The Plan of the Canterbury Tales

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


For the source of the frame, some might look to 1001 Nights, such material from the ancient orient being brought back from the Crusades, but nah. Really, Boccaccio’s Decameron may seem more likely, but there’s no evidence Chaucer and Boccaccio ever met in Italy and the first reference in English to the Decameron doesn’t come until 1404 — so it’s not well known in Chaucer’s day. The Canterbury Tales has more in common with the Novellae of Giovanni Sercambi. The frame is a February trip during a Lucca plague in which the group, including clergy, leave town until the disease subsides. A leader is elected and they pass down the west coast of Italy, across the south, and on up. They tell tales on the road, in inns, in gardens. References are made by the leader to places they pass, to shrewish wives, to jealousy. But the author tells all the stories, not the people on the road, so there’s no interaction as in Chaucer. Although the time is correct, there’s only one manuscript of this work, so it probably wasn’t popular; there’s no reference to suggest it was known in England. Did Chaucer know the collection though?

The number of pilgrims is a problem. The narrator says there are nine and twenty. There are actually 30, not counting Chaucer and the Host. The big problem is the mention of the three priests (A 163-164); should there really be only one priest? Is this a scribal corruption? The Canon’s Yeoman joins later, but the Canon himself also joins, then leaves. Carleton Brown’s theory was that the Squire was not originally in the General Prologue; the “he” in the Yeoman’s description refers to the Knight. The phrase “wel nine and twenty” may be vague anyway. Donaldson would have the three priests as the Prioress’ entourage since she’s a woman of style. Robert Platt tries to solve this by leaving out the line. (So editors can make lines and priests disappear! It’s absurd.)

Each pilgrim was to have told four stories, which would have yielded ultimately 120 stories — the “long hundred” and a round number. The medieval mind was different and could securely conceive of starting the building of a cathedral that would not be completed for generations. Donald Howard tries to say that The Canterbury Tales are complete from the Knight to the Parson; it’s just that the middle remains unfinished. Charles Owen thinks Chaucer did intend for the pilgrims to reach Canterbury and travel back with both journeys including dates and geographical specification.

Dating the (fictional) pilgrimage has absorbed other critics. W.W. Skeat fits it with the other works, figuring the earliest possible year would have been 1385. The April 18th reference in The Man of Law’s Introduction seems to indicate the second day of the trip. 1389 is eliminated because it would be a Sunday, Easter Sunday, and no travel would have taken place. 1390 is eliminated because April 17th, the first day of the pilgrimage, was a Sunday. 1391 is too late in reference to the other works. In 1386, April 20th was Good Friday and it’s unlikely the pilgrims, especially the Monk and the Prioress, would be travelling during Holy Week. In 1388, April 18th was a Saturday, making it impossible to reach Canterbury in time. But in 1387, April 18th fell on a Thursday. Easter was early that year (April 7th), and the group could have started out on Wednesday and reached Canterbury by Saturday — five days being reasonable. This date works well with the other writings too and coincides with the loss of two jobs in Chaucer’s official life.

The time references are confusing. After “Whan that Aprill” (A 1-8), The Reeve’s Prologue refers to it being halfway prime (between 6:00 and 9:00, so 7:30 am), after the Knight’s and Miller’s tales have been told?! Is the Man of Law telling his tale still the first day? The Squire’s Tale takes place at prime — but that’s unproductive. Near the end (I 1-12) it’s late afternoon, around 4:00 pm.

Place names are important for an ordering of the tales and the organic evolution. Setting out from London at five miles (A 826) would be St. Thomas Watering, Greenwich (A 3907), Dartford (no mention is made but Group A would not be finished yet). At 30 miles, Rochester (B2 3116); at 40 miles, Sidingbourne (D 845-847, D 2294). Ospring at 46 miles out gets no mention. Boghton under Blee is close to the Canon’s interruption (G 556). Bob up and Down (H 2) may mean Harbledown. And then Canterbury at 55 miles. The tales should follow geographical references, but they don’t.

Those ancient Chaucerians who thought the journey took four days with three stops (e.g., Furnivall, Skeat, Baugh) tended not to speak to those Chaucerians who thought it took three days with two stops (e.g., Tatlock).

Regarding the groupings of the tales (listed in editions by letter and/or by Roman numeral) there is a controversial link between Group B1 (the Man of Law) and Group B2 (the Shipman, Prioress, Chaucer, Monk, Nun’s Priest). Despite the C / B2 ordering in all manuscripts, and despite having to use the worst manuscript to drum up the Shipman’s link as an excuse, many Chaucerians feel that Henry Bradshaw (a librarian at Cambridge) was right in that Chaucer was working towards the “Bradshaw shift” — bringing together B1 / B2 / C.