First published in 1400 CE, The Canterbury Tales remains a cornerstone in the English literary canon, and for good reason. Throughout the collection’s 24 stories, Geoffrey Chaucer presents a detailed account of life and society in medieval England, tackling themes that are still relevant today, such as spirituality and social class.

The Canterbury Tales begins with “The General Prologue,” an introduction to the pilgrims that will be telling the stories. In this overview, Chaucer lambasts common stereotypes of the time to cast his characters. Before diving into the text, give students a small lesson on medieval customs and society to help them better understand the humor in Chaucer’s ironic character descriptions. For instance, Chaucer highlights the hypocrisy among church officials with his depictions of the Monk, the Friar, and the Prioress, who all appear to live in excess. As they read through each character profile, have your students note other instances in which Chaucer uses sarcasm to critique social norms.

Several literary genres are present throughout The Canterbury Tales, including fabliau, romance, beast fable, and exemplum. These genres often explore human relationships, present a cautionary tale, or convey a moral lesson. For engaging class discussion, consider examining the traits of these four genres and have students classify each Chaucer tale according to those attributes.

Because of its length, The Canterbury Tales might be difficult to teach in its entirety. Instead, you may want to focus your unit on the more popular stories, such as "The Knight’s Tale” and "The Pardoner’s Tale,” for rich analysis. These selections provide a perfect overview of Chaucer’s themes and various storytelling techniques. Several collected versions of The Canterbury Tales are available, including our (Literary Touchstone Classics edition).

Keep reading for more information on this timeless work!

Summary of The Canterbury Tales

Key Facts

The Canterbury Tales is a frame narrative structured around a group of pilgrims traveling to a holy site in Canterbury. While on the road, the eclectic group engages in a storytelling competition to pass the time. Just as the group includes people from all social classes and backgrounds, the characters’ stories span a variety of genres, themes, and linguistic styles. Some of the most famous stories include “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

Content Warning: Several stories in The Canterbury Tales contain violence and sexual themes.

What Your Students Will Love About The Canterbury Tales

  • Chaucer’s humorous social commentary
  • The vivid descriptions of the pilgrims found in “The General Prologue”

Potential Student Struggles With The Canterbury Tales

  • Understanding Chaucer’s language
  • Chaucer’s criticism of organized religion and spirituality

Learning Objectives for The Canterbury Tales

  • Discuss the role that social class plays in The Canterbury Tales.
  • Identify allusions to biblical and mythological elements throughout the text.
  • Explain how the pilgrims represent the different castes and professions from medieval English society.
  • Recognize the various genres of Chaucer’s tales, including romance, fabliau, beast fable, and exemplum.
  • Analyze the ways in which Chaucer creates diverse and unique narrative voices for each character.
  • Examine the position of women in medieval English society as shown through characters such as the Prioress and the Wife of Bath.

Literary Elements in The Canterbury Tales

  • Allegory
  • Allusion
  • Fable
  • Frame Narrative
  • Genre
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Sarcasm
  • Satire
  • Tone
  • And more!

Major Themes in The Canterbury Tales

Competition — While many of the stories, including “The Knight’s Tale,” center around the dangers of competition, the storytellers themselves try to upstage one another to win the contest, often to humorous effect.

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Social Class — Chaucer heavily critiques medieval England’s three social classes (the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners) through his satirized depictions of the pilgrims.

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Spirituality — Although characters like the Friar, the Prioress, and other members of the clergy are supposed to be pious in nature, their indulgent lifestyles indicate they’re more concerned with worldly things than spiritual.

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Other Resources for The Canterbury Tales

Order The Canterbury Tales Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
The Canterbury Tales Paperback Student Edition
The Canterbury Tales Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Canterbury Tales Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Canterbury Tales AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Canterbury Tales Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Canterbury Tales Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Canterbury Tales Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set