The Canterbury Tales


A Guide in 9 Literary Elements

A practical guide for beginners or non native speakers that presents The Canterbury Tales in 9 literary elements:

  1. explanation of the title
  2. information on the author
  3. genre of the work 
  4. structure of the book
  5. summary of the plot
  6. overview of the characters
  7. setting
  8. point of view
  9. themes
Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Possibly in the hand of his personal scribe Adam Pinkhurst [Public domain]
Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Possibly in the hand of his personal scribe Adam Pinkhurst [Public domain]

The title: The Canterbury Tales

We can divide the title into two parts:
a. The Tales: the first part of the title hints at the collection of narratives. We can see from the first lines, the tales were written in verse form, in Middle English.

b. Canterbury is linked to a very popular medieval custom: the pilgrimage. The most important centres were Jerusalem and Rome of course, but Canterbury was one of the favourite expeditions nearer home for the English pilgrims.

Pilgrimages were mainly undertaken in companies for two main reasons: on the one hand it was more pleasant to travel in society, on the other hand the group protected the individuals from the dangers of the roads.

The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper [Public domain artwork]
The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper [Public domain artwork]

The cathedral of Canterbury hosted the shrine of St Thomas Becket.

Henry II on pilgrimage to Canterbury [Public domain]
Henry II on pilgrimage to Canterbury [Public domain]

From Chaucer's biography, we learn he started writing The Canterbury Tales in 1387 and continued working on it until his death in 1400.

Manuscript [Public domain]
Manuscript [Public domain]

The Canterbury Tales first circulated in hand-copied manuscripts and were then printed by William Caxton in 1483.

Sources

The travel

The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a pilgrimage which is a kind of travel. Many examples of travels maybe found in literature: the Odyssey by Homer, The Divine Comedy by Dante. Chaucer uses the device of the pilgrimage to give a frame to his tales, but the travel seems relatively unimportant here compared to the tales.

The frame

A frame is a story within a story. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells the story of a pilgrimage that constitutes the frame for a collection of tales.

Chaucer took inspiration from different sources for his main work. The most likely is Boccaccio's Decameron, a frame story in which seven young women three young men gather outside Florence because of the Black Death and tell a hundred tales.

The Novellae by Giovanni Sercambi may have influenced Chaucer as well. Its frame presents a group of people escaping from the plague. They travel from Lucca to the west coast of Italy telling tales on the road, in inns, in gardens.

Genre

To identify a literary genre, it is necessary to observe the features of the form and techniques of the work. Epic, comedy, drama, tragedy, novel, short story, poem, etc. are the most common genres.

During the Middle Ages the concept of genre was quite different. It usually referred to content description.

The general genre around which the author organized his work is poetry, namely a collection of verse tales. Each tale draws upon different genres.

Here follows a list of the various genres the readers can recognize in Chaucer's most famous work. A definition for each genre is provided.

Romance: a prose or poetic narrative which narrates about love and war against a refined background. Chivalry and idealized love are the main themes.

ex The Knight's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Tale

Tragedy: in the Middle Ages it was a prose or poetic narrative (not plays). The idea of tragedy was linked to the key concept of "the wheel of fortune", a metaphor used by Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. It was believed that people were tied to a giant wheel that spun around in the sky. The top of the wheel represented the best of fortune. On the contrary the worst of fortune was under the wheel. No control was possible on the wheel: you could be on top of the wheel and very suddenly under the wheel. Everyone was subject to the terms of fortune.

ex The Monk's Tale

Fabliau: it was an extended joke usually frequent among the lower classes of society.

ex The Miller's Tale

Sermon: In Chaucer's time everybody could understand and interpret this kind of public discourse. It presented a fixed structure including three parts: a passage from the Bible, a theme related to the passage, a series of stories to illustrate the theme.

ex The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

Moral and didactic writings: their purpose was to teach, and they were used as examples from which to learn how to live a perfect life.

ex The Monk's Tale, the Knight's Tale

Structure and plot

The Canterbury Tales features 30 pilgrims and Chaucer himself bound towards Canterbury. They meet in Southwark, a suburb of London, at the Tabard Inn. The host of the Tabard welcomes them heartily and after supper makes the following proposal: each member of the group will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on their way back to London, the prize for the competition being a free supper at the Tabard Inn on their return.

Chaucer's original plan what to write four tales for each pilgrim but he managed to write 20 tales and left 4 tales partly incomplete.

The characters are introduced according to their social position in the General prologue. A narrator describes the pilgrims as they appear to him. Every contemporary class is represented except the lowest.

Characters

The characters are presented and described in detail.

They broadly belong to the middle-class. They are carefully chosen of both sexes and all ranks (from the knight to the humble ploughman.), all of them flesh and blood, individually distinct, described from top to bottom. They are not merely characters of fiction. Beside their outward and visible form, he studies the human being as such.

Since they are introduced according to their estate, the Knight appears first (first estate), followed by the representatives of the Church (second estate). A variety of figures (rich, middling and poor) represents the third estate. Chaucer moves downwards the social ladder of his time. Each pilgrim dresses and talks according not only to his/her social position but also according to his/her own experience and character. We are presented with four military characters, eleven from the clergy and seventeen are common people. The author probably exemplifies the social changes occurring in his time: the decline of the feudal system and the insurgence of a new social class after the Peasant Revolt.

The characters are also grouped according to their relationships.

ex. The Knight travels with his son and their yeoman. The prioress is accompanied by her companion and three priests.

Setting

The pilgrims going to Canterbury gather outside of London, in Southwark (famous at the time for its taverns and brothels.) They are supposed to walk to Canterbury. The timespan in The Canterbury Tales corresponds very little to the actual duration of a pilgrimage.

Narrator and point of view

The readers are led through the work by a first person narrator. He facilitates the readers in understanding who is speaking at a given time. The narrator not only describes the pilgrims in the General Prologue but also comments on them.

Of course each tale has its own narrator who mainly tells his/her tale from a third-person point of view.

Themes

The themes are competition, friendship, virtues, human frailties, Church corruption, social satire.


If you prefer you can read the guide in the form of an ebook.

My students usually follow the map below to study/present/write the presentation of a masterpiece. Of course the map changes according to the genre of the work we are reading. In this case we are going to use the "Map to report on a poetic work"

It is very simple to use. Just start with the title, explain it, elicit the date of publication and the sources that inspired the author. Then following the map clockwise find information about each element. And it's done. You can use the presentation of The Canterbury Tales as an example.

Here follows an example of a map prepared by a student of mine, Alessio (3LSA). First he found the requested information in the ebook, then he compiled the map and finally he used the map to orally present The Canterbury Tales.

LnT suggests

LnT Read a biography of the author, a text for beginners and non native speakers

LnT Some hints about the historical background: from 1066 to 1485