The Canterbury Tales Vocabulary

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

The 'Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer is a classic poem in English literature. In this lesson, we will discuss ten prominent vocabulary words that are popular in Middle English and Modern English.


The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the cornerstones of English literature. The poem follows a narrator and his companions on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. There are twenty-nine pilgrims. In the prologue, the narrator decides that each pilgrim will tell four stories, two on the way to the town and two on the way back to the town. In the poem, we only get two tales from twenty-seven pilgrims, with the Nun's Priest and the Second Nun not telling stories. Moreover, the stories are told in third person omniscient, which lets the reader see the character's story, while allowing the thoughts of the other characters come into perspective. Through these characters a rich vocabulary surfaces. In this lesson, we will look at drought, stature, sundry, martyr, devout, courtesy, valiant, Yeoman, mien, and faculty, words used in Canterbury Tales and still used in the English language today.


Drought is a noun that is defined as a period of minimal, or no rainfall. The word drought is used in the opening segment of the Prologue to describe the setting from winter to spring. The lines give the poem of feeling of rebirth and readiness for the journey the narrator and the pilgrims are about to embark upon.


'When April's gentle rains have pierced the drought

Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout

Through every vein with liquid of such power

It brings forth the engendering of the flower;

When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown…'


The noun stature refers to the height of someone or something. In the Canterbury Tales, the word 'stature' is used to describe the Squire.


'In stature he was of an average height

And blest with great agility and might.'


Sundry is an adjective used to describe a group of things that has a mixed set of qualities. For example, a bag that includes an orange, a watch, and a remote control would be considered a sundry bag. In the poem, Chaucer refers to the lands of the region as sundry. Take a look for yourself.


'The palmers long to travel foreign strands

To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;

And specially, from every shire's end

In England, folks to Canterbury wend:

To seek the blissful martyr is their will,

The one who gave such help when they were ill.'


A martyr is a person that sacrifices themselves for a greater cause. In the case of the Canterbury Tales, the martyr is St. Thomas Becket. Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who fought against King Henry II for religious rights. The characters in the story are going to Canterbury to pay their respects to him.


'To seek the blissful martyr is their will,

The one who gave such help when they were ill.'


The adjective devout means to be incredibly dedicated to a religion or to be loyal to something specific. In the Prologue, the word 'devout' refers to the narrator having a heart dedicated to faith, which inspires the journey to Canterbury.


'Now in that season it befell one day

In Southwark at the Tabard where I lay,

As I was all prepared for setting out

To Canterbury with a heart devout,

That there had come into that hostelry

At night some twenty-nine, a company

Of sundry folk whom chance had brought to fall…'


Courtesy is a noun that means to be respectful, chivalrous, and polite. Polite behavior is considered to be courtesy. The term is used in the story when the narrator describes the Knight.


'There with us was a KNIGHT, a worthy man

Who, from the very first time he began

To ride about, loved honor, chivalry,

The spirit of giving, truth and courtesy.'

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