Summary of The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing
story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas à
Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the General
Prologue, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to
Canterbury. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a
microcosm of 14th- century English society.
The Host proposes a storytelling contest to pass the time; each of the
30 or so pilgrims (the exact number is unclear) is to tell four tales on the
round trip. Chaucer completed less than a quarter of this plan. The work
contains 22 verse tales (two unfinished) and two long prose tales; a few are
thought to be pieces written earlier by Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, composed
of more than 18,000 lines of poetry, is made up of separate blocks of one or
more tales with links introducing and joining stories within a block.
The tales represent nearly every variety of medieval story at its best.
The special genius of Chaucer's work, however, lies in the dramatic interaction
between the tales and the framing story. After the Knight's courtly and
philosophical romance about noble love, the Miller interrupts with a
deliciously bawdy story of seduction aimed at the Reeve (an officer or steward
of a manor); the Reeve takes revenge with a tale about the seduction of a
miller's wife and daughter. Thus, the tales develop the personalities, quarrels,
and diverse opinions of their tellers.
After the Knight's tale, the Miller, who was so drunk that he could
barely sit on his horse, began screaming," I know a tale that can cap the
Knight's tale off!" "But first, said the Miller, "I admit that I am drunk; I
know it by the my voice. And therefore if I speak as I shouldn't, blame it on
the beer, I beg you; for I will tell a life and legend of a Carpenter and his
wife, and how a clerk manipulated them."
Here the Tale Begins
In Oxford there was a rich peasant, who was a Carpenter, who took guests
aboard. There was a poor scholar, who had studied liberal arts, but all his
delight was turned to astrology. He knew how to work out certain problems; for
instance, if men asked him at certain celestial hours when there should be a
drought or rain he could answer them correctly. This clerk was named Nicholas.
He had a chamber to himself in that lodging-house, without any company, and he
was very sweet.
The Carpenter had a newly wedded wife, who was eighteen years old, who
he loved more than his own soul. He was jealous and he kept her close to him.
The woman was fair skinned and her body was slim. She wore a stripped silken
girdle. Her eyebrows were arched , black, and partly plucked to make them
narrow. The womans singing was loud and lively.
It so chanced that this gentle Nicholas fell in love with this young
wife, while her husband was away, and suddenly he caught hold of her and said,