The Canterbury Tales in a Nutshell

The backdrop to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett, one of the most popular pilgrim sites in the whole of Christendom until its destruction by Henry VIII. It consists of a General Prologue, in which Chaucer introduces the fictional characters who are travelling together on the pilgrimage, and a number of tales told by some of these characters. A very ambitious work, it was unfinished at the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400. Although, therefore, we have only fragments of a much bigger work, the fragments are themselves finished tales told by the various pilgrims. 

The General Prologue begins with an evocation of resurrected life. It is April, and sweet showers help to bring new life to every wood and field. This sets the scene for the resurrected spirit of people longing to go on pilgrimage. One such group of pilgrims meet by chance at an inn in London and decide to journey together to Canterbury, telling each other stories along the way. We are then introduced to the pilgrims themselves who are a motley group comprised mostly of reprobates who are evidently in need of the grace that a pilgrimage brings.

There is the Knight, a man of courage and martial prowess, who joins the pilgrimage as an act of thanksgiving, having returned from the wars; there is the Knight’s son, the Squire, who has the courage of his father in battle but is altogether a dandy in times of peace, wearing the most fashionable clothes and hairstyle and delighting in music and dance. There is the less-than-holy Prioress who is vain and fastidious, seeking the pleasures that opulence affords. Even worse than the Prioress is the worldly Monk, whose wealth makes a mockery of his vow of poverty and whose heretical theology makes a mockery of his orthodox pretensions.

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As if the Prioress and Monk were not cause enough for scandal, the Friar plumbs new depths of depravity, committing acts of fornication and adultery, getting maidens pregnant, and begging from the rich so that he can keep up his life of lechery and luxury. The roll call of reprobates continues: the shady Merchant, the pleasure-seeking Franklin, the avaricious Physician, the formidable and self-serving Wife of Bath, the utterly uncouth Miller, the dishonest Manciple, the corrupt and lecherous Summoner, and last and perhaps worst, the corrupt Pardoner who makes a living selling fake relics to the gullible faithful. 

In the midst of this iniquity, Chaucer kindles candles of sanctity to lighten our hearts and enlighten our way. There is the conscientious Clerk, or student, who prefers poverty and a life of learning over the comforts of the world. There is, especially and magnificently, the poor Parson, who exemplifies the calling of a good and holy priest, putting his hypocritical neighbors to shame with his life of simple service to the farthest flung members of his flock; and there is his brother, the Ploughman, who, living in peace and perfect charity, loving God above all, is the epitome of a truly holy layman. And so it is that Chaucer seasons his largely objectionable menagerie of miserable sinners with a couple of saints, one representing the clergy and the other the laity. 

If the General Prologue should be essential reading for every Catholic, or at least those lines which depict the holiness of the Parson and the Ploughman, most people will not have the leisure or the liberty to read all of the Tales that the pilgrims tell on their way to Canterbury. We will look at just one of the many that we might have selected, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” in the hope that it will serve to whet the reader’s appetite for more.

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a fable about a rooster called Chauntecleer and his favorite hen, whose name is Pertelote. As with the more famous fables of Aesop, this fable has a definite moral message. Chauntecleer has a nightmare in which he has the vision of a villainous fox, its tail and both ears tipped with black to give it diabolically symbolic features. There then follows a discourse by Pertelote on dreams, in which she dismisses them on essentially materialistic grounds as being meaningless, to which Chauntecleer responds with a lengthy riposte in which he cites biblical sources for the prophetic power to be gleaned from dream visions.

The Tale contains ironic references to the Fall of Adam, not least because the whole fable is essentially a retelling of the story of man’s fall. Chauntecleer can be seen to represent Adam, and his seven wives would appear to signify the seven deadly sins, with Pertelote, as the first and favorite of the seven, representing Pride. In the midst of the rambunctious humor with which the tale is replete, there is a deeply theological meditation on the relationship between predestination and the freedom of the will.

As the story unfolds, Chauntecleer, in the symbolic role of Adam, is tempted by a real-life diabolical fox who flatters the rooster, playing on his pride. Having trapped Chauntecleer in his jaws, the fox falls through the foolishness of his own pride, enabling Chauntecleer to escape and fly up into a tree, symbolic of the Cross of Christ. We see, therefore, in this one tale the whimsical and wistful melding of levitas and gravitas which characterizes Chaucer’s work. 

Before we leave our discussion of The Canterbury Tales, we should consider Chaucer’s English, which is called Middle English to distinguish it from the Old English in which the Beowulf poet writes and the modern English that comes after it. Whereas the Old English of Beowulf is very Germanic and very foreign to modern English speakers, the English of Chaucer is recognizable, at least with a modicum of effort. It is, however, more difficult to read than Shakespeare, who writes in Early Modern English, so many readers might find it very challenging. For this reason, an interlinear translation, which contains a modern translation side by side with the original text, will enable the reader to compare the Middle English original with the modern version. 

Readers should also be warned that some of Chaucer’s Tales are somewhat bawdy, if not exactly raunchy, “The Miller’s Tale” especially. Even though the overarching moral of these tales is profoundly Christian, some readers might be offended by the way in which some of them are told. As for Chaucer’s ultimate purpose and motive for writing The Canterbury Tales, it is evident in the tale told by the saintly Parson, which is a lengthy treatise on the nature of the seven deadly sins and of the importance of repentance. It seems to have been the first of the Tales to have been written and was positioned as the last to be told, signifying that the overarching theme of “The Parson’s Tale” reflects the overarching theme of the work as a whole.

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Detail of a miniature of Lydgate and pilgrims on the road to Canterbury (attributed to Gerard Horenbout)]


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