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 chese another tale” – in other words, turn the page and read another story. Chaucer himself appears as one of the pilgrims. He depicts himself as a bumbling, clumsy, foolish sort, and the two tales he tells are ironically awful, given that we know he is the mastermind behind this whole enterprise.
The concept of a framing narrative that surrounds a group of tales is itself is a common literary convention, seen, for example, in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Chaucer most likely based his frame narrative on Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which ten ladies and gentlemen, traveling around the Italian countryside to avoid the plague, tell each other stories.
In this tale-telling competition, the pilgrims are very interested in what makes for good and bad literature. Are the best tales the ones that give the best moral lessons, or the ones that provide the most entertainment for the company? The Canterbury Tales contain a vast array of subjects and literary genres, from noble depictions of courtly love to bawdy jokes to beast fables to stories of saints’ lives. Almost all the pilgrims introduce themselves and their tales through a prologue, in which they typically explain who they are and why they are going to tell their tale.
The pilgrims have several different theories about what makes a good story and what it means to have the authority to tell it. The Wife of Bath claims that authority comes through experience, saying she is qualified to tell a tale of love and marriage because she has been married five times and using her own interpretations of Scripture as evidence. The Pardoner unapologetically describes how he cons foolish men out of money by selling them false religious relics. He rejects a monastic life, declaring that he lives for greed rather than celestial love. But even though he himself is vicious, he says, he knows how to tell a moral tell with the lesson that greed is the root of all evils.
Chaucer uses a huge variety of styles and forms in the tales. Each pilgrim has a distinct voice. The Knight uses genteel, formal language, while the Miller and Reeve speak in coarse, rude double entendres. Although the majority of The Canterbury Tales are in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter, some of them use different verse forms. The Prioress tells her story of a pure-hearted Christian boy in rime royal, which is a rhyming form in seven-line stanzas. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas is told in comic doggerel with a thumping, irregular rhythm.
Writing and Authorship ThemeTracker
Writing and Authorship Quotes in The Canterbury Tales
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages
And specially from every shires ende
OF Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they they were seeke.
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne
Entuned in hir nose ful seemly,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,
Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees,
Is likned to a fissh that is waterlees––
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster.
Nowher so bisy a man as he there nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.
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!”
The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the fair cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.
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.”
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me.
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.
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.
Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
And I wol telle verrayment
Of myrthe and of solas,
Al of a knight was fair and gent
In bataille and in tourneyment;
His name was sire Thopas.
For al so siker as in principio
Mulier est hominis confusio,––
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.”