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.

Where does the Narrator meet the pilgrims? 

The Narrator meets the other pilgrims in Southwark, on his journey to the Canterbury Cathedral. In the Medieval era, Southwark was known for its inns. The group stays at the Tabard Inn, run by the Host who remarks that they are the merriest group he’s seen go through his inn that year. While resting at the inn, the pilgrims talk amongst themselves, and seeing that they are all on the same pilgrimage, fall into a fellowship.

How does Chaucer use satire?

Chaucer uses satire to poke fun at the three estates of Medieval society: the clergy, the nobility, and the layfolk. Most of his satire of the nobility and the layfolk involves a gently humorous use of archetypes, such as a youthful squire who is a flirtatious troubadour or a miller telling a bawdy tale. His harshest satire extends to the church hierarchy, exposing corruption and greed. He also uses satire to explore the newly emerging middle class and social mobility in his society, as in his portraits of the greedy Reeve and Physician.

Why are the Canterbury Tales unfinished? 

No one knows the real reason why Chaucer never finished The Canterbury Tales or if he intended to complete the collection. The scope of the project as envisioned was vast, involving thirty-one pilgrims each telling four tales. It may be that Chaucer simply realized the manuscript was too ambitious. Some scholars point to Chaucer’s Retraction for an explanation. Here—if the Retraction is not interpreted as satire— Chaucer repents of his lifetime of writing in a way similar to the Parson’s religious criticism of storytelling, and specifically highlights the Tales as a work he regrets. It’s possible Chaucer’s changing religious priorities caused him to abandon the project.

What is the main difference between the Knight and the Squire?

The accomplished Knight, who has been through multiple military campaigns in both Europe and Central Asia, embodies such chivalric ideals as loyalty, truth, and honor. Although his kit is of good quality, he doesn’t have unnecessary adornment. His son, the Squire, is young and has not yet been in many battles. Because of his age and inexperience, he’s far less serious than his father, more inclined toward wooing women than the chivalric code. In contrast to his father’s plain garb, he dresses in bright, showy colors and curls his hair.

What does the Prioress seem concerned with?

The Prioress seems to prioritize learning courtly manners over her spiritual duties. She speaks French, a language of the nobility and not religious scholarship, and even calls herself Madame Eglentyne, a rather showy name for a nun. Her table manners are so impeccable the Narrator devotes multiple lines to describing them. She also has meticulously adopted courtly behavior in her everyday bearing and wears gold and jewelry. Despite this detailed description, the Narrator makes no mention of her doing anything related to her actual job as a prioress.

Who are the Guildsmen?

The guildsmen are five pilgrims—a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapicer (tapestry maker)—who represent trade guilds, a relatively new phenomenon in Chaucer’s time. Guilds were professional regulatory organizations for trades. Through guilds, members would determine who could practice their trade, establish trade standards, and hold collective bargaining power. Guilds created more social mobility for tradespeople and artisans, at least financially. Chaucer’s Guildsmen are dressed in clothing that marks them as members of their guild. They proudly showcase their wealth with their silver-mounted knives and by bringing along the Cook as their hired servant.

Why does the Reeve’s Tale follow the Miller’s Tale?

The Reeve takes great personal offense to the Miller’s tale because John, the hapless cuckold, is a carpenter, which is the Reeve’s trade. The Reeve launches into a long speech about how he’s too old to stoop to such a level as telling a story about a cuckolded Miller in revenge. The Host asks him to stop preaching and tell a tale if he’s going to speak, after which the Reeve goes on to tell the very sort of tale he said he was too old to tell, giving the excuse that he’s merely reciprocating the Miller’s attack.

How does the Wife of Bath feel about marriage?

Having lived with five husbands, the Wife of Bath loves being married and proclaims that she would “welcome the sixth.” In Medieval times, whether widows should remarry or whether this was bigamy was a religious debate. The Wife of Bath firmly argues for remarriage, noting that it is the only way she may have sex without damning her soul and further cites that the Apostle Paul doesn’t forbid remarriage. She asserts that having been married five times, she is more of a marriage expert than a celibate clergyman. However, her enjoyment of marriage depends on her husband’s subservience to her demands.

Why does the Narrator tell two tales at once?

The Narrator first begins telling a story called The Tale of Sir Topas, a Medieval romance about a knight named Sir Topas and his quest to woo the fairy queen. The Host swiftly interrupts him, calling the tale awful and mocking its rhymes. He asks the Narrator to tell anything different, perhaps in prose. Although the Narrator is at first confused by the interruption, he’s happy to comply with the Host’s request and begins the Tale of Melibee, a solemn prose piece about a man advised toward forgiveness by his wise wife. 

What is the message of the Nun's Priest's tale?

Chanticleer and the fox walk away from the tale with different morals. Chanticleer has learned one should never blindly listen to flattery. The fox has learned sometimes silence is better than speech. The Nun’s Priest doesn’t settle the matter, merely stating people should take what is moral and ignore the rest. However, within the story, the Nun’s Priest mocks the idea of it having any deeper significance. After introducing a theological question about foreknowledge, he walks it back, reminding his audience that his story is about a rooster. Therefore, the story may also be a commentary on whether stories require morals.