The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Summary
The action begins at a tavern just outside of London, circa 1390, where a group of pilgrims have gathered in preparation for their journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The narrator, Chaucer, encounters them there and becomes one of their company. Chaucer describes all of the pilgrims in delightful, and often grotesque, detail.
The pilgrims go to dinner, during which the owner of the tavern, or Host, makes a proposal to the group: on the way to Canterbury, says the Host, each pilgrim will tell two tales, followed by two on the way back. The Host will accompany the group and serve as a judge of their tales. The pilgrim who tells the best tale wins a free dinner at the tavern at the journey's end. Should anyone question the Host's judgment, moreover, he has to foot the bill for the entire pilgrimage. The pilgrims, eager to have fun on their journey, quickly agree to the Host's proposal and swear oaths to abide by the rules of the game. After a bit of shut-eye, they ride out of Canterbury the next morning and the tale-telling begins.
Almost immediately, a pilgrim challenges the Host's authority. After the first tale, the Host asks the Monk to tell a tale, but the drunken Miller interrupts him and announces that he will speak next or leave the company. It's certainly not the last time the Host's orderly vision for the game is challenged: drunken pilgrims, mysterious strangers, and, most importantly, the conflicts between some of the members of the company threaten to derail the game at many points in the course of the journey.
The pilgrims tell lots of different kinds of tales on their journey: comedies and tragedies, romances and dirty stories, and sermons and saints' lives, to name a few. Some pilgrims tell stories where a character with another pilgrim's occupation is humiliated in the course of the tale, which leads to trouble. The Miller, for example, tells a tale about a carpenter whose wife not only commits adultery with a clerk, but humiliates him in front of the whole town. The real carpenter among the pilgrims takes this very personally, and proceeds to tell a tale where a miller suffers humiliation at the hands of some students. A similar rivalry occurs between the Friar and the Summoner. All the while, the Host alternates between trying to make peace between the pilgrims and creating more conflict with his gentle and not-so-gentle teasing of members of the party.
The Canterbury Tales end after only 24 tales, a far cry short of the planned 120. We never get to see the pilgrims reach Canterbury, nor do we learn who wins the competition. It's likely that Chaucer ran out of time or energy. He may have planned to revise the beginning of the frame story so that the 24 tales would seem complete. In any case, The Canterbury Tales as we know them end with the Parson's sermon on sin and repentance, followed by Chaucer's retraction.
- The General Prologue begins with a description of how April's showers cause flowers to bloom, crops to grow, birds to sing, and people to want to make pilgrimages – journeys to holy places. In England, people especially like to go to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of a holy saint who healed them when they were sick.
- The narrator tells how, in that season, he is at a tavern in Southwark getting ready to make his pilgrimage to Canterbury. There, he meets a large group of pilgrims, also going to Canterbury. Soon, he has spoken with each of them and has become a member of their group, or 'felaweshipe.'
- The narrator describes the appearance and behavior of all of the pilgrims in great detail. (For a detailed description of each of the character's portraits, see the 'Characters' section.)
- The narrator concludes his description of the pilgrims with his promise to describe what happens to them that evening and on their pilgrimage. He asks the reader's forgiveness if he gives offense, claiming as his excuse his obligation to repeat the pilgrim's words and deeds exactly, even if they are rude.
- The host serves dinner.
- The narrator describes the host. (For a detailed description of the Host's portrait, see the "Characters" section.)
- The Host praises the group of pilgrims as being the most merry he's seen in a long time. He expresses his desire to "do them mirth," or make them happy. He tells the pilgrims that, if they agree to do as he says, they will have lots of fun on their way to Canterbury.
- The pilgrims confer amongst themselves and quickly agree to do as the host says.
- The host proposes that each pilgrim tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. Whoever tells the best tale as judged by the Host wins a free dinner when they arrive back at his tavern. Whoever expresses disagreement with the Host's judgment has to pay for the entire cost of the pilgrimage.
- The pilgrims swear oaths to abide by the rules of the game, and to submit to the authority of the Host.
- The pilgrims go to bed.
- In the morning, the Host wakes the pilgrims and they start down the road.
- At the watering hole of Saint Thomas, the Host reminds the pilgrims of their agreement and proposes that they draw straws to decide who goes first.
- The Knight draws the shortest straw, and so begins the tale-telling contest.
The Miller's Prologue
- After the Knight's tale has concluded, the narrator describes the very favorable reaction of the pilgrims to the tale.
- The Host announces that, now, the game has truly begun. He asks the Monk to tell the next tale.
- The Miller, who is drunk, yells out that he knows a noble tale with which he will "quite," or top, the Knight's tale.
- The Host tells the Miller that another pilgrim will tell a tale first.
- The Miller says that he will tell his tale, or else leave the fellowship.
- The Host grudgingly agrees to let the Miller tell his tale first.
- The Miller announces that he is drunk, and asks the other pilgrims to forgive him if he misspeaks, for it is really the fault of the ale of Southwark.
- The Miller announces his intention to tell a story about a carpenter and his wife, and how a clerk makes a fool of the carpenter.
- The Reeve (a.k.a. carpenter) tells the Miller to shut up, and that it's a sin to insult another, and to speak ill of wives.
- The Miller tells the Reeve that the only people who don't get "cuckolded" (cheated on) are those who don't have wives. However, he says, surely the Reeve is not a cuckold, for there are also many good wives.
- The Miller says that he has a wife, but he's certainly not naïve enough to believe that she hasn't cheated on him. Furthermore, a husband shouldn't inquire too deeply into the affairs of God, or of his wife.
- The narrator breaks in again to tell how the Miller won't stop talking and tells a very "churlish" – or "low-born fellow's" tale. He tells his audience not to blame him if they are offended, for it is his duty simply to "reherce," or repeat, everything exactly as it happened. If the readers don't want to hear a churlish tale, they can turn the page and find many other more "noble" stories, as well as moral and holy tales. And furthermore, says the narrator, people should not "maken ernest of game," or take too seriously what is meant to be all in fun.
The Reeve's Prologue
- The narrator describes the hilarity that ensues after the Miller's tale, with the whole company laughing and playing, except for the Reeve. The Reeve is offended because he is a carpenter and takes the Miller's tale as a personal insult.
- The Reeve declares that he can "quite," or top, the Miller's tale with a story about how a miller gets tricked, were it not for the fact that he is too old to engage in the kind of sexual joking he has in mind for his tale.
- The Reeve elaborates upon how old he is, using various metaphors to describe old age. He describes himself as a horse that is confined to the stable, and a rotten fruit.
- The problem with being old, says the Reeve, is that like a green onion, you have a white head (i.e., an old, feeble body) but a green tail (you're horny all the time). Though your body's not up to it, you constantly want sex.
- The four powers of the elderly, says the Reeve, are boasting, lying, anger, and covetousness.
- As soon as he was born, says the Reeve, "death drew the tap of life and let it run" – i.e., his time began to run out. Like beer in a barrel, the Reeve's life is now at the bottom – almost over.
- All that is left to the elderly, according to the Reeve, is to talk about the wretched things that happened before. All they have to look forward to now is old age.
- The Host interrupts the Reeve to complain that the Reeve is preaching, which is not the proper activity for a Reeve. He remarks that much time has passed, and that it's time for the Reeve to begin his tale.
- The Reeve asks the other pilgrims to forgive him if he offends them, but he's got to answer the Miller's tale with a similar kind of tale.
- The Reeve expresses his belief that the Miller told his tale about a foolish carpenter out of scorn for him, the Reeve. Now the Reeve promises to "top" him in his own, churlish, or low-born, terms.
The Cook's Prologue
- The Cook enjoys the Reeve's tale so much that he feels as good as if the Reeve was scratching his back.
- The Cook draws a moral from the Reeve's tale, based upon a Proverb from the Bible: not to bring strangers into one's home, for lodging people at night is dangerous.
- The Cook declares he has never heard of a miller better tricked than the one in the Reeve's tale.
- The Cook announces his intention to tell a tale about a funny thing that happened in his city.
- The Host agrees to this, but cautions him to make sure his tale is good.
- The Host accuses the Cook of various dishonest cooking practices, including draining gravy from his meat pies to make them last longer, selling old meat pies, giving pilgrims food poisoning, and keeping an unclean kitchen.
- The Host concludes his jabs at the Cook by claiming he's just joking and asking the Cook not to be angry.
- The Cook declares that the Host speaks the truth, and therefore his joke is not a good one. Therefore, he promises he will tell a tale about a Host before the pilgrimage is over, although not right now.
Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale
- The Host concludes from the position of the sun and the length of the shadows on the ground that it is ten o'clock in the morning. Worried that the pilgrims are losing time which, as he says, quoting from the ancient Greek philosopher Seneca, can never be regained, he urges the pilgrims not to remain idle, but to continue their game.
- The Host asks the Man of Law to tell a tale.
- The Man of Law says that although he has no wish to break with the rules of the game, he knows no suitable tale that Chaucer (the narrator) has not already told.
- The Man of Law lists Chaucer's works, saying that if he hasn't told a tale in one work, he's certainly told it in another. He's told more tales of lovers than Ovid, such as the tale of Ceyx and Alcion. He's written the Legends of Good Women, where one can read about many famous women abandoned by their lovers.
- The Man of Law concludes that, although Chaucer has written many tales about women, he's certainly never written about a woman named Canacee, who loved her own brother, nor of Appollonius of Tyre, who raped his own daughter. These stories are horrible, says the Man of Law, and he has no intention to tell stories like that.
- The Man of Law decides to get around the problem of being compared to Chaucer by telling his tale in prose, and leaving the verses to Chaucer. He then proceeds to tell a tale in verse.
Epilogue to the Man of Law's Tale
- The Host declares the Man of Law's Tale worthwhile.
- He asks the Parish Priest (a.k.a. Parson) to tell a tale, but concludes his request by swearing on God's dignity.
- The Parson takes offense at the Host's sinful swearing, and asks what ails the Host.
- The Host calls the Parson "Jankin" (an insulting name for a priest) and accuses him of being a Lollard (someone associated with extreme rigidity in religious practices). The Host tells the rest of the company that a Lollard's going to preach to them.
- The Shipman objects. He does not want the Parson to preach and make difficulty for people who already believe in God.
- The Shipman says he will tell a tale that is not about philosophy or anything boring.
Wife of Bath's Prologue
- At this point, the Wife of Bath delivers a long, proto-feminist (or anti-feminist, depending on your point of view) diatribe. (For more about this, see Shmoop's guides to the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and the "Wife of Bath's Tale.")
The Friar's Prologue
- The narrator tells us that the Friar always glares at the Summoner.
- The Friar praises the Wife of Bath for speaking about matters that are debated in the Universities, but says that the pilgrims only need to speak about fun things, "game," and leave the preaching to the authorities.
- The Friar promises to tell a tale about a summoner.
- The Friar describes a summoner as someone who runs around calling people before the court for fornication (sex outside of marriage) and gets beaten at the end of every town.
- The Host rebukes the Friar, saying that a man of his "estate," or social class, should be polite and courteous, and that, in the fellowship of pilgrims, there should be no debate. Therefore the Friar should just tell his tale, and leave the Summoner alone.
- The Summoner tells the Host to let the Friar say whatever he wants, for when it's his turn to speak, he will top the Friar. Speaking sarcastically, the Summoner says he will tell what a great honor it is to be a Friar, and many other such crimes.
- The Host cries for peace, and asks the Friar to tell his tale.
The Summoner's Prologue
- The Summoner is so angered by the Friar's tale that he stands up in his stirrups shaking like an aspen leaf.
- He tells the company he desires only one thing: to be allowed to tale his tale.
- The Summoner says that the Friar boasts he knows hell and that is no wonder: friars and devils are never apart.
- The Summoner tells a story-within-a-story about a friar:
- The story begins with a friar who dreams that an angel guides him through hell.
- This friar is surprised that in his tour of hell, he sees no friars, and asks the angel whether friars have so much grace that they don't go to hell.
- The angel replies that there are millions of friars in hell, and leads the friar to Satan.
- The angel asks Satan to lift his huge tail, and there, in his anus, swarm friars like bees in a hive, coming and going, nestling in Satan's "ers."
- The friar wakes from his vision, but after that he quakes for fear, always having Satan's "ers" in his mind.
- The Summoner ends his story about the friar by saying that this is the heritage of Friars.
- The Summoner declares this the end of his prologue, and begins his tale.
The Clerk's Prologue
- The Host remarks to the Clerk that he's been awfully quiet on this journey, so much so that the Host suspects he's studying, when now is really not the time.
- The Host tells the Clerk to be more cheerful, and tell them a merry tale (and not a sermon), something about adventures. The Clerk should not speak in scholarly language, but in plain terms the whole company can understand.
- The Clerk answers that he respects the Host's authority, and will certainly obey him by telling a tale that he learned from a clerk in Padua called Francis Petrarch.
- The Clerk says that Petrarch wrote great poetry that illuminated Italy, but that death took him, as it does everyone.
- The Clerk says that Petrarch wrote a prologue to his tale in which he described its setting. The Clerk, however, thinks this prologue unnecessary, and so launches right into his tale.
The Merchant's Prologue
- The Merchant says that everyone who has a wife, including him, endures much weeping, wailing, and sorrow.
- The Merchant describes his wife as a shrew, a woman who could outmatch Satan if she were married to him. The Clerk's story about a patient wife named Grisilde has made him think about the huge difference between Grisilde and his own wife.
- If he could do it again, says the Merchant, he would never get married, for married men have great sorrow and trouble, as all wedded men know.
- The Merchant tells the Host that he has been married for only two months.
- The Merchant says that, even if a wifeless man was stabbed, he could never tell as sad a story as the Merchant can about how awful his wife is.
- The Host tells the Merchant to put his money where his mouth is and tell the story already, since he clearly knows so much about it.
- The Merchant says he will gladly tell his story, but it's not about his own sorrow in marriage.
The Merchant's Epilogue
- The Host deplores the wife from the Merchant's story, and asks God to keep him away from such a wife.
- The Host says that women are always lying and trying to deceive men, as the Merchant's tale proves.
- The Host tells the company that he has a wife, although a poor one, and one who is a blabbermouth shrew with many vices.
- The Host expresses his unhappiness at being married to her, she has so many vices.
- However, he says he will not enumerate all her vices because he is afraid someone in the company will tell her, since women are so good at discovering such things. Also, he fears his wit is not sufficient to do so.
The Squire's Introduction
- The Host asks the Squire to tell a tale about love, for certainly the Squire knows as much about love as any man.
- The Squire replies that he does not know much about love, but he will tell a tale because he does not wish to rebel against the Host's authority.
The Franklin's Interruption
- The Franklin interrupts the Squire's tale, saying that he has spoken very well considering his youth. In fact, he thinks that no one in the company could match the Squire in eloquence.
- The Franklin expresses his wish that his own son be as great a man as the Squire. Instead, his son gambles and spends all his money, and would rather talk with servants than gentlemen from whom he could learn proper behavior.
- The Host interrupts this exchange to remind the Franklin that everyone must tell a tale.
- The Franklin asks the Host to excuse him for speaking a few words to the Squire, and announces his intention to tell a tale he hopes will be good enough for the Host.
The Pardoner's Introduction
- The Host, very much moved by the injustice described in the Physician's tale, draws a moral from it: that the gifts of Fortune and Nature cause many creatures to die, and often do more harm than good.
- The Host tells the Physician his tale is very sad, and asks God's blessing upon the Physician and all his instruments.
- The Host says that, unless he gets a piece of cake or some beer, or hears a merry tale, his heart will break for sadness.
- The Host asks the Pardoner to tell a tale of happiness or jokes.
- The Pardoner agrees, but says that first he will stop at a tavern by the roadside to eat cake and drink beer.
- The nobles in the company, afraid that the Pardoner's ingestion of alcohol will cause him to tell an R-rated tale, object and ask the Pardoner to speak about virtue and not sex.
- The Pardoner agrees, but says he must consider such a tale while he drinks.
The Words of the Host to the Shipman and Prioress
- The Host, excited by the Shipman's tale, calls down a curse upon a monk who was one of the characters in the tale. He warns the fellowship to beware of such men.
- The Host very courteously asks the Prioress to tell a tale, and she replies that she will do it gladly.
Prologue to Sir Thopas
- The Host makes fun of Chaucer for staring at the ground all the time, and for being fat. He calls him a "little doll" that any woman would gladly embrace. He says that Chaucer seems mysterious because he barely talks to anyone in the company.
- The Host asks Chaucer to tell a merry tale.
- Chaucer replies that he knows no other tale but a rhyme that he learned long ago.
- The Host says that's just fine, and that he thinks the tale will be good, judging by the look on Chaucer's face.
Prologue to the Tale of Melibee
- The Host interrupts Chaucer's tale, saying he's weary of Chaucer's horrible rhymes and worthless speech.
- Chaucer asks why the Host won't let him tell his tale along with the other pilgrims.
- The Host replies that it's because Chaucer's rhyming is worthless and a waste of time, and asks him to tell a tale in prose instead of verse.
- Chaucer replies that he will gladly tell a virtuous tale of morality in prose.
- Chaucer asks the company to give him the benefit of the doubt if he does not tell the tale exactly as they have heard it. He uses the example of the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – to show how authors often differ in their telling of a story although their meaning is the same. He asks the company not to interrupt his tale.
Prologue to the Monk's Tale
- The Host expresses a wish that his wife could have heard Chaucer's tale of Melibee. His wife is not as patient as Prudence, the wife of Melibee: in fact, when the Host beats his servants, his wife brings the clubs and eggs him on. Also, if any of his friends fail to acknowledge his wife in church, she yells at him and accuses him of being browbeaten by his friends.
- The Host fears that his wife will some day force him to kill a neighbor, for he is dangerous with a knife and dares not stand up to his wife.
- Changing the subject, the Host asks the Monk to tell a tale.
- The Host praises the Monk's fair and brawny appearance, saying that he looks more like a lay man or master of his domain than a pale, poor monk. In fact, says the Host, it was a foolish person that dedicated the Monk to religion, for had the Monk the opportunity to have sex, he would produce many children.
- The Host says that if he were a pope, every manly man would have a wife, even if he were a monk or a priest. Religion, says the Host, has caused the children of the world to be puny and weak, because so many weak laymen are procreating while manly men like the Monk remain celibate.
- Religion also causes wives to commit adultery with churchmen, because so many churchmen are better at sex than laymen.
- The Host asks the monk not to be angry with him; he's only joking.
- The Monk says he will tell some tragedies.
- The Monk defines a tragedy as a story about someone who falls from a prosperity into misery and makes a wretched end.
- The Monk announces his intention to tell the tragedies as they come into his mind, and not in chronological order.
Prologue to the Nun's Priest's Tale
- The Knight tells the Monk to stop, for his stories are too depressing. It is very distressing for people to hear stories about men who fall from prosperity into misery. The Knight thinks it's better to tell stories about people who move in the opposite direction.
- The Host agrees, saying that the Monk's tale annoys everyone because it is just no fun, and almost made him fall asleep. He asks the Monk to tell a different tale, perhaps something about hunting.
- The Monk says he doesn't feel like playing anymore, and that someone else should tell a tale now.
- The Host asks the Nun's Priest to tell a tale – who cares if the Nun's Priest's horse is frail and lean? Surely the Nun's Priest can still be merry.
- The Nun's Priest agrees, announces his intention to be merry or be blamed for it, and begins his tale.
Epilogue to the Nun's Priest's Tale
- The Host is delighted by the Nun's Priest's tale about a rooster. If the Nun's Priest were a layman, says the Host, he would certainly be a copulator of many hens.
- The Host draws the company's attention to the Nun's Priest's ripped body, and wishes the Nun's Priest well because of his good tale.
The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue
- About five miles from Canterbury, a mysterious figure in black clothes begins to approach the group of pilgrims. (For a more detailed look at the Canon's portrait, see the 'Characters' section.)
- When the man reaches the company, he says he has ridden very quickly to catch up with them, for he wants to ride with such a merry group.
- The man's yeoman, or apprentice, is also very courteous. He tells the group that he saw them ride out of their inn that morning and urged the Canon to try and catch up with them.
- The Host says that indeed, the Canon is wise to catch up with them, and can he tell a merry tale?
- The Yeoman replies that not only is the Canon capable of telling a tale, but he can work such wonders that, if the company knew about them, they would never want to forgo his acquaintance.
- The Host's curiosity piqued, he asks the Yeoman if his master is a clerk.
- The Yeoman replies that his master is not a clerk, but a man capable of transforming the whole road to Canterbury into silver and gold.
- The Host declares this marvelous, but inquires why the Canon and the Yeoman are wearing such poor, worn-out clothing if his master is truly capable of transforming the road into silver and gold.
- The Yeoman replies that the Canon is too wise, and "overdoes" whatever it is he's doing (this part is ambiguous) and therefore never quite succeeds at what he sets out to do.
- The Host asks where the Canon and Yeoman live, and the Yeoman replies that they live in the same dark alleys and hiding places as thieves and robbers.
- The Host asks why the Yeoman's face is so discolored, and the Yeoman replies it is because he spends so much time hovering over the fire trying to change things into gold.
- The Yeoman says that he and his colleagues are able to convince people to loan them money on the promise of multiplying it, but never achieve this, although they wish to: he fears they will end up as beggars because of their obsession.
- The Canon overtakes the Host and Yeoman, and becomes angry that the Yeoman is divulging their secrets and slandering him to the company.
- The Host tells the Yeoman to keep talking, and not to listen to the Canon's threats.
- When the Canon sees the Yeoman won't stop talking, he rides away.
- The Yeoman is glad about this; now, he tells the pilgrims, he can tell them all he knows.
The Manciple's Prologue
- When the pilgrims reach Bob-Up-and-Down, the Host points out that the Cook is drunk and about to fall off his horse, and tells the Cook to come forward and tell a tale in punishment for sleeping on the way. He asks the Cook if he is asleep, or drunk, or tired from having sex all night.
- The Cook replies that he is so sleepy that he really just wants to go to bed.
- The Manciple asks the Host to allow him to tell a tale instead, for he fears that the Cook is too drunk to do well. He describes the Cook's drunken appearance in great detail, saying that he looks dazed, his breath stinks, he yawns, and his horrible breath is infecting everyone. He tells the Cook he is really, really drunk.
- The Cook takes offense at this and leans forward as if to hit the Manciple, but instead falls off his horse.
- The pilgrims help put him back in his saddle.
- The Host tells the Manciple that he, too, fears the Cook will tell his tale badly, and that the Cook has enough to do just to stay in his saddle. The Host fears that if the Cook falls again, no one will be able to put him back up because he is so heavy.
- The Host also tells the Manciple that it is not right for him to tease the Cook in front of all the other pilgrims. The Manciple should beware, for, on another day, the Cook might get back at him by chiding him for dishonesty in his business practices.
- The Manciple says he would rather not fight with the Cook. To make amends, he gives the Cook some of his good wine, which the Cook promptly drinks.
- The Host laughs and says that the company should always carry wine with them, for it truly turns conflict into peace. He praises Bacchus, god of wine.
- He asks the Manciple to tell his tale, and the Manciple begins.
The Parson's Prologue
- The narrator remarks upon how the sun has almost set and it is now four o'clock.
- The Host says that the game is almost at an end: everyone has told his tale except for the Parson.
- The Host asks the Parson not to end the game, but to tell a tale, and specifically, a fable.
- The Parson replies that he will not tell a fable, for Saint Paul, in his letter to Timothy, reproved those that told fables. Instead, the Parson proposes something more virtuous.
- The Parson says he will try to please the company, but as he is not from the North where much alliterative poetry is written, he can only speak in prose and not in verse.
- He says that he submits his tale for the company's correction, and specifically that of educated people, for he himself is not educated.
- The company assents to this and asks the Host to tell the Parson to begin.
- The Host does so, but warns the Parson to be hasty, for the sun has almost set.
- Chaucer asks his readers to thank Christ if there was anything in his book that they liked, because all good things proceed from him.
- He also asks them to forgive him if there was anything that displeased them, for this was the fault of his "unkonnyng," or lack of skill. His intentions were good.
- Chaucer says his true intent was to instruct people for their betterment.
- He asks his readers to pray for forgiveness for him for anything that he wrote that did not meet this goal: all of his works except for his translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, saints' lives, and homilies.
- He thanks Jesus and Mary for these holy works and asks that they send him the grace of penitence, confession, and penance for his sins, so that he can go to Heaven.