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Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer 1340-1400 (?). Father of English language Middle class, well-educated (father was wine merchant) Served at court Diplomatic missions to France, Spain, Italy Catholic who perceived abuses within Church and exposed them. Church in England.

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Canterbury Tales

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Canterbury tales

Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey chaucer 1340 1400

Geoffrey Chaucer 1340-1400 (?)

  • Father of English language

  • Middle class, well-educated (father was wine merchant)

  • Served at court

  • Diplomatic missions to France, Spain, Italy

  • Catholic who perceived abuses within Church and exposed them

Church in england

Church in England

  • Pope collecting heavier & heavier taxes from England

  • Political maneuvering among bishops against Roman control

  • As English kings gained power, they began to resist power of church

  • English church full of ignorant priests & corrupt officials

    • simony, indulgences, abuse of church courts & positions

  • Common person unschooled & illiterate: couldn’t dispute religious leaders

  • John Wycliffe (1328-84) English theologian and religious reformer who rejected biblical basis of papal power and disputed doctrine of the transubstantiation; translated first English Bible from Latin Vulgate

Languages of engand

Languages of Engand

  • Old English: form of German spoken by Saxons before Norman Conquest

  • Middle English: influx of French; Latinization

  • Native tongue, Latin and French spoken

Canterbury tales


Pilgrim s route

Pilgrim’s Route



The place canterbury

The Place: Canterbury

  • connected 3 trading ports to London; Julius Caesar invaded in 43 A.D.

  • Roman civilization with theatres, baths, temples, etc. until invasion of Angles, Saxons, Jutes in 5th/6th century

  • Canterbury converted to Christianity in 597 by Saint Augustine

  • Monastery, today’s Cathedral, founded in 602 by St. Augustine; Canterbury as mother of British Christianity

  • Surrendered at Battle of Hastings (1066) to William the Conqueror; Cathedral destroyed by fire in 1067;

  • fortified with new walls, gates, stone keep

St augustine

St. Augustine

Thomas a beckett

Thomas a Beckett

  • Thomas Becket archbishop; struggled for church’s independence with King Henry II; exiled to France for 6 years; returned & angered King

  • “Not one will deliver me from this low-born priest.” 4 knights murdered him December 29, 1170, in Cathedral, spilling his brains on floor; canonized 3years later andshrine completed in 1220

Canterbury cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury cathedral1

Canterbury Cathedral

The tales

The Tales

  • work existed in fragments at Chaucer’s death

    • planned for each of 30 to tell 2 tales/going & 2 tales/returning (120 stories in original framework)?

    • we have only one story each from 24 pilgrims

    • written between 1357-1400

  • each tale deals with one of Chaucer’s themes

  • richest portrayal of religious men & women in earthly scene (Dante: portrayal of life after death)

  • detached delight of Chaucer

  • regularly rhyming couplets

  • Chaucer customarily writes a five-stress, ten-syllable line, alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (what would later be called iambic pentameter):

  • told in social order (except for Miller)

A pageant of 14th century life

A pageant of 14th Century life

  • Pilgrims span the whole range of the unofficial middle class. Groups represented are:

    • Upper class (Knight, Squire, church people);

    • Learned professions (Physician, Man of Law);

    • Landed gentry (Franklin);

    • Medieval manor people (Miller, Reeve);

    • Mercantile class (Shipman, Merchant);

    • Guildsmen (Haberdasher, Dyer, etc.);

    • Laborer (Plowman).

Structure style

Structure & Style

  • Tales have different tones, attitudes, poetic style:

    • Marian miracle tale for Prioress

    • Sermonic structure for Pardoner’s tale

    • Supernatural, folkloric tale for Wife of Bath

  • Point of View

    • Chaucer enables reader to see story, person telling story, point behind story--all at once

    • points of view represent different outlooks, morals

  • Sources: virtually every type of medieval writing

    • Fabliaux, mini-epics, romances, fables, exempla, lays, anecdotes, a sermon, religious allegories

Chaucer s attitude

Chaucer’s Attitude

  • Five ideals, Chaucer treats seriously (Knight, Squire, Clerk, Parson, Plowman);

  • Some he pokes fun at (Prioress, Monk, Wife of Bath);

  • Some is quiet about; short portraits with now personal view coming through (Prioress's entourage);

  • Some not very good; Chaucer is just a little negative (Shipman, Manciple);

  • Hardened sinners, all of them religious officials (Friar, Pardoner, Summoner)

General prologue

General Prologue

  • Introduction of pilgrims

    • Catholics (150 years before Henry VIII broke from Rome)

    • Reasons for pilgrimage?

    • Common to travel together: protection

    • April in Southwark at Tabbard Inn, owner Harry Bailey

    • Bailey suggests they pass time by taking turns telling stories; best will win prize

  • Brief portraits of pilgrims

  • Attitude of Chaucer the Pilgrim

  • Three estates and rising middle class represented

7 church officials

7 Church Officials

  • Prioress

    • sentimental depiction, proud in petty way

  • Monk

    • hedonistic, hunter, inept but not malicious

  • Friar

    • seducer, sells forgiveness

  • Parson and Plowman

    • ideal religious men

    • Parson one of 2 heroes in tales

  • Summoner

    • blackmailed, bribed on way to success; ugly, stupid thug

  • Pardoner

    • perfect fraud: charming, clever, corrupt; biggest hypocrite

    • secular church official fighting w/church official (Friar)



"The General Prologue" presents a vivid cross-section of the people who composed the various social classes of 14th Century England. Organize the characters depicted in the "Prologue" based on social position first then on their morality. What seems to be Chaucer's opinion of the Clergy? Of the other classes? Which characters does Chaucer seem to esteem or criticize? What attributes do these characters have that Chaucer appears to value or not?

The pilgrims

The Pilgrims

Knight The Miller

Squire The Manciple

Prioress The Reeve

Monk The Summoner

Friar The Pardoner

Merchant The Host

Clerk Chaucer the Pilgrin

The Lawyer

The Franklin

The Cook

The Physician

The Wife of Bath

The Parson

The Plowman

The prioress s tale

The Prioress’s Tale

  • Cult of the Virgin

  • Marian Miracle tale

  • Anti-Semitic legends

  • Hugh of Lincoln, murdered in 1255

  • Relation of Teller to Tale: who is anti-semitic? The Prioress? Chaucer?



Is the Prioress’s Tale anti-semitic? Does Chaucer approve or condemn it? Chaucer? What type of religiousity is expressed in the tale? Does the description of her seem to match her tale? What is the relation between teller and tale?

The pardoner s tale

The Pardoner’s Tale

  • Pardoner: a layman who sells pardons or indulgences, certificates from the pope by which people hoped to gain a share in the merits of the saints and escape more lightly from the pains of Purgatory after they die

  • Eunuch--The Pardoner is spiritually sterile, a more significant fact than being physically sterile.

The pardoner s tale1

The Pardoner’s Tale

  • The tale is an incomplete sermon. A medieval sermon should contain six parts:

    • Statement of theme or text;

    • Protheme, introduced directly from the four gospels;

    • Dilatation, expansion of the Biblical text;

    • Exemplum, a story illustrating the point;

    • Peroration, the application or eloquent haranguing;

    • Benediction, the closing formula.

  • This tale contains only parts 1, 4, 5, and 6.



How does the Pardoner characterize himself in the Prologue to his tale? What text does he always preach on? Do you see irony in this? What is the relation between teller and tale?

Wife of bath

Wife of Bath

  • Experience vs Authority

  • The nature of Woman

  • Role of man and women in marriage: who is in top?

  • What do women want?

  • Is this tale anti-feminist?




Why does she open her “Prologue by claiming that experience is a better guide to truth than authority? Do you think this helps in her argument on marriage and in her general defense? Are her arguments problematic? Does the Wife completely reject antifeminist attitudes toward women, or does she provide proof that these “old books” are correct in what they assume about women? Do you believe that she is an object of satire in her “Prologue” or an instrument of satire---or somehow both at the same time?  


What is the relationship between teller and tale? Is it an appropriate tale for her to tell?

Chaucer s retraction

Chaucer’s Retraction

Chaucer is retracting what works? Is he sincere?

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