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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

Student Activities for The Canterbury Tales Include:

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories, told by different pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s tomb during the Middle Ages. The stories range from high style Romance pieces to crude, bawdy pieces intended to insult and entertain. Geoffrey Chaucer, known as “The Father of English Literature”, intended these stories to provide him with an income for the rest of his life: 30 pilgrims with 4 tales each would have created 120 tales! Unfortunately, Chaucer’s life ended before The Tales did, and we are left with 24 intriguing narratives. The Chaucer Canterbury Tales cover important topics like greed, lust, love, forgiveness, and revenge, all themes that we can still relate to in our modern world, making these Tales truly timeless.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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A Quick Synopsis of The Canterbury Tales and "The General Prologue"

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer by is comprised of 24 tales, including prologues for most of the characters’ stories. Some notable works are “The Knight’s Tale”, “The Miller’s Tale”, and “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”. Before any tales are told, the reader is presented with “The General Prologue”.

This prologue provides the reader with an introduction to the “naive” narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer; descriptions of the 30 pilgrims; and the host of the festivities, Harry Bailey. The narrator is supposedly “naive” because he points out troubling and controversial characteristics of the different pilgrims with a nonchalant, even upbeat, attitude. He seems to be inadvertently creating caricatures of each pilgrim, exaggerating certain traits and downplaying others. It is up to the reader to see between the lines.

For example, he notes that the Prioress has dogs, and she feeds them white bread and meats. However, the astute reader of the Middle Ages would note that a Prioress having dogs is a luxury that, as the head of a convent, she cannot afford. Furthermore, white bread was a food for the rich, meats were not inexpensive, and she is feeding it to her dogs! It has been argued that the only two pilgrims Chaucer comes out of his naivete to criticize are the Summoner and the Pardoner, where his observations become sarcastic and biting.

A useful technique for tracking which of the pilgrims are “good” (and which ones we should pay closer attention to) is to look for examples of “physiognomy”. The Cook, for example, has an open sore that oozes with pus; the Summoner has such terrible acne on his face that his eyes are swollen up; and the Pardoner has a high voice, fair skin, and no beard, which the narrator insinuates may mean that he is a eunuch, or a homosexual. (Context for Students: Remember, this is the Middle Ages, a very religious period in Europe which was controlled by the Catholic Church. Being homosexual was condemned, so for Chaucer to imply it would have been seen as an insult by the readers of this time period.)

A Quick Synopsis of “The Knight's Tale”

The victorious Theseus, Duke of Athens, is returning home after winning his invasion of Scythia. There, he has defeated Hippolyta, who is now his wife, and her sister, Emelye. During their return to Athens, they come across crying women beg Theseus to attack Creon, King of Thebes, because he will not allow a proper burial for their husbands. Theseus defeats Creon and wins two hostages: Palamon and Arcite.

While Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned, they see Emelye from their tower and both fall in love. Arcite is set free a short while later, but banned from ever setting foot in Athens. Unable to stay away from Emelye, however, he returns disguised as a servant. Palamon escapes from the tower, and unable to leave Emelye either, is hiding nearby. The two men duel for Emelye’s love, inadvertently revealing their identities to Theseus. Theseus declares that each man must return in one year with a hundred knights for a decisive tournament to win the lady’s hand.

The day of the competition, Palamon visits the temple of Venus, goddess of love; Arcite visits the temple of Mars, god of war; and Emelye visits the temple of Diana, goddess of the hunt, where she prays for her chastity to be maintained, suggesting that she would rather not marry either man. Arcite wins the tournament, but he is accidentally thrown from his horse and sustains life-threatening injuries, a compromise between Mars and Venus. Before he dies, he grants his blessing to Palamon to marry Emelye.

A Quick Synopsis of “The Miller's Prologue and Tale”

Harry Bailey, the Host, instructs the Monk to tell the next tale, but the drunken Miller interrupts and insists on telling his instead. Since the Knight is of the highest class of the group, one might expect that the stories to be told in descending order of class. The Miller inverts this expectation and introduces a bawdier, lower-class element to the Tales. While the Knight told a story of courtly love, the Miller also relates a love triangle, but from the opposite end of the social spectrum. The tale begins by introducing John the carpenter, who is married to a much younger, very desirable woman, Alisoun. He is protective, even controlling of her, fearing that she will make him a cuckold. Nicholas, a clerk, rents a room in John and Alisoun’s house, and has his eye on Alisoun for some time. He finally convinces her to sleep with him one night, while John is out of town.

Alisoun goes to church and Absolon, a young parish clerk, falls instantly in love. He begins to visit her window at night, singing love songs to woo her. Alisoun isn’t interested, however, as she already has a husband and a lover. Nicholas and Alisoun long to spend another entire night together, but they need to get John out of the way. Nicholas convinces John that he has found by his astrology that the world will be destroyed by a second flood. Nicholas manages to convince John to hang three tubs from the rafters of the barn. Once the flood comes, they could cut the ropes and float away in safety. Each person will be in their own tubs and should remain in prayer the whole time. While John is hanging from the tub, Alisoun and Nicholas sneak away together for the night.

Meanwhile, Absolon has come back to the house to sing outside of Alisoun’s window again. He begs Alisoun for a kiss, and she sticks her rear end out of the window. Absolon is so angry that he goes and grabs a hot poker, intending to brand her rear end when she sticks it out of the window again. This time, however, it is Nicholas’ rear end that appears, and he farts in Absolon’s face. Absolon uses the poker to brand Nicholas’ bare skin, and Nicholas begins to scream, “Help!” and “Water!” John, still in the tub, awakes and takes this to mean that the flood has arrived. He cuts the rope holding the tub and crashes to the ground of the barn, breaking his arm. The neighbors mock John and called him mad. John loses Alisoun, and Nicholas has a permanent brand on his backside.

A Quick Synopsis of “The Wife of Bath's Prologue”

The Wife of Bath (her real name is Alyson) opens her prologue by announcing that she knows a thing or two about marriage, since she herself has been married five times. She quotes from the Bible and makes a case for why being married more than once is okay. She explains that in her first five marriages, she “wore the pants”; in other words, she controlled her husbands. However, while the first four marriages were for money or convenience, the fifth marriage to Janekyn was for love. Her fourth husband cheated on her, so she retaliated by making him think she was being unfaithful to him. This drives him insane with jealousy and sadness, and the Wife of Bath takes delight in the fact that she made him suffer.

Her fifth husband, Janekyn, 20 years her junior, was a charismatic sweet-talker; however, she says that he was the most brutal to her. At the funeral of her fourth husband, Alyson was so impressed by his backside as he walked behind the casket that she knew she had to make him hers. They were wedded a month later. She gave him all of her lands and wealth, but he rarely gave anything to her. The age difference between them became a problem, as Alyson was used to her independence and it grated on Janekyn. He read to her often from a “book of wicked wives”, routinely pointing out stories of men who were deceived by their evil wives.

Alyson finally grew so sick of it, she tears pages out of the book and punches Janekyn in the face. He retaliates by striking her in the head with his fist, which causes permanent deafness in one ear. She pretends to be dying, asks for one last kiss, and then when he leans in, she hits him again. Eventually, they come to an agreement with one another: she has full governance of the house and estate, she controls the relationship, and he burns his book.

This prologue has gone on for quite some time, and the Friar and Summoner tease Alyson about that. Harry Bailey, the Host, quiets them down and tells Alyson to begin her tale.


Essential Questions for The Canterbury Tales

  1. How does physiognomy play a role in helping to create caricatures of the pilgrims?
  2. How are the pilgrims still relevant to society today?
  3. How are social classes distorted throughout The Tales?
  4. How do cultural values influence the kinds of journeys people take?

The Canterbury Tales Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Plot Diagram | "The Knight's Tale" Summary


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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.



Example "The Knight's Tale" Plot Diagram

Exposition

While returning from a victory in battle with his prizes Hippolyta and Emelye, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is asked to resolve a conflict with Creon, the King of Thebes. He wins two hostages, Palamon and Arcite, and locks them in a tower.


Conflict

Arcite and Palamon see Emelye in the garden outside of their tower, and instantly fall in love with her.


Rising Action

Arcite is set free and Palamon escapes. They both cannot leave Athens for long without being drawn back to Emelye. They challenge each other to a duel and are discovered by Theseus, who plans a final tournament for them a year hence, between each man and their respective armies.


Climax

Both men ask for help from the gods before the battle, which causes a conflict between Mars and Venus. Jupiter, the king of the gods, resolves this by having Arcite win the battle, but being thrown from his horse and gravely injured.


Falling Action

On his deathbed, Arcite tells Emelye that she should marry Palamon, a worthy knight.


Resolution

All of Athens grieves for Arcite’s death, and then Palamon and Emelye are married in a joyous ceremony, which Theseus arranges.


The Canterbury Tale - Plot Diagram for "The Knight's Tale"

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of one of the Canterbury Tales.


  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.



Story Outline Storyboard Template

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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"General Prologue" Character Map Graphic Organizer

As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

Use a character map to help track the different pilgrims that are discussed in “The General Prologue”. Have the students provide the character’s physical/physiognomic traits, internal character traits, and a quote for support! For the purpose of this sample, we’ve chosen our favorite five. Split your students up and have them focus on just one or a few pilgrims, or have them track all 30!


Canterbury Tales Characters

Physical/Physiognomic Traits Internal Character Traits Quote
The Wife of Bath Aging, deaf in one ear, very finely dressed, has gaps in her teeth She is confident, congenial, and an expert in love and romance “In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe./ Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,/ For she koude of that art the olde daunce.”
The Miller Stout, with big muscles, red beard, nostrils full of black hairs, a huge, loud mouth with a tooth missing; carries a sword Dishonest, as he sells his product for three times the price he’s supposed to; uncouth; debaucherous “His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys. He was a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was moost of synne and harlotries. Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries; And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee.”
The Prioress Has very good manners; exquisite nose; gray eyes; small, red mouth Dainty and proper; compassionate; modest; good heart “But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed, Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte; And al was conscience and tendre herte.”
The Cook Has a defect: an open sore oozing from his chin Expert in cooking “But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed, Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte; And al was conscience and tendre herte.”
The Knight He dresses in a subdued style, he carries himself with dignity and he never has an unkind expression on his face He is humble, a worthy knight, and perhaps the best knight in the world “And everemoore he hadde a soveryn prys. And though that he were worthy, he was wys, And of his port as meeke as is a mayde. He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde In al his lyf unto no maner wight.”
The Canterbury Tales - Character Map for "The General Prologue"

Example

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Literary Conflict in "The Miller's Tale"


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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the storyboard creator.

In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict. There are two separate plot lines in “The Miller’s Tale”. Have your students track one or both!

Examples of Literary Conflict in “The Miller’s Tale”

MAN vs. MAN

Absolon decides to take his revenge on Alisoun for sticking her rear end out of the window, instead of her mouth, for him to kiss. He goes to get a hot poker.


MAN vs. SELF

Alisoun is reluctant to begin cheating on her husband, John, with Nicholas, at first.


MAN vs. SOCIETY

After being made a cuckold by Alisoun and Nicholas and falling for the “second flood” scheme, John is mocked by his neighbors, townspeople, and Alisoun and Nicholas for his naivety and foolishness.


The Canterbury Tales - Conflict in "The Miller's Tale"

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in one of the Canterbury Tales.


  1. Identify conflicts in your selected tale.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.



Literary Conflict Template

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Perspectives in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue"

There is a long-standing debate over whether Chaucer’s portrayal of the Wife of Bath portrays him as an early feminist, or a typical misogynist of the time period. This activity prompts students to do some research on feminism and misogyny first, either in groups or individually, and after reading the story, to form an opinion of how Chaucer is portraying the Wife of Bath in her Prologue. Have students create a Storyboard that depicts “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” from the student’s opinion and provide support based upon their research.

Feminist Perspective:

Cell 1: The Wife of Bath, Alyson, has been married five times, and she explains how she has been in control of most of these marriages. She views herself as an expert on the woes of marriage.

Cell 2: She uses biblical examples, including King Solomon, to show that being married so many times is a positive thing. She’s even excited to meet her sixth husband.

Cell 3: She says that while the Apostle Paul preaches the importance of virginity, she smartly points out that someone needs to create more virgins. After all, God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply.

Cell 4: Alyson’s fifth marriage, to Jankyn, was for love and not money. She gives him everything and he gives her nothing. He tries to control her because his younger age makes him insecure.

Cell 5: Jankyn reads to Alyson every evening about wicked wives. She finally becomes so annoyed that she rips the book and punches Jankyn. He strikes her back, causing her to go deaf in one ear. She lures him to her, pretending to be dying, and hits him again.

Cell 6: This leads to a truce between the two, and Jankyn gives Alyson all of the power in their marriage. She also makes him burn the book. She gains the power back over her dignity, and her marriage.

The Canterbury Tales - Perspective in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue"

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Caricatures in "The General Prologue"

When reading “The General Prologue”, one may notice that the naive narrator focuses on particular traits, and overlooks others. Before starting, make sure students know: caricatures in literature are a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.

What is the purpose of caricatures in literature?

  • To criticize
  • To entertain
  • To compliment
  • To politicize

Start by having students make a list of each student in the class. Have them write down ONE thing that they know about each person, e.g. what town is the student from, what is their favorite is hobby. Have the students collaborate and create a list for each student. For example, everyone knows that Johnny is from Boston, he loves baseball, and his favorite food is lasagna. Some other students may add in that they know he’s a night owl, he loves the color blue, and his mother is from Italy. Johnny will take that list and circle the things that appear more than once. These are the things that will make up Johnny’s caricature.

Have the students take the common things from their caricature lists, and create a storyboard of themselves. In addition, have them write an 8-12 line poem of the caricature traits their classmates have come up with that are important to them (in Chaucerian or modern English, your choice!). They can make the storyboard between 4-6 cells, depending on how long their poems are, how many students are in the class, and how many common traits appear on their lists! Below is a sample of a four-cell caricature board.

Cell 1: Basketball

My name is Haley and I am so tall

Of course you know I play basketball

Cell 2: Cooking and Reading

When I get home, I love to cook!

And then I sit down to read a book!

Cell 3: French

My family hails from France, and all my friends know

“Bonjour!” means hello!

Cell 4: Dogs

I have two dogs, they brighten my day

My name is Haley, and this is my caricature- yay!

The Canterbury Tales - Caricatures Based on "The General Prologue"

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