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The Canterbury Tales book cover

The Canterbury Tales: Summary

Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales begins with the introduction of each of the pilgrims making their journey to Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas a Becket. The narrator gives a descriptive account of twenty-seven of these pilgrims, including a Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapestry-Weaver, Cook, Shipman, Physician, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host. (He does not describe the Second Nun or the Nun’s Priest, although both characters appear later in the book). The Host, whose name, we find out in the Prologue to the Cook’s Tale, is Harry Bailey, suggests that the group ride together and tell stories to pass their time on the way to Canterbury. He decides that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Whomever he judges to be the best storyteller will receive a meal at Bailey’s tavern, courtesy of the other pilgrims. The pilgrims draw lots and determine that the Knight will tell the first tale.

Summary of The Knight’s Tale

The Knight’s Tale is a tale about two knights, Arcite and Palamon, who are captured in battle and imprisoned in Athens (a city in ancient Greece). under the order of King Theseus. From their prison, the knights see and fall in love with Theseus’s sister-in-law, Emelye. Through the intervention of a friend, Arcite is released, but he is banished from Athens. He returns in disguise and becomes a servent in Emelye’s chamber. Palamon later escapes from prison and accidently finds Arcite. They fight over Emelye, but their fight is stopped when Theseus finds them. Theseus sets the rules for a duel between the two knights for Emelye’s affection, and each raise an army for a battle a year from that date.

Before the battle, Arcite prays to Mars for victory in battle, Emelye prays to Diana that she may marry happily, and Palamon prays to Venus to have Emelye as his wife. All three gods hear their prayers and argue over whose should get precedence, but Saturn decides to mediate.

Arcite wins in the battle, but he is accidentally fells from his horse and dies. Before he dies, he reconciles with Palamon and tells him that he deserves to marry Emelye. Palamon then marries Emelye.

Summary of The Miller’s Tale

The Host asks the Monk to tell the next tale, but the drunken Miller interrupts and insists he shall tell the next tale. He tells the story of an impoverished student named Nicholas, who falls in love with his landlord’s young wife, Alisoun and persuades her to spend the night with him. He convinces his landlord, John (who is a carpenter), that a flood equal to Noah’s flood is coming, and the only way that he, Nicholas and Alison will survive is by staying in separate kneading tubs placed on the roof of houses, out of sight of all. Absolon, a young parish clerk who is also in love with Alisoun, appears outside the window of the room where Nicholas and Alisoun lie together. Absolon begs Alisoun for a kiss. She told him to close his eyes and he would receive a kiss. He did so, and she pulled down her pants and sticks her rear end out the window in the dark and lets him kiss it. The humiliated Absolon got a hot iron from a blacksmith and returned to Alison and asks for another kiss. This time, Nicholas tried the same trick and sticks his bottom out the window. Absolon brands him on the buttocks with the hot iron. Nicholas shouted for water, awakening John, who was asleep on the roof. Thinking the flood had come, he cut the rope and came crashing through the floor of his house, landing in the cellar.

Summary of The Reeve’s Tale

Because he also does carpentry, the Reeve takes offense at the Miller’s tale of a stupid carpenter, and counters with his own tale of a dishonest miller. Oswald the Reeve tells the story of a dishonest Miller, Symkyn, who repeatedly cheated his clients, which included a Cambridge college. Two Cambridge students,, John and Alayn, who go to the mill to watch the miller grind their corn, so that he won’t have a chance to steal any. But the miller unties their horse, and while they chase it, he steals some of the flour he has just ground for them. By the time the students catch the horse, it is dark, so they spend the night in the miller’s house. That night, Alayn seduces the miller’s daughter, Molly and John seduces his wife. In confusion of whose bed is who in the dark, Aleyn tells Symkyn of his exploits, thinking he is John (the other student). Enraged Symkyn rises out of bed and tries to beat Aleyn. While fighting they wake up John and the miller’s wife. The wife tries to help his husband by hitting the students with a staff but actually hits the miller over the head. The students take back their stolen goods and leave.

Summary of The Cook’s Tale

The Cook’s Tale exists as a fragment which Chaucer neither finished nor deleted. This tale is told by a cook from London, named Roger of Ware. The tale concerns an apprentice cook, named ‘Perkin Reveler’ because he enjoyed “reveling” or dancing, singing, gambling, carousing, and all types of sinful things. One day, Perkin’s master decides to get rid of him, having apparently had enough of his reveling. After being dismissed by his master, the young man is free to revel all night and day and joins another young man as corrupt as he is and moves his bed and belongings into his place. The man’s wife keeps a shop but she is a prostitute. Thus the tale ends

Summary of The Merchant’s Tale

Summary of The Squire’s Tale

Summary of The Franklin’s Tale

Summary of The Physician’s Tale

Summary of The Pardoner’s Tale

Summary of The Shipman’s Tale

Summary of The Prioress’s Tale

Summary of The Tale of Sir Thopas

Summary of The Tale of Melibee

Summary of The Monk’s Tale

Summary of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Summary of The Second Nun’s Tale

Summary of The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

Summary of The Manciple’s Tale

Summary of The Parson’s Tale