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A woodcut from William Caxton's second edition of the Canterbury Tales printed in 1483.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle-English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In a long list of works, including "Troilus and Criseyde", "House of Fame", "Parliament of Fowls", the Canterbury Tales is Chaucer's magnum opus, and a towering achievement of Western culture. He uses the tales and the descriptions of the characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Structurally, the poem bears the influence of The Decameron, which Chaucer is said to have come across during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372. However, Chaucer peoples his tales with 'sondry folk' rather than Boccaccio's fleeing nobles.



The question of whether "The Canterbury Tales" is finished has not yet been answered. The combined elements of Chaucer's quadri-lingual expertise in law, philosophy, and other subjects, the uncertainty of medieval English historical records, issues of manuscript transmission, and Chaucer's method of telling his stories through a multi-perspectival prism of subjectivity make the "Tales" extremely difficult to interpret. There are 83 known manuscripts of the work from the late medieval and early Renaissance period, more than any other vernacular literary text with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the tales' popularity during the century after Chaucer's death.[1] Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have been complete at one time, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to ascertain whether they were copied individually or as part of a set.[2] The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists' errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being copied and (possibly) distributed. No official, unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order in which Chaucer intended the stories to be placed.[3][4]

Textual and manuscript clues have been adduced to support the two most popular methods of ordering the tales. The standard scholarly edition divides the Tales into ten "fragments." The tales that comprise a fragment are closely related and contain internal indications of their order of presentation, usually with one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. Between fragments, however, the connection is less obvious. Consequently, there are several possible tales orders, the most popular of which is as follows:[3]

Fragment Tales
Fragment I(A) General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook
Fragment II(B1) Man of Law
Fragment III(D) Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner
Fragment IV(E) Clerk, Merchant
Fragment V(F) Squire, Franklin
Fragment VI(C) Physician, Pardoner
Fragment VII(B2) Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas, Melibee, Monk, Nun's Priest
Fragment VIII(G) Second Nun, Canon's Yeoman
Fragment IX(H) Manciple
Fragment X(I) Parson

An alternative ordering places Fragment VIII before VI. However, the order indicated above follows that of some early manuscripts. Fragments I and II almost always follow each other, as do VI and VII, IX and X in the oldest manuscripts. Fragments IV and V, by contrast are located in varying locations from manuscript to manuscript. Victorians would frequently move Fragment VII(B2) to follow Fragment II(B1), but this trend is no longer followed and has no justification.[3] Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer's originals, the oldest being MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The scribe uses the order shown above, though he does not seem to have had a full collection of Chaucer's tales, so part are missing. The most beautiful of the manuscripts of the tales is the Ellesmere manuscript, and many editors have followed the order of the Ellesmere over the centuries, even down to the present day.[5][6] The latest of the manuscripts is William Caxton's 1478 print edition, the first version of the tales to be published in print. Since this version was created from a now-lost manuscript, it is counted as among the 83 manuscripts.[1]


The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English, specifically in a dialect associated with London and spellings associated with the then emergent chancery standard. Although no manuscript of the Tales exists in Chaucer's own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe whom he seems to have worked closely with before, meaning that we can be fairly sure about how Chaucer himself wrote the Tales.[7] Chaucer's generation of English-speakers was among the last to pronounce e at the end of words (so for Chaucer the word <care> was pronounced [kaːrə], not /kɛər/ as in modern English). This meant that later copyists tended to be inconsistent in their copying of final -e and this for many years gave scholars the impression that Chaucer himself was inconsistent in using it.[8] It has now been established, however, that -e was an important part of Chaucer's morphology (having a role in distinguishing, for example, singular adjectives from plural and subjunctive verbs from indicative).[9] The pronunciation of Chaucer's writing otherwise differs most prominently from Modern English in that his language had not undergone the Great Vowel Shift: pronouncing Chaucer's vowels as they would be pronounced today in European languages like Italian, Spanish or German generally produces pronunciations more like Chaucer's own than Modern English pronunciation would. In addition, sounds now written in English but not pronounced were still pronounced by Chaucer: the word <knight> for Chaucer was [knixt], not [naɪt]. The pronunciation of Chaucer's poetry can now be reconstructed fairly confidently through detailed philological research; the following gives an IPA reconstruction of the opening lines of The Merchant's Prologue; it is likely, moreover, that when a word ending in a vowel was followed by a word beginning in a vowel, the two vowels were elided into one syllable, as seen here with care and:

'Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,'
Quod the Marchant, 'and so doon oother mo
That wedded been.'[10]
ˈweːpɪŋ and ˈwailɪŋ ‖ ˈkaːr‿and ˈoːðər ˈsorwə ‖
iː ˈknɔu əˈnoːx ‖ on ˈeːvən and aˈmorwə ‖
ˈkwod ðə ˈmartʃant ‖ and ˈsɔː ˈdoːn ˈoːðər ˈmɔː ‖
ðat ˈwɛddəd ˈbeːn ‖[11]
'Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow
I know enough, in the evening and in the morning,'
said the Merchant, 'and so does many another
who has been married.'


A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse.

No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organize the journey.[12]

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to the Canterbury Tales than any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague). It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. One-fourth of the tales in Canterbury Tales parallels a tale in the Decameron, although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he must have merely read the Decameron while visiting Italy at some point.[13] Each of the tales has its own set of sources which have been suggested by scholars, but a few sources are used frequently over several tales. These include poetry by Ovid, the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions it was available in at the time (the exact one is difficult to determine), and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to utilize the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as do the works of John Gower, a known friend to Chaucer. A full list is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, a preacher's handbook, and Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum.[14] Many scholars say there is a good possibility Chaucer met Petrarch or Boccaccio.[15][16][17][18][19]


Canterbury Cathedral. View from the north west circa 1890-1900 (retouched from a black & white photograph).

Genre and structure

Canterbury Tales falls into the same category or genre as many other works of its day as a collection of stories organized into a frame narrative or frame tale. Chaucer's Tales differed from other stories in this genre chiefly in its intense variation. Most story collections focused on a theme, usually a religious one. Even in the Decameron, storytellers are encouraged to stick to the theme decided on for the day. The idea of a pilgrimage appears to have been a useful device to get such a diverse collection of people together for literary purposes, and was also unprecedented. Introducing a competition among the tales encourages the reader to compare the tales in all their variety, and allows Chaucer to showcase the breadth of his skill in different genres and literary forms.[20]

While the structure of the Tales is largely linear, with one story following another, it is also much more than that. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes, not the tales to be told, but the people who will tell them, making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme or moral. This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the Knight has finished his. Having the Knight go first, gives one the idea that all will tell their stories by class, with the Knight going first, followed by the Monk, but the Miller's interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favor of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present. General themes and points of view arise as tales are told which are responded to by other characters in their own tales, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed.[21]

Lastly, Chaucer does not pay much attention to the progress of the trip, to the time passing as the pilgrims travel, or specific locations along the way to Canterbury. His writing of the story seems focused primarily on the stories being told, and not on the pilgrimage itself.[22]


The variety of Chaucer's tales shows the breadth of his skill and his familiarity with countless rhetorical forms and linguistic styles. Medieval schools of rhetoric at the time encouraged such diversity, dividing literature (as Virgil suggests) into high, middle, and low styles as measured by the density of rhetorical forms and vocabulary. Another popular method of division came from St. Augustine, who focused more on audience response and less on subject matter (a Virgilian concern). Augustine divided literature into "majestic persuades", "temperate pleases", and "subdued teaches". Writers were encouraged to write in a way that kept in mind the speaker, subject, audience, purpose, manner, and occasion. Chaucer moves freely between all of these styles, showing favoritism to none. He not only considers the readers of his work as an audience, but the other pilgrims within the story as well, creating a multi-layered rhetorical puzzle of ambiguities. Chaucer's work thus far surpasses the ability of any single medieval theory to uncover.[23]

With this Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller, show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow. Vocabulary also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a "lady", while the lower classes use the word "wenche", with no exceptions. At times the same word will mean entirely different things between classes. The word "pitee", for example, is a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the Merchant's Tale it refers to sexual intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun's Priest's Tale show surprising skill with words among the lower classes of the group, while the Knight's Tale is at times extremely simple.[24]

Chaucer uses the same meter throughout almost all of his tales, with the exception of Sir Thopas and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally, a caesura in the middle of a line. His meter would later develop into the heroic meter of the 15th and 16th centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter. He avoids allowing couplets to become too prominent in the poem, and four of the tales (the Man of Law's, Clerk's, Prioress', and Second Nun's) use rhyme royal.[25]

Historical context and themes

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 is mentioned in the Tales.

The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Great Schism and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention which allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and clashes ending in the deposing of King Richard II, further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer in the time of the Tales' writing. Many of his close friends were executed and he himself was forced to move to Kent in order to get away from events in London.[26]


The Tales reflect diverse religious worldviews in Chaucer's time. After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the authority of the Catholic Church. Some turned to lollardy, while others chose less extreme paths, starting new monastic orders or smaller movements exposing church corruption in the behavior of the clergy, false church relics or sale of indulgences.[27] Several characters in the Tales are religious figures, and the very nature of the pilgrimage to Canterbury is deeply religious, making this a preeminent theme of the work.[28]

Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, have roles directly tied to the church's monetary power. Both of these characters are portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer's day was a person to whom one paid indulgences in exchange for forgiveness of sins. Pardoners would exact a fee for their services and in many cases were guilty of using these fees for their own gain. Chaucer's Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares.[29] The Summoner is a clergyman whose job it was to bring sinners to the church court for possible excommunication. These courts also had power to seize property, inflict pain or humiliation, or impose the death penalty. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their lives and property. Chaucer's Summoner is portrayed as being guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and he is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner to further his personal gain.[30] In The Friar's Tale, one of the characters is a summoner, and is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God.[31]

The murder of Thomas Becket

Members of the regular clergy — monks and nuns of various orders — are represented by the Monk, the Prioress, the Nun's Priest, and the Second Nun. Monastic orders, which originated from the desire of many to follow an ascetic lifestyle and to separate themselves from the world, had by Chaucer's time become increasingly entangled in worldly matters. Monasteries frequently controlled huge tracts of land on which they made significant sums of money, while peasants worked in their employ.[32] The Second Nun is an example of what a Nun was expected to be. Her tale is about a woman whose chaste example brings people into the church. The Monk and the Prioress, on the other hand, while they are not as corrupt as the Summoner or Pardoner, fall short of ideal for their order. Both are dressed expensively and show signs of lives of luxury and flirtatiousness. Both also show a lack of spiritual depth.[33] The Prioress's Tale is an account of Jews murdering a deeply pious and innocent Christian boy. This blood libel against Jews became a part of English literary tradition.[34] However, the story the Prioress tells did not originate in the works of Chaucer: it was well known in the 14th century.[35]

The pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. Pilgrims would frequently journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints. They believed that such relics had miraculous powers. Pilgrimages also represented the mortal journey to heaven through the struggles of mortal life. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem,[36] but Canterbury was a popular destination within England. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been killed in the Canterbury cathedral by knights who had misunderstood Henry II's order during a disagreement between him and Becket. Miracle stories connected to his remains began to spring up soon after his death, and the area became a popular pilgrimage destination.[37] The pilgrimage is a major theme in the work which ties all of the stories together, and some scholars point out that it may be a representation of Christians' striving for heaven, despite weaknesses, disagreement, and diversity of opinion.[38]

Social class and convention

Bors' Dilemma - he chooses to save a maiden rather than his brother Lionel

The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer's time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the King's Court and Christian in their actions.[39] Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized in order to strengthen their fighting ability.[40] Though the aim of chivalry was to noble action, often its conflicting values degenerated into violence. Church leaders often tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight's Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death in order to win her. Chivalry was in Chaucer's day on the decline, and it is possible that The Knight's Tale was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed.[41] Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Years' War under Edward III, who heavily emphasized chivalry during his reign.[42] Two tales, The Tale of Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee are told by Chaucer himself, who is travelling with the pilgrims in his own story. Both tales seem to focus on the ill-effects of chivalry—the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence.[43]

The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes. For example, the division of the three estates; the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being "those who pray" (the clergy), "those who fight" (the nobility), and "those who work" (the commoners and peasantry).[44] Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some "quit" (reply to or retaliate against) other tales. Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by the Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Helen Cooper, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin and Derek Brewer, call this opposition "the ordered and the grotesque, Lent and Carnival, officially approved culture and its riotous, and high-spirited underside."[45] Several works of the time contained the same opposition.[45]

Relativism vs. realism

Chaucer's characters each express different—sometimes vastly different—views of reality, creating an atmosphere of relativism. As Helen Cooper says, "Different genres give different readings of the world: the fabliau scarcely notices the operations of God, the saint's life focuses on those at the expense of physical reality, tracts and sermons insist on prudential or orthodox morality, romances privilege human emotion." The sheer number of varying persons and stories renders the Tales as a set unable to arrive at any definite truth or reality.[46]


It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer's life, and several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.[citation needed] It is interesting to note that, although Chaucer had a powerful influence in poetic and artistic terms, which can be seen in the great number of forgeries and mistaken attributions (such as The Flower and the Leaf which was translated by John Dryden), modern English spelling and orthography owes much more to the innovations made by the Court of Chancery in the decades during and after his lifetime.[citation needed]


Chaucer as a Pilgrim from the Ellesmere manuscript.
Opening prologue of The Wife of Bath's Tale from the Ellesmere Manuscript.

While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems (the Book of the Duchess is known to have been written for John of Gaunt on the occasion of his wife's death in 1368), the intended audience of The Canterbury Tales is more difficult to determine. Chaucer was a courtier, leading some to believe that he was mainly a court poet who wrote exclusively for the nobility. He is referred to as a noble translator and poet by Eustace Deshamps and by his contemporary John Gower. It has been suggested that the poem was intended to be read aloud, which is probable as this was a common activity at the time. However, it also seems to have been intended for private reading as well, since Chaucer frequently refers to himself as the writer, rather than the speaker, of the work. Determining the intended audience directly from the text is even more difficult, since the audience is part of the story. This makes it difficult to tell when Chaucer is writing to the fictional pilgrim audience or the actual reader.[47]

Chaucer's works may have been distributed in some form during his lifetime in part or in whole. Scholars speculate that manuscripts were circulated among his friends, but likely remained unknown to most people until after his death. However, the speed with which copyists strove to write complete versions of his tale in manuscript form shows that Chaucer was a famous and respected poet in his own day. The Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts are examples of the care taken to distribute the work. More manuscript copies of the poem exist than for any other poem of its day except The Prick of Conscience, causing some scholars to give it the medieval equivalent of "best-seller" status. Even the most elegant of the illustrated manuscripts, however, is not nearly as decorated and fancified as the work of authors of more respectable works such as John Lydgate's religious and historical literature.[48]

15th century

John Lydgate and Thomas Occleve were among the first critics of Chaucer's Tales, praising the poet as the greatest English poet of all time and the first to truly show what the language was capable of poetically. This sentiment is universally agreed upon by later critics into the mid-15th century. Glosses included in Canterbury Tales manuscripts of the time praised him highly for his skill with "sentence" and rhetoric, the two pillars by which medieval critics judged poetry. The most respected of the tales was at this time the Knight's, as it was full of both.[49]

Literary additions and supplements

The incompleteness of the Tales led several medieval authors to write additions and supplements to the tales in order to make them more complete. Some of the oldest existing manuscripts of the tales include new or modified tales, showing that even early on, such additions were being created. These emendations included various expansions of the Cook's Tale, which Chaucer never finished, The Plowman's Tale, The Tale of Gamelyn, the Siege of Thebes, and the Tale of Beryn.[50]

The Tale of Beryn, written by an anonymous author in the 15th century, is preceded by a lengthy prologue in which the pilgrims arrive at Canterbury and their activities there are described. While the rest of the pilgrims disperse throughout the town, the Pardoner seeks the affections of Kate the barmaid, but faces problems dealing with the man in her life and the innkeeper Harry Bailey. As the pilgrims turn back home, the Merchant restarts the storytelling with Tale of Beryn. In this tale, a young man named Beryn travels from Rome to Egypt to seek his fortune only to be cheated by other businessmen there. He is then aided by a local man in getting his revenge. The tale comes from the French tale Bérinus and exists in a single early manuscript of the tales, although it was printed along with the tales in a 1721 edition by John Urry.[51]

John Lydgate wrote The Siege of Thebes in about 1420. Like the Tale of Beryn, it is preceded by a prologue in which the pilgrims arrive in Canterbury. Lydgate places himself among the pilgrims as one of them and describes how he was a part of Chaucer's trip and heard the stories. He characterizes himself as a monk and tells a long story about the history of Thebes before the events of the Knight's Tale. John Lydgate's tale was popular early on and exists in old manuscripts both on its own and as part of the tales. It was first printed as early as 1561 by John Stow and several editions for centuries after followed suit.[52]

There are actually two versions of The Plowman's Tale, both of which are influenced by the story Piers Plowman, a work written during Chaucer's lifetime. Chaucer describes a Plowman in the General Prologue of his tales, but never gives him his own tale. One tale, written by Thomas Occleve, describes the miracle of the Virgin and the Sleeveless Garment. Another tale features a pelican and a griffin debating church corruption, with the pelican taking a position of protest akin to John Wycliffe's ideas.[53]

The Tale of Gamelyn was included in an early manuscript version of the tales, Harley 7334, which is notorious for being one of the lower-quality early manuscripts in terms of editor error and alteration. It is now widely rejected by scholars as an authentic Chaucerian tale, although some scholars think he may have intended to rewrite the story as a tale for the Yeoman. Dates for its authorship vary from 1340-1370.[54]

Literary adaptations

The title of the work has become an everyday phrase and been variously adapted and adopted; for example Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and others.

Many literary works (both fiction and non-fiction alike) have used a similar frame narrative to the Canterbury Tales as an homage. Science Fiction writer Dan Simmons wrote his Hugo Award winning novel Hyperion based around an extra-planetary group of pilgrims. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used The Canterbury Tales as a structure for his 2004 non-fiction 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.

Henry Dudeney's book The Canterbury Puzzles contains a part which is supposedly lost text from the Tales.

Historical mystery novelist P.C. Doherty wrote a series of novels based on "The Canterbury Tales," making use of the story frame and of Chaucer's characters.

The graphic novel Worlds' End, part of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series, has the same basic storyline as The Canterbury Tales. Several very different people meet in an inn and agree to tell tales while they wait for a storm to end.

British author JK Rowling cites The Pardoner's Tale, one of The Canterbury Tales, as her inspiration for the fairy tale The Tale of Three Brothers. This is very prominent in the Harry Potter series, especially in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book.

Though lyricist Keith Reid denies any similarity[55], "A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum may contain a reference to Chaucer's work: "...And so it was, later, as the miller told his tale, that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale."

Stage and film adaptations

The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a retelling of "The Knight's Tale", was first performed in 1613 or 1614 and published in 1634. In 1961, Erik Chisholm completed his opera, The Canterbury Tales. The opera is in three acts: The Wyf of Bath’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Nevill Coghill's modern English version formed the basis of a musical version - first staged in 1964.

A Canterbury Tale, a 1944 film jointly written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is loosely based on the narrative frame of Chaucer's tales. The movie opens with a group of medieval pilgrims journeying through the Kentish countryside as a narrator speaks the opening lines of the General Prologue. The scene then makes a now-famous transition to the time of World War II. From that point on, the film follows a group of strangers, each with his or her own story and in need of some kind of redemption, are making their way to Canterbury together. The film's main story takes place in an imaginary town in Kent and ends with the main characters arriving at Canterbury Cathedral, bells pealing and Chaucer's words again resounding. A Canterbury Tale is recognized as one of the Powell-Pressburger team's most poetic and artful films. It was produced as wartime propaganda, using Chaucer's poetry, referring to the famous pilgrimage, and offering photography of Kent to remind the public of what made Britain worth fighting for. In one scene a local historian lectures an audience of British soldiers about the pilgrims of Chaucer's time and the vibrant history of England.[56]

Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 film The Canterbury Tales features several of the tales, some of which keep close to the original tale and some of which are embellished. The Cook's Tale, for instance, which is incomplete in the original version, is expanded into a full story, and the Friar's Tale extends the scene in which the Summoner is dragged down to hell. The film includes these two tales as well as the Miller's Tale, the Summoner's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Tale, and the Merchant's Tale.[57]

Several more recent films, while they are not based on the tales, do have heavy references to them. For example, in the 1995 film Se7en, the Parson's Tale is an important clue to the methods of a serial killer who chooses his victims based on the seven deadly sins.[58] The 2001 film, A Knight's Tale took its name from "The Knight's Tale". Although it bears little resemblance to the tale, it does feature what Martha Driver and Sid Ray call an "MTV-generation" Chaucer who is a gambling addict with a way with words. Scattered references to the Tales include Chaucer's declaration that he will use his verse to vilify a summoner and a pardoner who have cheated him.[59]

Television adaptations include Alan Plater's 1975 re-telling of the stories in a series of plays for BBC2: Trinity Tales. In this adaptation, the stories were told by a party of rugby league supporters on their way to a cup final at Wembley.[60] Later, in 2004, BBC again featured modern re-tellings of selected tales.[61]

Ezra Winter, Canterbury tales mural (1939), Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.


  1. ^ a b Pearsall, 8
  2. ^ Cooper, 6—7
  3. ^ a b c Cooper, 7
  4. ^ Pearsall, 14-15
  5. ^ Pearsall, 10, 17
  6. ^ Cooper, 8
  7. ^ Linne R. Mooney, ‘Chaucer’s Scribe’, Speculum, 81 (2006), 97–138.
  8. ^ e.g. Ian Robinson, Chaucer's Prosody: A Study of the Middle English Verse Tradition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
  9. ^ Seminal studies included M. L. Samuels, 'Chaucerian Final '-e' ', Notes and Queries, 19 (1972), 445-48 and D. Burnley, 'Inflection in Chaucer's Adjectives', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 83 (1982), 169-77.
  10. ^ Text from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 153.
  11. ^ Based on the information in Norman Davies, 'Language and Versification', in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. xxv-xli.
  12. ^ Cooper, p. 10.
  13. ^ Cooper, pp. 10-11.
  14. ^ Cooper, pp. 12-16.
  15. ^ Brewer, p. 227 Although Chaucer undoubtedly studied the works of these celebrated writers, and particularly of Dante before this fortunate interview; yet it seems likely, that these excursions gave him a new relish for their compositions, and enlarged his knowledge of the Italian fables.
  16. ^ Brewer, p. 277 ...where he became thoroughly inbued with the spirit and excellence of the great Italian poets and prose-writers: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio; and is said to have had a personal contact interview with one of these, Petrarch.
  17. ^ Hendrickson , pp. 183-192 Professor G.L. Hendrickson of the University of Chicago gives a detailed analysis as to Chaucer coming in contact with Petrarch.
  18. ^ Rearden, p. 458 There can be no moral doubt but that Chaucer knew Petrarch personally. They were both in France many times, where they might have met. They were both courtiers. They both had an enthusiasm for scholarship. Whether they met then, or whether Chaucer, when on his visit to Genoa, specially visited the Italian, it does not appear. ...but the only reason that such a visit could not have occurred lies in the fact that Petrarch himself does not record it. Still, on the other hand, would he have mentioned the visit of a man who was the servant of a barbarous monarch, and whose only claim to notice, literary-wise, was his cultivation of an unknown and uncouth dialect that was half bastard French?
  19. ^ Skeat (1874), p. xxx And we know that Petrarch, on his own shewing, was so pleased with the story of Griselda that he learnt it by heart as well as he could, for the express purpose of repeating it to friends, before the idea of turning it into Latin occurred to him. Whence we may conclude that Chaucer and Petrarch met at Padua early in 1373; that Petrarch told Chaucer the story by word of mouth, either in Italian or French; and that Chaucer shortly after obtained a copy of Petrarch's Latin version, which he kept constantly before him whilst making his own translation.
  20. ^ Cooper, 8-9
  21. ^ Cooper, 17-18
  22. ^ Cooper, 18
  23. ^ Cooper, 22-24
  24. ^ Cooper, 24-25
  25. ^ Cooper, 25-26
  26. ^ Cooper, 5-6
  27. ^ Bisson, pp. 49-51, 56-62
  28. ^ Bisson, pp. 50
  29. ^ Bisson, pp. 61-64
  30. ^ Bisson, pp. 66-67
  31. ^ Bisson, pp. 67-68
  32. ^ Bisson, pp. 73-75, 81
  33. ^ Bisson, pp. 91-95
  34. ^ Rubin,106—107
  35. ^ "The Prioress's Tale", by prof. Jane Zatta
  36. ^ Bisson, pp. 99-102
  37. ^ Bisson, pp. 110-113
  38. ^ Bisson, pp. 117-119
  39. ^ Bisson, pp. 123-131
  40. ^ Bisson, pp. 132-134
  41. ^ Bisson, pp. 139-142
  42. ^ Bisson, pp. 138
  43. ^ Bisson, pp. 141-142
  44. ^ Bisson, pp. 143
  45. ^ a b Cooper, 19
  46. ^ Cooper, 21
  47. ^ Pearsall, 294-5
  48. ^ Pearsall, 295-97
  49. ^ Pearsall, 298-302
  50. ^ Trigg, Stephanie. Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. ISBN 0816638233 pp. 86
  51. ^ Trigg, pp. 86-88, 97
  52. ^ Trigg, pp. 88-97
  53. ^ Brewer, Charlotte. Editing Piers Plowman: The Evolution of the Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521342503 pp. 8-9
  54. ^ Ohlgren, Thomas Medieval Outlaws. City: Parlor Press, 2005. ISBN 1932559620 pp. 264-265
  55. ^
  56. ^ Ellis, Steve. Chaucer at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. ISBN 0816633762 pp. 64-65
  57. ^ Pencak, William. The Films of Derek Jarman. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2002. ISBN 0786414308 pp. 178-9
  58. ^ Bignell, Jonathan. Postmodern Media Culture. City: Aakar Books, 2007. ISBN 8189833162 pp. 93-94.
  59. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan The Medieval Hero on Screen. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. ISBN 0786419261 pp. 202-203
  60. ^ Screen Online
  61. ^ "BBC - Drama - Canterbury Tales". BBC Drama article about the series. Retrieved 2007-05-06. 


  • Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN 031210667X
  • Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198711557
  • Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1985. ISBN 0048000213
  • Rubin, Alexis P., ed. (1993): Scattered Among the Nations: Documents Affecting Jewish History. 49 to 1975. Wall & Emerson. ISBN 1895131103.

Further reading

  • Collette, Carolyn. Species, Phantasms and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in the Canterbury Tales. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
  • Kolve, V.A. and Glending Olson (Eds.) (2005). The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and The General Prologue; Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. A Norton Critical Edition (2nd ed.). New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-92587-0. LC PR1867.K65 2005.
  • Thompson, N.S. Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-198-12378-7.

External links

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Simple English

File:Canterbury Cathedral 102
Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury in an ancient window of the cathedral.

The Canterbury Tales is a book of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. This is an important book, because it is one of the first to be written in the English language. The book is about a group of travellers who are going from London to Canterbury. As they travel along, each person tells a tale (a story). This is why the book is called The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer planned to write 120 tales, but only 24 were completed. Two of the stories are written in prose and the others are written in verse. They were so popular that he was invited to read his stories to the king and royal court.



File:Canterbury Cathedral 092 Murder of St
The murder of Thomas Becket. Only the centre part of this window is ancient.

The Canterbury Tales is about a group of people who are pilgrims. They are travelling on a journey to an important religious site. In the Middle Ages, many Christian people went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury. Canterbury Cathedral was a famous pilgrimage site because it contained the shrine (a place for remembering) of Saint Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket had been the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1100s. He had an argument with his old friend, King Henry II, and in 1170 he was murdered by some supporters of the king. The King felt very sad and guilty. He had a magnificent tomb built for his old friend. People began to visit the tomb. Soon, some people said that Thomas Becket was a saint, and that his bones could work miracles. He is regarded as a martyr for the Christian faith and as a saint by both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In the late Middle Ages his shrine made Canterbury one of the four most important pilgrimage places in Europe.

Many pilgrims used to meet together in London. The Canterbury Tales tells of the meeting of a group at an inn in Southwark, which was a village south of the Thames River and now making up part of London. This was a good place to meet because people from the north could cross the Thames River by London Bridge. Canterbury is in the south-east of England. A reason why pilgrims used to gather in groups was that it was dangerous to travel alone. In the days before modern banking, every traveller had to carry a lot of money to pay for food and accommodation (a place to sleep). Robbers often attacked people along the roads.

When pilgrims gathered in a group, the group could be made up of many different kinds of people, both rich and poor, noble and humble. The groups often contained a number of religious people such as priests, monks and nuns. In Chaucer's story, the most noble person is a knight. Among the more ordinary people are a cook, a sailor and a farmer.

The tales

The Canterbury Tales begins with a Prologue (which means "a few words to begin"). In the prologue Chaucer describes the time of year, which is April, when the weather begins to get warmer after winter. He says that it is at this time that people begin to go on pilgrimage. Chaucer tells the reader about the people who are gathered at the inn. He describes the people so clearly that many of them have become famous characters in English Literature, and have often been shown in paintings. Chaucer describes how each person tells a story to entertain the other as they travel along.

The Tales are:

• The General Prologue • The Knight's Tale • The Miller's Prologue and Tale • The Reeve's Prologue and Tale • The Cook's Prologue and Tale • The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale • The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale • The Friar's Prologue and Tale • The Summoner's Prologue and Tale • The Clerk's Prologue and Tale • The Merchant's Prologue and Tale • The Squire's Prologue and Tale • The Franklin's Prologue and Tale • The Physician's Tale • The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale • The Shipman's Tale • The Prioress' Prologue and Tale • Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas • The Tale of Melibee • The Monk's Prologue and Tale • The Nun's Priest's Prologue and Tale • The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale • The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale • The Manciple's Prologue and Tale • The Parson's Prologue and Tale • Chaucer's Retraction

Some of the tales (stories) are serious and others are funny. Some of the funny stories are vulgar (sexually rude). A lot of the tales talk about the Christian faith. Sometimes the theme (main idea) of one story is followed into the next story, as a new story-teller responds (or answers) to a story they have just heard. All of the tales are about the way that people think and behave towards each other.

About The Canterbury Tales

[[File:|thumb|right|230px|A page from the Ellesmere manuscript showing the Wife of Bath]] The Canterbury Tales is written in the type of English that most ordinary people used in Chaucer's day. Chaucer was one of the first authors (writers) who wrote stories in English. Before, stories were written in Latin or French. Some other writers of Chaucer's time also wrote in English. Some of these writers were John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet.

Chaucer planned the stories before he wrote them but he did not finish his plan. He planned that each character would tell four stories: two while going to Canterbury and two while returning to London. If Chaucer had finished, he would have written 120 stories. He only actually wrote 24. Chaucer began to write the stories in the 1380s. He stopped writing them in the 1390s. Some think that he deliberately did not write the total 120 stories.

Chaucer was an important person in the royal court. Some people think that, in the stories, Chaucer was saying things about court politics. Some people think that Chaucer based his characters on people that he really knew and who were at the royal court.

Some people think that Chaucer copied ideas from others peoples’ writings because some of the stories in The Canterbury Tales are very similar to them. The characters, however, are very different. The characters have different occupations and personalities. They all tell different types of stories and they tell them in different ways. The big story is about many pilgrims traveling to Canterbury. They are riding horses and the trip takes several days. Chaucer does not say much about the big story and most of the writing is about the stories told by the pilgrims.

The two earliest manuscripts (hand-written copies) of The Canterbury Tales are the Hengwrt manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript. There are also 84 manuscript and four printed copies of The Canterbury Tales that were made before 1500. There are quite a lot of differences in the different copies. Some experts on Chaucer have started The Canterbury Tales Project. The project is to read all these copies of The Canterbury Tales, find out the differences and write the most accurate copy.

The Canterbury Tales in modern culture

  • The Canterbury Tales is a very famous work of English literature. It is part of every university course about the history of English literature. Many books have been written about Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.
  • In the 19th century (1800s), many painters made pictures showing characters and scenes from The Canterbury Tales.
  • 'The Canterbury Tales has been made into movies, plays and television shows. There have been documentary TV programs about the book.
  • Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most famous churches in England. Apart from regular visitors, thousands of visitors go there because of The Canterbury Tales. Many other people still go as pilgrims to the place where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered.
  • In the City of Canterbury there is a Museum about The Canterbury Tales, called "The Canterbury Tales". It is on St Margrets St.

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