The Canterbury Tales

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A woodcut from William Caxton's second edition of the Canterbury Tales printed in 1483.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century (two of them in prose, the rest in verse). The tales, some original and others not, are contained inside a frame tale and told by a collection of pilgrims on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English. Although the tales are considered to be his magnum opus, some believe the structure of the tales is indebted to the works of The Decameron, which Chaucer is said to have read on an earlier visit to Italy.

Chaucer is generally considered not only the father of English literature, but also, often of the English language itself. His works, especially The Canterbury Tales validated English as a language capable of poetic greatness, and in the process instituted many of the traditions of English poesy that have continued to this day. These works remain arguably the high point of literature written in Middle English, and demonstrate Chaucer's skill at realism, nuance, and characterization, which make them not only important historical documents, but timeless works of literature that can still be enjoyed today.


On an April day, a group of medieval pilgrims set out on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to pay their respects to the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.[1] The group is described in detail, with characters from all classes, upper and lower, represented. Religious characters, including the monk and a pardoner, travel alongside a sailor, miller, carpenter, and a knight, among others. When the group stops for the night, the host of the pilgrimage proposes that they all tell stories to each other along the way. The pilgrims agree to tell four stories each, two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. The person who tells the best story, as determined by the host, will have his way paid by the rest of the group. The tale-telling begins with the knight and proceeds as the pilgrims near Canterbury, each person telling a story that reflects their social position, and some telling stories which are intended to make fun of others in the group. No winner is chosen by the host in the end, and only a few of the pilgrims have told their tales by the time the story ends because Chaucer died before he could finish it. He originally intended to write 124 tales but only completed 24 before he died. Chaucer begins the work with an apology for anything in the stories which may be deemed inappropriate.

Dating issues

The opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript contains the beginning of the General Prologue.

The date of the conception and writing of The Canterbury Tales as a collection of stories has proved difficult to ascertain. The Tales were begun after some of Chaucer's other works, such as Legend of Good Women, which fails to mention them in a list of other works by the author. However, it was probably written after his Troilus and Criseyde, since Legend is written in part as an apology for the portrayal of women in the Criseyde character. Troilus is dated to sometime between 1382 and 1388, with Legend coming soon after, possibly in 1386-1387. Work on The Canterbury Tales as a whole probably began in the late 1380s and continued as Chaucer neared his death in the year 1400.[2][3]

Two of the tales, The Knight's Tale and The Second Nun's Tale, were probably written before the compilation of stories was ever conceived.[3] Both of these tales are mentioned in the Prologue to the aforementioned Legend of Good Women.[4] Other tales, such as the Clerk's and the Man of Law's, are also believed to have been written earlier and later added into the Canterbury Tales framework, but there is less scholarly consensus about this. [5] The Monk's Tale is one of the few tales which describe an event which provides a clear date. It describes the death of Barnabo Visconti, which occurred on December 19, 1385, although some scholars believe the lines about him were added after the main tale had already been written.[6] The Shipman's Tale is believed to have been written before The Wife of Bath's Tale; in parts of the tale the Shipman speaks as if he were a woman, leading scholars to believe that the Shipman's Tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath, before she became a more prominent character. References to her in Envoy to Bukton (1396) seem to indicate that her character was quite famous in London by that time.[7]

Chaucer's use of sources also provide chronological clues. The Pardoner's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Prologue, and the Franklin's Tale all draw frequent reference to Saint Jerome's Epistola adversus Jovinianum. Jerome's work is also an addition to Chaucer's Prologue to a revised Legend of Good Women dated to 1394, suggesting that these three tales were written sometime in the mid-1390s. Scholars have also used Chaucer's references to astronomy to find the dates specific tales were written. From the data Chaucer provides in the prologue, for example, the pilgrimage in which the tales are told takes place in 1387.[3] However, this assumes that the astronomical evidence is reliable and Chaucer did not alter them for artistic effect.[8]


A total of 83 medieval manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales are known to exist, more than any other vernacular medieval literary work except The Prick of Conscience. This provides some evidence for the tales' popularity during the fifteenth century.[9] Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have once been complete, while 28 more are so fragmentary that it is difficult to tell whether they were copied individually or were part of a larger set.[10] The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript, with many of the minor variations obviously coming from copyists' errors. However, other variations suggest that Chaucer himself was constantly adding to and revising his work as it was copied and distributed. No official, complete version of the Tales exists and it is impossible with the information available to determine Chaucer's preferred order or even, in some cases, whether he even had any particular order in mind.[11][12]

Scholars usually divide the tales into ten fragments. The tales that make up a fragment are directly connected and make clear distinctions about what order they go in, usually with one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. Between fragments, however, there is less of a connection. This means that there are several possible permutations for the order of the fragments and consequently the tales themselves. Below is list of the most popular ordering of the fragments:[11]

Fragment Tales
Fragment I(A) General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook
Fragment II(B1) Man of Law
Fragment III(D) Wife, Friar, Summoner
Fragment IV(E) Clerk, Merchant
Fragment V(F) Squire, Franklin
Fragment VI(C) Physician, Pardoner
Fragment VII(B2) Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas, Melibee, Monk, Nun's Priest
Fragment VIII(G) Second Nun, Canon's Yeoman
Fragment IX(H) Manciple
Fragment X(I) Parson

An alternative to this order is the placing of Fragment VIII(G) before VI(C). In other cases, the above order follows that set by early manuscripts. Fragments I and II almost always follow each other, as do VI and VII, IX and X in the oldest manuscripts. Fragments IV and V, by contrast are located in varying locations from manuscript to manuscript. Victorians would frequently move Fragment VII(B2) to follow Fragment II(B1), but this trend is no longer followed and has no justification.[11] Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer's originals; the oldest is MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The scribe uses the order shown above, though he does not seem to have had a full collection of Chaucer's tales, so part are missing. The most beautiful of the manuscripts is the Ellesmere manuscript, and many editors have followed the order of the Ellesmere over the centuries, even down to the present day.[13][14] The latest of the manuscripts is William Caxton's 1478 print edition, the first version of the tales to be published in print. Since this version was created from a now-lost manuscript, it is counted as among the 83 manuscripts.[15]


A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse.

Chaucer's narrative framework appears to have been original. No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. However, Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, as well as from the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main form of entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for thousands of years. In fourteenth-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organize the journey.[16]

There are also numerous parallels with Boccaccio's Decameron. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague). It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. One-fourth of the tales in Canterbury Tales parallels a tale in the Decameron, although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he must have merely read the Decameron while visiting Italy at some point.[17] Each of the tales has its own set of sources, but a few sources are used frequently over several tales, including the poetry of Ovid, the Bible in one of its many vulgate versions available at the time, and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to utilize the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as do the works of John Gower, a known friend to Chaucer. Chaucer also seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, a preacher's handbook, and St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum.[18]


Canterbury Cathedral. View from the north west circa 1890-1900 (retouched from a black & white photograph).

Genre and structure

The Canterbury Tales falls into the same genre as many other works of its day–a collection of stories organized into a frame narrative or frame tale. Chaucer's Tales differed from other stories in this genre chiefly in its intense variation. Most story collections focused on a theme, usually a religious one. Even in the Decameron, storytellers are encouraged to stick to the theme decided on for the day. Chaucer's work has much more variation, not only in theme, but in the social class of the tellers and the meter and style of each story told than any other story of the frame narrative genre. The pilgrimage motif, which served as a useful narrative device to accumulate a diverse set of voices, was also unprecedented. Introducing a competition among the tales encourages the reader to compare the tales in all their variety, and allows Chaucer to showcase the breadth of his skill in different genres and literary forms.[19]

While the structure of the Tales is largely linear, with one story following another, it is also innovative in several respects. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes not the tales but the narrators, making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme or moral. This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the Knight has finished his. The Knight goes first, suggesting that the order of narrators will be determined by class, but the Miller's interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favor of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present. Chaucer develops several general themes and points of view by having some narrators respond to themes addressed by previous narrators, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed.[20]

Chaucer does not take interest in the progress of the trip, the passage of time, or specific locations as the pilgrim travel to Canterbury. His focus is on the tales themselves, and not on the pilgrimage.[21]


The variety of Chaucer's tales shows the breadth of his skill and his familiarity with countless rhetorical forms and linguistic styles. [22]

Medieval schools of rhetoric at the time encouraged such diversity, dividing literature (as Virgil suggests) into high, middle, and low styles as measured by the density of rhetorical forms and vocabulary. Another popular method of division came from St. Augustine, who focused more on audience response and less on subject matter (a Virgilian concern). Augustine divided literature into "majestic persuades," "temperate pleases," and "subdued teaches." Writers were encouraged to write in a way that kept in mind the speaker, subject, audience, purpose, manner, and occasion. Chaucer moves freely between all of these styles, showing favoritism to none. He not only considers the readers of his work as an audience, but the other pilgrims within the story as well, creating a multi-layered rhetorical puzzle of ambiguities. Chaucer's work thus far surpasses the ability of any single medieval theory to uncover.[23]

With this Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller, show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow. Vocabulary also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a "lady," while the lower classes use the word "wenche," with no exceptions. At times the same word will mean entirely different things between classes. The word "pitee," for example, is a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the Merchant's Tale it refers to sexual intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun's Priest's Tale show surprising skill with words among the lower classes of the group, while the Knight's Tale is at times extremely simple.[24]

Chaucer uses the same meter throughout almost all of his tales, with the exception of Sir Thopas and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally, a caesura in the middle of a line. His meter would later develop into the heroic meter of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter. He avoids allowing couplets to become too prominent in the poem, and four of the tales (the Man of Law's, Clerk's, Prioress', and Second Nun's) use rhyme royal.[25]

Historical context

The Peasant's Revolt of 1381 is mentioned in the Tales.

The time of the writing of The Canterbury Tales was a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Great Schism and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, it was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention which allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the 1381 Peasant's Revolt and clashes ending in the deposition of King Richard II, further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer in the time of the Tales' writing. Many of his close friends were executed and he himself was forced to move to Kent in order to get away from events in London.[26] The Canterbury Tales can also tell modern readers much about "the occult" during Chaucer's time, especially in regards to astrology and the astrological lore prevalent during Chaucer's era. There are hundreds if not thousands of astrological allusions found in this work; some are quite overt while others are more subtle in nature.

In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Mooney, then a professor at the University of Maine and a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was able to match Pinkhurst's signature, on an oath he signed, to his lettering on a copy of The Canterbury Tales that was transcribed from Chaucer's working copy. While some readers look to interpret the characters of "The Canterbury Tales" as historical figures, other readers choose to interpret its significance in less literal terms. After analysis of his diction and historical context, his work appears to develop a critique against society during his lifetime. Within a number of his descriptions, his comments can appear complimentary in nature, but through clever language, the statements are ultimately critical of the pilgrim’s actions. It is unclear whether Chaucer would intend for the reader to link his characters with actual persons. Instead, it appears that Chaucer creates fictional characters to be general representations of people in such fields of work. With an understanding of medieval society, one can detect subtle satire at work. The theme of marriage common in the tales has been presumed to refer to several different marriages, most often those of John of Gaunt. Chaucer himself was one of the characters on the pilgrimage, and another character, Harry Bailly of the Tabard Inn, was a real person as well. It is considered quite likely the cook was Roger Knight de Ware, a contemporary London cook.


The themes of the tales vary, and include topics such as courtly love, treachery, and avarice. The genres also vary, and include romance, Breton lai, sermon, beast fable, and fabliaux. Though there is an overall frame, there is no single poetic structure to the work; Chaucer utilizes a variety of rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, and there are also two prose tales.

Some of the tales are serious and others comical. Religious malpractice is a major theme, as is the division of the three estates. Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some "quit" (reply to or retaliate for) other tales. The work is incomplete, as it was originally intended that each character would tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey, for a total of one hundred twenty, which would have dwarfed the 24 tales actually written.

The Canterbury Tales includes an account of Jews murdering a deeply pious and innocent Christian boy ('The Prioress's Tale'). This blood libel against Jews became a part of English literary tradition.[27] However, the story the Prioress tells did not originate in the works of Chaucer: it was well known in the fourteenth century.[28]


It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularizing the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer's life, and several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it. It is interesting to note that, although Chaucer had a powerful influence in poetic and artistic terms, which can be seen in the great number of forgeries and mistaken attributions (such as The Flower and the Leaf which was translated by John Dryden), modern English spelling and orthography owes much more to the innovations made by the Court of Chancery in the decades during and after his lifetime.


The beginning of The Knight's Tale from the Ellesmere manuscript.

Chaucer's day

The intended audience of The Canterbury Tales has proved very difficult to determine. There are no external clues other than that Chaucer was a courtier, leading some to believe that he was a court poet and wrote mostly for the nobility. However, none of his associates mention the fact that he was a poet in any known historical document. Scholars have suggested that the poem was intended to be read aloud, which is probable, as that was a common activity at the time when literacy was limited. However, it also seems to have been intended for private reading as well, since Chaucer frequently refers to himself as the writer, rather than the speaker, of the work. Determining the intended audience directly from the text is even more difficult, since the audience is part of the story. This makes it difficult to tell when Chaucer is writing to the fictional pilgrim audience or the actual reader.[29]

Chaucer's works were distributed in some form while he was alive, probably in fragmented pieces or as individual tales. Scholars speculate that manuscripts were circulated among his friends, but likely remained unknown to most people until after his death. However, the speed with which copyists strove to write complete versions of his tale in manuscript form shows that Chaucer was a famous and respected poet in his own day. The Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts are examples of the care taken to distribute the work. More manuscript copies of the poem exist than for any other poem of its day except Ayenbite of Inwyt, The Prick of Conscience, a translation of a French language book of moral tales, causing some scholars to give it the medieval equivalent of "best-seller" status. Even the most elegant of the illustrated manuscripts, however, is not nearly as decorated and fancified as the work of authors of more respectable works such as John Lydgate's religious and historical literature.[30]

Fifteenth century

John Lydgate and Thomas Occleve were among the first critics of Chaucer's Tales, praising the poet as the greatest English poet of all time and the first to truly show what the language was capable of poetically. This sentiment is universally agreed upon by later critics into the mid-fifteenth century. Glosses included in Canterbury Tales manuscripts of the time praised him highly for his skill with "sentence" and rhetoric, the two pillars by which medieval critics judged poetry. The most respected of the tales was at this time the Knight's, as it was full of both.[31]

The Pilgrims' Route and Real Locations

The City of Canterbury has a museum dedicated to The Canterbury Tales.[32]

The postulated return journey has intrigued many and continuations have been written as well, often to the horror or (occasional) delight of Chaucerians everywhere, as tales written for the characters who are mentioned but not given a chance to speak. The Tale of Beryn[33] is a story by an anonymous author within a fifteenth century manuscript of the work. The tales are rearranged and there are some interludes in Canterbury, which they had finally reached, and Beryn is the first tale on the return journey, told by the Merchant. John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is also a depiction of the return journey but the tales themselves are actually prequels to the tale of classical origin told by the Knight in Chaucer's work.


The Canterbury Tales is one of the most important works of the Western literary canon. It is read by virtually all students of English literature and often imitated and adapted, making it accessible to a wider range of audiences.

Literary adaptations

The title of the work has become an everyday phrase and been variously adapted and adopted; for example Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, among many others.

Many literary works (both fiction and non-fiction alike) have used a similar frame narrative to the Canterbury Tales in homage to Geoffrey Chaucer's work. Science Fiction writer Dan Simmons wrote his Hugo Award winning novel Hyperion based around an extra-planetary group of pilgrims. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used The Canterbury Tales as a structure for his 2004 non-fiction book about evolutionThe Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. His animal pilgrims are on their way to find the common ancestor, each telling a tale about evolution. The Yeoman is also known as "Pogue… I'm a G!!"

Henry Dudeney (1857–1930) was an English mathematician whose book The Canterbury Puzzles contains a part which is supposedly lost text from The Canterbury Tales.

Historical mystery novelist P.C. Doherty wrote a series of novels based on The Canterbury Tales, making use of the story frame and of Chaucer's characters.


  1. The shrine was destroyed in the sixteenth century during the dissolution of the monasteries.
  2. Derek Pearsall. The Canterbury Tales. (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1985), 1
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Helen Cooper. The Canterbury Tales. (Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5
  4. Pearsall, 2
  5. Pearsall, 4
  6. Pearsall, 5
  7. Pearsall, 5—6
  8. Pearsall, 7
  9. Pearsall, 8
  10. Cooper, 6—7
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Cooper, 7
  12. Pearsall, 14-15
  13. Pearsall, 10, 17
  14. Cooper, 8
  15. Pearsall, 8
  16. Cooper, 10
  17. Cooper, 10-11
  18. Cooper, 12-16
  19. Cooper, 8-9
  20. Cooper, 17-18
  21. Cooper, 18
  22. "Diversity seems to be the organizing principle of the collection. The Canterbury Tales includes an extraordinarily wide range of material in verse (in rhymed decasyllable couplets, rhymed royal verse) and prose, covering a wide range of literary genres and forms; romances, fabliaux, an animal fable, saints' lives, exemplary narratives, a moral treatise, a prose treatise on the process of penitence (which concludes the game)." The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, Wynne-Davies, Marion, ed., (Bloombury Publishing Limited, 1990, ISBN 0136896626), 383
  23. Cooper, 22-24
  24. Cooper, 24-25
  25. Cooper, 25-26
  26. Cooper, 5-6
  27. Alexis P. Rubin, (ed.) Scattered Among the Nations: Documents Affecting Jewish History. 49 to 1975. (Toronto: Wall & Emerson, 1993), 106—107
  28. Jane Zatta, "The Prioress's Tale". Retrieved November 18, 2008.
  29. Pearsall, 294-295
  30. Pearsall, 295-297
  31. Pearsall, 298-302
  32. Canterbury Tales Museum, Canterbury. Retrieved November 18, 2008.
  33. The Canterbury Interlude and Merchant's Tale of Beryn, Edited by John M. Bowers. Originally Published in The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions. (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992. ISBN 1879288230) The Canterbury Interlude and Merchant's Tale of Beryn.University of Rochester Library. Retrieved December 1, 2008.

References and Further Reading

  • The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, Wynne-Davies, Marion, ed., Bloombury Publishing Limited, 1990, ISBN 0136896626.
  • The Canterbury Interlude and Merchant's Tale of Beryn, Edited by John M. Bowers. Originally Published in The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992. ISBN 1879288230.
  • Collette, Carolyn. Species, Phantasms and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in the Canterbury Tales. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. ISBN 9780472111619
  • Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198711557.
  • Kolve, V.A. and Glending Olson, Eds. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and The General Prologue; Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, 2nd ed. (A Norton Critical Edition) New York; London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. ISBN 0393925870.
  • Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1985. ISBN 0048000213
  • Rubin, Alexis P., ed. Scattered Among the Nations: Documents Affecting Jewish History. 49 to 1975. Toronto: Wall & Emerson, 1993. ISBN 1895131103.
  • Thompson, N.S. Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198123787.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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