The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories spanning more than 17,000 lines written by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. In 1386, Chaucer became Controller of Customs and Justice of the Peace and, in 1389, Secretary of Labor to the King. It was during these years that Chaucer began working on his stories.
The tales are presented as part of a storytelling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the St. Thomas Becket Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.
Summary and Synopsis
The context that begins the stories is a pilgrimage to the St. Thomas Becket Shrine in Canterbury, Kent. The 30 pilgrims embarking on the journey gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London. They agree to participate in a storytelling contest while traveling, and Harry Bailly, host of the Tabard, serves as ringmaster for the contest.
Most of the pilgrims are presented in brief and vivid sketches in the “General Prologue”. Among the 24 tales, short dramatic scenes (called links) are interspersed featuring animated exchanges, which generally involve the host and one or more pilgrims.
Chaucer did not complete the complete plan of his book: the return trip from Canterbury is not included, nor some of the pilgrims do not tell stories.
By using a pilgrimage as the starting method for the stories, he allowed Chaucer to gather people from many walks of life: as a knight, a nun, a monk; a merchant, a man of law, an academic employee; a miller and many others.
The multiplicity of social types, as well as the narrative contest itself, allowed the presentation of a very varied collection of literary genres: religious legend, courtly romance, life of the saint, allegorical tale, fable of the beast, medieval sermon, alchemy and, sometimes you mix these genres.
The stories and links together offer complex representations of the pilgrims, while at the same time the stories present notable examples of short narrative narrations, plus two prose expositions.
The pilgrimage, which in medieval practice combined a fundamentally religious purpose with the secular benefit of a spring break, made possible a broader consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next.
Tales it contains
- General Prologue
- Tale of the Knight
- The Miller’s Tale
- Sheriff’s Tale
- Cook’s Tale
- Tale of the magistrate
- Tale of Bath’s Wife
- Tale of the friar
- Summoner’s Tale
- Tale of the Scholar
- Tale of the Merchant
- Tale of the Squire
- Landlord’s Tale
- The Physician’s Tale
- Tale of the bulero
- The Sailor’s Tale
- Tale of the Prioress
- Tale of Sir Thopas
- Tale of Melibeo
- Monk’s Tale
- Tale of the Nun Chaplain
- Tale of the Second Nun
- Tale of the Canon’s Servant
- Tale of the Treasurer
- Tale of the Cleric
- Chaucer’s Retraction
Genre: Anthology of tales
Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories built around a narrative or short story, a common genre and long established. Chaucer’s tales differ from most other “collections” of stories in this genre mainly by their intense variety. Most of the story collections focused on one theme, usually religious.
The idea of a pilgrimage to bring together such a diverse collection of people for literary purposes was also unprecedented. The author introduces the reader to a competition between stories, which encourages him to compare them in all their variety, and allows Chaucer to show the breadth of his ability in different genres and literary forms.
Some of the pilgrims
- The Narrator: The narrator makes it quite clear that he is also a character in his book. In the General Prologue, the narrator is presented as a gregarious and naive character. Later, the host accuses him of being quiet and sullen.
- The Knight: the first pilgrim that Chaucer describes in the General Prologue, and the narrator of the first tale. The knight represents the ideal of a medieval Christian man-at-arms.
- Bath’s Wife: Bath is an English city on the River Avon, not the name of this woman’s husband. Although she is a seamstress by occupation, she appears to be a professional wife.
- The Forgiving: pardons granted papal indulgences, postponements of penance in exchange for charitable donations to the Church. Many forgivers, including this one, made a profit for themselves.
- The Miller: He has a wart on his nose and a large mouth, both literally and figuratively. He threatens the Host’s notion of ownership when he drunkenly insists on telling the second story.
- La Priora: Described as modest and calm, she (a nun who is the head of her convent) aspires to have exquisite taste.
- The Monk: he cares little for the rules; His devotion is to hunt and eat. He is large, loud, and well dressed in hunting boots and fur.
- The friar: Willing to ally himself with young women or wealthy men who may need his services, the friar actively administers the sacraments in his city, especially those of marriage and confession.
- The Convenor: Brings people accused of violating Church law to ecclesiastical court. This summoner is a lewd man whose face is marked by leprosy.
- The Host: The leader of the group, the host is big, loud and cheerful, although he has a quick temperament.
- The Parish Priest: The only ecclesiastical devotee in the company, the parish priest lives in poverty, but is rich in thoughts and holy works.
- The Squire: the knight’s son and apprentice. The Squire is curly-haired, young and handsome, and loves to dance and woo.
- The Scholar: he is a poor student of philosophy. He speaks little, but when he does, his words are wise and full of moral virtue..
The Canterbury Tales is viewed almost unanimously as Chaucer’s masterpiece. He uses stories and descriptions of his characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church
Chaucer’s use of such a wide range of classes and types of people was unprecedented in English. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of ideas about the customs and practices of the time. Often this knowledge leads to a variety of discussions and disagreements between people in the fourteenth century.
For example, although various social classes are represented in these stories and all pilgrims are on a spiritual quest, it is evident that they are more interested in worldly things than in spiritual things.