Chaucer sets up his collection of stories as his chance meeting in tavern Southwark, where in he encounters 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the shrine to St. Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop Canterbury (1163-1170) murdered on the orders of King Henry II.
The catalyst that starts the tales is the barkeep, Barry Bailey, proposing that to occupy their time on they way to Canterbury that each pilgrim tell four tales, two on the way to and two on the way back, and he will choose the best tale. In total, The Canterbury Tales by design should contain 120 tales. However, since Chaucer never finished his master piece, the text that we have is fragmentary and incomplete.
Chaucer was not the first to write such a collection of stories. The literary tradition of an author setting up a bunch of stories by having a series of characters have a story-telling contest started with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron ( pub. 1353), which may very well have inspired Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales.
Now, the structure of The Canterbury Tales has each pilgrim introduced with prologue, where she or he comments on the prior tale told, and a tale reflective of themselves. For example, The Canterbury Tales opens with the Knight, the highest in social ranking among the pilgrims, telling of Palamon and Arcites, two imprison knights and cousins, who have fallen in love with the same woman, Emelye. The Knight’s Tale is a romance in the courtly love tradition.
What’s important to understand is that the pilgrims’ tales are all different types of stories. The Canterbury Tales contains fabliaux, parables, fables, and romances. The Canterbury Tales does have consistent order or unifying theme to it. Rather, it is chaotic with each tale being determined by the teller.
The Miller’s Tale
Chaucer sets up the Miller’s Tale in an interesting way – by actually apologizing for having to retell it. In the prologue to his tale, the Miller drunkenly claims that he must “requite” the knight for his tale and claims that he will tell a ribald tale of cuckoldry involving a carpenter, his wife, and their lodger Nicholas, a lustful clerk. Already, Chaucer is setting up how different of a tale the Miller will tell. The Knight, characteristically, offers a tale of courtly romance. On the other hand, the Miller is going to give to us a fabliau, a story that centers on the common folk and the hijinks of illicit sex.
One of the best ways I have ever heard to define a fabliau was as a long extended dirty joke. The genre, originating in France in the 12th-century, deals with a wife cheating on her husband or a young man tricking an unsuspecting young woman into having sex. In many fabliaux, the husband or father-figure will come off as naive and fall prey to a more cunning wife or her lover. A fabliau will contain references to bodily humor and crude language. To that end, the fabliau is more authentic in its depiction of everyday life, which may explain why it was so popular. One could make the argument that fabliaux through humor undercut or defuse the male anxiety of being cuckolded.
One question that readers of The Canterbury Tales have to contend with is why would Chaucer have the Knight’s Tales followed by that of the Miller.
The Wife of Bath
From her introduction in the General Prologue (lns. 447-478), the Wife of Bath, or Allison, stands out among the pilgrims. First, she is the only one not identified through a profession or clerical position. She is more traveled than most of the other pilgrims, for she has been to Jerusalem three times, Rome, Bologna and Cologne. (Also, take note to how she is journeying alone.) She is described much through much of her sexual life – her having five husbands and “Withouten other compaignye in youthe.” While modern readers may understand may see the Wife of Bath as anticipating the modern empowered woman, Chaucer is responding to a contemporary debate on the spiritual merit of marriage.
Your textbook (pg. 282) refers to St. Jerome’s treatise on marriage (circa 393 CE), in which he condemns marriage as lower spiritual life than virginity. He writes: “My reply is, just because we have such organs below our waist and have the desire to use them in intercourse, that does not mean we are required to use them all the time, or that we cannot choose a higher way of life than engaging in the activities that join us to the animals.” Jerome goes on to argue that wives are needy both sexually and materialistically and trick their husbands into marriage by appearing to be someone they are not. In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath responds to in general this condemnation of marriage and women. Her argument is that while whose who rail against marriage do so on just bookish authority, she has her own experience to support her claim we were made to “engendure.”
The tale Alisoun tells takes the form of an Arthurian quest. Her story is of knight who having committed rape has a year to find the answer to the question of what all women most desire. Failing this quest would mean the knight’s life. As the time to find an answer draws near, he meets an old, poor woman who claims to know the answer to his quest. Upon returning to the court, the knight gives his answer that what all women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands. In recompense for her helping the knight, she demands that he marries her, which he is forced to do. The tale resolves on the knight deciding what type of wife he wants.