It is the month of April and spring has just begun. This means that people from all over the country collect at the Tabard Inn. Twenty-nine pilgrims and the Narrator have come to Southwark in London as a starting off point for the long road ahead of them. The journey is 4 days long and they will need to cover 60 miles to reach the Cathedral in Canterbury, where there is a shrine to St. Thomas à Becket. It is known that those who make this journey would be bestowed with blessings and hence forgiveness. Many who had prayed to the relics of St. Thomas had spread tales of miracles that occurred to them after. However, not all the travelers have collected for this reason; some just like the human contact and others enjoy the adventure.
The pilgrims are getting to know each other before they set off, when the innkeeper Harry Bailley, their Host, comes up with something for them to do over the long journey. He says every pilgrim must share two stories on the way to the Cathedral and two more on the way back. The one whose tale is the best of the 120 will get a nice meal on their return.
The Narrator, Chaucer, describes each character as they’ve arrived and introduced themselves to the group. Rich descriptions are given of every pilgrim. The group is a diverse array of people of fourteenth century England. With people of varying ranks of nobility and holiness, as well as people from the middle and peasant classes, the group is well represented. A Knight is present, who has the highest ranking of all the pilgrims. Those of the peasant class are mostly servants for other pilgrims present.
They set off the next morning to the Cathedral, and the storytelling begins with the Knight, who has drawn the shortest straw in the group. His tale is one of romance. Two knights fall in love with the same woman and compete to win her love for years.
After the Knight is done, everyone agrees that the trip is off to a great start with his tale. Next, the Host challenges the Monk to tell a story that rivals the first, but the Miller, who has gotten very drunk already, insists very rudely that he must go next. The Host lets him begin, and the Miller launches into a fabliau involving trickery and dirty pranks that everyone finds hilarious. It’s about the young wife of an old carpenter who is trying to make love to her lover without her husband knowing.
The Miller’s tale enrages the Reeve, who is an old man who used to be a carpenter. In retaliation, the Reeve tells a similar story that has everyone laughing about a stupid miller who is cuckolded very much like how the carpenter was in the previous story.
Next, the Cook begins his tale. This is yet another humorous story, this time about a charming young ladies’ man. The Cook’s storytelling is interrupted almost right away.
Sometime later, because the morning is already half gone, the Host is in a hurry to get on to the next tale. He tells the Man of Law to offer his one up. Being, well, a man of the law, the Man of Law relays a long story about Constance, an honorable noblewoman who faces a great many tests of virtue in her life and is rewarded in the end for persevering through them with an admirable strength of character.
Although rather a long one, the Man of Law’s tale is very well received by the group. The Shipman goes next, saying he is tired of the preaching and the sermons and wants to tell a tale with not a drop of it. His tale goes back to those before, a humorous story about a wife who gets the money for a new dress by cuckolding her husband.
Having had enough of the lowbrow humor that has been done so many times, the Host then invites the Prioress to tell her tale. She relays a short legend involving a small boy whose death brings about a miracle.
To liven up the crowd again after the sobering tale just told, the Host requests the Narrator to share his story. To cleverly poke fun at the Host, Chaucer’s tale is a brilliantly told parody of knighthood, and it is even told in a rhyme. The Host interrupts the poem complaining he doesn’t like it, but Chaucer again launches into a long sorrowful old myth to make fun. This time, the Host doesn’t catch on and is very pleased by Chaucer’s tale.
After thoroughly singing his praises, the Host moves on to criticizing his own wife who is nothing like the one in Chaucer’s story, who is smart and patient. He gets sidetracked and eventually starts talking about monks, which makes him call on the Monk for the next tale.
Everyone is expecting the Monk to tell a funny story because of his behavior up to then, but he disappoints the group with a recital involving well-known figures who go through difficult circumstances and have their positions change in life. Everyone is so bored that the Knight ends up interrupting the telling. The Monk refuses to change his story, so the Nun Priest agrees to tell his tale, which is much lighter in tone. His story is the fable of Chanticleer, about a rooster and a sly fox.
The Host enjoys this telling immensely. After much praise to the Nun Priest, the next person to talk is chosen to be the Wife of Bath. The Host is expecting her to continue the trend of raunchy humor set before by the others. Instead, she actually begins by delivering an intellectual speech on marriage before starting her story, which is about a handsome young knight who has to marry an old hag.
Once she’s done, the Friar asks to go next, saying he is going to tell a tale about a summoner, even though it’s common knowledge that there is nothing good about summoners.
Angered by how the Friar is speaking of summoners, the Summoner tells a bad joke about friars. Then he begins his offering for the contest, a coarse tale about all friars’ fate.
Next, the Host turns to the Cleric, hoping he will be able to lift everyone’s spirits after the previous two stories. He instructs him to have some adventure in the story. The Cleric follows the instruction well with his story about a cruel man treating his wife badly.
This story reminds the Merchant of himself, being an unhappily married man, and he tells his own tale which is yet again about a young wife being unfaithful to her older husband. This rendition, however, is much more autobiographical than those that came before.
Once again, this prompts the Host to speak about his resentments towards his own wife. He then asks the Squire for a romance. The Squire begins a promising story but is interrupted by praise from the Franklin. The Host, eager to get on with everyone’s tales, now asks the Franklin for his. After he is done, the Physician’s tale begins. His is about a virtuous virgin in Rome.
This greatly saddens the Host, who now turns to the Pardoner in hopes of a more cheerful tale. It turns out the Pardoner is really quite evil. He imparts a fable about greed being the death of three young men. After he’s finished, he tries to sell fake relics he’s brought back from Rome to the others. The Host stops him from doing so and they get in a fight. The Knight steps in to break it up.
Next to tell their story is the Second Nun. She talks about the inspirational woman St. Cecelia and her life. The party is approached by two men all of a sudden, one a Canon and the other his Yeoman. They’ve been riding after the group to catch up. After they’ve introduced themselves, it is understood the men are outlaws but the group still welcomes them just the same. They are even invited to participate in the storytelling if they would like. The Yeoman ends up saying something that angers the Canon, who leaves. He then proceeds to tell a thinly veiled story that is about an alchemist, who is clearly meant to be a metaphor for the Canon.
The Yeoman takes his time with his story, and it is late into the day when he finally finishes. At this point, the drunk Cook falls off his horse. He and the Manciple exchange angry words but eventually they give the Cook more wine to calm him down. The Manciple tells his tale now which is an explanation as to why crows are black and actually quite an old tale.
His story ends at sunset when the Host calls on the Parson to close out the day. The Parson finishes with a sermon two hours long about the importance of penance.