essay on the canterbury tales summary

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Geoffrey Chaucer

In April, with the beginning of spring, people of varying social classes come from all over England to gather at the Tabard Inn in preparation for a pilgrimage to Canterbury to receive the blessings of St. Thomas à Becket, the English martyr. Chaucer himself is one of the pilgrims. That evening, the Host of the Tabard Inn suggests that each member of the group tell tales on the way to and from Canterbury in order to make the time pass more pleasantly. The person who tells the best story will be awarded an elegant dinner at the end of the trip. The Host decides to accompany the party on its pilgrimage and appoints himself as the judge of the best tale.

Shortly after their departure the day, the pilgrims draw straws. The Knight, who draws the shortest straw, agrees to tell the first story — a noble story about knights and honor and love. When the Knight finishes his story, the Host calls upon the Monk. The drunken Miller, however, insists that it is his turn, and he proceeds to tell a story about a stupid carpenter. At the end of his story, everyone roars with laughter — except the Reeve, who had once been a carpenter. To get back at the Miller, the Reeve tells a lowbrow story about a cheating miller. At the end of The Reeve's Tale, the Cook, Roger, promises to tell a true story, but he doesn't complete his tale.

By now, the first day is rapidly passing, and the Host hurries the pilgrims to get on with their tales. Using the best legalese that he knows, he calls upon the Man of Law for the next tale. The Man of Law proceeds to tell the tale of Constancy. The Host is very pleased with the tale and asks the Parson to relate another one just as good. The Parson declines, however, and rebukes the Host for swearing and ridiculing him (the Parson). The Shipman breaks in and tells a lively story to make up for so much moralizing.

The Wife of Bath is the next to tell a story, and she begins by claiming that happy marriages occur only when a wife has sovereignty over her husband. When the Wife of Bath finishes her story, the Friar offers his own tale about a summoner. The Host, however, always the peacekeeper, admonishes the Friar to let the Summoner alone. The Summoner interrupts and says the Friar can do as he likes and will be repaid with a tale about a friar. Nevertheless, the Friar's tale about a summoner makes the Summoner so angry that he tells an obscene story about the fate of all friars and then continues with an obscene tale about one friar in particular.

After the Friar and Summoner finish their insulting stories about each other, the Host turns to the Clerk and asks for a lively tale. The Clerk tells a story about Griselda and her patience — a story that depicts the exact opposite of The Wife of Bath's Tale. The Merchant comments that he has no wife as patient and sweet as Griselda and tells of tale of a young wife who cheats on her old husband. After the Merchant's tale, the Host requests another tale about love and turns to the Squire, who begins a tale of supernatural events. He does not finish, however, because the Franklin interrupts him to compliment the Squire on his eloquence and gentility. The Host, interested only get in getting the next story told, commands the Franklin to begin his tale, which he does. The Franklin tells of a happy marriage.

Then the Physician offers his tale of the tragic woe of a father and daughter — a story that upsets the Host so much that he requests a merry tale from the Pardoner. The Pardoner tells a tale in which he proves that, even though he is not a moral man, he can tell a moral tale. At the end of the tale, the Pardoner invites the pilgrims to buy relics and pardons from him and suggests that the Host should begin because he is the most sinful. This comment infuriates the Host; the Knight intercedes between the Host and the Pardoner and restores peace.

The pilgrims then hear a story by the Prioress about a young martyr. After the seriousness of this tale, the Host turns to Chaucer and asks him for something to liven up the group. Chaucer begins a story about Sir Topas but is soon interrupted by the Host, who exclaims that he is tired of the jingling rhymes and wants Chaucer to tell a little something in prose. Chaucer complies with the boring story of Melibee.

After the tale of Melibee, the Host turns to the merry Monk and demands a story that he confidently expects to be a jovial and happy tale. Instead, the Monk relates a series of tales in which tragedy befalls everyone. The Knight joins in with the Host in proclaiming that the Monk's tales are too much to bear and requests a merry tale. But the Monk refuses, and the Host turns to the Nun's Priest and calls for a tale. Thus the Nun's Priest relates the tale of the barnyard rooster, Chaunticleer, his lady, and a fox. The Second Nun then offers a tale that befits her station — a retelling of the events in the life of St. Cecilia.

Suddenly, two men approach the pilgrims. One is a canon; the other his yeoman (servant). The Host welcomes them and asks whether either has a tale to tell. The Canon's Yeoman answers that his master has many strange tales filled with mirth and laughter, yet when he begins to tell of their life and actions, the Canon slips away embarrassed and frightened.

As the party nears Canterbury, the Host demands a story from the Manciple, who tells of a white crow that can sing and talk. Finally, the Host turns to the last of the group, the Parson, and bids him to tell his tale. The Parson agrees and proceeds with a sermon. The Tales end with Chaucer's retraction.

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The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer

essay on the canterbury tales summary

The Canterbury Tales Summary and Study Guide

Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.

Written in the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest surviving works of Middle English literature, and was a huge influence on later writers from Shakespeare to Keats, among many others.

This guide refers to Neville Coghill’s modern English translation (Penguin, 2003).

Plot Summary

The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the holy shrine of St. Thomas Becket. This is a story made of stories: Each of the pilgrims takes a turn as a storyteller, with a banquet promised to the person who tells the best tale.

The poem begins with a Prologue, in which a shrewd narrator—who, oddly enough, shares a name with his author—stops at the Tabard Inn on the night before his pilgrimage begins. There, he meets the host of other pilgrims who will become his traveling companions and assesses the character of each. They’re a lively, hearty bunch, and often not exactly as one would expect: The religious figures, in particular, are often corrupt and flesh-loving (though there are a few truly holy people among them). The tavern’s Host suggests the pilgrims should have a storytelling competition as they travel and offers to go along with them as a judge. The company happily agrees, and they set off together the next morning.

Each of the tales that follows is told in the voice of one of the pilgrims—and, as the Tales progress, those pilgrims often react to each other, telling stories that insult the person who spoke before them or balancing a tale of moral instruction with a dirty joke (The crude Miller, for instance, insists on following the gentle Knight’s chivalrous romance with a bawdy tale of adultery, trickery, and flatulence—and in turn infuriates the sour old Reeve, who retorts with a story about a cheating miller who got what was coming to him.). The stories are often retellings of familiar narratives; through his characters, Chaucer puts a human spin on even the most preachy of old tales, and finds humor everywhere he looks—from the heights of Mount Olympus to the dirt of the barnyard.

The Canterbury Tales also provides an energetic picture of daily life in medieval England—a world in which intense religious conviction lived side-by-side (and indeed often coincided) with untamable sexuality, greed, and casual violence. Chaucer’s polyphonic portrait of his world feels both historically rooted and timeless: This is, indeed, the nature of human beings.

Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales , and there’s some scholarly debate about the ordering of the stories (both in terms of when they were written and in terms of their sequence). But the fragmentary, changeable shape of the surviving narrative fits right in with the Tales ’ interest in shifting perspectives and collaborative meaning-making. As the Host mock-solemnly says, referring to no lesser authority than the Gospels: “It has been told again and yet again/By various writers; but I may explain/No one Evangelist would have sufficed/To tell us of the pains of Jesus Christ./Nor does each tell it as the others do;/Nevertheless what each has said is true,/And all agree as to their general sense,/Though each with some degree of difference” (184).

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Summary of The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the General Prologue, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a microcosm of 14th- century English society. The Host proposes a storytelling contest to pass the time; each of the 30 or so pilgrims (the exact number is unclear) is to tell four tales on the round trip.

Chaucer completed less than a quarter of this plan. The work contains 22 verse tales (two unfinished) and two long prose tales; a few are thought to be pieces written earlier by Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales , composed of more than 18,000 lines of poetry, is made up of separate blocks of one or more tales with links introducing and joining stories within a block. The tales represent nearly every variety of medieval story at its best. The special genius of Chaucer’s work, however, lies in the dramatic interaction between the tales and the framing story.

After the Knight’s courtly and philosophical romance about noble love, the Miller interrupts with a eliciously bawdy story of seduction aimed at the Reeve (an officer or steward of a manor); the Reeve takes revenge with a tale about the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter. Thus, the tales develop the personalities, quarrels, and diverse opinions of their tellers. After the Knight’s tale, the Miller, who was so drunk that he could barely sit on his horse, began screaming,” I know a tale that can cap the Knight’s tale off! ” “But first, said the Miller, “I admit that I am drunk; I know it by the my voice.

And therefore if I speak as I shouldn’t, blame it on he beer, I beg you; for I will tell a life and legend of a Carpenter and his wife, and how a clerk manipulated them. ” Here the Tale Begins In Oxford there was a rich peasant, who was a Carpenter, who took guests aboard. There was a poor scholar, who had studied liberal arts , but all his delight was turned to astrology. He knew how to work out certain problems; for instance, if men asked him at certain celestial hours when there should be a drought or rain he could answer them correctly. This clerk was named Nicholas.

He had a chamber to himself in that lodging-house, without any company, and he was very sweet. The Carpenter had a newly wedded wife, who was eighteen years old, who he loved more than his own soul. He was jealous and he kept her close to him. The woman was fair skinned and her body was slim. She wore a stripped silken girdle. Her eyebrows were arched , black, and partly plucked to make them narrow. The womans singing was loud and lively. It so chanced that this gentle Nicholas fell in love with this young wife, while her husband was away, and suddenly he caught hold of her and said, “Unless you will love me, sweetheart, I will die.

And he held her tight around the waist. she jumped back and wiggled away. She replied,” I will not kiss you Nicholas! If you don’t let me go I will scream out Help! ” But Nicholas began to beg and made offers to her that at last she granted him her love and swore by St. Thomas that she would leave the Carpenter when she had a chance. She told him how jealous he was. Then it fell on a holy day that this goodwife took her to the church to work on Christ’s own works. At the church there was a clerk named Absalom. He had curly hair, rosy cheeks, and his eyes were gray.

Absalom, who was so pretty and fine, went on this holy day with a censor, trying to get the goodwives of the city. He then noticed the carpenter’s wife and he thought she was so neat and sweet. That night the moon was shining and Absalom went to the carpenter’s house and sang in the window. The carpenter woke up and asked the wife if she heard him singing and she told him yes. From day to day Absalom wooed her till he couldn’t anymore. She loved Nicholas though and all the wooing Absalom gave was wasted. She used Absalom.

Then it fell that the carpenter was gone out of town, and Nicholas and Allison were together. They came up with a plan to leave trick the jealous husband. If the game went as planned they would be together. Nicholas went to is chamber and ate meat and drank for a day or two. He was staying there and if the husband was to ask his wife where Nicholas was she was to respond that she had no idea. After a couple of days the carpenter went to the chamber and asked Nicholas what was wrong. Nicholas asked him not to repeat a word of what he was fixing to say to anyone ever.

The carpenter agreed. “Have you heard of Noah’s and his sons? ” asked Nicholas. The carpenter said yes. Nicholas told him it was going to rain so much that it was going to wash away everything including people. The carpenter was upset when he heard that even his fair wife Allison was to be killed also. Then Nicholas told him to build three kneading- tubs and to hang them from the rafters high in the roof, where no man could see his device. The carpenter went and told his wife and began building the tubs and then he hung them from the beams.

He went and sat in tub that night. Later Absalom came and told Allison that he loved her. She told him that she loved someone better. He left and then he came back. He knocked on her door and said he had a ring for her if Allison would kiss him. Nicholas heard this and pushed Absalom and Absalom hit him with a hot iron. It burned the skin off of Nicholas’ hand. He and Allison screamed for help. The carpenter heard the cry for water and thought it was the flood. He pulled the tub down. Allison and Nick started up the street and and was crying still.

The neighbors young and old ran to stare upon the carpenter as he laid in the street with a broken arm. When the carpenter spoke , Allison and Nick told everyone that he was mad. Folks laughed at him. For whatever the carpenter said he was held as mad. Thus the carpenter lost his wife, for all his watching and jealousy; and Nicholas was sore burned. That was the tale. When folks laughed at this plot of Absalom and of gentle Nicholas it ade Oswald the Reeve mad. Because the Reeve was a carpenter. The Reeve responded that the drunken Miller should have his neck broken.

Chaucer greatly increased the prestige of English as a literary language and extended the range of its poetic vocabulary and meters. He was the first English poet to use iambic pentameter, the seven-line stanza called rhyme royal, and the couplet later called heroic. His system of versification, which depends on sounding many e’s in final syllables that are silent (or absent) in modern English, ceased to be understood by the 15th century. Nevertheless, Chaucer ominated the works of his 15th-century English followers and the so-called Scottish Chaucerians.

For the Renaissance, he was the English Homer. Edmund Spenser paid tribute to him as his master; many of the plays of William Shakespeare show thorough assimilation of Chaucer’s comic spirit. John Dryden , who modernized several of the Canterbury tales, called Chaucer the father of English poetry. Since the founding of the Chaucer Society in England in 1868, which led to the first reliable editions of his works, Chaucer’s reputation has been securely established as the English poet best loved after Shakespeare for his wisdom, humor, and humanity.

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The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey chaucer.

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer that was first published in 1400 .

Read our full plot summary and analysis of The Canterbury Tales , chapter by chapter breakdowns, and more.

Summary & Analysis

  • General Prologue: Introduction
  • General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law
  • General Prologue: The Franklin through the Pardoner
  • General Prologue: Conclusion
  • The Knight’s Tale, Parts 1–2
  • The Knight’s Tale, Parts 3–4
  • The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
  • The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
  • The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (continued)
  • The Wife of Bath’s Tale
  • The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale
  • The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
  • Full Book Summary
  • Full Book Analysis

See a complete list of the characters in  The Canterbury Tale s and in-depth analyses of The Knight, The Pardoner, The Wife of Bath, The Miller, The Host, and more.

  • Character List
  • The Pardoner
  • The Wife of Bath
  • Chaucer (The Narrator)
  • The Prioress

Literary Devices

Here's where you'll find analysis of the literary devices in The Canterbury Tales , from the major themes to motifs, symbols, and more.

  • Protagonist
  • Point of View

Questions & Answers

Explore our selection of frequently asked questions about The Canterbury Tales  and find the answers you need.

  • Why are the characters in The Canterbury Tales going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury?
  • What language is The Canterbury Tales written in?
  • Why do the characters tell stories in The Canterbury Tales?
  • Who wins the storytelling contest?
  • How are the stories organized?
  • Where does the Narrator meet the pilgrims?
  • How does Chaucer use satire?
  • Why are the Canterbury Tales unfinished?
  • What is the main difference between the Knight and the Squire?
  • What does the Prioress seem concerned with?
  • Who are the Guildsmen?
  • Why does the Reeve’s Tale follow the Miller’s Tale?
  • How does the Wife of Bath feel about marriage?
  • Why does the Narrator tell two tales at once?
  • What is the message of the Nun's Priest's tale?

Find the quotes you need to support your essay, or refresh your memory of The Canterbury Tales by reading these key quotes.

  • Important Quotes Explained
  • Social Class

By Character

  • Wife of Bath
  • The Narrator

Quick Quizzes

Test your knowledge of  The Canterbury Tales  with quizzes about every section, major characters, themes, symbols, and more.

Get ready to ace your The Canterbury Tales  paper with our suggested essay topics, helpful essays about historical and literary context, a sample A+ student essay, and more.

Further Study

Go further in your study of  The Canterbury Tales with background information, movie adaptations, and links to the best resources around the web.

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The Canterbury Tales

By geoffrey chaucer, the canterbury tales study guide.

The Canterbury Tales is at once one of the most famous and most frustrating works of literature ever written. Since its composition in late 1300s, critics have continued to mine new riches from its complex ground, and started new arguments about the text and its interpretation. Chaucer’s richly detailed text, so Dryden said, was “God’s plenty”, and the rich variety of the Tales is partly perhaps the reason for its success. It is both one long narrative (of the pilgrims and their pilgrimage) and an encyclopedia of shorter narratives; it is both one large drama, and a compilation of most literary forms known to medieval literature: romance, fabliau, Breton lay, moral fable, verse romance, beast fable, prayer to the Virgin… and so the list goes on. No single literary genre dominates the Tales. The tales include romantic adventures, fabliaux, saint's biographies, animal fables, religious allegories and even a sermon, and range in tone from pious, moralistic tales to lewd and vulgar sexual farces. More often than not, moreover, the specific tone of the tale is extremely difficult to firmly pin down.

This, indeed, is down to one of the key problems of interpreting the Tales themselves - voice: how do we ever know who is speaking? Because Chaucer, early in the Tales, promises to repeat the exact words and style of each speaker as best he can remember it, there is always a tension between Chaucer and the pilgrim's voice he ventriloquises as he re-tells his tale: even the "Chaucer" who is a character on the pilgrim has a distinct and deliberately unChaucerian voice. Is it the Merchant’s voice – and the Merchant’s opinion – or Chaucer’s? Is it Chaucer the character or Chaucer the writer? If it is Chaucer’s, are we supposed to take it at face value, or view it ironically? It is for this reason that, throughout this ClassicNote, a conscious effort has been made to refer to the speaker of each tale (the Merchant, in the Merchant’s Tale, for example) as the “narrator”, a catch-all term which represents both of, or either one of, Chaucer and the speaker in question.

No-one knows for certain when Chaucer began to write the Tales – the pilgrimage is usually dated 1387, but that date is subject to much scholarly argument – but it is certain that Chaucer wrote some parts of the Tales at different times, and went back and added Tales to the melting pot. The Knight ’s Tale, for example, was almost certainly written earlier than the Canterbury project as a separate work, and then adapted into the voice of the Knight; and the Second Nun’s Tale, as well as probably the Monk’s, probably have a similar compositional history.

Chaucer drew from a rich variety of literary sources to create the Tales, though his principal debt is likely to Boccaccio’s Decameron , in which ten nobles from Florence, to escape the plague, stay in a country villa and amuse each other by each telling tales. Boccaccio likely had a significant influence on Chaucer. The Knight's Tale was an English version of a tale by Boccaccio, while six of Chaucer's tales have possible sources in the Decameron: the Miller's Tale, the Reeve's, the Clerk's, the Merchant's, the Franklin's, and the Shipman's. However, Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury form a wider range of society compared to Boccaccio's elite storytellers, allowing for greater differences in tone and substance.

The text of the Tales itself does not survive complete, but in ten fragments (see ‘The texts of the Tales’ for further information and specific orders). Due to the fact that there are no links made between these ten fragments in most cases, it is extremely difficult to ascertain precisely in which order Chaucer wanted the tales to be read. This ClassicNote corresponds to the order followed in Larry D. Benson’s “Riverside Chaucer”, which is undoubtedly the best edition of Chaucer currently available.

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The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for The Canterbury Tales is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

The prologue to centerbury tales

The main theme of the prologue?

The Canterbury tales

The Parliament of Fowls is a dream-vision. We see even at the beginning, the speaker describes how the narrator falls asleep while reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis [ The Dream of Scipio ], and then dreams of the parliament of birds which follows....

What is the subject of all the stories the monk tells?

Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is the last of Geoffrey Chaucer's works, and he only finished 24 of an initially planned 100 tales. The Canterbury Tales study guide contains a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

Essays for The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the greatest works produced in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lesson Plan for The Canterbury Tales

E-Text of The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales e-text contains the full text of The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Wikipedia Entries for The Canterbury Tales

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  1. The Canterbury Tales: Study Guide

    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer that was first published in 1400 . Summary Read our full plot summary and analysis of The Canterbury Tales, chapter by chapter breakdowns, and more. Summary & Analysis General Prologue: Introduction General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law

  2. The Canterbury Tales

    After reviewing the sins of Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lechery and their remedies, the Parson urges confession and satisfaction (that is, atonement through such acts as almsgiving, penance, and fasting). This article was most recently revised and updated by Kathleen Kuiper.

  3. The Canterbury Tales

    Summary In April, with the beginning of spring, people of varying social classes come from all over England to gather at the Tabard Inn in preparation for a pilgrimage to Canterbury to receive the blessings of St. Thomas à Becket, the English martyr. Chaucer himself is one of the pilgrims.

  4. The Canterbury Tales Summary

    When Arviragus travels on a military expedition, Dorigen laments his absence and fears that, when he returns, his ship will be wrecked upon the rocks off the shore. A young man, Aurelius, falls in love with her, but she refuses to return his favors.

  5. The Canterbury Tales Summary and Study Guide

    The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the holy shrine of St. Thomas Becket. This is a story made of stories: Each of the pilgrims takes a turn as a storyteller, with a banquet promised to the person who tells the best tale.

  6. Summary of The Canterbury Tales Essay

    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the General Prologue, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury.

  7. The Canterbury Tales Summary Free Essay Example

    While imprisoned in a tower, both seeEmelye, the sister of Queen Hippolyta, and fall instantly in love with her. Both knights eventually leave prison separately: a friend of Arcite begs Theseus to release him, while Palamon later escapes. Arcite returns to the Athenian court disguised as a servant, and when Palamon escapes he suddenly finds Arcite.

  8. The Canterbury Tales Summary

    The Canterbury Tales Summary. T he Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a medieval collection of stories told by a group of English pilgrims. The narrator sets out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury ...

  9. The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue Summary & Analysis

    Analysis. The General Prologue opens with a description of April showers and the return of spring. "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote," he begins, and writes about the burgeoning flowers and singing birds. The sun has gone through the second half of the zodiacal sign Aires, the "Ram.".

  10. The Canterbury Tales: Study Guide

    Summary & Analysis. General Prologue: Introduction. General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law. General Prologue: The Franklin through the Pardoner. General Prologue: Conclusion. The Knight's Tale, Parts 1-2. The Knight's Tale, Parts 3-4. The Miller's Prologue and Tale. The Wife of Bath's Prologue.

  11. The Canterbury Tales Study Guide

    No single literary genre dominates the Tales. The tales include romantic adventures, fabliaux, saint's biographies, animal fables, religious allegories and even a sermon, and range in tone from pious, moralistic tales to lewd and vulgar sexual farces.