Chaucer Pedagogy Home Page The Chaucer Pedagogy Page The Electronic Canterbury Tales
Online Assistance
for Teachers and Students
of Chaucer and the Later Middle Ages
Resources for
Daniel T. Kline | U. of Alaska Anchorage
Chaucer Pedagogy | Electronic Canterbury Tales | Chaucer Central
Chaucer Metapage Home Page
Teaching Notes and Helps
How to use this page:  The accompanying materials consist of outlines, summaries, and other resources that offer the non-specialist a handy overview of different Chaucerian and medieval topics. Of course, they are a beginning point, a supplement to, and not a substitute for, one's own reading and research.  If these material are used, they must also be properly documented according to the standards of academic honesty.  See the Chaucer Pedagogy:   Documentation Primer and Chaucer Pedagogy: Documentation Rules of Thumb for help in assessing and documenting online materials.

newrite.gif (927 bytes) 1.  Mark Allen's (UT San Antonio) "Some Issues in Studying Chaucer's Canterbury Tales" offers a number of ways to examine the CT as a whole. (On this page)
a.  What is the Canterbury Tales? c.  How Does the Canterbury Tales Mean?
b.  What is the Canterbury Tales About? d.  Where is Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales?

newrite.gif (927 bytes) 2.  Dan Kline's (U of Alaska Anchorage) "Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales" is a set of lecture / discussion outlines for a 200-level survey of British literature class (based on the selections in the Norton Anthology of British Literature, vol. 1). (On this page)
a.  Chaucer's Career e.  The Frame Tale
b.  The Canterbury Tales f.  The Miller's Tale
c.  The General Prologue g.  The Wife of Bath's Prologue
d.  Portraits in the General Prologue h.  The Wife of Bath's Tale


Other Online Teaching Helps

Teaching Chaucer in the 90s (Christine Rose, Portland State U), an electronic postprint from Exemplaria.

would you like to read what some of the finest chaucerians and medievalists have to say about teaching chaucer at the end of the century?

Mark Allen (UT San Antonio):  

Some Issues in Studying Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

N.B.: The following can be "lumped" or "split" [Jim Marchand's
distinction] differently, i.e., the elements in the taxonomy can be
rearranged almost infinitely to produce different hierarchies and emphases.

1. What is The Canterbury Tales?
    a. manuscripts and textual issues
    b. order of the tales
    c. anthology and/or single story
    d. tale-telling contest and/or pilgrimage

2. What is CT about?
    a. order and/or disorder (personal, social, cosmic)
        i. class struggles, estates theory and rising mercantilism,
        role(s) of women, marriage
    b. determinism and/or free will
        i.    Providence and foreknowledge, astrology, Fortune, chance,
        humors, the will of others, will vs. "willfulness," nature's
        course, time
    c. gentility and pity
        i. gentility of blood and gentility of deed
    d. epistemology
        i. experience and/or authority
        ii. meaning, truth, will, intention, and knowledge
        iii. earnest and game, sentence and solaas
    e. transformation and/or conversion

3. How does CT mean?
    a. readers' expectations
        i. expectations of character, vocation, "type"
        ii. expectations of genre, verse-form, style
    b. "allegorical" and/or "realistic" elements
    c. tale-teller relations
    d. impressionism, irony, and filling gaps
    e. relations with sources
    f. juxtapositions of words, details, lines, sketches, tales, fragments, etc.
    g. "recursion" and/or "resonance" of word, detail, pattern, and theme
    h. "impersonated" and/or "unimpersonated" artistry
    i. alternations of plot and rhetoric
    j. narrative "layers"

4. Where is Chaucer in CT?
    a. varieties of audiences (the Host, pilgrims, reader/listeners)
    b. meta-fictive and/or self-conscious devices, mise en abyme
    c. "dissolution" of fiction near conclusion



Daniel T. Kline (U of Alaska Anchorage):

Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales

I. Chaucer's Career

A. Born into the growing middle class, son of a wine merchant (c. 1340).

B. Served in the royal household (page to 2nd son of Edward III) and later held a series of administrative posts under Edward and Richard II.

C. Visited France and Italy on behalf of the crown during the 1360's and 1370's, exposing him to the literature of Europe, particularly the French Roman de la Rose and Boccaccio's Decameron.

D. Chaucer's career illustrates the economic, political, and social ferment of late 14th century England (landed wealth versus moneyed wealth).

E. Literary Chronology: Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385) and The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386-1400)

II. The Canterbury Tales

A. Literary Structure

1. Originally planned for 120 stories (2 stories each way on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury for 30 pilgrims), but only 22 completed, with 2 fragmentary tales.

2. Chaucer left the manuscript(s) unfinished, so we don't know the final ordering of the tales, but:

a.    We know there are 10 "fragment" or groups of tales that retain the same order within the fragment.

b.    We know that Fragment 1 (The General Prologue, the Knight's Tale, the Miller's Tale, the Reeve's Tale, and the Cook's Tale) begins and Fragment 10 (Parson's Tale and the Retraction) bound the others.

c.     We think that the two best early manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (El & Hg) represent early editors' attempts to put the tales into a "Chaucerian" order.

d.     We always need to keep this manuscript context in mind and to remember that all modern editions of the Canterbury Tales are, in a sense, "fictions" in themselves.

3. Generic Complexity of the Canterbury Tales

  • different genres give different views of the world, different vocabularies, different images for truth.

a. Romance (Knight's Tale) deals with human emotions and relationships.

b. Fabliau (Miller's Tale) deals with the basic human needs of food, sex, or money.

c. Saint's Life (Second Nun's Tale, Prioress's Tale) deals with the operations of God in a holy person's life.

d. Moral Tales (Pardoner's Tale, Melibee) deal with orthodox morality.

e. Sermons and Ethical Treatises (Parson's Tale) deal with spiritual matters.

III. The General Prologue

A. Opening of the General Prologue (l. 1-42): when...then

1. Contraries held in tension

  • From the heavenly to the earthly
  • theological to the biological/fleshly
  • supernatural to the natural
  • From winter to spring
  • sickness to health
  • death to life

2. Pilgrimage as a contemporary practice and spiritual ideal:   the "holy blisful martyr" and the Parson

B. Genre of General Prologue

1. Estates Satire: an analysis of society in terms of its hierarchy. Each class or profession is described to show how it fails the ideal, implying a moral judgment.

2. Traditional division of medieval society: begins at top of the social ladder and then moves downward through the social spectrum.

3.     Traditional three-fold division of medieval life & ideal figures in the General Prologue

a. Those who fight (Knight)

b. Those who pray (Parson)

c. Those who labor (Plowman)

4. Organization of portraits in the GProl (ll. 745-48): Narrator apologizes that "Al have I nat set folk in hir degree."

a.     Individuals, not groups described, but individuals are representatives of different recognizable groups

b.     Key Idea:  the interplay of the social relations and individual identity in the tales and the Frame Tale

b.     29 pilgrims (27 men, 1 woman, Host)

c.     Not an ordered hierarchy, because many will not stay in their respective places!

 C. Class Structure


  • Knight and his entourage :     highest ranking layman; ideal
  • Squire:     romance hero
  • Yeoman:     hardworking, in tune with the earth
  • Prioress:     coy; unconsciously pretentious
  • Second Nun and entourage:     remain undeveloped
  • Monk:     highest cleric
  • Friar :     "lik a maister or a pope" (l. 263)

Middle Class

  • Merchant
  • Clerk Ideal?
  • Sergeant of Law
  • Franklin
  • Guildsmen Belong to common craft guild
  • Cook
  • Shipman
  • Physician
  • Wife of Bath

Lower Class and Ruffians

  • Parson:     Humble origins; ideal
  • Plowman:     Ideal
  • Miller:     Scoundrels all
  • Manciple
  • Reeve
  • Summoner & Pardoner:     Clerical figures, but depraved
  • Narrator:  Chaucerian persona
  • Host/Harry Bailey: Owns Tabard, governing force

IV.      Portraits in the General Prologue

A.     First Strata: Aristocracy

1.     Knight: one of three (and perhaps four) ideal portraits

  • warrior, crusader; embodies courtly values
  • has fought in every theatre, at the edges of Christendom
  • comes right from the front; chain mail still rusty
  • key lines: ll. 45-46 and 68-72

2.     Squire: knight's son; embodies the qualities of the typical romance hero

  • courtly and military arts
  • key lines: ll. 88-92

3.     Yeoman: knight's servant; well armed; a forester

  • description focuses entirely on external attributes: longbow, gamecraft

4.     Prioress: head of a convent; younger daughters of wealth

  • romance heroine disguised as a nun
  • pretender to courtly life: table manners, bad French, lap dogs
  • jewelry thinly disguised as devotional objects: "Amor Vincit Omnia" versus "Caritas Vincit Omnia"
  • key lines: ll. 150-53; narrator stricken
  • accompanied by another nun (who is later given the Second Nun's Tale) and three priests

5.     Monk: hunter; country gentleman on pilgrimage

  • parallels Prioress: courtly values in the cloister
  • "a manly man" (167) and "fish out of water" (180)
  • narrator likes him: "I seyde his opinion was good" (183)
  • antimonastic satire: he breaks all four monastic vows:

a.     Poverty

b.     Obedience to the Rule ("Regula")

c.     Stability: he doesn't remain cloistered

c.     Chastity: priketh, venerie, love knot

6.     Friar: utter violation of his vows, but a great guy to be with

  • supposed to be poor and chaste, but is "wanton and merry" (208)
  • associates with local women and taverners
  • monetary religion for profit
  • key lines: 249-50, 269-70 (spiritually dead)

B.     Middle Strata: Middle Class and Other Social Climbers

7.     Merchant: perfectly anonymous, ambiguous portrait

  • import-export trader in wool; sharp businessman
  • presents himself as wealthy and successful, but seems also to be in debt (281-82)
  • ultimately mysterious: "I noot how men hym calle" (286)

8.     Clerk: another ideal portrait; contrasts with the Merchant

  • perfect student; bookish, pious; large library
  • prays for those who enable his study
  • key lines: 306-10 (moral virtue)

9.     Sergeant of Law: great concern for appearances; "seemed"

  • only 20 or so of his rank in the country; all judges drawn from this group
  • superlatives: highly self-conscious presentation
  • ability with language (drafting documents)
  • key lines: 323-25

10.    Franklin: in company of Man of Law (landholder w/ land speculator)

  • member of landed gentry; acquired land
  • Santa Claus figure
  • gastronomic vocabulary: his farm is set up so that he can eat well
  • key lines: 338-42

11.    Guildsmen: four clothworkers and a carpenter

  • members of parish guilds, "livery"
  • seeking social and economic advancement; wives' motives revealed
  • key lines: 365-66

12.    Cook: accompanies guildsmen

  • cooks usually not included in Estates Satire
  • defined by his professional skill
  • later called Roger (Hodge) of Ware
  • key lines: 385-89

13.    Shipman: "a good felawe," applies also to Summoner and his partners in crime

  • expert seaman; knows all the harbors, ports, tides, and currents of the entire Mediterranean basin
  • thievery, piracy, mass murder
  • key line: 400

14.    Physician: socially, we would expect him to be grouped with the Sgt. of Law and Merchant, but astronomical references tie him to Shipman

  • knows the cause of every ailment (421-24; theory of humors) but knows the Bible but little (438)
  • profit minded; healing not an end but a means
  • in cahoots with the apothecaries (427-30)
  • key lines: 414-15

15.    Wife of Bath, larger than life: scarlet stockings, red face

  • homiletically fits the 7 Deadly Sins; but 3 pilgrimages to Jerusalem
  • skills in clothmaking, middle man between weavers and exporters
  • but husbands are her specialty (5 husbands) and "the old dance"
  • key lines: 476-78

C.     Lower Classes, Rascals and Ruffians, and Other Depraved Persons

16.    Parson: reformist, idealized figure

  • devout, simple, pious; ref. to Jn 4
  • double portrait: by looking at what he does we can wee the negative image, the "shiten shepherd" (506)

a.    Excommunicate for nonpayment of tithes

b.    Expect wealth

c.    Neglect pastoral duties

d.    Rent out their positions and take a chantry

e.    Flatter their superiors

  • key lines: 481-84

17.     Plowman: Parson's brother

  • physically and spiritually an ideal portrait
  • contrast: clean shepherd and dung smeared farmer
  • portrays life of a good Christian: "worthy" not used of him--"true"
  • never pretends to be more than he is
  • key lines: 534-37

18.     Miller: undeniable physical presence

  • stout, thick-necked, wrestler
  • mouth like a furnace, red hair, large nostrils, tufted wart, head- banger
  • thief (gold thumb)
  • key lines: 561-65

19.     Manciple: called "gentle," somewhat ironically

  • manages the accounts at the Inns of Court
  • parallels Reeve, who manages accounts at a larger manor
  • very closed portrait: nothing of his appearance, only his legal and financial skills
  • tells a story against ever opening one's mouth
  • key lines: 575-77

20.     Reeve: lean and clean-shaven (sign of evil)

  • rides apart from the group
  • key lines: 605-07

21.     Summoner:  officer of the ecclesiastical court

  • rides with Pardoner
  • hideous appearance and corrosive treatments match his unashamed abuses of his position
  • debased morality: uses his office for profit and sexual exploitation
  • key lines: 626-30 (children afraid)

22.     Pardoner: strange hair and appearance

  • unashamedly sells indulgences and relics; performance artist
  • ambiguous sexuality: "I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare" (693)
  • strange relationship to the Summoner (675)
  • key lines: 710-16

D.     Frame Characters

23.     Narrator: compassionate, bemused, ironic, questioning, easily impressed, observant.

  • "My wit is short" (748); self-depreciating
  • introduces the problem of storytelling, the problem of language (727-38)
  • "Wordes moot be cosyn to the deed" (744): different tellers use different languages, with different aims

24.     Host: named by Cook later, "Harry Bailey"

  • narrator impressed: "seemly man" (753); marshall in a hall
  • ordering force; proposes the tale-telling contest (774 ff.)
  • key lines: sentence and solas (800); rigs the drawing (846-47)

V. The Frame Tale: introduces pilgrims and tales

A.     Refers to the tale-telling contest proposed by the Host, Harry Bailley, outlined in the General Prologue (ll. 771 ff.) and furthered in the "links" or transitional passages between some of the tales (i.e. the prologue to the Miller's Tale). Therefore, the Canterbury Tales function as tales within a broader tale of rivalry, conflict, appeasement, and domination and submission

B.     "Roadside Drama": a view of the CT that compares the portrait of the pilgrim in the GProl with that pilgrim's story.

  • Therefore, there are multiple frames of reference operating within the CT, and these multiple modes of meaning make the CT an interesting, attractive text for modern readers.

1. Chaucer the "real" writer

2. Chaucer the pilgrim

3. The Host

4. Individual pilgrims

5. Characters within the tale

C.      Pilgrims often defined by what is not said as well as by description; Chaucer plays against stereotypes.

D.     Finally, the Canterbury Tales is a fiction about tale-telling and therefore about language, reality, perception, motivation, and the other things that make us human, and drive us to distraction, and make life interesting.

The Miller's Tale

I. Textual Matters: follows the Knight's Tale in Fragment 1

A. Genre: fabliau ("cherles tale"/l. 61 but "a legende and a lif"/l. 34)

1. Set in contemporary world, not the epic or heroic past

2. Characters lower class (peasants, clerks, laborers), not aristocratic

3. Stories involve sex, food, and money, not idealized love

4. Emphasis on cunning, duplicity, and folly, not virtue

5. Opposes and overturns authority and hierarchy

B. References to mystery plays (biblical cycle drama)

1. Miller cries in Pilate's voice

2. Nicholas sings the "Angelus ad Virgenum"

3. Absolon plays upon Herod's scaffold

4. The plot revolves around a parodic version of Noah's flood

5. Story of a carpenter and his wife (l. 33-34); Holy Family

II. The Prologue (ll. 1-78)

A. Characterization of the Miller

1. Disrupts the pilgrimage; violates hierarchy and propriety (oaths, drunk)

2. Offends other characters

a. The Miller is a traditional enemy of Reeve, who objects

b. Displaces the Monk's tale and "quites" the Knight (l. 19)

B. Deflationary parallels to the Knight's Tale; a parody

Knight Miller
Idealized courtly love Earthy sexual love
Two knights (Palamon & Arcite) compete for Emily's love Two clerks (Nicholas & Absolon) compete for Alison's love
Ancient epic past Present Christian moment
Explains God's providence Avoid's God's "privitee"
"Noble storye" (l. 3) "Cherles tale" (l. 61)

C. Narrator's protestations and rationalizations (ll. 59-78)

1. Choose another tale

2. Blameth not me

3. Earnest and game

III. The Story: parody of courtly love

A. Characterization

1. "Hende" Nicholas (l. 91)

2. Lithe Alison (ll. 125ff.)

3. Fastidious Absolon (ll. 204ff.)

4. Sely John (l. 296)

B. Themes: the metaphysics of flatulence; upper and lower body

1. Relationship between the sexes

2. Anticlericalism

3. "Privitee"

4. Judgement

5. The moral (ll. 732 ff.)

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

I. Textual Matters

A. Genre: confessional autobiographical prologue (compare to the Pardoner's Prologue); the wife reveals her view of life and her history in her prologue.

B. Sources: standard antifeminist material from the Middle Ages.

1. Explicit, as revealed by her 5th husband, Jankin

a. Adversus Jovinianum (Against Jovinian): Jerome's tract against the equality of virginity and marriage; virginity is higher and more desirable.

b. Theophrastus' book of marriage, from Adversus.

c.  The Bible

2. Covert, from the Fr. Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose)

  • particularly the portrait of La Vieille (Old Woman), who describes her past life and her womanly tricks.

II. Structure

A. Opening: experience and authority (ll. 1-6)

B. Alison's defense of marriage, particularly multiple marriages (based on Jerome) (ll. 7-193)

1. Biblical examples: wedding at Cana, the woman oat the well, God's command to multiply, Solomon's many wives, the Patriarch's multiple marriages.

2. The "marriage debt": sexuality linked to economic power

a. lines 125-32

b. lines 147-59

3. The Pardoner's interruption and Alison's "entente" (ll. 189-92)

C. Alison's life with her first four husbands (based on Theophrastus and the Roman); implicit accusation that the pilgrims believe the antifeminist propaganda.

1. Her first three husbands (ll. 197-214): economics (204), power (219), and sexuality (199); key lines: 211-14

2. "Thou sayest . . ." (ll. 248-394); esp. 314-22

3.  Alison plays the shrew (ll. 379 ff.; 443-50)

4. Her fourth husband (Jankin in the wings) (ll. 480-502)

D. Jankin's antifeminist reading; Alison's "defense" and attack on his books

1. Her use of sexuality (ll. 508-519; 608-12)

2. His use of textuality: the book of wicked wives (ll. 630 ff.)

a. "Who painted the lion?" (ll. 685 ff.)

b. "He read to me . . ." and "Quod he . . ."

3. Their battle (begins at 630, but esp. ll. 788 ff.)

4. Their resolution:  mutuality (?)

The Wife of Bath's Tale

I. Textual Matters

A. Genre: folktale romance; connection between tale and teller; one of the only times Chaucer makes reference to Arthurian legend (cf. The Tale of Sir Thopas)

1. Makes WBath a romantic, thereby pointing out the difference between what she wants (love, freedom) and what she says she wants (money, control).

2. Begins with rape and ends in marital bliss.

B. Sources

1. Probably folktale--a hag promising secret knowledge in return for marriage turns beautiful.

2. Arthurain analogue and setting ("Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnall") minimized.

II. Structure

  • with 3 "digressions" (friars, Midas, Hag's pillow speech)
  • Motivating Question and Theme: "What do women most desire?"

A. Opening rape: the ultimate exercise of male power and abuse

1. Friars roam about, displacing the indigenous nature religion and accosting young girls.

2. A "lusty bacheler" rapes a "mayde" (ll. 882 ff.)

B. Capture and quest

1. Knight turned-over to Queen for punishment

2. Queen gives him a quest (a year and a day) in exchange for his life: "I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me / What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren" (904-905).

3. Wife rehearses a variety of answers (925 ff.)

C. The 24 ladies, the hag, and the queen

1. Disappearance of the ladies: magical.

2. Appearance of the hag and her bargain: "Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand" (1009) and I'll give you the answer.

3. The knight's answer to the queen (1038-40):

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above.

D. The knight's response immediately put to the test

1. Marriage:  knight turns into a weenie

2. Status; "privy and apert"

3. The "pillow speech" on gentillese: action not lineage (1150 ff.)

4. The knight's choice (1219 ff.)

5. "parfit joye" (1258)

III. Themes of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

A. Experience and authority, books versus life

B. Glossing/"glosing" and interpretation

C. "Maistre," "soveraynetee," and accord

D. Antifeminism and the role and function of women

E. Sexuality

1. Is political: power and pleasure.

2. Is economic: the marriage debt and getting husband's property

3. Is linguistic: glossing texts, glossing bodies (508-12)

Chaucer Pedagogy  | Students | Electronic Canterbury Tales | Teachers | Chaucer Metapage

Copyright 1998-2001. Daniel T. Kline & The Kankedort Page All rights reserved.
This page was last revised on 07.19.06.