Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales notes I. The town of Canterbury



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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales notes

I. The town of Canterbury

A. Canterbury was a pilgrimage site because of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

1. 12th century

2. Henry II attempted to consolidate power by reducing church privileges at home

3. Henry named his friend, Thomas A. Becket as Archbishop in 1162.

4. Becket took his position seriously and came into conflict with the King

5. Spurred by the King’s angry words about Becket’s behavior, four knights loyal to Henry, murdered Becket on the alter steps of the church (NOTE: this was NOT by Henry’s order)

6. Henry did penance, by visiting Becket’s tomb at the Cathedral (setting up the idea of a pilgrimage)

7. Becket was canonized in 1173 and his tomb made into a shrine.

8. English Christians made pilgrimages to show devotion.



II. The Tales

A. Probably began in 1386

B. Worked on during the last 14 years of his life

C. Originally was to be a collection of 120 stories

1. 40 pilgrims

2. 2 stories told by each going, and 2 told by each coming back

3. Actually only completed 22, with two more in fragments

D. Were written to entertain the English royal court

E. One of the earliest works to be printed on Caxton’s press

Chaucer proves as powerful as Shakespeare in the art of providing entertainment on the most primitive/common level, and significantly increasing the reader’s ability to comprehend reality.

III. The Characters

A. Works as two stories in one. The individual story and the Pilgrim who tells it.

B. There are links between stories. These “links” are the interchanges between characters (their arguments/comments)

C. Medieval pilgrims were notorious story-tellers

D. Chaucer would have been able to see from his house the Pilgrimage road with bands riding toward Canterbury.

E. He created a fictitious “pilgrimage” as a frame for his stories. Collection of stories linked by a device like this was common at the time. (Arabian Nights)

F. The characters represent the assortment of commoners Chaucer would have know… and their personality types (stereotypes)

1. the “ideal” Knight, who had fought the pagans in all the great battles of the last half-century (Crusades)

2. his son, the Squire, a lover out of any romantic love poem.

3. the Prioress (Mother Superior) without a vocation but with the dogs and jewelry that satire at the time was condemning nuns for

4. The hunting Monk and flattering Friar (again, the butt of Medieval jokes)

5. The too-busy and too-rich Sergeant of the Law

6. The prosperous Franklin

7. The fraudulent Doctor…

G. In the telling of their stories, the Miller’s tale offends the Reeve (who is a former carpenter) so the Reeve uses a miller in his tale.

H. The Friar and Summoner argue at the end of the Wife of Bath’s tale, so the Friar tells a story offensive to the Summoner who retaliates with a more offensive tale about a Friar….



IV. Structure of the Prologue

A. a Prologue by the “Narrator” begins the work

B. Individual tales follow… some with their own prologues and responses

C. Summary:

The narrator opens by observing it is Springtime, a pleasant time of year when many people undertake pilgrimages. He then gives short descriptions of a number of people preparing to travel to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Gathered at the Tabard Inn outside London, this large group of pilgrims reflects the entire spectrum of medieval society. Over a fine meal, the pilgrims agree to entertain one another by telling stories during the journey (a common practice at the time). The inn’s host, who suggests the idea, will ride along and judge the tales.

D. The hosts criterion for judging the merit of a tale will be the..

1. the “measure of good morality…

2. and general pleasure”

3. In other words, there should be a moral lesson or message as well as being entertaining.

V. Characters: Handout

A. Each is introduced and described in great detail

B. Some are clear illustrations of characteristics:

1. courtesy

2. gentleness

3. envy


4. slander

5. hypocrisy

C. Chaucer makes himself “Sir Thopas ______ “. He makes fun of popular English romances.

D. of all the characters, Chaucer admires the Knight and the Squire



E. but he despises the rest, which is why their characters are satirized.


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