The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short stories written in Late Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century about a group of travellers on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral[1]. To pass the time on what was then a journey of several days, they decide to hold a storytelling contest where each pilgrim will tell two tales on the journey to Canterbury and two tales on the return trip. Originally, Chaucer was going to write all 124 tales, but was unable to finish them before his death in 1400.

The pilgrims' tales cover a wide variety of genres, from morality plays to romances to bawdy tales with lots of sex and fart jokes.

The tales are often published these days in verse "translations" (or even in prose), but as the excerpt of the opening lines above shows, they are perfectly comprehensible in the original in a good edition with footnotes.


Tropes used in The Canterbury Tales include:
  • Abhorrent Admirer: The "loathly lady" in the Wife of Bath's Tale.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Invoked repeatedly, most particularly with the Wife of Bath, but also subverted, lampshaded, and deconstructed; Chaucer definitely got a lot of mileage out of this trope.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The Pardoner's sexuality has been much debated, and the Summoner is sometimes seen as his Hard Gay companion.
  • And Your Reward is Dinner: The Host and the pilgrims come into agreement that the one who tells the best tale will get treated to dinner with everyone else footing the bill.
  • Ass Shove: In the Miller's Tale.
  • Author Avatar: The Narrator
  • Author Existence Failure: Chaucer didn't even finish writing even one tale for each named pilgrim.
  • Backstory: Each pilgrim introduces himself or herself.
  • Bishonen: Absalom in "The Miller's Tale" is so pretty as to be downright effeminate. In the frame story, the Squire is another example (vaguely feminine prettiness being in fashion for courtly types).
  • Black Comedy Rape: The seduction of the Miller's wife and daughter in "The Reeve's Tale". The latter is also an example of Rape Is Love.
  • Blatant Lies: The Pardoner has some pretty interesting descriptions of The Bible...
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: The Pardoner.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Harry Bailey, the Host; the Monk, the Miller and the Franklin also have some elements of this
  • Breakfast Club
  • Break the Haughty: The theme of the Monk's Tale. It's not just one story, he picks a famous great figure, then tells about how he failed and died, then moves onto another one, over and over again. He says he has a hundred, but the Knight cuts him off after seventeen when he gets to Peter of Cyprus -- The Knight's former commander.
    • The Designated Hero of the Wife of Bath's tale also gets a well-deserved lesson or two on treating women right.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Canacee and Cambalo in "The Squire's Tale".
  • Buffy-Speak: No, really. Chaucer used "I guess" in the modern sense:

"Of twenty year of age he was, I guess."

  • But I Digress: The Knight does this all the time. Naturally, everybody else mocks him for it.
  • Cain and Abel: Arcite and Palamon in the Knight's Tale.
  • Camp Straight: Absalon in the Miller's Tale
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The Pardoner shows no shame in being greedy, and proudly exclaims being so.
  • Character Development: Most obvious (and essential) in the Wife of Bath's Tale, as a rapist learns a lesson in humility.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes / Hypocritical Humor: It's commented in the Prologue that while the Merchant is always giving financial advice, he is actually flat broke.
    • There's also the fact that the Merchant tells his tale with an intent of showing how marriage is terrible and women are lying liars who lie. Made hilarious due to the fact that the Merchant is drawing from his two months of experience in the realm of marriage to condemn the whole thing.
  • Cock-a-Doodle Dawn
  • Content Warnings: In "The Miller's Prologue", the narrator makes an aside to warn the reader that the upcoming tale is going to be obscene.
    • An indirect example: the miller himself basically tells everyone "Okay, I'm stinking drunk, so if anyone gets offended by what I say, blame it on the Southwerk ale."
  • Corrupt Church: All too common in the stories. Though the Church always formally condemned simony (i.e., the sale of sacraments and Church offices), there were also always those making end-runs around the rules.
  • Country Matters: "queynte" (The Miller's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Prologue)
  • Courtly Love: Arcite and Palamon for Emily in "The Knight's Tale".
  • Creepy Child: The Prioress's tale concerns one. Gets even creepier when he gets killed...and keeps singing that damn song of his.
  • Cultural Posturing: The Knight, for ancient Greece. Historically accurate, too.
  • The Danza: Chaucer himself.
  • Dirty Old Woman: The Wife of Bath.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come
  • Evil Will Fail: The three villainous protagonists of "The Pardoner's Tale" kill each other because of their greed.
  • Fan Sequel: Some of the earliest examples in English literature, including:
    • Edmund Spenser followed up with "The Friar's Tale" in Book 4 of The Faerie Queene.
    • Alexander Pope also wrote a few works that combined this with a pastiche/parody.
    • In one of the first pieces of Fan Fiction, there is a narrative tale The Tale of Beryn which makes the Pardoner's sexuality less ambiguous by showing his attempts to seduce a tavern wench.
    • The prologue of The Siege of Thebes by John Lydgate, one of Chaucer's literary successors, includes a Self-Insert Fic in which the author meets the pilgrims after their arrival at Canterbury, and is asked to provide the first tale on the return journey.
    • Numerous late medieval authors attempted to complete the unfinished bits of the Tales, as well; there are a few efforts at finishing the Cook's Tale, and two different efforts at a tale for the Plowman (the only pilgrim described in the General Prologue who doesn't tell even an unfinished tale), the better known of which was meant to suggest that Chaucer was essentially a proto-Protestant.
  • Flying Dutchman: The old man in "The Pardoner's Tale".
  • Framing Device
  • Good Bad Girl: According to her at least, the Wife of Bath. May be the Ur Example.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck: the Prioress:

"Her greatest oath was but "By Saint Loy!"

  • Good Shepherd: The parson, who is also the only religious character who isn't corrupt.
    • That's not quite fair, some of the other nuns (minus the Prioress) seem pretty faithful and although the Nun's Priest has some worldly beliefs, he doesn't seem to act on them.
  • Handsome Lech: Nicholas in "The Miller's Tale"
  • History of English: Hugely, hugely important in the development of English as a literary language. Chaucer's work is arguably responsible for the adoption of his London dialect as the standard from which modern English developed. The roughly contemporary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, alliterative blank verse written in a northern dialect, makes a fascinating comparison.
  • Holy City: Canterbury itself.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Virginius and Virginia.
  • Hurricane of Puns
  • The Joy of X: It's the origin of "The X's Tale" formula. The problem is that most references miss the "told by an X" instead of "about an" meaning of the original. For example, the film A Knight's Tale, is set in Medieval Europe.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: The Knight fits personality wise (or so he would have us believe), but actually has rather dirty, worn-out armor, because he's an experienced soldier who has got a lot of use out of it.
  • The Lady's Favour: An unorthodox example with the Monk, who basically acts like a typical nobleman in spite of his religious profession. He is described wearing a gold pin with a "love knot" (his sweetheart/mistress') hair inside it.
  • Left Hanging:
    • "The Cook's Tale" breaks off unfinished.
    • The tale of Sir Thopas is also interrupted by the Host, on the grounds that it is So Bad It's Horrible, which it is.
  • Literal Ass Kissing: Yes. This happens.
  • Literal Genie: The Gods behave like this in the Knight's Tale.
    • Venus and Mars, to be more precise. Diana is more of a Jerkass Genie.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Love Dodecahedron: In the "Miller's Tale"
  • Love Triangle: In the "Knight's Tale", the "Merchant's Tale" and the "Franklin's Tale".
  • Malicious Slander
  • May-December Romance: Trope Namer, per Brewer's: The story of May and January in "The Merchant's Tale" (the expression having altered over time).
  • Moral Myopia: The Prioress cares more for dogs than she does for Jews
  • Nameless Narrative
  • Nice to the Waiter: The knight, we are told, has never spoken rudely to anyone.
  • Noble Demon: In "The Friar's Tale".
  • No Ending: The tales simply stop before all the pilgrims have supplied one, and the framing narration never states that they have made it to Canterbury. Critics have argued about whether or not the story is unfinished. Chaucer's so-called retraction, which is usually appended to the tales as an ad hoc epilogue doesn't make matters any clearer.
  • Old Maid: Reading between the lines, the Prioress is getting past her prime and is overweight from her lifestyle, but is still pretty concerned with her features.
  • Put Off Their Food: Happens in the prologue. While the Cook is a Supreme Chef, Chaucer unfortunately can't enjoy a dish of his because its appearance reminds him too much of a nasty running sore the Cook has on his leg.
  • Refuge in Audacity: "The Pardoner's Tale" begins with the Pardoner bragging about his hypocrisy and all the fake relics he sells. At the end of his tale, an effective moral tale, he offers the same relics to the other pilgrims.
  • Rousseau Was Right: The Franklin's Tale -- the knight releases his lady from the guilt of the promise she made, the lady fulfills her promise, the squire releases the lady from her promise to him, and the magician forgives the squire of the thousand-gold-coin debt he'd incurred, when hearing of the nobility of the above people. Awww.
  • Satan Is Good: In "The Friar's Tale".
  • Secret Test of Character: The Wife of Bath's tale.
  • Self-Deprecation: Chaucer assigns himself a pair of awful stories, the first of which is so bad it's forcibly halted by Harry Bailey, who orders him to tell a better tale.
  • Self-Insert Fic
  • Sexy Priest: The Friar loves associating with the fairer sex, and is kind enough to perform marriages which he has made necessary. The Pardoner also says he would like to keep a wench in every town, but considering how downright creepy he is, (Your Mileage Will Definitely Vary). Probably the Monk too, given the love knot he wears, and the Host alleges the Nun's Priest is one of these (see Unwanted Harem below), but the Nun's Priest denies it. The Summoner's Tale features one, being a Take That against the Friar, as does The Shipman's Tale. Most of these examples are more along the lines of "lecherous priest" than necessarily "good looking priest", and the Nun's Priest is probably the only example who isn't a slimy bastard.
  • Short-Lived, Big Impact: The Canterbury Tales was never even finished. It is still considered one of the most influential books of the English language despite the fact it was written in Middle English.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: One of a small number of works that manages to range successfully over every part of the spectrum from extremely idealistic (The Knight's Tale, The Franklin's Tale) to extremely cynical (The Miller's Tale, The Pardoner's Tale), thanks to the framing device and the multiple narrators. Where Chaucer himself fell is a matter of some debate.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Chanticleer in "The Tale of the Nun's Priest".
  • Starving Student: The Clerk of Oxford.
  • Stillborn Serial: An in-universe one: The Squire's Tale is set up to be sprawling epic that weaves through the lives of a Middle Eastern royal family, culminating in an epic battle. After roughly 700 lines, the Squire has only managed to tell the story of the princess rescued a wounded bird, at which point the Franklin butts in and starts his tale.
  • Stylistic Suck: Chaucer assigns himself a badly written Arthurian romance in verse as well as an interminable and boring prose tale; both the Cook and Monk have their tales booed down by the other pilgrims, as the Cook's is too bawdy and in the Monk's case, everyone expected him to tell a light, bawdy story, but instead he chose to recite a list of the tragic ends of various powerful people from ancient times to the present. Part of Terry Jones' reinterpretation of the Knight is to dispute that the Monk's Tale was bad [2], but in any case, it's been traditionally assumed to be intentionally bad.
  • Take That:
    • The awful prose tale told by Chaucer is actually a translation of a real work, and arguably the Monk's Tale, which fits a contemporary genre of tragedy, and gets cut off by the Knight.
    • In-story, "The Miller's Tale" is often read as a parody of "The Knight's Tale," and the Miller himself seems to treat it as such. "The Reeve's Tale" is a direct attack on the Miller, and response to his tale. "The Summoner's Tale" is an attack on the Friar whose story is told immediately before.
  • Tender Tears: The Prioress, for her little dogs. Intentional Moral Dissonance, perhaps.
  • True Beauty Is on the Inside: in the Wife of Bath's tale, the knight hero finds himself wedded to a smart woman with a great personality -- who's also a terribly ugly crone. She catches on to his distress and delivers this Aesop to him, and then offers him a choice: she could make herself young and beautiful, but then he'd always have to risk her sleeping around with his friends -- or she could remain old and ugly, but be the best wife he could possibly ask for. His choice. He humbly says that the choice is up to her, and she, delighted that he's learned how to respect her, announces that she will be both beautiful and faithful. And they all live Happily Ever After. Broken Aesop? No, because the aesop is that women want some measure of autonomy.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Everyone, including (especially!) Chaucer
  • Unwanted Harem: There's an interesting subtext to the "Nun's Priest's Tale". His story is a beast fable whose protagonist is a rooster with a number of wives. There is an implied parallel to the Nun's Priest himself who is a confessor for a group of nuns (possibly Naughty Nuns). He asserts that he is chaste though, and might be telling the truth.
    • An alternate interpretation is that the Nun is the rooster, with the "wives" being the priests who work for her. Note the rooster's vanity and stupidity.
  • What Might Have Been: Chaucer was planning for the tales to be between 100 and 120 chapters long. He only finished the first 24 before he died. We'll never know how much richer our language would be today if the man who contributed to our lexicon such phrases as arse and knobbe had survived to tell the remaining three fourths of his epic.
  • You All Meet in An Inn

And then they all ate the Nun's Priest. And There Was Much Rejoicing. (Yaaaay)

  1. Same guy who was murdered in T. S. Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral.
  2. Jones argues that Medieval commoners would have enjoyed hearing about the rich and corrupt brought low and the Knight cut him off because he is one of those corrupt aristocrats.