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Literature / The Canterbury Tales

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"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, opening to the General Prologue

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of twenty-four short stories, written in Late Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century and ostensibly told by a group of travelers on a Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury Cathedral and the tomb of St. Thomas Becket.note  To help pass the time during what was then a journey of several days, the pilgrims decide to hold a storytelling contest, in which each pilgrim will share two tales on the journey to Canterbury and two more on the return trip. Chaucer originally planned to write 124 tales, but was only able to finish 22 plus 2 unfinished ones before his death in 1400.

The pilgrims' stories 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 with The Decameron, another Late Medieval collection of stories set within a Frame Story involving travel; some of the stories are similar, and indeed many of Chaucer's Tales 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.)

Hugely, hugely important in the History of English. It was in fact one of the first works of real literature in a language which modern readers can recognize as "English".note  Along with contemporaneous 14th century works, it marked the re-emergence of English as a literary language after nearly 300 years following the Norman Conquest in which English was the language of the illiterate peasantry. (And of the literate-but-not-literary lower nobility, not that they liked to talk about it.) Chaucer's work is also 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 and significantly less comprehensible for modern readers, makes a fascinating comparison.

Portions of the anthology have been adapted for stage and screen:

The Canterbury Tropes:

  • 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.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The Pardoner's sexuality has been much debated, and the Summoner is sometimes seen as his Macho Camp companion.
  • Anachronism Stew: The description of the knights' and soldiers' weapons (e.g. axes, maces) and armor (e.g. Prussian shields) in the Knight's Tale is reminiscent of medieval Europe even though the story allegedly takes place in ancient Greece.
  • Angel Unaware: The old man in "The Pardoner's Tale" is a darker version than usual — he is Death, disguised as a harmless elderly man, and passing beneath the notice of the men he talks with.
  • Author Avatar: Geoffrey Chaucer As Himself. The joke of course being that the "Geoffrey Chaucer" of the book is a gullible dimwit, never picking up on the hypocrisy of his fellow travelers.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The Merchant moans in his prologue about what a horrible shrew his wife is and how no man should ever get married. The gag is that he's only been married for two months. The theme of his Tale — a young wife cuckolding her older husband and hoodwinking him into believing her to be true — is probably meaningful.
  • Backstory: Each pilgrim introduces himself or herself.
  • Bed Trick: In the Reeve's Tale, John switches the baby's crib around in the dark so that the miller's wife hops into his bed instead of her husband's. He promptly has sex with her.
  • Bilingual Rhyme: The Pardoner's Prologue gives us this passage in Middle English and Latin on lines 425-6:
    Therfore my theme is yet, and evere was
    Radix malorum est cupiditas.
  • Black Comedy Rape: The seduction of the miller's wife and daughter in "The Reeve's Tale". There’s likely to be some Values Dissonance there, though, as the women seem to enjoy the experience.
  • 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.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Canacee and Cambalo in "The Squire's Tale".
  • But I Digress: The Knight does this all the time. Naturally, everybody else mocks him for it.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: The extremely candid Wife of Bath admits that she gets quite lustful when she's drunk on wine.
    "And after wyn on Venus moste I thinke."
  • By the Eyes of the Blind: In the Man of Law's Tale one of the Brittanic Christians (an underground sect after they were conquered by the pagan Saxons) is blind. "But it were with thilike eyennote  of his mynde/With whiche men seen, after that they ben blynde." These "eyes of the mind" allow him to recognize Constance as a Christian.
  • 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 Southwark ale."
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: The asshole rapist in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is given one year and a day to discover what women want more than anything else. If he fails, he gets executed. He ends up having to beg an incredibly ugly old woman for the answer (namely, the right to control their own lives). And in return for that favor, he then has to marry her.
  • 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".
    • The Wife of Bath wonders why husbands are compelled to keep such a tight rein on their wives, when if they'll just leave their wives alone, they'll get "queynte right ynough at eve."
  • 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). Medieval Europe was well aware of Genghis and the Mongols, as their enormous empire at its 13th century peak had reached as far west as Poland and Hungary.
  • Cultural Posturing: The Knight, for ancient Greece. Historically accurate, too.
  • Cut Short: 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.
  • Death by Materialism: The three rioters in the Pardoner's Tale kill each other over a bag of gold.
  • Dirty Old Woman: The Wife of Bath, who really, really likes sex, especially when she's drunk.
  • Does Not Like Men: Emelye's prayer to Diana in the Knight's Tale reveals that she doesn't want either Arcite or Palamon, that in fact she wants to remain a virgin and be a hunter like Diana herself. She comes around to Palamon at the very end, apparently.
  • Domestic Abuse: 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.
  • Even the Subtitler Is Stumped:
    • In the Miller's Tale, John the carpenter goes into Nicholas's room and finds him in a catatonic state. He starts rattling off charms to ward off evil spirits, calling on Jesus and St. Benedict for blessing. Then he says "For nyghts verye, the white pater-noster! Where wentestow, seinte Petres soster"? The 1958 Cowley edition says in the footnote, "The meaning of these lines is obscure."note note 
    • In the Merchant's Tale, January the 60-year-old Dirty Old Man is talking about how he demands a wife young enough to be his granddaughter. He rejects the possibility of marrying a widow, saying "They konne so muchel craft on Wades boot." The 1958 Crowley edition translates this as "They are so expert at handling Wade's boat", and identifies this as an allusion to Old English poem Widsith, then says "but the point of the allusion is lost."
  • 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. By killing each other over the gold they find at the oak tree, they do indeed find Death.
  • Fatal Flaw: In the Knight's Tale, Arcite's flaw is Pride; in the Pardoner's Tale, the three rioters' flaw is greed.
  • 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."
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Guess what the Wife of Bath meant with (Latin) "quoniam". Hint: it suffices to delete three letters.
  • Foreshadowing: When the Miller says apropos of nothing that Absolon the clerk is squeamish about farting, it's not hard to guess that plot point will come up later.
  • Framing Device: A Road Trip Plot of pilgrims sharing tales along on their journey to Canterbury. Unlike many framing devices, Chaucer's has storytelling value in itself, as he makes several pointed observations about 14th century English society while introducing his characters.
  • Funetik Aksent: Chaucer reflects the dialects of several characters in his writing, showing regional and social variations of Middle English (e.g. different vowel realizations, different ways of making plurals, different pronouns, etc.). This is particularly prominent in "The Reeve's Tale", in which Chaucer emphasizes the Reeve's Norfolk accent and the two students' Northern accents by deliberately using different spellings from his usual London dialect and having the characters use words and grammar characteristic of their regions.
  • Garden of Love:
    • In "The Merchant's Tale", Januarie marries May and builds her a beautiful garden, where they do "things that were not done in bed". Later, May and her lover Damyan have sex in one of the garden's trees. This happens in the presence of Januarie himself, but because the old man is blind, he is initially unaware of their actions.
    • In "The Knight's Tale", the eponymous knights are imprisoned in a tower overlooking the palace garden, where they first spot Princess Emelye picking flowers. They both fall for her instantly, and the Love Triangle resulting from this incident drives the rest of the narrative.
  • 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". They start out with united purpose on a quest to avenge a fallen comrade but, once they find a chest of gold lying out in the open, they instantly abandon their original purpose and soon start plotting to kill one another in order to each hoard the gold for himself.
  • Good Shepherd: The parson, who is also the only religious character who isn't corrupt. In fact Chaucer uses this precise metaphor, comparing the parson to a shepherd guarding his sheep, and noting how bad a "shiten" shepherd is for his flock.
  • Gourmet Pet Food: The Prioress feeds her beloved dogs roast meat and fine bread with milk. It reveals her Moral Myopia, since she doesn't show anywhere near the same concern for human wellbeing, despite her holy orders.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The Pardoner's (hypocritical) motto, "Radix malorum est cupiditas" (greed is the root of all evil).
  • 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.
  • Hiding Behind Religion: A major recurring theme: the Monk lives a worldly life, the Friar beds prostitutes, the Summoner takes bribes, the Pardoner is a fraudster, and the Prioress is a rabid anti-Semite. The Parson, the Nun's Priest and the Clerk are mostly good-natured, though.
  • Hypocrite: A major theme. The religious characters, except for the Parson, are drawn as deeply hypocritical. The Prioress, who after all is a nun, wears a necklace of beads with the motto "amor vincit omnia" ("love conquers all"). She also makes a great show of getting upset when a mouse is caught in a trap, yet she feeds her dogs raw meat on a regular basis.
  • I Call Him "Mister Happy": When the Wife of Bath isn't simply referring to her private parts as "queynte", she is calling it her belle chose (French for "beautiful thing") or quoniam (that's Latin).
  • 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.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: The Framing Device has a naive, guileless rube named "Geoffrey Chaucer" describing his fellow pilgrims, usually in terms of gushing admiration, but in a way that the reader can figure out what's going on. For example, Chaucer the narrator speaks of the Monk admirably, but his description of things like the Monk's "love knot" lets the reader know that the Monk is an unchaste libertine.
  • Intro Dump: The General Prologue is an extended version of this in which Chaucer introduces and describes all of his characters.
  • 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. He is pretty obviously implied to be a hired sword who fights for any prince who pays enough. Despite the Values Dissonance the sheer variety of his experience makes it clear that he is 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. Some modern readers suspect a lot of irony and even flat-out sarcasm in the description of the Knight, though; his past employers weren’t all very nice people.
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • After praying to Mars for victory in his fight with Palamon, and then winning that fight, Arcite made the mistake of gloating about it, as if he had won without any help from a god of war. The gods, of course, did not take kindly to that... (Though Arcite had to die soon after winning the fight anyway, so both he and Palamon could have their wishes granted.)
    • 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.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: Emelye and Palamon are married off on the very last page of the Knight's Tale, after a Time Skip of several years from the main story.
  • Lawful Stupid: In the Summoner's Tale, the friar recounts an anecdote in which two knights set out on a day but only one came back. Their lord then decrees that a third knight should execute the second, for the presumed murder of the first. Knight 3 takes knight 2 out to do this, but knight 1 shows up. When the three knights return to court, the lord has all three of them killed: the first knight because he's already been declared dead, the second knight because he was the cause of the first's death (for showing up alone), and the third knight because he didn't follow orders and kill the second one.
  • Left Hanging:
    • "The Cook's Tale" breaks off unfinished. And it's a real pity, too, as the very last line introduces a woman "who swyved for hir sustenance."
    • The Tale of Sir Thopas is also interrupted by the Host, on the grounds that it is a long-winded Cliché Storm.
    • "The Squire's Tale" is left unfinished, apparently deliberately so, as the Franklin interrupts the Squire's narrative to tell his tale.
  • Literal Ass-Kissing: Yes. This happens in the Miller's Tale. Alisoun gets tired of Absolon lurking outside her window demanding kisses, so she sticks her "naked ers" out the window, and he kisses that. 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.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: In "The Miller's Tale", Kindhearted Simpleton John is too boring and stupid to keep his young, pretty, and lustful wife Alisoun satisfied, which leads to the shenanigans of the story where Nicholas and Absolom both trick him in order to have their way with Alisoun. John is just portrayed as a Butt-Monkey for his failure to keep himself from being an Emasculated Cuckold and is the source of mocked for it even In-Universe, with the overall implication being that he shouldn't have even gotten into a Mal Mariée relationship in the first place.
  • Love at First Sight: Arcite and Palamon (in "The Knight's Tale") both have this when they see lovely Emelye taking a stroll. They even start arguing about her, until Arcite points out that they're both being kind of stupid, since they are prisoners of war locked away in a tower.
  • Mal Mariée: Mal Mariée means "badly married" in French, and this trope describes a young woman unhappily married to an old, obsessively jealous man:
    • In "The Miller's Tale", Alisoun is young, attractive, amorous and lustful, and a reputed beauty. John the carpenter is Alisoun's much older husband and he's constantly afraid that she'll cheat on him. The narrator says he's extremely jealous and very protective of her, but he's also very stupid and doesn't act like the obsessed and jealous spouse. He willingly takes young male boarders like Nicholas into his home, and he seems very devoted to his wife and concerned for her safety. Young Nicholas becomes Alisoun's lover and she is also courted by Absolom. When John hears Absolon serenading Alisoun outside their window in the middle of night, he only asks if she hears it, too. Poor stupid John ends up cheated on, tricked by his wife and humiliated in front of the entire town.
    • "The Merchant's Tale": Old Januarie is deceived by his young wife May and her lover Damyan after Januarie suddenly goes blind. Januarie is over sixty and May not yet twenty. Both names are very symbolic: Januarie is as bare and unfruitful as the winter month, and May is youthful and fresh and associated with spring. Januarie marries May largely out of lust. It is not known why May accepts his offer; however, he is a rich man and above her social class. Damyan, a squire of Janiarie's court, falls in love with May and she reciprocates. Januarie loses his sight, and his blindness increases his possessiveness and jealousy toward his young wife May. The lovers manage to sneak up to the branches of a pear tree in May's garden and begin to make love right above her husband's head. An enraged god Pluto restores Januarie's sight, but goddess Proserpina allows May to outwit him by explaining that she was merely struggling with Damyan in the tree because she had been told that it would magically restore Januarie's sight. The fooled Januarie and May continue to live together, and quite happily. May tells Januarie that he may be mistaken on more occasions, indicating her infidelity will go on.
  • May–December Romance: Trope Namer, per Brewer's: The story of beautiful young may May and old man January in "The Merchant's Tale" (the expression having altered over time). note  However, the story itself averts this trope as May is actually January's Trophy Wife and their marriage is a disaster.
  • Medium Awareness: In The Merchant's Tale, Justinius, who has been expressing skepticism about Januarie's plan to marry a hot young babe and satisfy her, cuts his criticism short, because "the Wyf of Bathe" has already said all there is to say about marriage.
  • 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 / Treated Worse than the Pet: The Prioress cares more for dogs than she does for Jews.
  • Nasty Party: In the Man of Law's Tale, the sultan of Syria converts to Christianity to marry Constance, daughter of an Italian emperor. His mother is none too thrilled about this. So she invites her son and all the other newly-minted Christians to a feast, where she has them all killed.
  • Nice to the Waiter: The knight, we are told, has never spoken rudely to anyone.
  • 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.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Given that the Pardoner's Tale is the most cynical tale of the entire collection, it's only natural that the three Villain Protagonists kill each other over some money they found in a tree as soon as Greed gets the best of them all.
  • No Name Given: The majority of the characters in the framing device are not named. The Prioress is named "Madam Eglantine" and for some reason Chaucer tells us that the Friar's name is Huberd. In the prologue to the Miller's Tale, the Miller and the Reeve are called "Robyn" and "Oswald". The Cook is called "Roger". The Host is identified as "Herry (Harry) Bailey", and of course Chaucer is "Geoffrey Chaucer". Other than that, the characters are referred to only by their profession.
  • Noodle Implements: In the Miller's Tale, when Absolom borrows the red-hot poker from the blacksmith, he is deliberately vague about what he intends to use it for.
  • Noodle Incident: The Merchant's Tale" says that Januarie took May to the garden to do "thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde." Just what were they doing there that they wouldn't do in bed?
  • Not in Front of the Parrot!: A crow, and 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.
  • Pilgrimage: The Framing Device of this work is that a group of travelers are on a pilgrimage from London to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. To help pass the time during the journey, the pilgrims decide to hold a storytelling contest.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Emily in "The Knight's Tale" mentions that her life in hunting, and she fears a marriage will disrupt that. Not only is Emily never seen hunting, this is the only time she or anyone even mentions her preference for hunting.
  • 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.
  • Prolonged Prologue:
    • Opens with the General Prologue, 857 lines in which Chaucer introduces all the characters and establishes the premise.
    • An even more extreme example with the Wife of Bath's Prologue. Most of the prologues to the stories are a page or two, but the Wife of Bath rambles on for 825 lines (almost as long as the General Prologue!) as she talks about her life and her husbands and her thoughts on marriage. Lampshades by the Friar, who snarks that "This is a long preamble of a tale!" When she finally gets around to telling her tale, it's only half as long as the prologue.
  • 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.
  • Rash Promise:
    • "Franklin's Tale" is all about a promise the beautiful Dorigen makes to Aurelius, a suitor who confesses his love for her while her husband is away performing his knightly duty. She vows to be his if he can perform the impossible task of getting rid of every stone along the coastline. Unfortunately for her, Aurelius finds a wizard who can perform the deed for a hefty price. Dorigen is distraught, but when her husband returns, Aurelius is so impressed by the knight's virtue that he voids the oath, providing a rare Happy Ending for this type of tale.
    • In "The Wife of Bath's Tale", a lustful man charged for rape is given one year to find out what women want most in the world or else he will be executed. Unable to find a common answer in a year, the man grows desperate and swears to give a wise old hag any reward she can think of if she can give him a true, universal answer. She travels to the court and publicly gives the answer, but also publicly asks the rapist to marry her. He begs her not to do this, but she insists, and the lustful youth is married to a hideous old woman. He is karmically miserable at first, but in time, he grows to appreciate his wife for who she is.
  • Really Gets Around: The Wife of Bath talks about how she liked to bonk all over town, especially with her first three husbands, while intimidating them into silence by falsely accusing them of infidelity.
  • 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 story, he offers the same relics to the other pilgrims.
  • Rhyming with Itself: "seke" in the prologue. Since it has a different meaning and etymology in each line, it's similar to rhyming "rare" (meaning uncommon) with "rare" (meaning undercooked) in modern English.
  • 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.
  • Sarcasm Mode: The Merchant's description of marriage in "The Merchant's Tale" as a state of perfect bliss and security, and how it's so much better than bachelorhood and its—uh, freedom. If this weren't clear enough from the text it's further shown in the prologue where the Merchant rants about how much he hates his wife and how much he regrets getting married.
  • Secret Test of Character: The Wife of Bath's tale. The old crone tells the knight that he can either have her as an old crone, but loving and faithful, or he can have her be young and sexy but unfaithful. After he says she can decide, the crone tells him that she'll be young and sexy and faithful.
  • 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. Chaucer writes himself into the framing device as one of the pilgrims.
  • Serenade Your Lover: Absolon the clerk tries this to win the heart of Alisoun in the Miller's Tale. It backfires spectacularly.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Reynard the Fox and Chanticleer the rooster and his wife Pertelote appear in The Nun's Priest Tale.
  • 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.
  • Slipping a Mickey: In "The Knight's Tale", Palamon escapes seven years' imprisonment as a POW by giving his jailer wine spiked with "nercotics and opie of Thebes".
  • 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.
  • Stealth Parody: A common interpretation of certain tales. In particular, the Knight's Tale has just enough elements to make people wonder if it's supposed to actually be a satire of "courtly love" stories.
  • 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.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Without even being asked, Januarie in "The Merchant's Tale" makes sure to tell his friends, who are supposed to find him a wife, that he can still get it up. ("I feele my lymesnote  starknote  and suffisaunt/To do al that a man bilongeth to....")
  • 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.
  • Toilet Humour: Used extensively in the Miller's tale. A man (having just "risen for to pisse") farts in another man's face, and the second man burns the first man's butt with a red-hot poker. Foundational stone of English-language literature, people.
  • 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", who prefers to crow on tiptoes to avoid having his feet touch the ground.
    "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..."
  • Trophy Wife: Januarie, the sixty-year-old knight in the Merchant's tale, wants a pretty young wife to comfort him in his old age. As usual with this trope, it goes horribly wrong.
    To take a wyf it is a glorious thyng
    And namely what a man is oold and hoornote 
    Thanne is a wyf the fruyt of his tresor
    Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: In The Merchant's Tale, when May retrieves the purse with the love letter from Damyan, she stuffs it in her "bosom".
  • 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 twenty-four 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.
  • A Wizard Did It: In the Man of Law's Tale, he wonders why the Sultanesse didn't slaughter Constance when she slaughtered everyone else at the feast, or why Constance's ship never sank or capsized during the years it drifted at sea, how her would-be rapist was thwarted and died in the process, or how she didn't run out of food and water. Conclusion: Jesus did it.
  • 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: Namely, the Tabard Inn in Southwark, which was a real place that really did do business accommodating travelers to Canterbury. Chaucer's inn lasted until 1676 when it burned down; another inn was built on the site and stuck around for another 200 years until railroads made inns that served horse traffic obsolete.

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

Alternative Title(s): Canterbury Tales