The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake (1808).
This, surely, is one of the most difficult reviews I will ever write! The Canterbury Tales is England's finest, and I loved it, and I want to do it justice, but there is so much to write about! 

Firstly, the basics: The Canterbury Tales is of course by Geoffrey Chaucer, and was most likely composed between 1386 - 1394. It's a 'frame story', or 'stories within a story' - Chaucer describes a pilgrimage from from "Southwerk" (Southwark in London), to the shrine of St. Thomas à Beckett (a former Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered at the order of Henry II in 1170) in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. They begin in The Tabard Inn on the 18th April. The Host (landlord) of The Tabard Inn proposes that each pilgrim tells a story on the way to Canterbury and on the way back to entertain them and give them some comfort. Whoever tells the best story will win a little prize - a free meal on their return. However, for whatever reason, The Canterbury Tales is unfinished - there is only one tale by only some of the pilgrims. 

Here is a list of the pilgrims (33 in total) in the order that they are mentioned in The Canterbury Tales General Prologue. In bold with a link are the pilgrims who do tell a story:

Chaucer [12] | The Knight | The Squire | The Yeoman | The Prioress | The Second Nun
The Nun's Priest | The Second Priest | The Third Priest | The Monk | The Friar | The Merchant
The Clerk | The Man of Law | The Franklin | The Haberdasher | The Carpenter | The Weaver
The Dyer | The Tapestry Weaver | The Cook | The Shipman | The Physician | The Wife of Bath 
Canon's Yeoman | The Canon

And here are their pictures (illustrations from the Ellesmere Manuscript):

The Pilgrims

The Knight
The Miller
The Reeve
The Cook
The Man of Law
The Wife of Bath
The Friar
The Summoner
The Clerk
The Merchant
The Squire
The Franklin
The Physician
The Pardoner
The Shipman
The Prioress
The Monk
The Nun's Priest
The Second Nun
The Canon Yeoman
The Manciple
The Parson
The order of The Canterbury Tales is much debated. There are two more commonly used arrangements - the Tyrwhitt arrangement and the "Bradshaw Shift". Thomas Tyrwhitt was the editor of The Canterbury Tales (1775–78), and his arrangement was based on the Ellesmere Manuscript (the early 15th-century illuminated manuscript): this was the order of my Riverside Chaucer (edited by Larry D. Benson). With the "Bradshaw shift", Henry Bradshaw rearranged some of the tales from Tyrwhitt's list, and his version was used by not only the Chaucer Society but other scholars such as Walter William Skeat, and Frederick James Furnivall. 

Fragments and Tales (the Tyrwhitt / Ellesmere / Benson order)

Fragments and Tales (The Bradshaw Shift)

Scene from The Canterbury Tales in a stained glass window
in Canterbury Cathedral.
The pilgrims, as Chaucer intended, are from a range of social backgrounds. In terms of rank, for want of better words, we can say the classes featured in the tales range from the higher / upper / ruling classes, the 'clergy class', the middle class, the tradesmen, and the peasants (for the lower ranks saying "working class" blurs the boundaries far too much). The 'Clergy Class' and the 'tradesmen' may be divided into two as 'wealthy' and 'less wealthy'. An strong indication of class isn't merely occupation but also clothing, as in Chaucer's time dress was regulated by social status. Peter Brown, in Authors in Context: Chaucer (2011) explains,
'Those who work' are regarded as being of the 'estate of a groom', a category also covering carters, ploughmen, and herders of sheep, oxen, cows, and swine and others whose goods and chattels do not exceed forty shillings in value. They must not wear anything but coarse cloth ('blanket' and russet) and secure their clothing with girdles made of linen. Grooms are also classed with servants, whether of lords at one end of the social spectrum, or craftsmen at the other, for the statute intends to prevent the insubordination of servants as a group by setting limits to what they can east or wear. They must not eat fish or flesh more than once a day, or wear anything of gold or silk, embroidered or enamelled. Yeoman and craftsmen are given a little more latitude. The material from which their clothes are made can be worth up to forty shillings, but they are forbidden accessories made of precious materials and fur except that of lamb, rabbit, cat, or fox (furs themselves having their own hierarchy). The restrictions ease further as the social level advances. 
For this list, again, if there is no link to the pilgrim it means they did not tell a tale.

The 'Ruling Class' 
The person of the highest class is The Knight, then by association his son The Squire.
The 'Clergy Class'
The Prioress, The Monk, The Friar, The Parson, The Summoner, The Pardoner, The Nun's Priest, The Second Nun, and The Canon.
Middle Class
The Clerk, The Man of Law, The Franklin, The Physician, The Wife of Bath, and The Reeve.
The Tradesmen
The Host, The Merchant, The Carpet-maker, The Haberdasher, The Dyer, The Carpenter, The Weaver, The Cook, The Miller, and The Manciple.
The Peasants
The Yeoman (of The Knight and The Squire), The Shipman, The Plowman, and The Canon's Yeoman.
Unlike more recent times it must be noted: Chaucer does not necessarily approve of a character according to their social class. By their titles, jobs, and dress we learn about their social status and their work, but not if they are good or bad characters. For example, though Chaucer was a religious man he appeared only to like The Parson, a lower-ranking member of the clergy class. This is because he despised religious hypocrisy, which the other clerical members displayed elements.

Another method of characterisation is the pilgrims' complexions. Peter Brown writes that, as with astrological signs influencing characters,
The same applies to human beings, who possess four humours (bodily fluids) that mix the four qualities in different ways. The humour of black bile is cold and dry, like earth; that of yellow bile hot and dry like fire; blood is hot and moist, like air; and phlegm is cold and moist, like water. The dominance of a particular humour in turn determines a person's predisposition to the influence of certain planets, what was known as an individual's 'complexion'. Black bile produces a melancholic person and, since it is cold and dry, it is governed by Saturn. Yellow bile yields a choleric complexion, governed by Mars; blood a sanguine one in which Jupiter and Venus hold sway; and phlegm a phlegmatic complexion, affected by the moon.
Complexion was believed to be a good indicator. Sanguine temperaments (blood) are suggested by rosy cheeks, choleric temperaments (yellow bile) have ruddy or red complexions, melancholic temperament (black bile) have swarthy complexions, and phlegmatic temperaments (phlegm) have very pale complexions. This is something to look out for in The Canterbury Tales: often it is a way of pre-judging a character before they've spoken. (For more information on the four temperaments, there's an article on 

Detail of mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
There are common themes in the stories told by pilgrims, and sometimes stories are interlinked; replies, occasionally, to a story told earlier. The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Clerk's Tale, for example, are pairs because they talk about sovereignty in marriage. The Miller and The Merchant tell tales of age-gap relationships, and The Reeve and The Pardoner speak of tricksters who are themselves tricked somehow. There are of  course other themes - chivalry, romance, greed, hypocrisy, and religion. For my final list in this post I've roughly grouped them according to theme, and I've written the stories in a sentence (N.B. The Cook's Tale and The Squire's Tale do not appear as they were unfinished). This will only really serve to jog the memories of those who have read them!

The Knight's Tale: Two knights, Arcita and Palamon, compete for the love of Emily.
Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas: A knight has to fight a giant to find love.
The Miller's Tale: Nicholas and Absolon compete to bed Alison, the wife of a carpenter.
The Merchant: On how May tricks her husband Januarie so she may sleep with Damian.
The Reeve's Tale: John and Aleyn get revenge on a miller by bedding his wife and daughter (it is debated if they raped the mother and daughter or simply had sex with them).
The Pardoner: Three men hunting for gold meet Death.
The Shipman: A wife cheats on her husband, but the man she has an affair with tricks her.
The Nun's Priest: Chauntecleer the rooster is tricked by the fox.
The Canon's Yeoman talks of alchemy.
The Wife of Bath tells us, in the story of a knight, what women really want.
The Clerk tells of how Walter tested Griselda's faithfulness and patience.
The Franklin tells of Dorigen's patience for her husband Arveragus of Kayrrud, and how she was nearly tricked.
The Physician: on how Virginius killed his daughter Virginia rather than let her marry Apius.
Chaucer's Tale of Melibee: Melibeus and Prudence discuss avenging a crime.
The Manciple: in which Phoebus is jealous of his wife and listens to his crow.
The Man of Law's Tale: Constance brings Christianity to Pagan Northumberland.
The Friar tells of a summoner who joins forces with the Devil.
The Summoner tells of a hypocritical friar who gets his comeuppance (The Friar and The Summoner's Tale are two more that can be paired).
The Prioress: a Jewish boy is killed for singing the Alma Redemptoris Mater.
The Monk urges the pilgrims to remember that Fortune is fickle.
The Second Nun tells the pilgrims of St. Cecilia.
The Parson reminds the pilgrims of why they are on their pilgrimage by discussing penance. 
Copy of the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’, 
published by William Morris in 1896.
It has taken nearly four months to read The Canterbury Tales and I've been lucky to have Cleo as my companion for this endeavour. I have loved every minute of reading the Tales. I read them all in Middle English, and I wish I could say I'm now fluent but I'm not at all! But it is a beautiful book, I love Chaucer's simple and straightforward style and his characters are as vivid as though they had been alive and were still alive now. I wish Chaucer had have completed the Tales, but sadly he didn't.

There is much more I could write but I'll have to leave off for now. Only one question remains: who would have won the free meal? I do think, if I was the Host, I would have picked The Knight.

Now I'm almost finished my Chaucer's Complete Works Challenge. I have finished everything - I finished the final part, the short poems, last night and I'll write about those next week. When it comes to summarising and concluding I'll write more about Chaucer's influences. For now - each post for each pilgrim mentions sources and inspirations.

Final word: there are many excellent Chaucer resources. The two I found most useful are the Chaucer section of The Luminarium and Harvard's commentary and interlinear translation.


  1. My goodness, what an awesome posting! Thank you for offering such a generous commentary and such lovely images. This is an absolute feast.

    1. Thank you, I'm very happy you liked it! :D It was a tough one to write!

  2. I think the pilgrims as pictured above would make for a nice set of playing cards... :-)

    1. Yes, I think they would now you mention it! :)


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