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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

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See also The Canterbury Tales (disambiguation) for related articles.
Image:Canterbury Tales.png
Canterbury Tales Woodcut 1484

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century (two of them in prose, the rest in verse). The tales, some of which are originals 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.[1] The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English.


The prologue and individual tales

The characters, introduced in the General Prologue of the book, tell tales of great cultural relevance. 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 fabliau. 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 as well two prose tales.

The Tales include:

Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim in the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Some of the tales are serious and others comical; however, all are highly accurate in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme as well as focusing on the division of the three estates. Most of the tales are interlinked with similar themes running through them and some are told in retaliation for other tales in the form of an argument. 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. This would have meant a possible one hundred and twenty tales which would have dwarfed the twenty-six tales actually written.

People have sought political overtones within the tales, particularly as Chaucer himself was a significant courtier and political figure at the time, close to the corridors of power. There are many hints at contemporary events, although few are proven, and the theme of marriage common in the tales is presumed to refer to several different marriages, most often those of John of Gaunt. Aside from Chaucer himself, Harry Bailly of the Tabard Inn was a real person and the it is believed to be quite likely that the cook is actually Roger Knight de Ware, a contemporary London cook.

The complete work

The work was begun some time in the 1380s with Chaucer stopping work on it in the late 1390s. It was not written down fully conceived: it seems to have had many revisions with the addition of new tales at various times. The plan for one hundred and twenty tales is from the general prologue. It is announced by Harry Bailly, the host, that there will be four tales each (two on the way to Canterbury, two on the way back to the tavern). This is not necessarily the opinion of Chaucer himself, who appears as the only character to tell more than one tale. It has been suggested that the unfinished state was deliberate on Chaucer's part.

The structure of The Canterbury Tales is a frame narrative and easy to find in other contemporary works, such as The Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz and Boccaccio's Decameron, which may have been one of Chaucer's main sources of inspiration. Chaucer indeed adapted several of Boccaccio's stories to put in the mouths of his own pilgrims, but what sets Chaucer's work apart from his contemporaries' is his characters. Compared to Boccaccio's main characters - seven women and three men, all young, fresh and well-to-do, and given Classical names - the characters in Chaucer are of extremely varied stock, including representatives of most of the branches of the middle classes at that time. Not only are the participants very different, but they tell very different types of tales, with their personalities showing through both in their choices of tales and in the way they tell them.

The idea of a pilgrimage appears to have been mainly a useful device to get such a diverse collection of people together for literary purposes. The Monk would probably not be allowed to undertake the pilgrimage and some of the other characters would be unlikely ever to want to attend. Also all of the pilgrims ride horses, there is no suggestion of them suffering for their religion. None of the popular shrines along the way are visited and there is no suggestion that anyone attends mass, so that it seems much more like a tourist's jaunt.

Chaucer does not pay that much attention to the progress of the trip. He hints that the tales take several days but he does not detail any overnight stays. Although the journey could be done in one day this speed would make telling tales difficult and three to four days was the usual duration for such pilgrimages. The 18th of April is mentioned in the tales and Walter William Skeat, a 19th century editor, determined 17 April, 1387 as the probable first day of the tales.

Scholars divide the tales into ten fragments. The tales that make up a fragment are directly connected, usually with one character speaking to and handing over to another character, but there is no connection between most of the other fragments. This means that there are several possible permutations for the order of the fragments and consequently the tales themselves. The above listing is perhaps the most common in modern times, with the fragments numbered I-X, but an alternative order lists them A-G, with the tales from the Physician's until the Nun's Priest's placed before the Wife of Bath's. The exception to the independence between fragments are the last two. The Manciple's tale is the last tale in IX but fragment X starts with the Parson's prologue by saying that the Manciple had finished his tale. The reason that they are kept as two different fragments is that the Manciple starts his short tale in the morning but the Parson's tale is told at four in the afternoon. It is assumed that Chaucer would have amended his manuscript or inserted more tales to fill the time.

Two early manuscripts of the tale are the Hengwrt manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript. Altogether, the Tales survives in eighty-four manuscripts and four printed editions dating from before 1500. The Canterbury Tales Project is transcribing the whole text of all these versions, comparing them to attempt to uncover how they are related, and publishing transcripts, images and analyses of all this: see further the links in References, below.


It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular language, English (rather than French or Latin). However, several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English, making it unclear how much Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.

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.

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 covert in nature.

The pilgrims' route and real locations

The pilgrims would probably have travelled along Watling Street, a route ancient even in Chaucer's time. Used by the Celts, paved by the Romans and named by the Anglo-Saxons, the stretch from London to Canterbury and then Dover is now the A2 road.

The City of Canterbury has a museum dedicated to The Canterbury Tales".[2]

The postulated return journey has intrigued many and continuations have been written as well as tales written for the characters who are mentioned but not given a chance to speak. The Tale of Beryn is a story by an anonymous author within a 15th 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 title of the work has become an everyday phrase in the language and has been variously adapted and adopted. Recently an animated version of some of the tales has been produced for British television. As well as a version with Modern English dialogue, there were versions in the original Middle English and Welsh.

Evolutionist Richard Dawkins used The Canterbury Tales as a structure for his 2004 book about evolution - The 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.

In the United States, The Canterbury Tales has been expurgated since its first appearance; it was subjected to revisions as late as 1928. In 1995, the book was challenged at Eureka Illinois High School for its lewd content and banned.

Stage and film adaptations



  1. The shrine was destroyed in the 16th century during the dissolution of the monasteries.
  2. Canterbury Tales Museum, Canterbury.

Audio clips

External links


Further reading

  • Kolve, V.A. and Glending Olson (Eds.) (2005). The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and The General Prologue; Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism (2nd ed.). New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-92587-0. LC PR1867.K65 2005. A Norton Critical Edition, this book offers valuable primary texts and secondary criticism.

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