in the many courtly romances
• The brooch itself is a lovely piece of
• In general, she would be the ideal head
of a girl’s finishing school in nineteenth
century America
The Nun’s Associates
• The Nun (Prioress) had another Nun
with her (to serve as her secretary)
• She also had three priests with her as
• Two of the three priests will relate
tales, and one of these tales will prove
to be one of the most popular of all the
The Monk
• An outrider for his monastery
(that is, he is in charge of the
outlying property)
• He owns several horses,
furnished with the finest
saddles and bridles
• He loves hunting and good
food (lots of it)
• He owns several good hunting
dogs of which he was very
• He dresses in fine clothes,
some are even trimmed in fur
• His favorite food is roasted swan
• In general, he favors an outdoor life to
that of a closed, indoor existence
• Chaucer’s art here is demonstrated
through his use of irony
• While Chaucer never makes a comment
about his characters, he arranges and
selects his material so that the reader
can come to a conclusion about each one
• When the Monk says that he doesn’t approve of
the solitary prayerful existence in a monastery,
Chaucer pretends to be convinced that the
Monk’s argument is right
• But we see that it is right only because this
particular Monk tries to justify his nonmonastic activities and for this monk, it is the
right existence
• Everything that the Monk does is a violation of
his monastic orders
• His love of worldly goods, food, pleasures, and
his dislike of the quiet monastery contradict his
religious vows
The Friar
•The Friar was a merry man, named Hubert, who
helped many girls get married, after he got them
in trouble
•He worked under the principle that penance is
best executed by money, rather than by prayers
(the person contributing the most money
received the quickest and best pardon)
•He knew the taverns and inns better than he
knew the leper houses and alms houses
•The Friar used every vicious and immoral
method to get money from parishioners Chaucer
uses sarcasm to describe him as the “best” in his
profession. That is, if we judge a Friar on how
well he extorted money from people, then he is
the “best”
•Essentially, this Friar is evil and cunning, he is
not a man of God
The Merchant
• The Merchant is a
member of the rich
and powerful rising
middle class
• He is shrewd and
knows a good bargain
• He talks and looks so
solemn and impressive
that many people did
not realize that he
truly was in debt
The Oxford Cleric
• The Cleric (or Clerk), who is a
student at Oxford, is extremely
thin, rides a very thin horse, and
his clothes are all threadbare
because he prefers to buy books
rather than clothes and food
• He does not talk often, but when
he does, it is with great dignity
and moral virtue
• The Clerk is probably working on
some advanced degree with the
idea of attaining some sort of
high position. Next to the Knight,
he is one of the most admired
people on the pilgrimage
The Sergeant at the Law
• The Sergeant of the Law is
an able attorney who can
recall every word and comma
of every court case, a feat
which earned him high
distinction and handsome
• However, he makes people
think he is busier than he
really is.
• There is an implication that
he has perhaps used his
position to attain more wealth
without ever actually violating
the letter of the law
The Franklin
• The Franklin is a large
landowner, with a certain
amount of wealth, but he is
not of noble birth
• He spends his money freely,
enjoying good food, wine, and
• His house is always open and
he devotes his energies to
fine living and is generally
liked by the other pilgrims
The Haberdasher, The Dyer, The
Carpenter, the Weaver, the Carpet-maker
•These are men who belong to a
guild, an organization similar to a
fraternity and/or labor union
•Each is luxuriously dressed in
the manner of his calling (job)
and each is impressed with his
membership in the guild to which
he belongs
•The guildsmen have a cook who
is one of the best
The Cook
• The cook is a master of his
trade. He knows how to
boil, bake, roast, and fry.
• Chaucer implies that it is a
shame that he has a running
sore on his leg, because his
best dish is a creamed
chicken pie whose white
sauce might be the same
color as the liquid running
from the sore
The Skipper
• The Shipman (Skipper/Sailor)
is a huge, somewhat uncouth
• He is a master shipman and
knows all of the ports from
the Mediterranean to the
• He can read the stars and
knows how to fight well, but
he does not ride a horse well
• He looks like a “fish out of
water” as he sits on his horse
The Doctor
• The Doctor (Medic) is a
highly intelligent man, he
knows about astronomy and
nature along with medicine
• However, everyone thinks he
is in cohorts with the
• Not a very religious man
• He apparently made a lot of
money during the past plague,
but hadn’t spent much of it
• He sometimes prescribes gold
as a cure for illness
The Wife of Bath
• The Wife of Bath is slightly deaf, but
is an excellent weaver and seamstress
• She makes a point of being first at the
altar at church
• She wears many kerchiefs and red
• She was married five times and had
gone on previous pilgrimages
(Jerusalem, Rome, Bologna, Galice, and
• She has gap-teeth and knows how to
ride a horse “daintily”.
• She has a good sense of humor and
loves to talk to people (sometimes to a
The Parson
• The Parson is very poor, but is
rich in holy thoughts and works
• He would rather give his own
scarce money to his poor
parishioners than to demand
tithes from them
• His motto is to live the perfect
life first, and then to teach it
• He “walked the walk and talked
the talk” when it came to
religion (compare to other
religious pilgrims)
The Plowman
• The Plowman was a small farmer who
lived perfect peace and charity
• He loved God with all of his heart
• He was always honest with his neighbors
and promptly paid his tithes to the
The Miller
• The Miller is a big,
brawny man who can
outwrestle any man
• His red beard and a
wart on his nose from
which bristly red hairs
protruded make him
look fearful
• He plays the bagpipes
as the pilgrims leave
the town
The Manciple
• The Manciple is a steward
for a law school (or
dormitory for lawyers) in
London and is in charge of
purchasing the food
• He is not as learned as the
lawyers, but is so shrewd
in buying that he has been
able to put aside a little
sum for himself
The Reeve
• The Reeve is the manager of a large estate.
He is a skinny man with a bad temper. His
close cut beard and his short haircut
accentuate his thinness and long legs
• He is an able, efficient, and shrewd man who
has reaped rich rewards from his master.
The serfs fear him because of his
unrelenting perseverance. Like the Manciple,
he accumulated large sums of money by being
• He was once a carpenter and rode last in the
group of pilgrims
• It is not of extreme importance now that the
Reeve was once a carpenter, but Chaucer
anticipated a Reeve’s Tale later on. The
Miller will tell a dirty story about a
carpenter, and since the Reeve was once a
carpenter, he feels the need for revenge by
telling a dirty story about a miller
The Summoner
• The Summoner (a man paid to summon
sinners for a trial before a church court)
has a fire-red complexion, pimples, and
boils, a scaly infection around his eyebrows,
and a moth-eaten beard
• Children are afraid of him because of his
looks. To make matters worse, he loves to
eat garlic, onions, and leeks. He also drinks
strong wine
• He can quote a few lines of Latin, which he
uses to impress people. He often drank
instead of doing his job, letting people
continue to live in sin. The Summoner is
also acquainted with “ladies of questionable
• The physical appearance of the Summoner
matches his profession. He is so ugly and
so gruesome looking that a summons from
him is, in itself, a horrible experience.
Again, Chaucer uses irony here when
describing him as a “good fellow”
The Pardoner
• The Pardoner is a church official who has
authority from Rome to sell pardons and
indulgences to those charged with sins
• He had just returned from Rome with a
bagful of pardons, which he plans to sell to
the ignorant at a great profit to himself
• He has a loud, high-pitched voice, yellow
flowing hair, and was beardless
• He knows how to sing and preach so as to
frighten everyone into buying his pardons
at a great price
• The Pardoner seems to be one of the most
corrupt of the churchmen. From the
Prologue to his tale, he confesses his
hypocrisy. And furthermore, Chaucer
implies that he is not really a man, that is,
that he is perverted or distorted in some
The Host
• The Host is a merry man who liked good
company and good stories. He was a
large jovial person and was well-liked by
the pilgrims
Overview of the Pilgrims and the
• These, then, are the main members of the party
about to leave for Canterbury. That evening, the
Host at the Tabard Inn, serves the company an
excellent dinner after which he suggests that, in
order to make the trip pass more pleasantly, each
member of the party should tell two tales on the way
to Canterbury and two tales on the way home
• The person who tells his story best is to be given a
sumptuous dinner by the other members of the party
• The Host adds that, in order to keep the journey
bright and merry, that he will accompany them to
Canterbury and serve as the judge of the stories. All
of the pilgrims agree to this idea
• Early the next morning, the party leaves for
• Two miles away, at St. Thomas-a-Watering,
the Host silences the travelers and announces
that they will draw straws to see in what
order the stories will be told
• The Knight draws the shortest straw. He
agrees to tell the first tale, and here ends
the Prologue and begins the first tale
• If Chaucer had completed his original plans,
that each of the pilgrims would tell two tales
each way, there would have been
approximately 120 tales
Tales told by…
• Not surprisingly, Chaucer never completed all
of the 120 tales told by the pilgrims
• There are tales told by the: Knight, Miller,
Reeve, Cook, Sergeant at the Law, Wife of
Bath, Friar, Summoner, Clerk (Cleric),
Merchant, Squire, Franklin, Physician,
Pardoner, Shipman, Prioress (Nun), Monk,
Nun’s Priest, Second Nun, Yeoman, Manciple,
and the Parson

The Canterbury Tales