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 of war, and Venus, goddess of love.
Competition occurs both in the tales the pilgrims tell and among the pilgrims themselves. After the Knight tells his tale, the Miller jumps in: “By armes and by blood and bones, / I kan a noble tale for the nones, / With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale” (I.3125-27). “Quiting” means paying back or requiting, and the quiting game becomes an important part of the ordering principle of the Tales. After the Miller tells his tale featuring a foolish carpenter, the angry Reeve––a carpenter––blurts out, “‘So theek,’ quod he, ‘ful wel koude I thee quite / With blerying of a proud milleres ye.’”
Though competition is the driving force of the frame narrative and spurs on the Tales, competition can also halt the action. Between the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and her Tale, the Friar and the Summoner interrupt and begin arguing with each other. The Friar complains about the Wife of Bath’s rambling, and the Summoner complains about the Friar’s complaining. The Host has to step in and moderate the fight so that the Wife of Bath can get on with her story.
Competition Quotes in The Canterbury Tales
For May wole have no slagardie anyght.
The sesoun priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh it out of his slep to sterte.
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was there noon under the sonne.
Ful many a rich contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wysdom and his chilvalrie.
He cast his eye upon Emelya,
And therwithal he bleynte and cride, “A!”
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghes tale.
And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale;
For he shal fynde ynow, gret and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse,
And eek moralitee and hoolynesse.
Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.
The Miller is a cherl, ye know wel this.
This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent.
Thus is the proude miller wel ybete,
And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete,
And payed for the soper everideel
Of Aleyn and of John, that bette hym weel.
His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.
Low, swich it is a millere to be fals!
And therefore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
“Hym thar nat wene wel that yvil dooth.”
Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, without lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye,
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
By God! if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.
Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel as over hir housbond as hir love
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
For gentilesse nys but renomee
Of thyne auncestres, for hire heigh bountee,
Which is a strange thing to thy persone.
Thy gentilesse cometh fro God alone.
Thanne comth our verray gentilesse of grace;
It was no thing biquethe us with our place.
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves,
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soon verray pestilence!
But shortly myn entente I wol devyse:
I preche of no thing but for coveityse.
Therfore my theme is yet, and evere was,
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.