The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer presented in the form of poems. The writing of the tale was in Middle English, making it popular in medieval England. This poem portrays the journey of 29 pilgrims from the Southwark’s Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral’s St Thomas a Becket. It is through this writing that Chaucer paints the portraits of words used by people across the society ranging from carpenters to cooks. The collection consists of 24 tales from the projected 100, artistically presented with comic, humor and vulgar. This essay presents a summary of the stories to provide a comprehensive understanding of Chaucer's work.

The Knight’s Tale

The king of Athens called Theseus puts two knights, Arcite and Palamon from Thebes, into prison. While they are in jail, the two knights develop feelings for one woman, Emelye (sister to Hippolyta), who also happens to be the sister in law to King Theseus. A friend intervenes, and then this leads to Arcite’s freedom. After being banished from Athens, Arcite comes back to provide his services in Emelye’s chamber. When Palamon escapes from prisons, he fights with Arcite over Emelye. The king then detains them, and sets out a duel with Emelye as the price. Arcite, Emelye and Palamon pray to their various gods; Mars to be victorious, Diana for a happy marriage and Venus to possess Emelye respectively. The gods grant them all their wishes and Arcite wins then dies as Palamon marries Emelye.

The Miller’s Tale

This story comes after the Knight’s narration as the drunken Miller feels that his tale has honorable qualities. The tale is about a clerk called Nicholas who deceives John, the landlord and a carpenter in Oxford. Nicholas makes John to believe into the second coming of Noah’s flood. Alisoun spends the night with the clerk while John sleeps in a tub. Absolon comes looking for Alisoun and begs her for a kiss. Both Absolon and Nicholas start a commotion where Absolon brands Nicholas’ backside with hot iron awakening the carpenter. John thinks the flood has come and he cuts the rope. He falls in the process landing on the floor and breaking his arm.

The Reeve’s Tale

The story is about the miller, Symkyn, and two students, John and Aleyn. The miller steals the students’ corn after untying their horses. When they find the horses, it is already dark, and the miller has already taken their corn flour. While spending the night at the miller’s home, Aleyn sleeps with Symkyn’s daughter, Molly and at the same time, John seduced his wife. When Aleyn mistakenly lets Symkyn know of his exploits, the wife hit his husband on the head thinking that it was the devil. The students then stole back the corn from the miller who was still unconscious.

The Cook’s Tale

This story comes after the cook enjoys Reeve’s tale and resorts to telling his funny story, which remains to be just a segment. The tale does not finish. It talks about a drinking man called Perkyn. He drinks so much that the people call him “Perkyn Reveler.” The Perkyn master sends him off to the revel for fear of influencing other servants into drinking. However, Perkyn stays with a friend who turns out to have an addiction to gambling and alcohol. The wife of the friend is a prostitute, and it is at this point that the tale ends abruptly.  

The Sergeant at Law’s Tale

This story talks about the daughter (Constance) of the Roman Emperor who wants to marry the Syrian Sultan, and he has to convert to Christianity. The Sultan tries as much as possible to convert his country to Christianity. His mother becomes angry about her son's actions and assassinates him. Constance escapes to Britain where she stays with Dame Hermingild and her warden husband. They both convert to Christianity.

A knight then falls in love with Constance, who refuses to love back. The Knight then frames her after killing Dame Hermingild. His eyes then burst when King Alla makes him swear on the Bible. Constance becomes the king’s wife and bears Mauritius. Lady Donegild’s hatred for Constance makes the people to send her away where she comes across a sheep from Rome. The senator takes her home, not knowing her identity, and Mauritius becomes the heir after the Roman emperor realizes that he has a grandson when king Alla visits Rome on a pilgrimage.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

This is a story about the life of the wife of Bath with her five husbands. She goes against the beliefs of those who think that one should not marry more than once. Also, she explains how she was able to dominate her five husbands, some of whom were old and others young. Her last husband was a twenty-year-old called Jankyn. Jankyn becomes submissive after making her deaf on one ear. The Friar intervenes and offers to tell a Summoner’s story while the Summoner says that he will give the Friar’s tale.

The wife of Bath continues with her story and says how a King Arthur's Knight rapes a maiden. The queen sends the Knight on a quest to identify the needs of women. An older woman provides the Knight with the answer after forcing him to marry her. The Knight finds out that women like being sovereign over their husbands.

The Friar’s Tale

The Friar tells his story about a wicked summoner who meets with the devil himself. They make a business agreement, and the devil says to him that if he continues pursuing his trades, the summoner will end up in hell. The summoner, however, accepts bribes from a woman for prevention of her expulsion. The devil comes and sends the summoner to hell. This action follows the cries of the woman wishing the summoner to go to hell.  

The Summoner’s Tale

This story is about the Friar who is corrupt to the extent that he asks for more donations from parishioners. One of the worshippers, Thomas, gives some reasons as to why he contributes a small amount. He says that he was in church because his daughter died and he was ill. The friar did not bother with Thomas’ pleas but continued to ask for more donations. Consequently, Thomas offers him a loud fart after promising him a gift. 

The Clerk’s Tale

This is the tale of a Clerk, a student from Oxford. He tells a rendition of Griselda. The husband (Walter) to Griselda tests her love and patience by subjecting her to various cruelties such as intended divorce, remarriage and killing of her children. The family happily reunites. 

The Merchant’s Tale

In this tale, January marries May, who is not happy with his sexual efforts. He marries her against the warnings of his friend Placebo. May conspires with Damian to cheat on his husband when January loses his sight. Proserpina and Pluto restore January's sight, and he does not believe his eyes after seeing what his wife was doing. She tells January that she was cheating on him so that he could regain his sight.  

The Squire’s Tale

The Mongol Empire’s king called Cambyuskan got a visit from a knight having gifts from India and Arabia. These gifts include a magic mirror, a magic brass horse, a magic ring and a sword. After rescuing a horse, it says how she abandoned it for loving another person. The tale is incomplete as the Franklin’s interrupt.

The Franklin’s Tale

When Arveragus goes out on a journey, he leaves his wife at home and Dorigen attracts a man called Aurelius. She accepts him on condition that he removes the rocks from the shore so that her husband does not die when he returns. Aurelius hired a magician who created an illusion to make the rocks disappear. When the husband returns, he tells Dorigen to honor the promise. Aurelius then lifts Dorigen off her commitment after seeing the actions of the family. Also, the magician foregoes the fees from Aurelius after learning the whole story. 

The Physician’s Tale

The tale is about a corrupt judge (Appius) who lusts for Virginia. He conspires with Claudius who claim that she was his slave and orders the father, Virginius to surrender her. The father decides to behead Virginia to protect her virginity and dignity after she chooses death over dishonor. He then gives the head to the judge who later commits suicide while in prison while the people banished Claudius.  

The Pardoner’s Tale

The story is about three rioters who are looking for death to kill him. They meet an older man who tells them that death is under a tree. On reaching there, they find a fortune. Two of the youths then send one of them to buy drinks and in the process conspire to take the whole money. On the other hand, the third youth wishes to have all the fortune, and he poisons the drinks. On coming back, the two rioters stab him then take the drinks. They all find death under the tree.

The Sea Captain’s Tale

The story is about a wife and her merchant husband. She tells a monk, a friend to the husband, that she is unhappy. She borrows money which she intends to repay by sleeping with him. The monk borrows the money from the merchant and uses it to sleep with the wife. When the merchant asks for his money, the monk says that he gave to the wife. The wife agrees to repay her husband in bed. 

The Prioress’s Tale

This tale is about a boy of a widowed mother in Asia. The boy attends a Christian school surrounded by the Jews. He likes singing Alma Redemptoris, and when the Jews heard him sing, they hired a killer to murder and threw him in the toilet. The mother did not find her son even after asking around. However, the boy sang the song and helped find his body. This helped avenge his death.

Sir Thopas’ Tale

This is the first tale by Chaucer about Sir Thopas who moves around searching for an elf-queen. He meets with a giant in a fairyland. Thopas the agrees to hold a duel with the giant and returns home.

Melibee’s Tale

This is the second tale by Chaucer about Melibee (powerful leader) whose enemies raid his house and attack his family. He wishes to revenge, but the wife convinces him otherwise. The wife (Prudence) tells him to have mercy. When he wants to exile them, his wife pleads for mercy. 

The Monk’s Tale

The Host jokes with the monk about him not being a poor cloisterer and then prompts the monk then tells a story that is tragic falls of various honorable people in the society. Such figures include Zenobia, Julia Caesar, Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar and Hercules.   

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

This is a story about a hen Pertelote and a rooster Chaunticleer. Chaunticleer dreams that a fox was chasing him, but his wife convinces him to ignore the nightmare. After that, he is carried off by the fox, and it is after he tricks the fox that he escapes.  

The Second Nun’s Tale

This tale portrays Cecilia’s life after she convinces her husband to become a Christian at the time when it was illegal to hold Christian beliefs in Rome. This leads to the execution of both her husband and brother. She is cut three times, and before she dies, she says that her property should be given to the poor. Pope Urban then declares her a saint. 

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

In this story, the Yeoman pours praises about the Canon who becomes angry after the retraction of the praises. The Canon then departs after his secrets of being an alchemist are known. This tale highlights the behavior of the Canons of defrauding people.

The Manciple’s Tale

When the Cook fails to tell his tale, the Manciple offers to tell a story about Phoebus, who becomes a jealous husband after being mortal. His white crow, which could communicate with humans noticed that the wife was unfaithful. Phoebus plucked the feathers from the crow and got rid of it. The story explains why crows have unpleasant tones while singing, and they are black.

The Parson’s Tale

This is a tall from The Parson about sin and the three parts involved to forgive. The parts are confession, contrition and satisfaction. The story highlights and explains the seven sins as set by St Paul in the Bible.

Chaucer’s Retracciouns (Retractions)

He urges the readers of his stories to attribute any positive thing gained to Jesus Christ, and whatever negative thing seen in the book should be his ignorance. This is because he thinks he lacks ability and not wholly perfect.


Published on: 25 May 2020

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