Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The romance, a tale about knights and ladies incorporating courtly love themes, was a popular literary genre in fourteenth-century literature. The genre included tales of knights rescuing maidens, embarking on quests, and forming bonds with other knights and rulers (kings and queens). In particular, the romances about King Arthur, his queen, Guinevere, and his society of “knights of the round table” were very popular in England. In The Canterbury Tales, the Knight’s Tale incorporates romantic elements in an ancient classical setting, which is a somewhat unusual time and place to set a romance. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is framed by Arthurian romance, with an unnamed knight of the round table as its unlikely hero, but the tale itself becomes a proto-feminist’s moral instruction for domestic behavior. The Miller’s Tale ridicules the traditional elements of romance by transforming the love between a young wooer and a willing maiden into a boisterous and violent romp.
Fabliaux were comical and often grotesque stories in which the characters most often succeed by means of their sharp wits. Such stories were popular in France and Italy in the fourteenth century. Frequently, the plot turns or climaxes around the most grotesque feature in the story, usually a bodily noise or function. The Miller’s Tale is a prime experiment with this motif: Nicholas cleverly tricks the carpenter into spending the night in his barn so that Nicholas can sleep with the carpenter’s wife; the finale occurs when Nicholas farts in Absolon’s face, only to be burned with a hot poker on his rear end. In the Summoner’s Tale, a wealthy man bequeaths a corrupt friar an enormous fart, which the friar divides twelve ways among his brethren. This demonstrates another invention around this motif—that of wittily expanding a grotesque image in an unconventional way. In the case of the Summoner’s Tale, the image is of flatulence, but the tale excels in discussing the division of the fart in a highly intellectual (and quite hilarious) manner.
As part of the contest, the pilgrims “quit” each other’s tales, a Middle English term which means to get back at someone or one-up them. Quitting in The Canterbury Tales highlights the diversity of thought amongst the pilgrims, allowing for multiple explorations of various themes. When the Knight finishes his romance, the Host asks the Monk, who would be next in the social hierarchy of the company, to quit the Knight’s tale. Instead, the Miller quits the Knight’s Tale by taking love out of the idealized, courtly realm and into the explicitly sexual and bawdy, throwing Medieval social hierarchy into chaos. Although it is uncertain whether Chaucer intended the Wife of Bath to follow the Man of Law, some scholars suggest that her monologue may be an effort to quit the idealized womanhood portrayed in the story of Custance. The Summoner and Friar quit each other in their tales, only to reveal the prevalence of corruption within both professions. Finally, some scholars read the Parson’s tale as quitting the entirety of the Tales, with the Parson’s speech on the importance of teaching truth instead of focusing on fiction calling the entire enterprise of storytelling into question.