The Canterbury Tales is a unique piece of literature written in Middle English by the famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer. It is a collection of 24 separate stories united in a single book. Below, you’ll see Canterbury Tales’ summary and analysis.
The Canterbury Tales Summary
In April, when nature is awakening after a long and cold winter, a great religious event occurs. The pilgrims from all the corners of England traditionally take a trip to Canterbury Cathedral.
One year, the pilgrims decided to make their long journey more pleasurable. They agreed to tell fascinating tales while reaching the cathedral. The group members had to tell one story on the way forward and another on the way backward.
Thus, the entire literary work collects separate tales told by different pilgrims and framed in the narrator’s storyline.
Still, we prepared a summary of all the tales for you:
- General prologue – The pilgrims meet and agree on the rules.
- The Knight’s Tale – The Knight tells his story after the general prologue, where the narrator introduces every pilgrim. He draws the straw, so he goes first with his romantic tale about Duke Theseus, his new wife Hippolyta, and her sister Emilie.
- The Reeve’s Tale – Everyone was laughing at Miller’s tale except Reeve. He’s a carpenter, so the previous tale insulted him. Reeve continues the competition, claiming that he needs to pay the Miller back. So, he tells a story about a dishonest miller.
- The Cook’s Tale – The Cook announces that he’ll tell the following story. Meanwhile, the Host accuses him of dishonest cooking practices (selling spoiled meat). The Cook declares that the Host is telling the truth. He promises to tell the story about the Host later.
- The Sergeant of Law’s Tale – The morning is passing quickly, so the Host tells the Sergeant of Law to go next. The Sergeant of Law decides to share a tale about merchants as he was a merchant long ago.
- The Wife of Bath’s Tale – Before the Wife of Bath starts telling her story, she introduces herself. It turns out that she had five husbands, so she is a “relationships expert.” Moreover, she adheres to the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply.
- The Friar’s Tale – The next performer is the Friar, who is going to tell a story about a Summoner. The Summoner warns the Friar that in case his tale is uncomplimentary, the Summoner will, in turn, share a rude story about a friar.
- The Summoner’s Tale – The Friar’s tale about a summoner was uncomplimentary. Therefore, the Summoner decided to pay back and tells an insulting story about a friar’s unethical behavior.
- The Cleric’s Tale – After the Friar’s and Summoner’s rude tales, the tension between the pilgrims increases. Thus, the Host asks the Cleric to tell a merry tale. The Cleric agrees and shares a cheerful story about a noble gentleman called Francis Petrarch.
- The Merchant’s Tale – The Merchant shares his unpleasant experience of being in a marriage. He claims that his wife brought him a lot of suffering. However, in his story, the Merchant praises marriage. The listeners get confused if he is sincere or sarcastic.
- The Squire’s Tale – The Host asks the Squire to tell a tale about love. The Squire states that he doesn’t know a lot about love. However, he fulfills the request because he does not want to go against the Host’s authority.
- The Franklin’s Tale – The Franklin interrupts the Squire with his words of admiration. He says that the Squire is an example to follow, so he wants his son to be as good as the Squire is. Then, Franklin goes with his story.
- The Physician’s Tale – The storytelling contest continues, and the next presenter is the Physician. He tells a sad tale about a knight Virginius and his incredibly beautiful daughter Virginia.
- The Pardoner’s Tale – The Physician’s gruesome tale affected the listeners deeply. The Host asks the Pardoner to tell a funny story, but not a vulgar one. The pardoner agrees, but he asks to stop by a tavern first.
- The Shipman’s Tale – The next storyteller is the Shipman. He shares his fascinating tale that covers important moral topics that are relevant even nowadays.
- The Prioress’ Tale – The Prioress introduces herself and gives a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary. This hymn becomes a preview for her story about the role of Jews in Christianity.
- The Tale of Sir Thopas – The Host makes fun of Chaucer for always looking at the ground and being fat. He asks Chaucer to tell a funny tale. Chaucer tells a rhyme that he learned a long time ago.
- The Tale of Melibee – The following story that the pilgrims listen to is the Tale of Melibee. This is a fascinating story that discovers the moral side of taking revenge.
- The Nun’s Priest’s Tale – The Host interrupts the Monk’s tale because it’s too depressing. The pilgrims want to hear a merry tale, so the Host asks the Nun’s Priest if he can share something cheerful. He agrees and starts his story.
- The Second Nun’s Tale – The next storyteller is the Second Nun. Before telling her tale, she speaks about the danger of sloth. Then, she shares her story about a lady Cecilia who wants to remain a virgin forever, like the Virgin Mary.
- The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale – the Canon’s Yeoman starts reviling his master’s secrets in front of the public. The Canon rages at his yeoman and leaves the group of pilgrims. The Yeoman continues telling the Canon’s immoral actions towards people.
- The Manciple’s Tale – The Host notices that the Cook is too drunk, so he needs to tell a story as a punishment. The Cook refuses, claiming that he is too tired. The Manciple asks to go instead of the Cook. The Host agrees.
- The Parson’s Tale – The evening is approaching. The competition comes to an end. The last storyteller is the Parson. He is nervous because he doesn’t know any poems, so he needs to tell a story in prose. Yet, he starts his tale.
The presented below The Canterbury Tales summary will include only the most widely-known stories.
The Canterbury Tales Prologue Summary
The general prologue in Canterbury Tales starts with the description of the awakening spring nature. The April showers indicate the end of the long winter. This means that the time for pilgrimage has come.
A group of 29 pilgrims gathers in the Inn Tabard, a small tavern in Southwark, not far from London. The company impresses with its versatility. Here are people of various social statuses and backgrounds. They have different incomes, lifestyles, and perceptions of life. Still, they are united by one interest – the pilgrimage. Thus, the single goal helped all the members find a common language and create a community.
One of the most bright figures that the narrator introduces in the general prologue is the Knight. He is famous for his noble feats and outstanding military achievements. Another character is the Miller – a burly red-haired man who always wins wrestling competitions. Besides, The Canterbury Tales prologue introduces the Wife of Bath, who has been married five times and gives excellent love advice. The readers also meet the vain Pardoner, the old Priest, and many other social classes.
While having dinner, the people interact and get to know each other. The owner of the tavern shares his idea. He offers to organize a contest for the best storyteller. So, the pilgrims have to tell different stories while traveling to make the journey more delightful. As everybody has a positive attitude towards the Host, the travelers agree.
Overall, the prologue from The Canterbury Tales’ prologue opens the door to the fascinating world of the pilgrims’ tales.
The Knight’s Tale Summary
The first one to share his tale is a skillful storyteller Knight. He tells the story of two imprisoned in Athens cousins – Arcite and Palamon, who fall in love with one woman – Emelye. Spending their miserable days locked in the tower, they have once noticed Emelye from the window. She was too charming, so the men’s feelings were instantly evoked.
Theseus, the ruler of Athens, was incredibly strict towards the prisoners. Nevertheless, Arcite gets freed under the condition of never coming back to Athens. Several years later, Palamon secretly escapes the prison and hides in the grove.
Although Arcite was afraid of returning to Athens, the feeling of love inside his heart won. He decides to come back and find Emelye. The two cousins end up in the same grove. A colossal fight for the woman’s heart occurs.
Being attracted by the loud noise from the grove, Theseus comes to check what is happening. He sees the escaped prisoners and decides to execute them. However, Emelye’s eyes fill with tears, so the ruler decides to keep them alive. He commands to conduct a battle a year later. The one who wins will marry Emelye.
Precisely in a year, in the same grove, the battle occurs. Arcite becomes a winner. However, his fate plays a detrimental role. The knight falls from his horse, injures, and dies. The entire kingdom mourns. Before passing away, Arcite forgives Palamon and tells him to marry Emelye.
The Knight’s tale has a happy end. Palamon and Emelye marry each other and live happily ever after.
The Miller’s Tale Summary
The next person to tell is the Miller. Being drunk, he starts sharing his crude story. The narrator warns the readers that The Miller’s Tale contains dirty jokes, so they would turn the page if they were not ready.
The story’s main characters are the silly old carpenter, his young and beautiful wife Alison, the cunning student Nicholas, and the arrogant clerk Absolon. Being a gorgeous woman, Alison attracts numerous men. Nicholas and Absolon are two of them. The woman is interested in this handsome student. So, they are planning to spend an intimate night together.
To clear the room, Nicholas tricks the carpenter by telling him that the second Noah’s flood is coming. Being naive and afraid, the carpenter follows the student’s advice to hide in the tub.
The bedroom is free, so Alison and Nicholas are spending their time making love. Meanwhile, the old Absolon comes to the woman’s window in hopes of receiving a desirable kiss from Alison. The woman decides to joke. Instead of giving the clerk her lips, she puts out of the window her ass. In the darkness, Absolon cannot see anything, so he kisses Alison’s rear.
Being furious, the clerk seeks revenge. He takes a red-hot poker and asks Alison to lean out of the window again. This time, however, Nicholas sticks his rear and farts at Absolon’s face. In return, the student gets hot poker in his buttocks.
Struggling with the pain, Nicholas starts screaming for water. The folly carpenter thinks that the flood is coming, so he crashes in his tub. The Miller’s Tale ends with everyone making fun of the small-minded carpenter.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale Summary
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is a brief storyline of her life. She claims that she is a real expert in marriage issues since she had five husbands. The wife’s first three husbands were rich but dull; the fourth one was unfaithful. And the last one was handsome but poor. After a lengthy introduction, the Host asks her to start her tale finally. Everybody makes quiet, and she begins.
The action takes place in Arthur King’s times. The young knight rapes the maiden. As a punishment, the Queen asks him to find out what women want the most. An old and ugly lady promises to reveal the secret. If it is correct, the knight must obey her. He agrees. She says that all women desire dominance over their husbands.
The answer turns out to be correct. The older woman requires the knight to marry her and gives him a choice. She can be either beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful. The knight lets the woman decide for herself. The Wife of Bath’s Tale ends happily. As a reward for giving her freedom of choice, the older woman turns into a beautiful and faithful lady.
The Pardoner’s Tale Summary
In the prologue, the Pardoner confesses. He says that he lives a greedy life, even though he preaches that money leads to wicked decisions.
The Pardoner’s Tale is a tragic story about three rowdy men who believe they can kill Death. An older man claims that they can find Death under the old oak. However, when the men come to the tree, they see eight large gold bushels lying under. They decide to wait for the night until it will be dark to take the treasure home.
One of them goes to take food. When the man is gone, the other two plot an evil plan to kill him and not share it with him. Meanwhile, being blinded by the richness, the man who went for provisions also decides to kill his teammates. So, he poisons the wine.
The food bringer returns to the oak, and his acquaintances murder him. Then, they drink the poisoned wine and die themselves. That is how three youths were planning to kill Death, but Death won this fight.
The Pardoner’s Tale theme and main idea lie behind this phrase: “Radix Malorum est cupiditas.” It translates as “Greed is the root of all evils” from Latin.
The Nun’s Priest Tale Summary
The Nun’s Priest Tale is somewhat unusual because the main characters are animals. Chanticleer, a rooster, has seven chicken-wifes. But his favorite one is the beautiful chicken Pertelote.
One day, a cunning fox appears in the yard. She starts flattering the Chanticleer for his exceptional singing skills. The rooster has numerous suspicions at first. But then, he gets too excited and loses attention. As a result, the fox catches him by the throat.
A considerable panic arises around Chanticleer and the fox. Nevertheless, the rooster turns out to be clever. He engages the fox in the conversation and provokes her to talk to him. As she opens her mouth, the clever Chanticleer escapes. The fox attempts to attract the bird again, but he resists the pressure. On his mistakes, Chanticleer learns how to be careful and not get into trouble.
The Nun’s Priest characters can be interpreted and applied to real-life situations. The fox is the representation of flatterers’ villainy. In contrast, the readers can identify Chanticleer and Pertelote as the victims of unworthiness and injustice.
The Canterbury Tales Analysis
The Canterbury Tales do not have an exact year of creation. The author was writing the stories in the time frame between 1387 and 1400 years.
As a result of such a broad creation period, the book has a distinctive feature. The prologue from The Canterbury Tales does not fully match the stories. For example, the narrator does not mention the Nun’s Priest and the Second Nun in the prologues. However, their tales are quite popular.
Moreover, according to the prologue, every pilgrim has to tell two stories. The narrator is the only person who tells two tales. The rest of the group members share only one story or do not narrate at all. Probably, the general prologue was written before the entire book. That is why The Canterbury Tales have such mismatches.
Another distinctive feature is the absence of the characters’ names. Geoffrey Chaucer uses people’s occupations or social statuses instead. Thus, we have the Miller, the Knight, the Monk, the Shipman, the Dyer, the Cleric, the Carpenter, and many other characters.
Why does the author introduce the pilgrims this way? He presents each character as an archetype of a particular class. The company consists of completely diverse people with various lifestyles and backgrounds. They value different things in their lives and have dissimilar personal traits. Here we have intelligent and small-minded pilgrims, well-behaved and ignorant, courageous and shy, young and old. They are all of the different social statuses and life interests.
Nevertheless, all the people from the group are united by a single aim – pilgrimage. Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrates the enormous power of religion. He proves that despite all the extreme discrepancies, the people find common ground. Thus, they manage to make a long journey to Canterbury Cathedral fascinating and enjoyable.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is an outstanding literature piece that takes the reader into Medieval England. The book impresses with the versatility of characters and stories. Each tale is a separate piece of art with its crucial idea and moral value. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently connected by the narrator. Here is the uniqueness of the book: many tales—a single piece of literature.
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