STUDY QUESTIONS
ON THE CANTERBURY TALES


1. Studying a single pilgrim: choose one portrait from the catalogue of pilgrims in the General Prologue, and “unpack” it, not paraphrasing but focusing on the significance of details as insight into Chaucer’s cultural time. Then, reach out to a couple of other pilgrims as well as a couple of moments in one of the tales to place your pilgrim more firmly in the context of the poem (through comparison or contrast).


2. Studying a set of pilgrims: consider one of the following groups, and explain how they relate to each other (comparison, contrast) and what as a group these characters convey about the cultural diversity within a category:


a. women: from the Prologue, the prioress and the wife of Bath; from "The Miller’s Tale," Alisoun; from "The Wife of Bath’s Tale," the crone-bride
b. clerks: from the Prologue, the clerk, the doctor of physic, and the parson; from "The Miller’s Tale," Nicholas and Absolon
c. con men: from the Prologue, the friar, doctor of physic, and pardoner; from "The Miller’s Tale," Nicholas; from "The Pardoner’s Tale," the pardoner (again)
d. pairs: knight and squire; monk and friar; parson and plowman; summoner and pardoner

3. Studying a story: choose one of the three tales we have read (including prologue & epilogue, if relevant), and discuss as representative of Chaucer’s skill in the following ways: (1) treatment of genre (how does it illustrate its medieval story form?); (2) cultural commentary (how does it provide insight into medieval life on subjects such as gender roles, marriage, hierarchy, manners, and the realities of ordinary life?); and (3) style (how does it illustrate Chaucer’s virtues as storyteller in humor, vocabulary, word play, and rhetorical flourishes?).

4. Studying a theme: The opening verse paragraphs of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales invite us to perceive the poem at the level of the sacred (spiritual, religious), the secular (nature, sexuality), and the worldly (commercial, recreative). Using at least three chunks of the poem (General Prologue, stories), illustrate what this intersection of the sacred/secular/worldly contributes to characterization and meaning.

When quoting, don’t copy long passages verbatim; instead, indicate them (as relevant) by citing the line #’s and giving the first and last few words. For example, if I wanted to cite Nicholas’s one-upmanship of the carpenter, I might indicate it thus: “A clerk hadde …/… carpenter bigile” (p. 325, ll.191-2).