Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Chaucer employs the device of a springtime pilgrimage to the sacred shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury for the setting of his monumental epic. To make the journey a more enjoyable one, the Host proposes a story-telling competition. This ingenious framework enables Chaucer to create a score of narratives of differing literary styles ranging from courtly romance, Breton Lay, fabliaux, saintís legend, tragedy, exemplum and sermon to a beast fable. Chaucer uses a realistic setting instead of an idealistic one, thus imparting an air of authenticity to the tales and their tellers. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage was a social as well as a religious event and the only time when people from differing social classes could mingle together. Thus the device of the pilgrimage also enabled Chaucer to draw representatives from across a wide range of society.


The main characters of The Canterbury Tales are comprised of the procession of the twenty-nine pilgrims who traveled from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury and passed their long journey by narrating entertaining tales. The pilgrims and their tales represent a microcosm of medieval English society. These characters include the following:


The author of The Canterbury Tales and appears throughout the book as one of the twenty-nine pilgrims. He functions as the readerís guide and his ironic comments reveal the true nature of the assorted group. He tells the tales of Sir Topas and the tale of Melibee during the course of the journey. He finally identifies himself at the end.

The Knight

Chaucer describes the Knight as a "verray parfit gentil knight" (i.e. true, perfect, well bred) who had distinguished himself in many Crusades. All the wars fought by the Knight have been religious wars. In spite of being a brave warrior with various victories to his credit, the Knight never boasted of his success.

The Squire

The Knightís son, probably twenty years old. He is described as a "lover and a lusty bachelor" and is a worthy aspirant to Knighthood. Apart from being a warrior he also sings, composes melodies and writes poetry.

The Yeoman

The only servant accompanying the Knight on the pilgrimage. He is thoroughly knowledgeable about forestry and woodcraft and is a true forester.

The Prioress

A pious and saintly woman. However she is sentimental and strives to imitate courtly manners. She is a very sensitive woman who is gentle even with the three small dogs accompanying her in her journey. The attention that she gives to her appearance is an indication of her secret longing for a more sophisticated life.

The Nun's Priest

Mentioned in the Prologue as accompanying the Prioress. He tells the mock-heroic beast fable of Chaunticleer and Pertolete.

The Second Nun

Only fleetingly mentioned in the Prologue as one of the companions of the Prioress. She tells the tale of St. Cecilia.

The Monk

An "outrider" i.e. a Monk who rides around the abbey to tend its property. It is implied that the Monk is immoral and loves the pleasures of life. He loves hunting and women. His love for the various pleasures of life goes against his religious vows.

The Friar

A wanton and merry man. These are hardly the characteristics that befit a religious man. He is a "limiter" i.e. a Friar who is licensed to beg within a certain limited area. While hearing confessions he gave the best pardon to those who contributed the maximum amount of money. The author makes this statement in irony when he says that he is probably the only person who practices his profession most accurately.

The Merchant

He sports a forked beard and wears fine clothes. He is extremely pompous in his manners and opinions. He is so clever that nobody could gauge that he was actually in heavy debt.

The Oxford Clerk

A skinny man who is a student at Oxford. He is not at all conscious of his appearance. He is a scholar who is genuinely interested in learning and studies. After the Knight, he is the most admired person.

The Sergeant at Law

An accomplished and devious lawyer who has probably used his position to acquire a great deal of wealth.

The Franklin

Said to be Epicureís own son that implies that he lives a hedonistic life in pursuit of pleasure.

The Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, And Tapestry Maker

All guildsmen and experts in their professions. They are wearing impressive clothes and carrying handsome silver mounted equipment.

The Cook

Accompanying the guildsmen, the Cook is mainly described in terms of his culinary abilities. However Chaucer does point out that he has an ulcerous sore on his shin.

The Sea captain

A jolly fellow and an able seaman. He could read the stars and was also a good fighter. However Chaucer suggests that he is not completely moral and has no qualms about stealing wine from the Merchant whose casks he is transporting.

The Physician

An excellent doctor who can quickly diagnose the cause of any disease. However Chaucer suggests that this good doctor is motivated by greed more than anything else and has a special fondness for gold.

The Wife of Bath

Described as being somewhat deaf, fat and amorous. She is an excellent weaver and having been married five times knows all the cures for love.

The Parson

A genuinely good clergyman. His self-denial and charity are indeed praiseworthy. He sets a moral standard to his flock of parishioners.

The Plowman

The Parsonís brother and a good Christian ever willing to help his neighbors in trouble. He is an honest and hardworking laborer.

The Miller

A hefty and strong fellow, a loudmouth and a teller of scurrilous stories.

The Manciple

The steward of a law school in London who is responsible for buying food. He is a shrewd man who tricks the lawyers by keeping aside some money for himself whenever he is asked to go and purchase food.

The Reeve

A slender and quick-tempered man. He is such a successful manager of his lordís estate that he has more spending power than his lord does. He knows all the secrets of the employees and blackmails them. He is thus feared by all in the estate.

The Summoner

He has a fiery-red cherubic face, which is an indicator of his lecherous and deceitful character. His gruesome physical appearance fits most appropriately with his profession. The author ironically describes him as a good fellow. He is good as the sinners can easily bribe him.

The Pardoner

A seller of pardons. He dupes innocent poor people by selling them fake relics. Chaucer ironically commends him as an excellent churchman.

The Host

Introduced at the end of the "General Prologue", he proposes the story telling contest in order to make the journey a more enjoyable one.

The Canon's Yeoman

Arrives at the end of the journey along with his master. He is wearing a black cloak and comes panting and gasping for breath after the main group of pilgrims. He proceeds to tell a tale revealing the hypocrisy and deceitfulness of alchemists.

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