The Canterbury Tales

**Read the General Prologue (to get a feel for the language – sound it out)

  • Know general appearance/characterization of travellers
  • Know summary and characters of a few of the tales


The Knight’s Tale is the first tale.

The Knights tale is about two knights, Arcite and Palamon, who are imprisoned by Theseus, duke of Athens. In prison they see and fall in love with the sister of Hippolyta, Emily (Emelye). They variously get out of prison and end up in a tournament over Emily arranged by Theseus. Arcite wins, but dies before he can claim Emily as his prize and so Palamon marries her. It introduces many typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas, etc. The story is in the form of poetry.

The Knight and his tale both embody the ideas of chivalry. The following tale, by the Miller, is a direct antithesis to the Knight’s with none of the nobility or heritage of classical mythology, but is instead rollicking, bawdy, comedic and designed to annoy the Knight.

The Miller’s Tale

The Miller’s tale is about a carpenter/landlord and his wife. The Reeve, another of the travellers, happens to be a carpenter, and urges the Miller not to joke about his profession; the Miller replies that he does not mean to insult carpenters in general, or portray them as cuckolds, and tells his tale anyway. Thus, The Reeve’s Tale follows, which ‘quites’ the Miller with a tale in which some students make a fool out of a dishonest and greedy miller.)

The story is of a student (Nicholas) who persuades his jealous old landlord’s much younger wife (Alisoun/Alison) to spend the night with him, making that possible through an elaborate scheme in which he convinces the landlord that he has found, through his astrology, that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent. The solution, says Nicholas, is for each of them to wait silently overnight for it in separate tubs suspended from the rafters, and to cut their tubs from the roof when the water has risen. He adds that if the landlord tells anyone else, he’ll become insane. This comic prank allows Nicholas and Alison the opportunity to sneak down after the landlord falls asleep and be together.

While Nicholas and Alison lie together, another hopeful suitor, the foppish Absolon, appears and asks Alison for a kiss. She quietly tells Nicholas to watch and get a good laugh. She sticks her “hole” out the window, and he kisses it “full savorly,” pausing only when he feels bristly hair and considers that no woman has a beard. He realizes the prank and, hearing them laughing at him, becomes enraged. He disappears to borrow a red hot colter (a plow part) from the early-rising blacksmith. Returning, he asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas, who had risen from bed to “piss” (urinate), sticks his “ers” (arse) out the window. When Absolon say “speak sweet bird, I know not where thou art”, Nicholas almost blinds him with an enormous fart, shocking Absolon, who then brands Nicholas in the rear, searing off the skin. Nicholas cries for water, awakening the landlord, who hears someone screaming “water, water” and thinks that the Second Flood is come at last. He panics and cuts himself down, falling clean through the floor and breaking his arm; the rest of the town awakens to find him lying in the tub in the cellar. He tries to explain what he’s doing in the tub, and sure enough in accordance with Nicholas’prophesy, he is considered a madman (and a cuckold, too) by the whole town.

The Wife of Bath

Her tale begins with an allusion to the absence of fairies in modern day, and their prevalence in King Arthur’s time, then begins her tale, though she interrupts and is interrupted several times, creating several digressions. A knight in King Arthur’s Court rapes a woman. By law, his punishment is death, but the queen intercedes on his behalf, and the king turns the knight over to her for judgement. The queen punishes the knight by sending him out on a quest to find out what women want, giving him a year and a day to discover it and having his word that he will return. If he fails to satisfy the queen with his answer, he forfeits his life. He searches but every woman he finds says something different, from riches to flattery.

On his way back to the queen after failing to find the truth, he sees four and twenty ladies dancing. They disappear suddenly, leaving behind an old hag and he asks for her help. She says she’ll tell him what to tell to the queen and save him if he promises to grant her request at a time she chooses. He agrees and they go back to the court and he is pardoned after he tells them that what women want most is “to have the sovereignty as well upon their husband as their love, and to have mastery their man above”. The old woman cries out to him before the court that she saved him and that her reward will be that he takes her as his wife and loves her. He protests, but to no avail, and the marriage takes place the next day.

The old woman and the knight converse about the knight’s happiness in their marriage bed and discuss that he is unhappy because she is ugly and low-born. She discourses upon the origins of gentility, as told by Jesus and Dante and reflects on the origins of poverty. She says he can choose between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice to her to become whatever would bring the most honour and happiness to them both and she, pleased with her mastery of her husband, becomes fair and faithful to live with him happily until the end of their days.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

The tale of Chanticleer and the Fox is a beast fable popularised by the 14th century Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s 625 line poem comprises the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, one of his Canterbury Tales.

The tale follows the monk’s depressing accounts of despots and fallen heroes and, as well as sharing these themes, the tale also parodies them. It also has ideas in common with earlier tales with the marriage between Chanticleer and Pertelote echoing the domestic lives depicted in tales like Franklin’s and The Tale of Melibee. These different themes help to unify several tales and offers a lively story from a previously almost invisible character.

The tale concerns a world of talking animals who reflect both human insight and error. Its protagonist is Chanticleer, a proud rooster who dreams of his approaching doom in the form of a hound. Frightened, he awakens his “wife” Pertelote, who assures him he only suffers from indigestion and chides him for paying heed to a simple dream. After recounting stories of other prophets who foresaw their deaths, Chanticleer is comforted by Pertelote and proceeds to greet a new day.

Unfortunately for Chanticleer, he predicted his doom correctly. A sly fox who has tricked Chanticleer’s father and mother to their downfall now awaits Chanticleer’s inflated ego. When the fox insists upon hearing the cock crow, Chanticleer sticks out his neck just a little too far and is promptly snatched from the yard. As the fox is chased through the forest, Chanticleer (all the while dangling from the fox’s jaws) suggests that the fox should pause to tell his pursuers to give up their chase.

Now the fox’s haughtiness rears its ugly head, and as the fox complies, the rooster falls out and proceeds to fly up the nearest tree. The fox tries in vain to convince the wary Chanticleer, who now prefers the safety of the tree and fails to fall for the same trick a second time.


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