Order of the Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you will learn more about the order of the tales in Geoffrey Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales,'' as well as some of the debates surrounding this topic.

Introduction

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales can be seen as a collection of 24 stories, tied together by a frame narrative explaining that these 'tales' are the result of storytelling among a group of pilgrims. Although these stories were written during the later fourteenth century, they were only published in 1478. Since Chaucer died before his full text could be completed, it is possible to question whether the author might have altered the order of the different sections once he was done. This brings up the question of authorial intention which is often debated amongst literary scholars.

Chaucer's Intentions

Since we often try to consider an author's reasoning during the composition of a text, it's understandable that some people are weary of accepting orders proposed by scholars. Although we might never know exactly what Chaucer had intended, there is some value in getting a sense of how these stories tie in with one another by determining a possible order in which they might have been intended to appear.

Caxton's Second Edition

William Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales, was published around 1483. He claimed it was based on Chaucer's 'owen first book.' It might be the most reliable source for determining the actual order in which Chaucer intended the tales to appear. According to Caxton, the reason for his alternative version, published several years after the first edition, was the result of this supposedly original text coming into his possession.

Proposed Order

The following list indicates the order in which this edition suggests the tales should appear. In addition to these tales, the text includes a prologue, which is accredited to The Host. The different sections in which Caxton believed these tales should fall are indicated by the numbering system.

Prologue

1.1 Knight

1.2 Miller

1.3. Reeve

1.4 Cook

2. Man of Law

3.1 Merchant

3.2 Squire

3.3 Franklin

3.4 Wife of Bath

3.5 Friar

3.6 Summoner

4. Clerk

5.1 Second Nun

5.2 Canon's Yeoman

6.1 Doctor

6.2 Pardoner

7.1 Shipman

7.2 Prioress

7.3 Sir Thopas

7.4 Melibeus

7.5 Monk

7.6 Nun's Priest

8. Manciple

9. Parson

Concluding Remarks

As aforementioned, this is only one possible order, but it is perhaps the most likely one, since it was published shortly after the text was written. However, some believe that since some of the sections are more alike than others, and since these don't necessarily fall after one another, it is possible that some editorial changes might have been made to the copy which Caxton claims to have found.

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