Gold THE GEOFFREY CHAUCER PAGE


A Summary of the Framing Narrative of The Canterbury Tales

FRAGMENT I

General Prologue: On April 17th toward the end of the fourteenth century nine and twenty pilgrims gather in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just across the river from London, at the beginning of the road to Canterbury. Geoffrey Chaucer talks to each one and joins their company for a pilgrimage to Canterbury to seek "the blissful martyr," Thomas à Becket. Harry Bailey, the host of the Tabard, decides to join them and act as their leader; each pilgrim will tell four stories -- two each on the way there, two each on the way back (one hundred and twenty -- a "great hundred" -- stories). The pilgrim who tells the best tale -- with the "best sentence and most solaas" will have a dinner at the others' cost when the company returns to the Tabard. The pilgrims agree and the next morning they set out, stopping at the Watering of St. Thomas, just out of town, where they reconfirm their decision and, at Harry's direction, draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. Strangely, the lot fell to the knight and he tells the first story.

The Miller's Prologue: Everyone, but especially the gentils, praised the Knight's Tale, and Harry turns to the next highest ranking pilgrim, the Monk, and asks him for something to repay (quit) the noble knight for his tale. However, the Miller is drunk, he breaks in -- he cares nothing for courtesy -- and insists he tell a tale to "quit" the Knight, a tale about a carpenter and his wife. Oswald the Reeve breaks in to protest this drunken harlotry, but the Miller has threatened to leave if he cannot tell the next tale and Harry Bailey gives up. Chaucer the narrator apologizes for what he must now report -- be he has no choice, one must not falsify anything. He advises the reader who may object to such matters to turn over the leaf and choose another tale.

The Reeve's Prologue: The whole company laughs at the Miller's Tale -- except for the Reeve - - because he has worked as a carpenter, like the cuckolded old John in The Miller's Tale. Old age, he says, has taken away his zest for amusement, and he describes at length the miseries of old age until Harry Bailey must break in and object to the pious subject -- "The devil made a preacher of a reeve" -- and Oswald announces he will tell a tale in the Miller's own churlish terms. He does so, and announcers at the end of his tale, " So have I quit the Miller in my tale."

The Cook's Prologue: The Cook -- Roger (Hogge) of Ware -- is delighted by the Reeve's Tale. He volunteers to tell the next tale, and Harry Bailey agrees -- though he attacks Roger for the filth of his fly-infested shop. The Cook says he will get even by telling a tale of a hosteller that will "quit" the host, but now he tells the tale of a dishonest London apprentice.

FRAGMENT II

The Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale: The Host sees that sun has run a quarter of its course and by a complicated calculation demonstrates that it is ten o'clock in the morning on April 18, and he warns the company that lost time can never be recovered. He asks the Man of Law to tell the next Tale. The Man of Law says that Chaucer has told all the best tales -- tales of noble women, whom he lists (almost all are in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women). But Chaucer, the Man of Law says, will not tell stories of incest, the tale of Canacee and Apollonius of Tyre (both of which appear in John Gower's Confessio amantis). And he tells the Tale of Custance (which is also in Gower's Confessio). The Prologe of the Mannes Tale of Lawe is a literary prologue having little to do with narrative frame-work (its relevance to the tale itself is not very clear).

The Epilogue of the Man of Law's Tale: The Host is delighted by the Man of Law's Tale and turns next to the Parson, cursing ("for goddes bones") as he does so. The Parson objects to such sinful cursing, and the Host replies, "I smell a Lollard (an heretic) in the wind." This Lollard here, he says, will tell us a tale. No, shouts the Shipman, we will have no preaching here. I'll tell the next tale, The Shipman says, and it will not be learned in any way; "There is but little Latin in my maw." [There is reason to believe that this Epilogue was cancelled; on this and problems about the "Shipman" as speaker, see the notes in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 862-63.]

FRAGMENT III

The Wife of Bath's Prologue: For a full summary see The Wife of Bath's Page. Note the exchange between the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner (III.163-87), who claims he is thinking of getting married; she warns him to wait until he has heard more. Note also The Words between the Summoner and the Friar (III.829-56): the Friar laughs at the Wife's Prologue, which he says was a "long preamble of a tale," whereupon the Summoner attacks him and friars in general, saying that he will tell two or three tales about friars "er I come to Sidyngborne." The Host restores order and the Wife -- "If I have license of this worthy Frere" -- begins her tale.

The Friar's Prologue: The Friar has been glowering at the Summoner all through the Wife of Bath's Tale, but he praises her, condescendingly, and announces he will tell a tale about a summoner. The Host settles the resulting squabble, and the Friar begins his tale.

The Summoner's Prologue: The Summoner is so angry at the Friar that he shakes like a leaf, and he tells an indecent anecdote about dwelling place of the friars in Hell. God save all, the Summoner says, except this accursed Friar, and he begins his tale.

FRAGMENT IV

The Clerk's Prologue: The Host turns to the sober Clerk and tells him to cheer up and tell us a merry tale. No preaching, the Host specifies, and no elaborate, learned high style; speak plainly, he says, so that we can understand what you are saying. The Clerk politely agrees and announces he will tell a tale written by Francis Petrarch (whose elaborate prologue, written in the high style, the Clerk announces he will omit.)

Lenvoy de Chaucer: At the end of his tale the Clerk announces that Griseldas are rare nowadays and that he will, "for the Wyves love of Bathe," sing a song, The Lenvoy de Chaucer, which urges women to emulate the Wife of Bath and make their husbands weep and wail.

The Merry Words of the Host: Harry deeply admires the Clerk's Tale, a "gentil tale," which he wishes his wife could have heard. (This passage was possibly meant to be cancelled; see the note in The Riverside Chaucer, p. 884.

The Merchant's Prologue: Weeping and wailing, the merchant says, are well known to him. He has a wife who is the worst that could be, and this after only two months of marriage. Harry says that since he knows so much about marriage he should tell a tale about it. The Merchant agrees but stipulates that he will tell nothing more of his own troubles.

Epilogue to the Merchant's Tale: God save me from such a wife, Harry Bailey exclaims; this Merchant's Tale shows the deceitfulness of women. I have a wife, a blabbing shrew with a heap of other vices. But I can't tell everything about her, lest one of you tell her -- I need not say who, since women know so much about this business.

FRAGMENT V

Introduction to The Squire's Tale: Come near, Squire, Harry Bailey says, and say something about love. The squire agrees and begins his tale.

The words of the Franklin to the Squire, and the Host to the Franklin: The Franklin praises the Squire for his eloquence (though he seems to be interrupting, since the Squire's Tale threatens to go on for several thousand lines more). He wishes his own son were like the Squire, but he cares nothing about learning gentillesse. "Straw for your gentilesse," the Host exclaims. Each of you has agreed to tell a tale or two; "Tell on thy tale withouten wordes mo." The Franklin humbly agrees.

The Franklin's Prologue: The Franklin announces he will tell a Breton Lay, and he warns his listeners that he is an unlearned man who knows nothing of rhetoric and will tell his tale in a style "bare and plain."

FRAGMENT VI

There is no prologue to the Physician's Tale.

The Introduction to the Pardoner's Tale: The Host was deeply moved by the preceding Physician's Tale, and he praises the Physician. He is so moved, he says, he must have a drink of ale or hear a merry tale, and he calls on the Pardoner. The gentils immediately object that he will tell some ribald story, tell us something moral, they say. The Pardoner agrees, but first he will have a drink while he thinks of some "honest thing" to tell.

The Pardoner's Prologue: For a summary see The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale.

FRAGMENT VII

There is no prologue to the Shipman's Tale

The Words of the Host to the Shipman and the Lady Prioress: The Host praises the Shipman (and seems to think the Monk is the hero of Shipman's Tale) and he then turns and with elaborate courtesy asks "My Lady Prioress" to tell her tale. "Gladly," she says.

The Prologue of the Prioress's Tale: For a summary see The Prioress's Page. (This is a literary prologue and not part of the framing narrative.)

Prologue to Sir Thopas: The entire company is sobered by the Prioress's Tale and Harry began to joke, turning to Chaucer and peremptorily ordering him to "tell us a tale of mirth, and that anon." Chaucer agrees but warns he knows only one tale he learned long ago. Harry says that now we shall hear "some dainty thing." Instead, Chaucer tells the crude minstrel romance of Sir Thopas.

The Host stinteth Chaucer of his Tale of Thopas: Harry breaks into Chaucer's narration and tells him he must stop; his awful rime makes Harry's ears ache. Chaucer must tell something else, "in which there be some mirth or doctrine." Chaucer replies that he knows a virtuous tale; some may have heard it before and Chaucer's version may be slightly different in wording but the sentence, the meaning, will be the same, and he begins the Tale of Melibee.

The Prologue to the Monk's Tale: Harry Bailey is delighted by the Tale of Melibee; he wishes his wife could have heard it, because she is always inciting him to violence, and he dares not stand up to her, for she is strong. Then he turns to the Monk and asks him for a tale -- Lo Rochester is nearby. The Host praises the Monk for his well-fed good looks. Curses on him who made you a monk! The monasteries have talken up all the best breeding stock, and we laymen are consequently weak and feeble. The monk patiently puts up with Harry's crude jesting, and he says he will tell something decent -- a life of Saint Edward, or first some tragedies; I have a hundred of them in my cell. He defines medieval tragedy and asks his audience to excuse him if he tells the tragedies out of their historical order, since he will narrate them as they come to mind.

The Prologue of the Nun's Priest's Tale: The Knight interrupts the Monk, who he thinks has gone on too long in this sad vein; the Knight prefers comedy to tragedy. Harry Bailey agrees -- this Monk, he says, has been so dull that if it weren't for the ringing of the bells on his harness I would have fallen asleep. Tell us something of hunting, he says. The Monk refuses and Harry turns to the Nun's Priest for the next tale.

The Epilogue to the Nun's Priest's Tale: The Host is delighted with the Nun's Priest's Tale, and he praises muscular physique -- if the Nun's Priest were secular, Harry says, he would be a "r=trede-fol aright." [This repeats matter used in the Monk's Prologue; see The Riverside Chaucer, p. 941.]

FRAGMENT VIII

The Prologue to the Second Nun's Tale is a literary prologue with no relation to the framing narrative.

The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue: For a summary see The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale.

FRAGMENT IX

The Manciple's Prologue: At Bobbe-up-and-doun on Canterbury Way the Cook, who is monumentally hung over, confesses he can barely keep awake. The Manciple tells him that his breath is stinking ("Hold your mouth closed, man," the Manciple cries), and he is hopelessly drunk. The Cook grows angry at this but he can't even speak and he falls off his horse. The Host excuses the Cook from telling a tale, on the grounds of intoxication. He warns the Manciple against reproving the Cook; he might some other day reveal that the Manciple's reckonings "were nat honest, if it cam to preef." The Manciple agrees that he should placate the Cook, and he doesa so by giving him more wine to drink. "O Bacus," says Harry, "yblessed be thy name!" And the Manciple begins his tale.

FRAGMENT X

The Parson's Prologue: When the Manciple finished his tale it was four o'clock and Libra (the Scales) was rising. The Host says that but one tale is needed to fulfill his "sentence and decree." He turns to the Parson and asks for a merry tale to "knit up this great matter," and he brusquely commands the Parson to "Tell us a fable anon, for cokkes bones!" The Parson says that he will tell no fable (work of fiction) but rather "moralitee and vertuous mateere." He will not use alliterative verse nor rime; he will speak in prose and show his hearers the way to that perfect glorious object of pilgrimage that is called "Jerusalem celestial"). All assent to this, for it seemed best to end in "som vertuous sentence." The Host was spokesman for all; tell us your meditation, he said, but hurry; the sun will soon set. Say what you will, and we will glady hear. The Parson begins his meditation.

Back to The Geoffrey Chaucer Page | (Or use your browser's back button to return to the previous page.)

Last modified: May, 12, 2000
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)