By far Chaucer’s most popular work, although he might have preferred to have been remembered by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales was unfinished at his death. No less than fifty-six surviving manuscripts contain, or once contained, the full text. More than twenty others contain some parts or an individual tale.
The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator arrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and that the best story earn the winner a free supper.
Since there are some thirty pilgrims, this would have given a collection of well over a hundred tales, but in fact there are only twenty-four tales, and some of these are incomplete. Between tales, and at times even during a tale, the pilgrimage framework is introduced with some kind of exchange, often acrimonious, between pilgrims. In a number of cases, there is a longer Prologue before a tale begins, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Prologue being the most remarkable examples of this.
At Chaucer’s death, the various sections of the Canterbury Tales that he was preparing had not been brought together in a linked whole. His friends seem to have tried as best they could to prepare a coherent edition of what was there, adding some more linkages when they thought it necessary. The resulting manuscripts therefore offer slight differences in the order of tales, and in some of the framework links. The tales are usually found in linked groups known as ‘Fragments’. The customary grouping and ordering of the tales is as follows (the commonly accepted abbreviation for each Tale is noted in parentheses):
General Prologue (GP), Knight (KnT), Miller (MilT), Reeve (RvT), Cook (CkT).
Wife of Bath (WBT), Friar (FrT), Summoner (SumT).
Squire (SqT), Franklin (FranT).
Physician (PhyT), Pardoner (PardT).
Shipman (ShipT), Prioress (PrT), Chaucer: Sir Thopas (Thop), Melibee (Mel), Monk (MkT), Nun’s Priest (NPT).
Second Nun SNT), Canon’s Yeoman (CYT).
There is great variety in different manuscripts but I and II, VI and VII, IX and X are almost always found in that order while the tales in IV and V are often spread around separately.
Modern editions are usually based on one of two manuscripts, both written by the same scribe: the Hengwrt Manuscript and the Ellesmere Manuscript. The former, in the National Library of Wales, is the oldest of all, probably copied directly from Chaucer’s own disordered papers, but it lacks the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and the final pages have been lost. The latter, now preserved in California, is more complete, and beautifully produced with illustrations of the different pilgrims beside their Tales, but it shows the work of an editor who has removed some of the roughness from Chaucer’s lines.
Chaucer offers in the Tales a great variety of literary forms, narratives of different kinds as well as other texts. The pilgrimage framework enriches each tale by setting it in relationship with others, but it would be a mistake to identify the narratorial voice of each tale too strongly with the individual pilgrim who is supposed to be telling it.
After the General Prologue, the Tales follow. The following is a brief outline of the different tales in the order found in the Riverside Chaucer, the standard edition.
The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator (Chaucer?) arrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and that the best story earn the winner a free supper.
The Knight’s Tale: a romance, a condensed version of Boccaccio’s Teseida, set in ancient Athens. It tells of the love of two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, for the beautiful Emelye; the climax is a mock-battle, a tournament, the winner of which will win her; the gods Mars and Venus have both promised success to one of them. Arcite (servant of Mars) wins, but he dies of wounds after his horse has been frightened by a fury, and in the end Palamon (servant of Venus) marries Emelye. The tale explores the themes of determinism and freedom in ways reminiscent of the use of Boethius for the same purpose in Troilus and Criseyde.
The Miller’s Prologue and Tale: a fabliau (coarse comic tale), about the cuckolding of John the Carpenter by an Oxford student, Nicholas, boarding with him and his wife Alison; Absolon, a young man from the local church, also tries to woo her, but is tricked into kissing her behind instead of her lips. Nicholas has deceived John into believing that Noah’s Flood is about to come again, so John is asleep in a tub hanging high in the roof, ready to float to safety. Meanwhile Alison and Nicholas are in bed together. The climax of the tale is one of the finest comic moments in literature, when Absolon burns Nicholas’s behind with a hot iron, Nicholas calls for water, John hears, thinks the flood has come, cuts the rope holding his tub, and crashes to the floor, breaking an arm. Only Alison escapes unscathed. The narrator offers no morality.
The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale: a fabliau about the cuckolding of a miller told by the Reeve (who is a carpenter, and very angry with the Miller for his tale); two Cambridge students punish a dishonest miller by having sex with his wife and daughter while asleep all in one room. Again, the end involves violence, as the miller discovers what has happened but is struck on the head by his wife because his bald pate is all she can see in the dark.
The Cook’s Prologue and Tale: only a short fragment exists.
The Man of Law’s Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a religious romance about the Roman emperor’s christian daughter Constance, who goes to Syria, floats to England, and finally returns to Rome after many adventures.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: in her Prologue, the Wife of Bath tells the story of her five marriages, while contesting the anti-feminist attitudes found in books that she quotes; indirectly, she becomes the proof of the truth of those books. Her Tale is a Breton Lay about a knight who rapes a girl, is obliged as punishment to find out what women most desire, learns from an old hag that the answer is “mastery over their husbands” and then has to marry her. She is a “loathly lady” but suddenly becomes beautiful when he gives her mastery over him after receiving a long lesson on the nature of true nobility. The tale is related to the ideas the Wife of Bath expresses in the Prologue, it is also a kind of “wish-fulfillment” for a woman no longer quite young. (see below, for Gower’s version of the same story)
The Friar’s Prologue and Tale: a comic tale about a summoner (church lawyer) who goes to hell after an old woman curses him from her heart.
The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale: a coarse joke told in revenge about a friar who has to find a method of sharing a fart he has been given equally among all his fellow-friars.
The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale: a pathetic tale of popular origin, adapted by Chaucer from a French version of Petrarch’s Latin translation of a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron. The unlikely and terrible story of the uncomplaining Griselda who is made to suffer appalling pain and humiliation by her husband Walter. Griselda is of very humble origin; Walter chooses her like God choosing Israel. Suddenly he turns against her, takes away her children, sends her back home, and years later demands that she help welcome the new bride he has decided to marry. Without resisting, she obeys, and at last finds her rights and children restored to her by Walter who says he was just testing her! The narrator cannot decide if she is a model wife for anti-feminists or an image of humanity in the hands of an arbitrary destiny.
The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a bitter fabliau-style tale of an old husband, Januarius, with a young wife, May; at the end, the blind old man is shown embracing a pear-tree, in the branches of which May is having sex with a young man. The gods suddenly restore his sight and he sees them, but May convinces him that it is thanks to her exertions that he can see, that it is a form of prayer.
The Squire’s Introduction and Tale: a fantasy romance. King Cambuscan of Tartary receives on his birthday gifts from the king of Arabia: a brass horse that can fly, for his daughter Canace a mirror that shows coming dangers and King Solomon’s ring by which she can understand birds, and also a magic sword. After Canace has heard a falcon tell the sad story of her love, the mysterious story breaks off, unfinished.
The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale: a Breton lay. The lady Dorigen is wooed by a squire, and she says she will accept him when all the rocks in the sea are gone. By the help of a magician he achieves this, and Dorigen’s husband, told of her promise, says that she must keep her word. Touched by such sincerity, the squire releases her from her promise.
The Physician’s Tale: a Roman moral tale from Livy, about Virginia, who is killed by her father to save her from the dishonouring intentions of a corrupt judge.
The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale: in the Prologue, the Pardoner reveals his own nature as a covetous deceiver; his Tale is a sermon, showing his skill, but he concludes by inviting the pilgrims to give him money and they get angry.
In the Tale, a great showpiece of moral rhetoric quite unfitted for such a rogue, he tells an exemplum against greed about three wild young men who set out to kill Death; a mysterious old man they meet tells them they will find him under a tree, but they find there gold instead. One goes to buy wine, and is killed by his two friends on his return; they drink the wine, that he has poisoned, and also die.
The Shipman’s Tale: a fabliau in which a merchant’s wife offers to sleep with a monk if he gives her money; he borrows the money from the merchant, sleeps with the wife, and later tells the merchant (who asks for his money on returning from a journey) that he has repaid it to his wife! She says that she has spent it all, and offers to repay her husband through time together in bed. The tale seems written to be told by a woman, perhaps it was originally given to the Wife of Bath?
The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale: a religious tale, in complete contrast to the Shipman’s. A little boy is killed by wicked Jews because he sings a hymn to Mary as he walks through their street. His dead body continues to sing the hymn, so the murder is found out.
The Prologue and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas: a romance of the English kind, it mentions heroes such as Horn, Bevis, Guy. It is written in what seems to be a parody of English popular romance, in rattling tail-rhyme stanzas (an four-stress couplet followed by a three-stress line, twice, the third and sixth line rhyming). The hero is called Sir Thopas, he is eager to love an elf-queen but as he arrives in fairy-land he meets a giant, whom he avoids. Soon after this, Harry Bailey, the inn-keeper, stops the tale: “Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee!” And Chaucer the pilgrim explains that he can do no better in rhyme!
Instead “Chaucer” offers to tell a “little thing” in prose, the Tale of Melibee translated from French and covering twenty pages! It is more a treatise than a tale. It contains a vague story, but mostly consists of moral debate full of moral advice in pithy sententiae about the best way of dealing with problems and how to take advice.
The Monk’s Prologue and Tale: a series of seventeen “tragedies” of varying length, in the Fall of Princes tradition. The stories come from various sources, including the Bible and Boccaccio, and tell of “the deeds of Fortune” in the unhappy ends of famous people, including some near-contemporaries. At last the Knight stops the series, which claims to illustrate the power of Fortune, but becomes a list of pathetic case-histories.
The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a beast-fable told in a variety of styles, mock-heroic and pedantic mainly. In place of the brevity of the ordinary fable (cf Aesop) there are constant digressions and interminable speeches. The main characters are Chauntecleer and his lady Pertelote, a cock and a hen in a farmyard; Chauntecleer dreams of a fox (he has never seen one) and this leads to a debate on the meaning of dreams. A fox then appears, flatters Chauntecleer, then grabs him but the cock suggests he insult the people chasing him and escapes when the fox opens his mouth to speak. The moral of the tale for the reader is left unclear.
The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale: a religious legend of the miracles and martyrdom of St Cecilia and her Roman husband Valerian. She instructs people to the end, even when her head has been almost completely cut off.
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale: suddenly two new characters come riding up to join the pilgrims, a rather dubious Canon who knows alchemy, and his companion who boasts about his master’s science and knavery, then tells a bitter story about a canon who tricks a priest out of a lot of money by pretending to teach him how to make precious metals. The Prologue and Tale make up a vivid portrait unlike anything else found in the Tales, shifting as they do between the Yeoman’s admiration for his master and his hatred of him and his devilish arts.
The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale: a tale found in Ovid about why the crow is black; it used to be white and could talk, until it told Phoebus that his wife was unfaithful. He kills her, then repents and punishes the bird. The tone of this tale is puzzling, it is neither pathetic nor comic.
The Parson’s Prologue and Tale: clearly designed to be the last tale in the collection, this is no “tale” but a long moral treatise translated from two Latin works on Penitence and on the Seven Deadly Sins.
At the end of the Parson’s Tale, in the Retraccion, the “maker of this book” asks Christ to forgive him: “and namely my translations and enditings of worldly vanities, the which I revoke in my retractions: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the xxv ladies; the book of the Duchess; the book of St Valentine’s Day of the Parliament of Birds; the tales of Canterbury, thilke that sowen into sin…”.
Yet this Retraction serves to publicize Chaucer’s works and had no effect on their later publication and distribution.
The Canterbury Tales has always been among the most popular works of the English literary heritage. When Caxton introduced printing into England, it was the first major secular work that he printed, in 1478, with a second corrected edition following in 1484. This was in turn reprinted three times, before William Thynne published Chaucer’s Collected Works in 1532.
In the Reformation period, Chaucer’s reputation as a precursor of the Reform movement was helped by the addition of a pro-Reformation Plowman’s Tale in a 1542 edition. In 1561, even Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes was added. The edition by Thomas Speght in 1598 was the first to offer a glossary; his text was revised in 1602 and this version was reprinted several times over the next hundred years, although Chaucer was not really to the taste of the Augustan readers. The first scholarly edition of the Canterbury Tales was published by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1775.
In the last year of his life (1700) John Dryden wrote a major appreciation of Chaucer, based mainly on his knowledge of the General Prologue and certain tales which he had adapted into his own age’s style:
In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and, therefore, speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practiced by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace… Chaucer followed Nature everywhere, but was never so bold to go beyond her…. He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humors (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him…. there is such a variety of game springing up before me that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow. ‘Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty.
Each Tale is presented as a separate ‘work’ which can be read and appreciated in its own right. There are many different classes of ‘Tale’ ranging from the saint’s life (SNT) and the theological treatise (ParsT) through romance (KT) to the fabliau (MilT, RvT). By creating the Pilgrimage framework, Chaucer adds an extra dimension to each Tale by attributing it to a more or less distinctly characterized pilgrim. The question of the relationship between each Tale and its fictional pilgrim-teller is much debated. Usually, once a Tale has begun, it continues to the end without further reference to the pilgrimage framework. The interruption of Chaucer’s Tale about Sir Thopas and of the Monk’s Tale about falls of princes by weary pilgrims, and of the Pardoner’s final salesman’s speech by an angry Host, are powerful exceptions.
Each Tale has its own style, which is entirely determined by the kind of work it is, and is in no sense a ‘dramatic’ style reflecting the individuality of the proclaimed narrator. The Miller may be drunk, the narratorial voice of the Miller’s Tale is not a drunken one. On the other hand, the Miller, we are told, is a ‘churl’ (line 3182) and he tells a churlish kind of story in terms of morality and respectability at least, no matter how brilliantly. The Knight is noble and his Tale is a romance of the kind associated with royal courts. There seems usually to be this kind of suitability of Tale to teller.
However, it must be admitted that a number of Tales were left by Chaucer without any introductory pilgrimage link-passage, one sometimes being provided by editors in the 15th century, so that the attribution of them to a particular pilgrim may not be Chaucer’s. The Shipman’s Tale includes lines in which the pilgrim-narrator refers to himself as a woman. This may indicate that originally this tale about sex and money had been given to the Wife of Bath and that after she was given another tale Chaucer never had time to remove those lines.
After the General Prologue, the pilgrims come into their own in brief link-passages which are in many cases full of tension as two or more of the rowdier pilgrims nearly come to blows. Always someone intervenes to restore order and the next Tale is introduced. Two pilgrims, the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, are given a far more significant development. Each of them has a Prologue of considerable length in which they become, as it were, the subject of their own self-telling. Each of these Prologues is rooted in traditions of satire but goes far beyond them in establishing a composite portrayal of a dynamic individual in dramatic monologue.
The most important function of the pilgrimage framework, however, is the question it leaves hovering over each of the Tales as it is told: Is this Tale the best Tale? The Host’s proposal of a contest invites the reader to judge all the Tales but at the same time requires the reader to reflect on the criteria by which the Tales are to be judged. What is the purpose of tale-telling, indeed of all discourse? Sentence or solas? Wisdom or pleasure? The value of a tale becomes more and more related to the value of life, and the Parson is not simply a kill-joy when he declares: ‘Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me’ (you get no fable told by me) and instead offers a treatise on sin and salvation. Chaucer leads the reader to the point where the ability of any fictional tale to tell the truth is challenged, though not necessarily as radically denied as the Parson would wish. The Parson himself is a fictional character, after all, a part of a Tale.
The reader is at each moment invited to read the Tales in such a way as not to eliminate any of these dimensions.