Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales serves as the perfect introduction into Medieval Literature. The work is a compendium of medieval literary genres: there is fabliaux, lives of the saints, fables (different than fabliaux), Arthurian legends, and romances. Almost every major form of medieval literature is represented in at least one tale. So one way of thinking about The Canterbury Tales is as a buffet of medieval literary forms. However, the work is not a mere anthology.
Part of what makes The Canterbury Tales a masterpiece is the way Chaucer recombines these normally separate and individual medieval literary forms into a unified larger work. The frame-narrative is extremely important to understanding the tales as a unified whole. Certain tales are told because of events that occur within the frame narrative (often with one character reacting to another). The frame narrative is the ordering principle of the whole work, the “glue” that keeps it all together; it is what allows Chaucer to bring vastly different literary styles from his time period that would not normally appear side-by-side with each other under the banner of a single work.
The different tales and styles are told by various characters from different medieval social classes all traveling together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrims come from all ranks and professions. They meet up in a tavern on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury (a real historical figure for those who don’t know their English history). They decide to travel together as a group, and the host suggests that to pass the time, they tell stories. This is the backdrop of the individual tales.
Here is a quick summary of all the tales:
The highest ranked individual, the knight, tells the first tale about two noble knights in Ancient Greece imprisoned and fighting for the love of a beautiful and virtuous woman. It presents an idealized and glamorous portrait of women and nobles embodying the ideals of chivalry, which contrasts with the next tale told by the miller.
The Miller’s Tale is a raunchy fabliaux. It tells the story of an elderly carpenter who marries a young wife. This isn’t a very wise decision and leads the elderly carpenter to be cuckolded. A young scholar who lives with them starts to lust after the wife, who returns the scholar’s passion. The two formulate a scheme to convince the dim-witted but kind-hearted carpenter that a second flood is about to engulf the earth so they can sleep together uninterrupted. Meanwhile, another man in charge of collecting money for the church, also falls in love with the carpenter’s wife. The scholar convinces the wife to play a prank on him. She sticks her bum out in the middle of the night when this man demands a kiss; he ends up kissing the woman’s asshole. In anger, he grabs a hot poker and returns to the house, pretending he wants another kiss. The scholar and carpenter’s wife decide to see if they can trick him again. The second wooer pays back the original prank by shoving a hot poker up the scholar’s ass.
The moral of the story is that old men shouldn’t marry young wives if they don’t want to end up a cuckold and the dangers of lacking wisdom by the time you’re old (he marries a young wife and also falls for the story about the second flood suggesting he is rather simple-minded and doesn’t think things through). There is a counterpoint to this message as well; sometimes those who are smart and witty (like the scholar) are too witty for their own good and their mean-spirited pranks on people backfire. In other words, beware of thinking you’re so damn smart!
The Reeve’s Tale comes next with a story about a miller ripping off his customers by holding back a portion of the wheat they paid for in order to increase his profits. Two students from a university that gets its wheat from the miller promise to make sure the miller never cheats the university again. They end up sleeping over at the miller’s house, letting the miller falsely believe he can make profit from them. They then proceed to sleep with the miller’s wife and daughter during the night. They use the daughter who falls in love with the student to recover the stolen wheat that the miller put aside from the promised delivering. She reveals to him where the miller hid it. Notice how the reeve’s story about the miller directly follows in response to the Miller’s Tale. The reeve reveals earlier that he was a carpenter and thus took offense at the Miller’s Tale about a carpenter being cuckolded. The different story-tellers are responding to each other through the tales.
The Cook’s Tale is about a gambler working as an apprentice to an innkeeper. The innkeeper decides he has had enough of his apprentice’s party-hard antics and sends him packing to the street where he goes off to a friend’s house to continue living a dishonest life. Not really much of a story.
The Sergeant-at-law’s Tale is about Constance, a virtuous Christian girl, who is forced to marry a sultan, but will only do so if he converts from Islam to Christianity. The sultan’s mother-in-law schemes against her own son for betraying Islam and has him butchered at the wedding feast. The Muslim mother-in-law then sends Constance adrift on a boat, until she reaches the pagan islands of Britain. There she converts the pagans after many trials and hardships, but this only brings more trials and hardships as the king who marries this virtuous woman also has a scheming mother-in-law. She is cast again to sea after the king’s mother-in-law tricks the king into believing that Constance is dead. Eventually Constance is reunited with her husband and survives all her hardships because of her dedication to her Christian faith.
The Sea-captain’s Tale is about a miserly merchant married to a wife of lavish taste. Desperately wanting a new dress after her husband cuts off the money, she consults with a priest, who is a close family friend. The priest wants to sleep with the wife and says he will loan her three hundred pounds if she will sleep with him. The priest then borrows the money from the merchant, playing on their close friendship to secure the cash, and then gives the merchant’s money to the merchant’s wife. She fulfills her end of the bargain. The merchant basically just paid for the privilege of allowing the priest to sleep with his wife. When the merchant eventually comes to collect the debt, the priest claims that he gave the money back to his wife and therefore has repaid the debt.
The Prioresses Tale is about a young boy who loves singing ‘O Alma Redemptoris’ and happens to sing it accidentally in the Jewish quarter of the city. The Jews in the city take offense and murder the boy. However, the boy’s dead corpse continues singing the song and eventually the crime is discovered by the Christian authorities. All the Jews are punished with hanging, and it turns out the boy is still alive thanks to a miracle. This tale is anti-Semitic and disturbing, but it does depict the attitudes of the time.
Chaucer who is a character in the story participating in the pilgrimage then shares the Rhyme of Sir Topaz, a sing-song doggerel and annoying tale, about a cowardly knight who grows weary from galloping over grass and quickly retreats anytime he encounters danger. This tale annoys the host who cuts it off before completion. Chaucer then tells a second story called the Tale of Melibeus, which is cut from the Oxford edition that I own, but is mostly a philosophical discourse about the nature of marriage.
The Monk’s tale is a series of vignettes about the fickleness of fate, rehearsing the stories and downfalls of Biblical, mythological, and historical figures such as Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and many others.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a fable about a talking rooster who one night has a foreboding dream. He debates with his wife, who is a beautiful hen, about the nature of the dreams; they try to determine if dreams are merely a reflection of daily events or signs from G-d. The next day the rooster’s dream comes true when a wily fox tricks him and carries him off. Luckily, he manages to trick the fox in return and escape from him.
Before beginning her tale, The Wife of Bath tells the story of her many husbands (she was married four times), which is just as interesting as the actual tale itself. Her tale is an Arthurian legend about a knight condemned to die for unchivalrously raping a woman, unless he can discover the secret of what women want. He searches across the land, asking women and receiving different answers, until he finds an ugly old hag who promises to give him the answer for a price. The answer she provides is that “women desire to have dominion over their husbands, and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them.” The knight then keeps his promise to the old hag and marries her as the price for the answer.
The Friar’s Tale deals with a greedy summoner fleecing the people of his district by accepting bribes. The summoner meets up with his spiritual companion, a demon-in-flesh, which joins him in blackmailing people, until the demon drags him down to hell.
The summoner’s tale is a rejoinder to the previous tale. It is about a begging friar fleecing an old sick man for his money and food. The old sick man, tired of giving alms to friars, gives him a fart as payment that the friar must share with twelve other brothers.
The Oxford scholar’s tale is about a duke who marries a peasant woman. He continually tests the woman’s fidelity and virtue by taking away her children and pretending to have them killed, kicking her out of the house, and claiming he will remarry. When she passes the test by remaining completely loyal to his wishes no matter what cruel acts he commits against her, he then reveals to her that he was only testing her and then restores her status as his wife and returns to her the much older children who are still alive.
The merchant’s tale is about an elderly knight who marries a younger woman against the advice of his friends. A squire in his service falls in love with the woman and writes her letters confessing his love. The knight’s vanity and lechery, unbecoming of his old age, causes him to become temporarily blind. The woman decides to cheat on him with the squire. One day, they lead the old knight out to a garden in his estate where the conspirators plan to consummate the act. The woman climbs up a tree on the pretense that she wants a pear and her husband cannot get it for her since he is blind. Up in the tree is the squire ready to make passionate love. However, Pluto and Proserpina, two Roman deities, are having their own marital spat over the nature of men and women; they decide to interfere with mortal affairs. Pluto restores the old knight’s vision so he can see how untrue and dishonest women are, while Proserpina responds that she will provide her with the perfect response against such “false” accusations. With his suddenly restored vision, the knight catches his wife in the act of having sex with the squire up in the tree. She rebukes him for castigating her infidelity because it was her adultery that allowed him to regain his vision, therefore he is being ungrateful to his wife for helping restore his sight. She also adds that since he just got his vision back he doesn’t know what he really saw. She notes that many of his sights and visions might delude him for a while, implying that she may continue her indiscreet affairs. It is indeed the perfect response.
The Squire’s Tale is about a girl who gains a magic ring that allows her to speak to animals. The girl finds a female falcon lamenting the loss of her male falcon lover who leaves her for a colorful kite blowing in the wind. The squire then promises to talk about a knight who wins the girl’s heart, perhaps as a parallel to the falcon’s story, but the rest of the tale remains unfinished as Chaucer wasn’t able to complete all the tales before he died.
The Franklin’s Tale is about a woman and husband very much in love with each other. The husband is a knight and must go off to war, leaving his wife alone in misery. None of her friends can cheer her spirits. She travels to the sea, but keeps looking at the sharp rocks below, afraid that they will prevent her husband from safely returning. A squire falls in love with her and wants to have an affair, but she rebukes him, joking that she would only sleep with him if he could make the jagged rocks disappear under the water with the assumption that such acts are impossible. The squire, however, after falling into a deep love-sickness hires a sorcerer who makes the rocks disappear. The husband returns thanks to the squire’s efforts at clearing the rocks through magical means, finds out about his wife’s promise, and tells her that she needs to keep her word, even though, it breaks his heart. The reason he feels this way is that honor and keeping one’s oath is an important value in medieval society. The squire preparing to sleep with the woman changes his mind after recognizing the honor of both the knight and his wife in keeping their oaths.
The Doctor of Medicine’s Tale is about a corrupt judge who lusts after the daughter of a knight in his town. He hires a servant to bring forth a case claiming the daughter is really a run-away slave. He presides over the hearing and rules in the favor of his servant so he can steal the girl away from her father. Instead of allowing his daughter to be taken to this judge and presumably forced into marriage, and/or raped, the knight kills his daughter with her permission by chopping off her head. The judge tries to punish the knight by ordering his hanging, but the town finally rises up in rebellion and it is the judge who is arrested.
The Pardoner’s Tale is about three rogues who try to kill Death in vengeance for a dead friend. On their way to kill Death, they find a pot of gold. The three greedy young men conspire against each other. Two of them gang up to kill the youngest one, while the youngest one brought poisoned drinks, which they use to quench their thirst after killing their former companion. All three end up dead. The point of the tale is both to criticize their moral character, and to note allegorically that in a war with death the one who always wins in the end is death.
The Second Nun’s tale is another lives of the saints story about a woman named Cecilia, converting others to Christianity in a Roman world where Christianity is against the law. She stands up against a corrupt magistrate killing Christians in Ancient Rome after watching many martyrs die.
The Canon’s Assistant’s Tale is about a corrupt alchemist who tricks a priest out of his life-savings by performing sleight-of-hand tricks and pretending he can transmute coal into silver.
The Manciple’s tale is about Apollo, his wife, and a talking crow. Apollo’s wife is unhappy and would rather sleep around with ordinary men than remain faithful to a Greek deity like Apollo. The talking crow catches the wife in the act. He tells Apollo about the adultery who in a fit of rage kills his wife, but then regrets the deed and punishes the crow for telling him. It’s a story that suggests that people would rather not know their loved one is cheating than know the truth. That Apollo’s wife prefers normal mortals to a deity illustrates that many women and men grow tired of the same lover and would prefer variety, even if it means sleeping with completely ugly slobs, than perfection (or quality, so to speak). It is also a tale that warns against being the messenger of bad news.
Running through the core of most of these tales, with only one or two exceptions, is the exploration of the proper social role of women. You’ll notice many of these stories involve adultery. In the tales, women are depicted as lascivious, idealized saints, chaste virgins, objects of idealized beauty, shrews, schemers plotting against their husbands, greedy, manipulative, and just about every contradictory stereotype you can imagine. The depictions of women in the Canterbury Tales are usually negative, mimicking the responsibility Christianity places on Eve for the Fall of Humanity. Nevertheless, Chaucer offers many different perspectives on the nature of women in his tales, and some are more positive than others. The views of woman are contradictory from tale to tale, suggesting a society proliferating with many different opinions, but also one that sees it as an issue of deep concern. Put simply, the amount of time this book spends considering the role of women suggests it was an issue which concerned medieval society more broadly.
Another tension in the work occurs between members of different social rank and professions. Some of the stories are told explicitly as a way to insult a member of the traveling party who another member doesn’t like. Shortly after the friar and summoner have a skirmish, they each tell a tale insulting the other’s profession with the worst insults one can offer in those days (that you are going to hell!). The Friar’s Tale is about a greedy summoner who befriends a devil walking around on earth in human flesh and winds up in hell for his corruption. The summoner counters with his own tale, first playing the one-upmanship game by telling a mini-tale in the prologue where a friar goes to heaven and cannot find any friars, and is then taken to hell where he finds all the friars. Not only are they in hell, but they are in a very special place: hidden up the devil’s ass. The summoner then goes on to tell his tale about a begging friar visiting a sick-man who must share a fart with his brothers. Likewise, the Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale also reflect the social tensions between the two. The reeve who is a carpenter takes offense at the Miller’s Tale about an elderly carpenter who gets cuckolded so the reeve responds by telling a tale about a miscreant miller who robs all his clients. Notice, too, that in the Miller’s Tale it is the carpenter who is cuckolded, while in the reeve’s tale the miller is cuckolded twice (his daughter and wife). The reeve one-ups the miller.
The beauty of this work is that by combining these disparate medieval genres where both saintly tales and bawdy peasant tales meet, social ranks of all sorts are able to gather in a single shared space and drop normal social decorum to express their true feelings to each other. Each story has its own theme, its own perspective, its own style, reflecting the social vantage point of the speaker; the higher class members of the party tend towards the more idealized tales of virtuous saints and noble knights, while the lower-class members tend to tell bawdy hyper-sexualized narratives full of cuckolded people of high-rank and church officials, reflecting their own sexual fantasies of sleeping with a beautiful woman beyond their social-class, their own fears of being cuckolded, and their anger over the abuses and exploitation at the hands of the upper-classes.
It is ironic the way that many of these people hate each other, yet are unified by the cultural devotion to Christianity that would send them on such a pilgrimage in the first place. All of them are so different, yet linked by this one commonality. Chaucer is subtly exploring the tenuous chain that Christianity forges on his society, noting the strangeness that despite all their differences and even thorough dislike of each other, this one commonality links his characters. The representatives of Christianity in the form of the characters belonging to the church hierarchy are often shown to be corrupt in both the frame-story and the tales told about them. They cannot live up to the portrait of the saints they praise, but then again neither can the lower-class members of the party with their bawdy tales, which seem especially un-Christian. Some interpret this as Chaucer expressing irreverent attitude towards Christianity. However, in reality, he is being critical of the officials representing Christianity rather than attacking the religion. He also seems unsure whether anyone can really live up to those ideals when a person compares the ideals of Christianity against the normal behavior and vices of actual human beings. The tales reveal how difficult, if not impossible, it is for the members to live up to the ideals of Christianity and the illusion of virtuous nobility valued in the higher ranks. In many ways, no matter what genre, the stories are a way for each character to express how the world should be or how they would like it to be, while knowing perfectly well it falls short in reality.
One point that Chaucer’s characters continually harp on is that the outside world is deceitful; the pilgrims of the frame-story prove just as deceitful, untrustworthy, drunken, stupid, selfish, petty, and full of vice as the characters in the tales they tell. Chaucer was trying to convey a somewhat realistic portrait of his society, if a tad exaggerated. However, it would be a mistake to see his characters only as representatives of the Middle Ages. These characters live on today in different forms: the alchemist of the Canon’s Assistant’s Tale is the con-man creating a pyramid scheme and the criminal who preys on the weak and elderly, the Wife of Bath with her four husbands and tale about unchivalrous knights and what women really want is today’s feminist, and joining them are desperate housewives, gambling addicts, alcoholics, and hopeful social-climbers. Chaucer’s diverse characters of yesterday are many of the same people still with us today.