The Canterbury Tales


Geoffrey Chaucer

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Themes and Colors
Social Satire Theme Icon
Competition Theme Icon
Courtly Love and Sexual Desire Theme Icon
Friendship and Company Theme Icon
Church Corruption Theme Icon
Writing and Authorship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Canterbury Tales, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Social Satire

Medieval society was divided into three estates: the Church (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought), and the Peasantry (those who worked). The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire. In the Chaucer's portraits of the pilgrims, he sets out the functions of each estate and satirizes how members of the estates – particularly those of the Church – fail to meet their duties. By the late fourteenth century, the rigid…

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The premise of The Canterbury Tales is a tale-telling competition between pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. In the General Prologue, the Host introduces the structure: each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way home. Many of the tales that the pilgrims tell are about competition. In the Knight’s Tale, for example, the climactic battle scene expands an individual competition into a contest between Mars, god…

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Courtly Love and Sexual Desire

Courtly love is the medieval concept of expressing admiration and love in a noble, chivalrous fashion. This type of love exists outside marriage: true courtly love exists on a spiritual, idealized plane, and does not need to be physically consummated. The Knight’s Tale centers on courtly love: the two knights compete for the hand of a fair maiden. In the General Prologue, the Host’s description of the Squire, a young knight, has all the…

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Friendship and Company

Friendship can be seen on two scales throughout the Tales: the brotherly connection between two men, and the ties that exist among members of a company. Friendships between knights were an extremely important part of chivalry, or the code of conduct that knights were supposed to follow. In The Knight’s Tale, Palamon and Arcite must choose between their chivalric bond to each other or their rival love for Emelye. For a knight, choosing…

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Church Corruption

The frame narrative of the Tales itself is religious: everybody is on pilgrimage to Canterbury. But these are not necessarily the most pious pilgrims in the world: for many of the travelers, that the pilgrimage is a tourist expedition rather than a devout religious quest.

The Catholic Church was an enormously powerful force in medieval society, and extremely wealthy. The elaborate, ornate, gilded cathedrals built to enshrine saints’ relics were very costly, and the Church…

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Writing and Authorship

Chaucer is considered to be the father of English poetry. Even though the premise of the Tales is that they unfold organically throughout the course of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, Chaucer is highly conscious of the fact that he is conducting a literary project with readers as well as listeners. When the Miller introduces his tale, for example, he says that if the reader doesn’t like it, he should simply “turn over the leef and…

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