Literature / The Canterbury Tales
Are we there yet?
I know a shortcut!
My saddle chafes.
If I tell you a story, will you all shut up?

"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke."
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales - Prologue in Middle English

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 Cathedralnote . 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 only able to finish 24 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.

Compare to The Decameron, another Late Medieval collection of stories within a Frame Story involving travel; some of the stories are similar, and indeed many of the stories seem inspired by those in Boccaccio's collection (that said, it appears that Chaucer never directly copied a story; he probably merely read The Decameron while on a diplomatic mission in Italy, and did not have access to a copy when he was writing the Tales).

Contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: The "loathly lady" in the Wife of Bath's Tale.
  • Adaptation Species Change: A particularly odd example in "The Merchant's Tale": Pluto and Proserpina, gods of Classical Mythology, are portrayed as fairies.
  • Affably Evil: Possibly the Pardoner, who is soft-spoken and polite, but also a corrupt hypocrite. It's not clear if he's this or Faux Affably Evil, though.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Invoked repeatedly, most particularly with the Wife of Bath, but also subverted, lampshaded, and deconstructed.
  • Altum Videtur: The Pardoner's (hypocritical) motto, "Radix malorum est cupiditas" (greed is the root of all evil).
  • Ambiguously Gay: The Pardoner's sexuality has been much debated, and the Summoner is sometimes seen as his Macho Camp 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.
  • Black Comedy Rape: The seduction of the Miller's wife and daughter in "The Reeve's Tale".
  • Blatant Lies: The Pardoner has some pretty interesting descriptions of The Bible...
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Harry Bailey, the Host; the Monk, the Miller and the Franklin also have some elements of this.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Chaucer does this in "The Miller's Prologue," during the Content Warning: "Turn over the leef and chese another tale."
  • 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.
  • Broken Aesop: The incredibly greedy Pardoner gives a story teaching the evils of greed. He even mentions how ironic this is.
  • 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. He's also telling his tale with an intent to show that marriage is terrible and women are lying liars who lie, which is kind of hilarious considering that he's drawing this from all of two months' experience in the realm of marriage.
  • 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, and whoever doesn't like it should "turn over the leef and chese another tale."
    • 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.
    • Case in point, the Parson and the Nuns are about the only religious pilgrims in the story that aren't corrupt.
  • Costume Porn: The General Prologue gives in-depth descriptions of each of the pilgrims' outfits, often containing clues as to their personalities.
  • Country Matters: "queynte" (The Miller's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Prologue). In "The Miller's Tale" Chaucer makes puns from the double meaning of "queynte"—at the end of the 14th century that word meant both Country Matters and the modern meaning of "quaint".
  • 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 Cross-Reference: The Squire's Tale is about none other than Genghis Khan (though the case has been made of the story fitting better with Kublai Khan, his great grandson). Ironically, medieval Europeans knew of him, but not of many of the places he conquered.
  • Cultural Posturing: The Knight, for ancient Greece. Historically accurate, too.
  • The Danza: Chaucer himself.
  • Dirty Old Woman: The Wife of Bath.
  • Domestic Abuser: The Wife of Bath's fifth husband, who used to verbally berate her, beat her until she appeared dead and is the reason she's half deaf. He's also the husband she loved the most.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come
  • Dummied Out: To say nothing of the fact that the characters never even reach the holy shrine, Chaucer actually just started the Cook's Tale... only to leave it as a short, unfinished fragment. Judging from the tone it would have resembled the crass anecdotes told by the Miller and the Reeve. (Coghill's translation advertises this tale on the back of the book for some reason.)
  • Evil Will Fail: The three villainous protagonists of "The Pardoner's Tale" kill each other because of their greed.
  • Exact Words: In "The Pardoner's Tale", the protagonists are told that they can find Death under the oak tree. After killing each other over the gold they find at the oak tree, they do indeed find Death.
  • 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.
    • Henry Dudeney wrote a puzzle book with a section supposedly coming from Chaucer's notes.
  • Flower Motifs: The Prioress, one of the few characters who has a proper name, is Madame Eglantine, referring to a kind of rose, also known as a sweetbrier. Having a name that means "rose" is right in line with her sentimentality and bracelet reading "Love Conquers All."
  • Flying Dutchman: The old man in "The Pardoner's Tale".
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Guess what the Wife of Bath meant with (Latin) "quoniam". Hint: it suffices to delete three letters.
  • Framing Device
  • Genre Roulette: Each of the Tales is based on a different genre that existed at the time.
  • Gold Fever: The ultimate downfall of the protagonists of "The Pardoner's Tale".
  • 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"
  • He-Man Woman Hater: The Wife of Bath's fifth husband had an entire book full of stories about how horrible women are. She eventually forced him to change his ways, but not before he hit her hard enough to go deaf on one ear.
  • Henpecked Husband: From the Wife of Bath's perspective, this is the ideal model for a husband. Didn't stop her from falling madly in love with an abusive jerk, though.
  • 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
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: The Parson, who is described as the ideal priest.
    • St. Cecilia in "The Second Nun's Tale". Unsurprising, given that she's a saint.
  • It's All About Me: Pretty much the Pardoner's worldview. And he's shockingly proud of that fact.
  • 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" of the original and take it to mean, "about an X." 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. This Knight in Shining Armor was pretty obviously implied to be a hired sword who fought for any prince who paid enough. Despite the Values Dissonance the sheer variety of his experience makes it clear that he was at least a badass if not exactly Incorruptible Pure Pureness. And to be fair, he presumably kept his contracts and fought decently and was about as honorable as a merc can be in his profession.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Most villains in the Man of Law's Tale don't escape justice. The servants of the Sultan's wicked mother are slaughtered by the Romans (The Sultan's mother gets off scot-free, though), and King Alla orders his mother dead once he finds out about her trickery. The drunken messenger is also tortured.
    • The knight in the Wife of Bath's tale suffers this due to Values Dissonance—after raping an innocent maiden, he finds himself tricked into marrying an ugly old hag who only becomes young and beautiful when he pledges to her that he will always remain submissive to her and let her make all of his decisions for him. For modern audiences at least, this feels like the knight's getting a well-deserved punishment.
  • 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 a long-winded Cliché Storm.
  • Literal Ass Kissing: Yes. This happens. Then a hot poker gets involved.
  • Literal Genie: The Gods behave like this in the Knight's Tale. Venus and Mars, to be more precise. Diana is more of a Jackass Genie.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The core cast has close to twenty, and that's not even getting into the background characters and the characters in the tales.
  • 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). note 
  • Mistaken for Apocalypse: In the "Miller's Tale", Fry Nicholas convinces the carpenter to take special precautions in order to escape the coming flood that will drown the world. Of course, there is no such flood, it's just a ploy to get more time with the carpenter's wife.
  • Moral Myopia: The Prioress cares more for dogs than she does for Jews
  • Nameless Narrative: Very few of the characters have names; they are all identified by their occupation or social role.
  • 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.
  • No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Inverted, interestingly enough; the Wife of Bath is a firm believer in the idea that this is true of women.
  • Not In Front of the Crow: Pretty much the central plot point of the Manciple's Tale.
  • 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.
  • Pretty Boy: 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). Subverted with the Pardoner, who's rather androgynous, but this is meant to make him creepy rather than attractive. That and it's subtly implied that he's a eunuch.
    • The Wife of Bath's last husband, Jankyn, is described as this, at least in his younger days.
  • 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.
  • Rump Roast: Absalom burns Nicolas's bottom with a hot poker.
  • 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: Likely the Ur-Example as far as English literature is concerned.
  • 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... 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. 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. The Summoner's Tale features a Sexy Friar, being a Take That! against the Friar, as does The Shipman's Tale.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Reynard the Fox and Chanticleer the rooster and his wife Pertelote appear in The Nun's Priest Tale.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. 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".
  • Smart People Wear Glasses: The Oxford Clerk is an Ur-Example of this trope; despite not actually wearing glasses in the text,note  he is mentioned as having terrible eyesight due to the long nights he's spent studying by candlelight. This hints that the trope might actually be descended from an older "Smart People Have Bad Eyesight" trope.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: One of the things the Pardoner does for a living is sell phony miracle cures.
  • Starving Student: The Clerk of Oxford. When he does get money, he tends to spend it on new books rather than food. He lives mostly by borrowing from his friends.
  • Still Born 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.
  • Straw Hypocrite: The Pardoner; he constantly preaches against greed and covetousness (referring to it as "the root of all evil"), yet freely admits that that he himself is motivated entirely by it, preaching, selling salvation and peddling phony miracle cures to make a swift profit. He takes it a step further by claiming that all forms of preaching are done for evil or selfish reasons.
  • 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 note , but in any case, it's been traditionally assumed to be intentionally bad.
  • Take a Third Option: At the end of "The Wife of Bath's Tale", when his bride offers him a choice that she can be either beautiful but unfaithful or ugly and faithful, the knight takes a third option by letting her decide. Her decision, too, was none of the above: to be both beautiful and faithful.
  • 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.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: In "The Pardoner's Tale", the youngest of the three rioters sneaks a poison into the wine he was sent into town for, in the hopes of killing the other two rioters and claiming the gold they found for himself.
  • Tender Tears: The Prioress, for her little dogs. Intentional Moral Dissonance, perhaps.
  • Toilet Humour: Used extensively in the Miller's tale.
  • Too Important to Walk: Chaucer plays with this trope through the Small Name, Big Ego version of Chanticleer the rooster from "The Tale of the Nun's Priest":
    "He looked as it were a grim lion,
    And on his toes he roamed up and down;
    He deigned not to set his feet to ground..."
  • The Tourney: One is central to the Knight's tale.
  • 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.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The carpenter and Alison in "The Miller's Tale." As is most often the case in medieval literature, this ends with Your Cheating Heart (as well as an unsuccessful suitor).
    • Gender-flipped in "The Wife of Bath's Tale."
  • 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.
  • Weakness Turns Her On: The Wife of Bath is particularly fond of submissive men who will do whatever she says and let her completely dominate them in bed. Though it's revealed that this is mostly just because she can trick them into giving her money.
  • 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.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Averted in the Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale; Chaucer demonstrates knowledge of the properties of a right isosceles triangle (not in those words, of course):
    (He) saugh wel that the shadwe of every tree
    Was as in lengthe the same quantitie
    That was the body erect that caused it
    And therefore by the shadwe he took his wit
    That Phebus, which that shoon so clere and brighte
    Degrees was fyve and fourty clombe on highte.
    (He saw that the shadows of the trees were the same length as the trees themselves; thus he calculated that the sun was forty-five degrees high.)
  • You All Meet in an Inn: A tavern in this case, but it's really the same thing.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Alison in "The Miller's Tale." Discussed and ultimately averted by the old lady in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" as well.

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

Alternative Title(s): Canterbury Tales