The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales sometime around 1387 A.D.; the uncompleted manuscript was published in 1400, the year he died. Having recently passed the six hundredth anniversary of its publication, the book is still of interest to modern students for several reasons. For one thing, The Canterbury Tales is recognized as the first book of poetry written in the English language. Before Chaucer’s time, even poets who lived in England wrote in Italian or Latin, which meant that poetry was only understandable to people of the wealthy, educated class. English was considered low class and vulgar. To a great degree, The Canterbury Tales helped make it a legitimate language to work in. Because of this work, all of the great writers who followed, from Shakespeare to Dryden to Keats to Eliot, owe him a debt of gratitude. It is because Chaucer wrote in English that there is a written record of the roots from which the modern language grew. Contemporary readers might find his words nearly as difficult to follow as a foreign language, but scholars are thankful for the chance to compare Middle English to the language as it is spoken now, to examine its growth.
In the same way that The Canterbury Tales gives modern readers a sense of the language at the time, the book also gives a rich, intricate tapestry of medieval social life, combining elements of all classes, from nobles to workers, from priests and nuns to drunkards and thieves. The General Prologue alone provides a panoramic view of society that is not like any found elsewhere in all of literature.
Students who are not particularly interested in medieval England can appreciate the author’s technique in capturing the variations of human temperament and behavior. Collections of stories were common in Chaucer’s time, and some still exist today, but the genius of The Canterbury Tales is that the individual stories are presented in a continuing narrative, showing how all of the various pieces of life connect to one another. This entry does not cover all the tales, only some of the most studied.
Geoffrey Chaucer came from a financially secure family that owned ample wine vineyards but held no title, and so from birth he was limited in his capacity for social growth. His date of birth is uncertain but is assumed to be around 1340–1345. While he was still a child in London, it became clear that Chaucer was a brilliant scholar, and he was sent to the prestigious St. Paul’s Almonry for his education. In 1357, he rose in society by taking a position in the royal court of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. His duties as a squire in court would have included those that are usually associated with domestic help: making beds, carrying candles, helping the gentleman of the house dress. Chaucer was given an education in his association with the household, and he met some of England’s exalted royalty.
He left in 1359 to join the army to fight the French in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Captured near Rheims, he was ransomed the following year and returned to being a squire. Being intelligent and witty, he became increasingly valuable at court for the entertainment of his poetry. By 1367, he was the valet for the King himself, and that same year, he married a woman whose rank added to his social standing: Philippa de Roet, the sister to Catherine of Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was later to take over the responsibility for ruling England when his father, Edward III, became too senile to rule before a successor was crowned.
As a valued and trusted member of the court, Chaucer was sent on several diplomatic missions, giving him a rare opportunity to see Italy and France. The influences of these languages can be traced in his poetry, and the worldliness of travel affected his storytelling ability. His political influence grew with a series of appointments: to Comptroller of taxes on wools, skins, and hides at the Port of London in 1374; Comptroller of petty customs in 1382; Justice of the Peace for the County of Kent in 1385; and Knight of the Shire in 1386.
In December of 1386, he was deprived of all of this political influence when his patron, John of Gaunt, left the country on a military expedition for Spain and the Duke of Gloucester replaced him. It is assumed that it was during this period of unemployment that Chaucer planned out and started writing The Canterbury Tales. When John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389, he was given a new government post, and Chaucer lived a prosperous life from then on.
There is no record of his progress on The Canterbury Tales. The plan that he laid out in the Prologue was left unfinished when he died on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and was the first of the writers to be entombed there in the area known as the Poets’ Corner.
In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the speaker of the poem as a man named Chaucer, who is traveling from London with a group of strangers to visit Canterbury, a borough to the southeast of London. This group of people is thrown together when they travel together on a trip to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury in 1170. The Prologue gives a brief description of the setting as they assemble at the Tibard Inn in South-wark to prepare for their trip. It describes each of the pilgrims, including ones who were meant to be discussed in sections of the book that were never written before Chaucer died. After the introductions, the Host, who owns the inn that they gather at and who is leading the group, suggests that they should each tell two stories while walking, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back, to pass the time more quickly. He offers the person telling the best story a free supper at the tavern when they return.
The Knight’s Tale
The first pilgrim to talk, the Knight, tells a long, involved tale of love from ancient Greece about two knights, Arcite and Palamon. They were captured in a war between Thebes and Athens and thrown into an Athenian prison to spend the rest of their lives there. From the tower they were locked in, they could see a fair maiden, Emily, in the window of her chamber every morning, and they each fell in love with her. An old friend of Arcite arranged for his release, and the ruler of Athens, Duke Theseus, agreed with just one condition: that Arcite had to leave Athens forever or be killed if he ever returned. In exile, all he could do was think about Emily, while Palamon, who was in prison, could at least look at her every day.
For two years Arcite wandered, suffering so much from lovesickness that he became worn and pale. When the god Mercury came and told him to return to Athens, he realized that he did not even look like the man he had once been. Upon returning, he secured a job in Emily’s court and became one of her servants. Meanwhile, Palamon, after seven years in prison, escaped. The two former companions soon ran into each other in the forest and fought. While they were fighting, Theseus stumbled upon them and, finding out who they were, was ready to have them both killed. His wife, however, was moved by their love for Emily and convinced them to settle their argument by leading the best soldiers in the land against each other, with the winner marrying Emily.
The Knight’s Tale goes on for hundreds of lines detailing the historic noble personages who participated in the battle and the preparations they made, including sacrifices to gods. In the battle, Palamon was injured, but no sooner was Arcite declared the winner than his horse reared up and dropped him on his head. He died that night and was given a hero’s funeral, and Palamon married Emily. They lived happily ever after: “Thus endeth Palamon and Emelye,” the Knight’s Tale ends, “And God save al this faire companye! Amen.”
The Miller’s Tale
The Miller is the next speaker; he is drunk and picks an argument with the Reeve before beginning a story about a carpenter at Oxford, who was rich and miserly. To make extra money, the carpenter rented a room to a poor student, Nicholas, who lived with the carpenter and his young, beautiful wife. Eventually, Nicholas and the young wife, Alison, started scheming about how they could have an affair without the carpenter finding out. They made use of the fact that the parish clerk, Absalon, had a crush on the wife, and would sing songs outside of her window at night. Once, Nicholas stayed up in his room, and didn’t come down for days, having prepared by hoarding enough food for a long period. When the carpenter sent a servant to get him, he found Nicholas lying as if he had suffered a seizure. The fit was caused, Nicholas explained, by a startling discovery he had made while studying astrology: that a terrible flood was coming. He convinced the carpenter to hang three tubs from the roof, so that both men and Alison would be safe from the rising waters. On the appointed day, they climbed into their separate tubs, but once the carpenter was asleep Alison and Nicholas sneaked down to the bedroom together. While they were in bed, Absalon came to the window, and, thinking Alison was alone, demanded a kiss; she put her naked backside out the window, and he kissed it in the dark. When he climbed the ladder again to object, Nicholas put his own behind out and passed gas in Absalon’s face. When John, the carpenter, came out of his basket, the young lovers told everyone in town that he was insane and had made up the crazy story about the flood, ruining his reputation forever.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s tale starts with a long Prologue, much longer than the tale she eventually tells, in which she describes to her fellow pilgrims the history of her five previous marriages and her views about relations between men and women. She defends at length the moral righteousness of people who marry often, as long as their spouses are dead, quoting the Bible as only stating that sexual abstinence is preferred but not required. In fact, she explains, the sexual organs are made to be used for sex and supports this claim with a quote from the Book of Proverbs, “Man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette” (“Man shall yield to his wife her debt”).
After the Pardoner interrupts to say that he has been thinking of being married soon, the Wife of Bath describes marriage to him, using her own marriages as examples. The first three, she says, were to old men who were hardly able to have sex with her. She flattered these men by pretending to be jealous of them, using the excuse of keeping an eye on them as an explanation for why she was always out at night. She also argued with them constantly, bringing up every stereotype about women they had ever uttered and every suspicion that they’d had about her in particular so that she could argue from a defensive position. By arguing, she was able to make them appreciate her more when she did decide to be nice to them. Her fourth husband was younger, but he made her jealous by having a mistress so she made him miserable by making him jealous too: not, as she points out, by having a sexual affair, but simply by having a good time. Her fifth and last husband, Jankin, was physically abusive, but she loved him best nonetheless because he was a good lover. She met him while still married to her fourth husband when he was living next door to her godmother. When her fourth husband died, she married Jankin and signed over to him all that she had inherited from her four previous husbands. She continued her active social life, and her sarcastic talk. One night, as Jankin was reading aloud from a scholarly work about the evils of women, she became exasperated and, reaching over, tore a page out of the book. He hit her, which permanently made her deaf, but when he realized what he had done he apologized, and after that, she explains, they have been happy together.
There is a brief interval, during which angry words are exchanged between the Friar, who mocks the Wife of Bath for her long preface, and the Summoner, who tells him to leave her alone. The wife then begins her tale, which takes place during the time of King Arthur, which was ancient legend even in Chaucer’s time. In the tale, a knight came upon a maiden walking beside the river one afternoon and raped her, for which he was condemned to death. The queen interceded, asking the king to spare the knight. When he could not answer her question about what women really desire most, the knight was sent off for a year to try to find the answer. The Wife of Bath relates several of the answers he received, including the one she favors, which is that women want to be flattered. On the day he was to return from his quest, the knight came across several dozen women in the forest, but when he approached them they disappeared, leaving an old lady in their place. She told him that the answer was that women wanted equality, which is what he told the queen, sparing his life. For giving him the right answer, the knight was obliged to marry the old woman.
On their wedding night, when he would not take her to bed, she talked to him about the difference between being born noble and being truly noble. Gentleness is a virtue, she told him, as are poverty and age. She then gave him a choice: he could have her old and ugly and faithfully devoted, or young and pretty and courted by other men. He left the choice to her, proving her equality with him, and for that she kissed him and turned into a young maiden, faithful to him forever after.
The Franklin’s Tale
A Franklin was a person who held property but no title of nobility. In the Prologue to his tale, the Franklin explains that he is going to tell a story that has been passed down in English from troubadours, who traveled from town to town, singing the story with musical accompaniment. He apologizes for lacking the verbal skill to color in the details of the story as clearly as a skilled speaker might be able to do.
His tale takes place in Brittany, a region of France that was settled by English emigrants around the year 500 A.D. A knight loved a beautiful lady named Dorigene, and when she finally consented to marry him, he promised to never do anything that would embarrass her and treat her as a respected equal. When the knight, Arveragus, was called upon to fight in England, Dorigene was left home alone. Friends took her out for walks along the ocean, but all she noticed was the dangerous rocks along the shore that Arveragus’ ship might crash onto when he returned.
Her friends took her to a dance on the sixth of May, and there Dorigene was approached by a handsome young squire, Aurelius, who declared his love for her. Aurelius had all masculine attributes possible: he was “Yong, strong, right vertuous, and riche and wys, and wel biloved, and holden in great prys.” Dorigene was too in love with her husband to care about Aurelius. To discourage him, she told him that he could have her if he could clear all of the rocks off the shoreline within two years. Aurelius set about to pray to various gods for help, asking
- The 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger and Mark Addy, is only loosely based on the Knight in The Canterbury Tales: it concerns a young squire who meets Chaucer and enlists his help in becoming a full-fledged knight. It was written and directed by Brian Helgeland and is distributed by Columbia Tristar.
- A compact disc of Trevor Eaton reading selections from The Canterbury Tales was released in 2000, marking the six hundredth anniversary of Chaucer’s death. It is available from Pearl, of Sussex, England.
- The Penguin Library edition of the Canterbury Tales, translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill, is available on six audiocassettes from Penguin. It was released in 1995 and again in 1999.
- The Canterbury Tales were adapted to an opera, sung in English, available on two compact discs from Chandos Records of Colchester, England. The performers, recorded in 1996, include Yvonne Kenny, Robert Tear, Stephen Roberts, and the London Symphony Orchestra.
- A 1995 audiocassette of The Canterbury Tales is available from Durkin Hayes of Niagara Falls, New York, with Fenella Fielding and Martin Starkie reading.
- Recorded Books has a thirteen-hour recording on nine audiocassettes, edited and hosted by Michael Murphy of Brooklyn College.
- A compact disc of songs that Chaucer mentioned or that were popular in his day was released in 2000. Recorded by Carol Wood, its title is The Chaucer Songbook: Celtic Music and Early Music for Harp and Voice.
- Several of the Canterbury Tales can be found on a 1961 recording available from Caedmon on a 1988 audiocassette release. Dame Peggy Ashcroft reads “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and Stanley Holloway and Michael MacLiommoir read “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”
- A feature film of The Canterbury Tales was made in Italy in 1971, starring Hugh Griffith, Franco Citti and Tom Baker, and it is available dubbed into English on both videodisc and videocassette from Image Entertainment of Chatsworth, CA.
- A 1991 videocassette of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is available from Educational Video Network of Huntsville, Texas.
- A 1944 feature movie, entitled A Canterbury Tale, retells the story in an updated version, setting it in the same location during World War II. It stars John Sweet and Eric Portman, and it is available on videocassette from Public Media Incorporated.
them to raise the ocean. Meanwhile, Arveragus came home and was reunited with his wife.
Aurelius’ brother, a scholar, took him to the place where he had studied, and there they consulted with a man who had studied magic. This magician made them hallucinate so that they saw various scenes, including deer in a forest, knights battling, and Dorigene dancing. For a thousand pounds in gold, he agreed to make Dorigene think the rocks had sunk into the ocean.
Aurelius went to Dorigene after the spell was cast on her and reminded her that she had agreed to go to bed with him. Distressed about the prospect of losing her honor by either breaking her word or being unfaithful to her husband, she considered killing herself. Arveragus noticed how upset she was, and she explained the situation. He told her that she would have to sleep with Aurelius rather than break her word.
When she went to offer herself to Aurelius, he asked why she had changed her mind, and she explained that she was there because her husband had insisted that she keep her promise. Aurelius was so impressed with Arveragus and his concern that Dorigene should stay honest that he freed her from her promise without touching her. Then he realized that he was financially ruined by the thousand gold pieces he had promised to pay the magician.
When he went to ask the magician to work out payment terms, Aurelius ended up telling him the whole story about letting Dorigene out of her promise. The magician was so impressed by his nobility, that he let Aurelius out of his own promise, and let him go without paying.
The Pardoner’s Tale
Before telling his tale, the Pardoner expresses his need for a drink; this raises the fear in the other pilgrims that he will tell a crude or dirty joke, but he promises not to. The Prologue to “The Pardoner’s Tale” is about his life, detailing how he makes his living by going from town to town with phony relics and documents allegedly signed by the pope and curing such ailments as snake bites and jealousy. He announces his ability to charm simple people with a well-told story, noting that they love stories that they can remember and retell: “lewd (unlearned) peple loven tales of olde; / Swich thinges can they wel reporte and holde.” When he has had enough to drink the Pardoner starts telling a tale that he often tells, promising that it will be moral and not dirty.
He starts his tale by mentioning a gang of tough youths in Flanders but soon digresses from them for a detailed discussion of sin, not only the specific sins committed by the rough characters in his story but sin in general. The irony of his lecture is that these are sins, like gambling and drinking and swearing, that the Pardoner himself is guilty of. The tale itself is about three men who were drinking in a tavern one morning when they heard the funeral of an old friend going by. Their friend died that morning, a tavern employee explained, killed by the plague, his life ended by the thief called “Death.” They set off to find Death and came across an old man who complained that, as old as he was, he could not die, but he was able to direct them to a park where he had seen Death lingering. Instead of Death, they found a pile of gold coins. One of the three was sent off to get tools to carry the gold with, and while he was gone, the other two plotted to murder him and divide his share of the gold. He had the same basic idea, however, and returned with poisoned drinks for them. They fatally stabbed him, then drank the drinks, which in turn killed them.
When he is done, the Pardoner tries to sell the other pilgrims pardons for their sins, taking advantage of their attention and their feelings of piety after hearing about such wicked men. The Host, annoyed, threatens to cut off his testicles and make relics of them, which makes the Pardoner turn quiet, seething, until the Knight intercedes and has the two men make up.
The Prioress’s Tale
A Prioress is the head nun at an abbey, or convent, and is therefore a very religious person. The irony of the tale that this Prioress tells is that she piously invokes the name of the Virgin Mary and then goes on to tell one of the most violent, bloody tales in the whole collection. The Prioress starts her short piece with an introductory poem, praising God for His goodness and praising Mary for Her great humility. From the introduction, readers are led to expect the Prioress to be a meek person who tells a simple, gentle story. Instead, she talks about an unnamed Christian town in Asia that had a Jewish ghetto. The inhabitants of the ghetto, the Prioress explains, were full of hate and anger toward the Christians, but the country’s ruler kept the Jews around for their value in money-lending, or usury. As she puts it, they were “sustained by a lord of that contree / For foule usure and lucre of vileynye, / Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye.” A seven-year-old boy, the son of a widow, lived in that town. One day, when the boy heard the other children singing the Latin hymn O Alma Redemptoris, he was immediately smitten with the beauty of the song, so he set about to learn it, even though he didn’t understand the words. One day, he walked through the Jewish ghetto singing the hymn, and the Jews, offended, hired a murderer to kill the boy. He was chased down an alley and had his throat slit and his body thrown into a drainage ditch that collected bodily waste.
The boy’s mother went searching for him when he did not come home. She found no sign of him until, passing by the drain, she heard him singing O Alma Redemptoris. A lawman was summoned, and he passed a harsh sentence against the Jews, commanding that their bodies be drawn apart by horses and then hung on spikes from a wagon. Then an abbot came and asked the boy how he was still able to sing when his throat seemed to be cut. The boy explained that his throat was indeed cut, to the bone, but that Mary came down to him and commanded that he keep singing. She placed a piece of grain on his tongue, he explains, and told him that he would only stop singing when the grain was removed. The abbot removed the grain, the singing stopped, and the boy was buried. The tale ends with the Prioress calling for guidance for Hugh of Lincoln, a martyr who was also murdered as a child.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
When the Knight declares the story that they have just heard to be too depressing, the Host asks the priest who is travelling with the nun to tell them a story that is more uplifting. His story concerns a widow who, he says, lived long ago on a farm. The widow’s two daughters, three pigs, three cows, and a sheep also lived on the farm. A rooster named Chaunticleer and seven hens, who were his wives, lived in the yard. One morning, Chaunticleer told the prettiest of his wives, Pertelote, that he had dreamt about being attacked by a hound-like creature. She responded by calling him a coward for being afraid of a dream, explaining that dreams were a sign of an unsettled digestive system. She offered to make him a laxative that would empty his system out. In response, he cited numerous examples from the Bible and from ancient mythology that illustrated how dreams accurately predicted the future. Having said this, he let the matter drop, and it was forgotten for a little over a month.
On the third of May, a fox sneaked into the farm yard, waiting patiently until Chaunticleer came down out of the barn rafters and onto the ground. Chaunticleer was alarmed, and ready to fly away, until the fox flattered him, telling him that he had a beautiful singing voice, as did his mother and father. At the fox’s request, Chaunticleer threw back his shoulder, ready to sing out a song, when the fox reached over and grabbed him by the neck.
When all of the hens he was married to screamed an alarm, the fox tried to escape with the rooster in his mouth, but the widow and her daughters, hearing the alarm, ran out of the house and joined the other barnyard animals in chasing the fox. Coming to his senses, Chaunticleer suggested to the fox that he should taunt the people chasing him, telling them that they could never catch him; when the fox opened his mouth to do this, Chaunticleer flew free. The fox tried once more to convince the rooster that it was all a misunderstanding, that he actually had a secret reason for carrying him away in his mouth, but Chaunticleer, having learned his lesson, refused to go near him. The Nun’s Priest ends this tale by reminding his listeners about the dangers of falling for flattery. In the epilogue to this story, the Host expresses his delight with the story that they have just heard, and he congratulates the Priest for being such a strong, brawny man, which is not what one expects from someone in his profession.
When The Canterbury Tales were written, Christianity was the dominant social force throughout western Europe, including England. Its influence stretched across the social spectrum from nobles to poor beggars. In 1388, while Chaucer was working on the tales, a change occurred in the way that Christianity was perceived and practiced when John Wycliffe, an English reformer, released a version of the Bible translated into English. For the first time, people from the lower classes, who had not been educated in Latin, could read the Bible themselves instead of having its word interpreted to them by members of the clergy.
The influence of Christianity can be seen in The Canterbury Tales by the variety of social types presented. Fourteenth century Christian society had room for different ways of incorporating faith into lifestyle. The Knight, for instance, espouses romantic love and brotherliness, and the Franklin tells a tale that ends with mercy and forgiveness for all. The Prioress, on the other hand, tells a story that propagates hatred toward non-Christians, making them out to be evil and relishing their punishment. The Wife of Bath proves to be very familiar with Biblical Scripture, finding her own sexuality to be acceptable, if not ideal, by Biblical standards. The Pardoner is the most cynical Christian, condemning the very behaviors that he indulges in and trying to sell salvation by way of the counterfeit icons and the signed certificates from the pope he carries with him. It was in fact the sort of fraud perpetuated by people like the Pardoner, as well as actions by angry reformers like Wycliffe to make religion accessible to the common people, that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that weakened the Catholic Church’s powerful hold over Western thought.
Many of the stories in this book deal with deception—the potential to mislead people with words and the consequences that result. In some cases, decent people are compelled to employ deception, such as when Arcite from “The Knight’s Tale” disguises himself to enter the court of Emily, whom he loves, or when Aurelius from “The Franklin’s Tale” is driven by love to trick Dorigene so that she will leave her husband for him. Other characters are deceptive for purely greedy reasons, such as the fox who charms Chaunticleer twice (once successfully, once not) in “The Nun’s Priest’s
Topics for Further Study
- Have your own storytelling contest. Make sure that each participant tells two stories, since Chaucer originally intended each traveler to tell one story on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back home.
- Assign people from your class to play the parts of storytellers from The Canterbury Tales and have them describe to one another an experience they have had in the twenty-first century. Vote on the stories that were the best and talk about why.
- Find out what kind of food these pilgrims would have eaten when they stopped at inns on their trip, and try making some of it.
- Using words found throughout the text of The Canterbury Tales, try to translate a favorite song into Middle English.
- Write an essay explaining how these tales are or are not like the urban folk legends that are constantly circulated on the Internet.
Tale,” and the three thieves who plot to kill each other to increase their share of the found gold in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Still, other characters in the tales deceive people for the noble cause of teaching them a lesson about how to behave. For instance, the “old woman” in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” only pretends to be old and ugly until the knight in that story proves that he has thought about how women should be treated and that he has learned to respect more than superficial beauty.
There is excitement in the air as this band of pilgrims travels toward the religious shrine at Canterbury, where they all hope to gain God’s grace. Their trip begins in April, and the very first lines of the book emphasize the significance of that time of year: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote.” In other words, the poem begins by evoking the process of rainwater reaching dormant roots, revitalizing them. It is the period of revitalization that happens over and over in the earth’s cycle each spring. It is a time of renewal, of life, of the glories of nature shaking off the mundane. It is a time of beginnings and a time of hope.
In addition to this beginning of the General Prologue, there are several additional places where the time of year is mentioned, referring back to springtime in several of the tales. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” the young wife who misses her husband while he is away is approached by a handsome, muscular, wealthy stranger while she is at a dance on the sixth of May, adding even more temptation to that presented by his charms. Spring is the time of fertility for plants, which has evolved over time to it being associated with romantic love. The text is also very specific in stating that it was the third of May when Chaunticleer forgot his foreboding dream and allowed himself to be tricked by the fox who asked him to sing. The implication is that the beauty of the season may have pushed the premonition of death from Chaunticleer’s mind, driving his concentration toward more uplifting things (such as the sound of his own singing) and away from life’s more frightening prospects.
The characters in the tales told by the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury show more concern about their social reputations than the pilgrims themselves show. In part, this is due to the instructive nature of tales in general: many of these tales are told to teach a “moral” to their listeners, and so they often include advice about personal behavior, with an emphasis on observable behaviors. The most obvious example of one of these pilgrims preaching the need for a good reputation is the Pardoner, who claims that he cannot start his story until he has taken a drink and then immediately starts by warning his listeners against drinking with several stories from the Bible to illustrate his point that “The Holy Writ take I to my witness / That luxurie (lechery) is in wyn and drunkenness.” The Knight, on the other hand, seems to live by the same code of nobility that the knights in his story live by, while the Nun’s Priest, a meek man who almost escapes notice, tells the story of the danger that pride and bragging bring to the rooster Chaunticleer. Perhaps the most powerful story about keeping a good reputation is the Franklin’s. In it, Dorigene is so torn by the prospect of having to cheat on her husband to stay true to her promise that she considers suicide as a way of avoiding either prospect, while her husband, who is just as concerned about her reputation, would rather have her sleep with another man than break her word. The story rewards them both by having Aurelius forgive the wife her promise because he is so moved by the honor they both show, and it rewards Aurelius by having the magician forgive his huge debt because he has shown himself noble enough to recognize the nobility of the couple.
The poetic meter, or rhythm, used throughout The Canterbury Tales is iambic pentameter. This means that each line is based on pairs of syllables, proceeding from one that would be unstressed in normal speech to one that is stressed. This pattern is called the iamb, and a poetic structure based on it is called iambic. When the English language is spoken, this pattern occurs naturally, so the rhythm of an iambic poem is hardly noticeable when read aloud. Because the lines generally have five iambs each, for a total of ten syllables per line, the rhythm is described as iambic pentameter—“penta” is the Greek word for “five.”
Throughout The Canterbury Tales, lines are paired off into rhyming couplets, which means that each pair of lines has similar-sounding words that rhyme at the end. A poem that is written in iambic pentameter and has rhyming couplets is said to be written using heroic couplets. This structure drives the poem along, page after page, giving it a sense of order that it would lack if it were written without any structure but using a natural rhythm that readers do not have to focus on. Because the language of Chaucer’s time is not familiar to modern ears, students, stopping frequently to look up pronunciations and spellings, often have trouble recognizing the ease of the rhythm unless the poem is read aloud by a reader experienced with Middle English.
One of Chaucer’s greatest achievements with this poem is his ability to alter his style for the different speakers. The meter (rhythmic scheme) stays consistent throughout, but he is able to give distinctive personalities to each of the speaking characters by giving them different vocabularies and having them express themselves with different images. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, is told with a more gentle and mannerly voice than, say, the Wife of Bath’s or the Pardoner’s. This can be seen when the Knight notices he has strayed from an important subject, at the start of the third section of his tale, and he chastises himself, saying, with formal diction, “I trowe men wolde deme it neglicence / If I foryete to tellen the dispence / Of Theseus.” The Wife of Bath, by contrast, is so self-centered that she becomes caught up in talking about herself and nearly forgets to tell a tale. Her lack of refinement can be seen in her language, from the use of shorter words to the fact that she tells her tale in the present tense. A common example of her language comes from line 1022 of her tale: “When they be comen to court, this knight / seyde he had holde his day, as he hadde hight, / And redy was his answere, as he sayde.” Each character speaks in a distinctive style that is appropriate to his or her social situation and, more importantly, to his or her specific personality.
The Black Plague
During Chaucer’s lifetime, the Black Plague swept across Europe, causing hundreds of thousands of people to die in a gruesome way and changing the way that common citizens looked at mortality. The plague originated in the north of India during the 1330s and spread quickly, affecting much of Asia by the mid-1340s. Its spread to Europe was no accident. Mongol-Tartar armies, in an attempt to discourage Italian trade caravans from crossing their territory on their way to and from China, catapulted bodies of infected victims over the walls of their fortresses at the Italians, who subsequently brought the disease back to their country. While carrying on their trade, they infected other travelers, who carried the disease to the most crowded cities on the continent. The plague struck Spain and France in 1348 and reached England the following year. By the time that The Canterbury Tales was published in 1400, a third of the people of Europe had died of the Black Plague. During the last half of the fourteenth century, though, scientific inquiry about the plague led to the discovery that it was spread by fleas that had picked up the virus from rats. Chaucer’s pilgrims may seem lax in their hygienic practices: for instance, the specific point of the Nun being noteworthy for not getting grease into the wine cup when she drank from it and passed it on, or the characters who share beds with strangers. Still, their practices reflect a heightened
Compare & Contrast
- Fourteenth Century: The Bible is published in English for the first time in 1382 by John Wycliffe, in a protest against the power of the Catholic Church.
Today: English is the language recognized in most countries and is the unofficial language of international trade.
- Fourteenth Century: The world’s most powerful nations are ruled by monarchs who inherit their political power as part of their birthright. The king of France takes the throne in 1388, at age nineteen, while the King of England is twenty-two when he takes the throne in 1389.
Today: Many countries have democratically elected governments. The most populous country in the world, China, is a socialist dictatorship.
- Fourteenth Century: London, England’s largest city, has a population of 50,000. No other city in England has even half that many citizens.
Today: London is still England’s largest city, with a population of nearly seven million.
- Fourteenth Century: The revolution in art and science known as the Renaissance is just beginning. New theories develop about the nature of humanity and artistic means to represent humanity in painting, sculpture, music, and literature.
Today: Some consider humanity to be at the beginning of a new age, spurred by the fact that the personal computer has given ordinary individuals access to millions of pieces of information and the means to create complex artistic works.
- Fourteenth Century: The Roman Catholic Church, though corrupted by a series of popes who rose to power using financial means, is a powerful influence on all of western society.
Today: Christianity, which split during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, still has the most members worldwide, but the West is becoming increasingly aware of religions like Hinduism and Islam, which have hundreds of millions of adherents around the world.
sense of the ways in which lethal diseases can spread, and their physical interactions with each other are more cautious than they would have been a generation earlier. The characters in The Canterbury Tales, such as the Pardoner, who mentions a death by plague in his poem, reflect an enlightened and cautious generation that is familiar with sudden illness and death and that hopes for a better life.
The Hundred Years’ War
When Chaucer wrote this work, and throughout his entire lifetime, England was at war with France. The two countries had suffered strained relations for a long time before 1328, when war broke out between them following the death of France’s king, Charles IV. Charles’s daughter was rejected as a ruler, and so Edward II, the king of England, thought that he should be named king of France as well, for Edward’s mother was Isabella, the sister of Charles IV. The French people did not want their country subservient to England in any way, and so they chose Philip Valois to rule as Philip VI. Edward, feeling that his claim on the French throne was stronger, led an invasion with 30,000 men. He was spectacularly successful, but the French had strong defenses around and within their major cities, and they were dug in to defend themselves in a series of battles fought during the ensuing century.
Of Edward’s sons, one, also named Edward but called the Black Prince, led the British forces to victory in several battles, taking most of the south of France for the throne of England. The Black Prince died in 1376, after turning over his French holdings to John of Gaunt, another of Edward’s sons. Geoffrey Chaucer was a squire in the household of John of Gaunt and was married to the sister of his wife. He served with John on several campaigns during the Hundred Years’ War. In Edward III’s last years, when he was too ill to oversee his government, John ruled England; he gave up his power when Richard II was named as successor in 1377. After that, John worked to bring peace between the English and the French, with Chaucer as a trusted aid.
Despite the military superiority of the English, the French resisted, fighting until 1453 and eventually taking back almost all of their land. The result of the war was to clarify France’s identity as a separate social and political entity (one of the heroes of the Hundred Years’ War was Joan of Arc, who remains today an important symbol of the French spirit) and to establish international relations between the countries of Europe.
The word renaissance comes from the Old French word for rebirth and is commonly used to refer to the period of time, starting in 1350 and lasting into the seventeenth century, when a sudden, powerful thirst for knowledge swept through the western world’s cultural institutions, signifying the start of modern thought. Renaissance art was derived from the art and ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, which had been ignored since the fall of Rome after the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus in 476 A.D. From 476 to 1350, generally identified as the Middle Ages, there was little scientific inquiry and development of the arts. Renaissance thinkers considered this middle period to be the Dark Ages, during which all prior discoveries had been lost, and they set the enormous task of reinventing human knowledge.
Several cultural elements came together in the fourteenth century to bring about the Renaissance. For several hundred years, Christians from Europe had invaded the Middle East in an attempt to chase the Muslims out of the Holy Land. One result of these Crusades was that much of the presumably lost knowledge of the Roman Empire was found to survive in Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. With a renewed sense of history, scholars and artists basked in relative financial security, with wealthy nobles giving them financial support while they worked on intellectual pursuits. Such relationships worked to mutual advantage, as the patrons were often glorified in art, architecture, and music. Starting in Northern Italy, concentrated efforts were made to assemble the scattered records of past civilizations, piecing together knowledge and artistic theory from fragments of old Roman and Latin texts found in private libraries and abbeys. Because of this interest in knowledge for its own sake, the Renaissance figure came to be a person who was skilled in many different subjects. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, is known equally for his paintings of the Last Supper and Mona Lisa as for designing flying machines four hundred years before the Wright Brothers. Michelangelo’s fame would have survived for his skilled architecture alone, even if he had not also painted the Sistine Chapel or carved his statue of David. Chaucer was a Renaissance Man of this sense, proficient in court politics as well as in writing.
In an age when authors announce with pride when their book has continuously been in print for twenty years, there cannot be enough said about the significance of The Canterbury Tales, which has been with us for six centuries. It is the first poem written in the English language and is therefore given much credit for actually inventing modern English, recording words and phrases that were commonly spoken but had never been put on paper before. As the first English poet, Chaucer is considered the model and inspiration for the grand history of English poetry that followed him. Because it uses the overall narrative structure of the pilgrimage to hold all of the individual tales together, The Canterbury Tales is also considered to be the first English novel, with sharply defined characters that remain consistent throughout.
Over time, thousands of essays have been written about Chaucer, but, as Thomas C. Stillinger points out in his introduction to a recent collection of Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer, most recent criticism can be broken down into two categories: “he is an ancient writer, his texts silent monuments of a lost world; and, at the same time, he is a living poetic voice.” One of the principle reasons that Chaucer is still studied so actively today is that critics can find such a wide range of things to say about him. Lee Patterson, in a brief review of the criticism written in the twentieth century about The Canterbury Tales, cited a 1906 essay by Robert Root as saying that “we turn to [Chaucer] … for refreshment, that our eyes and ears may be opened anew to the varied interest and beauty of the world around us.” Patterson also includes the thoughts of other important critics:
some fifty years after Root’s book, one of the greatest of the next generation of Chaucerians, E. Talbot Donaldson, described Chaucer as possessed of “a mind almost godlike in the breadth and humanity of its ironic vision”
Patterson also shares Derek Pearsall’s introduction to his excellent Chaucer study by insisting that “The Canterbury Tales neither press for [n]or permit a systematic kind of ideological interpretation.” In short, critics continue to find issues of both human behavior and historical significance in this complex work.
In some cases, such universal approval can dull critics’ understanding of an author, as the British novelist and essayist G. K. Chesterton pointed out in his 1932 essay “The Greatness of Chaucer.” Chesterton felt that critics tended not to take Chaucer seriously:
there has been a perceptible, in greater or less degree, an indescribable disposition to patronize Chaucer. Sometimes he is patted on the head like a child because all our other poets are his children. Sometimes he is treated as the Oldest Inhabitant, partially demented and practically dead, because he was alive before anybody else in Europe to certain revolutions of the European mind. Sometimes, he is treated as entirely dead; a bag of dry bones to be dissected by antiquarians, interested only in matters of detail.
Chesterton’s observation about the danger of patronizing critics is even more relevant today, in a world that is moving forward so quickly that there is hardly time to give the past its due consideration; still, The Canterbury Tales, which was there at the beginning of the English language, is likely to be there until the end.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College in Illinois and is currently working on a book about comedy in twentieth century America. In this essay, he compares Chaucer’s constant inventiveness to techniques used throughout the centuries by jesters and stand-up comics to hold their audiences’ attention.
One of the first things that students learn when they begin to study The Canterbury Tales is that Geoffrey Chaucer, its author, is frequently called “the father of English poetry.” He was the first significant poet to write in the English language, as opposed to Italian, Latin, or French, which were the languages favored by educated people of his time, the late fourteenth century. The entire tradition of English literature, therefore, points back to Chaucer. He deserves respect, but, unfortunately, respect too often makes readers feel that they have to be reverential and solemn when considering The Canterbury Tales.
Over the centuries, Chaucer scholars have attempted to show that the book is not just a dry textbook and is actually quite a lot of fun, but their attempts consistently fall on deaf ears. English teachers see episodes like the flatulence scene in the “The Miller’s Tale” as the same gross-out comedy that Jim Carrey or Tom Green would use for laughs today. Students today are more inclined to view Chaucer’s low-brow moments as a senior family member struggling to be hip, like a grandfather wearing a shockingly loud tie to show that he still remembers fun. It is hard to think of the father of English poetry as working for attention because he had to.
But The Canterbury Tales is all about the struggle to keep audiences entertained. The central conceit is that a group of pilgrims enter into a storytelling competition to take their minds off the labor and monotony of their journey. They are not competing to see who will tell the most uplifting story or the most intellectually enriching; they are each trying to be the most entertaining (although some do abuse their forum and sneak in moral tales about spiritual correctness). Designed around performers who are fighting for attention, the book has more in common with a court jester doing hand-springs and backflips for the king’s pleasure than it does with the sort of staid literature that it is often shelved with. Chaucer was a raconteur, a teller of amusing stories, and he did whatever he had to do to keep audiences interested.
Like a jester, Chaucer’s audience was the royal court. He was an attendant to royalty throughout his adult years, starting in the house of Elizabeth of Ulster and rising to be the valet to the King himself. In later years, he left domestic service and was given political responsibilities that were better suited for his intelligence. By all accounts, and as evinced by his poetry, Chaucer was a man of incredible intellect. His intellect alone could have accounted for his fortune in government matters, but there are and always have been bland functionaries who understood issues but cannot draw enough attention to let their knowledge be known. Chaucer was lucky enough to be a true Renaissance man, talented in several fields, with each feeding the other. The stories and poems that he wrote and recited assured that the rulers of England knew who Geoffrey Chaucer was.
The court that he served in expanded during Chaucer’s stay there. Historically, the English government had been mobile, not only to deal with matters of law in different parts of the kingdom at a time when there was no reliable system of communications, but for the very practical reason that there were few places that could provide for all of the government functionaries for any length of time. In his book Chaucer in His Time, Derek Brewer explains that “such large gatherings were difficult to feed at a time when communications were slow and almost every household had to be self-sufficient. The court had to move about the country so as to spread the burden of its maintenance.” This practice changed in 1382, when King Richard II married Anne of Bohemia and established a permanent court patterned on the French court in Paris and the Papal court at Avignon. Settled, the ranks of the court grew, with dozens of royals and the hundreds of attendants that each required. In such a crowded environment, it helped Chaucer to be known as a wit and as one whose reputation as a poet had spread to France and Italy. A wit becomes tiresome when he runs out of things to say, but Chaucer was clever enough to never run out of new items or new methods.
We think of jesters as being self-deprecating fools, willing to humiliate themselves if that is what is required to keep the royal family amused. Modern performers are given more respect if they are considered artists, but those who are thought of as mere entertainers are still considered somewhat embarrassing. What they both have in common with Chaucer’s “performance” in The Canterbury Tales is that they all are continuously in motion, struggling for innovation, line after line, sentence after sentence, valuing attention before respect.
It may be difficult for some contemporary readers to accept that the primary purpose of the tales is to entertain, even when the Host focuses on that as the purpose of each narration. Some of the tales seem just too complex, too tied up in learning to fit in with modern standards, which separate learning from entertainment and see them as being mutually exclusive. Still, if the purpose of entertainment is to keep one interested, then some education is bound to become part of the process. And if the main lever of humor is, as many have claimed, the element of surprise, then the most amusing tales are the ones that establish a sense of familiarity that they can eventually disturb.
“Chaucer was a raconteur, a teller of amusing stories, and he did whatever he had to do to keep audiences interested.”
The tale that uses the broadest humor is, of course, the Miller’s tale, which has no reason for existing other than to see an unpleasant man, a “riche gnof,” gotten the best of. It is a pretty straightforward joke, about a man thinking that he is going to survive a flood while his fellow citizens drown, unaware of the fact that his wife and lodger are sleeping together in his own bed. The most noteworthy thing about this tale is that it is so silly as to include the nonsense, already mentioned, about a man breaking wind in another man’s face. There really is no place for the flatulence episode in the story that the Miller tells, but its complete inappropriateness is what makes it funny: readers expect the drunken Miller to be tasteless, and he is warned by the Host to watch his manners. That concern is forgotten as the story turns out to be a mild tale of adultery, until a superfluous character appears out of nowhere. Readers are prepared for this level of vulgarity, but are then surprised by it all the same.
“The Pardoner’s Tale” works on a similar comic device, of bad people unwittingly participating in their own downfall. The story itself has a surprise, ironic ending, as the man who prepared poisonous drinks is stabbed and the men who did the stabbing unknowingly drink poison. There is a richer layer here, though: while the Miller came across with exactly the sort of crude story that was expected of him, the Pardoner preaches a tale about conventional morality but turns out to be a con man looking to sell religious icons. Chaucer does not make much of this contradiction, but it is clear, and it makes the story more engaging and interesting. A similar level of irony invigorates “The Prioress’ Tale”: the introduction prepares readers for a shy, gentle soul, but the tale she tells reveals the imagination of a bloodthirsty anti-Semite with true hatred in her heart. In both cases, Chaucer gives a text—the tale—and a context—the personality of the teller—that contrast with one another. Modern comedy might achieve the same results by having an unscrupulous, oily character pose as priest or politician, or by having a meek nervous character suddenly fill up with angry ferocity.
The tales that are hardest to recognize as entertainment are those that do not find humor at the expense of some braggart, poseur, or deluded fool. There are tales, like the Knight’s and the Franklin’s, that celebrate noble behavior and mourn the tragedy of the death of a good person. Though not funny, these tales fit loosely into the definition of humor as surprise. Not all surprises are humorous, but the basic element of a sort of gallows humor is at least nearby, even in the most serious turns of events presented in these tales. It would not take much to see Arcite’s fall from his horse as a deadpan punchline that is meant to contrast the huge buildup preceding it in “The Knight’s Tale,’’ with pages and pages of battle preparation and combat mocked by stupid, ignoble fate. Similarly, it would not take much to make a comic buffoon out of Arveragus, who is so committed to the abstract concept of keeping one’s vow that he is willing to give up his beloved wife. In each case, readers’ expectations are set up and then demolished with such an ease of presentation that the readers do not even notice Chaucer’s presence, looking instead to the characters who tell the stories.
The main thing that makes contemporary stand-up comedy an appropriate analogy for The Canterbury Tales is the desperation required by each. Comedy, often dismissed as mere entertainment, is able to make its audience think, but only when it has their attention. Some comedians are all about drawing attention to themselves, but once they have that attention, they have nothing to say; others have serious points to make, but they forget to entertain. The best will be able to make audiences think, but they also know that on some level they are the heirs of the court jester who would jump, shout, and ring bells just to keep his audience from looking anywhere but at him. This is the tradition of the entertainer that is too often overlooked by people who read Chaucer as if he were some sort of icon. His tales can turn vulgar or sentimental, didactic or warmhearted, but he was not afraid to use any trick at his disposal—and he had quite a few—to make sure that they stayed interesting.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Canterbury Tales, in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Philip S. Alexander
In the following essay, Alexander examines the treatment of Jews and anti-Semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale.”
The history of the criticism of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” affords proof, if proof be needed, that the attitudes and events of their own days affect how critics read literature, even literature of the distant past. As Florence Ridley notes, the question of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” has in recent years become an important critical issue, to the extent that most contemporary readings of the text seem to involve, explicitly or implicitly, a response to this problem. The explanation is not far to seek. Critics cannot view the “Tale” after the holocaust in quite the same way as they viewed it before. Since the holocaust anti-semitism has become academically discredited: it is now one of the few generally acknowledged intellectual heresies. So for a critic today to expound the “Tale” and to ignore the question of anti-semitism would strike most educated people as displaying a detachment from life bordering on the irresponsible, if not on the perverse.
Most who have written on the problem of the anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” have been literary critics by calling. Few historians of Judaism, or of anti-semitism, seem to have addressed the question. As a result some of the analysis, though painstaking and well intentioned, has been historically and philosophically confused. The sort of confusion that can arise is illustrated by John Archer’s article, “The structure of anti-semitism in the ‘Prioress’s Tale’.” Archer, unlike some, perceives the importance of defining anti-semitism. His stated aim is ‘to examine the operation of the imagery in the “Prioress’s Tale” against the background of the traditon, and in the process to extrapolate three or four categories of imagery that might be used to analyze anti-semitism in so far as it functions in other literary works.’ He stresses the transformation of society that takes place within the “Tale.” The opening lines depict the secular authorities as being subservient to the Old Law: they sustain the Jews in their usurious practices, which are ‘hateful to Crist.’ At the end of the “Tale,” however, in the person of the Provost, they break with the Jews and with the old dispensation, and embrace the New Law of Christ. The decisive change is wrought by the clergeon’s death, which is ‘a sacrifice as well as a murder because it has loosened the hold of the Old Law over the secular positive law’. The clergeon is a Christ-figure and his death recapitulates Christ’s death, which by redeeming man from the curse and bondage of the Old Law transformed society. All this is moderately persuasive till we recall that the purpose of Archer’s article is to lay bare the structure of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale.” Anti-semitism turns out for Archer to be identical with the central tenets of the Christian faith! Archer shows not a flicker of awareness of the radical implications of this analysis, which at a theological level risks delegitimizing Christianity, and at a literary level, if extrapolated, appears to brand much of European literature as anti-semitic.
Clearly we need a more historically-informed view of the nature of anti-semitism if we are to deal responsibly with the question of anti-semitism in a given piece of literature. Anti-semitism is not a charge to be lightly bandied about: it is more than ‘queasy, resentful feelings about Jews.’ The definition of the phenomenon is not self-evident. The term ‘anti-semitism’ itself did not emerge till the late nineteenth century, when it was used by the proponents of a world-view (widely deemed then as acceptable), which embraced three main tenets: first, Jewish culture is inferior to Germanic culture; second, the Jews are plotting to undermine Germanic culture and to foist their own cultural values on society; and, third, in the interests of progress and civilization society has a duty to defend itself against Jewish domination and to purge itself of decadent Jewish culture. Nineteenth-century antisemitism was often racist in that it espoused the belief that culture and race were interconnected, and so the inferior Jewish culture was seen as the product of inferior Jewish genes. However, racism, in this precise technical sense, was not fundamental to the anti-semitic point of view.
Nineteenth-century anti-semitism presented itself, often aggressively, in secular and scientific terms, and some of its proponents fastidiously distanced themselves from the crude ‘Jew bashing’ of earlier centuries. It has, consequently, been argued that modern secular anti-semitism should not be confused with the religious anti-Judaism of the middle ages. If this view is correct, then the problem of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” is solved at a stroke. What we have in Chaucer may be anti-Judaism (and deplorable), but not anti-semitism in any exact sense. The dissimilarities can, however, be overplayed. The fact is that mediaeval christendom espoused a set of beliefs which are strikingly congruent in content and structure with the nineteenth-century anti-semitic creed: Judaism is inferior to Christianity; the Jews, motivated by
“Most who have written on the problem of the anti-semitism in the ‘Prioress’s Tale’ have been literary critics by calling. Few historians of Judaism, or of anti-semitism, seem to have addressed the question.”
malevolence, and in alliance with the powers of darkness, are seeking to overthrow Christian society; the Church, in the interests of humanity, has a sacred duty to protect society from the baleful influence of the Jews and Judaism. …