The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey (pronounced as the ToysR'Us mascot's name) Chaucer wrote the tales at the end of the 14th century (remember 14th would be the 1300s-just as 21st century would mean the 2000s).  The most confusing part of this reading is the language.  Thankfully, our text books offer many explanations for words, phrases, and idioms (expressions used during a particular time period) .  The story isn't as difficult as the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language of Beowulf, but it can still be torubling.  This story follows Beowulf as a progression into the next time period, The Anglo-Norman period (remember: compounding Norman just means that the French had entered the English countryside.

Time Period/Historical Notes:

William (French dude) thought he would be the new king of England, but Harold was chosen instead.  William "flipped his script" and led the French into a great fight outside six miles outside of Hastings.  This happened in 1066, and professors all say that this is the point where the Anglo-Saxon period shifted into the Anglo-Norman period.  The French brought many things with them like castle building, chivalry, courtly love, more rigid (unmoving) social structure, and parts of their language, which mixed with the language already being used in England.  Following the installation of this different society, Chaucer saw the rise of several social classes, including the nobility (those that fight), the clergy (those that pray), and the peasantry (those that work).


The Canterbury Tales is a story...about story telling.  Do you recall talking about "metafiction" and a "frama story" in class?  That is this story.  Hold on...okay, pay attention..."Chaucer wrote/told The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath told a story about "knight-errantry" (a knight who has strayed from his proper course), while telling that story she pauses to tell us about King Midas."  Can you see how one story can frame another?  The "Tales" are a collection of stories; the prologue (introduction) comes first, followed by many many successive, smaller prologues and tales.  For example, the Wife of Bath's prologue is smaller than the "General" prologue.  Although their are many tales to examine, we will only read a couple.  In those we read we see how Chaucer changes his tone and style so that it seems that the pilgrims are really telling these tales.  The only things that seem to flow between the tales are the rhyme scheme and emphasis on inequality (by social class or gender).

The Pilgrims

Below is a practice sort of the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales.  We are introduced to 29, but on the test you will only be asked to match 26 of them.  To practice this matching see the chart below...

  1. The Knight
  2. The Squire
  3. The Yeoman
  4. The Prioress
  5. The Monk
  6. The Friar
  7. The Merchant
  8. The Man of Law
  9. The Franklin
  10. The Haberdasher
  11. The Carpenter
  12. The Weaver
  13. The Dyer
  14. The Tapestry Maker
  15. The Cook

  16. The Shipman
  17. The Physician
  18. The Wife of Bath
  19. The Parson
  20. The Plowman
  21. The Miller
  22. The Manciple
  23. The Reeve
  24. The Summoner
  25. The Pardoner
  26. The Host

_____makes fabric; guildsman (middle class)

_____wealthy and pompous; wild when drunk (middle class)

_____owner of the Tabard Inn where all the pilgrims meet; self-appointed leader; tour guide for the pilgrims (middle class)

_____a religious who has taken vows but leaves the monastery to hunt

_____brother of the Parson; an honest, decent farmer (peasant)

_____manager of a nobleman's estate; prosperous but steals (middle class)

_____has taken religious vows; shows nobility by speaking French; dainty in nature

_____a sailor, commander of a merchant ship (middle class)

_____one of the guildsman (middle class)

_____priest with the ability to perform marriages and hear confessions but takes bribes (clergy)

_____poor because he is good; a true preacher (clergy)

_____sold relics and indulgences that he carries (which are pardons from sin) (clergy)

_____young man of 20, son of the Knight (nobility)

_____landowner; wealthy (middle class; possibly minor nobility)

_____has survived five husbands; prosperous, gregarious, experienced (middle class)

_____was hired and works for the five guildsmen (peasant class)

_____hat and clothing maker; guildsman (middle class)

_____an agent of the Church courts who summons sinners to answer charges before the court (clergy)

_____dyes fabric and leather; guildsman (middle class)

_____well-educated; a lover of gold and money (middle class)

_____makes large, intricate woven pictures which are decorative and expensive; guildsman (middle class)

_____a lawyer, shrewd and wealthy (middle class)

_____a forester; servant of the Knight (peasant class)

_____father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman (minor nobility)

_____trades furs and cloth, a powerful and wealthy man (middle class)

_____a buyer for the college or court; smarter than a lawyer but uneducated (middle class)

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The "Wife of Bath" is a colorful character that gives the reader the appearance of a medieval woman that attains wealth by marrying.  By the way, "Bath" is a town; because she married and dated so feverently her title metaphorically implies that she has had romantic involvements with everyone in Bath.  Students love to display their ability to name women that seem..."risque"...but can we be so harsh on "the wife?"  Remember, women had no agency (voice), social status, or education in this time.  Or maybe...maybe she does deserve the harsh criticisms that have followed her through the years.  The wife has had five husbands, three pilgrimages to Jerusalem (which was ironically like going to Hawaii), she was skilled with a needle and thread, and was attractive but aging into her forties.  What does her tale tell about her opinions (and Chaucer's) on sexuality and gender? 

Her Tale

After pointing out that Christianity has decimated the number of fairies (pagan belief), a knight of Arthur's court rapes a woman and must face justice.  Interestingly, his fate is left in the hands of a woman, Queen Gertrude.  The queen gives him one year and a day to answer a question...

"What do women most desire?"

An older lady meets the knight after he has exhausted the year he was given.  She is proud to offer a difference from the typical opinions of the people the knight has questioned if he will do the first thing she asks of him.   Upon presenting the queen with the answer the knight is forced to keep his word and meets the preference of the old lady by marrying her.  The knight is sad, rude, and opinionated.  In class we discussed the ironic nature of the medieval "gentry & nobility."  Sometimes the gentry isn't always gentle, and sometimes the nobility isn't always noble.  After the old lady gives the knight a piece of her mind, he is asked is he wants to stay with her or be with a younger woman that may not be trust worthy and faithful.  The knight chooses wisely and the old lady transforms into a beautiful young woman.  The wife's tale makes interesting statements about the power of religion and the divide between the male and female sexes.

The Pardoner's Tale

The tale is one of the many variations exist. Three debauched (wasted or hammered drunk) men set out from a pub to find and kill Death, whom they blame for the passing of their friend, and all other people that previously have died, which they were told by the Landlord and the "little tavern-knave."  An old man they rudely question tells them that he has asked Death to take him but has been denied. He then says they can find death at the foot of an oak tree. When the men arrive at the tree, they find a large amount of gold coins and forget about their quest to kill Death. They decide that they would sleep at the oak tree over night, so they can take the coins in the morning. The three men draw straws to see who among them should fetch wine and food while the other two wait under the tree. The youngest of the three men drew the shortest straw. The two plot to overpower and stab the other one when he returns, while the one who leaves for the town plots to lace the wine with rat poison. When he returns with the food and drink, the other two kill him and drink the poisoned wine, dying slow and painful deaths. All three have found death.


Have you ever heard someone called a straight arrow?  What about someone that walks the straight and narrow?  Maybe you have heard of these, or maybe you haven't heard these.  What about a crooked cop?  Keep these in mind when you notice the "rioters" are directed to the crooked path that has a tree at the end.  Symbolism is often born in the recesses of our brains; it materializes as a product of our prior knowledge and the images we associate with this knowledge.  The crooked path represents dishonesty. 

Remember what personification is?  In this story death is called Death.  Death, an abstract concept is personified and given a tanglible, human state.  As the three persue death they are trick, misdirected by greed.  In some versions of this tale, The Pardoner offers a conclusion saying that the deadly sins often lead us to death; in other words, Death uses these weapons to trick us.