The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer

BACKGROUND

This book is definite proof that not all old English books are about knights and dainty virgins in castles, or sexually repressed rich people with great grammar at dinner parties. Some of them are about nasty people. The Canterbury Tales is full of average people, sex, drinking, and lots of low-lifes. A lot of English literature written a long time ago is about that. Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) wrote this book in the late 1300ís. It wasnít finished, though. Some of the people in it never got to tell their tales.

PLOT

A bunch of people go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the grave of St. Thomas Becket, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Theyíre all at an inn called the Tabard. The book starts out with a prologue (intro). Here, the narrator (Chaucer) introduces all the characters, including the host. The host tells each character to tell a tale along the way. Many of the characters tell their own prologues before telling their stories. Also, between stories, the characters talk back and forth, sometimes in mean ways. Only the Millerís, Pardonerís, Wife of Bathís, and Nunís Priestís tales will be covered here, because there are so many.

TALE BY TALE

Prologue

The narrator explains that everyone is ready to go to Canterbury. He introduces all the characters. There are lots of them.

The Knight is a brave guy who kicked a lot of ass in battle. Heís all thatís noble in England at that time.

His son the Squire wants to become a knight. The Squire likes to sing and dance and joust.

The Yeoman is the servant of the Knight and Squire. Heís good with a bow and arrow and knows how to carve wood. He doesnít have a tale to tell, though.

The Prioress is a nun who has awesome manners, loves animals, and thinks love conquers all.

Another Nun, who has three Priests with her, tags along.

The Monk loves to hunt. He also likes fine food and wearing cool threads. Chaucer rips on the Prioress and him because he thinks theyíre hypocrites.

The Friar is corrupt. Heís smooth with the ladies, likes high society, and has a lot of money. Heís a hypocrite.

The Merchant knows how to turn a buck. Heís in debt, though, but no one knows it. Thatís how slick he is.

The Oxford Cleric (or Clerk) is a student who is more into books than anything else. Heís soft-spoken and doesnít blabber.

The Man of Law is a walking encyclopedia of laws and court cases. Heís pretty rich, too. Chaucer thinks he has some kind of a dark side, though.

The Franklin is a partier who shares his food and wine with everyone.

The Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet Maker are union people. They donít get much mention in the book and donít tell any tales.

The Cook is the best chef in the land. He also has a nasty ulcer on his knee.

The Shipman is very smart with tides and stuff, but he doesnít have much respect for human life.

The Physician made lots of money during the Black Plague of the early 1300ís, but he didnít spend it. He knows everything about medicine.

The Wife of Bath is a female supremacist and a feminist. Sheís also selfish and has had five husbands. She thinks she knows everything about love.

The Parson is a righteous dude. He gives his money to the poor and doesnít let bad weather stop him from helping poor people.

The Plowman is hardworking and doesnít diss his neighbors. He always pays his dues to the Church. He doesnít tell a tale, though.

The Miller is big and tough and can kick anyoneís ass. He knows a whole load of really crude stories.

The Manciple feeds students at a law school. He rocks at making money in the market-- heís even better than the pros.

The Reeve runs an estate. Heís old and thin and no one messes with him.

The Summoner calls people to the church court for their crimes, but he sometimes takes bribes and looks the other way. Heís ugly and stupid, and he likes to spout off a few Latin words to impress everyone, even though itís the same few Latin words every time.

The Pardoner sells salvation to sinners. Heís really corrupt and two-faced. The Pardoner also doesnít have hair on his head or a deep voice. Chaucer thinks he doesnít have his balls anymore.

The Host runs the Tabard Inn. He follows them to Canterbury, and itís his idea for everyone to tell a tale. He likes to comment on the tales. He doesnít tell his own tale, though.

The Millerís Tale

An old carpenter takes a young wife named Alison. Sheís really wild and dirty-minded. He also takes in an astrology student named Nicholas. Heís hot for Alison.

Nicholas hits on Alison and they have sex.

She goes to church to repent. Absalon the parish clerk gets hot for her, too. Later he takes his guitar and sings to her, but she ignores him.

Nicholas and Alison play a trick on the carpenter. Nicholas tells him there will be a massive flood soon, and they should get some tubs, one for each of the three, and hang them from the ceiling and lie in them till the flood comes.

On the night the flood is supposed to happen, they go to their tubs. The carpenter falls asleep in his. Nicholas and Allison steal away to her bed and get it on.

Days go by. Absalon notices the old dude is missing and decides to hit on Alison again. When he bothers her at her window, where sheís sleeping with Nicholas, she promises him a kiss if he will get lost.

Alison puts her butthole to the window and Absalon kisses it for a while, really digging it, until he realizes itís not her mouth! He leaves in disgust, vowing revenge.

Absalon gets a blacksmithís iron, hot and red, and goes back to the house, asking for another kiss. Nicholas sticks his butt out and farts on him. Absalon shoves the iron up his butt and tears it apart.

Nicholasí scream wakes up the old man, who cuts the ropes on his tub, thinking the flood is near. He crashes down. The whole town hears about it and thinks he is crazy.

The Pardonerís Tale

Prologue

The Pardoner starts out by telling everyone in the group what a smooth talker he is. In church, he rips on evil by repeating the same words over and over. He also collects money (called indulgences) from sinners who want to repent. Then he pardons them for their sins. He admits heís greedy and doesnít give a rip for peopleís souls, but he doesnít care.

The Tale

The Pardoner begins by ripping on drunkenness and gluttony (pigging out). He refers to famous dudes from the Bible, like Lot and Herod, who did awful things while they were drunk (Like, Lot nailed his daughters while he was totally blasted.)

Then he rips on gambling and tells the stories of some politicians who messed up big-time because of it. After this, he rips on swearing and perjury and explains how awful they are.

Then he starts his tale: Three dudes are having a drink one morning when they see a coffin go by. One of them says that Death is in town and has killed the person in the coffin (it was the Bubonic Plague at the time, and it killed a fourth of Europe).

Thinking Death is a real person, the three stupid guys decide to get medieval on him and kick his ass.

They set out. They find an old man and diss him for still being alive at his age. He tells them they can find Death just up the road. The guys go ahead and find gold coins near a tree (see where this is leading?).

One of them is sent to town to get bread and wine to bring back, so that they can all guard their treasure till night, when no one will see them bring it back home. The two who stay behind plot to kill the third one when he gets back so they can keep the gold for themselves.

Meanwhile, the one getting the wine decides to bring back poison instead, so the others will die when they drink it and heíll get to keep all the gold.

When he gets back, the other two kill him. Then they drink the poison, not knowing it is poison, and they both die.

When heís done with his tale, the Pardoner lectures on greed. Then he offers to sell the other pilgrims some saintsí relics. The host gets mad at him and wishes he could cut off the Pardonerís balls.

The Wife of Bathís Tale

The Prologue

The Wife of Bath (also called Alison) thinks she knows everything about love and marriage. She spends a lot of her prologue defending marriage and sex. Sheís also a real nympho who talks about her nads a lot. She thinks virginity is okay if you can handle it, but she really likes sex. She wonders why we have sex organs if weíre supposed to be virgins (back then, a lot of people thought it was best to stay away from sex.)

The Wife of Bath talks about her five husbands. She tried to be the master of the first three but didnít make it. The fourth one fooled around on her, and he died. The fifth was into his books more than her. He had one big book that did a lot of ripping on women, which really pissed off Alison. She ripped out some of the pages, and he smacked her in the head with his big book. When she came to, he apologized and then let her rule the house and land.

The Tale

A knight rapes a young woman. Instead of executing him, the Queen tells him he can live if he answers one question: What do women want most? She gives him a year and a day to roam around and find an answer.

Everywhere he goes, the knight canít find two people who agree on what women want (even Freud couldnít answer it in the 20th century).

Some of them say women want money, fun in bed, unlimited freedom, great clothes, etc. But all the answers are different.

Totally depressed because he canít find an answer, the knight heads back to the Queen. Along the way he sees a group of women, but they vanish when he comes over. All thatís left is an ugly old hag.

The ugly old hag tells the knight sheíll answer his question if he agrees to do whatever she tells him. He agrees, so she tells him.

In front of the queen, the knight tells her that a woman wants the same power over her husband as her lover. In other words, she wants to run the whole show.

The Queen lets him live. Then the old hag asks the knight to take her as his wife. He canít deal with that because sheís so ugly, but he gives in anyway.

They get ready to do the nasty on their wedding night, and heís scared. REALLY scared.

The old woman gets on his case about how looks arenít as important as virtue.

Then she tells him to take his pick: sheíll either be an ugly but faithful wife, or a pretty wife who may just cheat on him. He tells her to decide for him, and then he lets her be the master of their house. When he lifts up her veil, she has changed into a really hot babe.

The Nunís Priestís Tale

The Nunís Priest tells of an old widow who has her own farm animals. One of them is a cock, and he has seven hens as his harem. His name is Chanticleer, and he is the best singer in the land. His favorite hen is Pertelote.

Chanticleer dreams that some beast tries to kill him. Pertelote rips on him for being a wuss instead of a man.

Chanticleer tells her about some people from the past who didnít heed their dreams and ended up dead because of it.

Later, a fox comes and sits in the barnyard. (The Priest loses his train of thought and starts talking about fate and how women cause suffering in the world.)

The fox butters up Chanticleer and gets him to sing. When the cock does, the fox grabs him and carries him off. All the barn animals and the people run after the fox.

When they get to the forest, the cock persuades the fox to brag to the others that he is now safe. When the fox does, Chanticleer escapes and flies off. The fox is pissed at himself.

The priest tells the others in the party to avoid flatterers and to learn how to shut up.

THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART

All these people are a cross-section of England way back in the 14th century.

There were beginning to be lots of different classes of people back then, like the court class, the religious class, the working class, etc.

The Wife of Bath is an early feminist, but it depends on how you read her. She talks a lot about respecting women. But she could also be a female supremacist because she thinks women should control marriage and run everything.

Some of the stories celebrate low-life things, like farting, drinking, cheating on your man or woman, etc. These stories are called fabliaux, and there are lots more of them in old English writing.

This book is a celebration of common people.