The Canterbury Tales The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the General Prologue, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a microcosm of 14th- century English society. The Host proposes a storytelling contest to pass the time; each of the 30 or so pilgrims (the exact number is unclear) is to tell four tales on the round trip. Chaucer completed less than a quarter of this plan. The work contains 22 verse tales (two unfinished) and two long prose tales; a few are thought to be pieces written earlier by Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, composed of more than 18,000 lines of poetry, is made up of separate blocks of one or more tales with links introducing and joining stories within a block.
The tales represent nearly every variety of medieval story at its best. The special genius of Chaucer’s work, however, lies in the dramatic interaction between the tales and the framing story. After the Knight’s courtly and philosophical romance about noble love, the Miller interrupts with a deliciously bawdy story of seduction aimed at the Reeve (an officer or steward of a manor); the Reeve takes revenge with a tale about the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter.
Thus, the tales develop the personalities, quarrels, and diverse opinions of their tellers. After the Knight’s tale, the Miller, who was so drunk that he could barely sit on his horse, began screaming,” I know a tale that can cap the Knight’s tale off!” “But first, said the Miller, “I admit that I am drunk; I know it by the my voice. And therefore if I speak as I shouldn’t, blame it on the beer, I beg you; for I will tell a life and legend of a Carpenter and his wife, and how a clerk manipulated them.” Here the Tale Begins In Oxford there was a rich peasant, who was a Carpenter, who took guests aboard. There was a poor scholar, who had studied liberal arts, but all his delight was turned to astrology. He knew how to work out certain problems; for instance, if men asked him at certain celestial hours when there should be a drought or rain he could answer them correctly. This clerk was named Nicholas. He had a chamber to himself in that lodging-house, without any company, and he was very sweet. The Carpenter had a newly wedded wife, who was eighteen years old, who he loved more than his own soul. He was jealous and he kept her close to him. The woman was fair skinned and her body was slim. She wore a stripped silken girdle. Her eyebrows were arched , black, and partly plucked to make them narrow. The womans singing was loud and lively. It so chanced that this gentle Nicholas fell in love with this young wife, while her husband was away, and suddenly he caught hold of her and said, “Unless you will love me, sweetheart, I will die.” And he held her tight around the waist. she jumped back and wiggled away. She replied,” I will not kiss you Nicholas! If you don’t let me go I will scream out Help!” But Nicholas began to beg and made offers to her that at last she granted him her love and swore by St. Thomas that she would leave the Carpenter when she had a chance. She told him how jealous he was. Then it fell on a holy day that this goodwife took her to the church to work on Christ’s own works. At the church there was a clerk named Absalom. He had curly hair, rosy cheeks, and his eyes were gray. Absalom, who was so pretty and fine, went on this holy day with a censor, trying to get the goodwives of the city. He then noticed the carpenter’s wife and he thought she was so neat and sweet. That night the moon was shining and Absalom went to the carpenter’s house and sang in the window. The carpenter woke up and asked the wife if she heard him singing and she told him yes. From day to day Absalom wooed her till he couldn’t anymore. She loved Nicholas though and all the wooing Absalom gave was wasted. She used Absalom. Then it fell that the carpenter was gone out of town, and Nicholas and Allison were together. They came up with a plan to leave trick the jealous husband. If the game went as planned they would be together. Nicholas went to his chamber and ate meat and drank for a day or two. He was staying there and if the husband was to ask his wife where Nicholas was she was to respond that she had no idea. After a couple of days the carpenter went to the chamber and asked Nicholas what was wrong. Nicholas asked him not to repeat a word of what he was fixing to say to anyone ever. The carpenter agreed. “Have you heard of Noah’s and his sons?” asked Nicholas. The carpenter said yes. Nicholas told him it was going to rain so much that it was going to wash away everything including people. The carpenter was upset when he heard that even his fair wife Allison was to be killed also. Then Nicholas told him to build three kneading- tubs and to hang them from the rafters high in the roof, where no man could see his device. The carpenter went and told his wife and began building the tubs and then he hung them from the beams. He went and sat in tub that night. Later Absalom came and told Allison that he loved her. She told him that she loved someone better. He left and then he came back. He knocked on her door and said he had a ring for her if Allison would kiss him. Nicholas heard this and pushed Absalom and Absalom hit him with a hot iron. It burned the skin off of Nicholas’ hand. He and Allison screamed for help. The carpenter heard the cry for water and thought it was the flood. He pulled the tub down. Allison and Nick started up the street and and was crying still. The neighbors young and old ran to stare upon the carpenter as he laid in the street with a broken arm. When the carpenter spoke , Allison and Nick told everyone that he was mad. Folks laughed at him. For whatever the carpenter said he was held as mad. Thus the carpenter lost his wife, for all his watching and jealousy; and Nicholas was sore burned. That was the tale. When folks laughed at this plot of Absalom and of gentle Nicholas it made Oswald the Reeve mad. Because the Reeve was a carpenter. The Reeve responded that the drunken Miller should have his neck broken. Chaucer greatly increased the prestige of English as a literary language and extended the range of its poetic vocabulary and meters. He was the first English poet to use iambic pentameter, the seven-line stanza called rhyme royal, and the couplet later called heroic. His system of versification, which depends on sounding many e’s in final syllables that are silent (or absent) in modern English, ceased to be understood by the 15th century. Nevertheless, Chaucer dominated the works of his 15th-century English followers and the so-called Scottish Chaucerians. For the Renaissance, he was the English Homer. Edmund Spenser paid tribute to him as his master; many of the plays of William Shakespeare show thorough assimilation of Chaucer’s comic spirit. John Dryden, who modernized several of the Canterbury tales, called Chaucer the father of English poetry. Since the founding of the Chaucer Society in England in 1868, which led to the first reliable editions of his works, Chaucer’s reputation has been securely established as the English poet best loved after Shakespeare for his wisdom, humor, and humanity.