The Canterbury Tales

I had originally wanted to post this with my June 2015 book reviews, but seeing as it is so long, it needed its own separate post.

Chaucer as a Pilgrim from the Ellesmere manuscript

Chaucer as a Pilgrim, illustration from the Ellesmere Manuscript, c. 1400-05

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chauncer, narrated by full cast

The book (or rather epic-long poem) is about a journey of twenty-four individuals traveling together from London to Canterbury on pilgrimage, to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. It was written sometime between 1387-1400. I will apologize in advance because this is going to be my longest review yet. The book borrows heavily from Greek and Roman mythology, the Christian Bible, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petrarch, Ovid, and Dante. After a brief Prologue introduced by another Chaucer (not the author), which tells us about all the characters, we head right into the stories. The first story is The Knight’s Tale, and he tells the story of the hero Theseus and two Theban knights named Palamon and Arcite, whom he has imprisoned and who both fall in love Emily, Theseus’s sister. It was rather long-winded, but an interesting mix of Roman mythology and modern day terminology and ideals. The second story is The Miller’s Tale and is a bawdy tale about a carpenter with a very young and beautiful wife. She cuckolds him by promising her love and attentions to Nicholas, a young scholar boarding with them. But Nicholas gets his come-uppances in the end. The steward Oswald (aka The Reeve) is offended by The Miller’s Tale (as he was previously a carpenter), and so creates his own about a crafty miller who cheats some scholars out of their grain and gets his own reward for doing so. The Cook’s Tale is next, and it is about a Provisioner’s Apprentice named Perkin who loves to sing and dance. He is finally let go from his apprenticeship, but we never hear the end of the story, as Chauncer (the author) dies before it is finished. The Man of Law is next, and he tells a story about Constance, the daughter of the Roman Emperor and her constant faith in God which led her through many trails. There was a translator’s note here that this story may not have even come from Chauncer himself but another source.

Canterbury Tales Character

The Wife of Bath was next and I thought her prologue was her story because it went on for so long. She told the story of her five marriages and how she controlled them with her body. I thought it was interesting that she said the two things that women use to control men are “lying and tears” and that she herself readily use these techniques with her men. Her tale was about a similar topic. A knight, at the time of King Arthur, is caught forcing himself upon women. As punishment, courtesy of Queen Guinevere, he has a year to find out what women truly want. He searches high and low and is about to give up, when an ugly old woman says she will help him if he promises her whatever she asks for. The answer he gives Guinevere is “sovereignty over their husbands”, basically the ability to “wear the pants” as it were in a relationship and be in charge. He is saved and then the old woman asks to be his wife. He must agree for he gave his word, but begrudgingly does so. After they are married, he refuses to perform his husbandly duties and his new wife goes on a philosophical/academic/biblical discussion about age, beauty, and faithfulness. At the end of it, he agrees to give up his sovereignty and she is in control. She then transforms into a beautiful faithful young wife and they are forever happy.

The Wife of Bath

The Friar’s Tale is next and he describes an archdeacon (who presided over the church courts) who uses all manner of bad individuals to get information about the people in his parish. In the employ of this archdeacon, is a wicked Summoner who makes a living blackmailing everyone and is joined in his travels by a demon, disguised as a human. Through his own fault, the Summoner is dragged to hell. The Summoner in the traveling group is naturally infuriated by this and starts telling his tale about a corrupt friar who begs and cheats his way to food and clothing provided by the people he’s trying to save.

Next is the Cleric’s Tale, and he tells one from the cleric poet Petrarch. It is the story of an Italian Marquis whose subjects would like him to get married to a rich eligible young woman so he can have children to inherit his land, and it is not given to a stranger. The Marquis is not keen to marry, but says he will do it, provided he can choose his own bride. He chooses Griselda, a beautiful and virtuous peasant girl. Once the Marquis marries Griselda, he decides every few years to test her humility and constancy. He does this by pretending to kill their children, while secretly sending them to his sister. She does not complain, and only tells him that everything is up to him, “at his pleasure”. Eight years after he “gets rid of” their son, he tells her that she must go back home and he’s choosing a younger prettier wife. Once again, she quietly acquiesces, and he decides to bring the children home. He eventually surprises his wife by telling her what he has done and she promptly faints and is welcomed back as the marquis’s wife. Frankly I would’ve punched the guy for pulling that crap.

The Merchant is next and he complains about his wife of two months in his prologue. His story is about January, a 60 year old wealthy knight who decides he wants to marry, but has all these stipulations about who and what he would like his wife to be. January marries May (which is where the famous expression and terminology meaning “a January-May wedding” comes from) and she almost immediately cuckold him with his young squire, being so bold as to have sex with him in a pear tree while her husband is in the garden with her. Afterword, she lies about what she has done and then he apologizes for doubting her. Apparently the “pear-tree” episode was a popular story in Chauncer’s Time.

The Merchant

The Merchant

The Squire: This tale is unfinished as Chaucer died before completing it. A Tartar King named Cambuskan (probably supposed to be Genghis Khan) has two sons and a beautiful daughter named Canacee. He is celebrating the anniversary of his rule when he receives an Arabian knight who brings some pretty amazing gifts. The first is a magical bronze horse that can fly and the second is a magic ring that allows the wearer to understand any language in the world, including that of animals and birds. The next day Canacee hears the cry of a female falcon who is trying to kill itself after being rejected by a wooing male falcon. Canacee nurses the falcon back to health. His story is interupted by the Landowner.

Franklin (aka The Landowner): The Franklin’s tale is about a knight named Arveragus who marries a beautiful young woman named Dorigen, then promptly has to leave for two years. She is of course devastated and misses him. While he is gone, she meet Aurelius, a very handsome young cleric who falls in love with her but she always rebuffs him, saying she will only be with him if he removes all the rocks from Brittany. Knowing this is impossible, he goes home in despair for two years. Finally he remembers a young student-magician and says he will pay him 1000 pounds if he can clear away the rocks. The magician agrees and the deed is done, whereupon Aurelius goes to Dorigen to make her remember her oath. She is devastated, but says she will honor her promise. Dorigen is distraught and ponders suicide. Meanwhile, her husband comes back home and she tells him what has happened, and he says she must honor her promise, even though he is unhappy with the situation. So she does, but when Aurelius learns of her husband’s sacrifice, he lets her return to Arveragus. The debt to the magician is cancelled afterwards.

The Physician’s Tale: A Roman knight named Virginius has a beautiful daughter named Virginia. A judge named Appius sees her and is immediately smitten and decides he must have her for his own. He employs Claudius, a well-known villain, to falsely accuse Virginius to get the girl. He must give up his daughter, so to protect her from the lascivious judge, Virginius cuts off his daughter’s head and presents it to the judge. The judge ends up in prison himself and commits suicide and Claudius is hanged.

The Pardon-Peddler’s Tale: After the last horrific tale, the Host/Narrator wants something a bit more jolly, but the fellow traveler’s want a moral tale. As he makes his living preaching, he obliges the people after freely admitting that he is greedy while warning others against it. His tale is set in Flanders and follows three men drinking and whoring it up in a tavern and ends up being a moral tale. A fight almost breaks out after he is finished because he tries to get people to buy his pardons, and says Chauncer the host must start first because he is the most sinful.

The Shipman’s Tale is the story of a wealthy but cheap merchant and his sexually-dissatisfied wife who ends up cuckolding him with his friend, a monk, in exchange for getting a loan so that she doesn’t look cheap when she tithes at church. The monk borrows money from her husband and then tells him who it is for. The husband, naturally angry, confronts his wife about it, and she says she will repay the loan to him in bed.

The Shipman

The Shipman

The Prioress’s Tale was a bit weird and creepy. She tells of a young boy, living in Asia Minor, who loves the Virgin Mary and especially loves singing a song about her. The town has a sizeable Jewish population, and when they hear him singing the song, they seize him, slit his throat and bury him under the cesspit (where they dump all their excrement). The mother finds the body after much searching and praying to the Virgin and curses the Jewish people that did this to her and her son.

Chaucer (the author) starts to tell The Tale of Sir Thopas, a poem in rhyme, until it annoys the rest of the travelers. He then tells The Tale of Melibee, one of the few tales in prose (the other being the Pardoner’s Tale). Melibee’s daughter is brutally raped and attacked, and he naturally wants to pay the men who did this to pay for their crime. He is advised by his wife Prudence (aptly named in this case) to be merciful and gives a very long discussion as to why he should. He decides in the end to be merciful.

The Monk’s Tale is a list of historical and literary figures that have fallen from grace and shamed themselves in one way or another. It includes Adam and Samson from the Bible, as well as mythological figures such as Hercules, Nero, Julius Caesar, and King Croesus. The Host Chaucer stops him, saying the story is way too depressing.

The Nun’s Priest Tale is next and it is the story of the rooster Chanticleer and his mate, the hen Pertelote. He has a prophetic dream of being chased by a fox, but passes it off as nothing. Later of course, he is actually captured by a fox, but manages to escape by tricking the fox to open his mouth. I had heard this story before, in a children’s book, but never the part about the dream or anything about his harem of chickens.

The Second Nun’s Tale follows Chanticleer, with a story about the life of Saint Cecelia. This one was particularly fascinating for me as I had a plaque of her growing up, as she was the patron saint of music. Saint Cecelia converts her brother and husband to Christianity, at a time when it was illegal to be Christian. The brother and husband are killed for their beliefs and they try three times to stab Cecelia, but she is saved by God. After her death, she is declared a saint by Pope Urban.

The Second Nun

The Second Nun

The Canon-Yeoman’s Tale (called The Cleric’s Servant’s Tale, I believe in the book) is next and is broken into two parts. In the first part, he tells about his master, the Cleric (who is an alchemist) and how amazing he is, but then starts to talk about his faults, prompting the Cleric to leave. Then he tells a story about a wicked alchemist who deliberately swindles a priest who wants to learn alchemy to make money for himself.

The Cook is asked to give a tale, but is too drunk and falling off his horse to do so. So the Manciple’s Tale is next and he takes a tale about Phoebus (Apollo) and his wife from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Phoebus is married to a beautiful woman, but he is jealous and watches her every move by keeping her in his house. He has a crow, who is all white and can sing and speak. The wife takes a lover of low birth, and the crow finds out and tells Phoebus, who kills her in his rage. He then curses the crow with black feathers and says it can only squawk. The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t speak your mind, even if what you say is the truth.

The Parson’s Tale is the last tale, and thank goodness because I was beginning to think it would never end. I honestly ended up skipping most of the last tale because it was like listening to a 2 hr sermon, and after all the other tales, I was ready for it to be over. It took me two months to finish it, so I was naturally very ready by that point. The basic gist of the tale is that is an extended sermon on the nature of sin, the seven deadly sins, and the three things necessary for forgiveness by God: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.

A woodcut from William Caxton 2nd Ed of Canterbury Tales, 1483

A woodcut from William Caxton’s 2nd Edition of The Canterbury Tales, 1483

I have been wanting to read this for years, but have never managed to get around to it as I know it is a lengthy poem. I never knew that it was unfinished, as the original 24 tales were supposed to be at least twice that number. It was the first poem to popularize the use of the English language as the vernacular, in a time where most communication was in French or Latin. The poem was written in Middle English, and though he wrote other poems, this is considered his magnum opus. I rather like this translation as he makes it a lot easier to understand and more fluid. Burton Raffels, the translator, makes an insanely long Introduction and Translator’s Note at the beginning of the book, which nearly put me off reading it because it went on for so long (although it was fascinating). It really is amazing how seamlessly he blends Roman mythology with contemporary thoughts about God and his power over us all. It’s a good thing they had this audiobook version as I’m not sure I would be up for trying to read the original Middle English or a side-by-side with modern English translation. I’m glad I did it though. My favorite tales were from The Miller, The Wife of Bath (prologue and story), The Merchant’s Tale (only because it is so crazy), and The Squire’s Tale (which reminded me of the 1001 Arabian Nights stories).


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