Chaucer's Canterbury Tales


One of the most famous works of medieval literature is based around a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, is a long poem concerning a group of thirty pilgrims on their way from Southwark, in south London, to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time  and entertain each other on their way the pilgrims take it in turns to tell stories, many of a humorous or bawdy nature. Chaucer's poem thus takes the form of a series of these individual tales connected within a framing device of the pilgrimage and interludes descibing the pilgrims' behaviour. Chaucer never finished the Canterbury Tales, and the pilgrims only make it to the outskirts of Canterbury in the poem as it survives. Despite this, the poem was soon regarded asa masterpiece, and later medieval writers made attempts to continue the Tales with descriptions of the pilgrims' behaviour in Canterbury.

Pilgrims at Becket's tomb. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel Ambulatory nII-57.
© Dean & Chapter Canterbury
Origin/Date: England || c.1213-20

Chaucer was not the only medieval writer to use a pilgrimage as a frame story to introduce a collection of tales: the Italian Giovanni Sercambi (1347-1426) composed his Novelliere, a series of tales purporting to have been told to a group who escape the plague which raged in Lucca in 1374, by travelling to various towns and cities in Italy. But the most important aspect of real-life pilgrimage that Chaucer takes up for his great poem is the fact that a wide variety of people, of different classes and different places might be found together on a pilgrimage. He has many story-tellers of differing class and character, and diversity, in many different forms, is the keynote of his collection. The way he exploits this fact creates a text in which he not only represents the diversity of contemporary society but also has the opportunity to depict conflict and rivalry between different trades. Famously, too, in imitating the real-life fact that pilgrims amused themselves en route by songs, musical instruments and story-telling, Chaucer offers a variety of genres and levels of seriousness and elegance. Some stories are bawdy fabliaux, some saints' lives or serious treatises.

Chaucer introduces his pilgrimage by saying that people want to travel in spring on pilgrimages, especially to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury - who has helped them when they were sick (I 18). Although this introduction, the General Prologue, mentions St Thomas, the 'hooly, blissful martyr', it makes few other allusions to the spiritual side of pilgrimage, though the narrator describes himself as setting out 'with ful devout corage' (I 21). Some of his portraits of the pilgrims mention contemporary practices of pilgrimage: the Knight's decision, for example, immediately upon returning from campaigning (against the Muslims, 'for oure feith'), to go immediately on his pilgrimage; the Wife of Bath is described as an experienced pilgrim: she has visited shrines at Rome (the apostles Peter and Paul), Boulogne (Our Lady), Compostela (St James), and Cologne (the Three Kings).

Chaucer announces that his plan is for his pilgrims to tell tales both going to Canterbury and coming back to London and the Tabard Inn. But, when he died, he left his work in a set of fragments, which do not join up into a coherent depiction of journey to Canterbury.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue describes the opportunities she takes for travel and entertainments, wearing her best clothes and not averse to flirtation:

...I made my visitaciouns
To vigilies and to processiouns,
To prechyng eek, and to thise pilgrimages,
To pleyes of miracles, and to mariages...
III 555-8

Vigils are the services before a saint's day and the processions she mentions would be in honour of a saint. This passage illustrates well the element of social entertainment many people clearly found in pilgrimages and other ostensibly religious events.

The Holy City comes down from Heaven.
Lambeth Apocalypse
© Lambeth Palace Library, MS 209 f37v
Origin/Date: Canterbury || 13th century

Chaucer seems for the most part to exploit primarily the social side of pilgrimage. But he appears to have written the Parson's Tale, a treatise about sin, virtue and penitence, as a religious text to knit up the actually extremely diverse groups of tales he had already completed. In most manuscripts it appears as the last of the series. It also includes the metaphor of human life itself as a spiritual journey towards the Heavenly city of Jerusalem. There is thus a shift in tone between most of the Tales, as they have been left to us, and the Parson's Tale, which is not only religious itself but includes two passages that make the earthly pilgrimage into a symbol of the soul's journey on:

...thilke parfit glorious pilgrimage
That highte Jerusalem celestial.
X 50-1.

The Canterbury Tales after Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales clearly became popular soon after Chaucer's death. Many manuscripts survive and it was printed in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Chaucer's brilliant notion of using a mixed group of Canterbury pilgrims as the frame-story for a collection of tales has captured the imagination of many writers in centuries up to the present day. Quite early on, writers had the idea of writing continuations, something made easy because Chaucer left his own poem so incomplete. Several survive from the first half of the fifteenth century. Three show interest in taking further the scenario of the Canterbury pilgrimage.

The Siege of Thebes

John Lydgate, a monk of Bury St Edmunds, presents his lengthy poem, The Siege of Thebes, as if it is one of the tales told on the return journey. His prologue depicts Lydgate himself coming on his own pilgrimage to Canterbury, to give thanks to St Thomas after being ill, and happening to stay at the same inn as the pilgrims. The Host invites him to join them, saying that Lydgate looks thin and sickly and needs good food, ale, and entertainment. The next morning Lydgate is invited to tell the first tale of the journey back.

The Tale of Beryn

The Tale of Beryn is an anonymous tale which its author presents as a continuation of the Canterbury Tales. The tale itself is loosely based on a French romance. The introduction, like Lydgate's, describes the pilgrims at their inn (the 'Chequer of Hope') at Canterbury. The picture this author gives of the pilgrims is largely very secular: the Pardoner sets himself up, he thinks, for a night of love with the barmaid (the author comments that his story isn't a very holy one). The author describes the pilgrims exploring Canterbury as tourists, a valuable, if perhaps over-comic, description of the contemporary pilgrim's experience. The text may have a direct relationship with Canterbury's role (business, one could say) as England's major pilgrimage centre: it has been suggested that it was composed in connection with the Canterbury Jubilee celebrations, held every fifty years to mark St Thomas's death, in 1420. John Bowers suggests the monks may have been anxious to encourage pilgrims and combat Lollard disapproval of pilgrimages. If so, however, one would expect a rather more determinedly religious work to have been written for the occasion.

A pilgrim badge of Thomas Becket.
© The Beaney Museum, Canterbury
Origin/Date: Kent, England || 12th - 15th century

The text provides a valuable picture of everyday people visiting the shrine and some of the practices there. They go to the Cathedral. Even here, a comic eye for secular preoccupations shows these pilgrim's devotions as mixed with less holy concerns. They go to make their offerings of silver brooches and rings; there is a struggle for precedence at the Cathedral door and the Knight, taking charge, directs the ecclesiastical pilgrims to go in first; then a monk sprinkles their heads with holy water and the Friar wants to take this job over himself - because he want to peep at the Prioress's face; the Knight goes forward to St Thomas's shrine, together with his more upper-class companions, 'to do what they were come for and after for to dine' (a very Chaucerian rhyming of shrine and dine, the holy and the profane mingled together, even for these pious and dignified pilgrims); but the Miller and Pardoner and the other 'ignorant sots', wander round the building, pretending to be gentlemen and understand the heraldry, and then making ludicrous mistakes trying to interpret the stained glass windows. The Host orders them to the shrine and there they kneel, say their rosaries, kiss the holy relics, with a monk-guide instructing them as to what these are. Then they go to other holy places and hear the divine service. Everyone buys pilgrims' tokens, so people at home will know which saint's shrine they have visited. The Miller and Pardoner steal some of the pilgrim badges on sale at the Cathedral (the Summoner insists on sharing their loot). Everyone has a cheerful dinner. The Monk, Parson and Friar go out and have a drink with an old Canterbury friend of the Monk, while the Prioress and Wife, feeling too tired to walk much, go and look at the flowers in the garden. That night the Pardoner gets cheated by the barmaid. They all set out next day and the Merchant offers to tell the tale: the Tale of Beryn.

The Ploughman's Tale

Depiction of one miracle story of St Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel Ambulatory nII 09-21.
The story of Jordan Fitz-Eisulf of Yorkshire
© Dean & Chapter Canterbury
Origin/Date: England c.1213-1220

The Ploughman's Tale is an anonymous poem which purports to be one of the Canterbury tales. It tells how the Ploughman sets out on his Canterbury pilgrimage. In a conversation with the Host he says that he is so poor because, although he works hard, the priests demand that laymen pay for their livelihood too. The Host invites him to preach and tell 'some holy thing'. The tale is a protest against corrupt clerics. It seems close to Lollard ideas. It is presented as a debate between the Griffin, a predator, defending the current state of the Church and the Pelican, an emblem of Christian love, deploring its abuses. Finally the Phoenix (the risen Christ?) slays the Griffin.

What these three continuations indicate is that Chaucer's original work could be seen as both a highly secular approach to pilgrimage and as a work where serious religious attitudes also felt at home. The world of Chaucer's pilgrimage has clearly been read as comic and basically secular in tone by both Lydgate, a monk, and the anonymous author of the Tale of Beryn, whom the only manuscript describes as a Canterbury monk. At the same time, the decision of the author of the Plowman's Tale to associate his text with the Canterbury pilgrims may show that readers also viewed Chaucer's poem as one with a strong interest in religious issues and, especially, reformist attitudes associated with the lollards. As evidence for the responses of early readers, these three texts should therefore warn modern readers against assuming that the Canterbury Tales should be taken either as an essentially religious composition or as an essentially frivolous one.

All these continuations can be found in The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions, ed. John M. Bowers, TEAMS Middle English Series (Kalamazoo, 2002).

Helen Phillips


In origin a Germanic word meaning a chest or reliquary, this term describes something which contains a sacred object. It can thus be applied to an elaborate tomb around the body of a saint, a cabinet containing a relic or to the whole architectural complex where such a body or relic rests.


Remains of a saint or articles which have been in contact with a saint and in which some of the saint's power is believed to reside. 

Chaucer, Geoffrey

(c.1342-1400) English author, poet, administrator, courtier and diplomat, who’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales.


Cleric, an ordained person. Derived from the Greek word for a 'lot', this term refers to anyone ordained to Christian ministry, including deacons, priests and bishops. The clergy have specific responsibilities and duties within the Church which set them apart from the laity, the ordinary members.


From the Latin ‘seculum’ meaning 'world'. Relating to clergy who operated ‘in the world’ (i.e. were not monastic). In modern use meaning not religious or spiritual.


Church which contains the throne of the bishop and hence the mother church of the diocese, from the Latin ‘cathedra' meaning ‘throne.' 


A Holy Year, first instituted in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII who offered an indulgence to all who went to Rome in that year. At Canterbury they were on 50 year anniversaries of Becket’s martyrdom, notably in 1370 and 1420.

St Paul

 (d. c. 65) 'Apostle to the Gentiles'. Born Saul of Tarsus, a Jew and Roman citizen. His initial hostility to the early church was overcome by his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-19). Using the Roman version of his name, Paul travelled through Asia Minor and into Europe preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. Eventually arrested and taken to Rome for trial. Tradition holds that he was executed during the persecution under Nero. The New Testament letters bearing his name stress that salvation is offered as a gift (by God's grace) through faith, as a result of the forgiveness won by Christ's death on the cross and is available to Jews and non-Jews alike (e.g. Ephesians 2). Supposedly buried at Rome with St Peter and the two are often depicted together. Patron saint of London with Thomas Becket.


In the New Testament this applied to all Christians. Later used of those who were martyred or showed exceptional holiness and whose status was confirmed by the church. The practice of venerating the saints and their relics and asking for their intercessions (prayers) can be observed from the second and third centuries onward and played a central role in popular medieval religion.


Member of male religious community.


Religious sect, considered to be heretics in England in the 14th and 15th centuries, whose beliefs evolved from the earlier teachings of the Oxford theologian, John Wyclif. Central to Lollard theology was belief in the primacy of Scripture and its accessibility to all people in the vernacular to study and interpret. As literal interpreters of the Bible, Lollards strongly opposed religious practices that were not grounded in Scripture, such as the use of images, indulgences, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, auricular confession and clerical celibacy. The Lollards were also dissatisfied with the Church hierarchy based in Rome and the corruption and wealth of the Church. They opposed clerics holding secular office and the Church maintaining worldly possessions. Their most distinctive belief was their rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation; the Lollards argued that the Eucharist was a symbolic act and not a real miracle. Originally a member of any one of a number of different radical and heretical groups in Continental Europe in the early 14th century but then applied to followers of Wyclif from the early 1380s.

Pilgrim Badge

These souvenir badges, often mass-produced in pewter, were bought by pilgrims when they arrived at their destination. These badges were often worn, but could be attached to personal possessions such as books of prayers. They often depicted the relics or miraculous images visited. In many instances they are the only surviving visual record of important cult images or objects.

Peter, St Apostle

Originally called Simon (not to be confused with St Simon the Zealot), he was given the name Cephas (Aramaic equivalent of the Greek 'Peter', meaning rock) by Christ. His profession of faith (Matthew 16: 13-20) evoked the promise 'Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church... I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven', the passage on which the claims of the papacy have rested. His later denial of Christ (Matthew 26: 69-75) was followed by repentance and a fresh commission to feed Christ's sheep (John 21: 15-19). In Acts he emerges as the leader of the Early Church. Early traditions describe him as the first bishop of Rome and he was crucified head downwards during the reign of Nero. Often portrayed as the gate-keeper of heaven. holding the keys promised by Christ.


Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind. The medieval Church taught that there were two categories of sin: Mortal and Venial. The Church mediated the forgiveness made available by Christ's sacrificial death through the sacrament of Penance.


This Italian city was the capital of the Roman Empire and, with the primacy accorded to the bishops of Rome (the popes), the centre of the Western Church from the late-Antique period onwards. Rome was not only the administrative centre, but an important source of innovation, relics and liturgy. Missionaries from Rome played an important role in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England from late 6th century onward.

Santiago de Compostela

From the ninth century the church at Compostela has been the resting place of what is believed to be the body of St James the Apostle (Sant Iago - St James). Compostela was an important focus of long-distance pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. 


Member of one of the mendicant (begging) orders. Fromt the Latin ‘frater’ and Middle English ‘frere’ meaning 'brother'


City in Germany which houses the relics of the Magi and St Ursula.


City in the south east of England; the seat of England's senior archbishop, who is also bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. It was here that St Augustine of Canterbury (d.609), who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English in 597, established his ecclesiastical headquarters. In the Anglo-Saxon period Canterbury's monasteries were places of learning and artistry. After the Norman Conquest the cathedral was magnificently rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc and embellished by Archbishop Anselm. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 added to the cathedral's prominence as a place of pilgrimage and the east end of the church was dramatically remodelled in the Gothic style.

James the Great, St

(1st Century AD) Apostle. Son of Zebedee and brother of St John the Evangelist. Witnessed Transfiguration of Christ. First of the Twelve to be martyred (AD 44). Seventh-century tradition claimed he visited Spain. His shrine at Compostela was a major medieval pilgrimage centre.


The 'wise men from the East' (Matthew 2: 1) who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. The New Testament account says nothing of their rank, number or names. It was Tertullian (c.160-c.225) who described them as kings and Origen (b. c.185) who gave their number as three. A sixth-century work names them as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. From Greek ‘magoi’ meaning 'wise men'.


One of the twelve men originally chosen by Christ and commissioned to preach the Gospel to the nations. In Acts 1 Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. St Paul also claimed the status of an apostle.


Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind. The medieval Church taught that there were two categories of sin: Mortal and Venial. The Church mediated the forgiveness made available by Christ's sacrificial death through the sacrament of Penance.


Sorrow for sins.  

Heavenly Jerusalem

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem, the City of God's Temple, became the pre-eminent place where God was encountered and worshipped. New Testament writers, particularly the authors of Hebrews and The Book of Revelation (particularly Chapter 21) held out the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the true goal and home of Christian people and the place where the promise of the earthly city was fulfilled. This city was the work of God himself and his faithful people would be its inhabitants.

Canterbury Tales

A work by the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer composed between the 1380s and the early 1390s, the Canterbury Tales comprises a description of a group of pilgrims making the journey from Southwark to Canterbury and the tales that they tell to amuse and edify each other. The work includes both verse and prose tales and appears to be unfinished, in that there is no explicit account of the pilgrims reaching Canterbury or returning. This work, which survives in various versions, was popular in the late Middle Ages and inspired several sequels, such as the fifteenth-century Tale of Beryn.

Lydgate, John

Benedictine monk of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, renowned for his poetry. He received literary patronage from royalty and wrote a huge number of poems with historical, mythological, satirical, religious, and moral themes. He probably translated Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine from French into Middle English.

Bury St Edmunds

Benedictine abbey of monks in Suffolk, founded in 633. From the eleventh century the abbey became a major pilgrimage centre thanks to its possession of the body of St Edmund, the East Anglian king martyred by Vikings in 869. Monks from Bury wrote and illustrated two vitae (biographies, or saint's lives) about Edmund, and the abbey produced many other important medieval writings.