The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer (1342 - 1400)
edited by Sinan Kökbugur
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About The Canterbury Tales: Introduction and reading guide
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. If we trust the General Prologue, Chaucer intended that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

The Canterbury Tales is loosely structured. The stories (tales) told by the pilgrims are only sometimes remotely connected or related to each other. Most of the tales stand on itself and can be read without knowledge of the other tales.

So how to read and interpret The Canterbury Tales? Loose ends, lack of a final revision and uncertainty about the order of the tales have left space for centuries of endless scholarship and speculation about (hidden) meaning(s) and symbolism in The Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales have a certain quality and are funny or meaningful. Some of the tales are flat and tedious. Chaucer even incorporated some ridiculous plots and revolting stories in The Canterbury Tales. Keep in mind that The Canterbury Tales was written between 1387 en 1400. It was written for a medieval and religious audience. It was not written to bore school children or students in the twentieth century (and later), although it can be perfectly used for that purpose. In medieval times, religion and church ruled society and ruled the minds of people. Christianity is pervasively present in The Canterbury Tales.

What would happen with The Canterbury Tales if read and commented by modern so-called sensitivity readers? The book would problaby be banned from libraries because of its persistent and pervasive sexism, feudalism, racism and violence. On the other hand, old books tend to escape from the judgement of sensitivity readers. Although some old stories really challenge plausibility, you may not make remarks about lack of plausibility. Readers are ought to admire and worship old books. Old books come from our ancestors and our ancestors are good. The stories and commandements in old books on which religions were founded are unquestionably true and may not be scrutinized by sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers are sent by the devil and should be at least chased away and preferably killed by the purifying flames of a churchly pyre.

To put it mildly, old literature is not rarely full of stupid ideas and thoughts based on sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, feudalism, violence, illiteracy and ignorance. It is ok to read old books and stories, but things can go wrong when people start to admire and even worship stories that are written in eras in which illiteracy and a complete lack of basic knowledge is the standard. The Canterbury Tales is an old book and modern readers should treat it as such.

To understand the purpose of The Canterbury Tale's it is best to start with the General Prologue, which gives an overview of the pilgrims and the intention(s) of the narrator. After reading the General Prologue, readers may choose any tale to continue. Lets very briefly describe the General Prologue and the tales. Want to know more? Click on one of the links below or in the table of contents in the left frame to read an introduction of the tale of your choice.

General Prologue
The narrator of The Canterbury Tales, who is one of the intended pilgrims, provides more or less accurate depictions of the members of the group and describes why and how The Canterbury Tales is told. The host of the inn where the pilgrims are gathered, offers to be and is appointed as judge of the tales as they are told and is supposed to determine at the end the best hence winning tale.

The Knight's Tale
The Knight's Tale is a romantic chivalric story with all its clichés and platitudes. The plotline is somewhat bombastic and lengthy. Men wage war and fight. Women are to be silent and submissive and are the prize for the winner of the war or the winner of an organized tournament.

The Miller's Tale
A funny story with a sometimes far-fetched plot about how an old man is betrayed by his young wife and her lover. Funny and readable story.

The Reeve's Tale
A very funny story about a miller who steals from his customers. In return the miller's daughter and wife are screwed (not raped) while he is sleeping. No tiresome symbolism, tedious quotations or Christian teachings. Give your wife or girl good sex or you will be punished. Very readable story containing intelligent symbolism.

The Cook's Tale
The Cook's Tale seems to continue the ribaldric style from The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale, but The Cook's Tale remained unfinished. Speculation about the plotline that has not been revealed is useless.

The Man Of Law's Tale
The story is about Constance, the daughter of the emperor of Rome and a devoted Christian, who is treated as a trade good. Her opinion is of no relevance. She is just a paragon of a good medieval woman. She is virtuous, a faithfull Christian, has no opinion and does not really resist to being traded or married. Plausibility is repeatedly challenged. Her Christian faith is her protection and her reward. That is what the church really likes to hear. Tedious story.

The Wife of Bath's Tale
The Wife of Bath is the opposite of Constance in The Man of Law's Tale. Although she knows the Bible, she is an independent and wordly woman. She claims the right to drink and the right to have sex in exchange of something else. Sex is a perfect way to pay a husband or to get something in exchange. Ambiguous story, but funny and very readable.

The Friar's Tale
The story is about a treacherous summoner and ridicules the practice of the summoner's profession. Somewhat far-fetched but still readable.

The Summoner's Tale
The Summoner, who is one of the pilgrims, responds ill-tempered to The Friar's Tale. He takes the story of the Friar personally and repays the Friar with a story about a treacherous and greedy friar. The plotline is full of arse jokes and puns. Readable story.

The Clerk's Tale
A completely ridiculous plotline that is ultimately about the unconditional submissiveness of women. A woman should swallow every adversity, even the ones that are deliberately created by her husband or some lord or god or whatever. Not recommended to modern readers.

The Merchant's Tale
A story in which the meaning of love, marriage, truth and faithfulness are being discussed. A man who is sixty years old marries a woman who is only twenty. That is of course asking for adultary. Somewhat far-fetched but still a readable story.

The Squire's Tale
Somekind of a fairy tale that is cut off by the Franklin, who is one of the pilgrims. The plotline is not very interesting and a little boring.

The Franklin's Tale
Another story in which the meaning of love, marriage, truth and faithfulness are being discussed. At the end nobody gets dishonoured. Think about and choose your words carefully before saying something regrettable. Very readable story.

The Physician's Tale
Far-fetched and non-plausible story about a knight who rather kills his daughter than have her dishonoured. Unsatisfactory plotline to modern readers.

The Pardoner's Tale
The Pardoner's Tale has an intelligent plotline that contains a literary description of the prisoner's dilemma. The reader gets some Christian teachings and some sermons, but is not drowned in them, as he is in some of the other tales. The Pardoner hardly practises what he preaches - giving an instance of religious hypocrisy or an instance of the hypocrisy of religious professionals - and is mocked for his false relics. Very readable and highly recommended to modern readers.

The Shipman's Tale
The interchangeability and exchangeability of sex and money are emphatically elaborated in The Shipman's Tale. Just like in The Wife of Bath's Tale, money, sex, women and wives are interconnected closely. Funny story, and readable too.

The Prioress's Tale
A story based on the persistent and wide-spread anti-Semitic myth about Jews that murder Christian children. Plausibility is violated in all respects. Anti-Semitism is a Christian invention rooted and nursed by the church centuries before Nazi-Germany was established. Revolting plotline not worth reading. Skip it.

The Tale of Sir Thopas
This story is told by Chaucer who is one of the pilgrims. The plotline is somekind of a parody of medieval chivalric poetry. The characters are ridiculous and so is the story. Chaucer is interrupted by his own characters who are tired of his low poetical qualities and the boring plotline. Readable but not really interesting.

The Tale of Melibee
After Chaucer has been interrupted and subsequently ends The Tale of Sir Thopas, he tells a tale in prose to avoid criticism about his poetry. So Chaucer tells his audience (the other pilgrims and the readers of The Canterbury Tales) The Tale of Melibee. The plotline is too boring to be true. Its only purpose seems to stuff the reader with authoritative quotations. It looks like Chaucer wants to show off with his churchly knowledge and knowledge about ancient writers, philosophers and churchly leaders. Almost unreadable.

The Monk's Tale
The Monk's Tale is merely a summary of tragedies about leaders who have lost their fortune and stature and end up dead. There is no comic relief. The Monk narrates until he is interrupted by the Knight. Tedious, boring and almost unreadable.

The Nun's Priest's Tale
The plotline consists of a beast fable, which is a popular genre in medieval times. Not humans but animals are the main characters and the animals are able to talk, sing and quote from classical and biblical works. That's perfectly ok. Think of Walt Disney's Bambi, The Aristocats and Fox and the Hound. Plausibilty plays no role in beast fables. Readable story although some quotations are too long.

The Second Nun's Tale
The Second Nun's Tale follows the structure of a saint's biography and is stuffed with Christian platitudes. Sex is dirty and devilish, keep your faith, convert your neighbours (and every one else) to Christianity, death is not so bad because there is life after death and last but not least dying in pain and subsequently martyrdom is the best thing that can happen to you. You will get a nice place in heaven. Do not ask questions about plausibility. Just believe what churchly leaders tell you. The plotline and story have no literary value. The only purpose of The Second Nun's Tale seems to impress the audience with Christian platitudes and contribute to conversion. Tedious, predictable and boring story.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
The story is about alchemy and the hunt for the philosopher's stone. The Yeoman more or less clearly declares that alchemists are liars that try to get money by doing false tricks. Readable story but a little boring for modern readers who have knowledge of basic chemistry and science.

The Manciple's Tale
A far-fetched and gruesome story about Phoebus, god of poetry and the paragon of every musician, who behaves not so godly by killing his wife after she has commmitted adultary. Probably sex with Phoebus was boring so Phoebus should have been punished and not his wife (look for some intelligent symbolism in The Reeve's Tale). Plausibility means nothing. Not worth reading.

The Parson's Tale
The Parson's Tale is not much more than a lengthy and tedious churchly prose sermon about the seven deadly sins and the remedies to avoid or cure them. There is no plotline. Is it again Chaucer showing off with his churchly knowledge? We don't know and we don't care. Boring, tedious, far too long and there is no reward if you manage to reach the end of the Parson's sermon.

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