The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales, a masterpiece of English Literature, written by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a collection, with frequent dramatic links, of 24 tales told to pass the time during a spring pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The General Prologue introduces the pilgrims, 29 "sondry folk" gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (outside of London). Chaucer decides to join them, taking some time to describe each pilgrim.

According to the Norton Anthology, "the composition of none of the tales can be accurately dated; most of them were written during the last fourteen years of Chaucer's life, although a few were probably written earlier and inserted into The Canterbury Tales" (Norton, 80).

One of the great characteristics of this story is the unique diversity of the characters illustrated by the author: "Chaucer's pilgrim narrators represent a wide spectrum of ranks and occupations. the great variety of tales is matched by the diversity of their tellers" (Norton, 79). Characters are well described so that they all together become an illustration of the culture, faith, and self definition that existed during the Middle Ages.

In the Knight, the reader is given the picture of a Middle English nobleman. He has fought in many wars, but is careful not to boast about his conquests. Clearly, the Knight is the most admired of the pilgrims, and not coincidentally, he tells his tale first.

The Squire is similar to the Knight in that he may one day become one, but he does not possess as many admirable qualities. Chaucer tells us that the Squire is an extremely vain individual, taking pains to improve his appearance.

The Yeoman is an assistant to Knight and Squire. We know very littl...

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The Manciple works at a law school, where he is in charge of feeding the prospective lawyers. He is not as smart as the students, yet he is a shrwed enough buyer to put away some money for himself.

The Reeve is a short-tempered, skinny man who manages an estate.

The Summoner is an ugly servant of the church court. Though he is paid to bring sinners to court, he quickly accepts bribes to look the other way. He enjoys women of "questionable reputation" and lots of wine, occasionally spouting off some Latin after indulging himself.

The most corrupt of the churchmen, the Pardoner sells pardons for sins to the highest bidder. Beardless with a high-pitched voice, he is referred to by Chaucer as "a gelding or a mare."


Abrams, MH, et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
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