Why are the characters in The Canterbury Tales going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury?

Chaucer as narrator offers a few reasons for the journey to the Canterbury Cathedral, including that at least some of the pilgrims attribute a recent healing to Saint Thomas Becket’s miraculous intervention. However, Chaucer also wryly notes that the pilgrims opt to go to Canterbury in April, when people “long to go on pilgrimages.” In other words, the good weather more than any particular spiritual conviction motivates the pilgrimage, implying a potential lack of depth in the characters’ spiritual commitment.

What language is The Canterbury Tales written in?

The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, an early form of Modern English. Used from the Norman Conquest (1066) through the late 1400s, Middle English grew out of Old English, Germanic, and French languages. While we can recognize many Middle English words because of their similarities to Modern English, other words are uncommon or out of use. Some words are not part of Modern English at all, such as “ferne halwes,” which is usually translated as “distant shrines.”

Why do the characters tell stories in The Canterbury Tales?

The characters in The Canterbury Tales tell stories to pass time on their pilgrimage to Canterbury and to compete for a free supper. As the Host observes, “rid[ing] . . . dumb as a stone” is no fun, so the travelers naturally plan to “amuse [themselves]” with stories on the days-long trip to the Canterbury Cathedral. While the Host’s words imply that the storytelling was planned in advance, the Host sweetens the pot by suggesting a competition and promising the winner a free supper.

Who wins the storytelling contest?

Chaucer does not announce a winner in the storytelling contest because The Canterbury Tales is left unfinished. The pilgrims agree to tell four stories each, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Yet most pilgrims tell at most one story, and The Canterbury Tales abruptly with the Parson’s sermon and Chaucer’s Retraction. Some stories, such as the Squire’s, remain unfinished.

How are the stories organized?

While nobody knows the exact order in which Chaucer intended to organize the tales, Chaucer does group the tales thematically instead of by the pilgrims’ social statuses, as would have been expected in his day. After the highest-ranking pilgrim, the Knight, finishes his tale, the Miller, a pilgrim of low standing, disrupts the Host’s order by telling the next story. From there, the tales often respond to each other. The Reeve insists on following the Miller because “The Miller’s Tale” insults reeves. The Wife of Bath’s, Clerk’s, and Merchant’s tales appear near one another and each story explores themes of marriage and gender.