Book Summary: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales is one of Chaucer’s great works of English literature. It is a masterful collection of chivalric romances, moral allegories, and low farce. 

As part of a storytelling competition among pilgrims from all walks of life, the Knight tells me about courtly love, the ebullient Wife of Bath tells me an Arthurian legend, and the Miller and the Cook recount ribald anecdotes. 

We gain unprecedented insight into the life and mind of medieval England through The Canterbury Tales, which are rich and diverse.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

Thirty pilgrims on a spiritual journey to Canterbury agree to tell tales to pass the time and to compete for a prize.

General Prologue

The narrator joins 29 pilgrims at the Tabard Inn sometime in the late 1300s, on the outskirts of London, for a trip to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. 

He describes each of them, as well as Harry Bailly, the innkeeper and Host. Bailly proposes a contest: whoever tells the most entertaining tale, with the best moral, will win a supper at the Tabard Inn. They all agree, and the next morning begin their journey. Here are the most well- known and important tales.

Knights Tale

From a prison tower in Athens, Palamon and Arcite see Emily in a garden, then argue bitterly over the right to love her. Arcite is later released and Palamon escapes. They meet in a grove and are fighting over Emily when Duke Theseus comes along, stops the deadly combat, and arranges a tournament to decide who will wed Emily. 

Arcite wins, but receives a mortal wound in a fall from his horse. On his deathbed, he reconciles with Palamon. Following a long period of mourning, Theseus awards Emily to Palamon.

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Miller’s Tale

Nicholas, a student at Oxford University, lusts after Alison, the young wife of an old carpenter named John, with whom he boards. Nicholas predicts a second Noah’s flood, persuading John to hang tubs from the roof as boats. 

When John falls asleep in his tub, Nicholas and Alison sneak into bed. Absolon, a parish clerk, taps at the window for a kiss from Alison, who tricks him into kissing her buttocks. 

When Absolon returns, seeking revenge, Nicholas offers his buttocks and Absolon strikes him with a hot poker. Nicholas cries for water and John thinks the flood has come, so he cuts the rope holding his tub and, in the fall, breaks his arm.

Wife of Bath’s Prologue

Dame Alice tells of her five marriages and how she dominated her husbands, the first three sexually, the fourth through jealousy, and the fifth after a fight. When in anger she threw part of her fifth husband’s antifeminist book into the fire, he struck her. Pretending to be dead, she suddenly struck back at him. They made up, and he gave her control over his home and land.

Wife of Bath’s Tale

For raping a maiden, a knight is condemned to death, unless within a year he can discover the one thing that women want most.

An old hag provides the answer in return for his promise to give her the first thing she asks for. Her answer that women want control in their marriages is correct, and she promptly asks the knight to marry her. 

Seeing his unhappiness, she offers to be either old, ugly, and faithful, or young, beautiful, and possibly unfaithful. He gives her the choice—and therefore the control—and she becomes young, beautiful, and faithful.

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Friar’s Tale

In his Prologue, the Friar says that a summoner is one who “runs around giving out summonses for fornication [sexual intercourse other than between husband and wife].” 

Then he tells his tale about a wicked summoner who falsely accuses people of sin and then demands money from them. One day, the summoner is on his way to cheat an old widow when he comes upon a yeoman (butler) who is actually a devil, dressed in human clothes, seeking souls. 

The two travel to the widow’s house and the summoner badgers her for money. When finally she curses him (“the Devil take your body”), the yeoman asks if she truly means what she says. Yes, she replies, unless the summoner will repent for his sins. The summoner refuses, so the devil carts him off to hell.

Summoner’s Tale

The begging of a greedy friar enrages a bedridden sick man named John, who offers the friar a gift if he promises to divide it evenly among the others of his convent. The friar agrees, so John invites him to see what is hidden behind his back. 

The friar gropes down under the covers, whereupon John “let the friar a fart.” The friar angrily reports the insult to a local lord, and a clever page solves the problem of how to divide the gift: John will “fart” into the center of a 12-spoked wheel, and the 12 members of the friar’s convent will place their noses at the ends of the hollow spokes.

Clerk’s Tale

The marquis Walter marries poor, virtuous Griselda on the condition that she never question anything he asks her to do. When she bears him a daughter and later a son, he pretends to have them taken away and killed.

Then he asks her to prepare for his wedding to a new bride, who will replace her. Griselda’s willing acceptance of his actions convinces him of her devotion and virtue. He restores the children to her and reaffirms his wedding vows, after which they live happily ever after.

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Merchant’s Tale

Lustful, 60-year-old January marries beautiful young May and builds an enclosed garden for their pleasure. Squire Damian and May fall in love and, after January goes blind, plan to meet in the garden. 

Stepping onto January’s back, May climbs into a pear tree with Damian. January’s sight is restored, and he looks up to see his wife and the squire in a sexual embrace. May explains that by struggling in the tree with a man, she has restored his sight, and he reluctantly believes this.

Franklin’s Tale

The French knight Arveragus marries his beloved Dorigen, then sails off to England to do battle. In his absence, the squire Aurelius confesses his love for her. Dorigen worries that her husband’s ship will crash on the rocks of France when he returns, so she tells Aurelius she will love him if he can make the rocks disappear. 

A magician creates the illusion that the rocks have vanished and Arveragus returns home safely. When he learns of her promise to Aurelius, Arveragus tells her she must honor it. Impressed by such faithfulness to a promise, Aurelius releases her, and is in turn released by the magician from the fee for his services.

Pardoner’s Prologue

Before preaching his sermons, the Pardoner always flaunts his letters and papal seal, drops a few Latin words for effect, displays his “relics” (sacred old bones, ragged bits of cloth) which he claims have healing powers, and tells people that “radix malorum est cupiditas” (greed is the root of all evil). 

He uses holiness as a disguise for his own greed and plots to make people buy his pardons by making them feel guilty if they don’t.

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Pardoner’s Tale

Hearing of a friend’s death, three young rioters decide to seek out Death and kill him. They meet and abuse an old man, who tells them he left Death under a tree nearby. There, they find eight bushels of gold coins, which they plan to divide. 

The youngest goes off for food and wine, but on his way back he poisons two of the bottles. When he returns, the others kill him, then drink the poisoned wine and die. The moral of the tale: the three rioters found Death.

Shipman’s Tale

A merchant’s wife complains to the monk John that her husband is stingy with money and no fun in bed. She owes 100 francs for a new dress, so John borrows money from the merchant, gives it to the wife, then has sex with her. 

When the merchant returns from a business trip, John says he repaid the debt to the wife. She tells her husband she thought it was a gift and spent it on a new dress. The merchant reluctantly accepts the loss of his money.

Prioress’s Tale

A seven-year-old Christian boy, devoted to the Virgin Mary, sings Alma Redemptoris on his way to and from school through a Jewish ghetto. The Jews hire a murderer to slit the boy’s throat, and when his widowed mother searches for him, she hears him still singing. 

The Virgin has placed a grain on his tongue, which enables this miracle. The Jews are tortured and killed. When an abbot removes the grain, the boy dies and is placed in a marble tomb. The spectators are assured that Mary has lifted his soul to heaven.

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Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Chanticleer the rooster sings beautifully. One night he dreams he will be threatened by a beast, but his wife, Pertelote, calls him a coward and claims his nightmare was caused by an upset stomach. 

After arguing, they fly into the yard, where a fox lies in wait. Initially frightened, Chanticleer falls prey to the flattering fox, who tells him that he wishes only to hear the rooster’s merry singing. When a proud Chanticleer bursts into song, the fox seizes him and runs toward the woods. 

Yet the wheel of fortune turns for Chanticleer, who advises the fox to shout at the people who are running behind them to save the rooster. When the fox opens his mouth to shout, Chanticleer quickly flies up into a tree. The fox tries again to trick and capture him, but Chanticleer will not be fooled twice.

Parson’s Tale

The “tale” is a long, sermonlike treatise on penitence (repentance), which requires contrition (genuine sorrow for sin), confession, and satisfaction (doing tasks ordered by a priest, such as saying prayers). The Parson lists the seven deadly sins and concludes with the reward of true penitence, which is “the endless bliss of heaven.”

Chaucer’s Retraction

In a closing statement, Chaucer asks that all those who have listened to his tale forgive him for his literary sins. He apologizes for offending anyone and requests prayers for his salvation.


1. Rich Characterization and Realistic Portrayal

Chaucer is known for his vivid and realistic portrayal of characters, which makes them relatable and engaging. Each of the 24 tales in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is narrated by a different pilgrim, allowing the reader to see the world through their eyes. The characters are diverse, from the noble Knight to the bawdy Miller, and each has their own unique voice and perspective. Through their stories, we see the complexities of human nature and gain insight into medieval life.

2. Masterful Use of Language and Poetry

Chaucer’s use of language and poetry is masterful, and his works are considered some of the earliest examples of Middle English literature. His verse is both elegant and accessible, and his use of humor and irony adds depth and dimension to his stories. Chaucer’s writing is also known for its realism, as he incorporates regional dialects and colloquialisms into his work, making it a window into the language and culture of medieval England.

3. Historical and Cultural Significance

Beyond its literary merits, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ has significant historical and cultural importance. It is a reflection of medieval life and culture, and provides insight into the social and economic structures of the time.

Moreover, Chaucer’s work influenced the development of the English language, as his use of vernacular English paved the way for future writers. Finally, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ has had a lasting impact on literature and storytelling, inspiring countless writers and artists over the centuries.


1. Challenging Language

While the Middle English language used in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is a unique and fascinating aspect of the work, it can also be a significant hurdle for readers. The language can be difficult to decipher at times, which may discourage some readers from fully engaging with the text. Besides, some of the jokes and puns in the text may not translate well into modern English, further complicating the reading experience.

2. Incomplete Work

Another con of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is that the work is unfinished. Chaucer originally planned for the book to contain 120 tales told by 30 pilgrims, but only 24 tales and a prologue were completed before his death. While the tales that are included are still enjoyable and offer valuable insights into medieval life, the incomplete nature of the work can be frustrating for readers who want a complete narrative.

3. Outdated Cultural Attitudes

Finally, it’s worth noting that ‘The Canterbury Tales’ contains attitudes and depictions that are outdated and even offensive by modern standards. For example, some of the tales include racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic content.

While it’s important to read and understand literature in its historical context, it’s also essential to be aware of these attitudes and consider them critically. Readers should be prepared to encounter these attitudes and be willing to grapple with them as they engage with the text.

The Canterbury Tales Review: Final Verdict

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a remarkable work of literature that takes you back to a time of religious and societal repression. Chaucer’s use of a frame narrative to address taboo subjects is both courageous and entertaining.

The stories he weaves are at times hilarious, and at other times deeply moving. Personally, I found The Miller’s Tale to be my favorite, but its bawdiness is not for the faint of heart.

Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone who loves the English language, and I highly recommend it.

About The Author

Geoffrey Chaucer, also known as the Father of English literature, lived from around 1343 to 1400. He is considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Chaucer was not just a poet, but also an author, philosopher, astronomer, bureaucrat, courtier, and diplomat. He wrote a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his young son and held an active career in civil service. Some of his notable works include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Canterbury Tales, which is his most famous work.

During Chaucer’s time, French and Latin were the dominant literary languages in England. However, he played a significant role in establishing the legitimacy of Middle English, the vernacular language.

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