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The Canterbury Tales

James Wood



The Canterbury Tales is a compendium of tales which Chaucer says he picked up while travelling with a company of pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral. At the starting point of the pilgrimage – the Tabard Tavern in Southwark – it is decided that the journey will be enlivened by a story telling competition. The winner will have his supper shouted by the company on their return. The company is a decidedly mixed bunch, and inevitably a few “dirty stories” are told by the more roguish members of the group. These stories are similar in subject matter to the ones you exchanged while sitting at the back of the bus going to primary school, only these are really well told and are much funnier.
Things take a scatological turn early on in The Canterbury Tales, when the miller follows up the knight’s tale of courtly romance with a tale about a “poor scholar” living in Oxford who becomes involved with the young wife of his aged landlord. It seems student life hasn’t changed all that much then! It would be unthinkable to ruin the story for those who haven’t read it, but suffice to say that the story involves naked bottoms and red-hot pokers (two things that should never be brought together).
The Reeve, the Shipman, and the Merchant’s Tales are in a similar vein, although tonally they are all quite different. Whereas the Miller’s Tale has a relatively sunny view of sex, the Reeve’s Tale is really quite sick, and should probably be approached with caution! Doubtless, any of these stories could be denounced as “sexist” because they objectify women’s bodies. But Chaucer’s warning to the reader not to make “earnest of game” applies equally well to our own “p.c.” times as it did for the religious society Chaucer wrote in. And men will find themselves objectified for once by the wife of Bath, who makes a convincing argument (complete with biblical references!) for sexual licentiousness, and the right of the woman to absolute mastery over her husband: “I have the power during all my life/ Upon his proper body, and not he”. Feminist icon or not, the Wife of Bath is an amazing creation.
There is a lot more to the Tales than scurrilous stories about sex, but most readers will agree that these stories are the most fun to read. However most of the impact comes from their relationship to the more serious and didactic tales in the collection and Chaucer seems to have delighted in smuggling courtly and religious elements into the “dirty stories” in his anthology. So please, read the whole thing right through, preferably in the original Middle English!
Geoffrey Chaucer
Oxford University Press