Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales Summary

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s masterpiece The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories. The tales are mainly written as poems, though some are also in prose. In this collectionA group of religious pilgrims travel from London to the Canterbury Cathedral in Kent. The pilgrims tell various tales as part of a story-telling contest. The contest acts as a narrative frame for The Canterbury Tales.

Through his set of diverse narrators, Chaucer shows off his talents by writing in many different literary styles and genres including comic animal fables, literary satires, courtly romances, moral allegories and even erotic farces.

Religious pilgrims from all walks of life, including author Geoffrey Chaucer himself, gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. They are journeying to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent. The pilgrims are preparing to visit the Shrine of Thomas Becket, an English martyr. Becket, also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, was murdered by followers of King Henry II in the cathedral in 1170.

The Host of the inn proposes that all members of the group tell stories as an amusing way to pass the time while they journey to Canterbury and back. The Host will award the winner of the best story with a fancy dinner at the end of their voyage. Serving as the judge of the contest, the Host joins the travelers on their pilgrimage. They draw straws to determine who will tell the first story.

The Knight, who is the most socially prominent of the pilgrims, begins with a story of courtly love and honor. Two imprisoned knights from Thebes view the beautiful Emelye from their prison cell and fall in love. She is the sister-in-law of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, who put the knights in prison. The knights battle to the death to prove their love and win Emelye as a  prize.

The Miller weaves a ribald tale about a carpenter, his wife, and a student. The student tricks the carpenter so he can spend the night with the carpenter’s wife. Everyone roars with laughter at the tale, which involves lewd images such buttocks stuck out of windows being kissed or being marked with a branding iron. The only one not to find the tale funny is the Reeve, who once worked as a carpenter.

As revenge, the Reeve tells a story about a cheating miller who steals some of the flour he grinds for two students. The miller  distracts the students by untying their horse, who then escape. The students eventually catch the horse, but spend the night at the miller’s home because it is too late and dark to return home. One of the students seduces the miller’s wife and the other his daughter. The students also manage to leave with their stolen goods.

The Cook offers to tell another funny tale but breaks off shortly after he begins.

The Man of Law, who is a lawyer and a high justice of the court, is one of the most refined and well educated of the pilgrims. He tells a story about the beautiful Constance, daughter of a Roman emperor. Constance is married off to a Sultan in Syria and endures tragedies such as a shipwreck and a would-be rapist. Several miracles prove her Christian faith.

The Shipman tells the comic story of a penny-pinching merchant, a greedy wife and her lover, and a clever monk.

The Wife of Bath, who has been married five times, shares a long account of her feelings about marriage. She believes that only when a wife wields supreme power over her husband can a marriage be happy.

To lighten the mood, the Friar shares a humorous tale of a lecherous summoner. The Summoner, who did not object to the tale before it was told, becomes angry and tells a vulgar tale about a friar in revenge.

Next, the reader hears a more cheerful story from The Clerk. The story he tells is one by Petrarch, an Italian poet. It is a happily ever after marriage tale about a hardworking peasant woman named Griselde.

In contrast, the Merchant tells a story about the evils of marriage. The Franklin returns with a story of a happy marriage.

Next, the reader hears a tragic tale about a father and daughter told by the Physician. The Pardoner is able to tell a moral tale even though he is a man who cheats people out of their money. Next, the Prioress tells a story about a martyr.

Chaucer himself tells two tales next: one of Sir Topas in rhyme and then the story of Melibee.

Further tales are told by the Monk, the Knight, Nun’s Priest, Second Nun, Canon’s Yeoman, the Manciple and the Parson.

The Canterbury Tales end with a retraction by Chaucer listing all the books wrote in the past that he now revokes. He tells readers that anything of his works they find distasteful or unrefined is due to his own ignorance and lack of ability.  He ends by asking everyone to pray for him. Chaucer wrote the 17,000 lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Chaucer helped to popularize writing in the language and dialect that was spoken by ordinary people in England at the time. The tales offer a critical portrait of 14th century English society, especially the socially dominant Church. The tales also give us insights into the customs and practices of a very turbulent time in English history. Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived from 1343 until 1400, is considered one of the three greatest poets in the English language along with Shakespeare and Milton. He is also considered the grandfather of English literature. His work, The Canterbury Tales, is one of the most widely read works in the canon of Western literature.