Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer 1340-1400 (?)
 Father of English
 Middle class, welleducated (father was
wine merchant)
 Served at court
 Diplomatic missions to
France, Spain, Italy
 Catholic who perceived
abuses within Church
and exposed them
Church in England
 Pope collecting heavier & heavier taxes from England
 Political maneuvering among bishops against Roman control
 As English kings gained power, they began to resist power of
 English church full of ignorant priests & corrupt officials
 simony, indulgences, abuse of church courts & positions
 Common person unschooled & illiterate: couldn’t dispute
religious leaders
 John Wycliffe (1328-84) English theologian and religious
reformer who rejected biblical basis of papal power and
disputed doctrine of the transubstantiation; translated first
English Bible from Latin Vulgate
Languages of Engand
 Old English: form of German spoken by
Saxons before Norman Conquest
 Middle English: influx of French; Latinization
 Native tongue, Latin and French spoken
Pilgrim’s Route
The Place: Canterbury
 connected 3 trading ports to London; Julius Caesar
invaded in 43 A.D.
 Roman civilization with theatres, baths, temples, etc.
until invasion of Angles, Saxons, Jutes in 5th/6th
 Canterbury converted to Christianity in 597 by Saint
 Monastery, today’s Cathedral, founded in 602 by St.
Augustine; Canterbury as mother of British Christianity
 Surrendered at Battle of Hastings (1066) to William
the Conqueror; Cathedral destroyed by fire in 1067;
 fortified with new walls, gates, stone keep
St. Augustine
Thomas a Beckett
 Thomas Becket
archbishop; struggled
for church’s
independence with
King Henry II; exiled to
France for 6 years;
returned & angered
 “Not one will deliver me
from this low-born
priest.” 4 knights
murdered him
December 29, 1170, in
Cathedral, spilling his
brains on floor;
canonized 3 years
later and shrine
completed in 1220
Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral
The Tales
 work existed in fragments at Chaucer’s death
 planned for each of 30 to tell 2 tales/going & 2
tales/returning (120 stories in original framework)?
 we have only one story each from 24 pilgrims
 written between 1357-1400
 each tale deals with one of Chaucer’s themes
 richest portrayal of religious men & women in earthly
scene (Dante: portrayal of life after death)
 detached delight of Chaucer
 regularly rhyming couplets
 Chaucer customarily writes a five-stress, ten-syllable
line, alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (what
would later be called iambic pentameter):
 told in social order (except for Miller)
A pageant of 14th Century life
 Pilgrims span the whole range of the unofficial
middle class. Groups represented are:
 Upper class (Knight, Squire, church people);
 Learned professions (Physician, Man of Law);
 Landed gentry (Franklin);
 Medieval manor people (Miller, Reeve);
 Mercantile class (Shipman, Merchant);
 Guildsmen (Haberdasher, Dyer, etc.);
 Laborer (Plowman).
Structure & Style
 Tales have different tones, attitudes, poetic style:
 Marian miracle tale for Prioress
 Sermonic structure for Pardoner’s tale
 Supernatural, folkloric tale for Wife of Bath
 Point of View
 Chaucer enables reader to see story, person telling
story, point behind story--all at once
 points of view represent different outlooks, morals
 Sources: virtually every type of medieval writing
 Fabliaux, mini-epics, romances, fables, exempla,
lays, anecdotes, a sermon, religious allegories
Chaucer’s Attitude
 Five ideals, Chaucer treats seriously (Knight,
Squire, Clerk, Parson, Plowman);
 Some he pokes fun at (Prioress, Monk, Wife of
 Some is quiet about; short portraits with now
personal view coming through (Prioress's
 Some not very good; Chaucer is just a little
negative (Shipman, Manciple);
 Hardened sinners, all of them religious officials
(Friar, Pardoner, Summoner)
General Prologue
 Introduction of pilgrims
 Catholics (150 years before Henry VIII broke from
 Reasons for pilgrimage?
 Common to travel together: protection
 April in Southwark at Tabbard Inn, owner Harry Bailey
 Bailey suggests they pass time by taking turns telling
stories; best will win prize
 Brief portraits of pilgrims
 Attitude of Chaucer the Pilgrim
 Three estates and rising middle class represented
7 Church Officials
 sentimental depiction, proud in petty
 hedonistic, hunter, inept but not
 seducer, sells forgiveness
Parson and Plowman
 ideal religious men
 Parson one of 2 heroes in tales
 blackmailed, bribed on way to
success; ugly, stupid thug
 perfect fraud: charming, clever,
corrupt; biggest hypocrite
 secular church official fighting
w/church official (Friar)
"The General Prologue" presents a vivid
cross-section of the people who composed
the various social classes of 14th Century
England. Organize the characters depicted
in the "Prologue" based on social position
first then on their morality. What seems to
be Chaucer's opinion of the Clergy? Of the
other classes? Which characters does
Chaucer seem to esteem or criticize? What
attributes do these characters have that
Chaucer appears to value or not?
The Pilgrims
The Lawyer
The Franklin
The Cook
The Physician
The Wife of Bath
The Parson
The Plowman
The Miller
The Manciple
The Reeve
The Summoner
The Pardoner
The Host
Chaucer the Pilgrin
The Prioress’s Tale
Cult of the Virgin
Marian Miracle tale
Anti-Semitic legends
Hugh of Lincoln,
murdered in 1255
 Relation of Teller to
Tale: who is antisemitic? The
Prioress? Chaucer?
Is the Prioress’s Tale anti-semitic? Does
Chaucer approve or condemn it?
Chaucer? What type of religiousity is
expressed in the tale? Does the
description of her seem to match her
tale? What is the relation between teller
and tale?
The Pardoner’s Tale
 Pardoner: a layman who sells
pardons or indulgences,
certificates from the pope by
which people hoped to gain a
share in the merits of the
saints and escape more
lightly from the pains of
Purgatory after they die
 Eunuch--The Pardoner is
spiritually sterile, a more
significant fact than being
physically sterile.
The Pardoner’s Tale
 The tale is an incomplete sermon. A medieval
sermon should contain six parts:
1.Statement of theme or text;
2.Protheme, introduced directly from the four gospels;
3.Dilatation, expansion of the Biblical text;
4.Exemplum, a story illustrating the point;
5.Peroration, the application or eloquent haranguing;
6.Benediction, the closing formula.
 This tale contains only parts 1, 4, 5, and 6.
How does the Pardoner characterize
himself in the Prologue to his tale?
What text does he always preach on?
Do you see irony in this? What is the
relation between teller and tale?
Wife of Bath
 Experience vs
 The nature of
 Role of man and
women in marriage:
who is in top?
 What do women
 Is this tale antifeminist?
Why does she open her “Prologue by claiming that
experience is a better guide to truth than authority? Do
you think this helps in her argument on marriage and in
her general defense? Are her arguments problematic?
Does the Wife completely reject antifeminist attitudes
toward women, or does she provide proof that these
“old books” are correct in what they assume about
women? Do you believe that she is an object of satire
in her “Prologue” or an instrument of satire---or
somehow both at the same time?
What is the relationship between teller and tale? Is it an
appropriate tale for her to tell?
Chaucer’s Retraction
Chaucer is retracting what works? Is he

Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales