The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer 1342 – 1400)

The-Canterbury-Tales-by-Geoffrey-ChaucerIts not easy trying to read literature from seven centuries past but I had to make the effort, and glad I did as there’s something to possibly offend everyone in Chaucer’s classic 14th century work. Its full of spirit. From incredible bawdiness to racial prejudice and much in between. He was an astute social observer although many people may miss the satire. By giving us his characterizations, he leaves it to the reader to form their own conclusions.

For me the most interesting thing about the book is the slippery frame narrator, the ultimate teller of all the tales: a fictive Chaucer who is on the pilgrimage and relaying his journey as well as all the other’s stories. At the Tabard Inn, a tavern in Southwark, near London, the narrator joins a company of twenty-nine pilgrims. The pilgrims, like the narrator, are traveling to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The narrator gives a descriptive account of twenty-seven of these pilgrims, including a Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapestry-Weaver, Cook, Shipman, Physician, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host. (He does not describe the Second Nun or the Nun’s Priest, although both characters appear later in the book.)

The Host, whose name, we find out in the Prologue to the Cook’s Tale, is Harry Bailey, suggests that the group ride together and entertain one another with stories. He decides that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Whomever he judges to be the best storyteller will receive a meal at Bailey’s tavern, courtesy of the other pilgrims. Before The Canterbury Tales, books in England were written only in Latin. Chaucer was fascinated by the prospect of writing with prepositions and other parts of English grammar not used in Latin. Certain individual tales are unfinished, and the work as a whole seems incomplete as tales for a return journey back from Canterbury are intimated, but never told. But the benefit of the disjointed nature of these diverse stories, and the loose, basic construction of the frame means one doesn’t feel this incompleteness too keenly.

Chaucer's PilgrimsEach tells their own stories ranging of personal or fictional works in order to win the prized meal. This was an innovative way of telling multiple stories in one work. The characters of the series each contain their individualism and personality. Their occupations and social status greatly tell us what kind of person the story teller is. For example, the general prologue to the Wife of the Bath can be described as a promiscuous woman who enjoys the more luxurious and sensual aspects of life. Even her tale reflects the kind of character the Wife of Bath is, with a story about a “lusty” knight.  The Wife of Bath’s assertion that women should have sovereignty in marriage thus amounts to heresy, given the time of this tale.

The Canterbury Tales may be allegorically interpreted as a book about the life of man in the world. The book metaphorically represents human life as a one way journey on earth, to the heavenly city of Jerusalem, through the device of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is thus not merely a physical journey to an actual place but also a metaphor or symbol of an inner journey of the soul towards God. Another prominent theme is Chaucer’s critique of the church of medieval England, providing the reader with a picture of a disorganized Christian society in a state of decline and obsolescence.

The most controversial one is The Prioress Tale: an unabashed celebration of motherhood, and an unapologetic argument for the virtue of Christianity over Judaism. The guiding figure of the tale is the Virgin Mary, addressed directly in its prologue, who serves both as the exemplar for Christian values and as the intervening spirit who sustains the murdered child before he passes on to heaven. Her mortal parallel is the mother of the murdered boy, who dearly loves her son and struggles to find the boy when he is lost.

21575110I found the Friar’s Tale to be very interesting. He tells a tale about a summoner (working on behalf of an Archdeacon) who was quite adept at discovering lechers, even though he himself was immoral. He does not wish to offend the Summoner who travels with them, but insists that summoners are known for fornication and lewd behavior. The job of a summoner, to which the Friar objects, is to issue summons from the church against sinners who, under penalty of excommunication, pay indulgences for their sins to the church, a sum which illicit summoners often pocket. The Friar’s Tale, like the Reeve’s Tale, seems to exist for a single purpose: the humiliation and degradation of members of a certain profession.

The Tale begins by exposing the means by which summoners blackmail and extort persons, but does not attack the church system that allows this to happen, but rather the men who represent this system and exploit these workings of the church. The Friar’s tale is also a reminder to watch what you wish for, and not to speak without thinking. The devil, it seems, takes words literally – and whether you mean them or not, the infernal one can decide to act upon them as he pleases, as long as they have been uttered. As Chaucer’s Tales look perilously close to potential blasphemy, the Friar’s Tale’s warning that anything said can be used against the sayer seems doubly pertinent; and the issue of blasphemy in the Tales, present here, runs right through the work to Chaucer’s final Retraction…to sum up then: this was the first ever English best-seller. And having a slippery narrator, not being able to peg what is “true” and “untrue” with regards to what your author is thinking/feeling v. saying, is an incredibly fertile creative ground to tread upon. The Canterbury Tales is a truly medieval tapestry.




  1. Very nice review of a STILL controversial book


  2. Thank you, Steph.


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