The Canterbury Tales | Geoffrey Chaucer


Plot Summary


An unfinished, yet colorful collection of tales told by pilgrims on pilgrimage from Southwark, a suburb of London, to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas à Becket. Interestingly, Chaucer makes himself one of the pilgrims. These are middle-class folks (no poor or rich).


Author and Date


-         Foreign envoy for king (equivalent of modern-day ambassador)

-         Went to France and Italy

-         Exposed to early tremors of Renaissance

·        Dante and Boccaccio

-         Like to live “as a hermit” when not working

-         Read a lot in apartment above gates of London

-         Observed throng that passed through the gates on London

·        Ideas for his stories

-         Becomes a Justice of the Peace and Knight of the Shire (i.e., Member of the Parliament

-         Appointed Clerk of the King’s Works (upkeep of Westminster Palace and the Tower of London)

-         Deputy Forester of the royal forest of North Peterton

-         Intended 120 stories (two told by each pilgrim each way on journey), but has only twenty-four, some incomplete


Historical Background


-         Born shortly after the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France

·        1340: King of England declares himself King of France

·        Joan of Arc has “word from God” that Charles VII would be made King of France

·        Joan of Arc leads French into battle (1429-1431)

o       Routs English troops at Orleans and saves France

à turning point in European history

·        English accuse her of witchcraft

o       Captured in 1430 and burned in 1431

-         the Bubonic Plague (1348-1349)

-         and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) – series of revolts

-         14-yr old King Richard II rides toward peasants in London, their bows taut, and he asks, “Sirs, will you shoot your king?”

·        they put down their bows

·        he talks with them, grants them his pardon, and sends them back to their homes

-         also the time of the Great Schism, with two rival and warring popes (Avingnon and Rome), began in 1378

- It was a depressing time, and drunkenness was common

-         Thomas a Becket was martyred at Canterbury in 1170

·        Didn’t want royal courts to deal with “criminous clerks”

·        King Henry II disagrees and Becket flees to France in 1164

·        When returns in 1170, he was murdered by 4 knights who thought they were doing the bidding of the king, who was angry that Becket didn’t want to forgive sympathizer priests

à relevance to “clergy abuse” cases in our day?

- England in 14th century is still deeply religious and thoroughly Catholic in doctrine and practices

-         St. Francis of Assisi in 13th century lived life of poverty, but didn’t want to force it on others

o       Parson’s Tale – is Chaucer a Lollard?

- Pilgrimages very common in Middle Ages

-         Chaucer could probably look out his window in London and see the pilgrims en route to Canterbury

-         He himself may have gone of this pilgrimage

- Chaucer the first major writer to write in English

- French by Chaucer’s time has become a foreign language

-         1396 manual for English travelers going to inns run by French-speakers

o       French phrases

o       “Please keep your inn clean”

o       “Here is how to serve wholesome food,” etc.



      -     point of the Prologue?: we’re all sinners; “love the man but hate his sin”

-         Interestingly, he ends with the Parson’s Tale and a Retraction – Why?

o       Theories from

à Baldwin, Unity of Canterbury Tales (1955): PT is the moral center of CT and its statements about sin can be taken as GC's intended judgments of individual tellers and tales (also Huppe, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, 1964).

à Ruggiers ('65), Jordan ('67), Norton-Smith ('74) and others read the tale as a more general moral description of society's flaws, a corrective designed to bring CT to closure in as a piece of Christian morality.

à E.T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (1970) attacked the direct application of ParsT doctrine as an interpretive "key" to unlock the other tales' sentence.

à Finlayson ('71), Allen ('73), and Kaske ('75) read the Parson's portrait and persona as ironic, a turgid moralist whose judgment is in no way superior to that of other tellers. Wenzel and Delasanta ('78) have attacked that reading.


-         Device of the pilgrimage allows examination of a cross-section of humanity

-         Tension between secular and religious

-    Keen insights into human nature

-         How looks can be deceiving

-         The role of pleasure in reading literature

o       “…the Christian…has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh…We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God.”          -- C.S. Lewis

-         Others?